I’ve kept this line in my mind for a long time:
“Things of quality have no fear of time.” ~Unknown
Yesterday, I had a late dinner with one of my best friends, Matt. Matt is an architect and Munich is full of history, so when we met at Königsplatz at 9:30 PM, as usual, he had plenty stories to tell.
“King’s Square,” as you would translate it, is a huge, open space, housing several museums, one of which is the Glyptothek.
Commissioned by the Bavarian King Ludwig I to house his collection of Roman and Greek sculptures, this building is a piece of art in and of itself. Like so many others in Munich, it casually rests in its place, timeless. For 200 years, many have stood awestruck before it, long before Matt and me and long after we’re gone, many a soul will.
Matt and my conversations are always very philosophical in nature and as the evening continued, so did its theme: what makes something timeless?
And while philosophy itself is the most practical discipline of all, this episode of the architect and the writer “podcast” wasn’t free of self-interest. After all, the two of us are builders. Makers. Legend-chasers.
What was left at the end of the night was a buzzing mind full of flying sparks, a notes app brimming with text bites and a whole set of new questions.
However, underneath all the dirt we dug up, I think we found four principles underlying the art, work and lives of those we call immortal — for they have created something that stands the test of time.
1. Timeless Things Are Never The Result Of Trying To Make Something Timeless
“Books have a unique way of stopping time in a particular moment and saying: Let’s not forget this.” — Dave Eggers
99% of the reason we still read a 2,000 year old book like On The Shortness of Life is out of the author’s control. The question is: did he set out with it in mind regardless? Matt and I quickly arrived at a resounding “no.”
The other day I wrote a draft about a rigged education system. What’s now left as only the generic middle part used to be the whole thing. No matter how timeless your advice might be, if you don’t wrap it in a compelling story, nobody will ever read it. Let alone remember it.
When he wrote his moral essay addressed to his father-in-law in 49 AD, Seneca was a tutor to the emperor’s son, Nero. Surrounded by wealth, power and fame, he wrote about the problems he saw: laziness, greed, heedless luxury and lack of self-discipline.
Charles Dickens had to pawn his books at age 12 and work in a shoe factory because his father was thrown into debtor’s prison. After touring tin mines in 1843 and witnessing more of the poverty and injustice against children he knew so well he voiced his social concerns: by writing A Christmas Carol.
What’s the lesson?
Wrap your work in stories told for the time you live in. If it can’t survive that, it’ll never survive you.
As it turns out, creating for the end of time is more about creating for the now than we think.
2. Timeless Things Change Over Time
“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Every day at school, I occasionally lean back in my chair and look up.
The ceiling I see is the exact same one they put in when constructing the building in the 50s. However, Matt told me they made renovations over time and left them visible on purpose. Indeed, patches of grey cover the beams, like band-aids, saying: “This building lives. It breathes. It changes.”
When you create something that lives for the moment you breathe in, what you create will inevitably be fragile. Take away a piece of the puzzle and it loses a hint of its touch. But whatever piece remains reaffirms what you created.
Timeless work must be capable of surviving that change. In fact, it should be better for it. Anti-fragile.
Seneca’s letters have been translated countless of times — and with each new version we find new meaning in his words. The Glyptothek may look Greek, but it’s surrounded by statues of sculptors of the Renaissance. The marble building was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in red brick — but not all parts of it. White paints reminds us where once frescoes were: we’re not done here.
Don’t think about changing the world. Think about changing your work and how well it can continue to change without you.
How does your work feel? Like training a program? Or raising a child? How do you make sure what you make remains capable of changing once you put down the chisel?
3. The More Time You Put Into It, The More Timeless Your Result Gets
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” — Andy Warhol
J.K. Rowling came up with Harry Potter in 1990. The manuscript was ready in ’95, published in ’97, another 10 years before the last book came out.
That’s a 7-book series, 20 years in the making. How many changes do you think she made along the way?
(Harry Potter never competed in the Doomspell Tournament.)
This is a common theme. The Lord of the Rings? 12 years. The Glyptothek? 14 years. The Sistine Chapel? 4 years.
By going back to my Quora lesson draft and adding a story to it, , I gave it a swappable part. One more change can’t hurt. The more changes to your work you’ve made that haven’t hurt, the more others can make later.
We’re often worried about our work. About others touching it. But the truth is, like a successful person, a quality piece of work will keep growing. With or without us.
The more change you work into your creation, the more it hands itself to changing in the future, and thus, keeping its soul.
Change isn’t a bad thing. It’s an acknowledgement. “This is good. Now let me make it better.” Change is the only thing that’s constant — and that’s why it’s the root of all that’s timeless.
4. If You Don’t Feel Time, Your End Result Won’t Either
“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” — Marthe Troly-Curtin
While Matt and I were waiting for dinner, I told him what I did last Friday. He asked: “What day is it? I have no idea. I just spent the last 4 days working until 2 AM. And I love it.”
This, I think, is the least obvious component of creating timeless work. If you can already feel time passing while you’re doing it, that’s not a good sign.
To quote Richard Feynman:
I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.
Nobody knows if what you’re doing will be remembered 200 years from now. Maybe people will think you’re worst piece is your best. So really, the best thing you can do is to make sure you have fun making it.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in Flow:
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”
Matt and I are lucky. We have found our thing. Or rather we’ve chosen. And then they found us. Maybe your art hasn’t found you yet. Whatever it might be, don’t underestimate the power of choosing regardless:
“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.” ~Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Great work comes with many pains and at great prices. But suffering from boredom isn’t one of them.
The more you’re feeling time less, the more likely what you’re making will be timeless.
Today I went to the dermatologist. In the waiting room, I picked up a copy of the National Geographic. The feature story was an attempt to explain genius.
Next to the hypothesis that intelligence, creativity, perseverance and sheer luck must come together, they published a set of peak productive years for brilliant minds from various fields. Writers seem to have their brightest moments between 40–45 years old.
That’s great news. Because all this talk about timeless creations means the world to me — and at the same time nothing at all. As Mihaly knows, flow always starts small:
“Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.”
If I can remember this lesson every day for the next 20 years, maybe I’ll write something worth remembering.
And if you remember it, well, you just might make something timeless.