My next course is about showing up every day, doing your best creative work, building an audience, and earning an income.
Right now the working title of the course is “The Creative Life”.
Because ultimately, this course is about developing the mindset, habits, and resources you need to do your best creative work.
But more on all of that another time…
- My own experience, stories, and wisdom.
- The experiences, stories, and wisdom of others.
At best, I have only a very small glimpse and perspective. So I lean on the wisdom and perspective of others.
Here are a few of the books that have helped me show up every day, do my best creative work, build an audience, and earn an income.
The Personal MBA, by Josh Kaufman
Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull
Show Your Work, by Austin Kleon
Deep Work, by Cal Newport
The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen
Die Empty, by Todd Henry
The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry
The Customer Funded Business, by John Mullins
The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp
Anything You Want, by Derek Sivers
Ask, by Ryan Levesque
Zero to One, by Peter Thiel
People Over Profit, by Dale Partridge
This past weekend I rented a car, drove 4 hours to Tulsa, bought a new (to me) family car that I’d found on Craigslist, and drove it back.
To accompany me on the road trip, I loaded up the audiobook version of Creativity Inc..
I began reading it on Kindle about a year ago, but only made it to chapter 5. I’ve been wanting to dive back in, and this was a great opportunity.
There is so much gold in this book.
One particular tidbit that stuck out to me from the chapter on Honesty and Candor.
People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things — in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming.
If you’ve ever begun working a new project, learning a new skill, or the like, and you get into it and feel completely overwhelmed, lost, and confused — don’t freak out.
As Ed Catmull says, it is the nature of things.
How do you press through that feeling of overwhelm?
For one you keep going. You keep showing up every day, making choices, and doing the work. With patience, you will find clarity.
Secondly, you need community. People who can give candid advice, encouragement, and feedback. People who will level with you and keep you accountable to your goals.
What you’re looking at here is some white board scribbling that represents the first module of my next course.
The white board is so messy and random, you might think this was our very first whiteboard session for Module One.
Actually, this is the fourth whiteboard session we’ve had like this in the past two weeks.
This is our process of taking things apart and putting them back together again.
I’m working on a new course that’s about doing your best creative work, moving from hobbyist to pro, building and caring for an audience, and making a few dollars from your creative work.
Right now the course outline consists of more than 90 individual sessions within 6 modules. Plus worksheets. Plus interviews. Plus easter eggs.
That is a massive amount of content. It’s too much.
Who has the time to work their way through all of that?
That’s why we’re trying to distill the outline down to what is most essential.
And it starts by taking apart each module and asking: What is the single most important takeaway here?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to do their best creative work?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to move from hobby to pro?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to define and build their audience?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to steward their audience and give provide value?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to make an income from their creative work?
- What is the single most important lesson for someone who wants to build and sell their products?
For us, we’re still in the preparation phase on all of these modules. We know all the surrounding ideas, mindsets, tactics, and tools. I’ve been writing about this stuff for years.
The aim right now is to get the outline clear so we can get to work on putting the pieces in place.
How do you edit an outline?
You take it apart and put it back together again.
You question your assumptions and hypothesis.
You try writing it out in a way that makes sense to your grandparents.
Then try writing it so it makes sense to your neighbor across the street.
Then you re-write again with your ideal customer in mind.
You make sure you’re answering all the questions and challenges your ideal customer is facing.
* * *
The above photo represents the fourth time we’ve taken apart this outline and put it back together again.
First we started with sticky notes on the whiteboard.
Then we moved the sticky notes onto posters on the wall. (We needed the whiteboard back.)
Then I re-wrote it all onto note cards.
Then we went back to white board drawings, which you see above.
We keep taking apart all the pieces, looking at them, asking why they’re there, and then putting the whole thing back together again.
Each pass we make at the outline things become a bit more clear.
Once we start taking it apart and putting it back together the same way, then it’ll be time to start writing.
If you’re interested in going behind-the-scenes at the creation of this course, and getting early access to the content, we’re looking for pilot course members.
There are some pretty great benefits, which I’ll share later.
Sign up over here to get on the list, and I’ll let you know once we open the doors.
There are two types of creative goals.
The first type of goal is the goal a project that you’re building. Something you’re making. A goal of something that does not exist and that you are in process of creating.
The second is a goal related to your creative output. Your skill set, your talent, your ideas, inspiration, motivation.
The two go hand in hand. Each one needs the other.
Because, as we’ll dive in to next week, quantity leads to quality. The more you do the work and the more you learn by shipping — then, in turn, the more you will grow in your skills. And, the more you grow in your skills the more you’ll be able to reach your goals for the work you create.
Loving the Process
How much do you enjoy the journey of creativity?
What if there was no end result? What if it was just a process of day in and day out. Showing up and showing your work?
Are you content in the creative process?
Are you content with your creative process?
When I think back to the building and launching of The Focus Course, what I remember most is the whole story and all the work leading up to the launch.
It started with a few dozen podcast episodes for the Shawn Today members. Those episodes turned into chapters of a book that never got published because I changed my mind about the book and began creating an online course instead. I mapped the whole thing out on my floor with index cards. I then led a small pilot group through the course using an email list…
That whole process, that year-long creative journey, was so much fun. It was exhilarating.
The launch of the Focus Course was just a one-day event. One day.
Then, I went back to creating. I started working on the next version of the course.
Perhaps what’s most difficult is that feeling of overwhelm when you’re on the threshold of a new project and you see where you are right now and you compare it to where you hope to go, and it feels unsurmountable.
Ira Glass explains this so well. Take a few minutes to watch this video:
Remember this: start with the simplest step first.
You never outgrow that bit of advice.
No matter how advanced you are in your craft, how much experience you have, etc. You always have to start with the first step.
As a creative person, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the end product. You have this idea — this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see in your mind. And you want to make that. Anything less is unacceptable.
The problem, however, is that this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see is completely unreasonable as the first version.
The first version is the baby version…
It’s small. It’s naked. It’s crying at first contact with the real world. It needs to be nursed and continually cared for and swaddled. It poops its pants whenever you’re not looking. It won’t even let you sleep through the night.
But with proper care and feeding, your baby will grow up. It will mature. And, over time, it will learn to stand on its own.
If you’re in it for the long run, be encouraged…
Starting small isn’t something you “settle” for. Rather, it’s the proper way to get going. And when you commit your time and energy to your creative goals, you will see progress.
As we’ll talk about more next week, a commitment to quality is what gives motivation to show up every day. And showing up every day — that quantity of work — is what leads to creating with quality.
Consider the components to a creative business (or any business, really), and here’s what you get:
Who, What, Why, How, and How Much.
- Who is your (ideal) customer or client.
- What is the product or service you’re creating or providing.
- How is a combination of your resources as well as your business plan (as in: how are you going to do the work, and how are you going to connect your product with your customer).
- How Much relates to the value you’re providing to your customer as well as the price you’re charging them.
- Why relates to the motivation, vision, and values of the work you do.
Two sidebars before we get started:
- This doesn’t just have to relate to indie entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs. It can relate to in-house designers, freelance developers, and more. Say you work for a design firm or a recording studio. Your “who” is your boss — your company. Your “How Much” is your salary.
- I used to think you had to start with why. But as I’ve been reading through Cal Newport’s book, I’m realizing that most of us start with what. In fact, Newport argues that you starting with why is actually bad advice. In short, it’s in the process of doing the work that we get much-needed experience and clarity about the sort of work we want to keep on doing, and in that process we are able to build up the relationships and resources we need in order to do the work that matters most to us.
That said, let’s break down the Who, What, Why, and How Much a bit more. I’m going to use The Focus Course as my example.
Who: My ideal customer for the Focus Course is someone who is eager to learn, do their best creative work, and has energy to move the needle forward in their life. Though I created the course so just about anyone can work through the 40 days of assignments, the person I most have in mind is someone who already has an internal drive to make changes in their life.
What: A self-guided, 40-day course that gives you insight and clarity into your values, goals, stress points, and distractions and then gives you an action plan for doing something about it all.
How: I built the course itself by writing every day, working with a pilot group to test and review the contents, and then working with a designer and developer to create the website that hosts the content.
How much: The price of the Focus Course is $249; the value, though it varies from person to person, is (I hope) much, much more than that.
Why: I’m someone who is naturally spontaneous, distracted, and seems to always have more ideas than time. In my early 20s I realized that I needed to get a grip on how I spent my time and energy or else I’d never make meaningful progress on the things that were most important to me. The ideas and tactics of The Focus Course are things that I myself have used and taught for more than a decade and I wanted to create a fun and even better way way to clearly teach these things to others.
