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!

Take on a new persona: creativty tip

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 6.00.14 AMWhen The Beatles were at their most popular they were under incredible pressure to equal their previous successes. Being in a band had stopped being as much fun as it used to be and they’d lost some of the freedom they had when they were unknowns. So, Paul McCartney suggested that they make up a fictional band and write the music that band would write. That’s how we ended up with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

David Bowie would change his whole persona from era to era. Stephen King used a pen name, Richard Bachman, to release novels.

What if you made up a new persona for yourself? An alternate you with different taste and working habits. It could lead to you creating work that you might not make yourself. It might break down self-imposed limitations and filters you have set up. Looking at the world from a new, imagined, pair of eyes can help you see new things and the same things in new ways.

I’m not saying you have to get new clothes and walk around using a different name, although that might be fun, but when you sit down at the keyboard or walk out on stage or even go into a meeting at work, ask yourself what this other persona would do in that situation.

Is this person a more carefree version of you? Are they angry? Are they impervious to criticism? Obsessed with gnomes? Do they secretly think that all hummingbirds are their mother? Are they an orphan? Do they have ten brothers? Do they try to work crabs into conversation as much as they possibly can?

Put as much or as little detail into the persona as you want.

One of my favorite Twitter accounts is Myrna Tellingheusen. I don’t know who writes it, but they do an excellent job of filtering the world through the eyes of a retiree living in a gated community in Southern California. When she tweeted, “When I need fresh air, I go to the Hallmark store,” it seemed a perfect mix of poetry, humor, and empathy that would never have existed without a deep understanding of Myrna’s environment.

Allowing another person’s worldview to temporarily eclipse your own unlocks your creativity. Even if that worldview is more limited than your own, the new boundary frees you up to create something new.

As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Let one of that multitude take control for a while and see what they produce.

Maybe your new persona is even more talented than you are and when they’re done, you can take all the credit for their work!

Bigger is funny, smaller is cute


In the novelty industry, there’s a rule that you can always make a bigger or smaller version of something to create a new product.

I actually think this rule is a good one to apply whenever you’re creatively stuck. Would it make sense if I made the idea bigger or smaller? Sometimes even a simple distinction like that can create something twice as interesting as your original idea.

Would your song sound better with an orchestra playing it or just a single violin? Should you amp up the tension in your story or pull it back.

As the old school novelty guys say, “Bigger is funny, smaller is cute.”  Which is not true for everything, but is definitely true for underpants.

Are you an idea hoarder?


We’ve all faced an overwhelming to-do list and felt like we don’t even know where to start. Are you that way with ideas?  

At my work, we divide our ideas into an A, B, and C list. A-list items are the things we must do, B-list are things we’ll probably do and C-list are concepts that we want to talk about again but aren’t quite there yet.

One thing that we’ve noticed with our B-level ideas is that even if we feel strongly about them when we write them down, some seem to lose their energy over time. Sometimes, you can’t even remember why you wrote an idea down in the first place. Instead of being this exciting future project, we all forget we were even going to do it and it becomes a lodestone on things we should be doing.

So, we’ve come to use the B-list as a place to park ideas to see if they gather passion and connected ideas or fade away into nothing. Also, sometimes we figure out that the idea, or a version of it, has been done before.

Do you need to look at your personal B-list and see if it’s time to let go of ideas that seemed good at one point but now just hang there as a burden? Is there any future project that you should let go of?

Clean house! You can cross an idea off your list by deciding that it’s not worth doing. 

Don’t ask for permission: creativity tip

stamp-2114882_960_720Should I do it? Should I start this long project? Am I being selfish? Does it make sense?

It’s almost like a tic with some people. Instead of following their instincts, they have to check out their next move with all the people around them. They ask their best friend, barista, significant other, strangers on Facebook or whatever other person crosses their path that day.

But, they really don’t care about the opinions of the other people. They want someone, or everyone, to say “yes.” Yes, you should do that. What a great idea!

This works well if you have a supportive friend who trusts your instincts more than you do. They’ll say yes no matter what because they know that if you’re asking them, it’s something you’ve thought about.

But, in most situations, revealing your half-formed idea to the world will cause it to wither and shrink. You’ll get an array of opinions, some valid and some crazy.

If you want to take a sculpting course at the community college down the street, don’t ask other people whether you should. Remember that C- you got in art class in High School? You can’t even arrange flowers, and you want to sculpt clay? Look at you, thinking you’re all fancy. You’re probably trying to get out of buying Christmas gifts next year, and we’ll all get “sculptures” from your class.

That’s when asking other people turns into justifying all your self-doubts and inertia about starting new things. You can say to yourself, I wanted to do it, but everyone else made fun of me so, I didn’t. For the rest of your life, you can think about what could have been.

Should I write a novel about a journalist who gives up her job at a newspaper to make artisanal ice cream called, One More Scoop? Who cares what anyone else thinks? Do it!

A hood for your engine: Captain Beefheart on creativity part 5


This is part five of my exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. If you’re just coming across this post, you should start with the first post. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. Please leave a comment if you have any additions or thoughts on things I may have missed or misinterpreted.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place

When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

These last two commandments are related. They are both about the care and feeding of your creativity. The first is about respecting your talent. Treat it as a living thing.

