Parcum Opus

The phrase “magnum opus” has survived from the times of ancient Rome until today. We use it to describe someone’s best work. The antonym of the word “magnus,” which means “big” or “great” in Latin, is the word “parvus,” which means small. There’s a design studio called Parvum Opus, for example, hoping to allude to their focus on details instead of grandeur.

Unfortunately, the word “parvus” has mostly negative connotations. It’s not merely “small” as in “physically small.” It also means “puny,” “cheap,” “unimportant,” and “trifling.” Clearly, parvum is not the other opus we are looking for.

But why is there no expression for the small yet significant pieces? The little details and milestones we also work on with great care and thoughtfulness along the way? Probably because the Romans didn’t have one — because the Romans, like we are today, were obsessed with greatness and history-defining moments.

Ironically, now more than ever, the only way to such greatness, to a magnum opus, leads through the little things. If you create a portfolio of thousands of art installations over several decades, trying your best to make each of them meaningful, perhaps a handful will stand the test of time.

Of course, there’s more than one word for “small” in Latin. Not all of them mean “scant” or “insufficient.” “Parcus,” for example. It means “little,” yes, but it also means “frugal” or “thrifty.” “Resourceful.” Perhaps, in a world where a large body of work is table stakes for playing in the big league, that’s what “magnum opi” are really about: finding the courage and persistence to continue, to ship little pieces of a large puzzle every day, until they add up.

It is rare to have done your best work and know it. Often, what turns into a boon years later seems to have been a waste of time at first. But even when you feel like the work is bigger than the world realizes, you’ll have to go on and make the next thing. This was just a parcum opus, and though it’s filled with thoughtfulness, thrift, and care, it might just be one of many steps along the way.

Parcum opus. Put your best foot forward in little ways, and perhaps someday, we’ll admire the size of the shoes you left for us to fill.