Here’s a sketch I made (don’t laugh) to show how these elements interrelate with one another to form the components of a sustainable business.
As you can see in the chart above, when your product and your customer connect, then value is created and exchanged. It’s at this intersection that your business model exists. You have something of value to offer, and others are willing to pay for it.
Additionally, if your product or service is something that aligns with your own personal values and goals, then when you sell to your customer you’re also giving expression to your vision.
There is immense satisfaction in providing something of value to someone else in such a manner that also sustains the ongoing providing of more value. Consider the converse: when our work and actions don’t align with our vision and values, it can be a huge drain on our morale and motivation.
This is what a sustainable business model is all about: doing work you’re proud of, providing value to others, and having a means to continue doing that work. It’s what Walt Disney meant when he famously said, “We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.”
The money serves a two-fold purpose. For one, it gives some measure of validation to our work because money is a neutral indicator of value. If nobody (as in, literally not one person) is willing to pay for what it is you’re offering, then it’s probably not valuable enough (at least not yet). When that’s the case, simply go back to the drawing board to find a different expression of your creative idea or find a different market (or maybe both).
For his book, So Good They Can’t ignore You, Cal Newport interviewed successful entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. Newport asked Sivers about what it was that led to his entrepreneurial success. Derek replied that he has a principle about money that overrides his other rules: ”Do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”
Secondly, money allows us to buy food, pay the bills, and acquire the tools and resources we need in order to keep making art and doing work.
The whole goal of Walt Disney’s movie making business model was to sustain their creative outlet of animating and producing films. It wasn’t about the money for money’s sake — it was about doing work they loved and enriching the lives of their audience. And by selling their work they could keep on making more movies.
For most makers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the creative work. There is (most days) joy in the journey and satisfaction in being part of a creative community. And there is the dream of adding value and enriching other people’s lives.
* * *
Again, from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport writes that “people who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”
While there are many dynamics which contribute to the feeling of a career that matters, one of them is the realization that the work you do is valuable to others. As Sivers said, by aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.
* * *
On celebrating progress and why the recognition of making meaningful progress on a regular basis is also critical to the feeling that your career matters.
If you’re waiting for finances before moving forward with an idea, the real issue may be Fear, Not Money.
Balancing the margins between cost, price, and value is an art. How do you increase value to the customer without dramatically increasing your cost nor decreasing your price?
Are you a right-brain person or a left-brain person?
Right brain folks are more artistic, feeling, intuitive, and creative — they like to find solutions by making connections and trusting their intuition. Left brain folks are more rational and logical — they like order, data, facts, guarantees, and reliability.
But there is more than just left-brain or right-brain types of people. There are actually four types of thinking (or learning) styles.
The two researchers in this are that I’m most familiar with are Ned Herrmann and Anthony Gregorc. Gregorc created what he calls the Mind Styles Model. Herrmann created what he calls Whole Brain Thinking.
If you break the two hemispheres down even further, as Ned Herrmann, Anthony Gregorc, and many others have done, then you get the four quadrants of the brain. Each of us has a dominant quadrant that we think and learn from — a way of thinking and percieving the world that is most natural to us. But each of us can use all four quadrants.
Herrmann uses colors to define the four quadrants: Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. Gregorc’s quadrants each have a name based on the way people perceive and order information: Abstract Sequential, Concrete Sequential, Abstract Random, and Concrete Random.
Gregorc’s AS, CS, AR, and CR quadrants correlate to Herrmann’s Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow quadrants pretty easily.
Blue (Abstract Sequential) is where logical, analytical, and technical thinking happens. Blue thinkers are the ones making sure we don’t value form over function because they are rational and care about performance and analytics. They are objective, thorough, quantitative and technical. They’ve probably got a mental calculator ready to go, which is why they tend to be engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.
Green (Concrete Sequential) is where people are detailed, organized, administrative, reliable, and structured. They are tactical, and tend to be project managers, bookkeepers, and administrators because they value control, structure, reliability, and tradition.
Red (Abstract Random) is where you find emotional, expressive, interpersonal, and spiritually-minded people. They are compassionate, perceptive, and sensitive. They care deeply about people, and they have the ability to read the emotional temperature of a room right when they walk in. They tend to be teachers, trainers, charity workers, and musicians so they can help others and frequently connect on a personal level in and through their career.
Yellow (Concrete Random) is where creative, artistic, and conceptual thinking happen. These people are usually visionary and risk taking and tend to become entrepreneurs, artists, and strategists. They value spontaneity, risk, beauty, design, and fun. They are also excellent at recognizing patterns, and have a strong ability to form connections between two or more seemingly contrasting ideas.
If you’re at all familiar with these (and other) styles, then you know that I’m grossly oversimplifying the science behind these things. And I bet Gregorc and Herrmann wouldn’t be too happy with me comparing their two models so closely. (But I can’t help it. I’m a strong Yellow thinker, so I like connecting ideas and finding patterns.)
But I’m not here to do a deep dive on the science of learning, thinking, etc.
What strikes me about the whole brain model is that it highlights the different joys and challenges of creativity.
Each of us are dominant in one of these four quadrants. You, dear reader, have some strength and some weakness of all four quadrants of learning and thinking style, but one of them is your most dominant. Do you mostly thrive on: Facts and logic? Form and Safety? Feelings and relationships? Or future ideas and concepts?
However, for us to do our best creative work — work that matters — we have to operate out of all four quadrants.
Operating out of all four quadrants looks different for everyone because everyone has one or two quadrants that they are strongest in and then a few quadrants they are weaker in.
If you are a strong “Yellow” thinker, then having visionary creative solutions is probably a natural part of your everyday life. But you may have trouble when it comes time to execute on your ideas.
Or if you are a strong “Green” thinker, then you can whip up a plan while the coffee is still brewing. But you may have trouble seeing the big picture, or understanding it’s significance.
We will always naturally operate out of our dominant quadrant. But our best creative work must flow out of all four quadrants. We need to have a desire to problem solve (Blue), we need to have enough structure and organization in order to show up every day (Green), we need to have empathy and emotion toward others and a desire to help them (Red), and we need care about creating and making (Yellow).
In addition to our own individual need to think and work using all four quadrants, we can also benefit greatly from having people around us who are dominant in different areas. If you are a strong red thinker, then get someone who is blue to work beside. While you may have friction at first (you will see them as being cold and calculating; they will see you as being too talkative and sentimental), you will actually bring some healthy balance to one another and make more progress as a team.
The challenge is to operate out of the areas of our brain that don’t come naturaly to us. Are your creative solutions intuitive? Do they solve a problem? Are you able to show up every day and do the work? Are you trying to serve and delight others?
To do work that matters, answering ‘yes’ to just one or even two of these is not enough.
In the same way that our best creative work flows from all four quadrants, it must also flow to all four quadrants for it to be effective in reaching others.
Doing our best creative work is a fight.
It strikes me this morning that I’ve been saying this often over the past few years. (Maybe it’s becoming my motto or tagline or something.)
I love how Steven Pressfield puts it. In his books — especially The War of Art — he talks at length about that great enemy called resistance.
Pressfield writes that “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity,” or, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” is sure to elicit resistance.
When you set your sights on doing something of value and something meaningful, rest assured you will face resistance.
If you’ve ever spent so much as a one minute trying to create something of value and substance, then you know first hand that it is a fight to be and stay creative.
But what I love about the fight is that it’s self evident.
If you find yourself facing fear, doubt, shame, difficulty, perplexity, and/or overwhelm when you sit down to do the work then rejoice! All that resistance means you’re trying to do something worthwhile. The resistance is proof that you’re on the right track. Don’t quit.
Seriously. Don’t quit.
But quitting is not what I’m here to talk about. The advice to not quit is common. It’s good advice. You and I need to hear it every day. When I set my watch for 30 minutes, put in my earbuds, shut off the outside world, and make myself write for half an hour I have to remind myself that I’m not allowed to quit.
As a creative person you need boundaries.
You need space to think. You need time to focus on the work at hand while your mind stares up to the stars, discovering new worlds and ideas.
You need time to yourself.
You need at least some level of autonomy to call the shots and draw a line in the sand.
But I have found that in my process of setting up boundaries that help me do my best creative work, a seed of selfishness and narcissism can plant itself.
Don’t let that happen. In the fight to do our best creative work, narcissism is not the destination — generosity is.
Why? Because creativity should, by definition, bring life. You’ve taken something that did not previously exist and now it does.
Which means your best shot at doing your best creative work is to do something that will bring life to others.
As you focus on doing your best creative work, don’t get so absorbed in your own thoughts and your own world that you cease to be generous, kind, outgoing, helpful, and selfless toward others.
