Genius is a miracle of birth, a fluke, a providential consequence of serendipity, isn’t it? Michelangelo, Freud, Dickens, Confucius, Mozart, Fitzgerald, Laozi. They, and many others, were surely just fortunate freaks. Genius is not something you can cultivate, or is it? The truth of the matter is that these individuals, and just about anyone else who has achieved and kind of success in any field, had a very strict routine. That routine may have been eccentric and some, like Benjamin Franklin, may have spent a lifetime trying to perfect it, but it remained routine nonetheless.
Poet W. H. Auden (1907-73) scheduled his life with military precision. Visitors to his house noted his constant glances at his watch: when dining, writing, shopping, and even during the mailman’s daily visit. In 1958 he wrote that “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition”, believing that disciplining time was the surest way to discipline passions and ensure good work. He was also dismissive of night owls, calling them “Hitlers of the world”, and advocating early nights as well as early starts. However, as part of what he referred to as the “chemical life”, Auden sustained this schedule with the consumption of barbiturates and substantial quantities of alcohol for over twenty years until their effects wore off. In his opinion, these substances, along with coffee and tobacco, were “labour-saving devices”.
Artist Francis Bacon (1909-92) also developed a reputation for hedonistic excess over the course of his career, drinking gargantuan quantities of alcohol, partaking of numerous rich meals each day, didn’t take care of himself (his only exercise was pacing in front of the canvas) and surviving on very little sleep (partly because he suffered from torturous insomnia). Yet even he was essentially a creature of habit. No matter how late he went to bed the night before, Bacon always rose with first light and went straight to his easel. The work always came first, he believed he was at his best in the morning, and he rarely failed to take advantage of that time. Even if he spent the rest of the day boozing and carousing with an astonishing diverse and distinguished coterie, the work of the day was always done.
Philosopher and activist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) cultivated a routine, which became so ingrained that she often found herself growing bored and uncomfortable during her annual summer vacations. Beauvoir scheduled her life around her work, rejecting all parties and receptions as bourgeois and instead preferring to attend political or intellectual gatherings. If that hasn’t convinced you then we will be revisiting this theme in the coming weeks and months, looking at how other pioneers from the pinnacles of their professions made time and got down, each and every day, to work.
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