I first bumped into Jimmy Pattison when I was a brash kid and he was a bellhop in one of the local hotels. Jimmy was then and is now an optimistic, smiling character who looks you straight in the eye. Our paths crossed about twenty years later. By this time Jimmy was selling cars and had an idea he wanted to go into another business that he thought I knew something about. I didn’t, but he offered me a job anyway. While flattered, I turned him down. “What are you going to do?” he asked, as if I had just made my stupidest move so far. I told him I’d keep on painting. “You’re nuts,” he told me. Today Jimmy is a character of mythic proportions with more than 30,000 employees in a worldwide accumulation of businesses that gross over 6 billion dollars annually. But that’s not the story.
Hanging on the wall of Jimmy’s office is a poem by James Russell Lowell, written out by Jimmy’s mother, that she gave to him on the day he started his first business:
Life is a sheet of paper white
Whereon each one of us may write
His word or two, and then comes night.
Greatly begin! Though thou have time
But for a line, be that sublime,
Not failure, but low aim, is crime.
Last Thursday night more than a thousand of Jimmy’s friends sat down for dinner, listened to praiseful speeches and celebrated a life of remarkable generosity and social responsibility. It happened to be a fundraiser for one of Jimmy’s charities — all light-hearted and goofy in a Jimmy sort of way. At one point, in a wave of irrational exuberance and with a big-band backup, Jimmy grabbed his trumpet and played “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
Jimmy admits to his failures, but he has never taken his gaze from his own personal need for excellence and his expectation of the same in others. According to Jimmy, seeking the higher ground and the nobler cause is life’s purpose. Trust and integrity are basic. Hard work and loyalty play their part. Above all, there’s the value of visualizing the potential of a project — to foresee just how brilliant might be the outcome — to try to be the best, to outdistance previous skirmishes, and even at the expense of possible disappointment, to aim for the stars.
PS: “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” (Henry Ford)
Esoterica: Making objects of art is much like the building of businesses. Some are more ambitious than others. Each requires a vision, a plan and a method of execution. Tools, ideas and systems are employees who bring their special skills and require caring and focused management. Like business managers, artists need to be loyal to their ideals. It’s to be expected that each business will have its own degree of success. The partial or outright failure of some will give the keys needed for the successful ones to follow. The bottom line in a work of art is an evasive and often arbitrary thing called quality, and the tricky part is to develop the wisdom to know when things are failing. But as in Jimmy’s poem, it’s not failure, but low aim that’s the main crime.
Failure is learned
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA
The first thought that comes to mind after reading your latest offering is “Failure is a learned behavior,” just like prejudice. It must be taught, it is not an inherent trait. As far as the “crime of aiming too low” (as stated in Jimmy’s mother’s poem), again the height of our aim is an external aberration. What we feel inside is the most telling aspect of who we are. The only real crime is that we have learned to compare ourselves to others rather than appreciate first and foremost who we are.
Enthusiasm in all areas
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
What I admire about Mr. Pattison and a number of other “successful” people is that no matter what they are doing, they do it with enthusiasm. I have applied that enthusiasm to my own career. While I have not always been able to make my living as an artist, I subsidize my income by working as a waiter. While the work can be challenging at times and at others rewarding, I always maintain an enthusiasm for everything I do. While some artists save their enthusiasm for the moment they deem “success,” I show enthusiasm for everything I do. There can never be failure while I am doing that!
by Beth Ferrier, Saginaw, MI, USA
Embracing failure was the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s only by taking risks that we grow and learn. While I always strive to do the very best that I can on any given day, I consider every quilt that I make as simply practice for the next. As a quilting teacher I am amused by the attitude by some students that they must succeed on the first try. How will they ever know the rich pleasure that comes from mastering a new skill, finally, after days, weeks, years of practice? So what if our failures use up a little fabric? The worst thing that will happen is I’ll have to go buy some more. Accepting failure as part of the process frees us to explore new techniques, materials and styles. How will we ever know what we could do if we only do what we know we can do? Today’s failure is tomorrow’s starting point.
Failure transformed into success
by Ann Heckel, Lambertville, NJ, USA
Failure? Failure isn’t failure if you do it right. One has the distinct obligation to view this in its proper perspective. I lost my multimillion dollar company, went bankrupt, and had trouble finding a job. That job, I discovered, was to pull something out of me that had been hibernating for a very long time. I started going to my easel and my mind moved into the possibilities. I created something very different. Figuring out how to resolve feelings of “failure” transformed into my definition of success — doing things a different way, believing, and climbing into that rocket that aims high to shoot me toward my own stars.
Create your own revolution
by H. Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Isn’t it odd that the business sector can be so much more creative about their work than artists? We artists are always looking at each other’s pricing, framing, work styles and career for cues, instead of inventing our own model. This can be changed, but not by looking at art world standards. The answer lies in re-inventing how artists can relate their work to the needs of the world. But true honesty is required, not the sentimental victim stance or ego hype that often shores up the artist in their daily life. Prices must be where buyers can cope with them and stop being a competition. We must stop looking at New York auction prices as relevant. Stop reading national magazines for clues to building our own careers. I liked this story because it points out how low most artists set their goals: each artist can, like Van Gogh, Giacometti or O’Keeffe, create their own revolution.
by Ed Pointer, Lindsborg, KS, USA
Sacrifice for others could also be added to the above. Jimmy sacrificed to get where he is today. When I think of the noble standards humankind has from its great philosophers and good people like Jimmy, life gains an extra dimension. There’s a slogan one of our local businesses use in its advertising: “In pursuit of excellence for over fifty years!” I’ve always wondered if they’ll ever catch up to it–excellence is so elusive. But all I have to do is step outside on a clear, winter night and look up at those billions and billions and billions of stars in our infinite universe and excellence becomes immediately visible. “Not failure but low aim is crime.” I could add my own to that: “Look outside the box.”
