Measuring Creative Productivity

Austin Kleon just wrapped up a tour for his latest book. During a stop in Chicago. Eddie Shleyner asked him a great question: “Do you ever feel like no matter how much work you do, you can or should be doing more?”

This question immediately resonated with me; it’s an issue I’ve personally struggled with and am currently struggling through.

Thankfully, Eddie recorded his answer and transcribed it on his blog:

“Yeah, always,” he said. “If you get into that productivity trap, there’s always going to be more work to do, you know?

“Like, you can always make more. I think that’s why I’m a time-based worker. I try to go at my work like a banker. I just have hours. I show up to the office and whatever gets done gets done.

“And I’ve always been a time-based worker. You know, like, ‘did I sit here for 3 hours and try.’ I don’t have a word count when I sit down to write. It’s all about sitting down and trying to make something happen in that time period — and letting those hours stack up.

“So that’s sort of how I get over it.”

I love this. I love that the answer is simply to sit down and try and get some work done. If you don’t make it, that’s okay: try again tomorrow.

I think most people — certainly creative people — put a lot of pressure on themselves to deliver every day. We aim for perfection. I think the pursuit of output, rather than the joy of the chase, keeps us from doing our best work. Perhaps even more dangerously, it leaves us worse off as people.

A friend of mine told me that Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men and The Road (among many other popular novels), had to stop hanging out with other writers after he stopped drinking. All of his writer friends drank until inspiration hit, and he thought that was a poisonous attitude.

That idea, of creativity beholden to vices, keeps us from doing our best work. It keeps us from facing the blank page and making something. The fear of perfection will literally drive us to drink.

So what can we do instead?

We can sit down, measure our hours rather than our output, and make something. As Shawn Blanc says (and I love this), we can create without overthinking.

May 22 2019

New Year’s Resolutions for Creative People

I’m the sort of person who needs a list of goals in order to accomplish something. Early every year, I come up with a theme for the year and a few goals to help me keep my focus.

This year, my theme is about hunkering down and fostering my creativity. With that in mind, I’ve got a few goals that I think will be useful for anybody who wants to do something creative in 2019.

  1. Grab life by the balls. if you’re going to do something, do it wholeheartedly. Not halfway. Doing something halfway is worse than not doing it at all.
  2. Consume less. Create more. For me, this means spending less time on YouTube and my Nintendo Switch, and more time making things. This isn’t a challenge to work more. It’s a challenge to spend more time playing your favourite instrument — even if you play poorly. You don’t, and won’t, always make good things. That’s okay.
  3. Be aware of your needs. Do you need a new camera? Find the right one for you and buy it. Don’t waste hundreds of hours on research or the comments on DPReview. Just figure out your needs, go get the thing, and start making stuff. One day, we’re all going to die. Don’t waste time.
  4. Read more books. This is a notable exception to Goal 2 because it encourages slow thinking in a fast-paced world. We need more of that.
  5. Say no to that which limits your creativity. Like bad clients, Netflix binges, and hangovers. This one is hard. You will fail. Get up and try again.
  6. Act in the face of fear. I’m borrowing this from the great Steven Pressfield (The War of Art is amazing and you should make it one of the books you read for Goal 2). Fear is what keeps us from being creative and becoming who we’re meant to be. Stare that fear in the face and make the thing you want to make. Then you can declare victory, but not mastery, over the fear. Remember, the fear can fight again at any time. It wants to crush you. It knows no limits. But, then again, neither do you…
January 4 2019

Silence

Not long ago, after a long and trying day spent in meetings, I made the 90 minute drive back to my home in silence. No podcasts. No music. The stereo in my car was off.

On the highway, I heard barely any noise. Only the low rumbles of my winter tires, and the whooshing of surrounding traffic as we passed each other, driving into the sunset.

In today’s dizzying world, where we often fill the silence with social media and fast news, the silence and the isolation feel increasingly rare. They create an opportunity for slow thinking — for quiet contemplation.

More than ever, I think slow thinking is exactly what we need.

December 12 2018

Work as a spiritual practice

Over the past couple years, I’ve tried to transform my work into a spiritual practice — not unlike Jiro. As often as I can, I spend a few minutes each morning in meditation with God. On the days I can do that, I find I’m much more at peace with my work. Inviting God into my work changes why I’m working.

I’m reminded of Colossians 3:24:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Our spiritual relationship and development is tied up in our work. Recognizing that has removed a lot of stress from me.

On the other hand, no matter how dedicated you are to your craft, rest is important:

“Better to have one handful with quietness than two handfuls with hard work and chasing the wind.”
– Ecclesiastes‬ ‭4:6‬ ‭NLT‬‬

On his deathbed, will Jiro wish he spent more time perfecting sushi? Or will he wish he spent more time with his sons?

August 1 2018

The spirit of the shokunin

The other night, my wife and I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film is a study of Jiro Ono, the man widely considered the finest sushi chef in the world.

Jiro is a shokunin. A shokunin is a sort of artisan, a person dedicated to the improvement of their craft for the betterment of the public. As Jiro explains it in the documentary:

I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day… I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of the shokunin.

Of course, a shokunin doesn’t have to be a chef. A shokunin is a person wholly dedicated to his or her craft. Director and cinematographer Daniel Olivares made a short film about the shokunin at Varis Japan — craftsmen who make aerodynamic parts for high-speed vehicles.

The shokunin are fascinating because they are perfectly content with something I think many of us struggle with in the west. They dream of doing the same thing, every day, for decades. They don’t appear to have a problem with repetition. They are relentlessly hard on themselves in pursuit of the perfection of their craft.

In our culture, we struggle with the Groundhog Day of our lives: the mundanity of a day-to-day life where much of it feels the same. On the other hand, a shokunin looks for repetition. It is an opportunity to improve. Repetition is a chance to get better.

Jiro just wants the best fish to practice his craft on. He is content with that. He and many other shokunin have transformed their work into a spiritual practice.

This is a noble pursuit.

For those of us outside Silicon Valley, the push towards the “new” can be set aside. We can agree to work on perfecting what we do, and let that lead us where it will.

July 30 2018
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