Stay On the Bus: The Helsinki Bus Station Theory

From the wise words of Steve Jobs’ “3 stories from my life” to David Foster Wallace’s “This is water”, graduation commencement speeches are some of the best things to read for inspiration when feeling stuck in a mental rut. 

In June 2004, Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen delivered a commencement speech to the graduating members of the New England School of Photography. He shared a theory based on his Nordic hometown’s busy bus station and its operations—a philosophy that, in his opinion, made all the difference between success and falling short, serving as a metaphor in helping young, ambitious individuals discover their unique vision one day.

“There is a bus station in Helsinki I want to introduce you to…” Minkkinen went on to explain how several different bus lines depart from two dozen platforms at the Helsinki Bus Station, and each bus takes the same route out of the city, making identical stops—for about one kilometre. 

“Now let’s say… metaphorically speaking… each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” said Minkkinen, as he invited his audience to imagine themselves as an individual who has settled on making platinum prints of nudes as an elected niche. “Call it bus #21.” Three stops later, riding bus #21, you have developed quite a portfolio. Then, you take your three years of work to a gallery, only to be asked by the curator if you are familiar with the nudes of other artists. 

It turns out that other artists’ buses (bus #58, #71, etc.) were also on the same line. “Shocked, you realise that what you have been doing for three years others have already done. So, you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.” 

This time you decide to plunge into something else (taking another bus), specialising in another style, another photography genre. Three years later, the same happens. “So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back, and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.” 

What to do? It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*****g bus,” urged Minkkinen. 

Why? Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference. As the bus routes diverge from the Helsinki city into the suburbs, making one stop after another (implying years of practice), they begin to take individual journeys to different destinations. That is when your unique vision takes off, where you eventually get into more and more rarefied bus stops where fewer people are getting off. 

“At the end of the line—where the bus comes to rest… that’s when the work is done… your total output is now all there before you. The early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision. Why, because you stayed on the bus.”

Consistency & Persistence

In the Helsinki bus metaphor, each bus can represent an academic conduit or an elected career path, and it implies that you stick to it till you get off the bus. Mastery comes down to a magical combination of consistency and persistence. Repetition is the training we do not see behind the wonderful performances of expert ballet dancers and professional gymnasts, who repeat their routines tirelessly day after day to achieve perfection. 

Repeating an activity sounds simple enough. Yet why do we still see people job-hop, get tired of their craft as quickly as when they hit a roadblock, and decide to give up and change course, not having the patience to wait till their efforts see fruition?

Mindless Repetition vs Revision

By going through the motions does not differentiate the hard workers and the achievers. Hard workers will invest hours in mindlessly repeating an activity, whilst achievers will invest hours in revising the practice, learning, critiquing, and improving over and over again. For starters, clocking practice time is already a commitment to stay on the bus, and whilst you are at it, think twice about the quality of your work. Are they deliberate revisions or just mind-numbing repetitions? Don’t waste your time.

Scholarship Guide Stay On the Bus: The Helsinki Bus Station Theory Cafe

Today’s “Originality” Culture

It is easy to fall blindly for the many cultural hero stories of the modern world, often urging us to be original, to be different. Instead, the Helsinki Bus Station theory suggest that it takes more guts to keep plodding down a well-beaten path before venturing into the “originality” beyond. 

Armoured with a solid mastery of our craft and an accumulation of life lessons, we get to revise our work enough to get the average ideas out of the way, improving our capacity to avoid mediocrity and become more confident in forging our differentiation. Because we “stayed on the bus” long enough, we understand how to make our ideas work. 

However, it is not always about ideas. Think Uber and Airbnb. Nothing that the two brands created were new in terms of products. Instead, they made the competition irrelevant by changing the “game” in an industry that was not being innovative and was ripe for disruption. Uber did not try to buy cars and compete with the independent taxi companies; they created a mobile app. Meanwhile, Airbnb redefined the travel experience, not by owning homes or hotels, but by uniting existing property owners and travellers onto a single easy-to-use platform. Note that one would not have been able to find gaps and devise innovative opportunities without the expertise and deep understanding of the current industries. 

Similarly, entrepreneurship is not about talent or moments of insights, it is a practice that requires mastery over its very own process. Whilst there may be significant yield early in the start-up process, the fruits of labour often reveal themselves in the form of revelation, recognition, and impact over time. The only way to get there is to stay on the bus. 

It’s a Long Journey Ahead

Here’s the thing: How you are doing in the early days of your professional development does not paint a reliable picture of where you will be in the next ten years. In the same way, your college or university grades do not predict your future personal and career achievements. Grades good or poor, be sure not to rest on your laurels or give up. It’s a long journey ahead. 

From now till then, you will have to pick a niche to specialise, a craft to master, and a career path to follow. Know that it is impossible to live without failing. The Helsinki Bus Station Theory serves as a gentle reminder to not be discouraged by failure. When you feel that you are getting nowhere, don’t just wimp out and jump into a cab and return to the bus station to look for a new platform, a new ride, with the hope that the next trip will be smoother. Heed the lessons of failure and stay on the bus. Commit to the hard work—because success tastes sweeter when you have earned it. 

And now the caveat: If you decide that you must restart your journey to achieve your goals, be bold. Brave the new journey, put your best foot forward and give yourself time. Don’t get off the bus too soon; don’t expect shortcuts.