What you need is more bad ideas.
You know the drill. It’s late in the morning on Saturday and you’re outside mowing the lawn.
Or maybe you don’t mow the lawn. So, say it’s a Monday evening and you’re taking a walk through the neighborhood. Or it’s Tuesday morning and you’re taking a shower.
And then… bam! You have an idea. Seemingly out of nowhere.
Awesome. But why aren’t you having more ideas in more places?
I think we put far too much emphasis on the when, where, why, and how of good ideas. We should talk more about the when, where, why, and how of bad ideas.
We all need to have more bad ideas. More crappy first drafts. More embarrassing design mock ups. More failures. More awkward moments.
Something I mentioned in my article yesterday was about how this world we now live in, where everyone has the internet in their pocket, is totally new. Nobody has ever lived like this before.
One of the things that comes with having the internet in our pocket is that we can share moments and slices of our life with the world. But most of us are sharing the highlights. We share the best photos of the grandest places. Which is fine. But it also can cause a slight sense of disillusionment.
Gee, everyone I follow on Instagram lives in the mountains or on the beach and eats incredible food. I live in the suburbs and had a tunafish sandwich for lunch.
When we see other people’s beautiful Instagram lives and fine-tuned Pinterest taste, we think they live like that 24/7.
It can be challenging when we start to overlap the perfect and curated “world” we see through our smartphones and the messy and challenging world we live through our own eyes and skin.
That’s why you need to have more bad ideas.
Ideas are good for the soul. They’re good for your creative imagination. They’re brain food. They help you build motivation. But it’s not just good ideas that build motivation — bad ideas do this too.
When was the last time you had a real whopper of a terrible idea?
You’re probably embarrassed to even recall. As if having a bad idea is the same as farting during a fancy dinner.
It’s not the same; not the same at all. We need bad ideas. You need bad ideas.
Out of ten thousand ideas, only one of them might be truly great. If you sit around waiting for the great one, how are you going to get it? And then (well, this is a topic for another post, but what I’m trying to say is that) once you have a great idea, that’s only the very beginning — doing something about it is what matters most.
How to Strengthen Your Creative Imagination
So here you are. Standing at a place that is “Not Amazing” and you’re trying to get over there to “Amazing”. There is no shortcut except to go through the mud of “Not Yet Amazing.”
I want to have more bad ideas, more terrible first drafts, more embarrassing design mock ups, more failures, and more awkward moments.
While that may sound like the worst Christmas List ever, what it actually means is that I want to try harder and have less fear of failure. More bad ideas, more terrible first drafts, and more failed attempts, means more work created.
All that said, here are some thoughts about ideas, and why I think you should try and come up with more (bad) ideas every day.
Ideas are a commodity
If you think ideas are rare it’s because you’re not used to coming up with any.
The more ideas you come up with then the more ideas you’ll come up with. I love how Jonas Ellison put it:
Never be stingy with your ideas. Don’t say you’ll save them for another post, another story, another day. Put it out there. Circulate your ideas freely so your mind can generate new.
Since ideas (especially bad ones) are a dime a dozen, there’s no fear in giving them away and sharing them early and often. In fact, a bad idea in your hands might be a great idea in someone else’s. That’s because…
People are Greater Than Ideas
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull writes about how people are far more important than ideas. Saying:
If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.
Catmull also writes about how ideas are not singularly, perfectly-formed things. They’re half-thoughts. What-ifs, hunches, gut feelings, whispers of a dream, foggy afternoons.
A Bad Idea Does Not Reflect Your Talent, Character, or Taste
If you’re in an environment where you are afraid to share a bad idea, you need to change that environment. Don’t despise your own bad ideas and don’t despise other people’s.
We put so much emphasis on only having good ideas that we’ve assumed this posture where all ideas should be acted on. That’s silly. Just because you’ve had an idea doesn’t mean it now must be cared for and built.
Feel free to have lots and lots of horrible ideas and then throw them out. Give yourself freedom to have bad ideas. Give everyone you know — your friends, family, co-workers, bosses, peers, strangers you meet while standing in line at the coffee shop — permission to have bad ideas.
In fact, why not just…
Start With the Worst Idea You Can
I dare you.
Seriously, why not?
What is it you’re stuck on right now? What is the worst possible solution to that problem?
Coming up with a bad idea is so much easier than coming up with a good one. Start with the worst idea you can and let that build your momentum.
Bad ideas become the stepping stones to good ideas.
As you get more comfortable coming up with many ideas all of the time, you’ll learn to adapt this very important rule, which is…
Don’t be a Slave to the Tyranny of a New Idea
Ever feel like you have more ideas than time? I hope you do.
Having too many ideas is not a dilemma. The dilemma is to have no ideas at all.
We think having more ideas than time is a dilemma because new ideas are exciting, and we feel obligated to act on them and do something about them.
Don’t feel obligated. It’s okay to let good ideas die. You don’t have to act on every idea you come up with. Don’t give in to the tyranny of a new idea simply because it’s new.
As I said, and as I’m sure you are aware, there is something more important than coming up with ideas: finishing them.
If you have more ideas than time, that’s great. Focus on what you can do now. Believe me when I say that…
Great Ideas Come Back
Last fall (October 2014) we completely re-designed and re-booted the Tools & Toys website. I brainstormed with my team, worked with our designer/developer (Pat Dryburgh), and we made something awesome.
About 5 months later I stumbled across a page in my notebook from almost two years ago. On the page was a list of goals and ideas for Tools & Toys, and the list was filled with the exact same outline of goals and ideas that we’d just implemented. I had written it, forgot about it, and two years later when I was starting over “from scratch” those ideas came right back and I didn’t even know it.
But two years can be a long time to wait on an idea. Sometimes an idea won’t let you go. You know the ones I’m talking about. And so, in those cases, try to act quickly because…
Ideas Demise Over Time
When an idea truly grabs ahold of you, keeps you up at night, and wakes you up early in the morning, then it’s time to take action.
You know what I’m talking about. If and when you can, act on those best ideas quickly. When they grab ahold of you like that, it means they’ve got life on them.
When an idea has life on it like that…
Listen to What Your Idea Wants
Eventually the idea will take over. It will begin to think for itself. It will have its own needs and wants.
Listen to it. What does it want? What other ideas are branching out from this original one?
This happened to me as I was writing my book, The Power of a Focused Life. I spent 5 months writing the first draft. Then as I was doing research and working on the second draft I realized that this idea wanted to be different than what I originally imagined.
In response, I turned the book upside down, pulled it all apart, and re-wrote everything from scratch to create The Focus Course instead.
I never would have built the Focus Course if I hadn’t first started with the book. I needed to be in the midst of that project before I could see where it was ultimately headed.
It’s a rule of the universe of creativity that…
Action Brings Clarity
Once you start moving and acting on an idea, then you begin to get clarity about what the next step needs to be. It’s okay not to have it all figured out before you begin. Just begin, and let your feet take you.
Challenge: Come up with 5 ideas today
Or 7 if you’ve had your coffee; 10 if you’re feeling brave.
Below I’m sharing with you my 10 ideas for today. This is a list that is building off another idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while about doing a bunch of podcast miniseries that each focus on a very specific topic. Here are 10 topic ideas:
- Kansas City coffee shop reviews
- Short stories about inspirational and fascinating people
- Working from home
- Debt and budgeting
- Meaningful Productivity
- Making coffee at home
- Book reviews
* * *
The ability to solve interesting problems is an integral part of doing our best creative work. And doing work that matters means having the guts to try things that might not work.
If we’re a slave to every single new idea then we’ll never have the focus to finish a single thing. And if we’re afraid that our idea might be a bad one, we’ll never even get started.
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Today’s article is a part of my countdown to The Focus Course. If this article hit home for you, then I believe you will love the course. One of the primary goals of the Focus Course is to help you strengthen your creative imagination, find margin for thought, and do your best creative work.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to doing work that matters?
A lot of people say money. As in, a lack of money.
A lack of money can certainly be an obstacle. But it can also be an excuse.
It’s awesome to have the funds we need to give us the time and other resources that will help us do work that matters. But if we say we can’t do anything meaningful because it’s not our full-time job, that’s fear talking.
Now, there are cases where money truly is a debilitating issue. I have friends and family members who just can’t seem to get ahead — at times they feel as if they’re drowning. Money problems can be extremely demotivating, crippling, and depressing.
However, right now I want to talk about those who see money as their biggest challenge to doing work that matters and yet have never stopped to consider if there are alternatives. Or perhaps you see the paycheck as a validation of the work you’re doing — you need the promise of income as a pat on the back that you’re doing something valuable.
