Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

In Praise of Slow Mastery: 10 Great Achievements That Took Time

In an ideal world, the road from idea to reality is proven and predictable, with a distance made fathomable by visible benchmarks. But more frequently – especially in pursuit of less linear concepts like art, drastic innovation, or even paradigm shifts – time is mutable and you can’t project when completion will come.

Those middle moments, the grey areas between beginning and end, are the moments when we’re most prone to abandonment. As a tribute to those who stayed the course, we’ve assembled a list of labor-intensive creative achievements that depended on more than a few sunsets to reach their final destination.

Who: Junot Diaz
What: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
How Long: 10 years

After releasing his first book of short stories (Drown) to much critical acclaim in 1996, Junot Diaz dove into writing his first novel. But after a 75-page writing streak, he got stuck. For five years, Diaz sat down and wrote every day but he couldn’t write anything he was happy with. Yet, after a brief flirtation with giving up the writerly life, he plunged back in again. Then it still took him another five years to complete his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which went on to win a Pultizer. As Diaz puts it: “In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Who: Bruce Springsteen
What: “Born to Run”
How Long: 6 months for one song

After two dangerously overhyped albums, Bruce Springsteen faced high stakes as he went into the studio to record his third – it was time to make rock and roll history or give up the ghost. When he began recording Born to Run in 1974, Springsteen was spinning his wheels and seemed doomed to fail. But after almost a year in the studio – including an unheard-of six months of lyrical edits to the title track “Born to Run” – the album was finally released and the rest is history. In Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus called it “a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on [Springsteen.]”

Who: James Cameron
What: Avatar
How Long: 15 years

In 1994, James Cameron drew on “every science fiction book he had read” to pen an 80-page treatment of Avatar. Two years later, he announced his intention to begin filming the movie after the completion of Titanic. Though 1999 was the year originally intended for Avatar‘s release, Cameron soon rolled back the deadline, blaming underdeveloped technology. It wasn’t until 2005 that Cameron finally began working closely with artists and designers to visualize the characters and settings of the film. Four years and over $400 million later, Avatar went on to capture over two billion in box office sales and nine academy award nominations.

Who: Blu
What: MUTO animation
How Long: One summer, daily

Italian street artist Blu spent nearly every day of a summer painting (and re-painting and re-painting) a large-scale mural across the public walls and buildings of Buenos Aires, capturing each “frame” in succession. The resulting short animation film, MUTO – a real-life flip book sharing a story spread over city surfaces – has since gotten over 10 million views on YouTube, and extended Blu’s own artistic footprint to institutes like the Tate Modern in London.

Who: Julia Child
What: Mastering the Art of French Cooking
How Long: 10 years

With a resume that included copywriting, the development of shark repellant and the handling of “classified” documents, Julia Child was an even odder candidate for classical French cooking than many depictions let on. Her ten-year training and subsequent pre-publishing trials were made more complex by issues of era, culture and even team dynamics, making the immense success of her book launch both unexpected and immensely satisfying. Over forty years later, Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains as irreplaceable to the modern chef as it was to the aspirational gourmands of the 1950s.

Who: Christian Marclay
What: The Clock
How Long: 3 years

Artist Christian Marclay and a handful of assistants slaved away for over three years collecting and editing the 10,000+ film clips that make up his iconic installation, The Clock, a 24-hour video collage. Not surprisingly, Marclay was daunted by the sheer size of his own project at first: “I didn’t have the courage to get started, because I knew it would be an endless struggle.” After The Clock debuted at London’s White Cube Gallery in 2010, Newsweek named Marclay one of the ten most important artists of our time. In 2011, The Clock was also awarded a Gold Lion.

Who: Art Spiegelman
What: Maus
How Long: 11 years

Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a post-modern depiction of the Holocaust and Art’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew, was serialized for 11 years as an insert in the cartoonist’s own magazine, Raw. But after a decade+ of work, Spiegelman still struggled to find a publisher for the collection. Once he finally did, the book received rave reviews. Then in 1992, twelve years after the first comic was published, the complete Maus – now regarded as the first graphic novel – was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It was the first comic to ever receive such distinction.

Who: Scott Weaver
What: Rolling Through the Bay

How Long: 34 years

“I always had a dream that I would build the world’s largest toothpick sculpture,” says Scott Weaver, the mad scientist behind “Rolling Through the Bay” – a 9 feet tall, 7 feet wide and 2 feet deep model of San Francisco made entirely of toothpicks. Half art, half “out-of-hand pingpong ball experiment,” the rollercoaster-like sculpture took over 3,000 hours and 34 years to complete. It’s a fascinating study in the power of setting lofty goals and pursuing them no matter what it takes.

