The true value of a Picasso

There is a fable about Spanish artist Pablo Picasso that goes along these lines.

Picasso was sitting on a park bench when a young woman came up to him and asked, “Could you draw me a picture, please?”

Picasso got out his sketchpad and pencil and quickly sketched a portrait of the young woman.

She beamed as he handed her the sketch. “Oh, it’s so lovely!” she exclaimed.

Before the young woman turned to leave, Picasso said, “That will be one million dollars, please.”

“A million dollars!” she said in surprise. “But it only took you two minutes.”

“Actually,” said Picasso, “it took me a lifetime.”

This fable highlights the true value of expertise.

While we often place value on the end product, the true value of expertise is derived from the years spent developing abilities that make it possible to produce the end product.

The real value lies in the backstory.

The backstory is of critical importance in education. Too often, our students ask, “Am I like Picasso?” or, “Do I have the abilities of an Einstein?” They look inside themselves and ask, “What abilities do I have?” They don’t expect to have to build their own backstory. They expect to just have the abilities.

The notion that we are born with certain talents and abilities is the Fixed Mindset view of the world. Students with a Fixed Mindset expect to “discover” their talents and abilities. They believe people like Picasso have always had their abilities and that’s why they can create art. These students believe being an artist comes before doing the art. They don’t see the artist’s backstory.

When Picasso states it has taken him a lifetime to produce the drawing, he is crediting his ability to his backstory – a lifetime spent developing his talents. The fact it only took a few moments to create the beautiful sketch is irrelevant. It could not have been created without Picasso’s backstory of developing his abilities.

Students with a Growth Mindset understand Picasso’s point. These students don’t look inside themselves, expecting to discover their abilities. They understand they need to develop them. They understand that to become an artist (or anything else), they must go through the process of becoming – they must build their own backstory.

The challenge is that building a backstory of growth is not easy. While many people work at developing their abilities, not everyone does the right sort of work.

It turns out that the Growth Mindset only works when you do the right sort of work! And the right sort of work involves two critical factors:

  • Developing increasingly mature and sophisticated Habits of Mind.
  • Applying these Habits of Mind just beyond your current best – in your Learning Zone.

Of these, developing more mature and sophisticated Habits of Mind is the most difficult.

Most people are prepared to stretch and apply themselves to challenges beyond their current abilities. But when they do, they often focus on what they are learning, not how they are learning. They take their existing behaviours – their Habits of Mind – and apply them to more challenging tasks. As a result, they fail to succeed and grow.

To succeed at increasingly difficult tasks, our backstory needs to be one of deliberately changing our behaviours and developing more sophisticated and mature Habits of Mind.

Picasso didn’t spend a lifetime painting. He spent a lifetime working out how to become a better painter. In the process, he created many paintings, some of which are worth millions of dollars today because they are the reflection of a lifetime of becoming a better painter.

If you’d like to know more about how to develop your Habits of Mind, “raise the bar” of your performance,  and what it means to do “the right sort of work” to increase your abilities, come along to my new Habits of Mind workshop. Details below.

With great skill, vast knowledge and personal experience, James Anderson offers a stimulating workshop on Habits of Mind. Come learn how to help your students acquire the dispositions needed to be successful in their complex, challenging and rapidly changing world.



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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One Comment

  • Jus May 15, 2020 at 11:16 am

    I love this story about Picasso!

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