One of my favorite Pixar moments is in Toy Story 2, when Al asks the elderly toy cleaner about Woody’s repair: “How long’s it gonna take?”
And the cleaner frowns down his nose at the young upstart and says snobbishly, “You can’t rush art.”
So why does everyone hate Al (besides the fact that he’s a greedy, overweight, cheez-curl eating jerk) and love the obsessive cleaner who, like Al, declares that Woody is “for display only”?
A good deal of Al’s tackiness comes from the fact that he lives to make money. He complains about going to work, lies to get what he wants, and haphazardly slaps the rest of his life together on the go. Even though he’s the owner of a toy store, he clearly has no passion for it (he lives in an apartment marked, “No Children Allowed”) And because money is all that he wants, he can never get enough of it.
The cleaner on the other hand, loves his work. He doesn’t have to go on and on about how rewarding repairing collectables is. We can just tell. I often find myself wondering, in the famous scene with the cleaner, “Why does everyone love this part? Nothing happens.”
But something does happen. We see a man with passion. Does anyone need to clip a bib on a toy being cleaned, or polish his boots afterward? No. But the cleaner does, because he’s striving for excellence. Every detail is done with precision, after many years of practice.
I love this. Something about an old man caring about his work inspires me. But I’m not willing to do it myself.
You know why? Because it takes a long time to reach excellence, whether that’s developing a skill like learning an instrument, or working on a project, like editing a book (which is what I’m working on right now).
Sometimes I get a sense of entitlement. I’m a good writer, I think. Why is this taking so long? Why is it so hard?
The answer is simple: because most things in life that are worth doing are harder and more time-consuming than the alternative. Does it take longer to make bread from scratch—mixing it up, letting it rise, baking it—instead of buying a bag of it at the grocery store? Sure. But that’s not a good measure of whether the practice is worth it or not.
Recently, I was reading a book called Culture Making, and the author made the same point about the long, often tedious creative process. “It is possible to change things quickly for the worse . . . . The only thing you can do with Rome in a day is burn it.”
I love that. Sometimes life can feel like building Rome. Writing another exegetical paper. Spending that dreaded 30 minutes on the elliptical. Getting up early for church again. Brick by brick.
But we’re not trying to sloppily throw something together, like Calvin putting together a bug collection on the bus the day it’s due from whatever poor creatures happen to be dead nearby. We’re creating a masterpiece, and that can only happen if we live every detail of our lives like it matters.
Excellence is not some legalistic standard, something we do because we’re afraid or because God commands it like a distant general. Excellence is doing what we love, and doing it well, just like the cleaner.
So, the next time I wake up and don’t want to do whatever I need to do, or when I get frustrated with how much work a project turned out to be, I’ll probably still ask, “How long will it take?”
But then I’ll say to myself, in my best old, curmudgeonly voice, “You can’t rush art.”