Working a System

It’s how people sit down everyday to grind out new ideas and make new things. It’s showing up. Everyday.

It’s also how we keep Mr. Robot out of our heads.

It took me a long time to appreciate habit. I grew up without any. Smoking was the my first real habit, but I haven’t even had a cigarette in twelve years.

This all changed in March of 2015 when I started a new workout program. The name of the program isn’t important – it’s also embarrassing – What matters is that it removed the burden of having to think.

There was no question, no room for rationalization. Nominees for internet searches or second guessing. Putting it off until “tomorrow” just wasn’t an option unless I wanted to progress more slowly through the system.

I’m still going six days a week, and it still kills me to have to take one day off per week.

This is where I’d like to get with writing. A place where the default is sitting down, cranking out some ideas, and publishing.

Everyday.

All of this nonsense isn’t for you. It’s for me.

And really, it’s utility isn’t for right now. It’s for later.

Writing everyday is nothing. Publishing everyday is something.

I've done a lot of writing this summer. You just haven't seen it, as I've hidden it away on 750words.com. I've really enjoyed it, but I am frustrated with myself for not publishing more here. I've been creatively blocked all summer, partially because all of my good writing intentions were crushed under the wheels of a moving truck, and partly because of my own creative hang-ups.

Image from Jazzwoodshed.com

I've also done a lot of reading this summer. I've read a few books, and I've done a lot of reading online. As I've been reading online, I've been paying attention to what I've enjoyed reading, what I find myself going back to, and thinking about what I can learn from all of it.

The writers that I enjoy reading the most tend to post frequently. Sometimes daily.

They don't write in lists or keywords. Even when they have a topic for their site, it tends to come from a personal perspective. I read a few blogs that deal in topics I don't understand or care about, but I'm drawn to the people and their way of seeing the world.

These writers are never trying to seem "professional." It's never sanitized, overly rational, or some kind of step-by-step how-to for something that doesn't actually have a process. There is still humanity to it.

It's writing as thinking. A way to figure something out or to express some kind of opinion.

All who do it seem to find that it's helpful in their jobs and lives. It helps them to think. John Saddington is a huge evangelist of daily blogging. Seth Godin has been practicing and preaching about it for years. Elizabeth Spiers was one of the first that really brought it to my attention with the relaunch of her personal blog. I love reading M.G. Seigler's 500 Words.

Then there is Kottke, Fred Wilson at AVC, and of course, Russell Davies, who I blame for putting this terrible burden of blogging on me in the first place. But it was Jonas Ellison that sparked my interest with his post celebrating one year of publishing everyday.

Getting out of your own way

I've spent more than my share of time thinking about how to write more. I've shamefully read all of the shameful articles full of shameful tips and tricks out there. I've fussed with myself about topic and format. I've spent a small fortune on writing apps. And I've used more platforms than I care to admit in a public space.

Ultimately none of that matters. At least not for what I'd like this site to be.

For that, there are two things that matter:

The first Thing That Matters is showing up. Sitting down, making the clackity noise with a keyboard or a scratchity noise in a notebook. Getting thoughts out of my head, exploring them, discovering angles or lenses or topics that I didn't realize were there, then shaping them into something coherent.

The point of all of this, as Patrick Rhone illustrates with a quote from Vonnegut, is to "make your soul grow."

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Letter to Xavier High School

The second Thing That Matters is shipping. Getting over the fear of putting something out into the world. Letting go of your braincrack.

Attending a magnet school for jazz percussion in high school, our instructors, all professional jazz musicians, preached about the importance woodshedding, disappearing for hours in deliberate practice, but even more important was actually getting in front of people to play. The interplay with the audience, the feeling of being watched, the exchange of energy with other musicians and the crowd, that's how great players go from good to great. You can't learn that in a practice space.

A foolhardy proclamation:

Even though I've been unsuccessfully trying to write daily at 750words.com, and despite my better judgement about making this proclamation, I'm going to give daily publishing a shot. At least for the next seven days.

Because writing everyday is nothing, but publishing everyday is something.

Finding the Magic

Brian Collins posted something on Facebook a few weeks back that resonated with me:

To my grad students:

There are, in my experience, only two kinds of creative people.

There are those creative people who believe there is potential magic in every assignment – and always seem to find it.

They build a career.

Then there are those creative people who only get excited by the perfect assignment. The perfect client. The perfect budget. They whine, bitch and moan until it arrives. And, frankly, it never really arrives. They were so busy looking for it, they ignored projects flying past them every day where magic was hiding inside, waiting to be unlocked by imagination and hard work.

When they hit their late 30s, they start to wonder what the hell happened to their careers.

I’m not sure that anyone worth their salt is constantly in one state or the other. We are always in transition. Remember that one week when we thought the PT Cruiser was cool? Well, we all moved on, becoming stronger people in the process.

However, the most successful creatives, planners and account people that I’ve worked with have also been the most consistent at finding magic in whatever was thrown on their plate. Turning small projects into big opportunities. Chipping away on tough clients by providing valuable work in addition to what the client was asking for. Taking an assignment to make stadium signage for a paint brand and turning it into a huge idea.

I’m imploring my students to approach everything at the Brandcenter with that mindset. The reality is that not every assignment is going to turn out great, and even less will be book-worthy, but every single thing that they touch here has the potential to be a good story.

And a good story can go a long way towards getting that first job.