What Does The Road Not Taken Look Like?

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Tuesday, 8.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

To know what people really think, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say. – George Santayana

The real world is a difficult place. I think we forget that when we spend most of our time in digital spaces and imaginary worlds. In those places everything is reversible – you have a delete key and an undo button and anything that is wrong goes away and anything that is left is right.

Except, it often isn’t. It’s left all right but that doesn’t mean it’s good or complete or finished or useful. It just is – digitally perfect and devoid of reality.

But of course that’s not fair. The artifact is the responsibility of the creator and if someone pushes something imperfect into the world then that’s their decision and if it’s any good then it might survive and if it’s not then it will be forgotten. And that’s ok because that’s how things should be.

I might have written about this before but I might as well remind myself what I think. I’ve been reading the odd bit of material where someone self-promotes their stuff, trying to big it up, place it in a higher context and claim that it is the apex of a particular kind of knowledge. It’s not and that gets pointed out by the kind of people who feel like they have to point out stuff that they think is wrong. And, of course, they do this on social media.

So, I ask you, does it matter what people on social media think about what you do? Should you engage, respond, get angry or be happy if someone likes your stuff and says nice things or hates your stuff and says bad things. Does opinion matter?

Well, it does to most of us because ego is a fragile thing and we like to be liked and we don’t like it when people have a go at stuff that we create. But here’s the thing. Once you’ve created something and put it out there, into the wild, whether it survives or not is now up to it and its environment. Take the self-promotional thing I was talking about earlier. In this case it’s a model of a particular kind of thinking. If it’s any good then people will try it, and write about their experiences. They’ll reference it in their papers and it will become a widely cited piece of work. If it’s any good, that is. If it’s really good it could become a seminal piece of work – the grandad or grandmom of a field.

But if it’s not, no amount of self promotion will save it. It will die, abandoned by even its adherents as they see that the idea has no following. Followers matter because it’s people who review what you’ve done and decide it’s worth having in the world that eventually enable your creation to live or die. You can’t flap a bird’s wings for her – she has to fly on her own.

Now, what this leads to is that you can do things the known way or you can set out into the unknown. And the known way includes the way you’ve done things so far. If you have a pattern, a flow a way of doing things then you might need to ask yourself what happens if the world as you know it ends? What happens if you run out of road?

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Take my own writing process, for example. Over the last few years I’ve established a rhythm – a flow of starting and finishing and coming up with something and getting it out into the world. And, as you do more of something, the more it becomes its own thing.

That makes me nervous – I’m not sure why. It’s like I have to test that when something is working it’s going to keep working by trying to break it. So, I’ve broken my process and it results in all kind of confusion as I try and work out what that means and what I should do next. For example drawing on paper rather than digitally creates all kinds of new questions – from the quality of the paper to how it reacts with different pigments and markets and how to get it into the computer and do something useful with it. And then there are those lines – and what you do with them and whether it’s ok to go outside them every once in a while.

There are questions about what you’re trying to do with the work you’re doing. Is the objective to create as much as possible or is it to work towards less but better? Do you try and get it right the first time or do you work towards a finished product in iterations? People do all these things in different ways in different contexts and it takes time to figure out what might work for you or for me. But you can’t think your way to the answer, you have to set off into the dark, onto the dirt track and just start walking. Hoping that there is something out there for you.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Manage Your Energy Or Someone Else Will

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Monday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Energy conservation is the foundation of energy independence. – Tom Allen

I’m a little low on energy today. Maybe it’s a biorhythm thing – the charts that I look at when I think about this sort of thing show everything at a low. Maybe biorhythms don’t mean anything but electric circuits do and I think they have something useful to tell us about living well.

Tom Allen’s quote has to do with energy, power, the stuff that comes out of a generator. But it could be applied just as well to whatever else you do. I’m starting to think that life is a zero sum game, where every unit of energy you give someone else is a unit of energy you don’t have for yourself. And that makes managing your energy really quite an important thing to get your head around.

For example, your creative energy can be used to work on your projects or work on your employer’s projects. If you use them to work on “work” projects you just won’t have enough energy left to do your own stuff. How many graphic designers go home and paint for the fun of it? How many chefs cook? How many writers write? I suspect those who do are careful not to give their all work, saving some energy, conserving it, so that they have some left when they get home and want to do a bit more.

I think that’s what’s happening today. I’ve spent a long time on a particular project and it’s just drained the energy I have left over. So, you might say, that’s ok. Take the day off. No one will notice if you don’t do what you want to do because that’s what you want to do. But that’s a dangerous argument, once you take a day off, it’s easy to take another day and then another one and before you know it a few years have passed and you don’t feel like you can do anything any more.

So, even if you’re tired you need to do the work. You need to get on and put something out that’s what you want to do. And that’s where the way to break out of a zero-sum game lies. It lies in routine and leverage.

