from Rembrandt to Jack Daniels – doing vs. wanting to do

Nikola: “Hey, there’s an exhibition of Rembrandt’s work in Zagreb, wanna go?”

me: “I don’t listen to hip-hop.  Yeah ok, but it’s not like I’ll understand it.”

Nikola: “Yeah, me neither, but can’t we at least give it a try?”

True. And besides, I’ve been having a growing desire to understand art. Until recently I was pretty much part of the “What’s the big deal with Mona Lisa anyway?” crowd. Ok, I still am. I’d like to understand art, enjoy it etc. but I don’t really know how. All of my attempts to get to know art had ended in my looking at paintings and going “Oh look, a naked lady, drawn nicely. Oh, a guy sitting very still, thankfully not naked, drawn nicely. Booooriiing”.  I’ve never felt the je ne sais quoi you’re supposed to feel when in front of a masterpiece.

And don’t get me started on abstract art.

However, after a few years of an on and off relationship with drawing, combined with an awesome high-school art teacher, my art sense finally started tingling. It’s not something I can really express in words, other than, well, I’d really like to stand in front of a large picture and finally understand that je ne sais motherfucking quoi.

So, off I went to Zagreb.

A little back-story. Nikola, who invited me, is a friend I’ve known since we were kids. Since he’s from Split, our friendship for the most of our lives was  “that cool dude I see once or twice a year” i.e. whenever I go to visit my mom’s family from Split.

That was until one december evening of 2005 when we were chatting and he suggested we could walk across Spain. I took him up on the offer, and next summer we spent one month walking some 800 km, from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. It was an amazing experience, and one of a number of examples of Nikola and me motivating each other to, simply put, do things.

Because Nikola is one of those people who do things. If they want to do something (and they often do), they usually make it happen. Spain is one example. Another is a several thousand miles long trip across land and sea from Croatia to Japan (Croatian only, but lots of nice pics). Or a group of creative people he organized which made several satirical and Monty-Pythonish sketches which were a small sensation in Croatia (homepage is in Croatian only).

A lot of people have ideas. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a road-trip?”. “I have the bestest idea for a best-selling book ever” “Being an interpreter is awesome, all I have to do is learn 4 languages.” And stuff like that.

However, when it comes to making those things happen, it’s oh so easy to postpone them. “I’ll start tomorrow, honest.” “I don’t have the time now, I have to study for exams.” “It’s not like I really wanted to do that anyway.” And stuff like that.

I’m incredibly lucky to know several people who aren’t like that at all, who actually do what they say they want to do, Nikola being one of them. I also count myself among them. Yes, I have a ton of plans and ideas, and a lot of them never see the light of day, but quite a few of them do. And I always try to keep myself in “doing shape”.

This means that more often than not, I’ll do something just for the sake of doing it. Doing that test was one example. This trip to Zagreb was another. I had several reasons not to go, but i decided to go anyway, to also, as I said, keep my traveling and “doing” muscles in shape. And yes, I want to get into art, and it’s not like you can see Rembrandt’s work every day.

I arrived in Zagreb around 1 PM. Nikola and his girlfriend Bruna were waiting for me at the station. We grabbed a quick cup of coffee and around 2 PM we were at the museum. Which closes at 2 PM. Because it is Sunday. And it doesn’t work on Monday. And I’m going back to Belgrade on Monday.

Great.

So we go to grab something to eat. At one point Nikola says he has to go and see “this crazy, brilliant friend of mine.”

“Crazy?” I asked.

“Well, let me put it this way. So far we’ve been out for drinks three times. The first time we ended up at the police station, the second time we ended up in Austria, and the third time when I woke up I realized we co-founded a company.”

So he goes to see this guy, and Bruna and me wait for him at a cafe. I’m a bit disappointed that I missed Rembrandt, but overall I’m happy I came to Zagreb – as I said, it’s always good to strech the doing muscle, because if you don’t pretty soon it becomes so easy for all your rational excuses to kill every chance of doing something new.

So, I’m looking forward to a nice quiet evening of talking over drinks, when Nikola arrives with Damir, the friend he did the Croatia-Japan trip with, and his crazy, brilliant friend, Andjelko. “We’re going for drinks!” he says happily.

Andjelko is driving us there. He’s laughing. Loudly. We park, and cross the street. He blocks the incoming traffic with his hands, like a policeman. The cars  honk, but he doesn’t seem to care. He’s’ just laughing. Loudly.

We sit at a table. Nikola and I had a talk earlier that day about whiskey, so I suggest we order some.

Andjelko: “Good idea! Waitress, have you got some good whiskey?”

Waitress: “Well, we’ve got Jack Daniels and…”

Andjelko: “Excellent! Give us 5 shots! No, wait, why don’t you bring the whole bottle?”

