gapingvoid is interested in start-up culture, because changing business for the better is what we’re about; that’s what Social Object Factory is about. We live and breathe it; we help everyone from lone entrepreneurs, to mid-sizers, to Fortune 500’s do the same. Check out our work here.
We create art that helps companies kick ass, end of story.
In 2009, my first book, IGNORE EVERYBODY was published by Penguin Portfolio, the big New York imprint. The work originally began life five years before that, in Autumn, 2004 as an e-book, “How To Be Creative”, first published on ChangeThis.com. The e-book came out of a series of blog post I had written in the preceding months before that.
“When I first lived in Manhattan in December, 1997 I got into the habit of doodling on the backs of business cards, just to give me something to do while sitting at the bar. The format stuck.”
Penguin Portfolio is the same imprint that’s published business-book rockstars like Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and John Batelle. The book went on to become a Wall Street Journal bestseller, and upped my career by a couple of dozen notches.
The premise of the book was simple enough: “So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years…”
And then I went down my list for the next couple of hundred pages, ticking off as many boxes as I could. A short book with lots of cartoons, a fun read you could get through easily in one sitting.
I hadn’t intended to write a book at first; it came about because my then-boss told me to stop blogging about stuff related to my marketing day job (and what a crappy day job it was) or else he would fire me.
So, forbidden to blog about marketing or advertising (WTF was my boss thinking?) I had to find something else to write about. As I had spent many years as a cartoonist and an advertising creative, I thought I’d share what I had learned along the way. Simple.
Within a matter of weeks “How To Be Creative” became ChangeThis.com’s most downloaded e-book ever. At last count, it was read by more than five million people and if you add the number of people who have read the blog version, maybe double that. This stat alone pretty much landed me the book deal with Portfolio.
If my career ever had a break-out moment, it was that.
EIGHT YEARS LATER, I’m thinking a lot about how much had changed since 2004, how much I’ve changed, how much in that book still holds true, versus how much I might want to change, now that I’m older and wiser.
“GOOD IDEAS HAVE LONELY CHILDHOODS”
“Good ideas have lonely childhoods” was the main thesis of the book, really.
In other words, quoting the book, “The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you.”
Good ideas take a while to nurture, before the world is ready to accept them. So you might as well “Ignore Everybody”, at least to start with, because for the most part, other people’s opinions won’t be that helpful in the beginning.
Some people thought I was just saying, “Ignore Everybody, just do your own thing and don’t give a damn what other people think.” Well, not really (Although there are times when you have to do that). I was more concerned that people understood the “lonely” part as normal, as something to be expected and embraced.
I think this is an important thing to remember, especially for young people just starting out on their career path. It’s easy to get discouraged; it’s easy to quit prematurely; it’s easy to give up on one’s dreams. If I can make quitting slightly harder for someone, I know I’ve done my job.
My other favorite thing to come out of Chapter One was this observation:
“GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS, THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.”
Very few people willingly give the kind of advice that will compromise their own social advantage over you. Especially good advice. Good ideas change the status quo. People like the status quo. Human beings are messy, even the ones that care about you. Nothing wrong with that, just something to keep in mind.
I’m pretty happy with the book, overall– I wouldn’t change much. What’s more interesting to me is, of course, the stuff I’ve learned SINCE then.
I read last week somewhere that 89% of phone apps are free, and of the few remaining that aren’t, 90% of those are under three dollars. With Amazon Kindle, e-books, blogging and other formats disrupting the traditional publishing model, I expect the book format to go the same way as the phone app i.e. free or dirt cheap for the vast majority.
A few published authors will get decent royalties– the J.K. Rowlings’ and the Malcolm Gladwell’s of the world– but for us mere mortals, we’ll have to find other business models. I’m totally OK with that. With no desire to write a proper sequel to Ignore Everybody, I thought maybe a little blog post or two would suffice. Hence.… this.
A milestone of sorts was reached, I suppose, at least for me…
Earlier today, my book became the NUMBER ONE Top Seller on Amazon in the “Creativity” category.
I don’t expect it to stay up there forever, of course– it’s probably already fallen a few points since then [Amazon rankings are updated hourly, and tend to fluctuate wildly]. But to see the photographic evidence, I made a little screen shot here.
What does this mean? Not much, in all likelihood. But I think I will go take the rest of the day off…
Thanks for all your support over the years. Seriously.
[Click on image to enlarge etc.] [UPDATE: This offer is only valid until 5 PM EST Monday, August 3rd, Thanks!]
I am delighted to report that the “IGNORE EVERYBODY” cartoon, a fond favorite of computer desktops everywhere, is now on offer as a limited edition print. It will sell on the gallery site for $ 495.00 after it is published [mid-August], but is now available as a pre-order offer of $275.00, with just a $50.00 deposit. To make the deposit, click on the PayPal button below. As always, we’ll send you an invoice for the remainder once the print is signed, numbered and ready to ship.
[$50 Payal Deposit Button etc.]
Earlier this year, Patrick Brennan was stuck in an airport lounge for several hours, waiting for his connecting flight. To kill time, he started messing around visually on his computer with the forty chapter titles of my book “Ignore Everybody”. He came up with this, then emailed it to me.
I liked it so much, I went ahead and re-worked it, in my own handwriting. Very cool.
The book began life as a blog post, back in 2004. It had a very simple premise: “So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years.“
Then I made a list, and kept adding to it…
I never expected it to resonate with so many people, but it did, somehow.
The fact is, there are millions of people out there who want to do something more creative with their lives. Of course there are. “Creativity” is NOT an exclusive domain for those goofy, trendy hipster types. “Creativity” is a basic human need. And I don’t think a life spent fighting like hell, to get that basic human need expressed and fulfilled, is a bad thing.
So I decided to make these prints, in order to have something on the wall to remind us of this, every day. Rock on. [Backstory: About Hugh. Twitter. Newsletter. Book. Interview One. Interview Two. Limited Edition Prints. Private Commissions. Cube Grenades.“EVIL PLANS”.]
I’ve been in the “creativity” business for over two decades. I first started publishing my cartoons in The Austin Chronicle back in college, before landing my first “real job” as an advertising copywriter with a large agency in Chicago.
Ever since then, for the most part, yeah, I’ve worked my ass off. With MASSIVELY varying levels of success.
Twenty-odd years later, I can totally see why most sane people opt out of the “creative” career option– I can totally see why they stick to something more conventional, even if it isn’t really all that interesting to them. It’s NOT because they’re stupid, lazy or unimaginative.
It’s because the alternative is really, really hard.
All throughout these past two decades– this long, painful, wonderful adventure– I kept on asking myself the same question: “When will this stuff start getting easier?“
And the closest thing I’ve ever gotten to an answer is, “Probably Never.“
Of course, it wasn’t until I got comfortable with “Probably Never” that, funnily enough, it started getting easier.
I really don’t know what else to tell you…
[P.S. I utterly DESPISE the word, “Creativity”. Every time I write it, a little piece of me DIES. That being said, I don’t know of another word that works better in this context. Damed if you do etc…] [Update: Just added this blog post to “EVIL PLANS”.] [Backstory: About Hugh. Twitter. Newsletter. Book. Interview One. Interview Two. Limited Edition Prints. Private Commissions. Cube Grenades.“EVIL PLANS”.]
Seth Godin: “Should Hugh swear so much?” This post re-visits a conversation Seth and I had a year ago, when I was first wondering whether or not to keep the “potty mouth” cartoons out of the book. David Armano: “The title says it all. You have to decide if what you believe in is good enough to fight for, to pursue, to risk everything for. Only you can decide this.“ Rick Segal: “Hugh’s advice and commentary should be required reading for everybody doing a start-up, coming up with a earth changing idea or dreaming of the day they punch out of that Dilbert-like cubicle.“ Sex On The Beach: “Hugh’s not coming from some lofty ivory tower, but from a real process of hard work and grit. He’s not preachy; he’s simply sharing what he has learned along his path.“ The CRM Blog- One of my longest (and best) interviews ever:
CRM magazine: Do you think creativity is a kind of currency now? Hugh MacLeod: It’s always been a currency, more so right now because if you’re creating a lot of stuff that’s interesting, valuable, meaningful, that’s a lot safer to me than just pushing paper around a desk all day. Those kinds of jobs are being replaced by computers every day.
We want to be creative. We want to be more useful and tap into something deeper and more meaningful. We don’t want to sit around and be a schmuck our whole lives; what I’m hoping the book will do is get people to start a dialogue with themselves and with other people. It’s an interesting dialogue because [creativity] is such a primal need.
Jerimiah Owyang: “You see, his book Ignore Everybody, really isn’t a book. Instead, you should think of it as as that friend in high school who never followed the rules, but achieved his goals took you out for a beer 20 years later and shakes your shoulders and wakes you up.”
A few months ago I posed ten questions to David Brain, CEO of Edelman Europe, which he kindly answered. To mark the launch of my book, IGNORE EVERYBODY, he asked me ten questions back. Here they are: 1. In a nutshell, why should someone read the book?
Like it says in the very beginning of the book, “So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years.” I don’t claim to have any special insight in the nature of creativity. However, it’s something I put a lot of thought and effort into over the last few decades, so I have my opinions. I’m just sharing what I know, for what it’s worth. 2. You say, “The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you”. How do people who work for organisations and companies deal with this?
The same way any one else does. Patience, tenacity and good timing. 3. Does the “ignoring everybody” lead to loneliness?
Yes. It’s the price you WILL pay. Only you can decide if it’s worth it. 4. Is the book your social object?
I consider my cartoons my social object. The book, however, allowed me to present them to the world in way I found compelling. 5. By coincidence, I am reading David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, and your style is somewhat reminiscent of that book which became a kind of handbook to running an ad agency. Is Ignore Everybody a handbook and if so, for who?
I love that book. The introduction where he wrote about working in that high-end restaurant in Paris in the 1930s is probably one of my favorite pieces of writing, ever.
I didn’t have a demographic or a “function” in mind when I wrote the book. But I did think that there were a lot of people out there who, like me, aspired to do something more “creative” with their lives, than what was expected of them. And I thought there’d be no harm in sharing with them what I had learned the hard way, over the years. The premise was really no more complicated than that. 6. What was the motive behind writing the book? I mean I know how little money these things make, but do you want it to help other people better their lives or is it just another evil plan?
I certainly didn’t expect to make any real money from it, and how much it would “help” other people is pretty debatable. But sometimes in your life you have these defining moments, where you draw a line in the sand and declare to the world, “This is who I am, this is what I believe, this is what’s important to me.” I think we all need these moments at some point, to make us better understand who we really are. Writing a book is a good way to force these moments to the surface. That was really the key driver, here. 7. You name some obviously creative people in the book like Picasso and Bob Dylan but in the hard commercial world where you spend part of your life, who are the people who have managed to stay creative that have most impressed you?
I’ve always been most inspired by small businesses that could have been a lot bigger, but the owners decided to say small, because they didn’t want to commodify something that was very dear and special to them. Thomas Mahon over at English Cut, or Amy’s Ice Cream in Austin. But that’s certainly not my only criteria. Doing what you love AND getting paid for it at the same time is actually a really, really hard trick to pull off. Most people can’t do it, but if you can, yeah, you will have earned my respect. 8. You seem to have a love/hate relationship with advertising and advertising thinking (as do I). What’s with that?
The trouble with working in advertising is that you’re basically paid to perform miracles, by people who actually don’t believe in miracles. And the fact that most of the stuff being produced is boring, noisy and obnoxious doesn’t help, either. That being said, when it works, it works REALLY well, and creates a lot of value in a very short period of time. Like all advertising and marketing folk, I just wish the latter happened more often. 9. Creativity and technology have in the past been seen as different worlds but you seem in this and in other work to really enjoy the combination? Why?
