Even Michaelangelo Got the Blues: What Bill Russell Taught Me About Craftsmanship

I like to write.

In addition to this blog, I like to write poetry and music and fiction. Lately, it’s mostly fiction.

And writing fiction is fun, but damn it’s a lot of work.

That said, I did state that one of my goals for 2017 is to get some of this writing published. And since I’ve backed myself into a corner, there’s really nothing left to do but push forward with it.

I would like to get some writing published in 2017. I have one novel in the hopper ready to go, another almost done, and my NaNoWriMo novel to finish (it turns out that 50,000 words represented the first half of my story).

One interesting thing I’ve discovered is that the writing itself, while time-consuming, isn’t the difficult part. What struck me is that the blood, sweat, and other substances that hard work brings out of you really flow during the revisions.

In other words, for the book I am working on now, revising the sucker is taking forever. Or at least it feels that way, even if the math doesn’t make sense. Let me explain:

It took me ten months of writing, plugging away between work and family and travel, to finish my first draft, the final period put in place this past January. At 800 pages, it actually only represents the third-longest thing I’ve ever written.

If you’re into word count as a metric, Microsoft Word puts it at around 168,000 words. Please do not ask me for any more statistics.

Okay, here’s one more: Since January, I have edited, revised, rewritten, deleted, rearranged, polished, and spit-shone 211 of those pages.

It sounds like I’m moving at a pretty good clip right? And I am. But why does it feel like it’s ten times harder than writing the damn thing in the first place?

It’s all relative, and at this rate I should be done with my second draft in a month. But let me tell you, the level of effort required to refine this book is intense.

But as I go through this second-pass at my book, a word keeps bouncing in my mind, a word that seems to perfectly encapsulate what I am doing and, most importantly, why.


Recall, if you will, that I wrote about my growing disinterest in professional sports not too long ago. But just because I’m not watching sports on a regular basis doesn’t mean I can’t admire great athletes and the lessons that they teach.

One of my sports heroes is actually a thinker who just so happened to be really tall and ended up playing basketball: Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell.


Mr. Russell is an incredibly interesting man. While he was not the first black athlete drafted in the NBA (that would be Chuck Cooper, drafted by, ahem, the Boston Celtics in 1950), Russell broke many other color barriers, including being the first black coach in NBA history–a role he performed while also playing.

But Russell isn’t famous only for his civil rights work. He is also famous for being one of the most successful winners in sports history: In the 13 seasons he played, he won 11 championships, including an unmatched run of 8 in a row. He also completely revolutionized the game of basketball, single-handedly changing the way the game was played, particularly on defense.

He was also a damn good scorer and gobbled up a hell of a lot of rebounds.

Anyway, as if the guy wasn’t gifted enough, Bill Russell is also smart as hell. He’s well-known among basketball fans as being one of the smartest people ever to play the game. Seriously, he’s like a basketball philosopher-cum-scientist who can dissect the game in ways you never thought possible.

But more germane for our purposes, he is adept at relating the game of basketball and the lessons he learned playing it to life.

In 2001, Russell wrote a book called Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the Twentieth Century’s Greatest WinnerI remember my father, himself a fan, buying me a copy when it came out and telling me that, if there ever was a professional athlete to read a book by, it was Russell.

And let me tell you, the lessons of this book have stayed with me sixteen years later, particularly  Russell’s emphasis on craftsmanship, the idea that, to be a leader, you need to be good at what you do. And how do you get good?

You are always learning, you are always practice intelligently and with purpose, and you are always making yourself an example for others:

Rule One: Learning is a daily experience and a lifetime mission. I truly believe in the saying “We work to become, not to acquire.” The more I learned, the more I knew I had to learn. In fact, as part of your daily experience I think it is critical to understand why you are succeeding and build on it. For example, I never watched film of what I did wrong. I always watched films of games where I played well so I could learn more about what I did to help the team win that game. In college, K.C. Jones and I worked on not only being the best in the country, we worked on being as astute as we could possibly be. The basketball court became our classroom, workroom, and laboratory. Whether it was learning how to force a certain shot that would result in a certain rebound angle, or how certain players would likely act in game situations, we wanted to understand the game at a level other players before-and I am not sure since-never approached.

Rule Two: Craftsmanship and quality are never an accident. Craftsmanship is the result of sincere effort, principled intentions, intelligent direction, and skillful execution. It could be said that craftsmanship represents the highest choice of many alternatives.

Rule Three: Make craftsmanship contagious. Players on great teams learn from each other. The lifetime of experiences we bring to each relationship is a gift to be shared. An entire team working to be the best will be the best.

Learning . . . quality . . . sincere effort . . . principled intentions . . . intelligent direction . . . skillful execution . . .

Just because you’ve mined a gem does not mean that the gem is ready to be presented to the world. It needs cutting and polishing to reveal its true form.

Iron needs to be refined into steel. Why would words, which can be as powerful as any other man-made substance, be any different?

And so with Mr. Russell’s own powerful words still reverberating within , I continue my quest to craft my writing into a form that I would be proud to share with the world. As Bill Russell puts it:

Learning should be a daily experience and a lifetime mission. Michelangelo said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.” I always believed if Michelangelo felt that way, then I would always strive for the best because anything else would not be enough.

Oh yeah. 

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4 thoughts on “Even Michaelangelo Got the Blues: What Bill Russell Taught Me About Craftsmanship

    1. The Daytime Renegade says:

      You know, even if you’re not into sports at all, it’s a great read.

      But if you *are* a Celtics fan, or a basketball fan in general, it’s a little extra-sweeter.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Better/Best
    I enjoyed reading your post. I can identify with the “it takes forever” frustration. I find thoughts on purpose and craftsmanship do keep me on task…plugging away at the longer projects. One explanation for the exponentially greater time difference between rough draft and the polishing is the great amount of effort used. I often use this little gem once spoken to me by a very wise friend, “The difference between Good and bad is relatively easy. But it is the deciding between better and best that is most difficult.”
    I myself HAD to give away my paintings because if they remained in my home I would continue to find something I should have done better. But a professor helped me with that perfectionism while I did work for head of a university graphic arts department. He essentially said, “remember you are working for the client, if it is meeting their requirements it IS “good enough”; your additional efforts and striving to make it even better is overkill & wasted effort.”
    Too many wood carvers who began with the goal of making a table have ended up with a footstool because they didn’t recognize the proper time to set aside the saw, hammer and chisel.
    I pray that you are able to overcome the futility of chasing the ceaseless “it could be better” and instead give yourself the gift of being truly satisfied with “that’s good enough”.
    Best regards, Ellen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Daytime Renegade says:

      Thank you for the comment Ellen, and the inspirational words!

      I definitely struggle with the perfection beast, but the thing with rough drafts is that sometimes they’re *really* rough.

      Also, with writing, as with many other things, more often than not your first impulse or idea isn’t the best. Neither is the second. This “digging down” is what tends to take me the most time, turning a pedestrian sentence or turn of phrase into something that has more life, more rhythm. This is of course in addition to those pesky little things like “plot holes” and “continuity errors.”

      I will take what you wrote to heart, as that better/best distinction sums up what we all must do to actually “let go” of whatever it is we are working on.

      Thanks again.


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