Steve Martin’s Plumber Joke

One his album, Let’s Get Small, Steve Martin tells a joke for plumbers.

He sets it up that there are 30 plumbers in the huge audience and he worked up something just for them. After the lengthy setup, he gets to the punchline.  

This infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual. He reads to him, “The Langstrom 7″ wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket.” Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, “It says sprocket, not socket!”

The audience is quiet and Steve Martin says, “Were the plumbers supposed to be here tonight?”

The joke, of course, is that he is taking something intensely specific, intended for only a few people and presenting it to thousands of people. I’m guessing this is how he felt about most of his jokes, they were things that were funny to him, and he was mystified that other people were laughing.

If your audience is small and specific to you, do you need to simplify what you’re saying to appeal to a big audience?

Wouldn’t communicating something to your specific audience, in a language only they would understand, make them feel special and included? Wouldn’t it eventually attract more people to you? After all, being bland and easy to understand doesn’t lead to lasting success.

If you have a clearly defined group that you are doing your work for, it’s in your best interest to communicate in a way that sometimes excludes people that are not in that group. Take a chance on being misunderstood by the rest of the world so you can make your own group feel understood.

Crabs, learning, and vulnerability

I was reading a book by a chess grandmaster who became a Brazillian Jujitsu champion, Josh Waitzkin, about how to learn. Being a champion in two completely different fields gave him a unique perspective. How did he start over and learn an entirely new skill?

He said that learning new skills was like being a hermit crab. If you don’t already know, hermit crabs don’t grow their own shells. They take abandoned shells from other animals and use them to protect the soft and delicious parts of their body from predators. And it works well.

However, as the crab grows, it has to find new shells and, each time it switches shells it’s vulnerable and exposed.

A crab can stay in a smaller shell for a long time by starving itself and growing slowly into the shape of the shell which will eventually cover just a tiny part of the exposed portion. Not a good long term plan, but definitely the safest route in the short term.

Every time you try something new, you’re like a crab moving to a new shell. Running naked and unprotected between your old self and your new self. But, to grow, you have to take that chance.

A lot of people never take that chance. Once they find their safe shell, they stay there and make an effort not to outgrow that shell. Are you starving yourself so you don’t have to change?

To grow quickly, it means changing shells often. That means leaving yourself vulnerable to being a beginner, admitting you don’t know things, and failing at something. The stakes are probably lower than you think. You might damage your pride or be embarrassed for a while, but it isn’t life and death.

Take a chance on vulnerability today!

A reminder of everything you touch

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At work, we have a wall of all the catalogs our company has put out in the past 36 years. We’ve been shifting them around on the walls so that we can put up the latest. As always, the new location has caused everyone to look at them with fresh eyes.

“I can’t believe we put that on the cover!”

“We sent that to 100,000 people?!?”


Our main catalog designer, Scott, went through them with me pointing out his personal choices for highs and lows. Then, he turned to me and said, “You know, it’s not every job that leaves a record of everything you do.”

That really made me pause and think of all the work I do that leaves no discernable footprint on the world. Tweets and emails that fade moments after they’re sent. Meaningful conversations that disappear.

Do you have a trophy case for your work? I think this is especially important if your work doesn’t leave a discernable remnant. Authors can point to a row of books and toys designers have shelves of toys. What can you point to?

While the number of followers you have or mentions you get might be impressive, I think physical objects that represent accomplishments are important. Reminders of past achievements can really motivate you to keep going.

The other side of this is also important. If someone has done something for you, did you send them a thank you? Is there a way to give them something small to remember you by?

Maybe, even give someone an award!

(If you’re interested in hearing about the particular catalog in this blog post, we recorded a podcast about it.)





Anxiety and creativity

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When I’m stuck in a bottomless pit of anxiety, trying to be creative seems like an impossible task.

The swirl of whatever story I’m telling myself seems inescapable. The same thought either repeats or gets even worse than the previous thought. It can be miserable.

The truth is that I am being creative, it’s just that every bit of creativity I have is being used to prove that I’m miserable and that the worst possible outcomes of a situation are the most likely. In fact, I’m writing a whole novel in my head about how miserable I’m going to continue to be. It has incredible detail, and the plotting is so exquisite it seems 100% real to me.

Just think about how much creativity it takes to ignore every positive piece of evidence about yourself and create an argument for your own failures. It’s like you’re the prosecuting attorney at your own trial.

There are lots of strategies that help: meditation, looking at pictures of sleeping tapirs or taking a long walk with my wife, to name just three. But, the best way forward for me is getting started on the work.

This often means just working with the anxiety. Writing it down or singing it or giving it to a character instead of myself. If I can define the story as real, but just one part of who I am it seems much more manageable. For me, writing it down is the first step in moving through it. If I can externalize it a little bit, it becomes less all-consuming.

T.S. Eliot said that “anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” Your anxiety is the spring you drink from to fuel your creativity, but you can quickly drown in that spring if you can’t stop drinking long enough to breathe.

