A calling

My wife has a knack for making things beautiful and making beautiful things. It’s her gift and a noble calling. Even her handwriting is artful. You should see the cakes she decorates. She cares about the small details and delights in delighting others.

I love that about her. Making things beautiful is her calling. It’s not her job. She’s not a professional artist, though her artistry infuses all she does.

We all need a calling, whether it aligns with a career or not. A gift to give, a contribution to make. What will be your life?

Daily express

I just returned from a quick beach getaway with my wife’s family.

I took a few days off from posting on this site while I was gone, and I came home to an email from a friend wondering if everything was okay. He was used to me posting something daily. How nice that he was concerned when I went missing from the internet for a few days.

I do try to find something to share here every day, and I had a nice streak going before this recent break. 

Some days I post just a quote or a link to something I’ve found online or a book I’m reading. Occasionally it will be something more substantial.

But I’ve discovered that this daily discipline adds some juice to my days. I wake up knowing I need to find something worthwhile to share. And my antennae are up. I’m on the search for interesting. I learn things I otherwise wouldn’t because I’m actively seeking something new to share.

I’m sure photographers actually see things most of us don’t because they’re in the business of finding and creating things worth seeing.

It’s a double pleasure if something I share is meaningful to someone else, because my initial audience is just me. If no one reads what I write, at least I have benefitted from the experience of trying to find something worthwhile and understand it well enough to communicate it. 

Making a regular habit of expressing yourself, in whatever medium works for you, will have you seeing and feeling and finding in ways you never would otherwise.

“The best way to understand something is to try to express it.” –Brenda Ueland

Elle Luna: The crossroads of should and must

This epic essay by Elle Luna was posted almost a year ago. I discovered it only today when Seth Godin linked to her new book that came from that essay.

The book looks beautiful. Purchased.

In this essay (and now in her book) Elle tells her story of finding her calling by resisting the path of Should and instead embracing the path of Must. Most of us are guided by what we think we should do while ignoring the call of our deepest desires and what we must do to be fully alive.

“What if who we are and what we do become one and the same? What if our work is so thoroughly autobiographical that we can’t parse the product from the person? What if our jobs are our careers and our callings?” –Elle Luna

I have struggled, though, with the notion that we have some innate passion we have to find and follow. Maybe it’s just semantics. What an authentic life needs is to be true to what you genuinely love and to make an art of it, to do it as well as you can.

Pick a path the excites you, that seems like fun, but that also will challenge you and will compel you to mastery. Course correct regularly. Change your mind. Try and fail, but stick with something long enough to know.

Elle Luna closes her essay with a strong call to choose Must over Should, to have the courage to live the life that is calling to you:

“If you believe that you have something special inside of you, and you feel it’s about time you gave it a shot, honor that calling in some small way — today.

If you feel a knot in your stomach because you can see the enormous distance between your dreams and your daily reality, do one thing to tighten your grip on what you want — today.

If you’ve been peering out over the edge of the cliff but can’t quite make the leap, dig a little deeper and find out what’s stopping you — today.

Because there is a recurring choice in life, and it occurs at the intersection of two roads. We arrive at this place again and again. And today, you get to choose.”

Conan O’Brien on creativity and perspective

After listening to the Brian Cox episode of the Nerdist podcast, I came across an older episode featuring a long conversation with Conan O’Brien. So good.

I’ve come to think that most really good comedians also are some of our most insightful philosophers. They actively explore the absurdity of life. Imagine being on a constant search for “What’s funny about this?” And then to regularly stand in front of audiences and try to express those absurdities in an effective way, that must lead to a unique perspective on life.

In this podcast episode, Conan reflects on his experiences creating for a daily television show and how most things miss the mark. But sometimes, it just works. I transcribed this from around the 54:00 mark of the episode:

The really great stuff has to be rare… It’s not just back to back to back…

My only hope is that you’re judged for your best work. If you’re judged by your best work, I’ll be okay.

Someone explained to me once that your creative life is laying down little tiles. And you can’t see what it’s all making, and sometimes it’s a slightly darker tile than the other. Sometimes it’s a really brightly colored tile. Sometimes you’ll lay down seven grey tiles in a row. But you’re making a much bigger piece which when seen when it’s completed, when it’s done, could be quite fantastic, you know, but you’re doing it tile by tile, day by day and you can’t know.

You can’t know. At least not from the zoomed in perspective of this moment. But keep laying down tiles. Then, hopefully, you can zoom out eventually and see a body of work that might be more fantastic than you could have planned in advance.

 

Art & Fear: The ceramics class and quantity before quality

This story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland popped up in a favorite technology blog yesterday:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Brilliant. And I’ve been having this lesson delivered to me repeatedly over the past year. Quantity leads to quality. I don’t know if I’m learning it. I still get stuck overthinking, delaying, waiting for inspiration. When what I need to do is just show up. Do work. And keep showing up.

Attempt mediocrity, even. Dare to write one really awful sentence if you have to. It takes the pressure off. And mediocre might just lead to good, which every now and then might get me to awesome. But if I start by expecting to begin with awesome, I might just sit there instead, waiting for lightning to strike. Or, more likely, start scrolling Twitter and RSS feeds.

Quantity. Hammer away at the thing you want to get good at. Not to the point of grooving an easy path or just mailing it in. You need to challenge yourself routinely with hard things, by stretching your skills. But the more you do, the better you’ll be.