This is not something you normally do, either in Serbia or in Croatia. Whiskey bottles in cafes are expensive.  The rest of us, possibly including the waitress, say: “Er, heheh, is that really necessa…”

“Oh come on, bring the whole damn thing! And 5 bottles of Coke! It’s all on me” says Andjelko, without even blinking.

So the waitress brings a whole bottle of Jack Daniels. We drink and talk, and the room echoes with our laugh er, and trembles from Andjelko’s.

I drink a bit too much too quickly, so I keep quiet for a while, trying to regain my concentration and observing Andjelko a bit, while he’s talking with everyone else. Nikola gave me some back-story on him. Dropping out from college, Andjelko started from scratch and in several years he created the most successful company in Croatia in that line of work. So, yeah, he’ got money. One of the things he does with it is buy forests. Yes, forests. In one of them he’s planning to build a tree-house where he’ll spend several days a week relaxing. I can already see the squirrels and small birds dropping from the trees, stunned by the frequency of his laughter.

But pretty soon I’m beginning to grow fond of that laughter, and of Andjelko in general. Somehow you can’t avoid it. He has this constant, infectious I-feel-fucking-awesome aura and you feel guilty if you’re not being both hysterically happy and extremely smart next to him.

Because he’s also very, very smart. The constant laughter makes you think he’s some crazy guy who got lucky and hit it big with one good idea, buy pretty soon you realize that’s not the case. There were several moments when he would suddenly get serious, and his smile would all but disappear. His eyes, always ablaze, would focus on you like two lasers, and, talking in an almost zen-like calm voice, he would say incredibly lucid, insightful and original stuff. One of the ideas for marketing one of his products, which he shared with us that evening, is so fucking brilliant, I can’t wait for it to happen. I can’t tell you about it, but don’t worry, you’ll know when it happens.

Andjelko orders another bottle of Jack Daniels. We continue drinking, aggressively. My self-imposed abstinence from all fizzy drinks goes down the drain, or should I say glass. Jack and Coke together are nice.

Andjelko: “… so anyways, Nikola, you should really listen to TED talks, they’re…”

I almost spill my drink: “Wait wait wait, did you just say TED talks? You listen to TED talks?”

Andjelko: “Yeah, they’re awesome! Probably the best one was that guy who talked about education, what was his name…?”

me: “Ken Robinson! I just read his book!”

The man loved TED talks and Ken Robinson. Combined with all the whiskey in me, the joy I felt was the sort of sincere one you might remember from kindergarten after finding out that both you and your new friend liked the Green Power Ranger the most – without blinking you became best friends forever.

I start babbling excitedly about Robinson’s work, not noticing that I’m drinking even faster. I feel the effects in a few minutes. I excuse myself from the table.

I’m on my knees in the toilet, puking my guts out. Even though it’s been a few years since I last puked because of alcohol, I feel strangely calm while I do it, almost mechanically. It’s just something that has to be done, and doing it on the table in front of everyone is a bit of a faux pas.

The critical, cynical part of my conscience, which I think never, ever sleeps, doesn’t skip the chance to taunt me:  “Oh look, isn’t this the high-point of this wonderful, bright day of your new art-loving life? You went to see Rembrandt and instead you’re puking your lunch in some bar’s toilet. Aren’t you so proud of yourself? No doubt there’s some deep, abstract point in all this!”

I go back to the table and we talk some more. When it’s time to go, Andjelko pays for the drinks, and we go our separate ways. My head is reeling from everything we talked about, from Andelko himself and, yes, from all the alcohol.

I wake up the next morning at 6 AM, and I can’t get back to sleep. My head is strangely clear. I feel calm, but there’s also the tiniest feeling of dread, as if something horrible also happened.

I search my memory from last night and I try to analyze that feeling. It’s strange; the whole evening was awesome, apart from the puking, and even that didn’t feel that bad. And yet, I feel like a bit like Dorian Gray, as if I did something which has left a scar on me, on my soul; a small scar, so small I think I’ll never see it, but secretly I know it doesn’t have to show on my skin in order for me to know it’s there.

And then it in a way hits me. I recall a thought that came to me last night, while remembering Nikola’s talk about his adventures with Andjelko. At one point I went into that “I can fucking do anything” mode. The alcohol, the talks, the atmosphere… I now realized why Nikola did all those things with Andjelko and why after a night out they ended up in fucking Vienna. At that moment I was prepared to do anything. If they said, let’s but a train ticket to Ukraine, they would have had to race me to the fucking train. It was that feeling when you know you can do anything, because the consequences aren’t really that important, and even if they are, they’re sooo worth it.

The world becomes your playground. Rules don’t really matter anymore. But taking that feeling too far carries the danger of, in a way, reaching into the dark side of the “doing things” philosophy. You feel like you can do anything, but that feeling of freedom also becomes very destructive. So why don’t you, say, try driving drunk with your eyes closed? No, we didn’t do that, but I think I really wouldn’t have objected to it that much if they asked me to join them. And that realization terrified me.

