Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh, India. 2008
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This is a bit of a rambling one. A couple years ago I was headed to Bosnia, in the process of buying Jessie, my Land Rover Defender, and planning to leave my home for a year in pursuit of stories, adventure, and some fresh air. The day I left for Bosnia my manager, Corwin, was hosting his annual Creative Mix event in Vancouver. One of the speakers was Dylan Brown, the Creative Director for Pixar Canada, and his talk revolved around one scary idea: keeping it above the 45. Let me explain.
In the artist’s life there are two axes: on the Y axis is challenge (or opportunities), on the X is ability. When the opportunities we take equal the talent or ability we have, we are living on the 45-degree angle formed between the two. Perfect balance, and generally, to put it into blunt terms, stagnation. But when the opportunities we create or seize seem to outpace the talent or ability we have, we grow in that ability to meet the opportunity, and are living above the 45.
Every creative I know that is doing something they love, is both excited and scared to death. They are moving in the direction of the fear, not away from it. I’ve come to know Dylan, the man who first introduced me to the idea of the 45. The man is insanely talented. But he’s just a guy. He’s got a job. He does it with mad skill. Pixar doesn’t hire hacks. But he leans into the fear, and when he talks about attending the premier of movies I adore, or being part of a team that’s won an Oscar, it’s because he leans into the fear, and forces himself to live above the 45.
I just got back from the printers. I spent a couple hours looking at books, papers, covers, bindings. I have in mind to do a beautiful fine art book of my photographs. Not an education book. Not something that’ll hit Amazon.com or ever become a best-seller. Just a book of my photographs. And I know it’s the next step. I know it’ll consume a year of my life and a chunk of my savings. I know it’s going to make me cry, and be very, very expensive. But I also know I have to do it. I have to risk the learning curve, the time, the money, and the possibility that I’ll be still trying to sell them and giving them away for Christmas in 20 years. But if I am going to lean into the fear and live above the 45, I have to do it. Why? In part it’s because I want to leave something amazing behind. I call it a legacy project. But I’m not just doing it so there will be something left of me when I die. It’s because living above the 45 is where life, and art, is. I know it will be worth it.
It’s above the 45, and only above the 45 where growth happens and where we stop repeating ourselves and create something beautiful. Important. Good. When creatives and artists get stalled on the idea of making money with every project, and paying the rent, they abandon the muse, because the muse doesn’t give a hot damn whether you make money. She cares about making something beautiful and honest, about creating something that’ll outlast us. And while there are too many people that’ll put down a few bucks for something mediocre, there are as many people willing to put down more for something amazing, something beautiful, something that took risk and honesty to create. It’s when we live above the 45 that we begin creating things for the very reasons for which we stayed below the 45.
At the risk of flirting with presumptuous inspirational nonsense, are you living consistently above the 45? Are you one step ahead of your fear or has it been a while since you even considered its presence? Are you growing or stagnating? Moving forward or back? I ask because my own answer is not always Yes. On the day I heard Dylan talk I was, as I said, heading out on assignment to Bosnia. I was packing up my home to live the life nomadic. To all appearances I was above the 45, but in significant ways I wasn’t. I wasn’t pushing my craft. I wasn’t leaning into the fear. Not the way I thought I was, anyways. What looked difficult and fearless to others, was comfortable to me. Where did I grow the most last year? In hospital and rehab leaning into the fear and fighting like hell to walk again. A high price to pay not to remain stagnant, but I think my art changed significantly through those days, and in ways that I doubt could ever have happened otherwise.
I just finished reading Hugh MacLeod’s new book, Evil Plans. It’s a light read and it’s not overly deep, but it lightheartedly points to some good reminders that it takes fighting like hell to do our work, and it takes a conscious choice to live above the 45. No one lives above the 45 by accident. You wake up every day and decide to work, to do the best work of your life, even your life’s work. You don’t sit around waiting for your real life to begin, because those that do will find it never comes, or that colon cancer or heart disease or some other unexpected horror comes first to wake us and our waited-for dreams slip away. Now is the time to feed your hunger for freedom, for beauty, for meaningful work. It’s not, as Seneca said, that we live for too short a time, but that we waste so much of it.
It’s August 2019 and I still come back to this! It was and in many ways still is, profoundly radical and provocative as a thought and against all my beliefs that I will lean into my fears and go against my comfort zone, but it is the only way an artist can grow. Keep coming to this, until one day I will feel that I won’t have to come and read it again… Thanks for all your heart and soul that you pour into us, it is not going unnoticed. By the way, I’ve read almost all of your books and you are the only one of many that I have watched and learned closely throughout the years that still teaches me things! And that is not sth I take lightly! So thanks again. A friend from Greece…
wow, “keeping it above the 45” is a great motto for life. realizing ‘there’ is where we come alive, whenever we lean into fear, bringing us closer to the truth. Thank you David.