Take a breath and get started. Start with an action that expresses your anxiety, but then allow for other realities to exist.

Use your imagination to solve your problems if you can, but if you can’t, use it to escape from them for a while.

The first step in telling a new story is realizing that there are other stories that can be told.

Name your project: creativity tip

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 7.09.38 AM.pngYou’ve written your idea down and you’re working on it, but have you given it a name?

Just yesterday we got to see the majestic launch and booster landings of Falcon Heavy, the SpaceX rocket. What an inspiration to see that many humans work together to create something new. My heart skipped a beat when the two boosters landed together like perfect synchronized dancers.

Even the name is wonderful, Falcon Heavy from SpaceX.

It got me thinking about how important it is to have a name for the project that you’re working on. When a group of people is working on a project, it’s an identifier and unifier. It helps a team to form. No matter how disparate their responsibilities are they can instantly know that they are working on the same giant project. However, names have the same function if you’re working on something alone.

It doesn’t have to be the same name you’re going to use for the final product, it’s just an easy reference for you to collect ideas and work around. It’s so much easier to work on Falcon Heavy than it is to work on “the Mars rocket project.”

You may not have a team working with you, but you still need to define what you do. Remember that part of getting work done is marketing it to yourself. You want your work to be appealing. Giving it a great name or working the goal into the name is a big motivator to working on something even when the work is tedious or difficult.

It’s much better to think to yourself, “I have to work on Genius T-Rex” or “my million dollar vacuum cleaner idea” than it is to tell yourself you have to slog away on chapter seven of your latest writing project or tinker in your workshop. The name can change, it doesn’t have to reflect the final product at all, but you can still get all the benefits of having that name while you’re doing the hard work.

Never underestimate the power of a good name to increase your chances of completing something. And even if you’d don’t complete it, it’s still going to look better in your drafts folder than a file called “novel” or “screenplay.”

Give your project a name that appeals to you, looks good on your calendar when you schedule time to do it and would make someone curious if they saw it over your shoulder. You may even find that naming the project changes it for you. It may make it more real and less abstract than it was before.

How small is your infinity?

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Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need. – Grant Morrison

How big is your infinity?

Don’t just give say the word “endless” and stop reading. It’s a decision we all make, whether consciously or by default, to define the scope of what we’re willing to imagine. How big is the space inside our heads? For most people that space is pretty tiny.

Picture the unexplored parts of your thoughts as an endless dark museum full of wonderful and sometimes scary things, but you can only see as far as the light from the flashlight in your hand extends. Do you let yourself be fooled into believing that there is nothing beyond what you can see or do you acknowledge that the darkness is there waiting to be explored?

The light in your hand is your bravery in facing that fear. It could be a sparkler, a flashlight, or a sun; it’s up to you.

It’s a safe choice to let another person explore those dark parts and just marvel at their ability to produce things you’ve never seen before. J.K. Rowling created the world of Harry Potter, and now you can imagine yourself there. Stephen King writes IT, and we can dress as Pennywise the clown for Halloween. But, are you willing to step into an unexplored area and create something new?

You can create your own worlds within that infinite space so you can feel the security of a safe space, but never forget that you’re the one defining the edges.

Logic can hold you back. Rules can hold you back. Shame can hold you back.

An entirely new world might just be a few steps into the darkness. The answer to your question might be behind the closed door that you’re afraid to open. Imagine your head as a series of Russian nesting dolls, except every time you open one, the one inside is larger than the one before. They’ll just keep getting illogically and impossibly getting bigger and bigger.

Set a goal to explore a bit more of the infinite space inside your head. Go somewhere silly where crab people buy hats at a craberdashery. Experiment with somewhere more serious, where a trip to the grocery store becomes a life-changing spirit quest with a 2-liter bottle of diet ginger ale as the holy grail. If you’re truly brave, open the cellar door of your brain and descend that stairway.

You can spend your whole life exploring and never see it all.

Pugs, the drip, and the Super Bowl

IMG0042 23Seth Godin has a concept he calls “the drip.” It’s an easy way to refer to the amazing power of repeated effort. The idea that if you do something every single day, parcel out the work and slowly introduce people to concepts, it’s not long before you’ve built something huge. Sometimes things change in micro, like making a difference in one person’s life. Other times, they have enormous implications for the world.

I spent a lot of time consistently providing content for a pug.

In the mid-1990s, we got a pug named Roscoe. He was a great dog. Internet famous during the early 2000s, he even made it on the cover the of the Seattle Times. OK, I helped a little bit, but he was pretty charismatic.

2265202595_01ff03e808_oOne of our favorite memories, my wife and I, is picking him up from the horrible farm where he was born and bringing his tiny body home and picking all the fleas off with tweezers. He doubled in size the day after the fleas were removed.