But the truth is…
Money is a tool, not a validation
You with money may have an advantage over you without money, but it’s not a guarantee. At the end of the day, what money does is buy opportunity.
Opportunity of time: if you had a million dollars in the bank to pay all your monthly living expenses and to pay someone else to handle all the menial tasks of your life, then you could spend all your time working on your craft. But even if you had all the time in the world, it doesn’t guarantee you’d choose to do meaningful work.
Opportunity of collaboration and community: if you had a million dollars, you could hire a team to work with. But even with a hundred million, there’s no guarantee that you’d be able to hire an all-star staff of hard-working, kind, fun, brilliant, self-starters who all get along.
Opportunity of networking: if you had a million dollars, people might invite you to their fancy dinners, and ask you to collaborate with them. But even if so, there’s no guarantee that the right people will notice you
Opportunity of research and discovery: if you had a million dollars you could buy all the books you need to learn up on a subject, travel somewhere to a conference to meet new people and learn new things, and more.
Opportunity to use better tools: if you had a million dollars you could buy the nicest camera, the fastest computer, the highest quality paint brushes. But even then, there’s no guarantee that the tools at your disposal would empower you do to work that matters.
If money is your biggest challenge to doing your best creative work, ask yourself what advantage or opportunity it is that you’re looking to money to solve. Once you figure that out, ask yourself if there’s a different solution to your challenge.
If you say you need money so you can have more time to do the work that matters to you, and yet you’re watching an hour of TV every day, then money’s not the first problem. How you’re spending your time is.
If you say you need money to afford the right tools, yet you go out to eat every day and have a monthly car payment, perhaps you should assess your spending and budgeting.
The real obstacles are fear and not being willing to sacrifice
I spent four years writing shawnblanc.net during evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks before I was able to quit my job and take the website full time. Jason Kottke had been writing online for 7 years before he quit his job to take kottke.org full-time. Myke Hurley spent four years podcasting before he was able to take his passion full-time. John Gruber wrote Daring Fireball on the side for 4 years before making it his full-time gig.
In short, it takes time — years, usually — before doing the work you love can get to a point where it is also the work that pays the bills. But sometimes, it never pays the bills.
Are you willing to show up every day for 4 years?
Talking to a friend about this just this morning, he said that he doesn’t think it’s about money at all — it’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice to do the work they love. People don’t want to give up all the things they need to give up, so instead they place the burden of action on having more money.
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In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna writes that there are four obstacles to doing our most important work: Money, Time, Space, and Vulnerability.
While money, time, and space are the reasons given most often for not choosing Must, there’s another fear that’s far scarier and spoon about much less.
Choosing Must means that you have to confront some very big fears. It will make you feel vulnerable.
Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. As anyone who writes, draws, or takes pictures on a regular basis can tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be hard and frightful.
I don’t want to minimize how helpful it can be to have a financial safety net in place, nor how frightening it can be when you’re barely scraping by. I’ve been in debt, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck even though I didn’t have to, I’ve survived on less than minimum wage, and I’ve had enough money to take a year off if I wanted. In all those seasons, there were still challenges and fears that I had to press through in order to do work that mattered.
Elle Luna also writes: “It is here, standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, that we feel the enormous reality of our fears, and this is the moment when many of us decide against following our intuition, turning away from that place where nothing is guaranteed, nothing is known, and everything is possible.”
With all kindness and tenderness, let me challenge you: If it’s mostly about the money, then perhaps it’s not about doing your best creative work after all. If you see money as your biggest challenge, perhaps you’re not being honest with yourself.
On this week’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly, I seek to define what “Your Best Creative Work” actually means.
It’s a phrase I’ve been thinking and talking about for years. Does it only relate to “artsy” stuff? I don’t think so.
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Here’s a picture of someone doing her best creative work:
She shows up every day. When it’s easy and when it’s hard. It doesn’t matter. She is committed.
This is something only she can do. Yet even still, it might not all work out as planned. There is no clear path about comes next. There is a lot of guessing. There is fear.
Some days the work is so much harder than others. Some days everything comes together and it’s amazing. At the end of the day, it’s always rewarding.
She is telling a story. Every day she is trying to connect with others. Her work is emotional. Relational. There is learning. Teaching. Guessing. Loving. She is a mother.
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When we talk about “doing our best creative work”, it’s easy to define creativity as “artsy”. Writing. Designing. Taking photographs. But creative work happens in a variety of forms.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a project manager, and he very much views his work as creative. Creating a spreadsheet to analyze data — that is a form of creativity, and it should be validated as creative. The way a mother or father raises their children and the tactics they deploy. The choices we make as freelancers, small-business owners, founders, or CEOs. It’s all creative
The scope of creativity and meaningful work goes far beyond art.
Any degree of freedom you use to do your work means you have a choice about how you go about it. And that is creativity. You’ve been given the gift of choice, and you can use that to give back and do work that matters.
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What do you think about when you think about art and creativity?
I think about emotions. Fear, doubt, joy, happiness, love, and honesty.
I think about telling a story. Encouraging, inspiring, educating, and entertaining others.
I think about people. Relationships and connecting.
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Doing my best creative work is an amalgamation of both doing work that matters and also taking joy in the journey.
Meaningful work, work that matters, is something that I have to do. I am compelled to do it. If it doesn’t work out, if nobody likes it, if I never make a dollar, that’s unfortunate. But I still had to do it. And so, if it didn’t work out or it didn’t make a dollar, I have to figure out how to keep doing it better. Meaningful work is also something which I hope will make the lives of other people better. Either by entertaining them, educating them, or helping them in their journey.
Having joy in the journey is just that. Having fun. Pursuing “mastery”. Being present in the moment. Getting in the zone. Creating without inhibition. Trusting your gut.
Put these two together, and boom. You’ve got yourself a recipe for your best creative work.
When you define your best creative work like this, it changes everything. Suddenly it’s less about the quality of art you produce and it’s more about being valuable, meaningful, and honest.
And you realize that your best creative work is part of every area of your life: work, family, rest, personal life, etc.
Doing your best creative work every day is a choice. You get to choose to do work that matters.
I try to make that choice when I’m at my keyboard, when I’m on a date with my wife, when I have half an hour of quiet alone time, and when I’m playing catch in the back yard with my two boys. In those moments, it’s not about the context. Art. Relationships. Business. Each one is a chance to choose to be honest, true, vulnerable, and personal.
This is what my home office workspace looked like in 2007:
(I still have that trashcan. And the weird blocks underneath the legs of the desk are there because I mis-measured by about 3/4 of an inch when I was shortening the height of the desk to something more comfortable.)
It was dorky, but it was also inspirational. Inspirational for what it stood for, really. That photo was taken around the same time as the beginning of my weekends-and-evenings freelancing career. I had just bought that refurbished Mac Pro and 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and now I was ready for the big leagues. It felt great to have a new machine (doing print design on the 12-inch PowerBook was not very ideal), and a newly organized workspace with some semblance of organization and structure. You know the feeling.
A few years later, we ripped out the carpet to reveal the hardwood underneath. Painted the walls, got a new desk from IKEA, and bought a lamp.
That’s the desk where I launched my full-time gig writing shawnblanc.net.
A few years after that, we moved my office downstairs because the upstairs room was to become a nursery for our first son, Noah.
Here’s what my space looked like last year:
Since that time things have de-cluttered a bit. Mostly thanks to the Retina iMac (which is still incredible by the way).
Here’s what my desk looks like today:
As desks are wont to do, mine certainly gets cluttered and messy. But I try to keep it clean and not just let the mess get out of control. For me, inspiration and ideas and calm are more prevalent when the peripherals are dealt with.
My desk is where I spend so much of my time. It’s where I work and where I create. I write, design, pay bills, ignore emails, edit and share pictures with my family, and more… all from here. I’m here right now, in fact.
When I think about showing up every day and doing my best creative work, I think about this space. It has certainly changed and evolved over the past decade, but one thing it’s always had has been a surface to work on, a keyboard to type on, and an internet connection to publish through.
Your creative workspace may be different. But regardless of what or why you’ve got what you’ve got, here are a few things every good creative workspace needs:
Ritual: As I wrote last week, by far and away, the best thing you can do for your creative workspace is to build some ritual / routine into it. When you combine the power of a consistent “where” along with a consistent “what and when”, then you’re basically putting your creative genius on autopilot.
Fun: Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work. If there’s nothing playful, enjoyable, or fun about your workspace how can you hope to create anything inspirational or vibrant? All work and no play makes our creative work very dull indeed.