It’s not really about the tech per se, it’s about the people. Like yourself, I like smart, driven, passionate people. The tech industry seems to be a place where these people often congregate. So it’s an relatively easy place to hang out in, an easy place to meet interesting folk with interesting ideas. 10. So what are your plans for the book and what next?
I’m toying with the idea of writing a second book, albeit with some trepidation. When asked why she never wrote a second book after “To Kill A Mockingbird”, Harper Lee answered, “Because after that, there was nowhere to go but down”. I can certainly relate!
Being a book author is not important to me. Neither is being a blogger or a marketing guy. Drawing cartoons is important to me. I know that if I keep on drawing the cartoons, interesting things will come out of it eventually, so my plan is to to just keep focusing on that. [P.S. This was cross-posted on David’s blog here.]
Last week I blogged about a series of small prints I was working on, based on the cartoons in the new book, “IGNORE EVERYBODY”, which as y’all know, launched today.
These cartoons above are some of the most viewed, and have collectively been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. I know they adorn lots of cube walls, been made into stickers and of course, blogcards.
These four reflect a lot about what I was feeling at the time I drew them, three or four years ago. How we all have a need to find “purpose”, and the stuff we do and the people we interact with each day, in order to find “it”.
So today, being a day that for me is a lot about finding my own purpose, I’ve decided that it would be a poignant moment to make these available for people to own. You can throw away your yellow’d download and own the real thing instead, signed and numbered by me. An edition of 100, sold as a set in a portfolio, for $300 [Plus Shipping & Handling]. In a few days we’ll be offering the individual prints for about $100 each.
These are smaller versions of what we have been doing up until now. They measure 11“x14”, and can be framed and hung, or kept in a portfolio to view or use for meetings and then put away etc.
They are all hand-pulled serigraphs, and printed on Rives-Arches paper. For those of you thinking about collecting the work long-term, this is a good, affordable, and fun place to start. I hope to be making lots more of these portfolio editions in the future. Thanks.
[The book jacket– click on image to see enlarged PDF version etc.] Here are some brief notes:
1. Big thanks to my agent, Lisa, to Jeffrey and Jillian, my editors over at Penguin/Portfolio, to Maureen Cole, who does my marketing over at Portfolio, to my friend and mentor, Seth Godin, for introducing me to Portfolio.
2. Big thanks to all the bloggers and blog readers who inspired and encouraged me all along the way… You know who you are.
3. The book only took me a couple for months to write. It took me four years to find the right publisher. I feel fortunate that it wasn’t the other way around…
4. Some of my favorite cartoons in the book were drawn at this very small, funky West Village Bar in Manhattan, during my New York days. Probably the proudest moment with getting the book published for me so far, was being able to send an advance copy to the bar’s owner, along with the following note:
As y’all will already know, June 11th is the date my book, IGNORE EVERYBODY comes out.
It just occurred to me, that date ALSO marks the TWENTY FIFTH anniversary of me starting my first real job– a trainee bartender at Whigham’s Wine Bar, Edinburgh- June 11th, 1984– right after I had finished my final high school exams.
Since then, of course, I’ve had PLENTY of adventures. Attending University in Texas, working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, working in advertising, working in TV (briefly), starting a greeting card company, drawing cartoons, getting involved with blogs and blog marketing, consulting, making and selling prints, writing a book. A real roller coaster, to say the least.
Twenty five years seems a long time get from where I was then, to where I am now. Had I had my act more together, had I been a bit luckier, had my personality been more suited to some of the paths that I chose for myself, it probably would’ve taken me half the time. I’ve had my fair share of disappointment & disaster along the way, that’s for certain.
But part of me also knows that, had it gone more smoothly, more quickly, I probably wouldn’t have ended up somewhere NEARLY as interesting. Everybody pays full price for being who they are. Only the interest rate fluctuates.
[Me signing copies of “Ignore Everybody” earlier this week. 25 boxes, 40 books in each…]
With my upcoming book launch less than three weeks away, we decided to published prints from some of the cartoons found in the book.
The book has eighty-odd cartoons in it, I’ve made a shortlist of fourteen [See Below], from which I’ll actually print up three in the next couple of weeks, to coincide with the books hitting the shops [UPDATE: I’ve also included two or three cartoons that aren’t in the book, but maybe should have been etc.]. These prints will be smaller than the last ones [approx 9“x14” i.e. roughly the same dimensions as my MacBook] and cheaper [around $100-$125 for one, around $300 for the set]. They may be black and white only, or we may use maybe one color, we’re not sure yet.
In spite of their small size, like last time, they will be signed, and will be printed as high-quality silkscreens.
Upmarket Cube Grenades. Exactly.
Here is the shortlist. Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments, Thanks! MISTAKENLY WOLF VS. SHEEP WE NEED TO TALK I DON’T HAVE FRIENDS WELCOME TO…
IT’S NOT WHAT THE SOFTWARE DOES
COMPANY HIERARCHY DINOSAUR IF YOU TALKED TO PEOPLE QUALITY GOOD FOR YOU THE HUGHTRAIN THRIVING IN MARKETS
[The book jacket– click on image to see enlarged PDF version etc.]
[Update: This offer is now closed. Thanks, Everybody!!!]
As most of you will know, my book, IGNORE EVERYBODY comes out on June 11th. A lot of people have been asking me about where can they get signed copies, so I came up with a new, secret, evil plan. [UPDATE:] To celebrate the June 11th book launch, I’m offering a special signed-copy deal to the FIRST 500 people who pre-order the book.
Here are the guidelines [Please follow them carefully, so you don’t miss out…]: 1. The first 500 people who order the book AND send their electronic receipt/confirmation number to IgnoreEverybody@gmail.comwill get a second (personally signed) book from me. So if you pre-order a book, you’ll get a free extra copy [i.e. two for the price of one] — one signed from me, one unsigned from whichever online bookseller you choose [See choices below]. One to keep, one to give to a friend. Easy. [Update: Yes, you can get a signed copy if you’ve already pre-ordered a book. Yes, you can get a signed copy if you live outside the U.S.- but there’s a catch. No, Sorry, this offer is not open to Kindle, hardback only. Please read below CAREFULLY for further details.]
2. Order the “unsigned” book from any one of these online booksellers:
3. Then please forward your receipt/confirmation number to this special email address: IgnoreEverybody@gmail.com. You’ll receive a confirmation email with directions for submitting your shipping address. 4. This offer is limited to only the first 500 people who email us their receipts — I’ll post an update here to let you know if if and when the special offer has been closed. 5. This offer is for U.S. ORDERS ONLY. Sorry, Global Sportsfans, but the logistics are just WAY too complex to ship them abroad. Long story. Ouch. If you live abroad, and STILL INSIST on getting a signed copy, that’s easy, once you get your confirmation e-mail, just supply a US mailing address [i.e. c/o a friend in New York or wherever], and we’ll gladly send it there. 6. If you’ve already pre-ordered the book and live in the U.S., no worries, you can still get in on the deal — just be in the first 500 to send in your receipt, and I’ll happily honor it. Ditto if you live abroad– just give us a U.S. postal address [see Point # 5] and we’ll honor that as well. 7. This offer is hardback only. Not for Kindle. Sorry.
8. Please do not contact me personally to get on this list — please just use IgnoreEverybody@gmail.com. 9. The books are already signed, so you should receive them very shortly.
10. Thanks Again, As Always, for your Love and Support!
[P.S. The best way to support my work is to sign up to my “Crazy, Deranged Fools” Newsletter. Thanks!]
The book has been a long time coming. What started out as a series of blog posts in 2004, took on a life of its own.
In a hundred years I’ll be dead. So will you. Before that time comes, I want to keep asking the question, “How do we make the world a more fun, meaningful, loving, creative place?” This book is part of that.
I can’t think of a better way to spend the remaining time God has given me on this planet, frankly. You? [The Official Publisher’s Blurb for the book:]
When Hugh MacLeod was a struggling young copywriter, living in a YMCA, he started to doodle on the backs of business cards while sitting at a bar. Those cartoons eventually led to a popular blog – gapingvoid.com – and a reputation for pithy insight and humor, in both words and pictures.
MacLeod has opinions on everything from marketing to the meaning of life, but one of his main subjects is creativity. How do new ideas emerge in a cynical, risk-averse world? Where does inspiration come from? What does it take to make a living as a creative person?
Now his first book, Ignore Everyone, expands on his sharpest insights, wittiest cartoons, and most useful advice. A sample:
* Selling out is harder than it looks. Diluting your product to make it more commercial will just make people like it less. * If your plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail. Nobody suddenly discovers anything. Things are made slowly and in pain. * Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether. There’s no point trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle. All existing business models are wrong. Find a new one. * The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours. The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will.
After learning MacLeod’s 40 keys to creativity, you will be ready to unlock your own brilliance and unleash it on the world. About the Author
Hugh MacLeod worked as an advertising copywriter for more than a decade, while developing his skills as a cartoonist and pundit. His blog is Gaping Void, and more than a million people have downloaded the original post that inspired this book, “How To Be Creative.” He also lectures and consults on Web 2.0 and its impact on business.
[Video courtesy of Loren Feldman.]
P.S. A “galley” is a rough edition of the book, that the publisher gives out to the media a couple of months before the publishing date, in order to spread the word. For example, a lot of the big magazines and papers like to get their galleys at least four months in advance etc.
[Click on image to enlarge etc.] [UPDATE– about 3 minutes later: Sorry, the twelve emails arrived quickly. Wow. No more galleys to give away, for now. Sorry.]
I’ve got twelve galley copies of my upcoming book, “Ignore Everybody”, to give away. Here’s the deal:
1. You have to have been active on Twitter for at least three months.
2. You have to have been following me on Twitter for at least one month.
3. You need to send me an email with the word, “Galley” in the subject header. In your email I need your your name, your shipping address, and your Twitter ID.
4. The email you send needs to be, in some way, interesting, amusing, or both.
5. I’ll mail a galley to the first twelve folk whose email fits this criteria.
6. Thanks for everything!
[UPDATE @:] Even though I closed down the competition after 3 minutes, I still got about 100 e-mails after from people, trying their luck. Rock on.
In my previous post to this one, “Blue Monster: Why Social Objects Are The Future Of Marketing”, I’ve just updated it with some re-postings of some of my favorite old blog post connected with Social Objects and Blue Monsters.
A wee bit of a read– just under 8,000 words.
In its current form it’s a bit messy, but what the hell, this is the same way that How To Be Creative and Hughtrain started out. I may have to tidy it up later, but it’ll do for now. Enjoy.
[One of my all-time favorite cartoons, from The Hughtrain.]
As the book now stands, there will be about eighty or so cartoons in it. I don’t have the exact number so far, a lot has to do with the actual design of the physical book– dimensions, page numbers, layout, cost of production etc. all factor into it.
Choosing the cartoons has probably been the hardest bit of the editing process so far. Besides the 1,800 or so cartoons on the blog, I’ve got– Wow– AT LEAST another 4,000 unpublished ones just sitting around in cardboard boxes.
I wanted the cartoons in the book to offer a pretty thorough overview of my work– who knows, this might be the only book I ever publish, or whatever. So I wanted to include cartoons from all my various stages in the last ten years. From the early days in New York, to publishing “How To Be Creative” and “The Hughtrain”, to my recent work.
The other thing– I’m older. A lot of my best earlier work has a lot more f-bombs and sexual references than the cartoons I’m drawing today. But I wanted them in the book anyway, regardless of how it may misrepresent my more “mature”, present-day self, or undermine the “corporate” side of the book market. Thank God my editor agreed with this approach. Whittle down the edges too much, of course, and eventually you have nothing left.
