Christopher Murphy is a writer, designer and educator based in Belfast. Adrian Shaughnessy, writing for Creative Review, described him as, “a William Morris for the digital age,” an epithet he aspires to fulfil, daily.
Informing his role as an educator, Murphy is a practicing designer whose work spans a variety of media, both analogue and digital.
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. —Benjamin Franklin
We learn best when we’re doing. When we bind the inputs and outputs, taking what we’ve discovered on the journey and use it to make things, we internalise knowledge. We hardwire it into our brains.
As Benjamin Franklin puts it: “Involve me and I learn.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series of a dozen thoughts on creativity for The Pastry Box as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. I started in January by stressing that the creative process involves a combination of inputs and outputs. These two sides of the creative equation, input and output, when coupled, work symbiotically.
As I put it when I embarked on this series, in Designing a Mind, inputs are critical:
Without constant input we stagnate. The secret to a wealth of ideas is simple: nourish the mind.
Fuelling the mind isn’t easy, it requires rigour and discipline. Put in that discipline, however, and the returns will be considerable. Your ideas will flow and, the more you apply yourself to priming the brain, the more you’ll see connections in the content you encounter.
Inputs on their own, however, are only half of the story. Outputs – the things we make and share – are equally important:
Our outputs define us. What we share shapes us, as both creatives and individuals. The work we do and the work we put out into the world paints a picture of us, it portrays us in others’ eyes.
Output is every bit as important as input. Our outputs can take many forms: words we wrestle, pixels we push, and code we commit. Output, just like input, is hard work (no one said this would be easy), but it’s well worth the effort.
To grow as creatives, to design our minds, we need to focus on both the inputs and outputs. Marry them and the rest falls into place.
Your life is a journey and, like any journey, it involves an endless series of collisions with new and interesting things. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Be receptive to what you encounter. Open yourself to new inputs and, as you travel, make things and share things. Your outputs, in turn, shape others, completing the circle.
Life is an endless series of exchanges: take from the world, give back to the world; always try to leave more than you took out; do that and everything should work out well. As you embark on your journey, I wish you Godspeed.
If you enjoyed this series of thoughts, you might enjoy my next venture, Tiny Books. Tiny Books are short, sharp books for creative entrepreneurs that explore the design of business and the business of design.
Intended for digital pioneers – creatives taking their talents to the rapidly proliferating digital landscape and harnessing the opportunities it affords – Tiny Books explore both theory and practice, applying theory through focused, downloadable worksheets. They are intended for what David Hieatt calls doers (individuals who ‘do’ rather than ‘talk’).
I aim to launch the first Tiny Books in 2016 and will be publishing an edited version of my dozen thoughts for The Pastry Box there.
Thanks for following along with my thinking, I wish you well on your journey. I hope to see you at Tiny Books in 2016 for more thoughts on creativity.
While we teach, we learn. —Seneca
Process matters. How we arrived at a destination is as important as the destination itself. (On occasion, I believe it’s more important.)
All too often, we have a tendency to focus on the finished product. What worked? What didn’t? Our focus on endpoints. I believe if we look a little more at the process – how we arrived at a solution, why we made the decisions we made – we might gain deeper insights.
The journey you took to get from A to B can often be the most interesting and insightful part of the creative process. That journey, if it (as it should) involves diverging and converging, is certain to reveal pathways not taken, possible routes unexplored.
Destinations are important, but journeys are often filled with opportunities, paths you didn’t take, which – at some point in the future – may afford their own potential. Spending some time after a project has reached its conclusion to think retrospectively about the process you used can improve you as a designer.
I love process posts, they offer an opportunity for others to learn, but – equally importantly – they offer you an opportunity to learn. To explain a process is to truly understand it.
Moving Brands’ wonderful Wikipedia Rebrand, a hypothetical rebrand for Viewport Magazine’s Brand Lab, results in an elegant, minimal brand, which belies its complexity. The end result is lovely, but the journey the studio shares has – for me – considerably greater value.
I use this case study, every year in week one, to show my incoming Interaction Design students how a typical design process might unfold. I use it to investigate the potential avenues a project might take and to underline that the destination reached is often just one of what might have been many other, alternative destinations.
Getting From A to B
Moving Brands’ Wikipedia Rebrand is about getting from A to B. It’s about the journey taken and how that journey might result in different destinations being reached. As interesting as the end result are the ideas that lay (sadly) discarded on the drawing board. In each of these unexplored ideas lies potential.
I’m fortunate to work with some incredibly talented students. Those that apply themselves find themselves making many, many journeys. These journeys - both short-term journeys on individual projects and long-term journeys as they move from one year to the next – are filled with potential.
I feel lucky to have a chance to nurture others’ journeys. I feel equally fortunate to get to see inside my students’ minds. At the end of the semester, when I’m marking the work, I find myself drawn to sketchbooks as much as the ‘finished work’. In the sketchbooks – filled with process – I can see the decisions reached and, equally importantly, the avenues that remained unexplored.
In each of these sketchbooks lies the potential to create case studies, thoughtful investigations – post-project – to share lessons learned. You don’t need to be a student to do this, however, anyone can share their process and in so doing create value. Why not take a project, break it down and share what you learned? I guarantee you’ll be thanked for having the courage to do so.
Often the only thing holding us back from sharing our process – drawing back the curtain and exposing the inner workings – is fear: fear of being judged; fear of failing; fear of so many things…. Forget fear. Be the one who throws open the studio door and shares the story.
Learning Through Teaching
The best thing about being an educator is the huge amount you learn along the way. There is no better way to learn something – to truly and deeply understand it – than by teaching it.
Anyone can be an educator, even students, all it takes is a willingness to learn and to share. Scientific studies have shown that those involved in teaching learn the material they subsequently share, more deeply. As Annie Murphy Paul puts it in The Protégé Effect:
Students enlisted to tutor others, researchers found, work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively. In what scientists have dubbed ‘the protégé effect’, student teachers score higher on tests than pupils who are learning only for their own sake.
Learning in order to teach leads to deeper understanding. One way to do this is to share your process with others. This benefits everyone, those sharing and those learning.
Explaining your process to others forces you to break it down, to really unpack it, identifying the key decisions you made along the way. It affords an opportunity to revisit and question those decisions. If undertaken at the end of a project, as a means to reflect, it allows lessons to be learned that might apply to future projects.
Sharing the lessons you learn with others, putting yourself in the mind of a beginner, allows you to grow as a creative, reaping the rewards of teaching as learning.
Teaching can take multiple forms. Some of the best teachers I know aren’t in traditional classrooms, instead they’re exploring new ways to facilitate learning, and growing, themselves, in the process.
The classroom of the future…
We’re entering an age of the global classroom, connected, with participants scattered around the world. Thanks to the web we’re beginning to question long-held paradigms about education and how it might function. We’re finding new ways to spread knowledge. It’s an exciting time to be sharing.