First – you can keep going with muscle memory, just momentum from routine and the previous day’s work can keep you going even when you’re running on empty. Sort of like a flywheel that stores just enough to get you over the hump.

The second is to use leverage. Tools that help you do more quickly. Tools are amazing and if you get your toolkit working for you it’s going to help you out most during those times when you have little left to give. The tools will look after you if you look after them.

And then you’ll have another day behind you and time to recharge and start again.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Doing The Right Things Fast

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Sunday, 7.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The primary factor in a successful attack is speed. – Lord Mountbatten

I have always believed that doing things fast is important. That’s because people are usually willing to give you a small amount of time to try something out but balk at giving you long periods. So, if you’re the kind of person who needs to get it right then you’re best off doing it the way that you know works – following the recipe exactly and honing your ability to get it right every time. I imagine that’s the state of mind a master sword maker has – someone who follows a sacred routine that’s been perfected over generations of practice.

I’m not a good recipe follower. Instructions tend to bore me and I find it very hard to pay attention when I have to do things in order. I like trying new things and if I have to do something – I’ll probably approach it in a way that’s quick and easy and dirty and hacky and see what happens. This has been a useful approach professionally – because I get given tasks that people find hard because I’ll figure out ways to get them done while the people who are good at doing the job do the things that we know how to do. So I end up doing things that are innovative – or at least different.

The flip side of being innovative, however, is that you can end up never doing anything well. That’s ok when it comes to business because the whole point of being part of a company is to work with people who have complementary skills so that you do more as a team than any one of you can do individually. But when it comes to doing your work – the work of your life which is the same as the art of your life then you need to take a different approach. Fortunately, I’m finding out that the way you do that is a refinement of my “speed is best” approach rather than a choice between fast or good.

But first, let me talk about a few people who are on YouTube and who I’ve been learning from over the last few days.

Christopher Hart and Terry Moore are well worth checking out if you want some brilliant tutorials on drawing cartoons. What’s great about watching professionals draw, rather than reading their books, is that you get to see their pencils move and, in particular, the sort of processes they follow. It’s one thing reading a book that says rough out your picture and then fill in details and a completely different thing watching someone who knows what they’re doing work through their process. It’s a funny thing but people who know what they’re doing tend to forget how to do it and make terrible teachers. I remember this vividly when we first had children. You forget what’s its like and advice from mums and dads was pretty useless and even people who were a few months or years ahead seemed to forget the details of how they did what they did.

Anyway, this point, about first roughing something out and then working towards a finished article is the opposite of what I do – back to that speed thing again. I get on, at full speed, get it done and then move on. And it probably shows, in my writing, in my drawing, in the material that’s on this blog.

And when you start doing it the slow way it’s painful. For example, in the image above I started with an idea and then realized I had to draw a particular kind of figure so tried to work it out and then had a go at the piece again. Now, if you know how to draw you’ll find all kinds of mistakes I’ve made. The ones I can see, given my lesser knowledge, include an inability to work out which limb goes where and the fact that you can smudge your work if you try and erase pencil lines without waiting for the ink to dry. Paper is unforgiving in this respect, when compared the to the digital approach I’ve taken for the last four years. Digital is fast but has not made me any better. Paper and pen and sketching have made me more aware of what needs to be done and where my limitations lie and where I need to improve.

So let’s talk about Ivan Brunetti. There are a couple of YouTube interviews with him and they are going to leave you conflicted on whether to admire him or pity him. This is a person who has done covers for the New Yorker, who has a legendary status in the comics arena and knows all the big names in the field. He is also someone that talks about suffering from a clinical level of depression that leaves him unable to pick up a pencil.

His experiences echo what the theory tells you. Should you go for the safe secure job or follow your heart? Is it important to work hard and push yourself or do something every day that accumulates over time? What does getting old do to your ability to produce – do you speed up or slow down?

We all need to work out our own approaches to these things. On the one hand technology can make us so much better at doing things. If you use computers in the right way they will augment you. If you use them in the wrong way nothing changes. Back in 1993 a Microsoft memo talked about how the world “writes with PCs” and how spreadsheets have replaced the columnar pad. But, even in 2021, people write in the same way they’d have written with a typewriter. The way you should write using a computer has been around for forty years but it’s never going to catch on because the tools most people use don’t support it. What most of us read, however, webpages written using html, does.

The thing about starting with a rough structure and then refining it – that fundamental process is actually the fastest way to get to a drawing that works. It’s also the best way to build a business that works or a business plan or anything else. And when I talk about doing things fast it’s pretty much the same thing. If you’re doing something new then you’re not going to get it perfect the first time you have a go. You’re going to have to feel your way to it, with initial exploratory work, finding the boundaries, the outline and then starting to work on the detail.