The good news is, whatever my petty concerns might be, the people at Penguin, both Editorial and Sales alike, seem very excited and gung-ho. I’m feeling that way a bit, myself. Rock on.
1. Since I got back from the road trip I’ve basically been locked up in my office, putting the finishing touches on my final edit for the book. It has to be at the publisher’s by Monday morning.
I’m pretty much done. Just going over it again and again and again, micro-tweaking the hell out of it.
2. I’ve been told that the official launch date is June 9th, 2009. Yes, for us Internet types used to immediate electronic gratification, that seems like a long way’s away. But hey, this is books, not blogging. I’m told designing a book properly takes forever. Ditto with getting the sales team up to speed. Marketing, ditto. I’m told that if you want your book featured in a magazine article for one of the majors, say, Forbes or Businessweek, they need to see galleys at least four months prior to the launch.
3. And then there’s the psychological pressure. You make a mistake on a blog post, it’s easy to go back and fix it, or at least, try better next time. But once a book is in print, the mistake is there, in hardback, on paper, forever. If you make a mistake on a blog, well, it’s your blog, so nobody really cares besides yourself. If you make a mistake with a book, suddenly there’s a whole list of people you’re letting down– editors, agents, sales people, retailers. As the deadline approaches, I feel this more and more acutely. It wasn’t something I ever really thought too much about before, until it became real.
4. I remember a decade or two ago, Woody Allen telling a journalist that he never, ever watches his movies ever again, once the final edit is in the can. At the time I thought that was rather odd. What? Don’t you want to occasionally visit your baby? Your masterpiece?
But having lived with this book in various manifestations for over four years, I can now totally relate to what Woody Allen was talking about. As my film director friend, Dave Mackenzie once told me, by the time you’re done with a large project, you are so bloody sick of it– all the pressure, all the meetings, all the changes, all the keeping the thousands of balls up in the air– that you never want to see it again. Though writing this book wasn’t nearly as much work as making a feature film, this feeling does permeate. This book is “me” four years ago. This book is not “me” now. I feel that in spades at the moment.
5. In one of the final chapters of the book, I tell how I never really set out to be a professional cartoonist. Nor did I set out to be an Internet consultant. They just kinda-sorta happened. I feel the same way about becoming an “author”.
6. A few months back I tracked down a very dear friend of mine, Mark O’Donnell and sent him an e-mail, congratulating him. Mark is pretty much my oldest “creative hero”, ever. I’ve known him since I was nine years old. Mark is the consumate, old school, New York humorist. He wrote for the Harvard Lampoon back in college. Later he wrote for The New Yorker. He wrote for Saturday Night Live. He wrote for Spy magazine. He published comic novels and wrote off-Broadway plays. He still lives in the same Upper West Side, rent-controlled apartment he moved into in 1976, the year he graduated from college.
Why was I congratulating him? Because after struggling away for all those decades– lots of highbrow, critical acclaim, but zero money– he FINALLY landed his first bit of massive worldly success. He wrote the words and lyrics to the Tony-Award winning musical [and later, the movie], “Hairspray”. It was huge for him.
So I write him an e-mail, sending him big kudos. The guy’s a genius, no one deserves a massive hit more than he. I just wanted to let him know that.
He wrote back: “And Hairspray is like only one per cent of what I’m proud of.” A-ha! Bingo. That pretty much is how I feel about the book. Just one small step in a very long march. [PS: Mark also wrote the lyrics to John Water’s next musical, “Crybaby”, based on the movie with Johnny Depp. Rock on.]
7. I’m not worried about book sales per se. Having a bestseller would be lovely, sure, but no-one has any control over these things, especially not a first-time author. I’m sure as hell not relying on it financially. What concerns me far more is how the book will affect the rest of what I’m up to. For the better? For the worse? Again, I feel a lot of that is well beyond my control.
8. I wonder what my second book is going to be about…
[UPDATE] Mark left a comment below: “I’m happy for the ancillary coverage. You know more about me than my agent. Congrats on the bouncing baby book! It is a challenge to enjoy it and to keep perspective at the same time. — Mark O’Donnell“ [Note to Newbies: The book is based on a 10,000 word blog post I did back in 2004, called “How To Be Creative”. So far it’s been downloaded & read well over a million times etc.]
The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you. When I first started with the biz card format, people thought I was nuts. Why wasn’t I trying to do something more easy for markets to digest i.e. cutey-pie greeting cards or whatever?
You don’t know if your idea is any good the moment it’s created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is. And trusting your feelings is not as easy as the optimists say it is. There’s a reason why feelings scare us.
I wrote that chapter over four years ago. As I’m currently working through my final edit before publication, I’ve been thinking about some of the stuff I’ve learned the hard way, since first writing this post. Here are some random notes: 1. “Good ideas have lonely childhoods”. When I say, “Ignore Everybody”, I don’t mean, “Ignore all people, at all times, forever”. No, other people’s feedback plays a very important role. Of course it does. It’s more like, the better the idea, the more “out there” it initially will seem to other people, even people you like and respect. So there’ll be a time in the beginning when you have to press on, alone, without one tenth the support you probably need. This is normal. This is to be expected. Ten years later, drawing my “cartoons on the back of business cards” seems a no-brainer, in terms of what it has brought me, both emotionally and to my career. But I can also clearly remember when I first started drawing them, the default reaction was “people scratching their heads”. Sure, a few people thought they were kinda interesting and whatnot, but even with my closest friends, they seemed a complete, non-commercial exercise in futility for the New York world I was currently living in. Happily, time proved otherwise. 2. “GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS, THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.” The older I get, the truer this sentence seems to be. Especially in industries that are more relationship-driven, than idea-driven. 3. “Fight The Power”. The good news is, creating an idea or brand that fights the powers that be can be a lot of fun, and very rewarding. The bad news is, they’re called The-Powers-That-Be for a reason i.e. they’re the ones calling the shots, they have the Power. Which is why the problem of selling a new idea to the general public can sometimes be a piece of cake, compared to selling a new idea internally to your team. This is to be expected: having your boss or biggest client not liking your idea and firing you, hits one at a much more immediate and primal level, than some abstract housewife in rural Kansas hypothetically not liking your idea, after randomly seeing it advertised somewhere. Which is why most team members in any industry are far more concerned with the power relationships inside their immediate professional circle, than what may actually be interesting and useful for the customer. 4. Idea-Driven vs Socially-Driven businesses; which one are you in? The answer is, of course, both. “What you know” determines what kind of access you’re given to people. “Who you know” informs what kind of access to ideas you’re given, and when. Though all businesses tend to skew differently in either direction. My experience in the wine trade is a good example of an industry that’s primarily socially-driven, at the expense of being idea-driven. I’ve heard a lot of wine trade folk over the years yakking endlessly on about “Innovation!” Why? Not because they necessarily had any actual new ideas worth talking about, let alone acting on, but because “Innovation” seemed to be a word that their big customers [the supermarkets] liked hearing. So they used the word whenever possible, gratuitously or otherwise. In other words, they were acting in a socially-driven manner. Primarily, they just wanted to be liked. 5. “I want to be part of something! Oh, wait, no I don’t!” I’ve seen this before so many times, both first-hand and with other people. Your idea seems to be working, seems to be getting all sorts of traction, and all of a sudden you got all these swarms of people trying to join the team, wanting to get a piece of the action. And then as as soon as they get a foothold inside the inner circle, you soon realize they don’t really understand your idea in the first place, they just want to be on the winning team. And the weirdest bit is, they don’t seem to mind sabotaging the original idea that got them interested in the first place, in order to maintain their newfound social status. It’s probably the most bizarre bit of human behavior I’ve ever witnessed first-hand in business, and it’s AMAZINGLY common. [AFTERTHOUGHT: “People are not primarily governed by their own self-interest. People are primarily governed by their own self-delusion.”] 6. Human beings are messy creatures. I suppose the main thesis to this post is; the hard bit of having a “good idea” is not the invention of it, nor the selling of it to the end-user, but managing the myriad of politics and egos of the people who are supposedly on the same team as yourself. Managing the vast oceans of human chaos that all enterprises ultimately are, underneath the thin veneer of human order.
For the last couple of days I’ve been pinging back and forth with my book editor over at Penguin, Jeffrey Krames. We’re about to work through the final draft.
From what I’ve been told, the hardback version of “How To Be Creative” is coming out around Valentine’s day, 2009, give or take a few weeks.
This harks me back to a blog entry I did in October, 2004, entitled “Why I’m Writing A Book”.
“So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years.”
I didn’t really have a reason for writing it at the time. It was simply one of those lists of everything you wish you had known 10 years previously but didn’t, but had you done so it would have saved you a bunch of time and trouble. Education is expensive.
It started off short and simple, but then I started adding little paragraphs to it, explaining it all the better. Then I started adding wee cartoons to it. The whole thing started to grow. And grow.
In the end the list was seen (and is still seen) by a lot of people. Folk started telling other folk about it. It went viral. After a few weeks of crazy traffic the book idea started coming to me.
I had always drawn cartoons, but never really wanted to do it professionally. Cartooning as a day job meant chaining yourself to your table, scratching out a living in silence, interrupted only by frequent trips to the coffee shop. I wanted to see more of the world than that. I wanted to get out, have adventures, travel, make money, live in the adult world. I wanted to be part of the noisy, hustle n’ bustle, big city life. I wanted to look out my bedroom window in the morning and see skyscrapers. Cartooning was too ‘college town’ for me.
So I got a job in a big Chicago advertising agency. It was a good choice. It pretty much used the same part of my brain as cartooning, the pay was good, the work doable enough and you got to interact with adults most of the time. Plus it also indulged one’s fascination with mass media that all young adults seem to have. I was dead pleased to be in the business.
Still, my first few years in advertising were not easy. Writing ads is a tough profession. There are far too many people doing it, it’s very competitive, it’s hard as hell to stand out and get ahead, the stress is awful, the future is always uncertain, the hours are long, the working weekends are many and the politics involved are completely insane.
By the late 1990’s I was starting to burn out a bit. The job was taking its toll. In spite of this I found myself being offered a great new job in New York City, which I jumped at.
My first year in New York was a transient time for me. Uncertainty about my career and other personal issues meant instead of settling down like a normal person, I was going out a lot. I was drinking way too much. About this time I started doodling on the back of business cards, just to give me something to do while sitting at the bar.
Business cards are the perfect medium for a New York barfly. They’re easy to carry around, they don’t attract a lot of attention, they don’t take up a lot of space at the bar, they’re cheap and disposable enough so it doesn’t matter if you spill your drink on them. They’re a completely unfamiliar, baggage-free, expectation-free medium, so it doesn’t matter if you never get a foothold in the gallery or publishing scene. They can simply exist without a lot of fuss.
People walking past the bar on the way to the bathroom would see this jittery, unkempt guy in a tweed jacket on a barstool, doodling furiously and wonder what was up. Sometimes they’d look at my work. Sometimes it would be met with enthusiasm, sometimes not. Often I was asked if I publish. I’d say no, I don’t.
Saying no would invariably get me a funny look. Why was I bothering doing something this involved if I wasn’t planning on publishing it? This is New York, dammit; you’re supposed to have a master plan for world domination etc.
But I had the advertising job. I didn’t need the money, not really. The advertising paid well enough; even if it was wearing me out a bit. I knew how much most cartoonists make (peanuts) and how hard they work (very). It wasn’t a route I wanted to go down.
Besides, I had been working my ass off for over a decade. Maybe I liked just doing something for no reason, for a change. Maybe I liked the fact that these wee drawings would never be seen by a wide audience. Maybe I liked not having the pressure to succeed at all costs in the forefront of my psyche. Maybe it made me feel less of an animal to be motivated by something other than raw ambition.
Maybe I just saw myself swimming in this crazy, desperate, horny, existential, urban, greedhead-frenzy sea of random bodies, and maybe the act of sitting at the bar and doodling for no reason was my little antidote for it. My little piece of driftwood to cling on to.
It is a very agreeable feeling, when you know you have something special and wonderful happening, but you don’t feel any particular need to let everybody know about it. I knew the cartoons were good, I knew I could do something with them. But I also knew the publishing market. I knew those media folk weren’t ever going to make my life easier. Instead of waiting to be discovered, I was doing the opposite. I was deliberately keeping them from the commerce-minded people, who I just knew would spoil everything the moment I let them anywhere near.
Then the internet came along and changed everything.
I’m not sure how I got into the internet so heavily. It just snuck up on me. One day I just built a website and started posting my drawings on it. A few months later 9 – 11 happened and all hell broke loose. People were being laid off all over. People were at home, surfing the internet. I guess that’s when my work started getting noticed. People started blogging. I started blogging, too.
The world has changed since 9 – 11, anybody who thinks differently is a fool. And for some reason I find myself far better suited to the post-9 – 11 world than the fun, prosperous, party-central one that came before.
The future we see before us is a chaotic one. Somehow sitting there at a Manhattan bar in the late 1990s, endlessly doodling away for no reason, I got a glimpse of the impending chaos a few years sooner than my more stable, prosperous, well-adjusted friends.
And now it’s informing my advertising career.
Chaos can be a positive thing. Chaos is inherently part of the creative act. To embrace creativity means you must also embrace chaos. Things don’t happen when everything is neat and “just so”. Creativity is all about disruption. The people who tell you that creativity is pain-free are liars. The people who tell you they’ve got a plan are liars. There is no plan. There’s just you, God and the need to invent. And this uncertain world is what most of us now find ourselves entering, willingly or otherwise.
Creativity equals chaos. Chaos equals creativity. Embrace it or die. I’ve already done so. I know all about it. It almost cost me my liver but like I said, education is expensive. The Creative Age is upon us. The Chaotic Age is upon us. We are scared. Damn right, we should be scared. But out of the terror comes the amazing opportunities for us to expand both on the material and spiritual level. The fewer safety nets there are to save us, the less choice we have to be anything other than ourselves, the less choice we have besides doing what is meaningful to us. And finding ourselves, doing what matters, becoming the person we were born to be, this is what God put on this earth to do.
We live in amazing and interesting times. I intend the book to do a damn good job proving it.
I’m looking at this piece and saying to myself, “Damn, I wish I could still write like that…” But I can’t. When I wrote that, I was a lot more poor, unemployed and desperate than I am now. “Hunger is the best spice”. No money or success can replace the artistic edge that prolonged poverty & under-achievement gives you. Sad but true.
Would I want to go back there, for the sake of “Art”? No. I was there once already. And it sucked.
Yes, it was an adventure. But only in retrospect. At the time, the reality was far more mundane and unedifying. Besides, new adventures interest me now, a lot more than the old ones do. Happy but true.
As Buddha says, there is no one road to Nirvana. Enlightenment is a house with 6 billion doors. While we’re alive, we intend not to find THE DOOR, not A DOOR, but to find OUR OWN, UNIQUE DOOR.
And we’re willing to pay for the privilege. We’re willing to give up money and time and power and sex and status and certainty and comfort in order to find it.
And guess what? It’ll be a great door. It’ll add to this life. It’ll resonate. Not just with us, but with everybody it comes in contact with. The door will useful and productive. Alive and kicking. It’ll create wealth and laughter and joy. It’ll pull its own weight, it’ll give back to others. It’ll be centered on compassion, but will be intolerant of dullards, parasites and cynics.
It may be modest, it may not. It could be a little candle shop; it could be a software company with the GNP of Sweden. It could involve politics or working with the elderly. It could be starting a design studio or opening a bar with Cousin Mike. It could be a screenplay, oil paints, or discovering the violin. It doesn’t matter. Meaning Scales.
Sure, I was pretty drunk on the Kool-Ade when I wrote that, but I think the main point is still valid. The size of the endeavor doesn’t matter as much as how meaningful it becomes to you.
But given a choice between two paths, both valid, how do you know which one to take? How do you know which one has the meaningful payoff?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t. Whether we’re talking about moving to New York to become an “Art Star”, or opening up a humble coffee shop in Alpine, Texas, that’s why they’re called “adventures”. Because you don’t how it’s going to end.
All you can do is admit to yourself that yes, this is an adventure, and to accept it as such, surprises and all. With a little bit of practice you eventually get into the flow of it.
Yes, anything worth doing takes lots of practice. Adventures included.
And when I say “People don’t scale”, I’m stating the obvious: that no matter how meteoric your rise to the top [or not], you are still beholden to the day-to-day realities as any living creature.
Birth, sickness, death, falling in love, watching TV, raising families, mowing the lawn, going to the movies, taking your nephew to a ball game, drinking beer, hanging out with your buddies, playing frisbee on the beach, painting the house, tending the garden. No matter where your adventure takes you, most of what is truly meaningful is still to be found revolving around the mundane stuff you did before you embarked on your adventure. The stuff that’ll be still be going on long after you and I are both dead, long after our contribution to the world is forgotten.
But often, one needs to have that big adventure before truly appreciating this. Going full circle. Exactly.
If you are successful, it’ll never come from the direction you predicted. Same is true if you fail.
[A Brief History Of The “Cartoons Drawn On The Back Of Business Cards” Format.]
As this book reaches its end, I’m thinking how it’s been OVER TEN YEARS since I first came up with the “cartoons drawn on the back of business cards” format. And it seems like I’VE ONLY JUST got them to the commercially successful level I thought they were capable of reaching.
Better late than never, I suppose.
A friend asked me recently, had I known it would take this long, would I have bothered in the first place? I have in my mind this fantasy version of myself that makes reasonable and sensible decisions, more often than not. This reasonable and sensible person, if he existed, would probably have answered, “No. Definitely not.“
But none of this is sensible. None of it ever was. So yeah, knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have behaved any differently. I’m not proud of that; I’m not ashamed, either. It just is.
Was it worth the cost? Not really. It never is. Van Gough once told his brother, “No painting ever sells for as much as it cost the artist to make it.” I’ve yet to meet in the flesh any artist who could prove him wrong.
Though looking on the bright side, it IS nice after years of struggling away in obscurity, to have a body of work that you’re actually proud of, one that [A] makes you a good living, [B] exceeds your earlier expectations of what you thought you were capable of achieving as a human being, and perhaps most importantly, [C] has given a lot of other people a lot of joy and value.
When I was a kid in college, there very few avenues a cartoonist could take, if she wished to be successful. There was no internet. There were only newspapers, magazines, books, TV, movies, comic books, merchandising, and little else. A world I find hard to imagine now, only a couple of short decades later. And besides, I never saw my work as particularly commercial, so even if I did give it my best shot, I never thought it would ever realistically pay off.
So in my last year of college, feigning maturity, I turned my attention to landing a job that would pay my bills upon graduation. From what I could then tell, writing TV commercials seemed to use the same part of the brain it took to draw cartoons, and I wasn’t a bad cartoonist, so I decided to give Madison Avenue a go. It looked like it could be interesting.
Somehow I managed to get a job as an advertising copywriter, straight out of school. Some skill was needed, most of it was luck, but when you’re in your early twenties and entering the serious job market for the first time, you’ll take whatever you can get.
Though I was in the ad industry off-and-on for over a decade, I don’t think about it too much, now. Some part of me has blacked it out. Besides being VERY hard work, it wasn’t much fun. I was very much in the ranks of what I would call the “In-Betweenies” i.e. those good enough to get and keep a pretty well-paid position in an ad agency, but not good enough to really get ahead in it; not good enough to enjoy it properly. This was the world I lived in, in 1998 New York, when I started drawing the cartoons with a vengeance. And like every other In-Betweenie my age, it was a tiring, stressful time for me.
[And then the internet happened…]
Over the next couple of years, yes, I drew a lot of cartoons, but I didn’t do much with them. They were just a hobby. Besides, I had a lot going on at the time, with the job and the New York lifestyle to maintain. Most of my cartoon audience back then consisted of fellow New York barflies that I had foisted them upon.
But all good things must come to an end. One day I found myself under-employed, broke and pissed off with life in general. With nothing better to do besides waiting for the phone to ring, in May, 2001 I started my blog, gapingvoid.com.
I would like to say that the website took off soon after, the cartoons were a smash hit, and things improved dramatically right away, but sadly that didn’t happen. I just kept at it, day after day, building it up slowly. That’s still how it happens, for the most part.
The million-dollar contract has yet to arrive in the mail. That’s OK, somewhere along the line I figured how to make good money off of them, INDIRECTLY.
How? It’s pretty straightforward, in retrospect. I posted the cartoons online, and because I had a lot of free time on my hands, I then spent a log time tracking what happened to them, once they went out into the ether. This was 2002, just as blogs were beginning to hit the scene. This was the beginning of Google’s rise to the top of the search market. This was the era of Technorati.com, when people wanted to start seeing what was happening on the web RIGHT NOW, not just historically.
Over the next year or two watching the cartoons traveling about, watching what other bloggers were up to, I started getting a pretty good feel for how the internet ACTUALLY worked, not just how the journalists and marketing folk told people how it worked. After a while I started posting my thoughts about this brave new world online. And after a while people started e-mailing me, offering to pay me good money if I would share more of what I had learned online with them.
Sharing this information for me was A LOT MORE FUN and better paid than trying to sell ads to clients, so hey, I went for it.
So far I’ve managed to turn it into a pretty nice business. A lot more money, for a lot let stress and time than Madison Avenue ever offered me. Not a bad outcome.
The thing is, none of it happened on purpose. It just kinda sorta happened, one random event at a time.
I find having two strings to my bow, cartoons and internet, helps the business out a lot. I like to play them off each other. Sorry, I can’t draw you a cartoon; I’m too busy doing internet stuff. Sorry, I can’t help you with your internet problem; I’m too busy drawing something for a client. I totally believe that if I gave one of them up for good, the other one would crash and burn overnight. It’s keeping the creative tension between the two, an extension of the aforementioned “Sex & Cash Theory”, that keeps things interesting. For both me and the good folk paying my bills.
I never intended to be a professional cartoonist. I never intended to become an internet jockey. But somehow the two got mashed up to create this third thing. That’s what I mean by “If you are successful, it’ll never come from the direction you predicted.“
It’s good to be young and full of dreams. Dreams of one day doing something “insanely great”. Dreams of love, beauty, achievement and contribution. But understand they have a life of their own, and they’re not very good at following instructions. Love them, revere them, nurture them, respect them, but don’t ever become a slave to them. Otherwise you’ll kill them off prematurely, before they get the chance to come true.
When I first started putting up cartoons onto gapingvoid in 2001, they were in a small, 400-pixel-wide format, just like the “Love Letter” cartoon you see above.
Then about 2 years ago, I started posting them in high-resolution, like the “Dinosaur” cartoon below [Click on the image and the high-res version will pop up].
This meant people could actually download the images and start using them for their own stuff. Like I said in my licensing terms,
Hey, if you want to put the work up on your website, blog, or stick it on paper, t-shirts, business cards, stickers, homemade greeting cards, Powerpoint slides, or whatever, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it’s just for your own personal use, as long as you’re not trying to make money off it directly, and you’re giving me due attribution, I’m totally cool with the idea.
