closeThe overwhelming way: Head down forever and hope there will be a big payoff at the end.

The problem: The finish line always seems like it’s miles away. You spend 99% of your time anxious and only experience joy at the end (if ever). Sometimes you’re so intimidated by the idea, you give up.

A more soothing approach: Break what you’re doing into smaller, incremental units. Then you get to celebrate each step of the way instead of waiting until the end.

Artist Chuck Close is someone who chooses this approach. He’s famous for his portraits of faces despite suffering from prosopagnosia — aka face blindness. He overcomes this by working in incremental units. He uses a pixilated approach to painting that turns faces into a grid of individual squares. In this interview, he explains why.

The fact that there are incremental units is driven by my learning disability. I was overwhelmed by the whole. How am I going to make a head? How am I going to make a nose? It’s too overwhelming. It makes me too anxious. But if I break it down into a lot of little decisions…

This was a coping mechanism I used all throughout school and everything that I did. Take something overwhelming and anxiety provoking and make it into little, not-so-scary decisions and have it be a positive experience. Because every time I completed a square, I didn’t have to wait until the end to get pleasure. I could solve one little problem at a time and the pleasure came with each one of those.

Solve one little problem at a time and you get a steady IV drip of pleasure. And that’s great motivation to keep going.

Another money quote from Close: “I’ve always thought that problem-solving is highly overrated and that problem creation is far more interesting.” Perhaps that explains why he’s moved away from his 3D weakness and focuses on “problems” that exist in the flat realm, where he excels.

In real life, if you move your head a half-an-inch, to me, it’s a whole new face I have never seen before. But if we flatten it out, I have — and I take photographs — I work from photographs, and I make flat things called paintings and prints. I have virtual photographic memory for anything that is flat. And I want to commit them to memory. And the only way I can really do that is to flatten them out, scan them, make these — make these drawings and paintings and prints. And then they enter the — my memory bank in a different sort of way.

Neat to see how, by working in 2D, he redefines the task and overcomes his weakness.