For me, I have fun built right into the very core of what I do: writing. My keyboard is as clicky as they come, and I love it. Secondly, I have a computer that I love to use: the Retina iMac which is a marvel. As someone who works with words all day long not only do I have my favorite way to type them with, I also have a jaw-dropping display to view them on.
Inspiration Rich: Speaking of fun, a good workspace is inspirational. A few friends of mine who have some pretty great workspaces include: Sean McCabe’s office, which is filled with art prints; Cameron Moll’s space which is very open and organized, but yet also is clearly lived in; and Jeff Sheldon’s office studio, which, like Cameron’s is very organized but very lived in.
I have a bit of inspiration in my place. My bookcase is packed with hardbacks, paperbacks, magazines, Field Notes, Moleskins, and Baron Figs. On the walls are prints of photographs I’ve taken over the years. But looking at some of the aforementioned office spaces, I know there is much I could do to enhance the life, vibrancy, and overall inspiration of my own workspace.
Distraction Poor: A good workspace empowers us to do our best creative work. Distractions are pretty much the opposite of inspiration and motivation. In addition to not letting myself check any stats or social media before I’ve put in my morning writing time, I also get rid of physical distractions in a couple of ways.
For one, I clean up my desk at the end of the day so that tomorrow when I come down to work, there’s nothing left undone that I need to tend to first. Secondly, I put on headphones. I work form home, but right upstairs are two toddler boys whose superpowers include turning into tornadoes.
Efficiency: This is threefold. For one, it’s critical to have the right tools for the right job. You wouldn’t want a butter knife when you’re trying to cut down an oak tree. Secondly, get the best tools you can. I don’t mean get the best tools period, get what you can afford and what you can handle. Lastly, a good workspace is efficient in that it can accommodate what you use on a regular basis and that everything is easily accessible while not also being in the way.
Multiple Spaces: This one’s a luxury, but it’s also so great. If you checked out the photos of Sean, Cameron, and/or Jeff’s offices you may have noticed that there were multiple “stations”. Their offices have more than one physical place to do work.
In my office there is my desk, but on the other half of the room is a couch and coffee table. And, even my desk converts between a sitting and standing desk. I have these different stations because not all creative work is created equal. I spend at least as much time writing as I do reading and researching. And that latter activity is better spent not in front of my computer.
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In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna lists Space (as in Workspace, not Outer Space), as one of the four obstacles that stand in the way of us doing our most important work — what she calls our “Must”.
You need a physical space — private, safe, and just for you. When you are in this space, you are not available. I repeat, you are not available. This is your sacred space to be by and with yourself. We all need safe containers. How might you create a safe space that you can spend time in daily? How might you get creative with where it begins and ends? Find this place and make it your own.
The unsung hero of showing up every day and doing your best creative work is your workspace. You may think it’s your determination, zeal, and creative genius. And it probably is. But it’s also that you’ve somehow managed to carve out a spot where you can think and work without judgment, inhibition, or distraction.
Your space doesn’t have to be made with a desk or a computer. I read about one woman who made her workspace by using painter’s tape to section off part of her living room. She ran the tape across the ceiling, down the walls, and back over the floor.
I’ve had many productive days at coffee shops. Find a table where nobody will give you the stink eye if you’re there for too long, put on headphones if you like, and make your space with an Americano as your wingman.
Perhaps you’ve created your workspace intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally. But either way, if you find that you’ve been doing some of your best work lately, take a moment to thank your space.
However, if you’re struggling — if you don’t have a space — it’s time to make one.
On a recent edition of The Fight Spot, I wrote about one of the aspects of doing our best creative work: stepping out of the echo chamber.
The dictionary definition of echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
An enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal (a multi-dimensional repeating of what was once said) and whatever you say is echoed back to you.
Echo Chamber is also a metaphor. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: In media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed.
By nature, each of us tend to sit in the center of our own echo chamber.
When we get too absorbed in the platform, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It becomes noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. And it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
When we look to the echo chamber as our sole source of inspiration, it’s like looking to a bag of chips for our sole source of nourishment. The constant barrage of our timelines and inboxes — those “little updates” — are like snacks and junk food. They will fill you up but they are not a significant form of nourishment.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
The inspiration and motivation needed for your best creative work will not come from the echo chamber.
Limit your feeds and inboxes. Subscribe only to the people and sources of input that enrich your life and give you the motivation and tools to do your best creative work.
Seek out inspiration from offline sources. Such as books, nature, conferences, silence, prayer and meditation, relationships, journaling, building your own projects, etc.
Create something every day. Write in your journal, come up with 10 ideas, take a photograph, draw a sketch, etc.
Curate what you share. Be a source of motivation, encouragement, and equipping to those who follow you. Put thought into the work you publish. Even your tweets and Facebook updates can be nuggets that motivate, equip, and encourage.
A Challenge to You
At some point this week, do one of these things:
Unsubscribe from one RSS feed or email newsletter, or unfollow one person on Twitter or Facebook.
(You should feel free to unsubscribe from my site / newsletter / unfollow me on Twitter — if what I am writing isn’t helpful to you at this time, or isn’t providing you with the motivation and tools to do your best creative work, then cut it out. You only have so much time, and the last thing I want is to be a non-helpful source of input in your day.)
- Take 15 minutes to find inspiration from an offline source. Read a chapter from a favorite book, put your phone in another room and just sit in silence, take a walk outside, etc.
Create something. Write a journal entry, take a photograph, draw something, come up with 10 ideas for little ways you can show your friends and family how much you love them (you don’t even have to act on the 10 ideas you come up with).
Do something to encourage or equip someone else.
Before you move on from this article, decide which one of the above challenges you’re going to do and make a time in your week for when you’re going to do it.
Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work.
But as anyone who writes or draws or takes pictures for a living will tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be excruciatingly painful. Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. Creative work wears on your mind and your emotions instead of on your joints and muscles. Not to mention the sheer horror involved in the act of taking something you’ve created and putting it out there in public in the hopes of making a dollar so you can make something else and put it out there again.
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On Episode 5 of The Weekly Briefly, Patrick Rhone was my guest and we were sharing some bits of writing advice for people wanting to build a website audience. One of the foundational principals we both agreed on was the immeasurable importance of having fun, which is not as easy as it sounds. As I mentioned above, publishing your creative work to the internet for all the world to see is often a very not-fun thing to do.
Patrick said something that is an excellent guiding principal to help you keep your writing fun: write the internet that you want to read.
There is something freeing about creating for yourself. When we take hold of that baton and create for that second version of ourselves, it’s like having a permission slip to do awesome work. And what better way to have fun than to do awesome work? There’s an inverse truth here as well: most of our best work comes from the place of delight. When we are excited about a project, that creative momentum propels us to think outside the box and to dream new ideas as the project takes residence as the top idea in our mind.
Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, would agree. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1990 at the Kenyon College commencement ceremony:
If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.
And here’s James Altucher in a Facebook status update about how to write for a living:
The most important thing for me: writing without fear. Writing without judgment. Writing without anger. Making writing fun. Writing right now. Writing is about freedom and not money.
Now, as you probably know all too well, in practice it’s not that easy. But you and I are not alone in our fight to stay creative. We can (and we should!) set ourselves up for success. By identifying the things that suffocate fun and creativity, as well as knowing the things that encourage creativity, we can wage war against the former and cultivate the latter.
Let’s start with the bad news first.
Stiflers of creativity
Below, I’ve listed the things that will cut off our ability and/or desire to do our best creative work. These are things that will whisper in our ear that our idea is pathetic and our implementation of it even worse. They urge us to give up, to move on, to quit, and to pacify our minds. They tell us that we have nothing unique to offer, that we have no value, and that everything will come crashing down any minute, so why even bother.
Isolation: Being alone from any community, any peer group, and anybody who you can bounce ideas off of, get feedback from, and just other general human contact that reminds you of the fact you’re a real human being.
Ambiguity: Having unknown goals and trying to complete them in an undefined manner with a hazy schedule. Without clear goals, an action plan to accomplish them, and a schedule for when we are going to work, then we just meander around not actually doing anything.
Fear & anxiety: This includes fear of failure, fear of rejection. It can paralyze us from even getting started on our ideas because we fear it will come to nothing in the end anyway. Or we fear that when we are finished, people will reject our work and reject us as the author behind it. The problem here is that it puts all the value on the end result only, and places no value at all in the journey of the creative process itself. There is nothing wrong with failure and rejection — we can learn so much from those things! And there is no shortcut for experience. We mustn’t be afraid of failing nor of being rejected, and we must place more value on the act of creating so we can find joy in the journey and develop a lifetime of experience in making things.