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Great thoughts, David. I appreciate your musings. I especially your comment about moving towards your fears, it is a great reminder to leave my comfort zone if I want to make great images.
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A lot of good stuff in this article David, thanks. Keeping things above 45 is not easy, and I don’t get it right often..but I continue to try and do it more. Leaning into the fear is a good one, I read quote once that said “courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it”
I hope that I have the ability and the courage to live and push myself above the 45…thanks for the article David!
Love this subject, and the way you describe it. Thanks so much for taking the time to explain it in so many clear words that make sense. It gives me a lot to ponder on.
Well and beautifully said, David.
Great topic and one I will focus on, charting where I’m at now. I have work to do!
Looking forward to your book David, I have reserved a space between by my Galen Rowell and Steve McCurry books.
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David what ever you expressed is pure inspiration. This is what I’m taking for myself and also to all those whom I meet in my life from now on. I believe that every person can do amazing things when they are inspired by others as well as themselves. I’m following you from now on from India 🙂 Cheers!
David,this is terrific. Thanks.
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Another inspirational post from you David, thank you. Now I just have to act on it, I have something to aim for now and it’s above the 45!!
“Why? In part it’s because I want to leave something amazing behind. I call it a legacy project.”
Love that quote. I appreciate the call to challenge ourselves.
Your blog post reminded me of that quote by Ira Glass, “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.”
There’s no way to get past this (or above the 45) if we’re coasting, succumbing to disappointment, living for other people’s expectations, or being satisfied with good enough.
These rambling posts of yours are my favorite. I only dabble in photography, but what you have to say can be applied beyond the realm of artists. I see myself as someone who tries to push for the limit, but have definitely been stuck in ruts ofcomplacency. Satisfied with just being satisfied. A little kick in the butt always helps. A perfect Monday read.
Looking forward to seeing a fine art book from you! Thanks!
Thanks for this post David – it was timely. I’ve been in a funk for a few months and this is the first thing I’ve come across that has made some sparks fire in my brain. I’m so not even close to being above the 45 at the moment and I’m thinking that’s my whole problem. I need to push myself out of my comfort zone. Time for a good think about what to do next. You’ve been helpful, as always. cheers
This is a real inspirational for me. You said: “Where did I grow the most last year? In hospital and rehab leaning into the fear and fighting like hell to walk again.” I say: dito. It took me 3 1/2 years. Then, a few month ago, I left my comfort zone in the middle of Europe to the South of Africa to learn English, to train with my camera and to study journalism. Still a long road ahead, but ey – I am only 44 🙂
Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.
Thank you very much for all your helpful posts and keep on going. Keeping keeping on ….
Very thought-provoking post. It makes me think of the life events that force us above the 45, the random curve balls, versus the times we consciously choose to push ourselves towards growth. It also made me think about depletion and refueling and what that means to me, literally, each day and how it translates into the choices I make. You always make me think. I had to laugh as well whenI thought, heck, I wrote a book called comfort zones (this is NOT a plug) but I thought it was danged funny. I snorted. Thank you for your honesty and bravery and great writing.
Thanks for the challenging post.
As someone once said, F.E.A.R. means – Face Everything And Recover or Fuck Everything And Run. Life gives us the test first and lessons later. Jump and develop your wings on the way down. You never hear a kid say “I’m going to take the day off and be creative.”
I like the naming of the challenge. will give me something to hold on to and think about and veer toward.
Thanks for posting this. Excellent timing for me.
A big ‘Merci’ for this post David!
I was reading a book on how memory masters learn and remember. (The secret is thousands of years old and is known as a Memory Palace.) In it, the author talked about deliberate practice.
This isn’t a new concept to me; I’ve come across it before, possibly even in one of your writings. He gives an example of a typically fast typist leveling out after reaching an above average, but acceptable plateau. Year after year, the typist hits tens of thousands of keystrokes (practice) but doesn’t get better. However, if he/she consciously ups the rate by 10% and ignores errors the first time through (fix them later) then after a short time, his/her typing rate will have gone up by 10% with no increase in overall error rate.
Another example is the golfer who manages to get a handicap in the 20s and keeps it year after year. With some time under tutelage of a coach, identifying and working on weak points, that average can move into the teens or even single digits.
Your comment on living above the 45 resonated with me in the same way. It is, in fact, why I’m reading the memory books. I teach seminars and am working on a complete revision of my materials. Not content, but teaching style. My students are from the MTV generation. I predate that (and so does my PPT style.) It is grow or die time.