For about five years in the 2000s, if you typed “pug” into Google Roscoe would be at least 8 of the first ten results. I did a photo series called “Disinterested Pug with Found Objects” and took a picture of him in headphones in front a podcasting microphone that got used about a thousand times.

He died in 2009, and we still miss him.

CwMpr-FVUAA3WPWWhen we were trying to come up with mask ideas at Archie McPhee in 2012, a pug mask was a pretty obvious choice. While the mask is not entirely based on Roscoe, it’s actually three pugs merged together for different traits, he’s in there. The mask has his ears and bit of his forehead, but that’s not his tongue.

When we made an action figure of someone, me actually, wearing the mask, we named it Roscoe.

Of course, because our mask was successful, it got knocked off. Which means, there are black market versions of my dog Roscoe all over the place. A pale imitation of his original cuteness, but still, the line is straight from one thing to another.


This year, one of the teams in the Super Bowl has declared itself the “underdog” team which means their fans are wearing dog masks. One of the players did a news conference in a knockoff mask, so the fans are buying them to wear during the game.


Today I can turn on the TV and I see the weird results of my efforts. The narrative thread from my wife and I getting that tiny puppy and people wearing a bizarre version of his face on the biggest sports event of the year is pretty direct. And, since I know nothing about sports, the whole event just seems like some kind of ritual in his honor.

For me, instead of a sports event, it’s the world recognizing what a good dog he was.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that with a little consistent effort your dog could be on the Super Bowl in 20 years. Never forget the power of consistent effort to change the world. Even if all you’re doing is making it a little weirder than it was before.


Inspiration, or something that looks remarkably like it

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Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it. – Jack London

People don’t worship the idea of inspiration as much as they used to, but as my friend Ron Drotos says, “Inspiration is real!”

Sometimes artists are inspired. When they talk about how inspired work they say, it hit me like a bolt and I knew exactly what needed to be done. The first draft was perfect and finished in record time. It was as if a divine force was guiding my hand the whole time.

That’s amazing and I believe them. However, it has never happened to me. Everything I’ve ever done has been hard work.

I’m willing to bet that’s not the case with most art and design. Most creation is an informed guess at what’s going to work.

You can make that guess better with sustained effort, practice and using your talents in the best possible way. But, no spiritual being can take credit for what you did, you worked hard to develop the tastes and abilities to make it happen.

Be grateful for inspiration when, or if, it occurs, but don’t depend on it. Don’t wait for perfection before you begin. No, as Jack London said, you have to go out hunting for it. And you know, you may never find actual inspiration.

But, you’ll find something that looks remarkably like it. In fact, so much like it that you can’t tell the difference between inspired work and what you’ve done. Your hard work is completely invisible, even though it was a struggle to finish.

So, don’t lay back waiting for an idea to just occur to you. Go out and hunt it down. You don’t need to use a club. In fact, I prefer to use a net when I hunt for inspiration. That way I can let it go when I’m done. It’s a kind of creativity catch and release. It’s much more humane, and someone else can catch it use it as well.


Making someone else happy

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 2.48.26 PM.pngStuck for what you should do next?

Focus on making one person happy. Buy them a gift. Feed them. Sit and listen to them talk without offering any advice, only support. See the movie they want to see with them.

If they want to, let them do something in return. Letting them do something for you will make them happy. What did they do for you? Can you return the favor?

Anticipate a need they don’t even have yet and offer them a solution. Do something completely weird and unexpected that they can tell as a story to their friends. Take them on an adventure to a place that makes you happy.

After you’ve listened carefully and seen how they react to the things that you love, why not invent a product, a recipe, a song or a short story just to appeal to that one person? At this point, you’ve got a pretty good idea about what they really like.

When you are looking for what you should do next, why not focus on making one person happy? I bet, after all that effort, what you do would make more than that one person happy. In fact, I bet it would make a bunch of people happy.

Focus on an audience of one first. Build from there.

Surviving blandness

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child. -Ursula Le Guin

After Ursula LeGuin died, I kept seeing this quote pop up in articles and Facebook memorials. But, almost no one posted the whole thing. Most people shorten it to say, “The creative adult is the child who survived.” And that’s it. Changes the meaning quite a bit don’t you think?

It’s pretty easy to see why the rest of the quote isn’t featured. It’s challenging, dangerous and true.  The shortened version is a bland version of the whole thing, exactly what she’s railing against.

She’s saying that uncreative adults were children killed by the world and reborn as boring, normal zombie shouting “Blaaaand!” instead of “Brains!” Not killed by a villain or someone with ill-intent, but killed by mediocrity, coaching toward being “normal,” and just being told over and over again that they were wrong.

So, in her memory, help the world be less bland. Support someone who is doing something different today. You could download an album from Bandcamp by a band that’s just starting out, go see a play put on by a local high school or college, or buy an original piece of art from an unknown artist.  If you can’t afford to do that, why not just write an email to someone who you admire for being different and letting them know how much you appreciate them and their work.

We could all use a little help surviving bland.

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