What Would Happen If You Tried To Answer This One Question Every Day?

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Monday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, saut̩ it, whatever. MAKE. РJoss Whedon

Have you ever wondered why you do what you do?

Many of us never set out with a grand plan for a career – we might have chosen subjects in school that worked for us – and ended up taking a temporary job but somehow staying there for a couple of decades.

I’m not sure I know that many people who really had a clear idea of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

I’ve seen one – a little boy who writes and draws stories – and who wants to be a writer when he grows up.

The rest of us tend to muddle through somehow – taking whatever route seems like the path of least resistance.

I found a book on that by Robert Fritz called The path of least resistance – which has an interesting little model that’s worth keeping in mind.

He asks why Boston is laid out the way it is – streets going this way and that.

He says it’s because the first paths were trodden by cows as they went about their business.

A cow, seeing a hill, doesn’t see it as a challenge – something it must climb – it simply finds the easiest way to get around it.

And this, Fritz says, should help you get three key insights.

The first is that animals, people, things, follow the path of least resistance.

The second is that the path they follow is determined by the terrain, the structure they’re in.

A river, for example, follows the terrain, the contours of the land as it makes its way from the heights to the sea.

The third insight is that you can change your terrain to something that works for you – something animals and rivers don’t really think too much about.

What all this leads to is an answer.

An answer that says that the reason you are where you are right now is because you took the easiest path given your environment – the structure of your life.

I don’t know what you do – but the chances are that you’re happy doing it, or not happy.

If you’re happy, don’t bother reading any further.

If you’re not, then the question I think that’s worth asking yourself is “What did I make today?”

I think if you really want to get in touch with yourself – you have to figure out what the creative part of you wants.

If you’re not sure what a creative part is – just watch a child.

Children just do this – they play and imagine and make things up.

And sometimes, they make things.

They run to you and show you – they want you to get involved – they want to teach you.

“Look at this thing I did,” they say, “Let me show you how to do it as well.”

Children get bored and crabby when all they do is watch telly.

They light up inside when they make stuff.

And I think we do as well – I know that when I create something I’m a lot more satisfied than when I don’t.

Creativity for me is writing, drawing and programming.

Sometimes it’s designing, repairing, teaching.

Sometimes you’re in a job where you don’t get a chance to make stuff – you’re busy getting other people to do things, moving stuff on, chasing, brokering, selling.

So, perhaps there you need a hobby – as many people do – they create and make in their spare time to make up for what they don’t get at work.

So, here’s the thing.

I have a theory that if you end each day knowing that you’ve made something that didn’t exist when the day started – you’ll be happier.

But first, you need to make it possible to do that.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why We Need To Understand What Really Goes Into The Creative Process

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Sunday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There’s no one way to be creative. Any old way will work. – Ray Bradbury

Is anyone else finding that being at home with the kids all the time makes it hard to work the way you always do?

I think that’s because kids always want to check out what you’re doing and if it’s more interesting than what they’re doing.

If you’re using a screen – a phone, a computer – they want some of that action.

So, because we want them to spend time playing and reading and all that kind of stuff, we turn the screens off.

And that makes it difficult to do things that involve screens – especially if you like drawing or writing and tend to use the computer a lot for that kind of thing.

But, if you use paper and pencil, that’s much less interesting.

They might join you at the table doing something that looks like schoolwork they’ll either start doing the same with you or they’ll get on and play – either way you get them doing something that kids should be doing.

And what I do at times like these is instead of getting on with working I start looking around for how other people do their work.

You will remember, for example, that Roald Dahl wrote all his books with Dixon Ticonderoga pencils on yellow legal pads.

I bought a box of HBs and was quite disappointed with the quality of the modern Ticonderoga.

Japanese alternatives like the Tombow Mono 100 or the Mistubishi Hi-Uni are silky smooth and beautiful to write with.

Pencils are great because you can lie on the sofa and write upside down but they lack the impact of ink.

And that’s just the mark making tools.

What about paper – do you go with the legal pad or standard A4?

If you read Robert M. Pirsig’s Lila, you learn about how he collected information on 4×6 slips of paper, thousands of them, from which structure of his book emerged.

Or you could read about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system which is based on what he learned from Robert Greene.

Then you have John McPhee and his approach which involves first taking notes and coding them, then cutting them up, moving the pieces around, in a highly customised editor – the equivalent of a pair of scissors.

This has echoes of a Zettelkasten – another note taking method that was an early version of hyperlinked pages implemented using index cards.

Now, you will realise that I have already gone quite deep into things that probably don’t matter – unless you’re one of those people for whom it matters very much.

The point I’m trying to make is what you see is not what there is.

For any person who takes on the task of creating something – an article, a book, a business – there is lots you don’t see.

But there are three crucial things you have to get right if you are one of those people.

The first is to realise that the product is what comes out at the end of the process.

If you start trying to get your product perfect the very first time, you will probably paralyse yourself into inaction.

Take writing, for example, the chances are that the first thing you write is going to be rubbish.

But, if you don’t get that rubbish down, you’ll never get to the next stage – the rewriting and editing which results in better, tighter, cleaner text.

So, you need a method to create your product – a method that helps you work through the broad idea of what you are trying to create and break it down into smaller, doable parts.

The third essential thing you have to do is create a way to join up the parts you create – you need a kind of glue to keep them together.

All the elements I described above are parts of people’s methods.

Interestingly, when I searched for images of McPhee and Kedit, the editor he uses, the image from one of my articles about writing came up.

I use a method that is a combination of McPhee’s, Pirsig’s, the Zettelkasten, and the tools that make up a Unix based programming environment.

It’s not a method I would recommend that anyone else uses because it’s customised to fit the way I work – and I’m trying to combine analogue and digital tools in a way that helps me create the kind of work I want to do.

I like literate programming, a way of creating stuff that separates out the thinking and doing.

For example, you might have thoughts about what to put in a chapter – ideas, musings and so on.

Then there is the actual stuff you write, the text you want to go into the printed document which is based on the thoughts you had.

I like having both these in the same file and extracting the bits that are going to make their way into the final document.

Angst and output kept together, but able to be separated when needed.

And, of course, with text processing tools, it’s a doddle to glue everything together – I’m not sure there is much use in using index cards for that purpose, unless you really like the analogue approach there.

So, here’s the thing about being creative.

If someone likes what you’ve made at the end of your process – that’s a huge bonus.

But everything that matters is in your process – however that works for you.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What to do when you’re struggling for ideas

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Sometimes I’m out of gas – running on empty – and the ideas just aren’t coming.

I want to write, I’m sat waiting for inspiration to strike. And I’m still waiting.

What am I doing wrong? And what could you do differently?

You wouldn’t be here at all

The first thing I should have done is kept the hopper full. The hopper is the collection of jottings, the notes from the day. The things you noticed, the things that stood out, the things that made you stop.

And the hopper doesn’t need to be that full. Say you write once a day, like I do, all you need is two or three ideas in the hopper and you’re sorted.

If it stood out in the first place, it’s probably a good one – good enough to get a first draft out anyway.

You’d look around for inspiration – go wide

We’re surrounded by stuff that could inspire us. All you have to do is pick up a book, or do a search and see what else is out there. The chances are that something will catch your eye.

The trick is taking an idea and making it your own. It’s not enough just to copy something that someone else has done. That’s no use.

Instead, it fusing a few ideas together and coming up with a new one that creates something interesting.

Still stuck? Focus – go deep

Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells the story of a student who came to him, wanting to write a 500 word essay about the United States.

He had a sinking feeling, and told her that might be too much – to focus instead on their town.

She came back and was still struggling. Narrow it down, he said, to the main street of the town.

Still no joy – she couldn’t think what to write.

He was furious now, she just wasn’t looking.

“Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street”, he said, “Start with the upper left hand brick“.

She came back with 5,000 words.

Narrowing it down and starting with the smallest detail had finally unlocked it for her.

Finally, step away – but only when your forehead starts to bleed

Much advice on becoming unstuck says to take a break – but when is the right time?

Not straight away. Not right at the beginning.

First – spend some time just staring at the screen. Focusing. Willing yourself to have an idea.

Just sitting.

Why is that important?

Because what you’re trying to do is get your mind to move, like a stuck screw. And like that screw, you can’t just try once and walk away. You need to try it every way, apply some pressure, hammer it, scream a little – try until you’re exhausted and can’t do any more.

Then you walk away.

Then… you’re brain does its magic thing and moves and unlocks. When you come back, it happens – the screw turns and the ideas come pouring out.

And when all else fails?

Sometimes the right way is to take the wrong one

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Have we been trained to focus – to set a destination and make our way there?

As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?

Does that mean that successful people and organisations have the equivalent of a success satnav – they program in where they want to go, and that’s just where they end up.

Rod Judkins, in his book The Art of Creative Thinking, writes about how we get so used to routines that we get stuck.

We develop habits, ways of moving and working, of getting from A to B, that mean we start to act automatically and stop being aware of what we are doing.

A tactic to to jolt us out is to do things that disrupt the everyday normal habits we have – what Guy Debord termed psychogeography.

For example, we could take the same route as we normally would to get into town, but try doing it carrying a sofa.

Would we have a different experience? Would some people help us? Would we have interactions we would never have had normally?

Judkins calls this going from A to B via Z.

Somehow, when I looked at this line, I read it completely wrong.

What I saw, and what stayed with me as an image, was to go from B to A via Z.

And this results in a different approach.

We’ve heard of the saying fake it till you make it.

Any startup founder will always say yes when asked if they can do something. They know that if we sign the contract, they’ll figure out a way to deliver.

There’s an infinite number of ways we can go from here.

There are usually only a few ways that end at a particular place.

For example, let’s say we’re doing a presentation about something we know a lot about.

We could talk for a long time and elaborate on every nuance of the situation.

And put our audience to sleep.

Or, we could focus on just the things that matter to them and bring out the main information, the key aspects of the situation that help them understand and clarify what they need to do.

And that would be a technically competent presentation.

Or, we could focus on the things that matter to them but take them first on a different path – perhaps something they didn’t expect to see, which wakes them up and gets them to become more aware and pay more attention to our message.

And that would be a great presentation.

Boiled down, that might mean starting with what the audience wants and needs to know, opening and setting the scene in a surprising way, and then delivering the information that will help them understand what needs to be done and take action – and that’s what many TED speakers do.

Or, expressed as a formula, B to A via Z.

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