On the Quest for Excellence

As we approach the end of 2012, many of us gear up for the inevitable task: a list of resolutions to guide us in the oncoming year. What exactly do we aspire to accomplish in 2013? Lose five pounds, be a better person or perhaps mend some fences? Or do we want something more: to achieve greatness and/or success?

There’s a book by Malcolm Gladwell on that very subject called “Outliers.” It’s an interesting take on the subject. Very entertaining. He basically claims that being in the right place (parents, environment, etc.), plus being given the appropriate opportunity, and lastly, putting in the proper amount of time (10,000 hours) are the key components to becoming a huge success. He makes a good case, citing people like Steve Jobs and the Beatles—plus others—as examples. What he doesn’t seem to take into account, in my opinion, is that many fitting his criteria fall far short, while others, seemingly outside of his archetypes, are able to achieve greatness none the less. Ultimately his book is a cookie cutter explanation which offers few tangible solutions of how to get there from here.

My take on the matter offers a far more practical blueprint. I believe that my criteria, although geared towards the arts, can be adapted to any career choice or endeavor, from athletics to business to science. So please feel free to share this blog post with anyone you think it can help. It’s based on my own life experience and has proved instrumental in helping many of my former students achieve their dreams.

I think that in order to be successful, one needs to be in possession of the following four traits:

Number 1: Talent.
To me, talent is the most overrated of the four. It’s a popular belief that it alone insures success. As a teacher with 40 years experience, I can assure you, this is very not true. Many precociously talented people fall far short. My most talented student ever isn’t currently employed in any creative capacity, and is not even tapping into his great talent as a hobbyist. The myriad of distractions, which life has to offer, has kept him from manifesting his tremendous artistic potential. Conversely, I had another student, with minimally apparent skill, who become a most impressive painter. I’m not saying that talent is meaningless—it’s impossible to succeed if you have none. therefore, in the grand scheme of things, I consider it’s worth in the quest for success to be about 5%.

Number 2: Hard Work.
My aforementioned student, the one with with minimally apparent talent, achieved success because he worked his butt off, bringing in a finished painting each week, while his classmates put most of their energy into making excuses. Similarly, when Bouguereau entered the Academy he was rated last in his class, but thanks to his legendary work ethic, he eventually won the highest honor, the Prix de Rome. He went from last to first. Rarely does anyone achieve great success without working hard. Since hard work is at least twice as important as talent, it gets a rating of 10%.

Number 3: Objectivity
It’s far more important than the previous two, because you need to cast a critical eye inward if you truly want to be great at what you do. If you actually think you don’t need to improve then why aren’t you successful already?

It’s easy to make excuses, but in order to get better you need to determine your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. What exactly is it that you need to work on? Is it your overall design sense (sometimes referred to as picture-making), achieving unity, drawing hands, establishing color harmony or something else? It may be one thing or it may be many. It may not even be seemingly art related, but pretending that a problem doesn’t exist won’t fix it. See, if you think you’re already great, what can you possibly do to get better? When you acknowledge that a problem exists, you give yourself a chance to change it for the better.

Being self critical is very tough. None of us like to be criticized. We tend to get very defensive when told that we are lacking or somehow screwed up. Very few realize that the knowledge and experience responsible for our achievements to date are the very same things keeping us stuck. If you want to fulfill your potential, you need to be ruthless regarding your self analysis and the truths you hold to be self evident.

Objectivity requires not only a look inward, but also a look outward. With regards to the big picture, where exactly do you fit in? What traits allow others to be successful while you fall short? Are they more talented, do they work harder, do they charge less money, are they better at networking, are they less ethical? The list can go on, ad infinitum, but the bottom line is, if you just stand there hoping that things will serendipitously turn around for you, you are powerless?

If you can muster the strength to be self critical you can begin to move forward. What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you discover that you’re not willing to do what’s necessary. That can be a very good thing. Get out of the game and find another better suited for your unique set of talents and abilities, and put all your energy into that.

To me objectivity is much more important than the previous two traits because no matter how talented and hard working you are, if you don’t focus your energy appropriately, you’re going nowhere. With that in mind, I rate objectivity at 33%, approximately twice the importance of the other two.

