Skills and products

One of the best memories I have from the book Let My People Go Surfing is Yvon Chouinard’s emphasis on developing a skill–whether it’s crafting a surfboard or tailoring a jacket. Learning how to do something that’s valuable for society will always put food on the table and provide a sense of self-worth.

I’d also add that it’s not just important to learn a valuable skill or two, but to also work on a creation or object that can be perceived. In the field of education this has often been elusive. Yes, an educated student can be considered a “product” of instruction, but teachers in the past rarely had lesson plans or assessments that stood the test of time. And at the end of the day, the chalk board was always erased.

Not anymore. Now teachers can produce a YouTube video that teaches viewers worldwide about photosynthesis. Textbooks can be written and shared as ebooks. Students can read blog posts as often as they want. Websites can be created. Podcasts can be heard.

The main struggle now is what product of learning should be created first.

The eternal struggle between…

reading and writing.

If you’re like me, you may sometimes feel guilty that you’re reading and not writing, and you feel guilty when you’re writing and not reading. In other words, reading means you’re not producing. When writing, you’re definitely producing, but you’re not gaining new knowledge.

It’s best to view this dichotomy for the silly game it is. Reading is imperative for gaining new insight. Writing is necessary for organizing thoughts and discovering what you believe. The two are inseparable–bound in a creative and insightful symbiosis.

As adults, it’s important to teach this to young people. Knowledge must be acquired and then processed; reading and writing are ways to meet this end.

The early stages

In the early stages of planning, especially in a meeting, it’s best to remain flexible and open-minded. I like how Jason Fried explains this in his book Rework. When his team is in the process of sketching a new idea, they use Sharpie markers. This makes it impossible to get too detailed and lost in the minutia. Creating in broad strokes also makes it easier to collaborate and change direction if needed. Planning all the little things right off the bat stifles options and creative whimsy.

Keeping a loose approach at first increases ideas, and ideas are what’s necessary to not just be creative, but also innovative.

100 years

It’s important to remember that not everything has to be accomplished while you’re young. Many forces in society would have us believe that our 20s, 30s, and 40s are the only decades for securing a dream job, starting a business, writing a book, or growing a nest egg large enough in our sixties to replace our income so we can retire.

As I believe Seth Godin once said, it’s beneficial to view your life as a 100 year span. For adults, each decade will be used to build something. If this means the career must take a backseat in your 20s, 30s, and 40s due to starting a family, that’s OK. During those early decades the “building” will be focused on investing in children and a partner. Kids need just as much time and effort as a demanding job–probably more. Same with a spouse. To focus on advancement in the workforce when time could be better spent with the ones you love is worth considering. Clarification: You can have a great career and raise a family at the same time; however, in some cases scaling back might be necessary to spend the time you feel is sufficient with your children.

This means that real “career” productivity and success will come later than the Silicon Valley startup stories would have us believe. Maybe your business won’t begin until your mid-50s. If you’re assuming life will last 100 years, and you’ve made the decision to consistently contribute to your local and global community, then there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever slow down. With this perspective, you build a family (if you want) and then build a career that you can pour yourself into once the kids are independent.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, which is why I was impressed by Liza Mundy’s recent article about Janet Yellen [HT: The Dish]. Yellen will be 67 when she assumes the role as first female chair of the Federal Reserve. From the article:

It’s a liberating notion, really, to think that you don’t have to accomplish everything in your life – or “have it all” – simultaneously; that leaning back during one life stage doesn’t preclude leaning in later. Along these same lines, any number of workplace experts and career gurus are urging women to think of their career not as a “ladder” but as a lattice, or a jungle gym: Horizontal moves are followed by upward ones, followed by horizontal ones, etc. It may take longer to get to the top, but it doesn’t mean you won’t reach it eventually.

I love the lattice analogy. “It may take longer to get to the top, but it doesn’t mean you won’t reach it eventually.” What great advice. Moving horizontally and vertically to take care of those you love and build a career that helps others is a beautify way to live. Notice how retirement doesn’t come into play. Even if you have a proper retirement, learning, growing, creating, building, and loving never stop.

There are seasons in life–times where certain plots are tended and others lay fallow. Wisdom is knowing what to pour yourself into for 100 years.

Let them hit you

Displaying your art for others to view is a daunting prospect. Whether it’s a painting on the wall, a story on a website, or a song on iTunes, once you put what you’ve created into the public sphere, interpretation is up for grabs. And trust me, everybody is a critic.

Initially, you’ll hear the work is good. This is because the first people who critique it love you. Soon, you’ll display the art for others to examine. Then you’ll produce more. After some time of fighting the resistance, you’ll have a body of work that garners more attention–either because it’s good or for the simple fact that there’s more of it to be seen.

At this point, you’ll experience some criticism. This is natural and beneficial. Everyone wants the positives and (some delicately worded) negatives.

Here’s the thing: Many of the negative comments will not be delicate. In fact, they’ll be uncomfortable.

This reminds me of Fahrenheit 451. A man named Faber warns Montag that making mistakes is OK–even when other people call you on it. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Listen. Easy now,’ said [Faber] gently. ‘I know, I know. You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was younger I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.’

Faber’s not talking about creating art, but he might as well be. Some people are born geniuses, but most of us need to make bad stuff and get knocked around a bit so we’ll learn. Then we’ll make good stuff. The kind comments are swell, but the unkind comments stay with us. The trick is to learn from both positive and negative constructive criticism.

So let them hit you. Put your heart out there. It will make you strong. It will hone your “blunt instrument.” You’ll learn–and most importantly–you’ll get better.

Creating in the moment

Ray Bradbury is one of my go-to authors when it comes to understanding the creative experience. His advice about constructing the plot of a story mirrors many other great writers. Here’s an excerpt from his introduction to Fahrenheit 451:

I sat down to another nine-day schedule to add words and scenes and turn the novella into a novel of some 50,000 words. Again, an emotional process. Again, as before, I knew that “plot” could not be imagined ahead of the event, that you had to trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you. You followed and found his footprints in the snow. Those footprints, after the fact, found in the snow, are “plot.” But they can only be examined, intelligently, after the emotional sprint, or your actors must quit the stage. In ballet, any dancer who asks himself what step comes next must freeze. Any man who takes a sex manual to bed with him invites frigidity. Dancing, sex, writing a novel–all are a living process, quick thought, emotion making yet more quick thought, and so on, cycling round.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think Cormac McCarthy wrote “plotting is death.” I’m pretty sure Bradbury would agree.

Bradbury says you must “trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you.” In trusting your character, you’re trusting yourself. Sketching the whole plot ahead will make the story artificial. Imagine a slightly older person who has undergone plastic surgery. The lip injection or facelift may be unassuming at first, but upon closer inspection, the work is unnatural.

The dancer who thinks about her next step or the man who brings a sex manual to bed are acting unnaturally as well, so the results won’t be dynamic. Better to live passionately in the moment. This goes also for creating.

 

Separateness

When trying to create, I find that taking a break from technology is a necessity. To be able to exist apart from all that is so easily accessible makes writing or drawing much more productive.

If I’m being honest, I’m addicted to technology: email, Internet, Netflix, Kindle, iPhone. Sometimes I have to take a step back and endure loneliness in order to create with a true sense of spirituality. It’s hard for me to write about David wandering in the desert when I’m listening to music or have the television on in the other room.

Such minds as Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard concurred with the idea that being tolerably separated from outside influences is essential in cultivating exceptional intellectual development. Being separate helps us think on our own.

Staying away from the news and other sources of opinions helps me to construct my own thoughts and feelings about how I perceive the world. Then I can go back to those outside sources after I’ve done my creating. For me, there’s really no other way I can creatively operate.