21st century Renaissance man
03:07 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jim McKelvey is an engineer, entrepreneur, artist, environmentalist,  co-Founder of Square and Third Degree Glass Factory and general partner of Cultivation Capital. He is a man who embraces challenge in many forms. Tune in Sunday, January 6 at 2 P.M. E.T. to watch The Next List’s full 30-minute profile on McKelvey.

By Jim McKelvey, Special to CNN

Most glassblowers agree that one man, Lino Tagliapietra, is the best.

Who’s the most skilled programmer? Who’s the most talented singer? Who’s the smartest attorney? Who knows? But in glass, we all agree that this 80-year-old Italian dude is the best in the world. Imagine what you can learn from someone who is undisputedly the best in the world.

I got to study with the “Maestro” at a time when he took only 10 students a year.

During the week I spent with Lino, every student got to ask him one question. It could be anything. Lino always knew the answer.

Your one question was a big deal. Students either asked ultra-complex technical questions or requested that Lino make the glass behave in ways nobody thought possible.

My question was elementary. I asked the world’s best glassblower how to properly center a foot on a bowl.

Now, centering a foot is a fairly basic technique. At my studio, we teach students how to do it on the third day of class. At the time I asked my question, I had executed this move over a thousand times, but I never felt comfortable. I’d watched videos, talked to other glassblowers, tried different techniques, but every time I put a foot on a bowl, the result seemed a matter of luck.

So I asked the best glassblower in the world, expecting him to demonstrate the proper technique. He didn’t. Instead, Lino told me to go make a foot. When I was about to attach it to the bowl, he gently touched my arm and whispered “Wait, wait, wait… Now.”


I had expected him to teach me “how,” but the Maestro taught me “when.”

In a moment of discovery, I saw evidence of this mistake in other areas of my life.

That changed everything. It changed my businesses, it changed my social life, it changed my health. I became obsessed with “when.”

I’m a trained engineer. I’m analytical. How could I have overlooked such a fundamental truth? Perhaps it’s the way we communicate. Describing “how” is easy: step 1, step 2, step 3… “When” is all nuance.

Once you learn the “how,” glassblowing is all about the “when.” You work on a piece for hours and then, if everything has gone perfectly, you are rewarded with an opportunity to risk it all — a moment to make something either breathtaking or ugly. There are no repeats. You don’t get that moment back. Glassblowers become so focused on “when” that they momentarily lose their sensation of pain, placing their bare skin inches from a 2,000-degree material.

The equivalent in business is the all-nighter – a time of extreme focus that transcends fatigue.

The last all-nighter I pulled at Square was after a 14-hour flight to China. I had been trying for weeks to make a rotated spline on the side of our new credit card reader. Nobody in the U.S. could do it, but I found a guy in Shenzhen who had skills. He spoke no English, so our common language was numbers. We stayed up all night writing formulas until that curve was perfect.

When you have an opportunity to make something magnificent you become so focused on the moment nothing else matters. These moments are precious.

I know that much of what I do matters little. Most of my life is spent doing things that don’t really count. It is during times like these, however, I prepare myself for the moments that do matter.

Learning “how” is the job of the student. Knowing “when” takes the eye of a Maestro.