The Proven Method for Creating Meaningful and Unique Work
Arno Rafael Minkkinen took the stage at the New England School of Photography to deliver the graduating speech in June of 2004.
Minkkinen delivered a simple hypothesis with the graduating students that, in his opinion, made all the difference between success and failure. It was dubbed The Helsinki Bus Station Theory by him.
The Theory of the Helsinki Bus Station
Minkkinen was born in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. A major bus terminal was located in the city’s heart, and he began his speech by describing it to the pupils.
“There are about two dozen platforms in a square in the heart of the city,” Minkkinen remarked. “A signposts the numbers of the buses that depart from each platform at the head of each platform. The bus numbers might be 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19 respectively. Each bus follows the same route for at least a kilometre out of town, stopping at bus stop intervals.”
“Now, let us say, again metaphorically, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” he said. The third bus stop, then, would be the culmination of three years of photography. So, you’ve been working on platinum nude studies for the past three years. It’ll be known as bus #21.”
“You bring those three years of work to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the curator asks if you’ve seen Irving Penn’s nudes. His bus, number 71, was also on the same route. Alternatively, you may take them to a gallery in Paris and remind them to look for Bill Brandt, bus 58, and other artists. You’re taken aback when you realise that what you’ve been doing for the past three years has already been done by others.”
“So you get off the bus, hail a cab — because life is short — and return to the bus terminal in search of another platform.”
“This time,” he continued, “you’re going to use a cherry picker crane to take 810 view camera colour photographs of folks lying on the beach.” You devote three years and three thousand dollars to it, and you produce a sequence of works that provoke the same response. Richard Misrach’s work isn’t well-known. Have you seen Sally Mann’s art if they’re hot black and white 8x10s of palm trees swaying off a beachfront?”
“So you get off the bus, grab a cab, and dash back to find a new platform. This continues throughout your creative career, with you constantly presenting new work and being judged against others.”
“Stay on the Bus” is a phrase that means “stay on the bus.”
Minkkinen took a breather. “What to do?” he questioned as he gazed out at the students.
He said, “It’s simple.” “Do not get off the bus. Continue to ride the f*cking bus. Because if you do, you will notice a difference over time.”
“The buses that leave Helsinki to stay on the same route for a short distance — maybe a kilometre or two. Then they start to split out, with each number travelling to its own destination. Bus 33 abruptly turns north. Take bus 19 to the southwest. Perhaps 21 and 71 dovetails for a time, but they soon split apart as well. “Irving Penn is on his way to somewhere else.”
Minkkinen stated, “It’s the separation that makes all the difference.” “And if you notice a gap between your work and what you admire — after all, that’s why you chose that platform — the time it’s to look for your breakthrough. Suddenly, people are taking notice of your work. Now that you’re working more independently, you’re able to distinguish more clearly between your work and the factors that inspired it. Your vision expands. And as the years pass and your work accumulate, reviewers will be captivated not only by what distinguishes your work from that of Sally Mann or Ralph Gibson, but also by what you did when you first started!”
“In fact, you reclaim the entire bus route. Vintage prints from the past two decades are suddenly revalued and, for what it’s worth, begin to sell at a premium. When the bus reaches the end of the line and the driver can get out for a smoke or, better still, a cup of coffee, the job is done. It may be the end of your career as an artist, or perhaps the end of your life, but your entire body of work is now in front of you, the early (so-called) imitators, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the concluding masterpieces, all stamped with your singular vision.”
“Why? You stayed on the bus because you didn’t want to get off.”
Keep your seat on the bus.
Is Consistency a Success Factor?
I frequently discuss how mastery necessitates consistency. Put in your reps, improve your average pace, and fall in love with boredom are all examples of this. These concepts are vital, but The Helsinki Bus Station Theory helps to clarify and separate several key elements that are frequently neglected.
Is it true that consistency leads to success?
Consider the situation of a college student. By this stage in their lives, they have most certainly spent over 10,000 hours in a classroom. Are they a whiz at memorising everything that’s thrown at them? Not in the least. The majority of what we learn in class is quickly forgotten.
Consider someone who spends each day at work on a computer. If you’ve been at your job for a long time, you’ve probably spent over 10,000 hours composing and responding to emails. Do you have the talents to write the next great novel, given all of this writing? Most likely not.
Consider the average person who visits the gym once or twice a week. This is something that many people have been doing for years, if not decades. Are they built in the same way that elite athletes are? Do they have superhuman strength? Unlikely.
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory’s main feature is that it encourages you to perform more re-work rather than just more work.
It’s Not the Work, It’s the Re-Work that’s the issue.
The average college student only learns a concept once. The finest college students constantly re-learn concepts. The average employee sends out one email every week. Elite novelists re-write chapters a number of times. Every week, average fitness lovers blindly repeat the same workout programme. The finest athletes regularly evaluate and improve their technique by actively critiquing each repetition. It is the modification that is most important.
To continue with the bus metaphor, photographers who get off after a few stops and then transfer to a different bus line are still working the entire time. They’re working towards their 10,000-hour goal. Rework, on the other hand, is something they don’t do. They are so preoccupied with bouncing from line to line in the hopes of discovering a new route that they do not take the time to rework their previous ideas.
As The Helsinki Bus Station Theory demonstrates, this is the key to creating something truly unique and great.
Staying on the bus allows you to rework and modify until you come up with something original, motivating, and fantastic. Only by staying on board can mastery become apparent. Show up enough times to get the mediocre ideas out of the way, and greatness will emerge every now and again.
The 10,000 Hour Rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which says that becoming an expert in a topic requires 10,000 hours of purposeful effort. What I believe we often overlook is the fact that purposeful practice leads to revision. You are not being deliberate if you are not paying close enough attention to revising.
Many people put in 10,000 hours of work. Only a small percentage of people put in 10,000 hours of editing time. Staying aboard the bus is the only way to accomplish this.
Which Bus Are You Taking?
In some way, we’re all creators. The manager who leads the charge for a new endeavour. The accountant devises a more efficient method of handling tax returns. The nurse comes up with a new technique to manage her patients. Of course, there’s the writer, designer, painter, and musician working hard to get their work out into the public. They’re all artists.
Any creator who attempts to advance society will be unsuccessful. We commonly respond to these failures by hailing a cab or transferring to a different bus line. Perhaps the travel will be more pleasant over there.
Rather, we should stay on the bus and devote ourselves to the difficult task of revisiting, reconsidering, and updating our thoughts.
However, in order to accomplish so, you must make the most difficult decision of all. Which bus are you going to take? What kind of life storey do you want to tell? What skill do you want to spend your time honing and refining?
How do you know what the correct response is?
You don’t have it. Nobody knows which bus is the finest, but if you want to reach your full potential, you must take one. One of life’s major tensions is this. It’s your decision, but you must make one.
Stay on the bus once you’ve done that.