Illustration: Ashley Siebels
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When a young Michelangelo Buonarroti approached Domenico Ghirlandaio, the famous Florentine artist, he must have had a lump in his throat.
The boy was barely a teenager and about to ask one of Florence’s most fashionable painters to train him. What’s more, his father Lodavico was pressuring him into being the family’s sole breadwinner, which did not jibe with his own ambitions of becoming a sculptor.
In a monumental moment for both men, the aspiring artist met his elder with what must have been a combination of both fear and respect. Many young Florentines would have been honored to even meet the man, but the boy wanted more.
As the story goes, Michelangelo not only asked for an apprenticeship but had the audacity to request compensation.
This was outrageous. In the Renaissance, apprentices did not get paid. If anything, they paid their way through their education. Anyone in Ghirlandaio’s studio witnessing the event would have stared at the boy’s request with abject horror.
Whatever the master must have felt — at first outrage and maybe then amusement — he surprised everyone, maybe even Michelangelo, by accepting the offer. The boy got to work and quickly learned to paint under the tutelage of his new master.
It was about a year or two later that Michelangelo left the studio of Ghirlandaio to continue his apprenticeship in the Medici palace at the personal request of Lorenzo de Medici, one of the wealthiest art patrons at the time.
And thus, a star was born.
Don’t wait for your big break
Stories like this often get dismissed as happy coincidences. Serendipity. We tend to think of what happened to Michelangelo as a “Big Break,” that wonderful moment when someone discovers your talent and makes all your dreams come true.
Many of us wait for such a moment, and when it doesn’t come we assume it was never meant to be. And everything about that assumption is wrong.
As Walter Matthau once said to a young actor who had recently moved to Hollywood and was waiting for his Big Break: “Kid, it’s not the one big break. It’s the fifty big breaks.”
It’s not the one big break that counts. It’s the fifty breaks.
As I wrote in Real Artists Don’t Starve, the Big Break is a myth. Something we tell themselves out of laziness and fear of the work ahead. If Big Breaks do happen, we’d be better off not counting on them and focusing on what we can control — the work.
So what should we do if not wait for our Big Break? We should do what Michelangelo did. We should practice, and we should prepare.
Practice when no one’s watching
Long before entering Ghirlandaio’s studio, Michelangelo was practicing. He was not waiting for his Big Break; he was doing the work. Before he was an actual apprentice, he was acting like an apprentice.
That meant learning from whomever he could from. He knew he wanted to be an artist and that he could not become great on his own, no matter how talented he might be. No amount of natural ability can compete with diligent practice. So the boy used the opportunities that were available to him.
Michelangelo had cousins who worked in a nearby quarry every day. In fact, he was raised by this family for a short time in his youth. This allowed him the chance to familiarize himself with stone, a skill that would be invaluable to him later in life as a sculptor.
He adopted the attitude of a student, learning from anyone who could teach him. So when an opportunity came, he would be ready.
That’s what being an apprentice is all about: not just making big asks but taking the work seriously from the beginning. What will make you stand out from the crowd is not just the audacity to ask but the humility to learn.
What will make you stand out from the crowd is not just the audacity to ask but the humility to learn.
All that practice paid off, because in no time, Michelangelo began to stand out amongst his peers. Soon, he was being recommended by Ghirlandaio to study under Bertoldo di Giovanni, an Italian sculptor who had studied under the great Donatello.
That simple move to the palace changed the young artist’s fate forever. But it never would have happened had he not been practicing the whole time.
If you wait for your Big Break, when it comes, you will squander it. We can’t control when or how these moments come; but we can be ready for them — first by practicing, then by making the most of them.
Prepare for lucky moments
So if Big Breaks don’t exist, does this mean we should rule out the role of luck in success? Of course not.
We all get lucky at some point, sometimes without realizing it until after the fact. But luck is a fickle friend. As soon as you find her, Lady Luck will leave you when you need her the most.
Luck is a fickle friend and unfaithful mistress. As soon as you find her, Lady Luck will leave you when you need her the most.
You can’t count on luck. What you can do, however, is prepare for the likelihood that good fortune will visit you at some point.
In his book Great by Choice, author Jim Collins compares the performance of enduringly great companies to average companies. Collins demonstrates that the more successful companies had about the same amount of “luck” (defined as unlikely but fortunate events) as less successful companies.
What separated the successes from the failures was the fact that the successful companies got a “return on their luck” and the unsuccessful ones did not. In other words, they did something with the opportunity they had.
Opportunities come — either by putting ourselves in the right place at the right time or simply by sticking around long enough. But good opportunities lead to great work when we make the most of them.
When Lorenzo asked Ghirlandaio what two apprentices he should bring into the palace, the painter recommended two artists: Michelangelo and a friend. But history only remembers one — the one who used his opportunity and leveraged it for a lifetime of creative success.
In the palace, Michelangelo was educated alongside the Medici children who would eventually become popes and princes and wealth art patrons. He befriended them, and apparently the friendship paid off.
After leaving the palace, Michelangelo began earning ten times what other artists of his era were making. He would go on to become the wealthiest artist of his time, earning a fortune worth nearly $50 million today.
This doesn’t mean you can plan or orchestrate these moments. You can’t. But if you work hard and understand that luck comes to us all, you can be ready to get a return on your luck.
Lastly, be patient
Few things in life come easy. And if they do, they rarely stay. So plan for the work, not the break. Because you can control that. Just be prepared to be invisible for a while.
Because nobody notices you when you’re getting up at five a.m. for an entire year to write on a blog no one reads.
Nobody cares about you when you’re doing free gigs in dive bars seven days a week just for the exposure.
And nobody sees you pulling all nighters just to get the website working.
Except of course, when they do. When the hard work pays off and people tell you how you just “came out of nowhere.” But by then, it’s too late. The myth is already born.
Now, you have thousands of fans, and people tell you that, kid, you’re a natural. And of course, you agree with them, because it feels good.
Be prepared to be invisible for a while.
But you did not come out of nowhere. You came from the same place they did. You just didn’t stay there. You didn’t take a leap. You built a bridge. You put yourself in the right place at the right time and did the work.
You didn’t wait for luck. You looked for it. You practiced and prepared for those opportunities. And when the time was right, you were ready to make the most of whatever chance you got.
Of course, that took time. Maybe it’s still taking time. For now, you are patient, focusing on what you can control. It’s a slog, but a beautiful one and in the end will be worth it.
Good things come to those who work
So now you know. There are no Big Breaks, only tiny drips of effort that lead to waves of momentum. The harder things are, the longer they last, and the more you appreciate them.
We can’t wait for luck. But we can prepare for it, understanding that there will be many lucky — and unlucky — breaks throughout our lives. But it’s not luck that leads to success. It’s perseverance.
It’s not luck that leads to success. It’s perseverance.
The choice, then, is up to you. Finding your fifty breaks will not be easy or quick, but if you persevere, it will happen.
Your job is to show up and do your work consistently and well enough that it’s worth noticing. Practice, prepare, and be patient.
Good things grow over time with care and intention. Don’t wait for your Big Break. Recognize the one you already have. And make the most of it.
The world is waiting (but you shouldn’t be).
Bonus: You can listen to my interview with Caleb Rexius, a videographer, where he talks more about this idea of making your big break.
Ready to do the work and get noticed?
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This article first appeared on Medium.