Don’t wait for the muse to show up. Your showing up is more likely to summon the muse than the other way around.

The ceramics class story, by the way, has been linked in several places (Cool Tools, Herbert Lui, and Coding Horror are three I found), and then I saw that book recommended today in a Chase Jarvis post, 6 Books Guaranteed to Make You More Creative. I have five of his recommended six books. The one I’m lacking: Art & Fear. The internet, great and powerful, clearly, is telling me to get that book.

I’m an artist. You are, too.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball is the kind of book that stays with you. I read it many years ago and still think of lessons from it. The author, Gordon McKenzie, worked at Hallmark, and the book explores his efforts to retain his independence and nurture his creativity within an often stifling bureaucratic organization.

In the most memorable story in the book McKenzie tells of his annual visit to an elementary school to share his art. He would start by presenting to the Kindergarten class and work his way up, talking to each grade level, all the way to the fifth-graders to finish the day. At each grade level he asked the students, “How many of you are artists?” Every Kindergarten student would quickly put a hand up. At the next class, though, a few first-graders did not raise a hand. A few more second-graders didn’t. Progressively, as he moved up in grade levels, fewer students raised a hand when he asked who were artists.

By fifth grade, no hands went up at his question. He then told the fifth-graders that every Kindergarten student had claimed to be an artist. “What is happening?” he asked them. “Are all the artists transferring out of this school?”

Of course, the point is something is happening to convince kids they are not artists. Parents or peers or teachers or culture or the system or some combination is turning off the default setting for creativity.

It’s on us to keep drilling back into the settings, our own settings and those of people we can impact, and turning back on the “I’m an artist” setting.

You don’t have to make a living off your art to be an artist. Just make something that only you can make – an experience, a photo, a meal, a poem or post, a song or video, a note to a friend. Express yourself. Make art. Go back to the Kindergarten default that you are an artist.

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Surprise yourself

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.” –Neil Gaiman

My wife found and shared this great Neil Gaiman quotation today. Excellent thought for the beginning of a new year.

Make something beautiful to launch into the world. Be predictably awesome with your habits and routines so you can have the chance for true surprise and delight.

Seth Godin’s delightful new book: What To Do When It’s Your Turn

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Yesterday I received Seth Godin’s new book, What To Do When It’s Your Turn. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a delight to hold and thumb through. The design is rich, colorful, and compelling, with big photos and pulled quotes and blog-like bursts of wisdom throughout.

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It is giving me new hope for the printed word, for books with real pages to turn. If you’re book is going to just be words, I can appreciate it just as well on an iPad or a Kindle. But if it aims to connect beyond just words, if there is a feel to it you hope to convey, an aesthetic quality that moves the reader visually and kinesthetically, then digital bits won’t be enough.

Godin’s new book has a pleasing heft, literal and metaphorical weight that you wouldn’t feel if you were reading it on a device. This is the kind of book that’s a bit like a souvenir for ideas. You’ll want to show it off and pass it around, and that’s his aim. Spread great ideas. Ideas with depth deserve a vehicle, a medium, to match.

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As we consider the spread of ideas in the internet age, don’t pour one out for physical books just yet. When you make the whole book a work of art ––not just the art in writing the words, but in crafting the physical container of those words (and images)–– possibilities emerge that take the connection between a creator and an audience to a new level.

Perfectionism is dangerous

David Foster Wallace:

“You know the whole thing about perfectionism – perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good. Aiming for perfection is worthwhile, but you can’t be paralyzed by the reality that you will likely never reach the ideal you envision.

Just starting is an accomplishment. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. Most people never beat the resistance that keeps good ideas as ideas only.

But you’ve got to finish, too. It’s hard to draw the line. When is something good enough? At some point, as reasonably close to your ideal as you can get, you’ve just got to ship. Get your art out the door.

The world is in need of more beauty and insight and kindness. Have the courage to take action in spite of the pain falling short of your ideal will cause you.

The truth about art

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. –Pablo Picasso

Jason Silva keeps making good stuff. I appreciate his effusive expressiveness. He’s got charisma, and I love how he’s using video to convey in short bursts his passion for ideas and feelings that awaken possibility and shine a light on what could be.

This Paradox of Art video is a good reminder of the value of art and the power of effective art to communicate truth beyond its own form.

I remember as a teenager being frustrated reading poetry in high school English class.

“What does it mean?” “I don’t get it.” “What’s the point?”

I was trying to read poetry as if it were prose. I grew to understand that art could point to something far from its explicit expression. As I grew in my own depth, the beauty of art began to reveal itself to me.

I don’t have to get stuck to the words in a poem. Those words should send me to an understanding or insight or emotion that I otherwise wouldn’t experience were it handed to me directly.

And when I try to express myself, I need to remember to embrace the freedom offered by metaphor and mystery. I don’t have to serve it up straight and cold and direct. In fact, allowing and encouraging the audience to ponder and search and discover is preferable. As Kubrick said, giving your audience “the thrill of discovery” will allow your art to connect even more deeply than if your truth was just handed over.

Of course, art is infection, as Tolstoy explained. So, don’t make your work so impenetrable that it has no effect.

And all of us are artists, we all can create and offer something of value. Get busy creating and trying to express your truths as artfully as you can.