In a world where anyone teach a Skillshare class (no teaching qualification required) education has changed, fundamentally. Pandora’s Box has been opened and there’s no going back. The web, with its ever-evolving potential, allows anyone to become an educator, which changes the educational landscape considerably.
You don’t need to run a Skillshare class to reap the rewards of learning though teaching, you might just share an insight to your process. One case study is all it takes to get the ball rolling and I guarantee that one case study will educate you, considerably. (Even better, it will help others.)
There’s a sizeable (and growing) audience out there that wants to learn. Why not be the one to teach that audience? As Austin Kleon puts it in his excellent book, Show Your Work!:
Think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.
Pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.
Share your work.
If you want to grow as a creative, take the plunge and share the story behind something you designed or built. Play to your strengths and enjoy the process of sharing process. The process will repay you many times over.
Process matters as much as outcome. Often the journey you’ve taken is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the destination you’ve reached. Opening up and sharing your process allows you to learn lessons retrospectively and affords an opportunity to learn deeply.
I’m looking forward next month to taking the final step in this year long journey. I’ll be exploring the idea, touched on briefly here, that life is a journey and one we should always be learning on. See you in a month for the final step of the journey.
Make Things, Share Things
Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple. —Austin Kleon
The secret to success in our fast-paced industry is, I believe, straightforward: make things, share things and – last, but by no means least – be nice to people. That’s it, really.
Like most things in life that are worth knowing, it’s a blindingly obvious recipe for success, and yet, there are many that don’t quite get it. That, in some respects, explains why this month’s instalment on our creative journey echoes and amplifies some of the elements covered in last month’s instalment, You Are a Channel.
Our industry hurtles forward at an often alarming rate. At times it can feel hard to keep up (and I’m sure everyone – no matter how confident they may appear on the outside – worries at least once in a while about their ability to keep up).
To stay focused and to remain relevant it’s important to make things, always. Find something new, learn it and add a new string to your bow. It’s equally important to share things. There’s no point hiding your prototypes away in a closed off corner of the web; why not share them, for the benefit of others?
Lastly, never forget your Ps and Qs. Never forget to put in a kind word from time to time. What goes around comes around. If you’ve contributed, you’ve banked some good will; when you’re stuck next time, you’ve credit in the bank. Likewise, that simple ‘thank you’ probably reverberated more than you thought it did. (So few say ‘thank you’ any more.)
Make things. Share things. Be nice to people. Follow these three pieces of advice and I believe you’ll find life a lot easier (and a lot more pleasurable, too).
Here’s one I made earlier…
As an educator I’m fortunate to enjoy a career that calls for constant creation. In order to teach effectively, I need to be making, constantly. You don’t need to be an educator, however, to benefit from the act of constant creation.
Learning doesn’t end when you finish school, or university, learning should be lifelong. You should always be learning something. When you’ve pinned down the basics, move on to the intermediates, before tackling the advanced. When you’ve reached mastery of a subject area, move on and explore something new. (I explored this idea in Join the Dots, stressing the need to build a ‘Latticework of Mental Models’ to operate effectively as a designer.)
In his excellent book, Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker explores what he calls ‘The Second Half of Your Life’, stressing the need to keep learning throughout your life (preparing yourself for the unexpected consequences that may hit you later in life). As Drucker puts it:
We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.
Understanding how you learn is an article (or even a book) in itself, perhaps the first step in the process is acknowledging that everyone has something to learn.
In my first few weeks as an educator, while delivering a series of workshops introducing and exploring Photoshop, I ‘collided’ with a student who, having failed to attend any of the sessions, told me, “I already know Photoshop.” I replied, not even Thomas Knoll, ‘knows Photoshop’.
Sadly, I lost that individual, as he ‘had nothing to learn’.
What ‘View Source’ Really Represents
Making is only one half of the equation, however, sharing is just as important. As Peter Drucker puts it: “No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.” In order to explain something properly, you really need to understand it. Deeply.
We’re fortunate to work in an incredibly open industry. ‘View Source’ changes our perspectives fundamentally. It allows us to look beneath the bonnet (or under the hood) and see how things work. It’s also the perfect metaphor for our industry, one that is founded on sharing, and collaboration at every turn.
This openness drives our industry forward, it relentlessly encourages innovation, but why stop at ‘View Source’? Why not go one step further and spend some time writing up what you did, exploring the how and the why for the benefit of others? Many do and, thanks to their generous spirit, we have a wealth of knowledge on which we can all draw.
As an educator I spend a great deal of time explaining how to make things, and I’m never less than impressed by the sheer volume of ‘behind the scenes’ walkthroughs that are there to draw on.
Very few other industries have, for example, tools like CodePen, which – more than, “a playground for the front end web” – represents an opening up of process and a shared learning resource. In addition to being thankful for what we have, where possible we might contribute to these resources ourselves, for the betterment of all.
Lastly, after making and sharing, be nice to people. It costs nothing and it always pays off.
As a child, I grew up in Scotland, living for the most part with my grandparents. My grandmother was a stickler for manners, and rightly so. She always insisted on timely thank you letters and, whenever we finished a meal, we weren’t allowed to leave the table without saying, “Please may I leave the table, and thank you for my dinner.”
My brother and I could rattle off that phrase – “Please may I leave the table, and thank you for my dinner.” – incredibly quickly, but that phrase lives with me until this day. We were incredibly fortunate and my grandmother made sure we acknowledged that fact.
My grandparents passed away a few years ago, and I miss them greatly, but I’ll never forget the fundamentals that they taught me: always be appreciative, and when someone does you a kind turn never forget to say ‘thank you’, and acknowledge their act of kindness.
I always echo this sentiment to my students. As I put it:
You might go on to succeed in life, which is wonderful, but never forget who you are or where you came from. Treat everyone with respect. You never know what others might achieve, and you may meet them on the way up, when you’re on your own way, back down.
Karma’s important. Just as important as the benefits of making and sharing.
Make things, share things, and be nice to people. Simple. We work in a wonderful industry, characterised by openness and – for the most part – good will. Do your best to add to the world, not take away. Ask yourself, what might I do today to help others, and how might I share my hard-won knowledge so that others might flourish?
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the idea that process matters as much as outcome and that often the journey you’ve taken is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the destination. See you in a month for the penultimate step of the journey.
You Are a Channel
This is for everyone. —Tim Berners-Lee
The web is an incredibly powerful enabler. It allows you to move from the germ of an idea towards a reality in a very short space of time. The web is wonderfully empowering.
There’s never been a better time to embark on a career using the digital tools at our disposal. The infrastructure that underpins our work is, for the most part, free, and it removes the barriers to entry that previously stood in the way of creatives wishing to share their talents with the wider world.
Using the web, and the myriad of other tools underpinned by the internet, it’s easier than ever before to establish a presence and share your work with others. In short: You are a channel.
Put some thought into your channel and you can create a sustainable future that not only impacts upon you, but on the wider world, too. There’s never been a better time to start something.
Of course, we understand this and we are well aware of the opportunities that lie before us at our disposal. And yet, one thing holds us back….