There are a number of reasons why doing this is hard in business. People don’t like to admit that they don’t know what the right answer is. Or they’re too scared to contradict the boss. There’s lots that happens in organizations and bureaucracies and companies that happens because we’re not willing to work towards a solution, preferring to work instead on what the top person wants. The two may not be the same thing.

After all, you’re going to get somewhere whatever you do. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it when you get there. But the thing you can definitely do is enjoy the journey.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Figure Out What You’re Trying To Do

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Saturday, 7.45pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There is always another way to say the same thing that doesn’t look at all like the way you said it before. I don’t know what the reason for this is. I think it is somehow a representation of the simplicity of nature. – Richard P. Feynman

In my last post I looked at how children approach art and how their relationship with with it changes over time, starting with unselfconscious “making” and then stopping when they start to realize that what they’re making is “not good”. And that’s a feeling that doesn’t ever leave us and, for many of us, we grow into adulthood not being good at the arts – not being able to draw or sing or dance and perhaps never going back to it again.

One reason we don’t go back, perhaps the biggest reason, is that it takes time to get good at something and, as we get older, we have less and less time. By the time we reach the ripe old age of eight the chances are that we know what we’re good at and what we’re not good at and know where we should spend our time. This probably has something to do with the 10,000 hour rule – if you start playing the violin at age 2 and practice three times a week until you’re 8 for 2 hours at a time, you’d have gotten in just under 1,900 hours. If you grew up in a household of musicians you’d have been exposed to music all that time. So, when it’s time to pick extracurriculars you’d probably go for music and when it’s time to get picked to play – that’s probably going to be you and the rest of us are going to stand in the background and hope no one see us.

Now, while there’s the whole thing about the 10,000 hours being about world class performance – it just so happens to be the amount of time you’ll spend on stuff you like doing all the way through school and the time you’ll spend on the career skills you learn in those first few jobs and you’ll end up being pretty good at that thing you do. But at the rest, not so much. So you stop.

But, of course, the point is that you don’t have to be world class at everything. You don’t even need to be good. You just have to be able to do stuff that makes you feel good and being able to do things like draw and sing and dance make you feel good but they are so scary to learn when you’re an adult and want to be good and, more importantly, hate to be seen as being bad. According to Josh Kaufman you need around 20 hours to be able to do something to a reasonable standard. And if you follow Tim Ferriss you can be world class if you play the rules rather than playing the game.

But I think the first thing to get clear on is whether you want to make money doing this other thing or not. If you already make money in one way – from a job or a profession or whatever – then you should keep doing that. The definition of work, as I understand it, is doing something that you would rather not do. So, make that thing bring in as much money as possible, preferably taking up as little of your time as possible and spend the rest of your time thinking about your art. And get clear that you’re not doing it for money – that helps. Eventually, if you’re lucky, your art may bring in the money but you need to be clear that it’s not about that. The rule to remember is this – if you do something and you get paid right away then you’re doing it for the money. If you do something and then some money maybe turns up, much much later, then you’re not doing it for the money.

Now, once we’ve got that straight, and this is me talking to me as much as it is to you, we need to look at the thing we want to do – and for me that thing is figuring out this whole drawing and writing thing because there’s something in there that intrigues and interests and excites me. The title and subtitle of this blog weren’t there from the start, they’ve emerged over time as the elements that persist in my work, using handmade artifacts – yes, words and pictures are handmade – to make sense of first the business of business and now the business of living.

And I’ve got to feel my way into a position of balance. And I won’t get there by thinking but by doing and making and the more of that I do the more what’s important will become obvious. Why do I think that? Well, it always has. When you pay attention to something then you start to see more and that seeing seems to make stuff visible. Stuff that was there all along but that you didn’t have eyes to see yet.

There’s something here that has to do with the story you tell yourself. Stories seem very important. After all, your basic biology lets you figure out the really important stuff – whether to stay where you are or run away. But the human part of you, then, is all about the story. The changes are that right now if you had nothing else you had to do you’d sit back and immerse yourself in a story, a book, a film, something that took you over. A business plan is a story. Your own goals, life plans, motivating messages are all stories you tell yourself. Science is a story that you can check out for yourself.

What’s the best way for you to tell the story that matters to you? I started yesterday with a child’s drawing. At the other end is a photo – a picture of reality that is as detailed as you could probably want. You could tell your story just using words or you could use a movie, a hyper-realistic graphic novel – any kind of media that you’re qualified to use. Unfortunately for me I’m not qualified for any of those other than perhaps typing out words. But maybe cartoons will help, cartoons that help me work through ideas rather than just relying on words. Perhaps one like the image that starts this blog – maybe that’s a form of representation that can work with the limited skills I have to get me where I want to be.