Who: John Roebling
What: The Brooklyn Bridge
How Long: 10 years

One of the 1800’s most significant – and drama-inducing – engineering innovations, the Brooklyn Bridge took more than ten years to complete. The victim of constant naysaying from skeptics and incessant technical setbacks, the construction of the bridge took the lives of an estimated 20-30 men, including the bridge’s architect, John Roebling. Yet, over 125 years later, the bridge still carries traffic across the East River daily, with only a few modifications to the original design to allow for modern transportation.

Who: Matthew Weiner
What: Mad Men
How Long: 7 years

Creator Matthew Weiner began pitching Mad Men in 2000, almost seven years before it finally went into production. Says Weiner, “A lot of people had read [the script], but it was also considered to be old. Like, why did everyone pass on this? Why is this material out there?” In 2007 AMC finally picked it up, giving Weiner full creative control in the process. Today, Mad Men and its cast have claimed 15 Emmys and four Golden Globes.

What Are Your Stories of Slow Mastery?

What long-term creative achievements have inspired you?

More insights on: Achievement, Perseverance

Carmel Hagen

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Carmel Hagen is the founder and CEO of Sweet Revenge Sugar Co., a company developing mindfully delicious alternatives to refined sugar. For creative kitchen inspiration and mixologist tips, follow Sweet Revenge on Instagram at @enjoyrevenge or visit
load comments (17)
  • Hal Halvorsen

    James Lee Burke –

    “His next novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected 111 times and was under submission for nine years” …

    The years that followed were a kind of hell for Burke. “I stayed out of hardcover print for 14 years. I couldn’t sell iced water in Hades. I don’t know how many books I wrote during that period, but I couldn’t sell any of them.”

  • Carmel Hagen

    Wow, great addition. Thanks Hal!

  • Scott Belsky

    Carmel- Great article – and very compelling examples. As you may know, our team has been building Behance for 6 years now, and we still feel like we’re only in the 1st inning (ok, maybe the 2nd)! Needless to say, the long-term vision for organizing and empowering the creative world is still a ways off…

    I remember learning about the Egyptian pyramids – some of which took multiple lifetimes to complete. Always found that amazing.

  • Christopher Dillon

    Thanks for an excellent post. Articles like this (and examples like Christian Marclay and the Muto video) are why I subscribe to this blog.

  • Mark Simchock

    As they say, “Good things come to those who wait.”

    That said, the key to the success here is not only the persistence but that these souls continue to live and build on their life experiences. That continuation, however unrelated as it might seem, became part of them and eventually contributed to the success of the final product. Some meals need to simmer, if you will.

    True failure is not just giving up. True failure is to surrender to a life without curiosity and growth – in spite of the shadow the mountain ahead might be casting on you.

  • Mister

    please, bo more cliche

  • Mark Simchock

    Mister (?) – Perhaps you missed the “As they say” bit? Just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean it has less meaning. Or more importantly, the irony in the current context that too often it is overlooked and/or forgotten. 

    If your only value add here is “please, bo more cliche” then perhaps you might want to rethink your definition of value add. Or put another way, you’re ruining a perfecting good thread. Go troll somewhere else.

  • sam hammer

    Perseverance is amazing bc sometimes we “get there” & didn’t even know it.


  • Carmel Hagen

    Multiple lifetimes, even with the aliens’ help ;)

    A longterm vision – defining and maintaining one – is a huge personal challenge of mine, I’m such a product of my short focus/disposable culture era. Loved working on this, if only to be reminded that we’re sometimes silly to think lasting impact is something that we can achieve via anything other than lasting dedication.   

  • Guest

    I would add the frieze of American History in the Rotunda.  It took 70+ years to complete, and three artists.

  • Joshua Bull

    This truly inspired me.

  • Chris McConnell

    I saw Scott Weaver’s work at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. It is quirky, and unusual, and masterful. I’d love it.

  • wall321
  • wes

    My favorite example of Slow Mastery is the Watts Towers.  Simon Rodia spent 33 years working by himself, holding down a full time job, and ignoring the abuse of his neighbors, to produce structures that still amaze.

  • Chris O'Shea

    I am surprised they did not use Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seed exhibit was not on this list – that was a few years of a thousand people grafting away to create the exhibit of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds!

  • L

    Philippe Petit the high wire artist and the 6 years it took to plan the Twin Towers crossing. In the film Man on Wire his passion and intensity are palpable.

  • nickjarvisart

    The Salt Lake temple for the LDS church in Salt Lake City, took 40 years to make.

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