Agnieszka Pilat is an award-winning oil painter. Her artworks show her interest in analyzing the tension between the past and the future and the contradictions they bring through. Agnieszka’s art pieces examine the tragedy of time’s progression and grapple with questions about the nature of time, how we value it and how we can come to terms with our own futures.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?

I was born in Poland, in an industrial city west of Warsaw: Lodz. Under communism, Poland was (and still remains in many ways) a society where conformity is non-negotiable. When you live in a place where life is so hard, there’s very little room for originality and for dreaming.

I remember one particular event, something that occurred many years ago in Poland, yet still almost brings tears to my eyes.
During a dinner conversation, my uncle who was an engineer and an inventor showed us what he was working on: a small flickering light installed in a plastic form that looked like what we know today as a LED light. He was excited and proud of this little model and he told us about many potential applications: from the cemetery lights to dinner mood lighting, praising the safety and energy savings of this invention. He was met with not only skepticism but with unkind jokes and ridicule from the dinner guests. I remember feeling a pit in my stomach, as I witnessed the obvious: I needed to get far far away, or my soul too would be crashed in this place. I developed a desire to leave the country for I thought, there was very little tolerance for originality and new ideas in this culture.

What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?

I think more than anything, I wish I understood my motivations in life. If I only knew to ask myself one question and ask it often:

What are you trying to prove and to whom?

I find this simple trick a fast and reliable way of understanding my intentions on daily basis. In answering it, I am amazed how often my actions are driven by an impulse to please, a need for approval, and attention seeking.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

The worse advice I hear is to take time off and to travel to get inspired. That never worked for me. Someone said that inspiration is for amateurs: the rest of us just shows up for work. I find that having a solid routine and a studio space that is designed for work and work only is what creates results. Inspiration for me comes as a result of work, not the other way around.

Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?

Generally speaking, I am rather resilient and don’t stay discouraged for long. That said, I remember after graduating from the art academy, I found myself slowly give way to a feeling of hopelessness and lack of motivation. Instead of painting more, as I had more free time, it was difficult to go into the studio and be productive. Because my studio was just across a yard from the house where I lived, I didn’t have to get dressed or commute to work. What I thought of as a practical and convenient setup, turned up to be a curse: I didn’t have to dress or plan my day, since I could go to the studio whenever I wanted. Weeks passed and I realized that unless I make a change, I will remain very unproductive.

And so I did. I have made a commitment to myself that instead of having breakfast at home, I will treat myself to a nice morning coffee and croissant at a café I loved. I knew about the importance of habits, and that one morning ‘trigger’ habit, can be very beneficial to how an entire day turns out to be. Not surprisingly, having a nice treat on the outside, motivated me to get dressed, which in turn put me in a better mood, and by the time I was back, I was marching straight into the studio and working.
Till today, I am a huge believer in the power of habits, and I have a number of them that help me to stay productive.

What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?

I am convinced that a solid work ethic has been one of my very top reasons for success. By work ethics, I mean endurance in pursuing a goal, not necessarily intensity which it is being pursued. Especially in art, one must plan in terms of decades – an art career is long, more like a marathon than a sprint. That’s the main difference between high performers in art as opposed to sports careers which are short and shine very bright.

Also, the confidence to say ‘no’ and to say it often. I need to have a lot of ‘white’ space – a buffer, time periods when I am not doing much of anything. Even when I am not painting or in the studio, that ‘white’ space is essential to me, as somewhere deep in my unconscious mind I am solving problems and creating new ideas.

What is your morning routine?

I wake up at about 8 AM and always have coffee in the morning. As a rule, unless I am rushed, I like to take 20-30 minutes to read a book or listen to a podcast in the morning; I generally don’t read the news before lunch, other than looking at the headlines for less than a few seconds in case there’s something I can’t ignore. The same is true with emails, I only skim fast for anything urgent and I leave them till the evening. That way I don’t allow others to drive my day.

Most days I’m in the studio by eleven and work till 8, sometimes later. I rarely agree to mid-day engagements as I find it hard to concentrate on studio work if I know I will get interrupted. If I have studio visits or even phone calls, I try to arrange for them in the late morning so then I can have the rest of the day uninterrupted. I eat lunch in the studio – going out and having a big lunch takes too much time and mental energy.

I like to watch a movie in the evening and have a late dinner, often after 9 PM.

What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?

Listening to audiobooks when I paint. That is a fabulous habit! The truth is that after painting for so many years and most of this in solitude, I get bored… I started listening to audiobooks when I was learning to paint – back then I was spending so many hours in the studio, I didn’t have any time left to read. After years of listening in the studio, it became a wonderful habit, which is almost Pavlovian at this point: as soon as I enter the studio, I start playing a book and I automatically start going through the motions… of mixing paint and then applying it on the surface.

I listen almost exclusively to non-fiction, especially WW2, anything about the Nazis can hold my attention for hours. That might be a secret to my productivity!

What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?

Well… freezing pre-mixed paints for one! But that one is for my domain only, I guess.

I strongly believe that it all comes to good habits – first designing them and then learning to follow them. Once a good routine is a habit, work becomes almost effortless.

The ones I already mentioned include having a good trigger habit (in my case listening to audiobooks) and saying ‘no’ often; turning down meetings that occur in the middle of the day;

Finally, we must make time for important but not urgent (as opposed to urgent but not important). That’s why as a rule, I don’t answer emails in the morning.

What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius: WORTH

I have discovered Meditations a few years ago and I must have re-read it a few dozen times since then. I start most days by reading a page or two.

I found Marcus Aurelius to be an antidote to the contemporary value system, where we allow our self-worth and our actions to be attached to the recognition from the outside. This is particularly highlighted in the careers of high performers, like mine, where public recognition is a measure of success.

As simple as it sounds, it took Aurelius to remind me, that my worth is determined by my character, not by how much others approve or disapprove of me and my work. There’s a wonderful freedom in that and it feeds a desire to build a life, and a career I myself will admire and be proud of.

Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl: MEANING

Victor Frankl’s little book has given me the strength to persevere in moments of despair. His experience as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps shows that Man can find meaning even in the most horrendous conditions. He goes beyond that by illustrating with examples from his fellow inmates, that Man can survive everything if he has a purpose in his life.
This little book is a great tribute to the human mind – and also a lesson in living: any experience can be profoundly meaningful when an individual looks at it as an opportunity for personal growth.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: ACCOMPLISHMENT

Atlas Shrugged has been instrumental in my career. There is no doubt I owe it a great debt of gratitude for it provided me with an ethical system, unlike I ever encountered before: a system where I had a moral obligation towards myself first, and to others second. Atlas Shrugged is a controversial book, very much loved by some and hated by many. I recommend everyone who wants to be a high performer to read it, for it helps to stick to often uncomfortable choices required to achieve mastery and endure a life of focused commitment.

Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. ~ Thomas Jefferson