Life lessons from Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was a superstar sculptor, painter, and architect who strides the history of art like a Colossus. He was an outsider who created works of such beauty and on such a grand scale that it is still very difficult to believe that they were produced by a mere mortal. He claimed he was divinely inspired, yet he stole from Popes, fought his rivals, and struggled with his own demons. By all accounts, Michelangelo was a tempestuous genius who would let nothing stand in the way of his quest for eternal fame and riches untold.
The above paragraph was loosely adapted from the introductory section of a pretty good documentary on the life and works of Michelangelo and I think you get the general idea – Michelangelo achieved some superhuman artistic feats in his lifetime. Before we go any further, I should mention to you that I’m a huge Michelangelo fan who probably has a warped sense of objectivity when speaking or writing about him. However, warped sense of objectivity or not, there are a lot of nuggets of wisdom that one can glean from his life about striving to reach one’s full potential. Now this isn’t to say that all of us will reach the dizzying heights of success and fame that Michelangelo achieved, but we can all certainly apply most of the following things to our lives to at least improve on what we already have, no matter how small. I should also note that these items aren’t listed in any particular order and are all valuable in their own right.
- Do an apprenticeship
- Work (crazy) hard
- Learn to deal well with people
- Cultivate self confidence
- Embrace Spirituality
- Use opposition as fuel
Even though he often vehemently denied ever going through an apprenticeship, the truth is that Michelangelo went through an extensive apprenticeship under artists who were much better than he was as a youngster. Through thousands of hours of practice under the watchful eyes of masterful artists, his talent blossomed into a full blown superpower.
One mistake that many of us make is in thinking that learning something on one’s own is somehow more authentic or valuable than learning the same thing from someone else. The fact of the matter is that the world doesn’t care how you learned to do something… the world only cares about your level of proficiency in doing whatever it is that you do. Think about it… when you’re buying a painting or watching a concert, do you base your enjoyment of the artist’s work on whether the artist was self taught or not? I might not know you personally, but I’m guessing the answer to that question is no.
The truth remains that at our current level of development as a species, working with a mentor is perhaps the fastest way to develop masterful levels of skill at your chosen craft.
Although Michelangelo had many foibles, no one in their right mind would have ever questioned his work ethic for a second. Michelangelo worked tirelessly day and night to become the revered genius that has left his fingerprints all over the world of visual art. Now not everyone will possess his almost superhuman capacity for hard work, but if we’re to be honest, many of us could probably put in a lot more work to expedite our development and growth in our chosen field(s).
Michelangelo was notoriously difficult to get along with. Even for a genius of his magnitude, this quirk in his personality made his life much more difficult than it might have otherwise been. It is true that there is no real way to quantify that last statement, but the numerous confrontations he had with so many of his contemporaries couldn’t have been easy to deal with. Heaven only knows how much more he might have accomplished had he avoided the numerous squabbles and fights he went through during his lifetime.
Even though Michelangelo for the most part got away with being excessively difficult, it is important to realize that not many of us possess the type of skill that Michelangelo had which in many cases bought him immense political capital and made his behaviour more forgivable. It is probably better to be humble and have good people on your side rather than alienating people even if you are in a position to do so.
Although natural talent and hard work were certainly factors, I’m convinced that Michelangelo’s sustained excellence over many decades was in large part due to his unshakable confidence in his own abilities and purpose. Emotional storm after storm would assail him, but he’d just keep going no matter what. His father beat him repeatedly as a child to try to get him to turn away from art as a profession which was considered a menial job back then. In spite of all his father’s opposition and physical abuse, Michelangelo persevered. Even the mighty Pope Julius II tried to bully Michelangelo several times throughout his life with no real success. Come what may, Michelangelo always stood firm in his ironclad belief in himself and in his purpose… an admirable quality to develop in oneself.
By many accounts, Michelangelo was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the reason that the almighty God put him on this planet was to paint things and carve objects out of stone. He was a devout catholic that served the church for a very large chunk of his life. Although I have no tangible proof, I’ve always thought that his strong spiritual base was what gave him the strength and confidence to weather emotional storm after emotional storm.
Quite simply, Michelangelo wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted by anything. He was so focused on his craft that he’d sneak into mortuaries and dissect bodies because he wanted to know how all the muscle and sinew in the human body really looked, and how they seamlessly bonded with skin. He never married or had any children… here was a man obsessed, sparing time for little else apart from drawing, painting, and beating the hell out of blocks of marble. Please note that Michelangelo is an extreme outlier… and there is nothing wrong with having a family. That being said, there are probably a smattering of distractions that each of us would be well served to remove from our lives.
Whoever tries to do something interesting and of note with their life will more than likely be faced with opposition/criticism/cynicism etc somewhere along the journey and this can be very demoralizing. What often separates the greats from most other people is that they find a way to transform this negativity into motivational rocket fuel that spurs them on to even greater heights. Michael Jordan did it, Michael Phelps did it, Kobe Bryant did it, and yep, Michelangelo did it too.
To give a quick example, many sources would have us believe that the Architect Bramante schemed behind the scenes to get the Pope to halt Michelangelo’s progress on one of his marble statues and force him to paint the ceiling of the sistine chapel. Legend has it that this was supposed to set Michelangelo (who was far better with a hammer and chisel than with a paintbrush) up to embarass himself. In typical defiant fashion, Michelangelo transformed the attempted set up into one of the most famous and awe inspiring paintings of all time. LOL… take that Bramante!
There it is folks… life lessons from one of the greatest artists to walk the face of this earth. From all of us here at chubaoyolu.org, take care of yourselves and each other.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.