You probably heard that George W. Bush today unveiled 24 portraits he painted of world leaders at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
After you get past your What? Really?! surprise, you should follow the five lessons the former president’s newfound passion offers.
“I wanted to make sure the last chapters of my life were full,” Bush told his daughter, Today Show Special Correspondent Jenna Bush Hager. “Painting opened my mind.”
By becoming an impressive painter in his mid 60s, Bush demonstrates many of the key principles laid out in The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything by Josh Kaufman and The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.
5 Lessons From Painter George W. Bush
1. Don’t let your age stop you from learning a new skill. Bush said on Today that until two years ago, he “had never picked up a paintbrush.” His mother, Barbara, told Matt Lauer: “I never knew he liked art. He’s good!”
Speaking about her dad, Bush Hager told her Today Show colleagues: “It shows you’re never too old to learn.”
2. Don’t worry about becoming the best at what you’re trying to do. Kaufman draws a distinction between “rapid skill acquisition,” which is what Bush has done, and becoming a master at a skill.
“Rapid skill acquisition means being able to perform a skill at a certain threshold to get a certain result, Kaufman told me in an earlier Next Avenue blog post. “A huge expectation of mastering a skill is becoming extremely good, which makes it that much harder to get started.”
Kaufman advises setting a target performance level for yourself and then working to achieve it.
In his Today Show interview, the self-deprecating Bush told his daughter: “I’m not a great artist. I don’t want people to think I’m a great artist.” But, he added, “I want to get better.”
3. Don’t give up. “As adults, we have more responsibilities and commitments and tend to be way more self-conscious,” Kaufman had told me. “So when you dabble at something for the first time and it doesn’t go well, you say, ‘I’m not good at that, I’ll try something else.’ Adults don’t like to feel stupid. So that holds us back.”
Waitzkin says having a beginner’s enthusiasm is vital.
Bush, who says his painting inspiration came from Winston Churchill — the British Prime Minister took up the same hobby when he left office — started out with simple paintings of his dogs and landscapes. His persistence and dedication led to the new portraits of the likes of Tony Blair and the Dalai Lama.
4. Discipline yourself. The former president paints every single day in the art studio that was previously his man cave, according to Laura Bush. “He’s very disciplined,” she told her daughter on Today.
This type of persistence is key.
As Kaufman told me: “In the early hours of learning something new, it’s difficult and frustrating. So you want to make sure you practice long enough to break through that barrier and start seeing results.” Kaufman’s big on setting aside a specific time for your skill.
5. Learn from a pro. Bush began as an artist by sending “love note” drawings to his family that he did on his iPad. His wife Laura’s encouragement led him to hire an art instructor who he told: “There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body. Your job is to unleash him.”
None of the world leaders Bush painted have seen their portraits. Said Bush: “I’m sure when they heard I was painting them, if they had, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, I look forward to seeing a stick figure he painted of me.’”
After seeing his exhibit, The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, they won’t say that anymore.