Geetanjali Mukherjee

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 soup├žon 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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