Has your “fear” lessened over time? After a while, does the fear diminish knowing that hard work will prevail? Kinda like taking the first dive off the high board at the swimming pool? The first leap is the scariest? Or, do you go looking for a higher board?
Wow… you could have written that exclusively for me today.. thank you for sharing that- it is what I know must be done, and it is so true. While I usually like to think I live in this manner, there is one big leap I need to take. Whatever we do in life, we should always strive to get above the 45.
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I loved reading this..a good reminder to us to drive forward. I read a great app for a guy…who has become a great photographer who went on this journey to publish his book….knife edge stuff…highly recommend it…One in a Thousand by Ian Coristine.
This is so true. Exhausting, frustrating and painful at times, but true, in all areas of our lives. Being above the 45 is where all of our growth comes from. It’s only in looking back that we can see how these experiences have helped us move beyond our prior boundaries into new territory. I think it gets easier to continually push ourselves above the 45 when we start to realize it’s the only way we grow. And, as you mention, if we aren’t pushing ourselves, life will push us in some other way.
had the pleasure to meet and work with some people that live above the 45 – at least now I know how to call it. wonderful post, thanks
Thank You for this David.
I am about to retire and have been for some time struggling with the direction my new found time will take me. Work kept me above 45 pretty much all the time, I am hoping that I can drive myself above 45 with my new found hobby of photography. It is so easy though to let things slide, I find I have to set daily goals otherwise below 45 sets in quickly.
What Nancy says is so true, you have to surround yourself with people that are pushing the 45, their momentum helps to keep you on track.
Great post and inspiration. Stepping out and pushing the point of fear is definitely something I need to do grow both professionally and personally. It’s too easy to just be comfortable.
Thank you so much for this wonderful article.
It’s true, people usually think I’m living above the 45, but the truth is that most of the time I’m stagnating.
Thank you to motivate me to step toward the fear, really.
Thank you for this – an eloquent statement of something that’s hard to describe. My best times – and not-so-coincidentally, my best work – is generated outside the comfort zone. When it all gets to be too routine, too predictable, it’s time to move on and find new ways to stretch.
Doing that now with a spare time project, long abandoned when Life Got In The Way… last few months, I’ve moved it to the top of my priority list. Last few months, despite the same stresses and responsibilities, I’m much happier. Coincidence? NO! Correlation.
I was there at that initial talk that Dylan gave and the notion of keeping it over 45? has haunted me ever since. I went as far as to create a desktop wall paper for my computer to remind myself to get off my ass and do the work everyday. Good work, work that matters, work that challenges me, work that scares me, work that drives and excites me. I’m not successful at it everyday and certainly allow the various delicious distractions of life steal some of my focus, but being reminded of the lesson I learned that day every time I turn on my computer is a useful reminder and one I offer up to other here – http://thecheckerboardguy.com/DOTHEWORK.jpg It’s a 1440 x 900 jpeg.
Here’s to the aspiration of keeping it ‘Above 45?!’
Last sentence makes the point beautifully.
Great post. And I can’t always claim to be above 45 and would blame life for getting in the way. As if those that do do it don’t have another worry in the world! We all have a whole lot of stuff to do and worry about, we just need to push ourselves beyond it rather than wallow in self pity, mediocrity or whatever else is holding us back.
In my day job, I see over and over the paralysis of, what we call, FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. I like this new metaphor too – above the 45.
I’ve never tackled easy projects, so I have a long relationship to the 45. Staying above the 45 means lots of failures as well as those beautiful successes. It also means that a lot of people won’t understand a bit of what you are trying to say or do. If I am not diligent, these reactions push me back down below the 45.
I think it is really, really important that I surround yourself with others also pushing themselves to live above the 45. They see what I am striving for and provide the open-minded acceptance and support for my experiments. I need that.
My learning to lean into the fear was starting to get past my fear of speaking in front of people and taking a leadership role. I now do workshops for my camera club and I took on the VP of Programs & Events. Photography is on a bit of a stall but I know personal growth will also translate into better pictures.
Jeanne, if I can do it, you can too. This technical stuff didn’t come easy to me. Keep at it! 🙂
My fear might be laughable to some – but it is learning to use digital processing to try to move my pix more into art. Your “Vision and Voice” is my present guidebook – I keep thinking I can’t learn to do the supremely artistic things that you do because I am (don’t laugh!) intimidated by computers! But I am driving myself to practice, practice, practice! And maybe with the help of you, Scott Kelby, and determination, I can create some works of art!
Great advice here, to lean into the fear. To stretch and grow and leave behind the comfort zone.