May it never be said
by Bev Ellis, Abbotsford, BC, Canada
Probably most individuals and artists alike have had a few moments like I was having this evening. I was overwhelmed by life, and its unending challenges, my ambitions and goals loftier than my achievements and time to get it all together to get there. Feelings of inadequacies were stopping me in my tracks. I was focusing on feeling like a failure even though I know deep down I’m not. I’ve had my share of failures and usually found ways to be positive and use each one as a learning experience, a stepping stone to get me to the next level. (I loved that Henry Ford quote.) Thankfully I have a spouse that gives me a good listening ear, encouraging words, and a balanced perspective. This is invaluable! Just like your timely letters. I will keep reaching for the stars, may it never be said that my aim was too low.
Free rent needed
by Michael Earney, Mexico
I am in Mexico, having had to move from my home of twenty two years due to the sale of the property. I decided that if I had to leave, then I would seek a better situation than I had: A large house on an expansive ranch, free of rent, far from neighbors but within easy reach of the capital of Texas, Austin. My druthers is an hacienda in Mexico, conforming to the other criteria, rent free, etc. I have been told repeatedly that such a thing is virtually impossible and I will admit to some doubts myself, but to settle for less doesn’t make sense. So I press on. I believe that most artists simply want a place where they can work without the headaches of earning a wage.
Many put art on the back burner
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I see so many artists and art related businesses i.e. galleries, frame shops/galleries try to get things going and fall short of their goals and dreams and quit. I see so many artists’ paintings get painted over and over because they gave up on the original painting and started again. It seems to me that most artists have set their expectations really high in the beginning, then reality sets in. Their art career didn’t take off right from the start, then self-doubt sets in. Their friends and families start questioning their worth, whether they need to get a real job or not. You lose support from them over a short period of time. Then you hear from the art community that you are not a true artist unless you make a total living from your art. You feel like a failure, most decide to find a job, maybe something related to the arts, maybe just a factory job. A lot of artists put their art on the back burner for a lifetime in many cases.
Do not waste your life
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
As I stood over the casket of my younger brother, stunned by grief and mired in my own personal funk of late, I looked at his face, and spoke to him with these words: “I know you were robbed of the rest of your life… I, in turn, will not waste the rest of mine.” I’m guessing here, but I think we’re a chosen lot, to be given the passion and ability to create art as though it were done through our hands, by the higher power. Conversely, I also think that we are expected to deliver a day earlier than we promised, and could we take 20% less for that piece? Some days I wonder if God created gallery owners in his own image, then decided he might have gone overboard, and created all the rest of us!
Cattle At Dusk
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Sidney Chambers of Heathfield, UK who wrote, “I am impressed that you find the time to write these letters and still keep the content at such a high level. I find them haunting at times, ironic at other times and frequently profound.”
And also F. Winifred Lewis who wrote, “Isolation can help in contemplation but forced for too long can lead us to despair. This morning found me feeling especially alone and sorry for myself. Your letter reconnected me with hope and love.”
And also Tony LeBaiguev of Hoddesdon, England who wrote, “A very positive and uplifting story for a cynical world — thanks for today’s letter — it reaffirmed my faith in humanity.”
And also oliver of Texas, USA who wrote, “Can a nasty, horrible person still produce good quality, uplifting and inspirational work?”
And also Kavita Mohite of India who wrote, “Today’s letter is wonderful. Today being my birthday, I accept it as my gift.” (RG note) Happy birthday, Kavita. Today is a birthday for everyone. It’s the first day of the rest of what each of us has been given.
And also Robert Wade of Australia who wrote, “I’m all for Jimmy and his Mum! Set your sights high! When you daydream don’t do it in black and white, see the future in Technicolour, Cinemascope and Stereophonic sound! My Dad always wrote in our autograph books: ‘Good, Better, Best, Never let it rest, Till your Good is Better and your Better Best!’ ”
And also Jerry Fuller of NH, USA who wrote, “May I suggest that, instead of ‘Failure’ as the title, perhaps ‘Greatly Begin’ would be in keeping with the theme. I also now hang Jimmy’s poem on my wall!”
And also Judith Berman of Cape Town, South Africa who wrote, “In the next minute or so, I will be printing that poem and giving it to my children. We’ll discuss it after the Karate lessons while eating cottage pie.”
And also Janine McIntire who wrote, “My grandma, who raised me, used to say that you haven’t failed until you give up. My own thought is: ‘The harder the struggle, the sweeter and more cherished the victory.’ ”
And also Peter William Brown of Oakland, CA, USA who wrote, “Robert, get out of your Bentley, walk on some dirt and take off your shoes.”