Faith in Possibility: On Striving for Curiosity Instead of Success

Thursday, April 3, 2014 - 5:32am
Faith in Possibility: On Striving for Curiosity Instead of Success

A documentary about an intrepid and curious man inspires this reflection on failure, giving up too soon, and pursuing curiosity rather than success.

Commentary by:
Lily Percy (@lilmpercy),  Senior Producer for On Being
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Tim Jenison with his contraption.

When I was a little girl I took piano lessons. After years of playing “At the Skating Rink” I resolved that I would never be a great piano player. Watching Milos Forman's Amadeus with my dad only further reinforced this idea. So I quit. I didn’t even give it a second thought. I didn’t consider what I could gain from playing an instrument, the dedication and discipline it would instill — two qualities I struggle with as an adult.

I quit because I was afraid of failing. I was scared of not being good enough.

I thought about that as I watched Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary about a man driven by a wild curiosity to understand the artistry of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter best known for "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

The film follows Tim Jenison, a man who had never painted. A software engineer by trade, Tim, like many others, noticed that Vermeer's paintings have a photo-realistic precision that appears impossibly accurate when viewed up close.

He becomes obsessed with the quest to uncover how Vermeer, painting in the early 17th century, could have achieved this feat. He starts researching. He begins an ambitious experiment, using his skill as an engineer to recreate the room pictured in Vermeer's painting "The Music Lesson" and the tools Vermeer may have used to portray it so impressively.

He's not the first person to suggest that Vermeer used a method of painting with "lens-and-mirror contraptions," but he is the first person to try and prove it. He spends years researching the paintings in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and hours, day after day, painting.

Tim Jenison has that catalytic combination of curiosity and discipline, two things that led him to essentially solve a hundreds-year-old puzzle. It made me wonder: How often do we have that curiosity but, for fear of failure, give up too soon?

From a young age we are rewarded for success. I can't remember anyone telling me "I'm proud of you because you tried that." Instead, I was told, "I'm proud because you succeeded." Having support makes the difference. At no point in the documentary did Tim Jenison's family try to dissuade him from attempting to replicate a Vermeer. His daughters never said: "Dad, you're crazy!" Instead they helped set up the room where he worked, his youngest daughter posing for hours as he painted her.

I've talked myself out of doing something because I didn't think I could attain success fast enough. Sometimes when a task seems insurmountable, we retire too early and miss out on the journey of the attempt.

Journey is the success. We often forget that we become focused on the fruits of our labor rather than the labor itself, which matters most. Even if the documentary ended with him having no answer, having not succeeded, it would have been inspiring.

Part of living curiously is being open to failure. And part of failure is being willing to be vulnerable. When we fail, we display a side of ourselves that is uncomfortable and raw, but we also see a kind of rare truth. The artist Ann Hamilton said that we need more space to "let things take the time they actually need." We need a faith in possibility and a resilience in the face of failure.

These are qualities that I sometimes lack. I admire the people who have that discipline of getting up every day and doing something they're curious about, something that they have no experience in and yet want to tackle, without any guarantee of success. That's the biggest lesson I learned from watching Tim Jenison paint his Vermeer: do it for the work — the work is enough.

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Lily Percy is senior producer at On Being.

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This is a beautiful article, Lily.

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Darlene. Thank you!

Hi Elizabeth!! I saw that piece too and absolutely loved it. Oddly enough I just posted Facebook today on this vulnerability thing. I wish I had read your post first.... very insightful. And how cool is it to be so geographically far apart and find you in the same neighborhood!

Lily, your essay fit me like a glove. Fear and laziness, two major flaws.

You summed it up perfectly, Taurino.

He certainly did persevere, but you know, in the end, he succeeded. If he had not succeeded, I'm guessing the film would not have been made, or at least not circulated, if he had failed. This is certainly a lesson about not quitting, but it is a standard lesson in which the person is met with success in the end. It is a lesson about long time reaching for success and getting it in the end. If he had spent his whole life working on it, enjoying the process, without ever reaching a conclusion, that would be a different lesson.

Good point, Tina.

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