As a “Social Object”, a cartoon that one can actually print out and hang on their cube wall, or put on a t-shirt, a business card etc is far more powerful and useful than say, YET ONE MORE IMAGE you can find on the internet and e-mail en masse to your friends.
i.e. The cartoon itself hasn’t changed, but the interaction between it and the “End User” is suddenly far more meaningful.
So of course, the next layman’s question is, “Yes, but… how do you monetize it?“
And of course, the answer is, “Indirectly”.
For example, in October, 2006 I post the Microsoft Blue Monster cartoon. Within a few months Microsoft is somehow paying me a lot of money to do other drawings for them. Without the former, the latter would never have happened. And without the latter, Sun Microsystems would never have approached me. Everything feeds into everything else. Exactly. In other words, I don’t create the online cartoons as “products” to be sold. I create the cartoons as “Social Objects”, i.e. “Sharing Devices” that help me to build relationships with.
As with all things, the REAL value comes from the human relationships that are built AROUND the social object, not the object in itself.
I’ll quote my friend, Mark Earls one more time. This is from his second book, “Herd”:
“Cova is surely right to suggest that much of modern consumer behaviour is social in nature. We do it not just in a social context (tangible and immediately present or over distances) but for social reasons — that is the object or activity is the means for a group or tribe to form or interact. This also echoes a lot of what Douglas Atkin describes in his study of cult brands — brands which have developed a cult status (like Apple, and Ford’s bestselling pickup) seem to serve an underlying social need within each individual (just as religious cults do): a need to belong. The real draw is probably not the brand but… other people.”
And I’ll also ask my favorite question, one more time: If your product is not a “Social Object”, how on earth do you manage to stay in business?
1. Exciting News etc.
Four years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts, which went on to become “How To Be Creative”. Since then, it’s been downloaded well over a million times. The PDF version alone has been downloaded over ninety thousand times, and is the number one most downloaded manifesto on ChangeThis.com.
I am happy to report that I have just signed a book contract with Portfolio Books [a Penguin imprint] to develop it into a book. Portfolio, by the way, is the same imprint that publishes Seth Godin’s books. We even have the same editor, and I’m told the book will have the same graphic designer that designed Seth’s “Purple Cow”.
Of course I’m excited and happy. Not only do I have a book deal, I have a book deal with a second-to-none, blue chip publisher. Big thanks and kudos to Seth for introducing me to them. 2. West Texas
This deal might help better explain why I recently ensconced myself in Alpine, Texas. The move was not completely random. I needed to write more. Needed to be somewhere with lots of peace and quiet. At least until the final manuscript is signed off. 3. Change Is Good.
Yeah, it’s a terrific opportunity. But like it says in HTBC, “Keep your day job”. The book may become a bestseller, it may only shift a few copies. I have no idea. Nobody does. Some people dream of one day becoming a full-time book author. I feel fortunate to have never been smitten with the bug. I’m going to continue doing exactly what I’ve been doing for these last four years– drawing cartoons, blogging, writing, consulting etc etc. 4. “The Title Is Ironic, Stupid”.
Telling people “how to be creative” is a bit silly, when you think about it. Generally, people either are or they aren’t. When I wrote HTBC, I certainly wasn’t trying to slip into some sort of New-Age, “Unleash-The-Fire-Within-You-Creativity-Guru” schtick. All I was thinking about was a short, practical, real-world list of advice that would come in handy to somebody say, 10 – 20 years younger than me, somebody with the same “creative bug” I had when I was just starting out in the world. I was just trying pass along some valuable, pain-saving lessons to the next generation that I had learned along the way. No more, no less. 5. “Damn, I’m Old.“
It’s been over ten years since I came up with the “back of business card” cartoon format. It’s been nearly twenty years since I came up with my “squiggly” drawing style. Damn, if I new it would take THIS LONG to get the work “out there”, would I have bothered in the first place? Actually, yeah, I probably would’ve. Plus ca change… 6. What have I learned about “Being Creative” since 2004?
Very little, if truth be told. The first round of HTBC had 26 chapters, 10,000 words and took 6 weeks to write. Since then, I’ve added another 10 chapters– about 3,000 extra words. I’ve not had a lot to add to the original list, it seems. The good news is, there’s nothing in the original 2004 version that I’ve had to take out completely or hugely modify. Most of the stuff seems to have stood the test of time pretty well, which I take as a favorable sign.
If I had to condense the entire work into a single line, it would read something like, “Work Hard. Keep at it. Live simply and quietly. Remain humble. Stay positive. Be nice. Be polite.“ 7. Early 2009.
I have to get the final manuscript finished by August. We’re guessing early 2009 for its release date. I can’t wait! 8. Thanks, Everybody! Loic Le Meur and I were having this conversation recently. The basic tenet of the conversation was, “The best thing about being a blogger is the people you get to meet.” I have found this to be true and self-evident. When I was younger, the people who inspired me the most professionally were famous, dead, or both. Since I become a blogger the people who inspired me the most became good friends of mine. We hung out. We drunk beer. We ate pizza. It wasn’t a big deal, it was just… lovely. Back in 2004, my blogging buddies and I knew we were onto a good thing. Something powerful and creative and earth-changing. But that’s not the main reason we liked it. We liked it because we enjoyed it, because it was interesting, because of the smart, passionate, fun people we were starting to hang out with.
A decade from now, maybe blogs as we know them won’t even exist. Maybe they’ll call them something else. Do I care? Not really. What matters, like Loic and I talked about, is the people you get to meet. That’s where the magic lies. Ten years from now, these people will still be around, geeking out on the internet at the latest WHATEVER that’s coming down the pike. They’re not going anywhere, and Thank God for that.
So Big Thanks to Everybody for reading gapingvoid over the years. I could not have done it without you, without a constant stream of bloggers and readers to make me think and to make me feel inspired. From the very bottom of my heart, Thanks Again. You guys rock.
I was an English major back in college. From the age of nineteen, for over a decade I devoured books. Thousands of them. And I always liked hearing the true-life stories about the authors who penned them.
I remember well, hearing all about two of my favorite writers, Hemingway and Graham Greene.
Though their books were very different from each other’s, their daily routines were quite similar, so I heard.
Basically, they’d live somewhere cheap, quiet and relatively conducive to getting a lot of writing done. The Florida Keys and Cuba in Hemingway’s case, the South of France in Greene’s.
They’d get up early each morning, then write diligently till noon.
Then they’d head for their local café, drink gallons of booze for hours on end, and stagger home late at night.
Then they’d do the same thing the next day. And the next. And the next. For years on end. Women came and went, friends came and went, children came and went, money and fame came and went, but the daily writing-booze combo remained the great constant.
I’m not sure I like the idea of staggering home drunk every night, but as somebody who likes to write, likes his beer, and likes the simple life, I can’t say I find their overall Modus Operandi unappealing.
I guess I’m currently finding my own equivalent here in Alpine, Texas, minus the copious amount of booze. In the back of my mind, I know one of the main reasons I worked so hard these last few years, is because I knew that one day this is exactly what I’d want to end up doing, far away from the big city, the madding crowd. And so here I am.
[RE-POST: Originally published August, 2004] A strange thing happens to New York bartenders when they hit the age of thirty: They suddenly realize they’re never going to be famous.
Right up to the point where they were 29 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds old they are all absolutely, positively certain that their screenplay will be sold, their face will be discovered by a big stage producer, their paintings will be hanging at The MoMA, their photographs will be gracing the pages of Vogue etc. etc.
Then Boom! Within nanoseconds of the clock chiming Midnight on the morning of the Big Three-Oh, the dream is suddenly over. Crash. Burn. Dead. No more magic famemachine to lift their souls out of the lowly depths of bohemian hand-to-mouth living and into the higher realms of A-List parties and Central Park South apartments.
Of course, the first thing they do is panic. Holy Shit! I’m old! Despair! Despair! Utter Despair!
Then once the initial rush of fear and dread starts to wane, they decide it’s finally time to grow up and do something serious. Goodbye, Dream. Hello, Sensible Adulthood. Time to stop working for The Man. Time to strike out on their own. Time to be a grownup.
They look around for ideas to start their own business. But like everybody else alive, their search is limited by what they know. Besides their art thing (auditions, gallery schmoozing etc), they’ve only really been in one business since dropping out of college a decade previously– pouring drinks.
Bartending is the only job they know. The drinks trade is all they know.
So late one night, Bartender One (who just turned thirty) is having an after-hours beer with a friend, Bartender Two (who also just turned thirty). They’re both in mourning for their recently-lost youth. They are commiserating, trying to keep it in perspective, trying to focus on the positive. But now they’re also talking intently, talking passionately, thinking seriously, they’re figuring it all out, they’ve got to come up with an idea. They need a business idea. They need a plan. Suddenly…
Bartender One: “I know! Let’s open our own bar!“
Bartender Two: “Yeah! Cool! Let’s open our own bar!“
So they whoop and holler and dance around and hug each other, glowing radiantly in the sheer excitement of their new business plan.
Good thing nobody else in New York has thought of it yet.
36. Start blogging.
The ease with which a blog can circumvent the gatekeepers is staggering.
I have a friend in Paris. Call her Chantal. She’s a lovely woman, tres chic, very smart and sexy, with a cute apartment in the 20th Arrondissement and a respectable job in an advertising agency. A couple of years ago, she wrote a book. A novel. In French. Lots of sex and introspection [Sex & Introspection being a very popular French literary combo, of course]. Anyway, Chantal wants to get the book published.
The last time I dined with her in Paris, Chantal was telling me her tale of woe, after she had spent many long months schlepping around town, trying to find a publisher, which in Paris means trying to ingratiate herself with the Parisian literary scene. This is something that’s actually quite hard to break into, given the huge numbers of unpublished sex-and-introspection novels doing the rounds. One guy, an editor at some small imprint nobody outside of Paris has ever heard of, offered to help her, but eventually gave up once he figured out that she wasn’t going to sleep with him. You get the picture.
Being an avid blogger, of course, I was not very helpful.
“Your book has thirteen chapters,” I say. “Voila! That’s thirteen blog posts. One chapter per blog post. Put it online, and you’ll have a book offer within six months. Trust me.“
Of course, this is not how you do it in Paris, supposedly. You do it by going to all the right parties and hobnobbing with all the right people, supposedly. If you’re good at it, you get a book deal, supposedly. If you’re really good at it, they’ll also let you go on the highbrow TV talk show circuit and pontificate about “Couture” with all the other erudite culture vultures, supposedly. Maybe give you an occasional column in Le Figaro, supposedly. An intoxicating combo of both intellectual celebrity and bourgeoise respectability, supposedly. Very elite, supposedly. Very French, supposedly.
Sadly, she never went with the blog option. Sure, it could’ve worked quite easily [Hey, it worked easily enough for Tom Reynolds, the London ambulance driver who got a book deal based on his blog writings], but doing that would probably have been seen as a bit gauche by the other groovy cats in the Parisian literary scene. And I suspect she wanted membership into that club, every bit as much as she wanted to see her name in print.
Of course, as anybody who listens to NPR or the BBC will know, we have similar culturally elite hierarchies here in the English-speaking world, just maybe not so hardcore. There’s something strangely curious about how the idea of “The Novel”, “Le Roman” has such a strong hold on the French imagination; there’s something so heroic to them about the idea of the “Auteur”, that it’s hard to explain to people from more philistine parts of the world. On one level, you can easily admire such strong reverence to a classic archetype. On another level, such attachment can needlessly hold you back.