Shame: Feeling inadequate as an artist at all, embarrassed about the work we’ve done, even embarrassed about the future work we haven’t even done yet. When we feel shame, we shy away from our big bold ideas and the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and we make something completely devoid of life and opinion.
Doubt: Doubting that we have the skills to make anything at all; doubting our value as a creative person.
Comparison: There is a difference between learning and gleaning from others and comparing our work to theirs. Where there is comparison there is often envy as well. And this deadly pair will choke out any originality we have. Ray Bradbury, from his Martian Chronicles introduction, wrote: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Disillusionment: This is “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” We can get disillusioned in a million ways, and often the result is a loss of vision for doing our creative work. I avoid disillusionment by steering clear of the things and the people that represent what I consider the “worst” things of my areas of interest and work.
When we live with these stiflers of creativity as a permanent ailment for too long, it can lead to burn out. The solution isn’t to quit our creative endeavors altogether, but rather to get rid of the ailment. I will say, however, that quitting (or taking a sabbatical) works sometimes because when you fully remove yourself from the situation you have a chance to deal with the ailment in a new environment.
Identify these enemies in your creative life and wage war against them. Give yourself permission to do what it takes to set yourself up to do the best creative work you can do. Quit Twitter. Move to Atlanta. Only write and publish after 9pm at night. Whatever.
Stimulators and proponents of creativity
These are the things we want to cultivate as much as possible. Build these into your life and guard them with tenacity. These are not replacements for talent, knowledge, and perseverance — rather they are the things that serve as both the seedbed and the greenhouse in which creativity grows and flourishes.
Community: You need community to help cultivate your ideas, encourage you to keep working, and to speak truth to you about the things you’re afraid of. If you work from home, community can be tricky. Have a chat room where some of your close friends are available; get out and go to coffee shops or parks; work from a coworking space regularly; eat meals with friends; actively engage in non-work-related relationships.
Clear goals: Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. Overcoming that is often as simple as defining an end goal. Of course, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just want to go out and take photographs and who cares what you shoot. Nothing wrong with that either, of course.
Trust: You have to trust your skills, trust your gut, and trust your value as a contributor. You’re not an impostor. And the more you learn and the more experience you gain, the more your skills will grow. But if you wait until you’ve “arrived” to begin your journey, it’s a logical impossibility that you will ever actually arrive. You have to step out the front door and start walking.
Experience: The more times we’ve gone down the same path, the more familiar with it we become. Experience breeds confidence. And confidence is the opposite of doubt. Thus, the more we do the work, the better we get at it. In part, we are getting better because that’s what happens when you practice. But also, we get better because the confidence which experience breeds helps us to loosen up, relax, and take new risks.
Rest: A surprisingly critical part of maintaining a consistently creative lifestyle is stepping away from the creative work at hand in order to recharge. The mind is like a battery, however — it recharges by running. Don’t default to TV and video games as your forms of rest. Get plenty of sleep. Take walks or drives. If you work with your mind, try resting with your hands and build something out of wood or plant a garden. Read. Etc.
Diligence: This includes spending our time wisely, having a routine, focus, and automation. Diligence isn’t a personality type, it’s a skill we learn. Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sure, inspiration often comes to us when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
Other factors and variables
There are some response-based factors that don’t make or break an artist in and of themselves, but, depending on what they are (and our response to them), they can empower or handicap us.
Tools: Tools do not an artist make nor break; but the right tools can empower us to be more efficient and the wrong tools can slow us down.
Constraint: Constraint often breeds creativity because it forces us to think outside of the box, but too much constraint can actually stifle a project’s full potential.
Praise & criticism: The positive and negative feedback of people can be dangerous. If we take it to heart too much, it can easily lead to pride or depression. We should glean from the feedback we get, but not let it steer us in our goals and direction. One of the most dangerous questions a creative person can ask themselves is: “What if the critics are right?” If they’re right, you’ll already have known it. Let the council of your peers lead you, not the one-off praise or rejection of strangers.
Success & failure: Similar to praise and criticism, success and failure can be dangerous. Our successes and failures should be things we learn from and use as stepping stones in our ever-continuing journey to make awesome things. Successes and failures should be celebrated and learned from, but don’t treat them as stopping points.
Environment: A positive work environment can do wonders for your daily creative productivity. A distracting environment can stifle things. Do what you can to set up and maintain an awesome environment that fosters inspiration, creativity, focus, and fun.
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As Hemingway said: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Alcohol aside, the point is that creating without inhibition results in better work in the end. Have fun when making, and go back later to fix those typos and bunny trails.
But, that’s not to say fun is the premier goal that in the fight to stay creative. The goal — the hope — is that we can do our best creative work, day in and day out, for years and years.
What’s so great about having fun in our creative work is that it stands as a signal, telling us we are “in the zone”. When we’re having fun in our creative work it usually means we feel safe to dream big and to take new risks. Not to mention, when we’re having fun, it gives us a natural energy that helps us persevere and bring our ideas to life.
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P.S. This topic of staying creative has a significant presence in my book, Delight is in the Details. It’s such a critical discussion that I also made a video about it. You can watch the video here and buy the book here.
There are some apps which, due to the nature of their usage and/or contents, seem to earn a more personal connection from the user than other apps. Twitter apps I think are like this because they’re filled with the life updates, corny jokes, and selfies of our friends and family. Writing apps also can garner a connection with their users because they serve as the tool where we express our thoughts and feelings.
And though one might expect an RSS app to be insipid, or, at best, utilitarian, I find them quite the opposite — because they’re filled with the recent articles, photographs, and stories of my hand-chosen, favorite writers, photographers, and news outlets.
An RSS reader is the window into your curated world.
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Like so many other life-changing moments, my relationship with RSS readers began in a church pew.
It was a Sunday morning in early 2007, and our Church had Wi-Fi, and I was sitting in a back corner with a friend, and instead of using my PowerBook G4 to take notes I was surfing the web reading all my favorite blogs.
If you’ve read my review of NetNewsWire, you’re already familiar with the story: I used to keep all the blogs I enjoyed reading in a bookmark folder in Safari on my Mac. But that Sunday morning, sitting next to my friend, he introduced me to an RSS reader.
“You can follow all those sites in one spot, you know?”
I didn’t know.
He set me up with the RSS reader in Safari (which has long since been removed). But I soon moved on to Vienna, and then NetNewsWire 3.1 on the Mac (which, in my humble opinion, is one of the all-time best pieces of Mac software ever).
I’ve also used Google Reader, NewsGator Online, Reeder for Mac, iPad, and iPhone, ReadKit, NetNewsWire on my iPhone, Byline, Fever, and probably a few more.
And now, today, we have Unread. It’s a brand new RSS app for the iPhone, and it is fantastic.
I have been using Unread throughout its beta period for the past two months, and in that time it has quietly usurped the previous RSS reader on my home screen.
Unread works with Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, and Feedly. I’ve been using it with my Feed Wrangler account and it loads my unread items extremely quickly.
Unread is also very fun. It’s full of subtle animations and easy gestures. The app is understated, extremely readable, and welcoming.
It’s not that there’s anything in particular. There’s just a simple elegance to it. The app is well designed and nice to use.
It’s on launch sale for just $3 and I think it’s worth 10 times that. I paid $30 for NetNewsWire on my Mac half a decade ago, and now, years later, I’m using Unread on my iPhone instead.
Unread is somewhat different than any other app I’ve used before. And yet it’s also quite familiar. It has all the expected features — you can send an article to Instapaper or share it on Twitter or text message it to your friends — and yet they feel unexpected. The share sheet slides in from the right-hand side, and feels akin to the bouncy and playful animations of Tweetbot 3.
I’ve long been a fan of Jared Sinclair’s design taste, and I consider Riposte to be one of the finest apps on my iPhone. I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is, but if I had to explain it in one word then I’d say Unread is peaceful.
But my hunch is that Unread will prove to be a somewhat polarizing app. Some, like me, will love it. Others, undoubtedly, will not like it.
The app has nearly both feet in iOS 7, but there is still a toe or two in iOS 6. There are little things — such as the design of the status bar at the top of the screen — that still feel reminiscent of iOS designs from yesteryear. But don’t read that as a dig against the app’s design…
The status bar doesn’t look like it belongs in the past, but it does have a slight nostalgic feel to it that is reminiscent of the more skeumorphic, graphics-heavy iOS designs of old. I am a fan of the status bar.
When talking about Riposte, developer Jared Sinclair, said this:
We take push/pop transitions at face value: swiping to go back is like pulling yourself back to where you were before. If I can’t picture an app as a set of cards laid out in a grid on a table, I can’t understand it.
