Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, December 28, 2015

My Top 5 Creativity Apps of 2015

A yearly tradition on this blog at the end of the year is a round-up of the top apps that I found to be indispensable. Some apps stay on the list, and then new ones get added. As 2015 is coming to a close, here's my list for this year.   

   1. Evernote
My love for Evernote is clear to anyone who reads this blog, and this year I expanded the way I use it. I already used this app, both on my laptop and my iPhone to keep track of recipes, articles I wanted to come back to, and my lists for planning work. This year I also used Evernote to save versions of my author bio and other aspects for my book promotion efforts. I was able to save a lot of time keeping the frequently used documents I need in Evernote. One of my favorite uses is to tag notes I use over and over as a shortcut. Being able to create separate notebooks for each book and each aspect of the publishing process made everything easier, as I branched out with more promotional efforts this year.

   2. Buffer
This tool, available both as a downloadable app and through your favorite web browser, has become another indispensable tool. I schedule most of my social media promotional efforts through Buffer, and the ease of use of the tool as well as the helpful tips and articles provided by the team make it one of my favorite apps. I keep finding new ways to use it and ways to save me time and hassle that never occurred to me earlier. I definitely recommend the excellent Buffer blog (link) for tons of social media marketing advice.

   3. Wunderlist
This year I finally read David Allen's productivity bible, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and I decided to implement the system. I tried several new list management apps, and ended up abandoning  each after a month or so. I returned to Wunderlist, and implemented my own version of GTD. I love Wunderlist because it is simple. I created separate lists for each type or function of work, and created specific Someday lists for these functions, so I can save ideas that occur to me, but don’t need to be done right away. I have found this system has been working remarkably well for me recently, and I have been getting more done with far less stress. Wunderlist allows you to make more lists than you will need, and you can modify your favorite productivity system to suit your needs and match it with Wunderlist.

   4. Scannable
For the first time on this list, Scannable is an app for the iPad and iPhone that captures paper through the camera, and scans it into a high-quality image that can be emailed or stored in Evernote. I use it to scan work-related checks and receipts easily, or keep an image of a document that I need. It is incredibly easy to use and the resulting scans are very high quality. The app can also be used to scan business cards and convert them into contacts, but that is a feature that I have yet to use. I very rarely have access to an office scanner, but with Scannable, lately I have never found that to be a problem.

    5. Scribd
Scribd is an e-book subscription service, with thousands of books by both indie and traditionally published authors, as well as an impressive audiobook collection. I found using the Scribd app allowed me to make the most of all my travel via public transport, and I ended up reading far more books than I would otherwise. I like to read 4-5 books at a time, which is easy with the app. The app also keeps track of which books were read in which month, and as I recently updated my 2015 reading list, this data was pretty useful. If the idea of a subscription service appeals to you, the Scribd app is pretty great.

6.  Honorable Mention – Fitbit
While the list is technically for the top 5 apps, I had to mention Fitbit. I believe that fitness is really important to being more productive and creative, and my Fitbit app keeps me on track, ensuring I get more exercise than I might otherwise. The iPhone app is quite handy, and I have completely given up using the desktop application. You can track your steps, activity, food, water and sleep using the app, although I only use it for automatically tracking my steps and sleep quality. Not everyone needs or appreciates so much life data, but I kind of got hooked on the idea of seeing trends and using the patterns from the data to make improvements in one's life, and now I love the idea of having as much personalized data about my activities as possible. If you like that idea, the Fitbit app is well-designed and works well. The only grouse I have is with the design of the tracker – charging it requires removing it from the band and I end up needing to replace the band pretty often. Other than that, I love my Fitbit.

I hope this list inspires some of you reading this post to try out a new app. All of the apps mentioned above are either free, or have a free package (Scribd comes with a 14-day free trial), so it doesn’t cost anything to try. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a productive and wonderful new year!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Lessons Learnt Writing A Novel in November For Nanowrimo

I won Nanowrimo for the first time this year, even though I have been a member for the past 9 years. Most years I just watched from the sidelines, too afraid to even dip my toe in. I have wanted to be a writer most of my life, and although usually that means writing fiction, with the exception of school writing assignments, and a play that I co-wrote which wasn’t entirely fictional, I never managed to complete a single piece of fiction writing, not even a short story. I started many things, but gave up after a few pages.

Even though I signed up for Nanowrimo several times, by the time the first of November rolled around, I had given myself enough viable excuses and chickened out. My story wasn’t complex enough. It was too complex. I had t do a ton of research first. One year I started, wrote around 8,000 words, and then went home for the festival season and basically gave up because I got behind on my word count.

This year, I decided, would be different. I chose a story that I had already roughed out. I gave notice to friends and family and made a strong internal commitment. I carved out extra time, and reduced some of the other things on my plate. I was going to do this, I was excited about my book and the characters, and I couldn’t wait to spend a month going on an adventure with them. When November 1st arrived, I started off with enthusiasm, and started hitting near my word count targets the first few days. But then I started to hit snags, was having trouble with the story, and also decided at the last minute to travel home to New Delhi for Diwali. Uh oh, trouble for the book right? Given what happened the last time Diwali and Nanowrimo collided, and Diwali won, I was apprehensive. But then I convinced myself that I could keep going – even if I fell behind, as long as I wrote around 500 words a day, I could catch up eventually. Except when I was home, I had less free time than I thought, and what little time I had I couldn’t motivate myself to spend that writing about characters who were boring me. I hated them and I hated the book. But I couldn’t exactly give up, I had proudly told many people I was participating in Nano this year, and had even mentioned it on an interview I gave about my published books.

I got back to Singapore, and I had barely written around 6,000 words and I had about 11 days in which to get to 50,000 words. Not to mention I hated my book, the characters were flat, and I was considering starting over with a new project. Seeing the reality of how much I already had to write, and given the lack of any other ideas that I could take to novel length, I decided to stick to my story, and stick it out somehow. I wrote in coffee shops, restaurants, even on the bus. I became crabby, and abruptly ended conversations. I was barely present in conversations, and almost everything else took a backseat. But my word count slowly edged up. I got to 10,000 words, then 15,000 and then 20K. As I inched closer to my target, my writing seemed to improve. Most days however, all I could see were the glaring flaws in my manuscript. At least once a day I wanted to quit, and several times a day I said out loud, "I hate this book!" But I kept going, sheer stubbornness fueling me at this point.

Yesterday, with a few hours to go, I finally crossed the finish line, with 50,500 words. This was despite the fact that I battled fever for the last few days, and this morning I felt so ill, I contemplated cancelling everything and just crawling back into bed. By early evening I still had almost 6,000 words to go, and no idea what to even write for the final scenes (I am a pantser, not a plotter). And yet, somehow, the ideas were flowing, and my characters were finally saying and doing interesting things and before I knew it, I had done it.

Before the euphoria of this moment wears off, I want to capture the lessons that I learned through this process:

1. Be grateful for every bit of support you get from the people in your life. I was very grumpy and generally unpleasant to be around some days, especially when the writing was going slower than I had hoped. My family put up with that version of me, knowing it wasn’t personal, it was just the stress of not writing enough. Plus, I got meals made and dishes washed, which helped, not only physically, but psychologically.

2. Doing one tough thing is like doing other tough things. It occurred to me at least once every day, that there were some people who found it relatively easy to sit down and get their word quota in every day, probably those same people who passed by cookies and doughnuts and didn’t give in. Or those that went for a run even when it was raining or too hot or there was a Harry Potter marathon on TV. I wasn’t one of those people, and this exercise taught me that I would like to change that fact. I am hoping that winning in Nano means that I will finally win the war against cookies. Here's hoping!

3. Work stretches to fill the time you give it. Most days at the coffee shop I hit a wall after a certain number of words. I couldn’t stare at the screen anymore, my mind was beginning to shut down, and I just figured I could make up the difference at home after dinner. And sometimes I did, by staying late. I always managed to just be shy of my target though, whether it was word count or time. I always took the entire time allotted. Today I didn’t have that luxury, I had a lot more words to complete than on other days, and I wanted to do it early enough to validate before the crush of last-minute validaters slowed down the servers. I wrote the remainder of my word count, just under 6,000 words, in 4 hours, including breaks to make tea and eat snacks. This past week on many occasions I spent that amount of time in a coffee-shop writing, and still only managed 1,800 to 2,000 words. Each individual writes at a different pace, but my point is that when I gave myself more time, I used every minute. On those days when I was pressed for time, my fingers miraculously speeded up and I got my quota done in time.

4. Doing something seemingly crazy actually makes you feel more sane. Although in the online world it sometimes feels like everyone is a writer, and everyone is doing Nano, in the real world I don’t know a single person who is doing this. Which makes me feel slightly crazy when I try to explain my endeavor to friends and family who look at me like I am slightly nuts, but in a good way. Taking the time to do this thing, which meant a lot to me, has paradoxically helped me to become a far more 'normal' and nice person to be around. Sure while I was racing headlong towards my deadline I was like a bear with a sore head, but now that that part is over, I suddenly find myself inclined to be far more patient, more caring of others' feelings, and just feel generally more empathetic.

5. You can achieve a lot, given a deadline and support. The main reason that Nano works so well is that you have a tight deadline and a clear goal, and a supportive community. In my case though, I was too shy to take advantage of the built-in support, to reach out to others in the forums or to attend any local write-ins. I substituted that for the anonymous support of coffee shops and libraries, and typed furiously whilst others did homework on tables near me. I am hoping now to apply this same formula to other goals that I have previously thought were too hairy and audacious to attempt.

