I’ve always found it useful to borrow metaphors from the arts in my work. As a researcher, I try to avoid seeing myself as a technician and instead see myself as a craftsperson. For me there is an important distinction between the two. A technician may be able to use their tools to a high standard but the craftsperson’s relationship with their work is deeper. A craftsperson has a process, a philosophy. They don’t just know how to produce good work, they also know why. They don’t just use tools, they create them. They don’t just produce work for someone else – they produce work as an end in itself.
At the moment my work is motivated by an idea that is borrowed from music: I want to know what my symphony would sound like.
In reality, if I was to write an actual symphony I imagine it would sound terrible; I have no musical talent at all. But what would the equivalent of a symphony be like for me? What would the outcome be if I strived to create my best work?
It’s an idea that got under my skin because I could see that my path at the time would never take me there. I would work. I would be paid. But I would never give myself the space and the time to find out what the very best of me could be.
The symphony isn’t just a useful way of helping me explore my own ability. The symphony helps me look at my work through a long lens. It encourages me to look at my career as a whole and to consider what I want to achieve over the next 20 years, rather than the next 20 months. We live in such a fast-paced world; it can be easy to spend 10 years jumping from one short-term project to another. But the idea of creating a symphony forces me to think long term: what could I achieve if I gave myself a decade to achieve it?
Thinking about symphonies also encourages me to look at my work as a body of work. A symphony is made of separate movements that are brought together as a coherent whole. The sheer scale of the project means that the composer is able to explore a variety of different themes and yet also create something that works as a unit. It’s in this coherence that the composer is able to take their work to another level.
If I begin to look at my work as a body of work, and if I borrow from art and consider what a retrospective will look like in the years to come, it helps me search for the coherence that might otherwise go undefined and unexplored.
Symphonies also sit wonderfully with another theme that recurs in all of my work – process. If you were to take the greatest symphony ever written, collect all of the notes, and then play all of those notes at the same time it would sound terrible. A symphony is a process. The different notes need to be played in their own time. The composer takes you on a carefully crafted journey. A journey with peaks and troughs. A journey with no specific destination in mind – other than the experience of having travelled there. It’s not about a mad rush to the end. It’s about enjoying the ride. This is the perfect metaphor for the career I want for myself.
Next month I’m playing the opening notes of my symphony by publishing my first two illustrated books. I’m not saying that my symphony will necessarily be any good. What I am saying is that it will be the best work I can do.
I choose to find out what my best work is like.
I hope you enjoy the ride.
My opening notes: