Category: Creativity

Luck, coincidence and shooting stars

Luck, coincidence and shooting stars

It’s a common esoteric trope that all the decisions you make, big and small, lead to where you are, and that even one small change could lead to a drastic difference in our lives. Some people call this the sliding doors effect, after a 1998 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah in which two versions of a life are narrated: one in which Paltrow’s character makes her train, and one in which she misses it.

I saw a shooting star a couple of days ago. Not the one at the top of this post; that’s just something I found on a free photo site to accompany the text here.

It was about 5:20 a.m., and just as I turned onto the street while walking the dog, I saw it streak across the sky, a blue tail, and then it disappeared. It was framed, perfectly centered, between the two houses at the top of cul-de-sac at the end of the street. It was beautiful, and unexpected.

I immediately thought of the sliding doors effect. All the different choices I had made that morning allowed me to see that shooting star. I set my alarm for 5:02 a.m., intending to get to the gym by 6:00 so that I could come home, do a couple of things and get to work on time. But my daughter woke up at 4:55 and needed some snuggles, so I was out of bed just a few minutes before I had planned.

Normally, I wait for the Keurig to warm up and make a cup of coffee with collagen peptides, but I decided on an energy drink instead. I filled two water bottles to make sure they were cold when I got back; typically I would have done that the night before. I woke up the pup, gave her some love and a little stretch time, then clipped on the leash and wandered out the door.

She sniffed around the bushes at the front of the house; we’ve had some cats spending their nights sleeping there — generally it’s safe from predators and we always have plenty of anoles running around for a midnight snack. Then she followed a trail down the lawn, paused by the mailbox to take care of some business, and then we were able to proceed on our walk, turning left just in time to see the shooting star.

How many of those must I have not seen because I made coffee or the pupper sniffed a little longer or I slept until my alarm instead of getting out of bed a few minutes earlier?


Shooting stars are, of course, not stars. They are space debris burning up in the atmosphere, leaving a trail of dust that forms a visible contrail. As they’re falling, they’re called meteors. If any of the debris hits the ground, it becomes a meteorite.

In many cultures, shooting stars are a sign of luck, or of impending change. In other cultures, they are bad omens.

Either way, shooting stars are beautiful, but fleeting.

Here’s what was really weird about the morning. I got in the car to go to the gym, and, not enamored with whatever low-energy interview was going on just before 6 a.m. on a Sunday on the last radio station I had been listening to, I switched to the local classic rock station (broadcast locally; I’m sure it’s controlled from elsewhere). What song had just started? “Shooting Star” by Bad Company.

I wouldn’t even have thought to lie about that.

It’s a song about a kid who gets a guitar, becomes a big rock star, then dies in his bed with whiskey and sleeping pills nearby. A shooting star — it puts on a big show for a brief time, then poof!, it’s gone.


I’m not much for signs, or omens, or whatever. But I’m into urges. Sometimes they come to encourage us to do something we should be doing. Sometimes they come to encourage us to flex our will power muscles.

The urge that came after I saw that shooting star this morning, was to formulate a little something for the blog. The urge was reinforced by Bad Company.

Perhaps, then, I’ll be back here more often for a while. I need to flex that writing muscle.

what are the things in your life telling you?

Fake it ’til you make it? Don’t

Fake it ’til you make it? Don’t

One of the things we talk about when dealing with impostor syndrome and in building confidence is faking it until you make it — that is, if you appear to be something you’re not long enough, you might become that thing.

The trick here is to fool yourself, but be careful when trying to fool others.

In the early days of the web, when creating a website was magic, some site builders used to go to client meetings and either inflate their skillset or inflate their team size. They could overcharge, and if they ran into something they couldn’t do, they could always contract out to someone else. This is faking it.

If you build up your skill set while you’re faking it, eventually you’re actually making it.

But if you spend too long trying to trick others into thinking you’re big enough, you risk running into something disastrous, like those “War Dogs” kids.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about excellence. One of the elements of faking it is a sense of entitlement. But people actually are good at things, and the good stuff rises to the top.

We spoke to Nick Velasquez about mastery a few months ago, and one of the things he pointed out was that we actually enjoy things more when we’re good at them.

Cal Ripken, Jr. tells Michael Gervais that most of the success in his storied Major League Baseball career came about because he was always as prepared as possible.

Gervais’ podcast, by the way, is called Finding Mastery, and, among other things, he’s the mindset coach for the Seattle Seahawks. He tells Steven Kotler that faking it ’til you make it means you’re faking it, and you can’t be truly you or authentic if you’re faking it.

Ripken said in that same interview that he holds himself to a standard. He didn’t miss a game in 16 seasons — no aches, no sickness, no funerals, no nothing. 162 games in a six-month season, every year, for 16 seasons (some of those seasons were strike-shortened, some were 161 games because of a rainout not made up, but he played all the games available). He never pressured his managers (and he played for nine of them in his 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles) to play him — if he was the best player at his position that day, put him in; if he wasn’t, slot someone else.

He voluntarily sat out that first game, by the way, and it was the only game he missed that season.

Do you have an honest assessment of your skills? Are you actually doing people a service by continuing on your path, or are you trying to trick them? If it turns out you’re trying to trick them, does that align with your moral code?

Replication and interpretation

Replication and interpretation

In his manifesto Team Human (serialized on Medium), Douglas Rushkoff discusses, among many other things, musical notation.

Musical notation, he writes, is meant to let other people play an approximation of the written work, not to replicate it.

To hear what he means, listen to these four pros play the same Bach piece.

All four learned from replicated — mass printed — versions of the same written work, but each put his or her own touch on the piece.

Interpretations. Approximations.

Digital platforms, he writes, don’t interpret the written work. They replicate it. There’s actually software that puts human error into the perfect replications. When something’s too perfect, it seems fake to us.

Humans are good at pattern recognition. It’s why we know that a person we’ve never met before is a person, and a dog whose breed we’ve never seen before is a dog.

We’re also very good at figuring out when something’s not quite natural. The too-perfect beat of early drum machines, before they had error built in. Some facial augmentations. Wax fruit.

We’re not here to replicate other peoples’ work. We’re here to interpret, to put our own spin on things, to own what we do. To be perfectly imperfect. To be original.

Where’s your edge?

Where’s your edge?

If you’re not listening, Brian Koppelman — the creator of Showtime’s “Billions” and writer, among others, of the films Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen — has an excellent podcast called The Moment. He interviews creators (he has a fondness for musicians but also talks to authors, filmmakers and other) about The Moment they were called to create.

He recently spoke with Suzanne Vega. It’s a great discussion, but a little bit immediately stood out to me. I even remember what segment of road I was running when I heard it.

Early in her recording career, before she had the words to describe the sound she was looking for, she told her producer, “I need more edge.”

Her producer responded, “It’s edgy; don’t you hear it?”

“If I heard it, I wouldn’t have said anything,” she replied.

And Koppelman points out the thing: The songs are so clean, the edge is in the lyrics.

Listening back — I was only 10 when her seminal album Solitude Standing was released — her music shares a direct lineage with Patti Smith and Lou Reed and much of the New York punk scene, and yes, the sounds are clear, but the words bite hard.

Where’s your edge? It doesn’t have to be creative, but what sets you apart?

‘The soup is getting cold’: Lessons in curiosity and perfectionism from Leonardo da Vinci

‘The soup is getting cold’: Lessons in curiosity and perfectionism from Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve recently finished listening to the audio version of Walter Isaacson’s excellent Leonardo da Vinci biography. I’m sure I’ve lost something from actually holding this one, but at least it came with a PDF that’s 70-something pages long with all kinds of images and timeline information.

We look up to Leonardo for a lot of accomplishments. The Mona Lisa. The Last Supper. Vitruvian Man. Flying machines. Methods for diverting rivers. Early ideas for a tank for military use. Molds of human organs. Notebook after notebook full of innovations and drawings and notes and curiosities.

More: What creative minds have in common (or don’t) »

But Leonardo was eminently human. You see, he was a terrible perfectionist, and, for lack of a better term, a bit of a flibbertigibbet. He was also supremely curious and inventive, and there are things you don’t have to be born with to emulate the good stuff.

First, a little thing about his life, and how it played in his favor to be who he was: Leonardo was born out of wedlock.

As the first-born son in his family, he would have been entitled to an inheritance, but he also would have been expected to take on his father’s profession. In this case, that profession was as a notary.

When he was 10, his father had the opportunity to legitimate him, which, again, would have made Leonardo the rightful heir over his half-brothers, but it would have been expected for him to become a notary. At that point, it seemed almost certain the notary guild wouldn’t have accepted him, and also that he wouldn’t have been very good at the job anyway.

He would later have a legal battle with his half brothers over some inheritance (he wasn’t entitled to any, but he settled with them for some other rights for them upon his death).

Maintaining his illegitimacy, then, allowed him to go off and create.

Leonardo wrote backwards, in a mirror script. It may have been a code, though an easily breakable one. Or, maybe that’s just the way he wrote. He was left-handed (we know that because of the direction of the hatching in his drawings). I’m right-handed, and when I try to write left-handed, my natural inclination is to reverse the script.

Leonardo wasn’t a fan of what Isaacson frequently dubs (not his term, I’m sure) received knowledge — that stuff we learn in books. He wanted to discover for himself. “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker” is a phrase that shows up in his notebooks.

He worked tirelessly on things he wasn’t paid for, just to sate his curiosity. He made great advances in Euclidean geometry, in human biology, in military technology. He designed a system to divert the flow of the Arno River, though it was never used. He is credited with designing the first helicopter, though it was probably meant for the stage, since he never included it among his military designs. He designed the first tank.

He was mercilessly detailed. Vitruvian Man is actually an improvement on Vitruvius’s studies on the proper proportions for drawing men. Leonardo spent hours with various men measuring lengths and widths, to determine what proportion of the body the head should be, and then from the hairline to the top of the nose, the nose to the chin, the mouth to the chin, ear to ear, the length of the arm, the distance from the naval to the top of the genitals, and on and on.

Leonardo had a very human flaw: he was a perfectionist. And perfection is a stumbling block to good.

The Mona Lisa, his most famous masterpiece, was commissioned in 1503, and was never delivered. He was still adding brush strokes when he died in 1519. His patrons frequently had to renegotiate contracts to require delivery of unfinished work plus return of advance payment if deadlines weren’t met. Some contracts, particularly early in his career, had frequent deadlines — and related penalties — attached.

He sweated over details the way only a true master could, sometimes staring at The Last Supper for an hour or two, making a single brush stroke, then retiring for the day.

He seems to have gained more admirers than detractors during his life, but there were plenty of letters of complaint along the way.

Endlessly curious, endlessly practicing, endlessly perfectionist. Two lessons and, perhaps, a warning from a great master.

But don’t forget to enjoy yourself. “I must go,” Leonardo intimated as the final notes were made in his notebooks. “The soup is getting cold.”

Unhindered by custom

Unhindered by custom

The U.S. Air Force used to be a unit of the Army. That made some sense in the beginning, when you couldn’t carry a large payload on a plane. Airplanes weren’t good at evasive maneuvering, they weren’t very big, and they couldn’t cross an ocean.

As World War II approached, however, the Air Force wanted a way forward as a separate branch of the military, and they set out to make a name for themselves. They began planning on larger planes that could carry bigger bombs and go farther, faster. Some would be sleeker to handle evasive moves, others would be larger people and bomb movers.

In 1929, a small group dubbed The Bomber Mafia began developing the larger bombers. Their motto? Proficimus more irretenti. We make progress unhindered by custom.

Malcolm Gladwell did a couple of episodes on them in Season 5 of his podcast Revisionist History.

The leader of a Masonic Lodge is addressed as Worshipful Master. This is not a divine title; in 1717 England, where modern-day Freemasonry was founded, “worshipful” was a nice thing to call a good person.

A new Worshipful Master will hear on his first night, in jest, and, if he’s done anything important, many times throughout the year in earnest, “That’s not how we did it my year.” Sometimes it’s phrased “That’s not how we’ve always done it.”

But sometimes you need to move forward and break the mold, even in a traditional setting that maintains its ritual as supremely important. Unhindered by custom. The way you’ve always done something gets you the same thing you’ve always got, whether that’s an old fraternity or the food you eat or the ways you goof off at work. The ritual can stay, but some stuff just has to go.

The novel coronavirus the world has faced this year has thrown a lot of wrenches in the works. People out of work. Businesses closed. Governing teams going to remote work. Schools doing the same.

And the protests. Dame Helen Mirren said she was glad to see the young people having balls again. Yes, those were Helen Mirren’s words. That’s their job, she said.

There are a lot of things about this year that have been uncomfortable.

It’s not just SARS-CoV-2. Not just the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and, interestingly, in a few other countries around the world. Not just Trump vs. Biden. Not just the people we’ve lost — not just the collective we, but our family specifically.

People have had to come up with creative solutions. Our closest precedent, the Spanish Flu pandemic a bit over a century ago, was devastating. And that was a much different world: many fewer people, much less technology, much less overall knowledge — both in the professions and available to the populace at large.

This time requires an evolution of the world, unhindered by custom.

My home has become the repository for old family photos when they come off the walls during redecorations. In the home office, where I’m typing this, there is a portrait of my grandfather, whom we called Zadie, after his upsherin, the ceremonial first haircut for a boy, typically around his third birthday. It has his hair braided around the outside of the portrait. You wouldn’t recognize the clothing, and it’s tough to tell whether it is a drawn-then-painted portrait or a photograph with some painting around it (I’d lean toward the second). This would have been circa the fall of 1926.

Next to that image is a portrait, probably a painted photograph, of his maternal uncle or great-uncle, from whom he took a middle name. The man is younger, perhaps middle aged. I have no idea when the portrait dates from, but I know he died in 1923, months before my grandfather was born.

My grandfather enjoyed chatting with his grandkids on AOL Instant Messenger. It was a slow process for him, but this is a man who was born before most homes had a radio, and in-home refrigeration was about a decade old.

He always drove giant Cadillacs, one or two of which had car phones, back when they were big old bricks. He died in 2008, not long after the first smart phones were invented. When he was born, they were still doing studies of the human head to decide how to design the handheld telephone. They finished laying the second transcontinental phone line less than a year before his birth.

If we assume normal life spans, for as much as the world we die in barely resembles the world we were born in, consider what my grandfather would think about the world I’m going to die in. In fact, go back to his grandfather; if we consider a 25-year average per generation (and my first child was born when I was 42, so that’s not always accurate), that man would have been born in 1873. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, among others, were still working on the technology for the first telephonic transmitters. His grandson died in a world with iPhones.

If my daughter has a child when she’s about 25 and that child lives to about 85, that will be sometime around the year 2129. I remember cars with bench seats and rear-facing back seats. Seat belts were recommended but not required. Kids could sit in the front. There were no air bags. There wasn’t even a third break light. Parents could run into the store and leave their kids in the car, with the car running. I certainly won’t recognize the world my grandchildren will die in.

Every generation, or sometimes more often, we decide which pieces of custom stay, and which go.

The 1960s saw a shucking of a lot of social mores.

The 1980s saw an overhaul in the U.S. regulatory culture.

The past 30 years have been a whirlwind of style, sound, technology and more.

I feel like we’re on the verge of something else, though, unhindered by custom.

Attack of the black squares: On virtue signaling, rebuilding and actual work

Attack of the black squares: On virtue signaling, rebuilding and actual work

One of the things I thought would go away with our COVID quarantines was manufactured offense. We were taking care of each other, 10 short weeks ago.

But as we got used to our new normal, we slowly trickled back toward petty insults and cancel culture.

And then the George Floyd protests started. After about a week of protests, Instagram was taken over by black squares. Like this:

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#blackouttuesday #vidasnegrasimportam

A post shared by Thayla21 (@thaylabarret) on

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And so on. You probably get it by now.

Here’s a potentially unpopular opinion: Your black boxes don’t mean anything. Most of the people who follow you are aligned with your political views. You’re not making a political statement in a roomful of people who think differently from you. This is what is called, in the parlance of our times, virtue signaling.

People across the political spectrum do this. Scope out your Facebook feed. Your liberal-leaning friends are posting memes that say, “I, too, believe in liberal ideas! Don’t you believe in liberal ideas, also?” You know, things like “Trump bad, Biden good” and “Fund schools not military” and “More health care, fewer guns.” Your conservative-leaning friends are posting memes that say, “I too, believe in conservative ideas! Don’t you believe in conservative ideas, also?” You know, things like “Media bad and Fox News isn’t media” and “Climate change is a China hoax” and “Babies aren’t a choice.” The grammar on these memes won’t be much better than that, also across the political spectrum.

It’s a show we put on for our friends. And it’s assumed that if you post a meme in one column, you also align with all the other memes in that column.

It helps maintain our tribes, and it gets no real work done.

Have you ever been swayed by a meme you didn’t already agree with?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a long post about George Floyd’s death, protests and more. It was full of facts, context and nuance. Along the way I asked if his death was a figment of systemic racist violence — in this case, wondering if the violence itself was systemic.

What I’m not curious about is whether racism is systemic — not necessarily “are people systematically racist?” but more “I know the system is racist.”

Here’s a pretty good, short explainer:

Yes, there are black people who are able to break out of the system. Yes, there are white people stuck in the system. But it’s a system.

There are people calling for defunding police departments. That’s not a good idea, but overhauling some of them might not be a bad thing. Camden, New Jersey, did it in 2012 and 2013 and saw saw great results, at least through the first couple of years — reduced homicide rates, more police officers on the streets, more community trust. It was a department that couldn’t keep officers on the force and couldn’t keep crime under control, and it seemed to work.

Like I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there are some 800,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. The difficulty is, once you put on a uniform, you represent all of them. If one one-hundredth of one percent of those officers are simply jerks, you have 80 people who ruin it for everybody. That’s a wonderful ratio, but the (now former) officer who killed George Floyd and 79 others across the country make a bad name for the rest of them. Fair? No. True? Yes.

That’s what something systemic looks like, though.

The late great John Baldessari cremated his early work as a signal to himself to improve. Some houses simply have rotten foundations; you need to burn them down and start from scratch.

Others, you strip the floors, pull out some drywall, put in some elbow grease and give them some new glory.

Still others just need a little grout, a tile here and there, maybe some spackling and paint.

All three methods have a couple of things in common: The recognition of what needs to be done, and putting in the work to actually do it.

Let me say that again: you have to put in the work to actually do it.

Hard work is hard. And it’s work.

Funny that something that is hard and also work is called “hard work.”

We try to avoid telling the truth so often. “Social distancing” is really physical distancing. Remember alternative facts? Did we ever figure out what covfefe was? And apparently I’m no longer allowed to wear a Hawaiian shirt.

So much is coded.

But not hard work. There’s only one way to accomplish it, and that’s to do it.

This is a good time to reset. We’ve been talking about this a lot lately on JKWD. It’s a good time to figure out whether you need to burn it down and start over, or whether the bones are good and in need of some love, or whether it just needs some spit-shine.

And once you figure that out, get to work.

Creation, adversaries and disruption: The War of Art, fundamentalism and humanism

Creation, adversaries and disruption: The War of Art, fundamentalism and humanism

In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield puts in terms of art fundamentalism and humanism.

I usually read the book once or twice a year, and this is the first time this particular passage has jumped out at me.

The main character (if you will) of this book is Resistance — whatever it is that is standing between the creative individual and the act of creating. Resistance could be anything from agreeing to meet your friends for the game to spending three hours at the gym to deciding on just one more nap or one more cup of coffee or — worst of all — waiting for inspiration instead of sitting down to do the work.

It’s certainly not the first time since I’ve been reading and re-reading War of Art that I’ve thought about fundamentalism or about humanism, but maybe we should look a little bit about what they are before diving into what Pressfield has to say about art (and by art, he means something creative — books, screenplays, sculpture, painting, etc.).

Fundamentalism, says, is:

1. (sometimes initial capital letter) a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam.
2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.
3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.

And since the definitions of humanism vary so greatly, including one that disavows God (while Pressfield specifically includes God), I’ll include only the first:

any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.

So, a fundamentalist is someone who subscribes to literal texts, while a humanist is pro-people.

“The fundamentalist (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism),” Pressfield writes, “cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past.”

“Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive,” he continues. “There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.”


Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.


I put extra space around that because it’s a good reminder that the narrower your mind, the less you are capable of.

It gets worse:

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil One, seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death.

Pressfield reminds us that the fundamentalists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, that their promised reward was to be a harem of virgins in heaven. They were most drawn to the things their teachings said were evil.


The fundamentalist puts his greatest creativity into the perfect avatar for the thing he most despises.


“The humanist,” on the other hand, he writes, “believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God.”

What’s the difference? Pressfield:

While the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.

“When fundamentalism wins,” he writes, “the world enters a dark age.”

Where are we right now?

I love people. As individuals. As a collective, not so much.

We create tribes. It used to be important: we were resource-poor, inadequately defended and we needed to band together to prevent tigers from eating our babies, monkeys from stealing our food and other tribes from killing our men, raping our women and taking our stuff.

Now, it just gives us a reason to despise others for dumb reasons, like what they look like and what they believe. I’ve written and spoken enough about that in public forums. I’m not here to beat a dead horse.

But if you talk to individuals, you’ll find most of them are rational, generous and empathetic, even if they don’t have a lot of empathy. They are willing to share resources if you ask. They have reasons for what they believe, even if that reason is inheritance (“I believe this because my parents believed it”). They will help a person in pain.

So, if there’s a dichotomy between fundamentalists and humanists (it’s more likely, of course, that it’s a spectrum and there’s a lot of nuance and many other points along the way), I’m firmly on the humanist side.

I keep thinking about John Baldessari, who cremated his early work. This has been my Resistance point. I wrote about it a while ago. And a while before that.

I’m pretty good at destroying my bad art. In recent memory, I dumped a bunch of early tweets; maybe 27,000 or so. I cleaned out my Facebook profile. I axed a couple hundred subpar blog posts. I suspended my Instagram account. I ended my solo podcast.

You can prepare forever. But if you do that, you never actually achieve. That is Resistance.

I keep moving around the office furniture. Cleaning off my desk, letting it fill back up, cleaning it off again. This is Resistance.

I spend time tweaking the childproof-ness of the house. I crawl around and decide swap the card table and the chair, decide I don’t like it and switch back, then decide I liked the change better. This is Resistance.

Steven Kotler and several members of the Flow Research Collective are hosting a series of calls while we’re all quarantined.

During the first call, they discussed something a lot of us are feeling: cognitive overload. I think the term is self-evident when you hear it, particularly if you’re suffering from it. You get overwhelmed and — here’s the important thing — you never get out of the fight or flight response, which means your creativity is stymied.

Not only is that dangerous for creators, it also means that the innovators aren’t innovating as much, and we really need innovative solutions right now, not only as a global pandemic causes a lot of people to work from home and some economic issues, but also as we move into the future when more and more things will be automated and people will generally be out of work in favor of robots.

What’s your Satan right now? Are you putting your energy into crafting the perfect enemy? Is it a virus? A government? Your family? Are you putting any energy into an adversary? If not, good for you!

We need creators. We need art. We need growth. We need less adversity, less energy spent on running scared. We need the right kind of disruption. Go out and make.

Notes on Feck Perfuction by James Victore

Notes on Feck Perfuction by James Victore

“We are all born wildly creative. Some of us just forget.”

One of my favorite books I’ve read this year — and I’ve probably been through 60 or so — is Feck Perfuction by James Victore.

These are my highlights from the Kindle version of the book. I’m going to just leave his words intact here and let them stand on their own; maybe you’ll buy the book and get inspired. If you want further comment, check out the Better Humanhood Podcast tomorrow — I’ll expound on my favorites.

At its core, the book is about listening to your heart, fighting Resistance (in the Steven Pressfield sense), getting shit done, and shipping product.

“Inspiration without action is bullshit.”

“Your parents were wrong. Your purpose on this planet isn’t to become a millionaire, build a 401K, or even get a good job — your purpose is to figure out who or what you are. If you can do that, everything else is frosting.”

“The things that made you weird as a kid make you great today.”

“Weird is about the courage to be who you were born to be. Nerdy, goofy, fidgety; these are strengths. These are gifts!”

“When you accept your weirdness and believe in your gifts is when things get really weird. That’s when your cause inspires others. When people see their own struggle reflected in yours, you create the potential for shared humanity.”

“In the particular lies the universal. what appeals to everyone is oatmeal. What works for a wide audience is prepackaged, easy to digest, and thoroughly bland.”

“In the particular lies the universal.”

“The only thing you learn by following the herd is that the view never changes. You never learn how to express your own truth or beauty and never find out the power therein. You never get to know who you are or what you are capable of. The hardest part is to trust that your story and opinions have value.”

“It’s literally impossible — barring a full frontal lobotomy — for me, or you, to behave like anyone else. There are times for a little ‘get-along-go-along’ social lubrication, but as I see it, ‘fitting in’ denotes a lack of character.”

“The world has enough safe, bland, dull crap.”

“Your attitude creates your reality.”

“In the pursuit of adulthood, we join the Working Dead, spending most of our lives at jobs that financially sustain us, but are less than satisfying.”

“To continue to develop as humans, we need play in our lives — and not just on the weekends.”

“Maybe a crazy idea is not so crazy.”

“Creativity is dangerous. Not creativity as decoration — the perfect mauve wallpaper to match the couch — but creativity as inventing and pioneering.”

“Creative thinking challenges the rules and norms — the way society works. It’s the New chafing against human nature’s habit of questioning and rejecting anything considered new.”

“Every creation signals the death of what came before. Creativity is change, and change is both inevitable and natural. You can fight change, but it won’t end well for you. Or you can choose to accept it and grow with change.”

“Your biggest fear is not spiders or sharks — it’s you. It’s the fear of expressing who you are — lest someone actually see you.”

“Dragons are real. Heroes are real, too. We all have dragons, but we’re not all heroes.”

“No one gives you freedom. It is not earned or doled out over time. You take it.”

“But what example am I to my children if I give up all hope and sell my dreams? I serve my family best when I am happy, excited about my work, and getting paid for my creativity. I want my children and even the public to see me fighting for my living and my freedom, not begging for it. This is certainly not an easier route, but undoubtedly it’s a better one. And one with a better epitaph.”

“The problem with the rules is that they’re generally unisex and one – rule – fits – all. They promote conventional, business – as – usual thinking and don’t allow for the concepts of individuality or play.”

“No one outside of our heads really cares about the nitpicky details we stress over.”

“You know what’s better than perfect? Done. Done is better than perfect.”

“Everything about your life is a test.”

“Life is a test of your conviction and vision.”

“Make the work you want to make, dance like a fool, and leave your ego at the door.”

“As a communication designer, my job is not to communicate. I want to make your head explode.”

“My primary objective is to make strong, surprising, and memorable statements that teach, inform, inspire, or even confuse. To do this, I have to ignore logic and stop making sense.”

“The American artist Edward Ruscha devised a simple rule for distinguishing between bad and good art. Bad art makes you say, ‘Wow! Huh?’ Good art makes you say, ‘Huh? Wow!'”

“As Newton’s first law tells us, an object at rest — like your ass — tends to stay at rest.”

“Experience is great, and practice has its place, but boldness makes way for action.”

“Our parents, teachers, and friends paint a picture for us of what success looks like. It is usually exactly as advertised on TV — the mad scramble for moneyhousejobmoney. Were this brainwashed version of reality true, the world would be populated solely by accountants and bankers. It would be a bleak and dull world with no room for the misfits, artists, and creators who form our culture.”

“Success isn’t a dot on your lifeline that you hit at age 40 or age 65, before immediately retiring or dying. It’s a process that has a very definite beginning — right now — and depends on how you carry yourself at every point along the way. It’s a conscious choice to feel successful that you breathe into your character. Do not wait for success to saunter into your life; there is no papal anointment or secret handshake. It’s a done deal. Congrats. Welcome to the club.”

“Don’t waste your efforts trying to please other people. Make work that is meaningful to yourself first.”

“If, in the effort of bringing people to your cause, you feel like you’re selling yourself, please stop. No one wants to read your sales bullet points or hear a canned elevator pitch you handily memorized.”

“You can’t trick someone into loving you.”

“The antidote to fear is action.”

“The world is brimming with would – be authors, dancers, and entrepreneurs full of bright and innovative ideas, holding the future of creativity inside them. Most of their ideas will never make it to market and their talents will remain silenced. The biggest reason for this is too much thinking and not enough doing, too much worry and not enough action.”

“You can’t be a mover and a shaker if you’re standing still.”

“Systematic and strong growth — for a garden, your business, your children, even your Instagram following — comes from love, attention, and consistency.”

“I have seen countless businesses succeed not because they were genius ideas, but because they continually followed through on their plans.”

“The reason so many wonderful ideas and beautiful sketches are born on bar napkins is that you are in a fucking bar, not at your job, not trying, not working, not forcing your brain through a grinder. Your sense of mirth and play are in an altered state.”

“Complacency is the enemy, and settling down is settling.”

“No one goes it alone. You have no archenemies planning your demise. The world wants you to be happy and to succeed. Ask for help. There are people who have made the journey before you. Reach out to them. Like angels with gifts, they want to share their knowledge and help.”

“Dream big — if you want a pony, ask for a unicorn.”

“We want creative freedom and agile lives, yet we attach ourselves to the very things that restrict our movement.”

“Once, while he was finishing up a large fuse box, his dad reached in and signed the inside of the box. ‘Why did you do that?’ David asked. ‘Artists sign their work,’ came the reply. The point here is about taking pride, ownership, and responsibility for your work. If it’s a good job, ‘I did this.’ If there’s something amiss, ‘I did this.’ Our reputation is all we have, and our signature should be a mark of that excellence.”

“I love being busy, but it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy and confuse mere business with real growth.”

“The hustle and the daily grind can wear you down. Fuck the hustle.”

“Bravery puts you into the game; fear keeps you from doing something really stupid.”

“The secret of the universe is that no one knows shit. No one has the right answer, because no one has your answer.”

“Everyone is making it up as they go; some just fail more successfully.”

“Your flaws, quirks, and extra curves make you stand out. Lead with them.”

“Most of us are terrible judges of ourselves, let alone our work. We’re so familiar with the marks we make that we can’t recognize them as unique or special.”

“The best designers are interesting people first. Smart, funny, and curious people. Here’s my point: Learn everything. Then forget it. Let the original details and nuance blur, put your own imprint on the content and action, then create.”

“You may call it being the change or leading by example, or just doing your best. But if you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself. Real change starts with your education, your empathy, and your awareness of the world around you.”

How to be more creative

How to be more creative

Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often.
——Steven Kotler

This post will be largely prescriptive, generally imparting the prescriptions of others. The shortest version I can give you is this: (1) Meditate; (2) do the work. Just about everyone who generates prescriptions for creativity includes some version of get some alone time, get out in nature or spend some time in silence. And just about everyone says you have to show up and do creative work for creativity to really shine through.

There is one concept I will attempt to explain briefly, without getting as deep as the sources will. That concept is flow. If you’ve ever leveled up in your coding or writing or work or athletic endeavor, perhaps not even noticing that hours and hours passed, you’ve been in flow. The technical term for flow is “transient hypofrontality” — that is, your frontal cortex goes into overdrive for a short period of time.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (you’ll remember him from part 2 of this series) did the seminal work on flow in the 1970s and managed to codify it in a 1990 book. The punchline is that flow creates optimal performance and, in turn, happiness and fulfillment.

Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist, and his research has generally leaned that way, looking at how flow manifests and some of the things that can regularly get you into flow (like something you enjoy that is somewhat, but not too, challenging).

Journalist Steven Kotler has largely become the how-to-get-into-flow and what-to-do-with-it guy. He “discovered” flow after having been in bed for years recovering from Lyme disease and getting dragged out surfing. He went to figure out why surfing made him feel better, and he learned about flow.

Among his books are two focusing on flow: one in extreme athletes (The Rise of Superman) and one in teams from the military to companies and even to individual experience (Stealing Fire, co-written Jamie Wheal).

Kotler has since designed his life around flow, and teaches others to do the same.

In the second installment of this four-part series on creativity, we mentioned that we would discuss specialization vs. generalization this part, and I think near the top is a good place for that.

The obvious argument for specialization is that you can’t become the best at very many things. The obvious argument against it, though, is that if the thing you’re the best at becomes obsolete, you either have to create a new niche for the thing you’re already good at, or scrap it and start over.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to get even very good at a lot of things, but you can get pretty good at several, and innovation often comes from combining disciplines. James Altucher calls this idea sex.

On top of that, if you know enough about several different things, you can hire specialists in those things to combine their expertise. As more and more fields become available, it gets more difficult to become a polymath. Csikszentmihalyi (from Creativity):

Sometime after Leonardo da Vinci it became impossible to learn enough about all of the arts and sciences to be an expert in more than a small fraction of them. Domains have split into subdomains, and a mathematician who has mastered algebra may not know much about number theory, combinatorix, topology — and vice versa. Whereas in the past an artist typically painted, sculpted, cast gold and designed buildings, now all of these special skills tend to be acquired by different people.

There are, of course, polymaths in the world still. You might not put very many of today’s standouts in the same league as a Leonardo or even a Ben Franklin, but when you consider someone like Richard Branson or Elon Musk, there are still a few hanging around.

If you take the “learn a bunch about a bunch of stuff and hire specialists” route, Fuller has some reflection. The people who commanded ships and understood trade routes and knew where to get what and really held the puppet strings of kings and tribal leaders, Fuller calls “Great Pirates.”

They stayed afloat, Fuller asserts in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, thanks to their “comprehensive capabilities” and by hiring people who weren’t smart enough to see the whole picture — that is, specialists without a wide view.

But these Great Pirates got cocky, and didn’t keep up with new discoveries in the world. They knew nothing of electromagnetics, and when World War I ended, they had to give up their positions — you have to keep up or you don’t get to stay on the top of the food chain.

For most of human history, Csikszentmihalyi writes, only gods were creative. Every religion has an origin myth; someone or something creates the universe, world, people, animals, etc., while people are just trying to live. Only in the past few thousand years do we get creative writings, artwork and invention.

As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Elkhonon Goldberg writes that information and processes change really fast these days, and when that happens, everyone becomes involved in the creative process, or at least has the opportunity to do so.

Goldberg predicts that within a few generations — maybe even just one — the blurring of boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds will be nearly complete, and that will have implications for the way the brain functions:

The rapidly accelerating ‘novelty curve’ will have a profound impact on our minds and brains by forcing every one of us to be a consumer of innovation to an unprecedented degree, and understanding the impact this constant exposure to novelty will have on the ‘consumer brain’ is a challenge facing neuroscience.

Before we get into prescriptions and doing the work, I want to roll things back to our discussion of flow, and dig a little deeper.

First off, it should be noted that flow is a work state. We might feel happy after a flow session; we might also be drained.

“When we are in flow,” writes Csikszentmihalyi, “we do not usually feel happy — for the simple reason that in flow we feel only what is relevant to the activity. Happiness is a distraction … it is only after we get out of flow, at the end of a session or in moments of distraction within it, that we might indulge in feeling happy.”

Csikszentmihalyi goes on to summarize the nine aspects of the flow experience:

  1. “There are clear goals every step of the way.”
  2. Immediate feedback (e.g., does a note sound right?)
  3. Balance between skill and challenge. When skill is too high, we’re bored; too much challenge, we’re overwhelmed.
  4. Concentration, a merger of action and awareness
  5. We don’t notice distractions
  6. “While in flow, we are too involved to be concerned with failure. Some people describe it as a feeling of total control; but actually we are not in control, it’s just that the issue does not even come up.”
  7. “Self-consciousness disappears”
  8. “Sense of time becomes distorted.”
  9. “The activity becomes autotelic” — that is, an end to itself. Most activities are exotelic — we do them to reach a larger goal. An autotelic activity is done for itself, like getting lost in a book or while running.

Kotler and Wheal push flow a step further, into a realm reminiscent of what Plato called “ecstasis.”

“Plato described ecstasis as an altered state,” they write, “where our normal waking consciousness vanishes, completely replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.”

It’s really an altered state, and that’s a big money business in the U.S. We spend more money on altered states (drugs, alcohol, porn, extreme sports, concerts, festivals, clubs, etc.) — upwards of $4 trillion annually — than we do on maternity care, humanitarian aid and K-12 education put together, they write.

Kotler and Wheal drill down the feelings we get in ecstasis, related to flow, to four elements:

  • Selflessness
  • Timelessness
  • Effortlessness
  • Richness

They summarize these feelings by their acronym, STER.

I’m sure you can see the benefits of all 13 of these attributes when it comes to not only creativity, but general productivity.

Let’s next discuss knowledge and doing work.

It’s rare, writes Csikszentmihalyi, for a truly creative achievement to come during a lightbulb moment. Instead they usually come after years of hard work. And maybe a little luck, of course, but, to paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, the harder people work, the luckier they tend to get.

“Occasionally it is possible,” Csikszentmihalyi continues, “to arrive at a creative discovery without any preparation. The fortunate person simply stumbles into a wholly unpredictable situation. But usually insights tend to come to prepared minds, that is, to those who have thought long and hard about a given set of problematic issues.”

“There are, of course, innovations that spring from a flash of genius,” Peter Drucker writes in an essay in The Innovator’s Cookbook. “Most innovations, however, especially the successful ones, result from a conscious, purposeful search for innovation opportunities, which are found only in a few situations.”

“Above all,” Drucker writes, “innovation is work rather than genius. It requires knowledge. It often requires ingenuity. And it requires focus.”

How much work? How much knowledge?

Most creatives across fields (music, science, math, art, what have you), Goldberg writes, are subject to a “10-year rule” — they need about 10 years of mastery in the existing knowledge of their field before making a truly consequential contribution (there are of course, exceptions).

Csikszentmihalyi writes that you have to know the rules of something before you can change the rules. For example, a musician has to be able to play an instrument before being able to write a new song on it; an inventor must understand aerodynamics and physics before being able to improve on an airplane design.

Goldberg points out that innovation doesn’t tend to invent a new area of human endeavor; rather, creativity builds “on a particular body of knowledge, experience, and skills unique to that content area.” Of course, sometimes an innovation will create a new branch of knowledge — think Pythagoras‘s contribution to mathematics — but it grows off an existing tree.

Further, notes Csikszentmihalyi, to be creative, a person must be curious and deeply interested in a domain, and also have access to it, through schools, education or having enough money to acquire knowledge in the area. A genetic predisposition for a given domain might be important, he adds, but sensory advantage isn’t required (El Greco had vision problems and Beethoven was deaf when he did his best work). A sensory advantage may drive interest in a field, though, giving the individual a running advantage in that field — if you were really good at designing houses, you might be predisposed to innovation in architecture.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes about serendipity and hints at what we earlier referred to as “idea sex.” “Serendipitous discoveries,” he writes, “often involve exchanges across traditional disciplines.”

That’s something Csikszentmihalyi echoes: “Creativity,” he notes, “generally involves crossing the boundaries of domains.”

“Serendipity,” Johnson continues, “needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries. Otherwise your ideas are the carbon atoms randomly colliding with other atoms in the primordial soup without ever forming the rings and lattices of organic life.”

To summarize: Innovative people might stumble upon a new branch of study, but it’s in an existing field. And by and large, people who make advances in a field, or expand the field with a new branch, have a very firm grasp on the field, have been working in it for a while, and are generally hard workers.

These are the many parts associated with creativity and innovation, according to Goldberg *and you’ll recognize some of these from the section above):

  • “Salience: The ability to pose central problems and ask important questions.”
  • “Novelty: An interest in, and the ability to find solutions for, problems not tackled before.”
  • “Ability to relate old knowledge to new problems: … The ability to recognize familiar patterns in seemingly new and unique problems.”
  • “Generativity and mental flexibility: The ability to generate multiple and diverse approaches to a problem is essential to the creative process in science.”
  • “Drive and doggedness: … An ability to deploy sustained effort toward tackling a problem.”
  • “Mental wandering: The mysterious capacity for the productive and seemingly effortless pursuit of ideas wherever they take you.”
  • “Mental focus: … The ability to systematically pursue a logical train of thought.”
  • “Iconoclastic frame of mind: … Driven by a sense of dissatisfaction with the intellectual, scientific or artistic status quo.”
  • “Romance with central societal and cultural themes: A creative individual’s worth must be recognized by society as important and valid in order to survive.”
  • Societal grace: Leonardo was known for social suaveness and adaptability; Caravaggio for his lack of both. “In certain instances, these attributes may even spell the difference between immortality and oblivion.”
  • A favorable cultural milieu: Society has to be open to innovation and creativity.

Csikszentmihalyi also defines five steps that creative processes follow:

  1. Preparation: becoming immersed in something that makes you curious
  2. Incubation: Ideas churn around in the subconscious and “unusual connections are likely to be made.”
  3. Insight: Aha! The Eureka! moment
  4. Evaluation: Decide whether the insight is worth pursuing
  5. Elaboration: Doing the work; the 99% perspiration Edison talked about

Anyone who’s had children will know that the urge to create — to make something from nothing — is innate. You can’t stop kids from doing it: they’re perpetually inventing.
—— Brian Eno

Let’s talk prescription.

We’ll start, first, with a little wander off the path, combining work and flow. Goldberg says that shutting off conscious thought can be useful, but only in a specific way. By “shutting off conscious thought,” I mean what Goldberg calls “mental wandering,” or “hypofrontal mental wandering.” If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because a couple thousand words ago, we referred to a flow state as transient hypofrontality.

Goldberg argues that mental wandering is good for “filling in the gaps” after a solid, deliberate attempt at solving problems. We already know that silence — and sleep, in particular — gives our brains the room to process what we’ve learned; this is an extension of that. If you just can’t solve a problem, stop thinking about it for a few.

Csikszentmihalyi offers a few suggestions for enhancing your own personal creativity:

  • Foster curiosity and interest, just to learn new things
  • Cultivate flow
  • Form good habits
  • Form different personality traits (such as introversion vs. extroversion or optimism vs. pessimism)
  • Find problems — “creative people are constantly surprised”
  • Choose a specialization
  • Then, see the process

Nancy Andreason offers these tips in The Creative Brain.

  • “Choose a new and unfamiliar area of knowledge and explore it in depth.”
  • Meditate every day (or spend time “just thinking”)
  • “Practice observing and describing”
  • “Practice imagining”
  • “Turn off the TV”
  • Read with your kids
  • “Emphasize diversity” in experiences
  • “Ask interesting questions”
  • Go outside
  • Listen to music

You’ll notice those are largely extensions of things we’ve talked about: foster curiosity, get some quiet, get to work, and keep going.