Whatever. If I were Chantal, I would still consider blogging the book in full. And I would post up an English version as well, to give the book the greatest chance of being read by people outside her French, urban microcosm. Sure, the Parisian literary purists will bitch and moan, but hey, they’re Parisian literary purists– they’re going to bitch and moan anyway.
35. Savor obscurity while it lasts.
Once you “make it”, your work is never the same.
It’s a familiar story, re-told countless times. An artist creates something amazing and wonderful when she’s young, poor, hungry and alone, and the world doesn’t care. Then one day something happens and her luck is changed forever. Next thing you know she’s some sort of celebrity, making all sorts of obscene sums, hanging out with royalty and movie stars. It’s a dream a lot of young artists have, something to sustain them during their early, lean years etc.
The funny thing is, when you hear the “rock stars” talk about their climb to the top, the part they invariably speak fondest of, is not the part with all the fame, money and parties. It’s the part BEFORE they made it, back when they were living in a basement without electricity and “eating dog food”, back when they were doing their breakthrough work.
Back when they were young, and inventing a new language to speak to the world with. More importantly, back when they were young, and inventing a new language other people could also speak to the world with.
Some years ago, after he’d been playing stadiums for a while, the rock singer, Neil Young was booed off stage by his fans when he tried playing new Country & Western material. They didn’t want to share his in new adventures. No, they had paid their money to hear the classic rock, dammit. “Down By The River” and “Heart Of Gold”, dammit. And if they didn’t get it, dammit, they’ d be out for blood. As events proved.
It’s hard to invent a new language when a lot of people are already heavily invested in your work [including yourself]. When a lot of people are already fluent in the language you’re currently speaking with, and they don’t want anything new from you. Like the Neil Young fans, they don’t want to see your metaphorical new movie, they just want to watch the sequel to the old one.
And success needs lots of people to keep the show on the road. When it’s just you, a dream, and a few cans of dog food, there’s only one person to worry about. But when the dream turns into reality, there’s all sorts of other people suddenly needing taken care of, in order to keep the engine running. Publishers, investors, managers, journalists, retailers, suppliers, groupies, employees, accountants… and the paying customers. They all have a stake your act, and they all want a piece of the action.
So you crank out another sequel and wait for the money to roll in. It’s a living.
Of course, one reason the rock stars can speak of their basement-and-dog-food era so fondly is because it eventually came to a end; it didn’t last forever. And with all the world tours and parties, this era of creating their seminal work soon became a distant memory. So quite naturally, they miss it. But if they were still “eating dog food” after a few decades, I doubt if they’d be waxing so lyrically.
But as long as you can progress from it eventually, it’s a time to be savored. A time when your work is still new to you, a time when the world doesn’t need to be fed, like a voracious animal.
I used to live in Hoxton [East London], when Hoxton was still full of artists, rather than bankers. Studios, workshops, warehouses. We used to operate rooftop cinemas, the pubs stayed open all night. The ‘Blue Note’ had just opened on Hoxton Square. It was cool, it was creative, it was happening. It was awash with coke, speed and pills.
Taking drugs was the normal thing to do, not the exception.
Now, ten years later, there are two kind of people who were part of that circle: The ones who jumped off that train. They now run hotels, live in France, own start-ups, work for MTV, do interesting stuff.
And there’s the other ones. The ones that are still alive, and many are not, are busy drooling in a forgotten pub in the East End. Dreaming of better days. Royalty payments have dried up, so has the talent. Anyone remembers the rabbit scene from ‘Snatch’? Like that, ‘proper fucked’.
Drugs don’t give you consciousness expansion. Drugs turn you into a self obsessed ranter, full of conviction on the outside and full of hot air on the inside.
Actually, my fellow-artist buddy, John T Unger also left a great comment there. This was quite a while before we actually became friends:
Hemingway had a great article he wrote for the Toronto Star on the same subject…He admonished American tourists not to bother making trips to Montparnasse to drink with the great artists of the day, because they would all be in the studio painting, rather than wasting their time at the bar. He went on to say that the tourist would not lack the company of plenty of B list wannabes if he was thirsty, with whom he could sit elbow to elbow and bitch endlessly about how famous he wasn’t and how unfair it all was. The article was funny, mean and true (like some other people we know, eh, Hugh?).
Yeah, I’m spending a lot of time these last couple of days, sifting through old material. I’m working on a new project, and some of the old stuff should come in handy. Groovy. [Pimp Central:] Have you checked out John T Unger’s “Great Bowls of Fire” sculptures? They utterly rock. Oh, and he designs websites.
34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs.
It sounds great, but there is a downside.
The late billionaire, James Goldsmith once quipped, “When a man marries his mistress, he immediately creates a vacancy.“
What’s true with philanderers, can sometimes be true in life.
When I was about nineteen I knew this guy called Andrew, who was a junior accountant, a few years out of college.
Andrew didn’t really like being an accountant, at least, that’s what he was fond of saying. His passion, of all things, was antique silverware. In particular, antique silver cutlery. In particular, antique silver teaspoons.
He knew A LOT about antique silver teaspoons. He collected them en masse. He lived and breathed them. OK, maybe that’s a pretty strange hobby, but hey, he was pretty much a national authority on them.
To make a long story short, eventually he quit his accountancy gig and got a new job as at a very prestigious auction house, specializing in valuing silverware.
I remember buying him a drink and congratulating him. What happy news!
A few years later, I was hanging out at the same bar with some mutual acquaintances, and his name came up in conversation. This time the news wasn’t so happy.
Apparently he had recently lost his job. Apparently he had gone into rehab for alcoholism.
What a bloody shame.
“That’s why you should never turn your hobby into your job,” said one of my friends, someone far older and wiser than me. “Before, this man had a job and a hobby. Now suddenly, he’s just got the job, but no hobby anymore. But a man needs both, you see. And now what does this man, who’s always had a hobby, do with his time?
My friend held up his glass.
Make of this what you will.
2. I had no life in my 20’s. Get used to the same. While my peers were partying or zoning out to TV sitcoms, after work I’d head for the coffee shop or the bar, and crank out cartoons until bedtime. Sure, I must have looked a real lonely, “no-life” saddo, sitting there doodling away, but at the time I didn’t really care. I seriously enjoyed doing it, plus I knew I was on to something. Besides, the typical twentysomething TV-and-Budweiser-enhanced nighttime existence didn’t interest me too much. ‘Tis more blessed to make than to consume etc.
I think this second point warrants further discussion [N.B. This isn’t a definitive post. It’s just me thinking out loud.].
One thing you notice about twentysomethings who are doing exceptionally “creative” work is, JUST HOW LONG their hours are.
Of course these “creative” types tell you, “That’s because I love what I do.” Of course, that is true, and well done to them for finding a niche which they can truly feel passionate about. [By the way, I use the word “creative” very loosely, less in the artsy-fartsy context, more in the context of doing something one is passionate about: “Creativity equals Passion” etc. Notice how in the last paragraph, I put the word, “creative” in inverted commas, but I didn’t with the word, “passionate”. There was a reason for that.]
But there are other realities about getting to do something “creative” for a living.
1. It’s a great privilege. So there’s a lot of other folk chasing after the same prize, and the barriers to entry are high. My first job in advertising, I had to beat out 300 other college grads in order to land it. When all I thought I had to do before that was be in the top 20% of my class at school, those odds seemed pretty hardcore.
2. “Creativity” is extremely time consuming. My cartoons didn’t get any good [to me, at least] until I had spent well over a decade working obsessively on them. Hell, I’m still not there yet.
3. When you get into the “creative” zone, the lines between “work time” and “off time” start getting blurry. And the deeper you get into that zone, the blurrier the lines get. I often work from seven in the morning till midnight and think nothing of it. A very smart friend of mine who works over at Blip.tv once told me, “I only work 3 or 4 hours a week. The rest of the time, I’m playing.” Working eighty hour weeks is much easier and sustainable when seventy-six of those hours is playtime for you. 4. The thing that turns a job into passion, that turns work into play, is a sense of mission. When you’ve got a real sense of purpose, the lines that separate work and play evaporate. So instead of thinking about how “creative” or “uncreative” your job is, ask yourself what “purpose-idea” your job is articulating.
5. A “purpose-idea” just doesn’t land on your lap because you’re lucky, smart and good-looking. A sense of purpose only comes your way usually because you’ve been working your ass off over a long period of time, intensely cultivating it. And yeah, sometimes that will appear to more mainstream people as “Having no life”. To hell with them. They don’t know or care about you. Successful people get to where they are by doing the stuff that unsuccessful people aren’t willing to do. Harsh but true. [NB. The term, “Purpose-Idea” was originally coined by my good-friend-and-marketing-genius, Mark Earls.] [Update:] Stowe Boyd kindly provides some REALLY GOOD thoughts on the subject:
Paderewski, the physicist, once said, “Before I was a genius, I was a drudge.” There is a lot of slogging involved. And others, generally, will not understand: especially before you have invested the full ten years. “You’ll never sell a book!” “You call that music?” “That’s the dumbest design I have ever seen!” “Keep your day job.“
Another good reason to work apart from others, so you don’t have to hear all that negativity. Close the door, and sharpen your pencil.
Like making a fire from rubbing sticks together, creativity’s heat comes from work. Work requires dedication. Dedication involves sacrifice, specifically of time and the absence of what might have been done instead.
A young friend of mine, who graduated from university only a year or two ago, offered me this piece of advice about about expanding “How To Be Creative” into a traditional book format:
It’s about taking one’s creativity and learning how to harness it and apply it to anything one undertakes (including careers/business), despite the fact that the business world tends to kill creativity; in other words, don’t focus on life… focus on professional life. As a member of the demographic you’re aiming for [i.e. people my age], I can tell you that we’re more interested in that; it’s easy to be creative on our own time. At work, not so much.
Here are some opening thoughts, by no means a definitive list:
1. Add 25% to amount of hours you work every week, and fill them with fun, interesting, useful stuff. Google allows its employees 20% of their work time to devote to their own personal projects. If your employer won’t allow you to do this, you should unilaterally make the time for yourself, either at the office or at home, hence the extra 25%. Your peers in the office may think you weird at first, but after a while it’ll start paying off. 2. I had no life in my 20’s. Get used to the same. While my peers were partying or zoning out to TV sitcoms, after work I’d head for the coffee shop or the bar, and crank out cartoons until bedtime. Sure, I must have looked a real lonely ol’ saddo, sitting there doodling away in the corner by myself, but at the time I didn’t really care. I really enjoyed doing it, plus I knew I was on to something. Besides, the typical twentysomething TV-and-Budweiser-enhanced nighttime existence didn’t interest me too much. Tis more blessed to make than to consume etc. 3. All business is creative, just sometimes it’s hard to see it. And it’s especially hard to see it when you’re leaving the office at the same time as all the other yutzes you work with. 4. Creative people like other creative people, even if they’re far more senior than you. The great thing about creative people with power and money, is that they would much rather have somebody working for them who reminds them of themselves when they, too were young, rather than remind them of the jocks and cheerleaders they went to highschool with. And you know what? Finding those kind of young people is actually harder than it seems. Truly bright sparks who are honest, reliable and hard-working are rare, even in the younger cohorts. So if you ever meet an older “Creative” like that, don’t be scared of her. Don’t be scared to seek her out. She’s probably just as delighted to have found someone she can give a real opportunity to, as you are for finding someone offering a real opportunity. 5. P.S. When I use the word “creative”, I prefer to use it in quotation marks, metaphorical or otherwise. As words go, it’s pretty meaningless. There are a lot of people in the “creative” industries who wouldn’t know an original idea if it jumped on their lap and peed on them. Aimee Plumley was right. Hipsters ARE annoying. Truly creative people tend to defy the usual stereotypes. Always keep that in mind. 6. Never, ever forget the “Sex & Cash Theory”.