I think what also gripped me was the feeling a really good chess player feels next to a grandmaster. Yes, you’re really good, but he’s the fucking grandmaster, and you simply cannot keep up with him.

That’s what being next to Andjelko is like. He’s extremely smart and his brains and lots of hard work have made him very successful, but they also made him a “heavy-weight doer”. It’s almost impossible to keep up with him and his way of life, even though you desperately want to. You simply haven’t done all the stuff he has. And waking up the next day also means hitting the low after a really awesome high – you go back to your “normal” life.

And then another realization hit me: “But that’s ok. He’s in his late 20s, early 30s. He’s had a lot more time than you to become what he is. You can even be a chess prodigy, but you can’t compete with a talented guy who has twice the amount of experience you’ve got. So where’s the rush? You’ll get there.”

Nikola, as I said, is a doer too, and it was all by his own choices. He decided to walk across Spain, he decided to reach Japan by land, he decided to make those comedy sketches. And whenever he decided to do something, he would sit down, plan it out and do it. It meant sacrificing some other things, but life is always about sacrifice. By making a choice, you must also make a choice not to do or be something.

Unfortunately, a lot of people make a subconscious choice not to do things, because it’s easier and safer like that. And then they complain that life isn’t fun or fulfilling or whatever. Why can’t it be fun, but without any risk or consequences or hard work involved?

Nikola has chosen to do things, instead of just waiting for things to happen to him. A consequence of all that is that he has reached that state of being to which that old curse can be applied: “May you live in interesting times”. Now he practically attracts crazy people and situations into his life. He met Andjelko not because he was a good student of geodesy, but because of his trip to Japan, which attracted Andjelko’s attention. The other day he was sitting in a cafe, typing something on his laptop, when some guy approached him and told him “Look, I’m going to fucking destroy VIP (the mobile network operator), and I need people to help me. Do you want to be a part of this?”. Nikola said no, of course.

But he did give him his card.

Because, I’m guessing that there’s a part of you that’s always talking to you, with a Heath Ledger’s grin,  over your shoulder “Oh come on, wouldn’t it be fun to do that? You know, just blow some shit up?”

Listening to that voice is what makes life a lot more amazing, and you should wake it up. And nurture it.

Sure, it takes time and effort. But actually, sometimes all it takes is making a decision – making the first step. Even if at the time it seemed wrong or uncomfortable or whatever. Even if it means it will fail horribly.

Because sometimes it will. Actually, whatever you choose to do, you will make an incredibly stupid mistake at some point. But that’s ok. You make mistakes and learn from them. If you’re not prepared to fuck it up horribly, it wouldn’t be worth doing, right?

So, nurture and heed that voice. Just be careful when you listen to it while you’re really, really drunk.

edit: Before putting Andjelko’s name, I used a fake one, Josip, until I got his permission. Bear this in mind when reading the comments, which I didn’t change, to avoid confusion about who’s Josip.

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12 Responses to “from Rembrandt to Jack Daniels – doing vs. wanting to do”

  1. Damn, this is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve read in years.

    • Thanks 🙂 Inspiring people was the main idea, and I think it’s always more effective when you combine it with examples from real-life

  2. accent is on action.
    for sure, Josip is decision-guy, and probably that”s the way he succeded in what he is doing.
    he tried,failed; smartly improved his values and actions,became counscious of failures, and went on.
    ted is inspiring people in the way people on ted are talking about ideas,values projects…. which have constantly been improved in that way…..
    try to make action, and do it publicly, people like josip are waiting to support you, i am sure…..

  3. I think you’re right about everything you said about Josip. Without action, without being prepared to do things and make mistakes and learn from them and change and improve yourself, real success is impossible.

    TED really is something amazing, and I’m so glad they’re sharing the speeches with the whole world. It is a constant source of inspiration for me and it has really raised my criteria when judging other ideas/speakers etc.

    As for my actions, I will of course do them publicly, and post them on this blog, among other places, as soon as they are ready; so far I’m really happy with the way things are going. And yes, it’s been amazing how you can find support/ideas/people in unexpected places… I’m doing a post about that, so check my blog in a few days 🙂

  4. Jack Daniels and Coke is naaaaasty 🙂

  5. Now now, always rely on yer gut feeling :D..well, your gut is probably pissed off for the jack/coke mix.

    Added this site to favourites.

    Listen to the 2 latest Morrisey albums. You’l love em’

  6. i had to read this motivation text again, it being a starting point of my japan 😀 and yes, it really was awesome that night in zagreb (and yes, no jack daniels for me since then) 😀

  7. I’m so glad that you’re going to Japan, and that this text was one of the reasons for that! 🙂 Have a wonderful journey and drink one sake for my sake over there 🙂

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