In June 2004, Arno Rafael Minkkinen stepped up to the microphone at the New England School of Photography to deliver the commencement speech. He shared a simple theory that he maintains made all the difference between success and failure. He called it The Helsinki Bus Station Theory. From an article written by James Clear
Minkkinen was born in Helsinki, Finland, where in the center of the city there was a large bus station with about two dozen platforms laid out in a square. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read 21, 71, 58, 33 and 19. Each bus takes the same route out of the city for at least a kilometer, stopping at bus stop intervals along the way.
He continued, “Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of an – I insert here – artist. Meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of artistic activity. Ok, so you have been working for three years making work based on a specific technique. Call it bus #21.”
“You take those three years of work to someone knowledgeable in your chosen field and he/she asks if you are familiar with work of XX. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery and are reminded to check out the work of YY, bus 58, and so on. Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.”
Minkkinen goes on to say that once you realize that, you hop off the bus and take a cab and head straight back to the bus station to hop on to another bus and spend time making some different type of work. And repeat the story a few more times. So what to do?
His simple answer: Stay on the bus. Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference. The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line, but only for a while. Then they separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. It’s the separation that makes all the difference. And once you start to see the difference in your work from the work you so admire, it’s time to look for your breakthrough. Your vision takes off.
Why? Because you stayed on the bus. The key feature in the Helsinki Bus Station Theory is that it urges you to not simply do more work, but to do more re-work.
To continue the bus metaphor, the artists who get off the bus after a few stops and then hop on a new bus line are still doing work the whole time. They are so busy jumping from line to line in the hopes of finding a route nobody has ridden before that they don’t invest the time to re-work their old ideas. By staying on the bus, you give yourself time to re-work and revise until you produce something unique, inspiring, and great.
Failure is inevitable if you are a creator. We may respond to those failures by calling a cab and getting on another bus line in the hopes that the ride will be smoother. Instead, we should stay on the bus and commit to the hard work of revisiting, rethinking and reworking our ideas. You are the one to choose where your energy will be directed. Once you do … stay on the bus.
A long time ago, I chose to work with textiles and got on the bus. And yes, I’ve caught a few cabs and changed buses from time to time, but for a long while now, I’ve stayed on the same bus. The work I do reflects years of making, remaking, rethinking and reworking. I am still learning and evolving. The bus I’m on has refreshed the route and added a few more stops along the way and I’m enjoying the ride.
I hope you get on a bus and enjoy the journey. Until I write again, keep rethinking and making.