April 30, 2021

What We Can Learn From Sculpture

This is the twelfth in a series of short essays I wrote as part of the Ship 30 for 30 program. You can read all thirty essays here.

To celebrate my wife’s 40th birthday, we went to Rome. While there, we visited the Galleria Borghese.

The small gallery is home to an array of work by Bernini—possibly the only sculptor to rival Michelangelo. His works have that magical, indescribable quality that all masterpieces possess.

Sculpture requires a master craftsman. The sculptor can’t put the marble back once they have removed it, so they must work with planning, precision, and care.

There is much to learn from the sculptor’s approach. When Michelangelo carved his David, he didn’t start refining finer details like the eyes until he had roughly carved the whole form and got the proportions right.

So here is lesson one: in life, it is easy to fixate on unnecessary details. To avoid this, focus on the big picture first and worry about the details later. Get your business plan or project plan in place before you worry about your company logo or the wording of a particular document.

Second lesson: the sculptor starts with a large block of stone and removes the unrequired parts to create their work—a process of subtraction. So often, we try to improve things by adding more and increasing their complexity. But the best solutions are usually simple and elegant. Resist this tendency for addition, and focus on subtraction.

Third and final lesson: for a sculpture to work, it must have balance and harmony. This is also true of life. To live a productive, varied, and fulfilling life, we must find a balance between work and play, action and rest, and thinking and doing. Too much of one and not enough of the other can leave us overwhelmed or on the wrong path.

People talk about life imitating art. When it comes to sculpture, that is a smart approach.