That exact same gesture-reliant design philosophy is prevalent all throughout Unread as well. The set of cards include (starting at the left-most, topmost “card”) the Home screen, the list of subscribed feeds and any folders or groups, the list of articles in those feeds, and then the article itself.
Hovering (theoretically) at all times to the right, is the share/action card. Pulling from right-to-left in any screen slides in the share sheet. From there you get access to a list of relevant actions and settings.
Common settings include changing themes (dark, light, and others), marking all articles as read, and more.
But the action sheet shows different options based on the context of when it was summoned. If you’re acting on a specific article, for example, then you have the option to “Share” the article and thus send it to Instapaper, Pinboard, OmniFocus, Twitter, your Safari Reading List, and more. To share a specific article directly from the article list view you have to tap and hold on that article.
By using this gesture-based share sheet, Unread has no persistent toolbar when reading an article. When in the various list views you see the status bar on top and a “navigation” bar on bottom that tells you where you are in the app. But when reading an individual article, you’re in full screen mode with nothing visible but the article itself.
Navigation and density
Unread’s home screen is where you start with access to the app’s settings and other special miscellany, as well as the RSS syncing platform of your choice (FeedWrangler, Feedbin, and/or Feedly). You then drill down to the high-level list of your feeds under your syncing engine account, and from there you can select which list of your articles you want to dig in to: all unread, all articles, one of your smart streams or folders, or your specific site feeds.
All of these sections — these “cards” — exude the basic design philosophy and opinion of Jared Sinclair: that the app would be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. But it is especially present when perusing down your list of individual unread articles.
Unlike most other RSS apps I’ve used, Unread shows considerably more content-per-article when viewing the list of articles. I’m used to seeing a condensed list of articles that shows each article title and time of posting (akin to email). In Unread, however, you see the article title, name of the website, time of posting, the first few sentences of the article, and, if there is an image as part of the article, then the image is shown as well.
Unread is not dense.
At first, this less-dense view irked me. But I quickly acclimated to it and now prefer it, even look forward to it.
Scrolling is free. In a context where I am assessing each individual article to decide if I want to read it or not, viewing just 2 or 3 article summaries on the screen at a time can be just as efficient as viewing 5 or 6 headlines. In fact, I’d argue that this less-dense list view is more efficient. For one, it presents more data per article, allowing you to read a bit of the article to help with your decision to drill down and read it in its entirety or not. And secondly, it is far easier to make a choice between 2 options than 6.
I do have a few nits to pick, however.
As it is now, when you are done reading an article, you can not go directly on to the next unread article. It would be nice to be able to go from one unread article to the next without having to go back to the list first.
By default, unread items persist in the list of articles (in a grayed-out state). You can get around this by tapping directly on the unread item count in a list instead of tapping on the list’s name in which you will see only the unread items in the list. However, I wish this behavior were reversed.
When you’re going to read a web page, the previously-loaded web page is there waiting for you until the new one comes up. Something about this feels slow or unconsidered to me.
It was the design of Unread that hooked me right away — the app is clean, friendly, and warm, and all its type is set in Whitney — but the more I used it the more I began to appreciate and enjoy the functionality and feature decisions built into the app.
Unread is refreshingly simple and elegant. If you subscribe to RSS feeds and read them on your iPhone, take some time and use Unread for a while — I think you’ll be glad you did.
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You can get Unread on the App Store (still propagating) for just $2.99.
This is a guest post, written by my good friend, Josh Farmer.
I may have a mild form of Aspergers, which makes me somewhat awkward in social situations. This is especially true when I get into nerdy conversations about very specific topics I enjoy. Typefaces are one of those topics.
What follows is an alphabetical listing of great typefaces from 2013. I hope it gets you thinking about how to branch out more into the world of type, whether in your creative ventures or as an informed reader.
Alverata by Gerard Unger
Gerard Unger, one of the patriarchs of modern type design, is still going strong. For part of his Ph.D., he created Alverata as a new take on Romanesque forms. Inscription is the basis for this face, which can be seen in its sharp, short serifs and flared forms.
Alverata comes in three weights (Regular, Informal, and Alternates), each with their own purpose and feel. The Regular is just what it says on the tin: basic characters that play well with eleventh- and twelfth-century history. The Informal set introduces an unexpected softness with such things as a single-story a and calligraphic terminals. The Alternate weight is made for all kinds of medieval scenarios, goth lite logos, or maybe the next dragon movie.
Bree Serif by Veronika Burian & José Scaglione
The extremely popular upright italic, Bree, got a charming seriffed cousin this year. All the personality is alive and well in Bree Serif, and now it has the added benefit of working in more scenarios.
Bree began as the typeface based on TypeTogether’s logo; it was an expansion of the e–T ligature Veronika created for their wordmark. The spry upright italic has been one of their most adored and most used typefaces since its creation. Bree Serif began as a Google Fonts project and matured into a full-fledged counterpart to Bree that comes in 12 weights and speaks multiple languages. It still has the looped g, y, and z that everyone recognizes and it includes alternate forms. As readable in text sizes as it is distinct in headlines, Bree Serif puts a pair of modern glasses on Bree’s face. We all know it’s our fun-loving friend, but now we know she’s serious about having a fun night out.
Domaine by Kris Sowersby
What can I say about this type family? It’s gorgeous. Every curve is considered, every sharp point inviting. Its high class contrast will steal the money right out of your wallet and you will be all the richer for it. Seriously. Your type IQ will increase by using Domaine, which will cause others to rush to join your elite fan club. (Elite fan club not included.) Domaine is classy, erudite, and still fun. Its characters look like they began with a paintbrush and were finished with pen. It’s James Bond with a loosened tie.
FF Dora by Slávka Pauliková
Yet another strong release from FontFont, the team behind fontshop.com. FF Dora’s hybrid personality mixes the freedom of brush strokes with the restraint needed for a text serif. It strikes me as a contender to the great Skolar family, though it has only six weights so far. I love seeing the bulge created by the turns of the brush at the baseline when retracing a stem, such as with the italic m. Other lovely touches: the asymmetrical dot on the i, the inktraps on stem–curve joins, the italic k, the wide stance of the typeface itself, and how the stems are slightly flared.
The display version takes every aspect three steps further, daring you to slather its personality across something mundane. And who doesn’t love the section and dagger symbols? The only improvement I would have requested is more alternates for each character to expand the painterly possibilities. And ponies and world peace, but one thing at a time.
Exquise FY by FontYou
Exquise is great when you want some pizzazz with your Didone substitute. I love the diagonal modified terminals that curve in on themselves, the numerous beautiful ligatures, and the gently curved strokes that finish off some letters, such as the lower- and uppercase k, v, and w. Due to these qualities, Exquise is elegant when used large and it won’t let you skip too quickly when used smaller in text.
Haven’t heard of FontYou? Think of it as a font hub where you can submit your type doodles, see those from others, vote, and then buy the ones that get awsome-ized (that is, made into real typefaces). It’s your neighborhood farm-to-market fonts that you can have a hand in creating. This is organic at its finest.
Kumla by Göran Söderström
Söderström has put out some fantastic typefaces over the years, such as Trim, Siri, Heroine, and FF Dagny — each with a very specific goal in mind. Now we are treated to the best remake of something worthy of a Russian version of Star Trek.
This high-waisted typeface feels that way thanks to the shallow bowl on the R and P, the quick curve of the S, and how the N connects its two stems. Use it in place of Eurostile, as a futuristic replacement for Helvetica (gasp, sacrilege!), as a more industrial version of Neo Sans, or to create some unforgettable branding.
MVB Solitaire by Mark van Bronkhorst
Sometimes what you need isn’t so much a show stopper as a workhorse that blends into an overall scheme. Web historians might put Verdana and Lucida in that do-it-all wallflower category. Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Mark Simonson have winners in this category with Whitney and Proxima Nova, respectively. MVB Solitaire belongs in that dignified grouping. Its enormous x-height means it’s easy to set as small as you want without any worries about legibility, and the lowercase g takes on different personalities in each weight.
MVB Solitaire is a straight shooter with just enough personality to pair well with almost anything. This means that, though no one would put these faces in the same category, MVB Solitaire can stand in equally well for Gill Sans, Myriad, Futura, or Verdana.
Magasin by Laura Meseguer
Magasin is a friendly connected script based on the flattened oval. That geometric foundation makes way for the connections to be seen, and the separated strokes show how each letter was formed. As for me, I love the pilcrow, British pound, and Registered symbols. If you ever get the chance to rebrand the Madeline cartoon and they’re ready to change the hand-drawn wordmark, put Magasin on the list.