The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the assignment covers both bases, but not often.
7. Always remember: You’re playing the long game.General Kutuzov told the Russian Royal Court that all he needed to defeat Napoleon was “patience and time”. His strategy horrified a lot of people close to the Czar, who were hoping for something a bit more swift and glorious. But it was “patience and time” that allowed the good ol’ Russian winter to come along, and freeze all those poor Frenchmen to death. The rest is history.
Any other thoughts for my friend? Please feel free to leave a comment. I can already see that I’m going to have to give this a lot more thought over the next wee while.
33. Being Poor Sucks.
The biggest mistake young people make is, underestimating how competitive the world is out there.
Everyone will have had a group of friends who went hitchhiking around Europe when they were nineteen, living off ten dollars a day. And they were so happy! And they had so much fun! And money wasn’t an issue!
Ha. That was youth, that was not reality. Reality is much bigger than youth. And not as nice.
That’s not to say cash is the be-all-and-end-all. But to deny the importance of the material world around you [and its currencies] is to detach yourself from reality. And the world WILL eventually PUNISH you HARD for that.
I’ve often been asked by young people, which do I think is a better career choice: “Creativity” or “Money”? I say both are the wrong answer. The best thing to be in this world is an effective human being. Sometimes that requires money, sometimes not. Sometimes that requires creativity, sometimes not. Be ready for it when it happens.
32. Allow your work to age with you.
You get older faster than you think. Be ready for it when it happens.
I have a friend. Call him Dan.
When I first met Dan, he was a twenty-eight year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York’s Lower East Side, who liked to spend too much time in bars.
The last time I saw him, he was a forty-one year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York’s Lower East Side, who likes to spend too much time in bars.
There’s a famous old quip: “A lot of people in business say they have twenty years experience, when in fact all the really have is one year’s experience, repeated twenty times.“
It’s not just guys in business who fall into this trap, unfortunately. It happens just as often to people taking a less conventional path. It’s sad enough when you see it happen to a friend of yours. When it happens to you, it’s even worse.
The good news is, it’s easy enough to avoid. Especially with experience. Suddenly you realize that you’re just not into the same things you once were. You used to be into staying up late all night, going to parties, now you’d rather stay in and read a book. Sure, it sounds boring, but hey, sometimes “boring” can be a lot of fun. Especially if it’s on your own terms.
Just go with the flow and don’t worry about it. ESPECIALLY don’t worry about the people who ARE worrying about it. They’ll just slow you down.
So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years.]
1. Ignore everybody.
2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours. 3. Put the hours in. 4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail. 5. You are responsible for your own experience. 6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. 7. Keep your day job. 8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity. 9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb. 10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props. 11. Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether. 12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. 13. Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside. 14. Dying young is overrated. 15. The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not. 16. The world is changing. 17. Merit can be bought. Passion can’t. 18. Avoid the Watercooler Gang. 19. Sing in your own voice. 20. The choice of media is irrelevant. 21. Selling out is harder than it looks. 22. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself. 23. Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time. 24. Don�t worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually.
25. You have to find your own schtick.
26. Write from the heart. 27. The best way to get approval is not to need it. 28. Power is never given. Power is taken. 29. Whatever choice you make, The Devil gets his due eventually. 30. The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.
31. Remain frugal. 32. Allow your work to age with you. 33. Being Poor Sucks. 34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs. 35. Savor obscurity while it lasts. 36. Start blogging. 37. Meaning Scales, People Don’t. 37. When your dreams become reality, they are no longer your dreams.
1. Ignore everybody.
The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you. When I first started with the cartoon-on-back-of-bizcard format, people thought I was nuts. Why wasn’t I trying to do something more easy for markets to digest i.e. cutey-pie greeting cards or whatever?
You don’t know if your idea is any good the moment it’s created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is. And trusting your feelings is not as easy as the optimists say it is. There’s a reason why feelings scare us.
And asking close friends never works quite as well as you hope, either. It’s not that they deliberately want to be unhelpful. It’s just they don’t know your world one millionth as well as you know your world, no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard you try to explain.
Plus a big idea will change you. Your friends may love you, but they don’t want you to change. If you change, then their dynamic with you also changes. They like things the way they are, that’s how they love you– the way you are, not the way you may become.
Ergo, they have no incentive to see you change. And they will be resistant to anything that catalyzes it. That’s human nature. And you would do the same, if the shoe was on the other foot.
With business colleagues it’s even worse. They’re used to dealing with you in a certain way. They’re used to having a certain level of control over the relationship. And they want whatever makes them more prosperous. Sure, they might prefer it if you prosper as well, but that’s not their top priority.
If your idea is so good that it changes your dynamic enough to where you need them less, or God forbid, THE MARKET needs them less, then they’re going to resist your idea every chance they can.
Again, that’s human nature.
GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS, THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.
Good ideas come with a heavy burden. Which is why so few people have them. So few people can handle it.
2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours.
The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will.
We all spend a lot of time being impressed by folk we’ve never met. Somebody featured in the media who’s got a big company, a big product, a big movie, a big bestseller. Whatever.
And we spend even more time trying unsuccessfully to keep up with them. Trying to start up our own companies, our own products, our own film projects, books and whatnot.
I’m as guilty as anyone. I tried lots of different things over the years, trying desperately to pry my career out of the jaws of mediocrity. Some to do with business, some to do with art etc.
One evening, after one false start too many, I just gave up. Sitting at a bar, feeling a bit burned out by work and life in general, I just started drawing on the back of business cards for no reason. I didn’t really need a reason. I just did it because it was there, because it amused me in a kind of random, arbitrary way.
Of course it was stupid. Of course it was uncommercial. Of course it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Of course it was a complete and utter waste of time. But in retrospect, it was this built-in futility that gave it its edge. Because it was the exact opposite of all the “Big Plans” my peers and I were used to making. It was so liberating not to have to be thinking about all that, for a change.
It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to impress anybody, for a change.
It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to have some sort of commercial angle, for a change.
It was so liberating to have something that belonged just to me and no one else, for a change.
It was so liberating to feel complete sovereignty, for a change. To feel complete freedom, for a change.
And of course, it was then, and only then, that the outside world started paying attention.
The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will. How your own sovereignty inspires other people to find their own sovereignty, their own sense of freedom and possibility, will give the work far more power than the work’s objective merits ever will.
Your idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be yours alone. The more the idea is yours alone, the more freedom you have to do something really amazing.
The more amazing, the more people will click with your idea. The more people click with your idea, the more this little thing of yours will snowball into a big thing.
That’s what doodling on business cards taught me.
3. Put the hours in.
Doing anything worthwhile takes forever. 90% of what separates successful people and failed people is time, effort, and stamina.
I get asked a lot, “Your business card format is very simple. Aren’t you worried about somebody ripping it off?“
Standard Answer: Only if they can draw more of them than me, better than me.
What gives the work its edge is the simple fact that I’ve spent years drawing them. I’ve drawn thousands. Tens of thousands of man hours.
So if somebody wants to rip my idea off, go ahead. If somebody wants to overtake me in the business card doodle wars, go ahead. You’ve got many long years in front of you. And unlike me, you won’t be doing it for the joy of it. You’ll be doing it for some self-loathing, ill-informed, lame-ass mercenary reason. So the years will be even longer and far, far more painful. Lucky you.
If somebody in your industry is more successful than you, it’s probably because he works harder at it than you do. Sure, maybe he’s more inherently talented, more adept at networking etc, but I don’t consider that an excuse. Over time, that advantage counts for less and less. Which is why the world is full of highly talented, network-savvy, failed mediocrities.
So yeah, success means you’ve got a long road ahead of you, regardless. How do you best manage it?
Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, don’t quit your day job. I didn’t. I work every day at the office, same as any other regular schmoe. I have a long commute on the train, ergo that’s when I do most of my drawing. When I was younger I drew mostly while sitting at a bar, but that got old.
The point is; an hour or two on the train is very managable for me. The fact I have a job means I don’t feel pressured to do something market-friendly. Instead, I get to do whatever the hell I want. I get to do it for my own satisfaction. And I think that makes the work more powerful in the long run. It also makes it easier to carry on with it in a calm fashion, day-in-day out, and not go crazy in insane creative bursts brought on by money worries.
The day job, which I really like, gives me something productive and interesting to do among fellow adults. It gets me out of the house in the day time. If I were a professional cartoonist I’d just be chained to a drawing table at home all day, scribbling out a living in silence, interrupted only by freqent trips to the coffee shop. No, thank you.
Simply put, my method allows me to pace myself over the long haul, which is important.
Stamina is utterly important. And stamina is only possible if it’s managed well. People think all they need to do is endure one crazy, intense, job-free creative burst and their dreams will come true. They are wrong, they are stupidly wrong.
Being good at anything is like figure skating– the definition of being good at it is being able to make it look easy. But it never is easy. Ever. That’s what the stupidly wrong people coveniently forget.
If I was just starting out writing, say, a novel or a screenplay, or maybe starting up a new software company, I wouldn’t try to quit my job in order to make this big, dramatic heroic-quest thing about it.
I would do something far simpler: I would find that extra hour or two in the day that belongs to nobody else but me, and I would make it productive. Put the hours in, do it for long enough and magical, life-transforming things happen eventually. Sure, that means less time watching TV, internet surfing, going out or whatever.
But who cares?
4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.
Nobody suddenly discovers anything. Things are made slowly and in pain.
I was offered a quite substantial publishing deal a year or two ago. Turned it down. The company sent me a contract. I looked it over. Hmmmm…
Called the company back. Asked for some clarifications on some points in the contract. Never heard back from them. The deal died.
This was a very respected company. You may have even heard of it.
They just assumed I must be just like all the other people they represent– hungry and desperate and willing to sign anything.
They wanted to own me, regardless of how good a job they did.
That’s the thing about some big publishers. They want 110% from you, but they don’t offer to do likewise in return. To them, the artist is just one more noodle in a big bowl of pasta.
Their business model is to basically throw the pasta against the wall, and see which one sticks. The ones that fall to the floor are just forgotten.
Publishers are just middlemen. That’s all. If artists could remember that more often, they’d save themselves a lot of aggrevation.
Anyway, yeah, I can see gapingvoid being a ‘product’ one day. Books, T-shirts and whatnot. I think it could make a lot of money, if handled correctly. But I’m not afraid to walk away if I think the person offering it is full of hot air. I’ve already got my groove etc. Not to mention another career that’s doing quite well, thank you.
I think “gapingvoid as product line” idea is pretty inevitable, down the road. Watch this space.
5. You are responsible for your own experience.
Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.
Every creative person is looking for “The Big Idea”. You know, the one that is going to catapult them out from the murky depths of obscurity and on to the highest planes of incandescent ludicity.
The one that’s all love-at-first-sight with the Zeitgeist.
The one that’s going to get them invited to all the right parties, metaphorical or otherwise.
So naturally you ask yourself, if and when you finally come up with The Big Idea, after years of toil, struggle and doubt, how do you know whether or not it is “The One”?
Answer: You don’t.
There’s no glorious swelling of existential triumph.
That’s not what happens.
All you get is this rather kvetchy voice inside you that seems to say, “This is totally stupid.This is utterly moronic. This is a complete waste of time. I’m going to do it anyway.“
And you go do it anyway.
Second-rate ideas like glorious swellings far more. Keeps them alive longer.
6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.
Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with books on algebra etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the creative bug is just a wee voice telling you, “I�d like my crayons back, please.”
