Consider a painting by one of the European masters. Somehow you’ve discovered this painting in your grandmother’s attic. It’s worth a fortune, or so say the appraisers who come to your house to inspect it.
They’re going to take it away for auction, but before they do, you insist on keeping it on your mantle for a month. Every day you look at it with pride. This painting has been in your family for centuries! Soon it will bring you wealth, but first it brings beauty and elegance to your living room.
The painting is spectacular, with thousands of careful brush strokes and just the right blend of colors. The artist had clearly spent decades mastering his craft. Of the dozens of his paintings that were still known to exist, you sense that this was one of his favorites.
Except for one thing. Just off-center, in the midst of perfection, lies a single black spot. The spot isn’t huge, but it’s not tiny either. When you look at the painting, there’s no missing it. How did it get there? Surely, you think, it was a rare mistake. Perhaps the painter was tired at the end of a long day and accidentally splashed a dash of black in the midst of all the color. Or maybe some well-meaning apprentice came along later to retouch the painting and ended up making a mess.
The appraisers aren’t sure how the spot got there either, but they are adamant that nothing can be done to change it. This is part of the work, they say.
The black spot troubles you. When you head off for work in the morning, spotting to gaze at your masterpiece, your eyes go straight toward the spot. Why can’t we just cover that up?, you think.
One day, right before the appraisers return with the auctioneers to claim the painting, something changes. Before you leave for the day, you glance at the painting and then look back, hard. The painting itself hasn’t changed. The spot is still there. But the way you look at it is different.
With this new perspective, you realize that the error was yours, not the artist’s. The spot is there to disrupt the symmetry. It’s supposed to trouble you. It’s part of what makes the whole thing beautiful.
We create hardship and suffering for ourselves by attempting to control circumstances that are outside our control. Sometimes the spots are there for a reason, and not just as a warning to the body. The pain, the black spot, is there as a memory. It makes us who we are, and it may even make us better.
When you first notice the spot, you want to do anything you can to cover it up. Over time, you learn to appreciate its value. You don’t wear this pain on your sleeve all the time—you don’t point out the black dot on the painting to everyone you meet—but you don’t hide it either.
When the painting goes off to auction, you look forward to the reward you’ll receive for finding it in the attic. But you also remember that spot as you go about your days.
The spot disrupts the symmetry, but it also provides the meaning. @chrisguillebeau (Click to Tweet!)
Looking back, you realize how grateful you are for the thing that once brought you such discomfort.
Chris Guillebeau is the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness of Pursuit, The $100 Startup, and other books. During a lifetime of self-employment, he visited every country in the world (193 in total) before his 35th birthday. Every summer in Portland, Oregon he hosts the World Domination Summit, a gathering of creative, remarkable people. His new book, Born for This, will help you find the work you were meant to do.
Connect with Chris on Twitter, on his blog, or at your choice of worldwide airline lounge.
Image courtesy of Una Laurencic.