Dieter Hofrichter of hoftype.com
Dieter Hofrichter gets the award as one of the most prolific typeface producers each year. Last year he released 11 faces; this year it was six, of which my eye is drawn to Capita, Foro Rounded, Quant, and Qubo.
Granted, some releases are rounded versions of typefaces Hofrichter has already created, but that doesn’t make his productivity any less impressive. His typefaces are great for setting a textual tone and are optimized for setting medium or long texts, so try one of his to replace your normal text face. How easy is this to do? Super easy, because Hoftype usually gives away one weight of each new family for free. Keep an eye on Hoftype next year. Who knows how many new faces we will be graced with in 2014.
Remo by Thomas Thiemich
Oh, happy retinas, Remo is here! Thiemich has a way of crossing categories better than almost anyone in type design today. I was immediately drawn to his exhaustive Alto type family, with its friendly inner raindrop shape and variety of widths and weights. He’s back once again showing off his serious design skills and his eye for what works across several decades of type design. If a relaxed geometric is what you need, instead of another strict redrawing on a grid, Remo is it.
Thiemich started with strict geometry, but then moved on with more charm and maturity than you would expect from a turn-of-the-century typeface. Each stroke is pushed toward the outside of the block of space it inhabits, so the thin glyphs feel like they maintain about the same area as the heavy weights. If Remo were alive, I’d imagine it got frozen in time as it inhaled.
Check out the difference between the thin and light weights of the M; the center apex moved down. The curls added to the a, d, and l, along with the cheery s, create gentility. The low-waisted R, Y, and S are begging for some Broadway attention, but don’t pigeonhole it to 1920s New York; the a, J, Q, and l would never feel at home there. And that’s the genius of this type family — it fits multiple styles like a glove. I love the descending italic f and the face’s enormous x-height, but you might be just as happy to replace the overused Futura. Or Univers. Or Avenir. Or Mr. Eaves. Or Broadway, you Windows users who still want to use the marching ants effect. When you’re ready to get a typeface that can handle so many different decades, Remo is your man. This typeface makes me happy.
Sauna Mono by Underware at underware.nl
Forget the days of coding headaches. Sauna is interesting to look at — even fun. So far, monospaced typefaces have been bitmappy, annoying, and just horrid. Nitti put a dent in that universe but didn’t truly change the expectation. Sauna Mono is the answer to, “And what normal person would ever want to look at a coding font for hours each day?” Someone who is staring at Sauna Mono, that’s who. Sauna has personality and good looks; it’s definitely not your grandma’s mono, which sounds weird now that I’ve said it. Classy, readable, and with another text and display family just waiting to be discovered. If you do any coding behind the scenes or screenwriting important scenes, you should check Sauna Mono out. Why not do your job well and love the typeface you’re using at the same time? And I do mean love. Don’t just take whatever mono Sublime Text has packaged, get something you will love. Sauna Mono fits this bill.
Supernova by Martina Flor
Ever since Lettering vs. Calligraphy took the font world by storm, I’ve been waiting to see a brush script come from Martina Flor’s hand. Supernova is her brilliant release that doesn’t lose one ounce of energy, regardless how it’s used.
Supernova’s most amazing feature? It’s readable. Yes, it actually works in short- to medium-length text. She made five weights specifically for text and one with more expressiveness for use in huge sizes, appropriately called the poster weight. She then added a few alternates for each glyph and some decorative elements such as curls, frames, slathers, and dollops. My gut feeling is that she had to force herself to stop adding alternates and decoration. Supernova is cheeky and vibrant. It’s perfect for packaging and will also add some much-needed charm to the neutral or overwrought geometric typeface you were forced to pick by some faceless committee. Not that this has ever happened to me you.
Zulia by Joluvian and Ale Paul
Zulia is an expressive, legible paintbrush face with great alternates. Quick turns and extended swashes are the easiest to notice, but look at the downward strokes for a lesson in controlled speed. This typeface is precisely what Sudtipos are known for.
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A final thought. I’m making two calls: This will be the year of the alternate glyphs, and a year of focusing more on multilingualism in type.
We’ve seen much of these before, but I think it’s increasing substantially. We’ve seen type designers create awesome things from scratch and breathe new life into entire categories, so now I think many designers will use alternate glyphs to distinguish themselves and their typefaces. We’ve seen a bit of this in the past, especially with well done scripts such as Underware’s Liza. Lately there’s been a trend toward sans and serif families with a greater range and the ability to switch tones. Alternates for characters such as a, g, e, s, and l provide just such a tonal distinction. Read Kris Sowersby’s article on Metric & Calibre to see how easily and effectively tone can be changed through just a few letters. I’m guessing this will become standard practice, in tandem with a long-awaited multilingualism for major releases, in which type families are created from the start with something more than the Latin alphabet as the driving force. What would the Latin alphabet look like if it came through the filter of the Cherokee language first? Little experiments like this are happening all the time, and I think the world sees better with pluralistic, artistic glasses on.
So here’s to this past year in typefaces and to the great start of 2014. Because, in case you didn’t know, just since I began writing this article several more typefaces were released. And that’s great news.
August is a great month to shake off the late-summer slumber and gear back up for the awesome work you’ll be doing the rest of the year.
In my time working on Delight is in the Details I did a lot of reading. I read some new (to me) books and revisited some books I’ve read over the years in my own journey to become a better writer and designer.
Here are some books I recommend adding to your queue. Some are practical, some are inspirational, all are awesome.
By Frank Chimero.
We all believe that design’s primary job is to be useful. Our minds say that so long as the design works well, the work’s appearance does not necessarily matter. And yet, our hearts say otherwise. No matter how rational our thinking, we hear a voice whisper that beauty has an important role to play.
The Shape of Design is one of most enjoyable and inspirational books I’ve ever read on the subject of design. Frank is a genuine artist, through and through. After I finished his book I felt empowered and encouraged as a designer.
By 99U (edited by Jocelyn K. Glei)
These people sabotage themselves because the alternative is to put themselves into the world as someone who knows what they are doing. They are afraid that if they do that, they will be seen as a fraud.
This book is filled with about 20 short chapters, each one written by someone else (the above quote is from Seth Godin’s chapter). The book talks a lot about time management, focus, and creativity.
By Seth Godin
Don’t worry about your stuff. Worry about making meaning instead.
Seth has an uncanny way of encouraging creative individuals to make great art while reminding them that they are not frauds.
By Stephen King
I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.
Much of this book is filled with stories by Stephen King about his life and childhood and how he became a writer. Just writing about it here makes me want to pick it up and read it again.
By Anne Lamott
My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.
Another one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. Anne’s writing is enjoyable and entertaining. Some of the best writing and design advice I’ve ever heard comes from Anne, especially her emphasis on writing a crappy first draft because the most important part of writing is to sit down and actually begin doing the work.
By Natalie Goldberg
(I gave away my copy of Writing Down the Bones and have not yet replaced it. So, alas, I can’t pull any highlighted passages to quote here. You’ll just have to get your own copy and read the whole thing for yourself.)
Reading Natalie’s book is a lot like sitting in on a question and answer time where people ask all the right questions and she gives all the right answers.
You don’t have to read the book front to back. The chapters are short and fast and can be read completely out of order because each one is its own nugget of advice or food for thought. And quickly, Natalie begins to feel like a trusted friend — someone who’s not afraid to shoot it straight and who has nothing to hide.
Some books tutor you on how to write better; Writing Down the Bones will help you to become a better writer.
By Scott Belsky
You can only stay loyal to your creative pursuits through the awareness and control of your impulses. Along the journey to making ideas happen, you must reduce the amount of energy you spend on stuff related to your insecurities.
Centered around Thomas Edison’s famous quote that Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, Scott writes with a fondness towards the creative professional. This book is a guide for taking the constant flow of ideas we have and turning them into reality.
This is one of the few books that I have gone out and bought multiple copies of so I could give them away. I highly recommend it to anyone with a creative, entrepreneurial, or otherwise adventurous bend towards life.
If you like interviews and behind-the-scenes personal stories, then you’ll love Insites. Keir Whitaker and Elliot Jay Stocks conducted quite a few interviews with some well-known folks (such as Mandy Brown, Jim Coudal, Jeffrey Zeldman, Tim Van Damme, Jon Hicks, Jason Santa Maria, and Tina Roth Eisenberg to name a few). It’s beautifully laid out, printed in full color, and is full of, well, insights from some of the best creative professionals in the web community.
What’s in my Queue?
What’s next for me? Here are a few of the books in my queue:
P.S. If you’ve got a suggestion that should be in that list, feel free to pass it along.