Whether you participated in Nanowrimo (and therefore know the unique and crazy nature of this challenge) or not, I hope you get to experience the adrenaline-fueled adventure of setting a huge goal (whatever seems appropriate to you) and going all out towards it. Whether you ultimately "win" your goal or not, just the attempt is sure to teach you many lessons.

Please share your stories in the comments – have you ever set a crazy impossible goal, and how did you go for it?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Do We Always Know When To Take A Vacation?

From a recent staycation in Singapore - I am conquering my fear of heights!

Whether you work for others or are self-employed, if you are ambitious and want to make a name for yourself or create an impact in your field, you probably believe in working hard, developing your skills and getting as much done each day, week and year as possible. You probably have annual, maybe even quarterly goals that you try to achieve. And that's great.

But at the same time if you are a creative of any sort, a writer, designer, or architect, you know that success in your field chiefly depends on doing great work over a long stretch of time. It's not how much you achieve in a month or two that counts, but what you get done over the long haul. Over a ten year period, how much did you achieve? Or maybe a five-year period. What new skills did you develop? Did you take your work to a new and original direction?

Along the way towards success in a creative field, we require stamina and resilience. To face all the inevitable rejection and indifference towards our work, to handle the demands of clients and employers that see us not as unique individuals but as just another resource to be tapped, to accept the fact that meteoric fame is probably not in the cards right now. Stamina and resilience. Things that get beaten down, from long hours and less than ideal working conditions. From scrimping and saving, and putting all our money back into our work.  From declining social invitations to spend another evening working long hours on your side-projects. At some point, you need to replenish the well, to refill the passion and interest that keeps you going beyond logic and rational.

At some point, you know you need to step away from the desk and take a vacation.

It doesn’t need to be exotic or expensive. It just needs to be a real mental break. Something to anticipate. Something to feel excited about.

The last couple of months started the festival season for Indians, and while I notionally attended a few events, I basically focused on work. I had to market my just-released book, complete a few other projects and start to write something new. Or start to write a few somethings new so that I could see which would lead me to my next project. Taking a vacation now didn’t make sense. After all the end of the year is in any case a whirlwind of planning elaborate meals and gift shopping. Why not work as much as I could now?

Except I didn’t take into consideration that I had already worked as hard as I could to complete my previous book, and hadn’t quite recovered from that. I finished and jumped straight into the next ever-growing list of things to do. My to-do lists didn’t seem to get done before 10 new things were added each day. The ideas were flying fast, and I had to keep up with them. Taking time off, you say? Well, sorry, but now isn’t a good time.

But something wasn’t right. I could feel it. I was losing motivation to do things. Something that should take 20 minutes took an hour. Or sometimes didn’t get done. I would start, and then feel my brain slowly down, gurgling, and then coming to a stop. It refused to budge while I stared at the document, knowing what I was supposed to do, but not being able to do it. I put it down to laziness, to forgetting how long my list was, to procrastinating. Until my dad forced me to take a vacation. I'm going home to India for just over a week, to spend time over the festival with my mum. We will do festival-y things, and basically eat a lot and shop. And while some time back that seemed like a dreadful waste of time just when I couldn’t afford that, now it seems like just what I needed. Simply booking the tickets and starting to pack my bags, my vim has started to come back. My fingers are flying over the keyboard, I want to get as much done as possible before I leave. Sure, I will come back to an even longer to-do list, and have even less time to do it in. But I will be refreshed, have more ideas and more enthusiasm.

That’s why we need vacations. To work better and harder. To do good work and look forward to it. And that sounds so simple a kindergartener could tell you that. It's basically recess for grown-ups. And yet how many articles have you read about professionals not taking their vacation days? Of employers basically encouraging their employees to "commit" to their work by not taking any time off? It sounds good in theory – the less time you take off, the more you have to dedicate to helping your company (or yourself) succeed. Except for the inconvenient fact that we aren’t machines. We need a change of scenery and to unplug from the daily grind just to gain a new perspective. We need to sip a few mai-tais (or eat a bucket of tandoori chicken, in my case) to have renewed appreciation for the keyboard, easel or drafting table. If you never get away from your work, how can you miss it?

So, ask yourself, are you excited and interested in your work? Or frustrated and annoyed by even the smallest bumps? Don’t wait till you burst into tears over your laptop a few times to realize that you need some time off (unsurprisingly, that’s what it took for me to cop to it). See you at the beach (or biryani stall)!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Should You Revise A Published Piece?

I have been working on a project that I am embarrassed to admit, and I am not really sure if I should be working on. I have been editing, well actually completely overhauling, one of my published books.

The reason I am ashamed to admit it is because presumably when it was published it was good enough, and wouldn't really need an edit. Well, it was the best I could do at the time yes. I had spent months writing it, and since it was based on my Masters' thesis, months before that doing research and writing the core on which it was based. It had gone through a lot of iterations and was presumably good enough. It may have been, and yes, I was proud of parts of it. At the time I was actually proud of all of it.

But then I came across this book - Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors and Publishers by Scott Norton. And the book completely changed the way I looked at structuring a book, and profoundly informed the next book that I published. But then I started to think how I could apply the ideas to my previous work, and I could see many flaws in my book on arms control, structural issues that I just hadn't seen before. Presumably I could have solved this problem by hiring a developmental editor, but aside from the expense involved, I believe in doing things myself as much as possible. This may be a minority opinion and controversial in the world of book publishing, where every aspect of producing a book is assigned to a different person, but I reasoned that I was in this for the long haul, and I would need to learn how to do this myself, even if later I was in the position to hire someone.

I jotted down the ideas I had for improving it, and went on to work on other projects, because at the time I wasn't sure I should invest the time. The book was at the back of my mind though, and I kept thinking, when I have the time, I will go back to it, and revise it. It seemed like a large undertaking, so I just put it on the backburner.

One day while meditating, the idea for the revised outline just came to me - so I wrote it down. It seemed like a simpler structure than I had used before, and just getting that idea got me excited. I decided to start working on it a bit at a time, alongside my other projects. Initially, I made little progress, but the other day, I set aside a chunk of time to finalize the outline and assess how much I would really need to rework. It took a while, but having done the hard work of planning, I now think it won't take too much time to go through the actual editing and re-writing. I don't plan to change too much - it is less an entire re-write, more like writing the second edition of a textbook - where most of the book remains the same, but a few chapters are broken apart or combined together. The only difference is, that I am revising it not because the content has changed fundamentally, but that my own thinking has changed, its become clearer and more ordered.

This book hasn't really sold a lot of copies so far, which means spending a lot of time on it isn't commercially justified or pragmatic. In fact, I have been advised against wasting my time on this. I get the point - I probably won't make a difference to the sales of the book, and I could be using that time to write a new book. But then I asked myself - why am I writing? I write because I am compelled to, because I want to share things that I am obsessing about or intensely curious about with others. I plan to write many books, and although each of them won't be perfect, any of them won't be perfect, I must try to make each one as good as I can. And I couldn't live with myself knowing that I know how to make one of them better, more readable, more useful, and am not doing it.

So that's why I will be spending some time in the next few weeks, revising a book that I published last year. I will update here when the new version is out, and I would of course appreciate any feedback.

Have you ever gone back and revised a previously published work?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Can You Reverse-Engineer Success?

The plethora of self-help books and success tomes demonstrate that the topic of success and how to achieve it is something that most of us are intensely interested in. However you happen to define success, chances are, you would like to find ways to increase it.

I was having a conversation a few days ago with my mother, and we were talking about goals and achieving them. Well, she mentioned this young girl from Thailand, who came from very difficult circumstances, but ended up with a scholarship to study abroad, and fulfill her dream of making a difference in the field of education, by being asked to participate in creating new education policy for her country. This is an impressive achievement, and of course, one tends to ask the question – what lessons can we learn from this? What did she do to achieve her success?
Well, since I haven’t met or spoken to this girl, I can only make vague conjectures. And this post isn’t about how to achieve what she did, or something similar. Instead, I am wondering if it is possible to reverse-engineer big goals? Sure, you can read any one of hundreds of books on how to become more successful, and they are mostly filled with very useful advice, such as increasing your skills, learning to speak in public, or learning how to be a more effective leader. Reading such books can help to become generally more successful, but would they help in achieving specific success?
This is a topic I think about a lot, as I am trying to pursue certain specific goals. And despite reading a lot about them, and acquiring a wide range of advice, I feel stymied and can show somewhat uncertain and dubious progress. This is also the case for some other people I know. On the other hand, plenty of people are obviously successful in many endeavors, so is it that my execution is simply poor? It is entirely possible of course. But I also think maybe there is something else to it as well.
Some years ago I read The Click Moment by Franz Johansson, and it made this point that even those who achieved incredible, once-in-a-lifetime success were many times unable to repeat their feats. That sometimes something just clicks, and we can't know in advance what that will be. His point was, just do a lot of stuff, keep throwing spaghetti at the wall, and something will stick. Take a lot of action, make a lot of art or start a lot of businesses, and you have a greater chance of one of those projects clicking.
For a while I was really obsessed by this idea. That we have no control over what will be successful. You have to admit that it's a more appealing idea than work for 10,000 hours, on one specific skill or set of skills, and then you will become a genius. If you abandon your skill, or need to change careers or whatever, too bad, you simply need to start over. Its compelling to think that there is no way to guarantee success, so it's not on me if I fail, it's not because I failed to put in my 10,000 hours. However, even though we cannot guarantee success with a formula, there is no doubt that the more you practice, the sharper your skill set, the more you bring to the table with each new project or opportunity that you are a part of. You make it that much easier for yourself to be successful. That's why, while I still appreciate the message of Johansson's book, I wouldn’t set too much store by it.
In my own career so far, with all its twists and turns and lack of meteoric upward mobility, one thing I have seen is that the combination of factors works well. You try to get good at whatever you are working on, and yet you don’t assume that skill alone will automatically guarantee the reception of your work. Some of the most amazing work-related experiences I have had, arose not from the fact that I was the best person for the job, but because a confluence of factors happened to move me towards a particular opportunity. While working on transitional justice and traditional human rights issues, I happened to help out a stressed-out and overworked colleague on a project she was involved with, in an area completely new to me. I read up on it, and helped her out with a tiny sliver of the project. That led to me being included in the project, getting to undertake the bulk of the research for it, and even write a small portion. I gained expertise in an entirely new field. This isn’t something that I could have predicted, or reverse-engineered. Sure, you might think (cynically) that that was my ulterior motive in offering help to my colleague in the first place. Although it wasn’t, there have been previous instances where I offered to help and either wasn’t taken up on the offer, or that assistance didn’t lead to anything further. In fact, in that same organization, this happened a few times. So I couldn’t really have predicted this.
This pattern has played out in many of the items in my CV that I am most proud of. Conferences that I attended, internships, published papers – most of this happened as a result of a chance comment, or a fleeting idea that I acted on. None of them were the result of a concerted plan of action, goals that I wrote down, or achievements that I actively pursued.
What lesson can you draw from this? The lesson that I learn from this is that it isn’t easy to pick a goal and figure out exactly how you will get there. Sure, if your goal involves you and no one else, that might be possible – such as deciding to write a book or run a marathon. You figure out the steps involved, and then execute them till you have completed the book or crossed the finish line. But where other people are involved, I don’t think it is as easy to predict outcomes. We can do our best to set goals, make plans and carry them out, but we don’t know how it will truly play out.
So if you're reading this, and hoping for a takeaway, what should you do? I suggest that you continue to make plans and take action as usual. However, don’t be completely wedded to those specific outcomes. Be willing to let the universe take you in a different direction. Be open to possibilities. And encourage those possibilities by trying new things, doing more projects, reaching out to more people. If you get a whimsical idea, follow it up if it can be done in a reasonable time frame. Talk about your dreams with someone who is the last person you ever thought could help you achieve them; you never know, they might be just the one with the right contacts. Remember that the world is complex and beautiful, and it continues to surprise us every single day with its wealth of possibility and richness. Watch out for serendipity, and you never know what might happen!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why Artists and Creative Professionals Should Let Us See Their Early Work

When I sit down to write, I only have a vague idea of what I want to write about. I type the first few sentences, and it all seems wrong. My fingers linger over the keyboard, it is almost as if my brain stopped sending signals to them, they don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t get any ideas — I stare at the blank screen for a few seconds, minutes, whatever, and then decide that it’s pointless. I give up, closing down the word document. To distract myself, I go online and see what other people are writing, or pick up one of my favorite books. Everything seems so well-structured, so seamless. It’s hopeless, I tell myself. I will never really be a writer.

Does this feel familiar? Go ahead and substitute your favorite creative verb in place of “writing” — painting, designing, film-making. Everywhere around us, there are people making amazing masterpieces and directing breathtaking movies and creating products or images that dazzle. And why stop there? If you design apps, you can point to a dozen or more perfect apps, or if you want to start a company, you can get overwhelmed looking at the bevy of successful startups. Why even risk inevitable failure and humiliation, when the outcome is guaranteed — guaranteed to disappoint?

Every successful writer, film-maker, poet, painter and entrepreneur knows something that many beginners do not — that it takes a lot of sweat, cursing, trashing pages or throwing away of entire prototypes before something amazing is born. Films spend months in the editing room, software goes through several phases of beta testing, and books get edited multiple times, before the mainstream audience is allowed to experience (and judge) these products.

And yet, as a beginner, or even with some experience, we creatives (and I use that word loosely to describe anyone who is making something for the consumption of others) tend to compare our early and flawed work to the best work of the greats. And we aren’t entirely to blame. How often do the greats show us their early and flawed work? In The Artists’ Way, Julia Cameron recounts that she had arranged (to the shocked horror of some less brave souls) for some established film-makers to showcase their first films to her students, in order to show them the path from ordinary to exceptional. 

In Kevin Ashton’s How To Fly A Horse, he recounts the myth of Mozart — a letter that apparently proved Mozart’s genius — entire compositions just came to him in a dream. In actuality, Mozart struggled and pored over his work, spending sleepless nights and countless days perfecting each arrangement.

And yet the myth of the genius artist, the scam that some people are able to sit down and effortlessly, or with very little agony or inefficiency, create works of extraordinary depth, is compelling and pervasive. One of my favorite Yeats’ poems, Adam’s Curse, reiterates this myth:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
This myth does us a great disservice. We believe that our little ideas or thoughts aren’t good enough — they aren’t big enough or sketched out enough. We believe that if a piece is very rough to start with, there is no way that it can end up being as polished as that of the work of our idols, the work we admire. We forget that every diamond started out as a rough, ugly stone, almost indistinguishable to cheap cut glass, except to an expert’s eye. We think that until we can produce professional, polished work, we should just not try. We forget that only by making those amateurish short films, writing those hackneyed blog posts and creating those clunky apps can we get good enough to do better, to be better.

If only we knew that even the greats start with a rough sketch, a back of the napkin calculation, an outline that is abandoned and turned inside out and barely recognizable once the finished product is out there. This is a plea then for all creators — please show us your torn-up half-baked ideas, and initial sketches, and clichĂ©-ridden copy so that we too can be inspired to follow with our own half-baked, on the way to slightly average, yet brimming with potential projects. Please, don’t hide your brushstrokes.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lessons On Creativity From Top Graphic Designers

Some time back I picked up this intriguing book from the library - How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer by Debbie Millman. I don’t know why it appealed to me, but it did. I was thinking a lot at the time about design, and thought it might be worth a read. It was that and more. I found many of the interviews, with famous graphic designers (I hadn't heard of any of them, but then I didn't even know what graphic design was till a year ago!) talking about their craft and their process and their views on creativity, fascinating and full of lessons that apply far more widely than just to students of design.

Some quotes from the interviews that really appealed to me:

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer
Michael Beirut
 "I think really brilliant people do a number of different things when they are working. They're able to force themselves to put a lot of time into things and give them a lot of attention, and not succumb to the shortcuts that regular practice can lead to".
"I actually think that I've compensated for whatever flaws and shortcomings I have as a creative person by being smart and well-read and by working really, really hard. And by getting more at-bats. I seem to hit a lot of home runs because I have ten times as many at-bats as everyone else in the league. Meanwhile, the stands are littered with foul balls and strikeouts. And no one knows about them because I don't count those."

Carin Goldberg
"I was lucky. Lucky to be there, while it was all happening. But after the luck, there was all the hard work...I made sure I was observing and watching and looking over the shoulders of the right people and learning from them and killing myself to learn everything I could. So my career has been about luck and hard work".

Milton Glaser
"My adventure has all been in my mind. The great adventure has been thinking. I love to think about things. I think that the lack of drama in my life has produced a platform for me to be fundamentally adventurous in my thinking". 

Stefan Sagmeister 
" occurred to me that it might be smarter if I stuck with the language I already knew and tried to really say something with it."

James Victore
"At the beginning of a project, I ask, 'What are we going to do, and how are we going to do it? How are we going to make a person fall in love?"
"It's about whittling. It's about taking something and whittling and whittling and getting it sharp and perfect. Then you've got something."

Paula Scher 
"I consider the fact that I have been able to continue to grow a very important part of how I perceive success. To me, success is not about money, it's about what I design. If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that's success for me". 
"...its dangerous to have any kind of satisfaction. You always have to be striving to improve on the next project. The next project has to be what you're aspiring for, not what you've just completed - you've already done that". 
"You can't do the same thing for five years. You have to get rid of it. It doesn't matter anymore. Just let it go, even if it's your signature. Even if everybody expects you to do it. Try to find another way to walk."

"If you think you're only as good as your last job - which I do - there's more to be done...I believe that we all want to leave something behind that is really, truly terrific. And we have this finite amount of time to accomplish it. Everything else is unimportant."

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Why It's Worth Paying The Price To Succeed

After I got the highest grades in our equivalent of the O-level exams (in 10th grade), and received a bunch of school prizes, for years classmates and casual acquaintances would remark: "Oh, how lucky you are to be so smart. I could never get such good grades!" The first few times I heard this I cringed, thinking, if only you knew that it wasn't like that. After that, I started to get annoyed. Sure, I wouldn't always express my irritation; instead I would smile tightly and say "Thanks". But in my head I would say something totally different. I would say to myself: "It's not a question of being smart. I worked my tail off for those grades, after nearly failing half my subjects. You could have done it too if you had worked that hard".

I was reminded recently of this feeling while reading Brian Tracy's (best-selling author of motivational books) book No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline. It’s a great book, and while I would highly recommend it to most people, I would add the caveat – if you don’t like the tough love approach, you may not like this book. Anyway, having said that, back to why I brought up the book - the author talks about "paying the price for success". He says that if you want to be successful in a certain area, just figure out what the price for success is, and then pay it.

I realize this sounds overly simplistic, and can even offend some people, but when I read it, I was jolted out of my complacency. I love to complain about things and explain, to myself and others, why I can't change something or make something happen. I feel stressed about the quality of my writing, or how many books I sell, and a myriad other things. And while in general I believe that we can change things, when it comes to specifics I love to trot out the excuses, and list everything I have already tried to change the situation, which haven’t worked. Reading this particular sentence, I realized, that it wasn’t about what I had or hadn’t done already. The question I needed to ask myself – did I know what the price for success was, and was I willing to pay it?

Let me illustrate. Let's say you need or want to lose weight, a significant amount. While weight loss is an emotional minefield for most people, and there are many legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons why people find it difficult (trust me, I totally get it), if you are honest with yourself, you know what the price for weight loss is, at least for most people. It means making time in a busy schedule to exercise (even when that’s the last thing you feel like or have the energy for). It means giving up dessert most of the occasions when you want to indulge, especially when everything in your life is falling apart and a slice of cake is everything you're looking forward to. It means learning to like to eat vegetables, and substituting fruit and yogurt (or insert healthy option here) for your favorite snack of toast and cheese. It means a lot of little sacrifices and tough choices that aren’t so little and seem overwhelming to someone who has tried and failed many times before. But the question wasn’t whether it is easy or doable – the question is whether paying that price will get you closer to your goal. And if you're honest, you know it will. Now depending on your current circumstances, you may not be able to or want to pay that price, but even framing it in those terms makes the actions you take seem like choices, not simply a hand that has been dealt to you.

As I thought about all this, and pondered all the areas in my life that are stuck, or that I am frustrated about, I started to remember times when I did succeed. And everyone that I can currently bring to mind, I did pay the price for that success. Whether it was spending hours in the library and declining invites to the pub to get through my difficult courses in grad school, or chaining myself to my desk and staying up till the wee morning hours to complete my recent book or wake up at 4 am to get ready and travel for two hours by bus to rehearse for a cultural show that brought me friends and an exhilarating and memorable performance. None of these accomplishments were easy, and while I was going through them, there were countless moments when I wanted to give up. But luckily I didn’t. I paid the price. And got so much out of it.

And that brings me to the most important realization. I don’t remember the price I paid. Not really. I intellectually remember some of it. But the emotional pain is no longer there. I remember the thought that it was really tough. But I don’t remember the feeling of hardship. I do remember, and still benefit from, the outcome – the memories, the experience, the boost to my resume. The price I paid doesn’t seem such a high price now, though that wasn’t the case at the time I was paying it. Some days it seemed like no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t making any progress. Some days I didn’t think I would make it another day. I thought about quitting, and if I wasn’t going to be letting down a lot of people, I probably would have. But I kept going, and in the end, it seemed worth it.
Why then, have I now decided that I can't pay the price? Or am reluctant to? I wish I could write certain kinds of books, but think I don’t know how. I wish I could be more successful, sell more books, get more engagement from readers, but I don’t try to find out what that would entail and go after it. I want to have the financial freedom to travel all over the world, and have exciting adventures, and yet I haven’t even articulated this dream out loud, never mind taken any steps towards it. I want more than anything to return to my college and high school weight, which at the time I thought wasn’t low enough, but now feels like a pipe dream. Why am I not making progress on these goals? Is it that I don’t know what I need to be willing to do to make them happen? Or is it that I know, and have decided that the sacrifices I would have to make and the work I would have to do is something I cannot or choose not to undertake?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that even thinking about this question has made me more aware of what my choices are. I may not be able to control everything or many things in my life. But there are many more things that I can control, but overlook when I am lamenting about how things aren’t the way I would like them to be. From now on, I resolve to be aware that whether I choose to take action or not, I will remember at all times that the choice is still mine.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

When You Feel Stuck

We all have those days - you know the ones I mean. When you just tell yourself - what's the point. When you feel that everything you're doing is pointless, nothing is working. You want to give up. You want to stop. You feel that you have nothing creative left to give.

I am in the throes of marketing my latest book and it is mostly a sucky experience. Sure there are the moments when someone says they love your book, or you read something and remember why you wrote it in the first place, but most of the time it is simply awful. You reach out to people, feeling like you're peddling something unsavory, and question yourself every time you get rejected. Or shut down. Or ignored. Or your emails go unanswered. I know people are busy. I know that no one means it personally. I know many things intellectually, but it feels personal. It feels hurtful.