Now if you’re keeping score, the previous three when added up total 49%. So obviously we still need to account for an additional 51%, or what I consider to be the most important factor in achieving one’s goals. But as important as it is, without talent, hard work and objectivity, it alone falls far short of 100%.

Number 4: Perseverance
The most critical aspect of achieving greatness is never giving up! It is pretty obvious, when you surrender, you’re out of the game. Interestingly, most people cite fear of failure as the reason they give up. That’s pretty ridiculous, if you think about it, because once you’ve given up, failure is all but guaranteed. Personally, I believe fear of success is the main reason people pack it in. Being successful means giving up your comfort level, your reasonableness and your excuses, because once you succeed you need to keep working even harder to keep succeeding. It never gets easier. Life is an incline. Either you are moving forward or you’re sliding back.

So if you truly aspire to become all you can be, this blueprint can come in very handy. Take a look at where you are now and begin the journey, one resolution at a time.

I wish all of you, my readers, great success and a happy, healthy and successful new year!

Until next time…


  1. Richard Budig says

    Here, here!!!

  2. You are an Oracle Marvin. A Prophet of truth and common sense.

  3. Love it…

    Of your four traits, talent, hard work, objectivity and perseverance, I think the later three have a closer relationship. Talent I believe does have much to do with aptitude and/or possessing some skill or ability towards a thing. However the true driving factors of talent is desire and motivation; you have to want it and need to do it. That personal want and need to do a thing is a strong trait maybe that is passion?

    Thanks for starting your blog, your insights are greatly appreciated.
    Have a great year.

  4. Thank you so much for these words. I wholeheartedly agree with the rate of importance you assign to the four elements of true success. Talent and hard work (passion) are merely supposed to be there if you wish to achieve something. But being able to judge yourself for what you are and keep on going is what makes the difference.

  5. You are so wright.All aspects you have mentioned are so important, maybe I wouldn’t agree with the percentage of their participation but we all have deferent approach…..And what to say for people – talented unrecognized artists who decided to start painting in their mid ages without a chance to find a teacher in their area who could help them develop their talent to a higher level. They also can’t enroll courses at the University and the eagerness to become what they know they can achieve – is driving them to educate themselves throughout internet, praying to find somebody like you Marvin, to follow your blog and read between the lines to get the catch…..The secret…the magic that will make their work better than the previous one…..
    Thank you for this article ….I’ll forward it to some of my friends….

    • We all don’t have perfect circumstances but in the end we must each find the right path. I really don’t consider age a great factor, but having access to high quality teaching can make a formidable task less so. Good luck.

  6. Great New Years post, Marvin. I’m persevering and your list is a reminder of the important things to keep in mind.

  7. Marvin, this was very timely for me. I am grateful for the success I’ve had in my career so far, but feel stuck for the last few years. There are many ideas you stated that I already knew but others I found to be very illuminating. Thank you for this blog.

  8. Very well said Marvin. I often quote your words when teaching my own students. “You can’t fix nothing”! I am still working on my own ability to “Be the Shape” The quest never ends. xxoo

  9. Debby Waldron says

    Objectivity is still difficult when the answer to “what’s wrong with this picture?” appears to be “everything”! Critical I most assuredly am but that’s not the same as objective. Working on it! Thank you and Happy New Year!!!

    • No, not easy at all. It must be developed and trained. It’s very difficult to do on your own, because if you were objective you wouldn’t be doing the things you’re being critical about in the first place. That’s one of the main reasons to study with someone knowledgeable. 🙂 Have a healthy and happy new year, too.

  10. I have a version of this list written down from when you shared it with my class in 1999. I have been using it as my guide ever since. Thanks again. I’m looking forward to a new year of work.

  11. Great post Marvin! I am so grateful to have been able to study with you, even for a short time. Your class made it possible for me to be able to see what I was doing wrong and how to fix it. Those tools, and your words, have helped me to be objective. As far as perseverance goes, it helps to be a triple Virgo and born in the year of the Ox 🙂

  12. Food for thought! And inspiration for much more.
    Thank you.


  1. […] commenter, responding to my recent post On The Quest For Excellence, said their New Year’s resolution was to be a better artist. They cited the following […]

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