So you’ve got the itch to do something. Write a screenplay, start a painting, write a book, turn your recipe for fudge brownies into a proper business, whatever. You don’t know where the itch came from, it’s almost like it just arrived on your doorstep, uninvited. Until now you were quite happy holding down a real job, being a regular person…
You don’t know if you’re any good or not, but you’d think you could be. And the idea terrifies you. The problem is, even if you are good, you know nothing about this kind of business. You don’t know any publishers or agents or all these fancy-shmancy kind of folk. You have a friend who’s got a cousin in California who’s into this kind of stuff, but you haven’t talked to your friend for over two years…
Besides, if you write a book, what if you can’t find a publisher? If you write a screenplay, what if you can’t find a producer? And what if the producer turns out to be a crook? You’ve always worked hard your whole life, you’ll be damned if you’ll put all that effort into something if there ain’t no pot of gold at the end of this dumb-ass rainbow…
Heh. That’s not your wee voice asking for the crayons back. That’s your outer voice, your adult voice, your boring & tedious voice trying to find a way to get the wee crayon voice to shut the hell up.
Your wee voice doesn’t want you to sell something. Your wee voice wants you to make something. There’s a big difference. Your wee voice doesn’t give a damn about publishers or Hollywood producers.
Go ahead and make something. Make something really special. Make something amazing that will really blow the mind of anybody who sees it.
If you try to make something just to fit your uninformed view of some hypothetical market, you will fail. If you make something special and powerful and honest and true, you will succeed.
The wee voice didn’t show up because it decided you need more money or you need to hang out with movie stars. Your wee voice came back because your soul somehow depends on it. There’s something you haven’t said, something you haven’t done, some light that needs to be switched on, and it needs to be taken care of. Now.
So you have to listen to the wee voice or it will die… taking a big chunk of you along with it.
They’re only crayons. You didn’t fear them in kindergarten, why fear them now?
7. Keep your day job.
I�m not just saying that for the usual reason i.e. because I think your idea will fail. I�m saying it because to suddenly quit one�s job in a big ol’ creative drama-queen moment is always, always, always in direct conflict with what I call “The Sex & Cash Theory”.
THE SEX & CASH THEORY: “The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.“
A good example is Phil, a NY photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the indie magazines– it pays nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then he’ll go off and shoot some catalogues for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills.
Another example is somebody like Martin Amis. He writes “serious” novels, but he has to supplement his income by writing the occasional newspaper article for the London papers (novel royalties are bloody pathetic– even bestsellers like Amis aren’t immune).
Or actors. One year Travolta will be in an ultra-hip flick like Pulp Fiction (“Sex”), the next he’ll be in some dumb spy thriller (“Cash”).
Or painters. You spend one month painting blue pictures because that’s the color the celebrity collectors are buying this season (“Cash”), you spend the next month painting red pictures because secretly you despise the color blue and love the color red (“Sex”).
Or geeks. You spend you weekdays writing code for a faceless corporation (“Cash”), then you spend your evening and weekends writing anarchic, weird computer games to amuse your techie friends with (“Sex”).
It’s balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining one’s creative sovereignty. My M.O. is gapingvoid (“Sex”), coupled with my day job (“Cash”).
I’m thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool and hip magazines.… who dreams of one day of not having her life divided so harshly.
Well, over time the ‘harshly’ bit might go away, but not the ‘divided’.
“This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.“
As soon as you accept this, I mean really accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster. I don’t know why this happens. It’s the people who refuse to cleave their lives this way– who just want to start Day One by quitting their current crappy day job and moving straight on over to best-selling author… Well, they never make it.
Anyway, it’s called “The Sex & Cash Theory”. Keep it under your pillow.
8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.
Nor can you bully a subordinate into becoming a genius.
Since the modern, scientifically-conceived corporation was invented in the early half of the Twentieth Century, creativity has been sacrificed in favor of forwarding the interests of the “Team Player”.
Fair enough. There was more money in doing it that way; that’s why they did it.
There’s only one problem. Team Players are not very good at creating value on their own. They are not autonomous; they need a team in order to exist.
So now corporations are awash with non-autonomous thinkers.
“I don’t know. What do you think?“
“I don’t know. What do you think?“
“I don’t know. What do you think?“
“I don’t know. What do you think?“
“I don’t know. What do you think?“
“I don’t know. What do you think?“
And so on.
Creating an economically viable entity where lack of original thought is handsomely rewarded creates a rich, fertile environment for parasites to breed. And that’s exactly what’s been happening. So now we have millions upon millions of human tapeworms thriving in the Western World, making love to their Powerpoint presentations, feasting on the creativity of others.
What happens to an ecology, when the parasite level reaches critical mass?
The ecology dies.
If you’re creative, if you can think independantly, if you can articulate passion, if you can override the fear of being wrong, then your company needs you now more than it ever did. And now your company can no longer afford to pretend that isn’t the case.
So dust off your horn and start tooting it. Exactly.
However if you’re not paricularly creative, then you’re in real trouble. And there’s no buzzword or “new paradigm” that can help you. They may not have mentioned this in business school, but… people like watching dinosaurs die.
9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.
You may never reach the summit; for that you will be forgiven. But if you don’t make at least one serious attempt to get above the snow-line, years later you will find yourself lying on your deathbed, and all you will feel is emptiness.
This metaphorical Mount Everest doesn’t have to manifest itself as “Art”. For some people, yes, it might be a novel or a painting. But Art is just one path up the mountain, one of many. With others the path may be something more prosaic. Making a million dollars, raising a family, owning the most Burger King franchises in the Tri-State area, building some crazy oversized model airplane, the list has no end.
Whatever. Let’s talk about you now. Your mountain. Your private Mount Everest. Yes, that one. Exactly.
Let’s say you never climb it. Do you have a problem witb that? Can you just say to yourself, “Never mind, I never really wanted it anyway” and take up stamp collecting instead?
Well, you could try. But I wouldn’t believe you. I think it’s not OK for you never to try to climb it. And I think you agree with me. Otherwise you wouldn’t have read this far.
So it looks like you’re going to have to climb the frickin’ mountain. Deal with it.
My advice? You don’t need my advice. You really don’t. The biggest piece of advice I could give anyone would be this:
“Admit that your own private Mount Everest exists. That is half the battle.”
And you’ve already done that. You really have. Otherwise, again, you wouldn’t have read this far.
10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.
Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece on the back of a deli menu would not surprise me. Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece with a silver Cartier fountain pen on an antique writing table in an airy SoHo loft would SERIOUSLY surprise me.
Abraham Lincoln wrote The Gettysberg Address on a piece of ordinary stationery that he had borrowed from the friend whose house he was staying at.
James Joyce wrote with a simple pencil and notebook. Somebody else did the typing, but only much later.
Van Gough rarely painted with more than six colors on his palette.
I draw on the back of wee biz cards. Whatever.
There’s no correlation between creativity and equipment ownership. None. Zilch. Nada.
Actually, as the artist gets more into his thing, and as he gets more successful, his number of tools tends to go down. He knows what works for him. Expending mental energy on stuff wastes time. He’s a man on a mission. He’s got a deadline. He’s got some rich client breathing down his neck. The last thing he wants is to spend 3 weeks learning how to use a router drill if he doesn’t need to.
A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.
Which is why there are so many second-rate art directors with state-of-the-art Macinotsh computers.
Which is why there are so many hack writers with state-of-the-art laptops.
Which is why there are so many crappy photographers with state-of-the-art digital cameras.
Which is why there are so many unremarkable painters with expensive studios in trendy neighborhoods.
Hiding behind pillars, all of them.
Pillars do not help; they hinder. The more mighty the pillar, the more you end up relying on it psychologically, the more it gets in your way.
And this applies to business, as well.
Which is why there are so many failing businesses with fancy offices.
Which is why there’s so many failing businessmen spending a fortune on fancy suits and expensive yacht club memberships.
Again, hiding behind pillars.
Successful people, artists and non-artists alike, are very good at spotting pillars. They’re very good at doing without them. Even more importantly, once they’ve spotted a pillar, they’re very good at quickly getting rid of it.
Good pillar management is one of the most valuable talents you can have on the planet. If you have it, I envy you. If you don’t, I pity you.
Sure, nobody’s perfect. We all have our pillars. We seem to need them. You are never going to live a pillar-free existence. Neither am I.
All we can do is keep asking the question, “Is this a pillar” about every aspect of our business, our craft, our reason for being alive etc and go from there. The more we ask, the better we get at spotting pillars, the more quickly the pillars vanish.
Ask. Keep asking. And then ask again. Stop asking and you’re dead.
11. Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.
Your plan for getting your work out there has to be as original as the actual work, perhaps even more so. The work has to create a totally new market. There’s no point trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle. All existing business models are wrong. Find a new one.
I’ve seen it so many times. Call him Ted. A young kid in the big city, just off the bus, wanting to be a famous something: artist, writer, musician, film director, whatever. He’s full of fire, full of passion, full of ideas. And you meet Ted again five or ten years later, and he’s still tending bar at the same restaurant. He’s not a kid anymore. But he’s still no closer to his dream.
His voice is still as defiant as ever, certainly, but there’s an emptiness to his words that wasn’t there before.
Yeah, well, Ted probably chose a very well-trodden path. Write novel, be discovered, publish bestseller, sell movie rights, retire rich in 5 years. Or whatever.
No worries that there’s probably 3 million other novelists/actors/musicians/painters etc with the same plan. But of course, Ted’s special. Of course his fortune will defy the odds eventually. Of course. That’s what he keeps telling you, as he refills your glass.
Is your plan of a similar ilk? If it is, then I’d be concerned.
When I started the business card cartoons I was lucky; at the time I had a pretty well-paid corporate job in New York that I liked. The idea of quitting it in order to join the ranks of Bohemia didn’t even occur to me. What, leave Manhattan for Brooklyn? Ha. Not bloody likely. I was just doing it to amuse myself in the evenings, to give me something to do at the bar while I waited for my date to show up or whatever.
There was no commerical incentive or larger agenda governing my actions. If I wanted to draw on the back of a business card instead of a “proper” medium, I could. If I wanted to use a four letter word, I could. If I wanted to ditch the standard figurative format and draw psychotic abstractions instead, I could. There was no flashy media or publishing executive to keep happy. And even better, there was no artist-lifestyle archetype to conform to.
It gave me a lot of freedom. That freedom paid off in spades later.
Question how much freedom your path affords you. Be utterly ruthless about it.
It’s your freedom that will get you to where you want to go. Blind faith in an over-subscribed, vainglorious myth will only hinder you.
Is you plan unique? Is there nobody else doing it? Then I’d be excited. A little scared, maybe, but excited.
12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. The pain of making the necessary sacrifices always hurts more than you think it’s going to. I know. It sucks. That being said, doing something seriously creative is one of the most amazing experiences one can have, in this or any other lifetime. If you can pull it off, it’s worth it. Even if you don’t end up pulling it off, you’ll learn many incredible, magical, valuable things. It’s NOT doing it when you know you full well you HAD the opportunity– that hurts FAR more than any failure.
Frankly, I think you’re better off doing something on the assumption that you will NOT be rewarded for it, that it will NOT receive the recognition it deserves, that it will NOT be worth the time and effort invested in it.
The obvious advantage to this angle is, of course, if anything good comes of it, then it’s an added bonus.
The second, more subtle and profound advantage is: that by scuppering all hope of worldly and social betterment from the creative act, you are finally left with only one question to answer:
Do you make this damn thing exist or not?
And once you can answer that truthfully to yourself, the rest is easy.
[To read the remainder of IGNORE EVERYBODY– 40 chapters in all– please go buy the book, Thanks!