We worry, endlessly: “What if no one cares?” It’s only natural to worry. It’s only natural to find excuses not to start. We are, at times, conditioned to see the world through a glass-half-empty prism. Pause. It doesn’t need to be like that. We can, if we connect with just 1,000, find success. We just need to believe.
1,000 True Fans
Kevin Kelly, the founder of WIRED magazine, believes that any creative business can succeed with just 1,000 True Fans. Reflecting on Chris Anderson’s ideas (as outlined in Anderson’s excellent book The Long Tail), Kelly states:
The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices.
No one likes, “massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices,” however, Kelly believes there is a sweet spot on the long tail. As he puts it:
A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
Kelly defines a ‘true fan’ as one who will purchase anything and everything you produce, and he believes that 1,000 is the point at which one can balance nurturing the relationship with your fans and having a critical mass of fans that can sustain you. As he puts it, “One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years.”
Kelly assumes conservatively that a true fan will spend an average of $100 per year on what you do. Some, of course, will spend less and some will spend more. On average, however, that’s $100,000 a year (£65,000 or €90,000). After some modest expenses that’s a not insubstantial salary. Even better if this salary is a by-product of doing what you love.
Reaching Your 1,000
The web allows you to connect with your 1,000 in ways that – before Berners-Lee shared it with everyone – would have been prohibitively expensive. With the profusion of (often free) social media tools at your disposal you can now build a direct connection with your fans, sharing things that you, and – importantly – they, will find value in.
Reaching your 1,000 is easier than it’s ever been. I can’t stress this enough. The only person holding you back from succeeding in this empowering world is you. Let go, build something and share it. You might be surprised at the results.
We are, in this new world, conditioned to believe that success requires an audience that measures in the tens or hundreds of thousands. I don’t think that’s the case. By building deep connections with just 1,000 you can make a difference.
Size isn’t everything.
Focus on building deep connections and stay true to your values. Do that and, I believe, the rest will fall into place.
If you have an idea, build it and share it. Let go of your worries and see where the adventure takes you. If nothing else, you’ll learn a great deal on the journey. Let go. Make things, share things, and – along the way – you’ll learn tremendously.
Share Your Work
In my teaching at the Belfast School of Art, I encourage my students to: “Make things, share things and be nice to people.” I echo this in the consultancy work I do with young, fledgling startups. I encourage those I work with to put their work out there.
Do that and I believe you’re more than half way there.
We are incredibly fortunate to be living in a time when making things and sharing them is incredibly easy. It’s hard to imagine a time before the web, when the barriers to entry were so much higher.
I, like many others, was fortunate to embark on a career on the web empowered by the openness of a ‘View Source’ culture. The ability to peer behind the curtain and see how things were made empowered me tremendously. I believe in a culture of sharing, for the betterment of others. I believe that culture empowers not only those starting out, but those who are on their second, third or more ideas.
Make things. Share things. In so doing, you’ll learn the lessons you need to, to ensure your ideas are successful.
Lastly, be nice to people. I’m a firm believer in karma. What goes around, comes around. Being nice to people costs nothing. Try to see the good in everything. Do that and you’ll be rewarded, yourself, in time.
Sharing your work can be stressful, you find yourself worrying – ever fearful of rejection – but remember, sharing your work helps you to grow. What you learn on your journey will help you tremendously down the line. You’ll learn more by sharing than by keeping your ideas hidden away.
I’m looking forward next month to further exploring the idea of making things and sharing things and underlining the importance of releasing your ideas into the wild. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
A Good Writer Is a Good Thinker
We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect. —Anaïs Nin
When I’m writing, I’m wandering. I’m wandering (and wondering), gathering my thoughts and arranging them through the medium of the written word.
It can be on paper or on screen (increasingly it’s the latter), but the purpose is the same. Writers are adventurers, they are the travellers of knowledge, embarking upon journeys into the unknown, following link after link after link, before distilling the voyage they’ve taken into a map, a guide to their journey, that might – one day – help others.
The web – by its very nature – foregrounds the connections between different clusters of knowledge. Links link. One article leads to another. As you make the journey from destination to destination, all inevitably connected by that trail of links, you begin to tease out understanding.
It’s this drawing together, this weaving together of knowledge, that is the important part. Your journey is unique. The chances of another pursuing the same path, link by link (or book by book), is – statistically – impossible. Your journey leads you to discovery and, through reflection, comprehension. You see the connections others haven’t, because your journey is your own.
Thinking Through Writing
The written word allows you to shape thought. Spending some time ‘writing around your ideas’ enables you to get your thinking in order. As Josh Clark put it in January, writing here, for The Pastry Box:
Writing gives form and discipline to ideas. Committing notions to paper gives clarity, tests logic, and inevitably brings up even more ideas.
I couldn’t put it better. Clark goes on to state:
I don’t do this enough, and I miss it. Last year, I wrote only a single post. Most of my thoughts stayed trapped in my own head, untested by bringing them into the light.
Reading this resonated with me and, perhaps like Clark, was one of the reasons I committed to writing throughout 2015 for The Pastry Box. I wanted to release the thoughts trapped in my head and, as Clark poetically put it, bring them into the light. The simple act of writing – here and elsewhere – is keeping me on my toes, intellectually.
Whether you publish your writing or keep it private, perhaps in a journal, the act of writing allows you to clarify your ideas, teasing out your arguments, leading to further avenues of investigation. The written word keeps you sharp and agile mentally. It’s good exercise and, as everyone knows, the mind is a muscle that – just like any other – benefits from a thorough workout.
Making Sense of the World
Like many, I’m trying to make sense of the world. Like many, I’m trying to wrestle my innermost thoughts into some kind of coherent order that adds up.
The act of writing is a process. It’s one of self-discovery and moving towards understanding. Writing is incredibly powerful, and – like anything powerful – requires a lifetime of practice to master. Put the effort in, however, and the rewards will be ample.
Writing isn’t easy. It’s hard. This is why so many people abandon it. It’s a shame, because I routinely see – in my teaching – that the students who have the tenacity to persevere reap immeasurable rewards, forever changed through a process of reflection.
This is why I encourage my students to write. Through writing they make sense of the world, embarking on a journey from existing knowledge into new knowledge. They start to see the deep truths inside themselves, and by uncovering them, are forever altered.
Haruki Murakami, a wonderful author, captures this perfectly when he states:
I came to feel strongly that a story is not something you create. It is something that you pull out of yourself. The story is already there, inside you.
Stephen King echoes this thinking, writing:
My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them of course)… stories are like found things, like fossils in the ground.
Words draw the story to the surface and bring it into the light.
A Playground of Words
Stories are formed from the experiences you enounter. The books you read, the links you traverse, everything you experience…. All of this slowly, but surely takes form, crystallising, inside you.
As a writer you reach inside yourself to pull this material out; you wrestle and you fight to give it form. As David Weinberger put it (in 2002):
You are what you write. On the web we are writing ourselves into existence.
The idea of, “writing yourself into existence,” can be intimidating. At the end of the day, however, there are considerably riskier undertakings. Writing is a playground, and playgrounds are where we discover, through the act of play. As Cat Noone puts it, in Your Writing Is Crucial:
The human brain does something very interesting when it writes… It creates order and structure to the input received. Understanding what happens in our brain while we write, it’s easy to see how it becomes the way we affirm our thoughts. More importantly, it is the way we share our thoughts, allowing others to prove or disprove them.
Sharing shapes you. As Noone puts it, writing not only affirms our thoughts, but allows others to participate in that affirmation in the process of play. Together we edge forward towards understanding.
Writing isn’t easy, but its rewards when one perseveres are plentiful. Like anything, practice makes perfect; put in the time and the pay off will more than outweigh hard work and effort invested. Stick with it, don’t give up.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the idea that ‘you are a channel’ and that – by putting some thought into what you communicate – you shape your perception of yourself and others’ perception of you. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
The Blank Page
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
The blank page. It grips you in its empty gaze. It confronts you head on, as if taunting you. Threatening.
Without a doubt we’ve all experienced the tyranny of the blank page. No one, it seems, is immune. Ernest Hemingway, no less, when asked to articulate the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, answered: “A blank sheet of paper.”
Faced with the emptiness of the page, it can prove at times impossible to get started, and – the longer one confronts the page – the harder starting seems to become, until what faces you, stretching out ahead, is a seemingly insurmountable task, beyond your reach.
Regardless of what is before you – be it words you’re wrestling, pixels you’re pushing, or code you’re committing – that first step, into the unknown, is the hardest. How do you move beyond that endless expanse of emptiness? How do you confront ‘the fear’?
The first thing to acknowledge is that ‘the fear’ is understandable. Everything you put out into the world is, inevitably, judged. The works you share – regardless of their form – shape you, as I explored in the very first article in this series, Designing a Mind. This fear of judgement can, at times, however, prove debilitating.
As Alain de Boton puts it, in his in his excellent book Status Anxiety, we all suffer – to a greater or lesser degree – from, “An anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.” de Boton calls this ‘status anxiety’, and I can certainly relate to it. I’m sure you can too.
So, faced with this anxiety, how do you proceed?
The Road Ahead
The answer is to break the task at hand down and, by making it more manageable, build a blueprint for future success. As Anne Lammott puts it, in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Just take it bird by bird.”
The road ahead might appear daunting at first, but – like any task in life – if it’s broken down into small, manageable pieces it’s achievable. Think of any successful new venture as a successful attempt on Everest. For the mountain to be conquered a number of carefully planned pieces need to be in place: a clear plan of attack, articulating your strategy, needs to be defined; a base camp, from which you’ll build, needs to be established; the supplies you’ll need, to ensure a successful journey, must be prepared; and a few helpful sherpas, supporters on the journey, should be lined up.
With those pieces in place, an attempt on the summit can be made and, with attention to detail and care given to all of the pieces of the puzzle, that attempt will – Godspeed! – prove a success. The real battle is with you, as Edmund Hillary put it:
It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.
To succeed in the task at hand is to focus on both the big picture and the details simultaneously. It isn’t easy, but with the right frame of mind, and the right blueprint, it’s possible.
The mistake we often make is failing to build that blueprint, leaving the task ahead to grow, mythically, in the mind. Soon, the simplest of tasks has spiralled into something unattainable, and all because you didn’t take the time to break it down.
Take that time and your mythical task becomes something altogether more mundane, well within your reach if you only chip away at it, day by day.
One Small Step
One small step, every day, is all it takes.
Get something down. Anything. It doesn’t matter (at this stage) if it’s right ot wrong. It’s a start. From there you can course correct, modifying your output until, soon, you’re moving along at a steady pace, honing in on your goal. The importance is to keep moving forward.
Find a ritual that works for you. A morning coffee? An evening whiskey? Everyone is different, but the ritual can help, it eases you in. It’s not about hours, mythically battling the myriad demons of the mind, it’s about the multiplied effect of those minutes. They all add up.
As Mark Forster puts it in his indispensable book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management: “It is surprising how easy it is to forget that the way to get things done is to do them.”
Of course, the observation is obvious, but I’m sure you’ll agree there’s more than a grain of truth to it. Forster suggests a simple three step process that – should you adhere to it – will maximise the likelihood of achieving your goals: 1. Do. 2. First. 3. Every day.
Step one recognises you need to do something. As Forster puts it: “It really doesn’t matter how much you do on any given day as long as you do something. Doing something keeps the initiative alive.” As long as you resolve to do something every day, you’ll maintain the momentum you need to move forwards towards a conclusion.
Step two recognises you need to prioritise, doing your something first, before distractions set in. Step three recognises you need to keep moving forward, every day. Forster states: “Doing something every day is the way to ensure that it progresses.”
Put simply: Take one small step, first thing, every day and – soon – you will have journeyed far.
By avoiding the blank page and fearfully ignoring it, you achieve nothing. To move forward, you simply need to start.
Often, the only thing standing between you and success is inertia, and, it should come as no surprise to learn, that standing still gets you nowhere. The failure to start, leads inevitably to failure to deliver. You need to get the ball rolling in order to build up momentum.
That first, small step means everything and it is the difference between those who achieve their goals in life and those who, instead, merely talk. If there’s one word of advice I could offer it would be to abandon fear and get started. What’s the worst that can happen?
You can achieve a great deal by periodically stepping away from the digital distractions that deflect us daily. Switch off for a while, take a walk, get your thoughts in order and put the pieces in place.
Build a blueprint.
With your blueprint in hand all you need to do is to act upon it. Think of it as your map, showing you the way. All that remains is to begin the journey on the road ahead, no distractions. As David Hieatt puts it:
Treat distractions as the enemy. Luckily each electrical device you have comes with an off button. Remember, your time is limited, but your ability to be distracted is infinite.
Switch off for a while, concentrate and put one foot before the other as you embark upon your next, exciting adventure. To paraphrase an Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face.”
To move forward you must confront the blank page and make your mark. Take it bird by bird, take it one step at a time; if you do, you maximise the chance of success. One thing is certain: You’ll have moved beyond the blank page you started with and have achieved something.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the importance of writing as a tool for clarifying thinking and, more importantly, embracing its potential as a means of ‘writing yourself into existence’. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
Purpose is an incredibly powerful thing. It provides the strength to fight the impossible. —David Hieatt
Find your focus and you can fight the impossible. (Truth be told, there is very little that is realistically impossible. If you put your passion and weight behind anything – in my experience – it more often than not works out.)
Focus is difficult, but focus matters.
Ask yourself: What's your focus? If you can answer that question, you're half way there. Very few take the time to really think this through. Very few take the time to confront themselves, asking the deep, but important questions. Very few take the time to ask, "What really matters?"
Ask yourself, "What's your vision?" Use that to guide you on your journey, don't just blindly stumble along.
If you've been following along and applying the different techniques we've discussed in the previous thoughts (essentially: priming the brain, by fuelling it with a constant stream of raw material), trust me, something will emerge. In my experience it always does.
Immerse yourself in the world you love and – as if by magic – something will bubble to the surface. It works for my students, I'm sure it will work for you.
If you've primed the brain effectively, purpose will emerge. Everything you've read and absorbed will feed into your vision. Out of those inputs, outputs will emerge.
Identifying your values is critical. Ask yourself, what matters to you? What are your core values? How do these define what you do?
Drawing on over a decade of experience as an educator, the question of values is the blind spot I encounter all too frequently, and yet, it's critical to defining future trajectory. Ask yourself: What values do you hold deeply? If possible, put these at the heart of your purpose.
You don't need to be everything to everyone, indeed, you will often do better when you focus. As David Hieatt, of Hiut Denim, puts it:
Be narrow. It's much better to mean a great deal to a few people than next to nothing to a huge amount.
Or, as Hieatt also states, "Do one thing well."
Spend some time identifying your values and, once you have a vision of what these are, put your weight behind them. Aligning your purpose behind your values increases your chances of winning. The trick is to focus, not to get distracted….
It's easy to get distracted. It's easy to find yourself wandering down false paths. The challenge is to find your true path, avoiding distractions along the way.
One moment you're consuming X, suddenly you're thinking, "X is my passion." Moments later you're consuming Y, suddenly you're thinking, "Y is my passion." You find yourself derailed by the last thing you consumed.
I'm not a psychologist, far from it, but I see this pattern – in myself – all the time. I find myself consumed by the last thing I consumed. As a writer it's hard to avoid distractions.
Last night I watched the final episode of The Game. (If you haven't seen it, I recommend it highly.) Wonderfully set in a bygone, cold war era, it's a game of espionage, gripping until it's finely wrought denouement. I watched it thinking, "This! I could write spy stories."
A few nights previously I'd watched Bladerunner. (I'm sure it needs no introduction.) I watched it thinking, "This! I could write about the future."
I enjoy both espionage and science fiction (and lots more besides), but, on reflection, neither is my true path. (My true path is education. I've been working as an educator for what seems an eternity. I enjoy witnessing my student's accomplishments, helping them along the way, I can think of no other path that leads to so many successful outcomes.)
The bottom line? Find your path. You only have one life, use it well, use it for yourself, not someone else.
At the end of the day, it's all about you.
What do you believe in? You need to dig deep, asking yourself, "What really matters?" Once you identify that, stay true to your vision.
If you've immersed yourself enough in the world, purpose emerges. Inevitably. If you're stuck, lacking inspiration, immerse yourself a little more. The more you immerse yourself, the more you identify what matters to you, and – in so doing – the clearer your purpose becomes.
As David Hieatt states, purpose is the fuel for the fight, "It provides the strength to fight the impossible."
Your purpose matters. Surround yourself with enough raw material and it will inevitably emerge. Pursue your passion and you'll find the everyday tasks slip by effortlessly.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring how we conquer 'The Blank Page'. As we all know, blank pages can be intimidating, but make the first mark and the rest will follow. It's all about making the first step. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
Books are absent teachers. —Mortimer J. Adler
If we’re fortunate the teachers we were dealt in the game of life were teachers who cared, teachers with passion, teachers with an intense desire to share everything they had learned on their journey. Guided by them we learned to see the world anew, our eyes opened up to its infinite possibilities.
We may no longer be in education, but that doesn’t mean our education should cease. As Mortimer J. Adler puts it, in his excellent book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading:
…a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable.
Our teachers – in a formal capacity – might be firmly in the past, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find new, informal educators to inspire us anew. Books are, as Adler puts it, “Absent teachers.” Books offer us an insight into the world and its various challenges and opportunities, they offer us a chance to continue growing.
It’s a common misconception that reading is a relatively simple process. We sit back and relax with a good book in hand and let the words wash over us, soaking up meaning. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, reading is an art and, like any art, it improves with practice.
Reading is important to maintain a constant stream of new inputs (inputs, as we know, shape outputs), and – to get the most out of our reading, not to mention maximising the return on the limited time we have available – it’s well worth investing time to develop the art of reading effectively.
How to Read a Book
How to Read a Book was first written by Mortimer J. Adler in 1940. In 1972, Adler co-authored a heavily revised edition with the noted academic Charles Van Doren, which remains in print to this day. If you don’t already own a copy, I’d urge you to stop reading for a moment and order a copy. It will change the way you read, and think.
Of course, you’re probably thinking, “I already know how to read.” (I thought this, too.) The fact that you’re reading this essay underlines that you can read, but can you read well?
If you’re like most you’ve probably given little thought to how you read, you just read on autopilot. As Shane Parrish puts it:
We think of reading in binary terms – you can either read or you can’t. But the truth is that reading is a skill along a continuum. We can improve our skill with knowledge and practice.
Acknowledging that reading is a complex art, Adler defines four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical and syntopical. Elementary reading is, unsurprisingly, the level of reading we are taught at elementary school. We can do better, however.
Inspectional reading – the second level of reading – is intended to afford a high level overview of the material at hand through ‘systematic skimming’ and ‘superficial reading’. At this level, the intention is to identify books worth deeper investigation. As Adler puts it:
If a book is easy […] then you probably will not grow much from reading it. It may be entertaining, but not enlarging to your understanding. It’s the hard books that count. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.
Inspectional reading paves the way for analytical reading and, as our skills develop, syntopical study. Digging is hard, but the diamonds are what we’re seeking and, to find them, we need to dig deep. (If you’ve followed along this far, you understand that nurturing creative ability is hard work, but hard work more than delivers its just rewards.)
There are only so many hours in the day, and the world’s libraries are vast. It’s impossible to read everything, so you need to ensure that everything you read counts. Reading strategically – understanding when and where to apply additional effort – leads to greater gains.
Inspectional reading is for many books enough, but some books demand deeper engagement. As Francis Bacon – the philosopher, not the painter – put it:
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
Analytical reading – the third level of reading – is a thorough reading. As Bacon puts it, reading with diligence and attention. Adler defines four guiding principles to improve analytical reading: firstly, classify the book; secondly, define the book as briefly as possible; thirdly, tease out the book’s structure; and lastly, define the problem, or problems, the author is trying to solve. As Adler puts it:
You should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, and you should be able to state the subordinate questions if the main question is complex and has many parts.
If this sounds like hard work it’s simply because it is hard work. Very few put in this level of effort and, the good news for you, is investing this time will set you apart from your less-diligent peers. Fortunately the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Reading analytically enhances your understanding and paves the way for the final level of reading, syntopical reading, reading comparatively to synthesise knowledge from multiple books on the same subject.
Objectivity is evasive. To truly understand something you need to investigate it from multiple angles. Every writer has a point of view, your job – as a seasoned reader – is to corral a number of texts, enabling you to view the subject at hand from a range of different perspectives.
There are very few hard and fast rules in the world, almost everything you encounter and subject to scrutiny will be informed by one or other’s point of view. Your goal, ultimately, is to define your own viewpoint. By ‘reading around a topic’ you both broaden and deepen your knowledge of it. As you do so, you begin to edge towards your own understanding, developing an opinion that is informed by, and appreciative of, the multiple interpretations of others.
Over time, as you apply your mastery of the art of reading, your knowledge and understanding will grow, impacting upon every aspect of your life. As Adler puts it:
The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.
Read widely. Read wisely. In so doing, you will improve as a designer. Of course, you already know it’s important to Widen the Frame of Reference, but traversing vast expanses of knowledge is only half of the equation, sometimes you need to dig deeper and engage syntopically.
As Pico Iyer puts it, in his short, but powerful book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere:
I had long, exciting voyages coming up, but at some point all the horizontal trips in the world can’t compensate for the need to go deep into somewhere challenging and unexpected.
In the unexpected, when we dig deep enough, we often find insights. Investigating an idea from multiple angles, turning it over in our minds, enables us to enhance our own understanding. Engaging syntopically allows us to reach conclusions – our own conclusions – drawn from society’s rich pool of knowledge.
Reading is an art, an art that’s well worth pursuing to deepen your understanding. As Adler puts it, “Books are absent teachers.” Embrace books and you embrace knowledge, engage with this knowledge and you become wiser, not just more knowledgeable.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring how, when we put the pieces in place (as we’ve already been doing), purpose emerges. I’m also looking forward to underlining the importance of doing what matters and how, if you stick to your values, success is more likely to follow. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
Join the Dots
It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Abraham Maslow might have popularised the theory of ‘man with a hammer syndrome’ in 1966, the idea, however, stretches back much further. Track back through history and you’ll uncover the concept of the ‘Birmingham Screwdriver’ used over a century previously, to humorously suggest that those that hail from Birmingham rely on the use of force to solve problems… perish the thought.
This idea, that we tend to rely on the tools we have to hand – the tools we already know – should, to the seasoned designer, sound a note of caution. An over-reliance on familiar tools can, after all, tend towards familiar outcomes.
If we’re not careful we can find ourselves guilty of approaching every problem with the proverbial hammer, when often that hammer is inappropriate for the task at hand. A better idea is to equip yourself with more than that sole hammer.
To grow as creatives we need to develop our toolsets, both practically and mentally, ensuring that the tools we have to hand are drawn from a wider array of sources. In short, we need to develop a knowledge toolset that we can apply holistically as needed.
We work in a complex and multi-faceted world. The kinds of tasks we undertake today, and the roles we inhabit, would have been unimaginable in the past. To operate effectively in this exciting new environment of opportunity, we need to establish a new mindset. We need to develop, and draw upon, what Charlie Munger – celebrated investor, partner to Warren Buffett and noted thinker – calls a ‘Latticework of Mental Models’.
The idea of mental models was first postulated by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in 1896 and later developed by the psychologist Kenneth Craik in 1943. Craik believed that the mind constructs ‘small-scale models’ of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underpin explanation. As he put it:
[The mind uses these models] to try out various alternatives, conclude which are the best of them, react to future situations before they arise, and utilise knowledge of past events in dealing with the present and the future.
Cognitive scientists argue that the mind constructs mental models as a result of its engagement with, and understanding of, the world. Each mental model represents a way of looking at the world – one possible perspective – as such it’s important to develop our ‘palette’ of mental models. The more models we engage with, the greater our possible understanding.
As the Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon, puts it:
The better decision maker has at [their] disposal repertoires of possible actions; checklists of things to think about before they act; and they have mechanisms in their mind to evoke these, and bring these to conscious attention when the situations for decision arise.
This state of ‘readiness’ requires the development of repertoires of possibility, models of the world that approach it from different angles, as if seen through the various facets of a diamond.
This readiness, unsurprisingly, requires hard work. It necessitates a worldview that is open to new knowledge and new ways of thinking. (Given that you’re reading this, you, of course, understand this.)
Latticeworks and Lollapaloozas
Mental models, as we’ve seen, are powerful lenses through which we can see the world. They enable us to reframe the problem at hand and see it in a different light.
Where mental models come into their own, however, is when they come together to form what Munger calls a latticework. To build this latticework you need to become – as Munger puts it – a ‘learning machine’. As Munger states:
I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.
This insight is obvious, isn’t it? (But then, the best advice always is.) In aggregate it’s simple: Strive to finish every day a little wiser than you started.
So where do you search for this wisdom? Where is the ideal place to start? Perhaps the best place is furthest from home: find something new, find ground you’ve yet to tread. Start there. (Alternatively, try Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, but be warned, it’s expensive.)
The world of knowledge is, of course, incredibly expansive; some concrete areas of investigation, however, might include: psychology, anthropology, engineering, mathematics, accounting, economics…. (I could go on and on.)
In short, widen the frame of reference and deepen your understanding. In doing so you’ll create what Munger terms a ‘Lollapalooza Effect’, where the power of your ideas together is greater than the sum of their parts. (You might already know of this effect by a different name: ‘gestalt theory’.)
The Long Haul
In Warren Buffet’s 50th annual Letter to the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., he states: “It’s hard to teach a new dog old tricks.” An undeniable assertion, it’s – cleverly – the opposite of what we’re used to hearing, but in that twist lies a cold, hard truth. It takes time to build a fully comprehensive framework of understanding. Experience adds up. The longer you’re in the game, the more you benefit, and the latticework you’ve woven together makes you stronger.
It takes time to join the dots.
As Maria Popova puts it in Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, a wonderful piece that is well worth reading:
…creativity is combinatorial, nothing is entirely original, everything builds on what came before, and we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombine them into incredible new creations.
This line of thinking echoes that of James Webb Young and Vilfredo Pareto who – a century before – underlined the importance of, “combinations of old elements,” leading to new ideas. Popova calls this ‘networked knowledge’, rightly reflecting the increasingly connected culture we find ourselves occupying.
Popova continues: “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.” I couldn’t put it any better. The castles we build will, of course, be founded on the ideas of the past.
Herein lies the challenge to the creative wishing to set themselves apart as we accelerate into an unpredictable future. Feed the mind, nourish it, and equip it with a wealth of mental models. From these latticeworks the answers will, inevitably, flow.
It takes a lifetime to join the dots and build a latticework of mental models. The days of learning your skillset in a matter of a few years are over, we need to embrace a new mindset, understanding that learning is a lifelong undertaking.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the art of reading, in particular studying syntopically, and exploring what the wonderful Mortimer J. Adler can teach us about how to read a book. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
Widen the Frame of Reference
You can find inspiration in everything […] and if you can’t, look again. —Paul Smith
The world around us is overflowing with inspiration, and yet we’re often guilty of overlooking it all in our fast-forward rush into the future. All too often we limit ourselves to the confines of our spheres of specialism, to the exclusion of everything else. The result is endless similarity. Everything self-referential. Everything identical.
We need to open out the aperture, widen the frame of reference, and let in a little more light.
As Paul Smith puts it in his excellent, yet sadly hard to find, book, You Can Find Inspiration in Everything (And if You Can’t, Look Again):
…almost anything can serve as a visual prompt. A Chinese cigarette packet might suggest a new way to pack socks. […] An Indian doll could spark an idea of juxtaposing kitsch with posh, rough with smooth, bright with bold, pattern on pattern.
There’s a wealth of inspiration before your eyes, you simply need to learn to see it. Remove the blinkers, gather these ‘prompts’, and open yourself up to new possibilities… you’ll see the quality of your thinking increase exponentially as a result.
Smith continues: “On my travels to Japan, New York or Paris, I always like to put aside two hours to rush off to flea markets in search of interesting pieces.”
Smith houses these chance finds in a giant warehouse in Nottingham, a place he returns to when in search of inspiration. I like to think of this warehouse as an enormous, three dimensional sketchbook, a place that’s brimming with provocations and potential. I’d love to visit one day….
Open Your Eyes!
Ideas are all around you, colliding in the world in unexpected ways. To grow as a creative you simply need to learn how to see them.
Start by opening your eyes. Look at other disciplines for inspiration. Here you’ll find new ways of looking and new ways of thinking. You’ll certainly see things differently. Learn to see the world with a child’s eyes. Rediscover wonder.
As we accelerate into a new millennium, we find ourselves increasingly working in multidisciplinary teams and – to be suitably equipped for this new type of work – we need to broaden our awareness, becoming open and receptive to other ways of thinking.
IDEO CEO Tim Brown calls people with these qualities ‘T-shaped’, individuals that combine a depth of skill (on the the vertical axis) with a breadth of awareness (on the horizontal axis). As Brown puts it:
On the vertical axis, every member of the team needs to possess a depth of skill that allows him or her to make tangible contributions to the outcome. They also need to be able to work well in the messy environments required to solve complex problems.
Brown also stresses a need for a collaborative disposition, enabling work across disciplines with others who have complementary, or even contrasting, areas of expertise.
Truth be told there have always been T-shaped individuals – Charles and Ray Eames spring to mind, for example – perhaps we just lost our way towards the end of the last century, when specialism seemed to rise up and ease bigger picture thinking out, towards the edges.
Of course an understanding of your specialism is important, but of equal importance is an ability to look further, to understand that there’s more to the world than your current circle of knowledge. Curiosity wins, every time.
In A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young states:
Every good creative […] I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested – from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him.
Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.
Talk to any successful creative and you’ll find that this holds true. Their libraries are vast and often eclectic: a tome on the rigour of Grid Systems in Graphic Design sits comfortably next to a thesis on the poetics of The Shape of Time itself coexisting with a treatise on the nature of Improvisation.
In these seemingly disparate fields of expertise lies a path to new knowledge and new ways of thinking. One that draws on the wider canon of human thought at our disposal, leading to endless possibilities as we combine hitherto uncollided knowledge in new and unexpected ways.
Young likens this to a kaleidoscope, stating:
The kaleidoscope is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. […] The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.
The secret lies in being open and receptive to alternative approaches. Gather those pieces of glass.
No One Likes a Cynic
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is remembered (amongst many other contributions to thought) for the maxim: “It is impossible to step into the same river twice.” Life – and knowledge – is like a river, it’s forever moving forward. So, too, are you.
You are shaped by everything you encounter in life, it transforms you. Understand that, and you’ll understand that even ‘old’ knowledge is new, for you will have changed since you last encountered it.
Paul Jarvis explores this line of thinking in his no-nonsense book Everything I Know, stating:
You stay curious by taking a beginner’s mindset as often as possible. A beginner’s mind acknowledges that you don’t know everything and still have more to learn.
This attitude allows you to question even longstanding ideas. […] It also allows you to be more innovative that someone who is cynical or bored.
As an educator I’m often disheartened by the students who roll their eyes – quite obviously – when a topic they’ve previously encountered is reintroduced. It’s a trait that betrays a lack of maturity. Far from approaching the topic with cynicism or boredom they would do better to approach it with a beginner’s mindset, revisiting it anew.
The wise amongst us understand that these repeat encounters afford an opportunity to revisit past ideas through the prism of our present self, perhaps making new discoveries in the process.
There is more to the world than your existing sphere of knowledge. Opening the aperture and looking further allows you to map the discoveries from one field to the next. Embrace a beginner’s mindset and widen the frame of reference.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the importance of joining the dots and exploring what one of the world’s leading investors can teach us about developing a ‘latticework of mental models’. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
Nothing is New
An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements. —Vilfredo Pareto
Where do ideas come from? Do they arrive, fully-formed from the ether, borne by the nine muses of inspiration? Or do they fall, like Newton's famous apple, carried by the forces of nature?
Are they immediate, and – if so – where do they spring from?
Contrary to popular misconception, ideas are far from immediate. Far from spontaneously arriving in the present, they're formed – slowly, and over time – from the ideas of the past. New ideas are… well… old.
All ideas are made up of old ideas. Nothing is new. As Steve Jobs famously put it: “Creativity is just connecting things.” Understanding this can prove incredibly liberating.
Take any idea in the world and break it apart, and you’ll see it is made up of other ideas. Apple’s new Watch, for example, wouldn’t exist without hundreds of years of horology, never mind the development of the computer… (and let’s not forget, watches themselves are the product of countless other ideas).
In short: Everything we think of as new is, in fact, made up of existing things. The trick lies in seeing the connections. The raw material is all out there in the world, you just need to willingly soak it up like a sponge.
Extend the thinking here and you begin to realise that those who never suffer from a shortage of ideas share one thing in common: curiosity.
As Scott Berkun puts it, in Making Things Happen: “If you lead an active intellectual and emotional life, your ideas will grow with you.” It’s really quite simple, nourish your brain with a steady stream of stimuli and the rest will follow.
Curiouser and curiouser!
Ideas don’t arise in a vacuum, they need the oxygen of other ideas to emerge. You need to feed your mind with those ideas to unlock future ideas. At the heart of enhancing your creativity lies developing your curiosity.
Learn to question everything and you will soon arrive at the heart of knowledge. Ask, “Why?” repeatedly – five times, to be precise – and you’ll discover the root cause of the problem.
There is no substitute for curiosity. As Austin Kleon, puts it, in his excellent book Steal Like an Artist: “You have to be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else – that’s how you’ll get ahead.”
Developing a relentlessly curious mind takes hard work. It’s easy to arrive home after a hard day at the coalface, collapse upon your chaise longue and allow the television to wash over you…. It’s harder to fire up your iPad and go hunting for knowledge. The latter course of action takes effort and – let’s be honest – very few put in the requisite effort in this gilded day and age. (You're different, right?)
There’s a wealth of knowledge wrapped up in the written word. Spend one, or better still two (or more) hours a day reading and incessantly browsing and you’ll soon find your brain filling to capacity as the ideas of the world take root in your mind.
In A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young states:
We tend to forget that words are, themselves, ideas. They might be called ideas in a state of suspended animation. When the words are mastered the ideas tend to come alive again.
Read. Always. Immerse yourself. Track knowledge back to its source. Allow your mind to wander. Become a Yak Shaver.
Eureka Moments Take Hard Work
The word ‘Eureka’ comes from the Ancient Greek word εὕρηκα heúrēka, meaning “I have found (it).” I’m sure everyone knows the story of Archimedes, who – lowering himself into his bath – found the pieces of his problem falling into place, causing him to suddenly exclaim: “Eureka!”
You’ve doubtless experienced this moment yourself, though you may have resisted the urge to bound through the streets stark naked, sharing it with others!
We like to think of the, ‘Eureka’ moment as something delivered (usually accompanied by a crash of thunder and a flash of lightning) through divine intervention. The reality is quite different. ‘Eureka’ moments are, in actuality, the result of hard work and preparedness.
If we prime the brain, constantly nourish it, we begin to understand that we can tip the balance in our favour, or stack the deck, by simply consuming more. In short: The more we feed the mind, the better we enable it to deliver ideas.
Essentially ‘Eureka’ moments can be engineered. If we fill the mind with raw material the connections will follow. Far from ideas springing fully-formed from the ether, we need to ‘prime the brain’, ensuring it’s ‘ideas ready’.
In essence: It’s easy to have ideas, it just takes hard work. (Put in the time, do the reading, do the research and everything else will fall into place afterwards.)
What we’re really looking for are connections. The serendipitous collisions of discrete fields of knowledge that yield new and often unexpected surprises.
Returning to Jobs, and to quote him in full, he states:
Creativity is just connecting things.
When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
The secret to seeing these connections is to have a mind that is overflowing with knowledge. Reading widely, as we’ll see in next month’s thought (‘Widen the Frame of Reference’), is the key. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the borders of your current discipline. Don’t be afraid to look further afield. In this new, and fertile ground there exists huge possibility.
The real magic happens when we cross-pollinate, finding connections between ideas drawn from different fields of knowledge. After all, what’s new for you – in your current sphere of knowledge – might be old for another.
Everything new is old (and everything old is new). Understanding this helps us to map a path to future discoveries. A path that retreads old – tried and tested ground – whilst taking a new fork, here and there, along the way.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the importance of widening the frame of reference, encouraging you to remove the blinkers and open yourself up to new possibilities. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
Designing a Mind
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
It’s 13 years (a baker’s dozen) since I embarked on a career as an educator. It seems fitting then, to take this opportunity – over the course of a year, writing for The Pastry Box – to try and set down some of the ideas I’ve developed through my teaching during this time.
It’s taken me over a decade to get to this point. I still feel like I’m learning, and – of course – I still am. With 13 years under my belt it would be impossible to cover everything I teach; broadly, however, I’ll be exploring the creative process, from start to finish.
My twelve posts will essentially form a creative strategy for: firstly, defining your creative inputs (exploring how what we consume shapes us); and secondly, defining your creative outputs (exploring how what we share shapes us). I hope that, in their totality, they might prove of use to others.
Creativity is messy, it’s intimidating and it can be a difficult path to pursue (it’s almost always fraught with worry and an ever-present sense of self-doubt). I do believe, however, that embracing certain strategies can tip the balance in your favour.
What I’ll be covering is broken into two inter-related series of thoughts, exploring the importance of, and need for, both input and output and how these shape us, both as creatives and as individuals. The new year’s still young, so… let’s get started.
Without constant input we stagnate. The secret to a wealth of ideas is simple: nourish the mind. I often tell my students: “It’s really simple, it just takes hard work.”
Fuelling the mind isn’t easy, it requires rigour and discipline. Put in that discipline, however, and the returns will be considerable. Your ideas will flow and, the more you apply yourself to priming the brain, the more you’ll see connections in the content you encounter.
Understanding this need for inputs, I’ll be exploring the following:
- Nothing is New
- Widen the Frame of Reference
- Join the Dots
- Syntopically Speaking
- Purpose Emerges
Briefly: ‘Nothing is New’, everything we encounter in the world is created from new combinations of existing ideas; if we ‘Widen the Frame of Reference’ and look beyond our current specialisms, we can develop richer strategic frameworks; by learning to ‘Join the Dots’ we can build what Charlie Munger calls a ‘latticework of mental models’, a toolset that will serve us, regardless of the problems we face; ‘Syntopically Speaking’, we’ll explore how we read, learning to compare, contrast and think critically; finally, we’ll learn that ‘Purpose Emerges’ – always – prime the brain and the rest will fall into place.
The need for a constant stream of inputs is critical, but input is only half of the equation, output is equally important.
Our outputs define us. What we share shapes us, as both creatives and individuals. The work we do and the work we put out into the world paints a picture of us, it portrays us in others’ eyes. As Trent Walton puts it: ‘You Are What You Eat’.
Output is every bit as important as input. Our outputs can take many forms: words we wrestle, pixels we push, and code we commit. Output, just like input, is hard work (no one said this would be easy), but it’s well worth the effort.
Understanding this need for outputs, I’ll be exploring the following:
- The Blank Page
- A Good Writer is a Good Thinker
- You Are a Channel
- Make Things, Share Things
- Process Matters
Briefly: ‘The Blank Page’ can be intimidating, but make the first mark and the rest will follow; ‘A Good Writer is a Good Thinker’ explores the idea that writing is a process through which new ideas are developed, challenged and tested; these ideas are best shared, ‘You Are a Channel’, make the most of the opportunities the web affords us to connect with others; if words aren’t your forté, ‘Make Things, Share Things’, your side projects will shape you (and they’ll act as a vehicle for self-actualisation); finally, we’ll learn that ‘Process Matters’ and that sharing our processes with others is for the benefit of all.
The opportunities we encounter in life are, more often than not, a direct result of the work we share. As Frank Chimero puts it: “Daft Punk got to record the Tron soundtrack because they’d already recorded the Tron soundtrack.” Focus on the outputs and the rest will follow.
Educators Are Designers
One of the benefits of working in academia is the opportunities it affords to learn from others. Far from ivory towers of isolation, universities can, and should, act as meeting places for minds, encouraging creative connections.
Professor Alan Livingston CBE is a Visiting Professor at The Belfast School of Art, he is my mentor (in both an official and unofficial capacity). I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with him about the importance of education and the critical role educators play in designing the minds of the future.
At one point in our discussion, he turned to me and quietly stated: “Christopher, you’re a designer.”
Thinking this was something of a statement of the obvious, I replied, “Of course…” and began to outline some of the projects I was currently working on.
“No, no, you don’t understand,” he countered. “You’re a designer of minds. Never forget that.”
A designer of minds. I’ve never forgotten those words, they resonated with me deeply. The best educators are designers, in the truest sense of the word: they design minds, they build futures.
I hope my thoughts, shared here in 2015, will help others. I believe passionately in creativity and in the power of education to nurture and shape lives. I’m looking forward to sharing some of the secrets I’ve learned about designing a mind. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.