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What Michelangelo Can Teach Us About Careers

Updated: Feb 2, 2019

I remember the first time I laid eyes on the ceiling of Michelangelo’s, Sistine Chapel, 18 years ago. Being in the presence of such beauty and greatness is hard to describe. I had imagined that ceiling many times in my mind, but seeing it in person was a different experience altogether. Though the chapel was smaller than I had pictured, the colors in the frescoes were brighter and the depictions were more descriptive. I read a tourist guidebook that suggested bringing a small handheld mirror so you could see the paintings in the mirror’s reflection without straining your neck to look straight up. I tried that at first but quickly put it away – some types of beauty demand to be seen with the naked eye. Even if it means a sore neck.

That trip to Italy enkindled in me a fascination with the life and work of Michelangelo that continues to this day. I recently listened to a podcast about the Sistine Chapel and was struck by how much we can still learn from Michelangelo and his approach to work.

Everyone has transferable skills that can take them to them next level in their career. When Michelangelo was first approached to paint the Sistine Chapel, he balked at the idea. After all, he protested, he was a sculptor, not a painter. He looked down on painting. But he took on the assignment anyways and soon discovered that his sculpting skills made him a masterful painter as well. Because of his knowledge of how the body looked and moved, he was able to render the paintings on the walls of the chapel more realistically than his peers. In fact, most of his contemporaries were still painting in 2D while he blazed the trail into 3D. Michelangelo was able to transfer his knowledge of what made good sculptures into what made expressive paintings. So it is with modern day workers as well. All of us have skills and experiences that can translate to success in a new role – as long as we’re willing to step outside our comfort zone.

Sometimes we can benefit from some time-off. Michelangelo painted most of the Sistine Chapel between the ages of 33-37. When he was 61 years old, the Pope asked him to come back to add the painting of The Last Judgement. It is arguably the boldest and most dramatic painting in that space. Michelangelo had learned a lot in the time between painting the first frescoes of the chapel and creating The Last Judgement. Taking time off from a project or even stepping away from employment altogether for a period of time (either voluntarily or involuntarily) can give you additional perspective that may help inspire your future efforts.

Our best work comes when, what we do is a reflection of who we: Michelangelo was deeply religious. He intently studied the bible and often wove subtle religious symbolism into his paintings and designs. I would imagine that he saw his artwork as part of a higher calling – that he felt compelled to create depictions of religious figures and biblical stories as a way to express his own beliefs and faith. Almost all of my clients, even though they might not say it directly, are yearning for a vocation and not just a job. A vocation is when we feel strongly that the work we are doing is an expression of our self-identity. Listening for and answering our calling takes time, self-reflection and courage. But it’s always worth it.

In closing, the life and works of Michelangelo still reverberate today. And the lessons we can learn from his legacy are enduring. Great art doesn’t just happen. Neither does a great career. The most fulfilling careers require perseverance, perspective, risk-taking, and are intertwined with who we are at our deepest core.

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