Even if you are lucky enough not to know personally what marketing a book is like, you probably have those kinds of days too. When you're looking for a job, and feel like you're sending your CV into the ether, to be sucked up by a black hole that came swimming by just at the right moment. You're writing blog posts, or making music, or painting, and you have all this material that no one is reading or listening to or looking at. Or even if they are, they don't respond. You create, and it doesn't resonate. You are desperate for feedback and you hit a stone wall of silence. The world doesn't care - about you or your music or your art or your writing.

Sure we are told that we need to touch a chord in someone. Or that we need to get really really good before we can expect a lot of traction. Or that it doesn't matter what others think, it only matters that we keep doing the work. Yeah sure, we have heard all that. But it doesn't matter how many times we hear that we need to focus on the process and not the product, that we need to keep creating and eventually we will get better, that fame and fortune are fickle mistresses. We know this, and we still want that flicker of appreciation, that soupçon of encouragement. We need to know that our work matters.

Unfortunately, sometimes we don't always get that. Sometimes we need to keep doing what we are doing, even when the world is oblivious. Sure, we can change strategy, and do something different, and learn a new skill, but at the end of the day, we still need to do something, make something, put something out there.

What do you do when you don't have the heart to take another step? When you want to curl into a ball and go to sleep for a hundred years?

You take one small tiny action.

Can't write a blog post? Write a headline. Can't paint anything? Draw a flower (or a tree or a dog or a squiggle). Can't send another cover letter? Write a recommendation for someone you worked with. Do anything, even the tiniest action. If nothing else, do the laundry. Sweep the floors. Dust out the cobwebs. Even when all you want to do is grab a pint of Rocky Road and zone out to Netflix, postpone your TV viewing for 30 minutes and take one small action, whatever it is.

Chances are once you are done, you will feel just a little, smidge better. You will want to take one more action. Maybe you did the laundry, and now you feel able to start to fold one pile. Maybe you posted a comment on someone's post and it gave you the idea for one of your own, and you can just about gather up the energy to create an outline. Maybe your little doodle of a flower turned into a sketch of an exotic orchid.

We can get easily discouraged. Life can be hard and unfeeling. We may feel isolated, working hard at crafting a life, a creative life, whatever that means for each of us, and we look up to see there is no one to notice, or commiserate, or acknowledge. On those days when the futility of our dreams threaten to overwhelm us, instead of thinking big, we can think small. The tiny action we are contemplating can slip through the dire scenarios we start to imagine. Sure, doodling or drafting won't make much difference to our work, but it can't hurt. We tell ourselves, I'm just going to take this one little action, and then go back to contemplating how bad everything is. The only thing is - things don't seem so bad after.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Mindset You Need To Be Successful

Image result for mindset

Although written in almost too casual a style, and filled with what appear to be dinner-party anecdotes, the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck is a must-read for parents, teachers, coaches and managers. And everyone else. If you are interested in improving in any sphere of endeavor at all, read this book. The central premise, that your mindset determines your success in any field, and that moreover, by changing your mindset you can change how much you learn and how well you do, is compelling and rigorously backed up by scientific research, the author's own and that of others. The book is also practical, and outlines ways to induce positive changes in those you wish to influence, either children or employees. Reading this book I kept putting it down, because I wanted to go ahead and start implementing the suggestions right away.

3 takeaways from the book:

1.  Talent and effort are synonyms – It is a myth that talent is something that is handed to you as a gift. Most people develop talent through effort, and thus success can be meritorious. Although this concept isn’t new and one I encountered before, but this book really brought the message home. There is no field of endeavor in which you can't improve if you are willing to change your mindset.
2. Failure has a new meaning – In Dweck's world of growth mindset, you're failing when you're not trying hard enough, when you're stuck in what's easy and not reaching high enough. When you're not afraid to make a mistake, then you make the mistakes, and use them to get better. 
3.  Being a natural is overrated – We tend to overvalue those people who can do something easily and effortlessly, and assume that anyone who can't do something naturally, even if it is ourselves, cannot do that thing at all. There are probably a few people who have natural talents or gifts for certain activities, which were further honed by them being exposed to these activities from an early age. Not being already good at something isn’t really a guarantee that someone will never gain those skills, but usually that’s how we think and act. "Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn't mean that others can't do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training".
I would recommend that you not only read this book once, you keep coming back to it. I read it because I thought I could use it as part of the research for my latest book, but it turned out to be useful in changing how I thought about almost every aspect of my life. For a few weeks, every conversation with my mom included, "Have you read 'Mindset' yet?" I am trying to live the principles of the book, to approach every area that I'm struggling in with the attitude that I can learn and improve, instead of just believing that I'm just not good enough and giving up. Since this is kind of the theme of my newest book, I need to demonstrate it myself.
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