So… as I carry on do I look at the technicalities of cartooning and writing or do I try and explore a space by asking questions and seeing if cartoons can help me. There are lots of people who are much more qualified for the former activity – so perhaps I stick to the latter. Or I can try one approach and change later… there are no restrictions, after all. Maybe we just have a chat and see where it takes us.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Can Children Teach Us About Art

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Friday, 10.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

When children draw or do rudimentary painting, the whole human being develops an interest in what is being done. This is why we should allow writing to develop from drawing. – Rudolf Steiner

I have been thinking about art and drawing and images for a few weeks now and realized that I should park my other book project and have a go at a new one – because there is lots to learn and uncover about the world of the unwritten – the not-word.

And the place to start is the beginning, the way children draw. I always learn most when I work with my children and as the latest lockdown has enforced home schooling again, this seems like a good time to watch and learn from them. So, what kinds of things do we see?

I am fascinated by the way kids work with colour and ink and paper. My younger one is at the upper end of the age range where one draws unselfconsciously. On the 27th of December, 2020, he drew a picture and, for the first time, said, “It isn’t very good,” and scratched over it. I rescued the image and put it in my files because that was the point, that is the point, for all of us, when we start to worry about making good art, rather than just making. And when we worry about whether we make good art or bad art then the easiest thing to do is stop making art at all and that is what happens to most of us.

But, on the whole, there is still that childish desire to make marks and when I watch him draw the lines are bold and go over each other and have jagged edges and the bad guys are clear and the point is clear and I wonder what is it that a child has that we adults don’t when it comes to the paper and the marks they make.

And that’s not a new question, but it’s not one that appears to be very well answered. For example, there is a chapter in the book Understanding Children edited by Robert Grieve and Martin Hughes titled “Children’s pictures.” What they say is that children seem to develop about the same way through the ages – there is an age-stage thing happening. You have a range between random mark making, on the one hand, and exact representation on the other. Children start off by trying to represent what they see and they focus on the characteristics that are most prominent – the ones they notice. They are less worried about getting the image right than getting the thing they want on there. For example, in my picture above, things like a sword or a cape or a red face are the elements that are important, not wrinkles or shadows. Recently, cute eyes have been a feature of drawings, though…

They get better at representing as they get older, with perspective entering the picture. But also, along the way, we have the entry of symbols, representations of what we think rather than what we see. So you have the inclusion of stick figures to represent people rather than the main features of a particular person. For example, in early pictures you will see the exact colour of your granny’s jumper but later, it might just be a granny like person.

Eventually, the symbols become a more compact and efficient way to represent meaning. The logical conclusion of using symbols is to end up using written language and much “visual” thinking these days is really a symbolic representation of complex concepts in the world. We’re not really thinking visually but instead taking advantage of a different symbolic language to capture elements that are harder to show in normal language patterns, most significantly relationships between things. For example, you could create a numbered list of things but it’s easier to show interrelationships between the elements on that list with a flow chart.

So what does it mean when an adult tries to draw like a child, like I’ve done with the image that starts this post. Is it doing what Lynda Barry was asked if she did – being faux naive – faking naivety? Is it simply poor representation of a child that hasn’t learned how to either draw something so it more closely approximates reality or replace the image with words? Or is there a child-like way of seeing – something that sees what is there rather than what you expect or hope to be there. A kind of seeing that points out that the Emperor has no clothes?

If children draw in a way that sees what is there – that looks at reality unblinkingly then what can we learn from that as adults? We know the world is not simple, that isn’t all about goodies and baddies and that baddies sometimes win and get away with it and goodies sometimes lose and are forgotten. And in real life who is good and who is bad depends on who you are and what you think and what your point of view and history happens to be.

So, we’ve looked at art as a form of representation and as a form of symbolic language and sort of as a way of seeing what’s actually there but we need to try and not miss the most important point, the one staring us in the face and stamping the floor impatiently, waiting to be noticed.

Art is fun.

It’s fun playing with colour and paint and paper and getting it messy and not worrying – and it makes everything more interesting.

For example, no one wants to do maths or English home study, I don’t and my child doesn’t. The small person had no intention of doing any work – which included writing a story and doing some exercises. So, rather than argue we got the paints out and suggested painting the words for the story and painting the numbers and when you get pot of water and a brush and get some colours and start painting fractions they get a lot more interesting than doing it with a pencil and neatly getting it all down. The homework is a riot of colour and that’s not how it would have been done at school but it’s been done, the child will probably remember it better for a whole host of reasons and I enjoyed it more as well.

So there’s something there – something missed in all the talk about representation and symbols – something about the raw power of making to invigorate us as human beings. I’ve filled three quarters of a composition book in the last week with stuff and flipping through it the image above just feels more alive somehow. And I want to figure out why.

Maybe Ivan Brunetti’s method has a clue somewhere.

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh