Write What You Like

Instead of writing what you know, Austin Kleon advocates writing what you like. As someone who has always started with creating from my expertise, it's a revelation. It's simple, but profound advice for anyone who wants to be creative.
 

Draw the art you want to see, 
start the business you want to run, 
play the music you want to hear, 
write the book you want to read, 
build the products you want to use—
do the work you want to see done. 
 

- Austin Kleon

A Rare Moment

I played hooky today. I never play hooky. 

I’ve always put work first. If there’s a meeting on the calendar, I’ll schedule around it. Work for others has always been non-negotiable, especially meetings. I will manipulate my schedule tighter than a contortionist balled into a knot in order not to miss a meeting. Your needs are more important than mine, my actions silently intoned, over and over each time I twisted myself to fit another. Self-care has never been a talent, or even a priority. I'm not sure I really grasped what self-care meant until sometime in my thirties.

Then...

Without looking at a calendar with US holidays listed, I scheduled a call with the UK…for September 1. The morning of Labor Day. For most workers, a day of rest.  It's true that I was available. But I haven’t had a true holiday in many months. After a brutal month on social media, where I spent most days for work, I was fried deeper than a piece of chicken. I longed to take a long weekend without feeling any responsibility. My role on the call was auxiliary, rather than necessary. But still, I felt obligated. It was Work.

In the Bond family, you always put work first. It’s just always been our way. But something was different this time. Realizing my error, I fretted, felt guilty, decided to take the call anyway, felt anxious, then begged off at the last minute. The call proceeded without me. No one called me out on it. The world didn’t stop spinning. My heart didn’t stop beating. 

Something has shifted. 

Before the experiment with putting my creativity first, I rarely put my personal work or needs ahead of Work. But today I did.

Damn did it feel good. 
 

Choosing Practice Over Advice

During 30 Days of Creativity, advice has shortened the time it takes to learn to code, front-end design and sharpen my writing ability. Advice from experts has helped me eliminate a tunnel where there's no cheese, instead selecting one that holds many more riches. Then, I slipped on the summit of expert advice, and started believing that more advice was better. I became consumed by it. "Moar advice!" echoed in my head, blindly leading me along. 

After establishing a baseline amount of information however, the advice got murkier, often contradictory. Luckily I came across a tweet reminding me that once I've reached a certain threshold, there one thing I need more than advice: practice.

Here's what Hiten Shah means

There is no shortcut to learning a new skill. The fastest way is to put your hands on the keyboard and plod your way forward. Expert advice can at best cut a corner but is never a replacement for your own effort.

After years of learning new skills and 10 years as an executive coach, I know this to be true and yet, I've found myself susceptible during this experiment. Why is it easier to reach for advice over practice? What makes it so enticing? After favoring advice over practice several times during my creative experiment, a couple of patterns have emerged. 

Asking for advice is simple + easy

Ask an expert for their advice, write it down and the task is done. Check it off the list. I often felt a rush of adrenaline after getting advice. It felt good to have direction. Asking for advice made me feel like I was actually doing the work.

But I wasn't.

Instead of putting hands to keyboard thrashing around with a new skill, I was simply talking about it. It was misdirection. Spending three hours painfully learning to create custom CSS is not simple, or easy. Practicing is hard work. Mistakes were made and time lost as I searched for answers to do even a simple task.

As a kinesthetic learner, practicing is how I learn best. As my fingers type, information is encoded into my brain, helping me remember what I'm learning. I know this, and yet, it's still hard to drag myself to the keyboard many days rather than read a book or ask a developer friend how to create a state change in my program. 

Gaining mastery is hard

It's easier to look for answers from someone who has mastered a skill, rather than simply doing the work with my own hands. Having confidence in myself, especially when learning a new skill, can often feel like trying to catch a piece of silk, falling through my grasp. 

We begin learning a new skill as unconsciously incompetent. You have no idea what you're doing, but because you don't know enough to understand this, it doesn't bother you. The phrase blissfully unaware applies beautifully here.

But this phase doesn't last long, for plunging into learning the new skill quickly shows the novice how much there is to learn and the level of incompetence

When I began learning to code, I often thought I understood a concept but when I got to the terminal, the cursor blinked at me impatiently as I tried to remember how to start the task. Frustration often set in as realized just how incompetent I was in my new skills. In the Conscious Competence model, this is known an conscious incompetence. This is the part of the process when I'm overwhelmed by everything I need to learn and unsure how to proceed. This is also the time I've been most likely to want to quit. Or, ask an expert for their advice

Choosing practice over advice

The past 30 days I've been training myself to turn to practice rather than to advice. I still have a strong inclination to look outside for help rather than to my own brain, hands and pluck. Twitter, housework and reading expert advice still beckons some days. But it's getting easier to actually do the work. So, I get up, morning after morning, my mind stumbling over the steps I learned the day before. When I'm finally able to use a new skill, the adrenaline returns, reminding me to continue. So I keep practicing, day after day, knowing that one day I'll get there. Even if I don't get there at least I've increased my skills.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on choosing practice over advice and how you avoid misdirection. 

30 Days of Creativity

Stop playing around. Be serious. It’s time to grow up.

Do you remember hearing these words when you were 16, 18 or perhaps 23? At 18 I was hopeful about a future of writing and making music. By 19 I’d given it up in favor of being a responsible adult.

I spent most of my early career in the corporate world, mired in spreadsheets, trying to look the part of a professional, trying to fit in. It was awful. I hardly think I’m alone. The stories in magazines touting mid-life career changes & books on the quarter life crisis tell me I’m not.

I was lucky. I got out. Working for myself gave me control over my work, allowing me to work on projects I found more enjoyable. It was good, really good. For a while. Then I went into auto-pilot mode. As a friend likes to say, I lit the stove, put the burner on medium and began coasting through my career.I was so focused on paying work that I was building other people’s businesses at the cost of building one for myself. After a 10 or 12 hour day, my creative projects languished, sitting on a dusty digital shelf in favor of a drink in hand and a bag of chips. Most nights I’d find myself watching moving pictures on a screen to help me escape from my troubles. My own projects slipped from second place, then to third, then to the bottom of my to-do list. A few months ago, while searching for a piece of writing I wanted to work on, I realized it had been six months since I’d touched it.

At first I wanted to burn it all down. Then I remembered that I have to pay rent and oh, I owe some money to the government. I couldn’t quit my day job. And I didn’t really want to leave my clients. I loved working with them.

So I started with simple fixes. I immediately stopped working on a book about marketing that had been long planned. I said no to new projects that weren't an automatic yes. I thought I’d puke the day I put a message on my site that I was being selective about future projects. It was the first time I’d publicly limited projects in 10 years of business. 

Next, I taught myself enough code to create a little program I’d been thinking about for two years. Things started to feel better. It still wasn’t enough. I wanted more time for creative expression. Finally I had an idea. If I couldn’t completely reinvent my life, I could at least reinvent my day.

The Birth of 30 Days of Creativity

I’d found it so easy to put paying work ahead of long-term goals or work that is more satisfying but offers little financial compensation. In a small act of defiance, I decided to take the first two hours of my day to work on creative projects. Just as an experiment. The goal wasn’t to produce anything. It was just a place, free from rules, expectation or money.

I gave myself only two guidelines:

- Spend the first 2 hours of the day focused on creative projects that are just for me.

- No client work (or housework) allowed.

During creative time I could read an inspiring book, write, code, write tweet storms. I started by restricting creative time from 8 AM to 10 AM, but I’ve loosened it to the first two hours after I get up. I don’t even have to have my butt in a chair. The goal isn’t output; the goal is to exercise my creativity muscle by putting it (and me) first above any other work, be it client work, email or even housework. The only chore I do before creative time is walk my dog; I use that time to plan, scheme and dream about what I will focus on that day.

I wrote this on Day 10 of this experiment. I suppose if I were a proper marketer wanting to capitalize on this, I would have had a hashtag and started using it on Day 1. But I’m not doing this for marketing. I’m doing it for me. I’m doing this for 19-year-old me who let go of creativity in favor of strait-laced adulthood. She deserves to exist too; to have freedom to roam, and play, and create in my head. I feel like I'm doing this experiment for everyone who worried they weren't good enough to pursue their creativity. 

Want to join me?

I'd love to have company. Tweet me with your intention and use the hashtag #30DaysOfCreativity so we can share your journey. 

Losing My Creativity

Do you remember pumping your legs back and forth on the swing set, trying to reach far into the sky, only to jump off to see how far you could fly? Did you stay up late at night reading under the covers, hoping not to get caught? Did you write short stories as a kid which you then recited out loud to your parents?

We’re born creative, curious beings and remain that way until somewhere around adulthood the harsh world of reality sets in and we turn more pragmatic. The transition from a creative, carefree kid into a serious, logical adult is sadly not that uncommon.

My story began in Warren Michigan, the home of General Motors' headquarters and a gritty suburb of Detroit just on the other side of Eminem’s 8 Mile. My dad built concept cars for GM—cars that were designed to get 100 miles to the gallon and the first electric car that GM unveiled to the world. He has three patents for his innovative designs. Before she took care of us kids, my mom was an advanced composition teacher and accomplished accompanist. If they’d grown up after the depression, my parents might have made riskier choices in their careers. But as children of the Great Depression, their practical natures won out, and they settled into a pragmatic life—my dad in corporate America, my mom scrambling after four rambunctious kids.

Throughout my childhood I could be found doing three things: at the local library checking out stacks of books to read late into the night, singing or writing short stories. By high school, I had learned to play five instruments and was a classically trained singer who performed in four choirs. I was on the yearbook and journalism teams, was one of the school’s photographers, appeared in several plays and had a radio show with my best friend called the Perky Twins. We played Depeche Mode, OMD, New Order and Madonna. In my senior year, I took an independent study teaching myself how to compose music. That year I also took Mrs. Mark’s English class; notorious for her strict grammar rules, Mrs. Marks pushed me to work harder rather than to rely on my natural gifts.

The school released results of our class vote a month before graduation. Always thinking of myself as uncool and unnoticed, I was shocked to see I’d been voted the Most Talented girl of our class. I discounted the award, worried that as the most visible “creative” girl I got it by default. Learning that I'd won by a landslide made me sad. Not even 18, had we already so thoroughly given up creativity that I was the only one still expressing it?

Following graduation many of my classmates took a practical path, winding up at community college or working the line for Chrysler, GM or Ford. I went to a university known for its music program and for its reputation as a party school. My mom’s reaction to my desire to be a singer was tempered. Performing was highly competitive, best hedge my bets by having a back-up plan as a music teacher. Not wanting to be a teacher but not ready to give up my dream, I entered the college's competitive music program, where only the most creative, musically inclined and hard working would survive. Even though I finished my first semester with better than passing grades, my mom's words still rang in my ears. Fearing I wasn't talented enough to make it as a performer, but not wanting to be a teacher, I quit the music program.

For the next year, I plowed myself into writing and English literature classes. During spring break of my sophomore year, I sprung my new major on my mom.

“I’m going to major in English and become a writer!”

“All the smartest kids from your sister’s class are going to be English majors. Maybe you should be an English teacher,” my mom replied.

Rather than trusting myself or taking a risk, I decided her simple statements meant I wasn’t talented enough to make a living being creative, so I’d better choose a safer path. When I got back to school I didn’t declare an English major. Instead, I took up Psychology, a degree which often leads to jobs in business, but I secretly took as many film and writing classes as my electives would support. In my junior year I transferred to Michigan State University for a strong academic program, giving myself a better chance at success in the business or academic world. My creative pursuits relegated to a shameful secret, I looked at my future with a mixture of sadness and resignation, girding myself to fit in rather than pursue individual expression.

Somewhere in my thirties I started exploring what creativity meant to me as an adult with a responsible life. Today, I’m still rediscovering my creativity. My current day job as a CMO-for-Hire gives me some creative outlet, but I always ache for more.

I recently started an experiment I’m calling 30 Days of Creativity which I’ll write about in my next post. Check back in the next few days. In the meanwhile, I hope you’ll follow along and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #30DaysofCreativity.