Don’t neglect it or take it for granted when you’re not using it. Put it in a dark place so that it’s completely turned off. You’re not letting your car idle in the garage, you’ve got it stored entirely away under a protective barrier. Make sure it’s fed and watered and comfortable, but that it’s hibernating.

Also, notice that he mentions not using it for more than a day as an exception. You should use it every day, but if you do spend more than a day without using it, let it know you’re still thinking about it.

His dish of water is, of course, metaphorical, I think you can “water” your creativity by consuming related art from other people. Read, listen to music, watch a movie, just make sure that you are getting information and experiences that when you pick it back up will inform what you do. Take a trip to a museum, walk through a field of flowers or volunteer somewhere.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

Just like you’ve got to treat your creativity like a living thing, you can’t let it roam around free in the wild. You’ve got to create a habitat for it. There has to be a fence around the field where you keep it.

When you’re charged up and in the middle of a creative burst, you’ll feel like you can do anything, but you shouldn’t. Keep yourself contained. Set limitations for yourself about what you’re trying to accomplish.

Maybe it’s just picking a song to master or writing a short story. Focusing on one project lets you put all the horsepower produced by your engine into one thing, no wasted energy or confusion.

Whether you’re writing a children’s book or a blues song, decide what your project is and focus on that. All the heat from your heater will be keeping that project warm during the coldest moments.

Make decisions that limit what the project is so that you can finish it. People that never complete things are continually moving the target for what the project is and what finished means. If you say you’re going to write a poem on a postcard and mail it to yourself every day, you’ve limited the length of the poem, and you know that each one has to be done before the mail gets picked up. Sometimes it’s not going to be a great poem, but you’ll be finishing things and creating.

If you place the right limitation on yourself, the right hat on your head or wet piece of paper towel on your bean, your talent will grow. The number of projects you complete will grow, and they will be better than you think possible.


You need that stink on there: Captain Beefheart and creativity part 4

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This is part four of my personal exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here.

7. Always carry a church key

That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

7f9e67fd41f4c37c4755b17a3e1788b8--key-bottle-opener-light-beerWhat is a church key? In the slang of the 1950s, it refers to a bottle opener. So Captain Beefheart is referring to both an actual church door and a bottle opener in this case. How do you open the door to the spirit realm and get to what you’re looking for?

He tells you to to carry your inspirations with you. Look to the people that make you realize what is possible to help you with your work. Just hearing their music or reading their books or listening to them speak fires up your creativity.

He mentions two people specifically. The first is One String Sam who played the Diddley Bow which is just a plank with a single string stretched across it. He created a classic song and recording with just that. No wonder he’s a key to the church. He created something from nothing.

The other is Hubert Sumlin, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He played every song with fantastic authenticity and emotion, bringing out qualities that you didn’t realize were there. He’s an inspiration in that he’s a national monument, almost unreal in his ability. The kind of person that you aspire to be, but is on another plane of existence. Mythologically talented.

I think there are many more kinds of “church keys” in the world, but his example is an excellent example of the primary broad division: someone who does not have the advantages you have and makes a piece of art you admire from sheer force of will and someone who has more skill and talent than you have that you aspire to be.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

I love this one.

Get your stink on your art. When you create something, leave the parts in there that make it unique to you. Don’t make it generic.

Make sure that people can see your work. That you are sending a part of yourself off with the finished piece. That your sweat from the effort is a permanent part of it.

When you think of your favorite musicians, comedians, artists, writers or dancers, you can tell their work within moments of seeing it. Their signature is in every second of what they do.

I write a lot of catalog copy. That means I read a lot of catalog copy. Most of it is boring and generic. You couldn’t tell if a company switched writers or used multiple people because they polish off the sweat before they use it. But, other companies know the value of a voice for what they do. When reading it, you can see the person writing it, even if all they’re doing is describing a bunch of boxes.

Don’t play Muzak. Don’t write bland, universal copy. Don’t do hotel art. Don’t tell hacky jokes.

The scary thing is that if you’re recognizably a part of it, when it gets rejected, which it sometimes will, part of you will be getting the rejections as well. By leaving your mark on what you do, you are taking a giant risk. That’s why people don’t do it. It hurts less when mediocre work gets rejected.

But, you don’t want to do mediocre work. You want to do great work.

That means you’re going to have to get your stink on it.

Read part five here

More clout than lightning: Captain Beefheart and creativity part 3

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This is part three of my personal exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out

If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

The act of creation is not about thinking. You don’t wait until you’re ready. Creation is an action. You prepare for the act of creating with years of practice and being excellent at your craft, but while you’re doing it, don’t think about it. Don’t critique it. Don’t judge it.

When you’re staring a blank page, you’re drowning, struggling to fill the page to give yourself solid ground to stand on. You have to do it. Don’t let that blank page overwhelm you.

Create as if your life depends on it.

A drowning person never thinks, “I’m just going to sit here and wait to be inspired to try and get to the surface. I wish I could find the energy for it today. I have so much to do, and I keep getting distracted by the sound of that boat engine. How do they expect me to try and breathe with all that noise going on? I’ll start saving myself next month after that project is done at work.”

Use the feeling of saving your own life to create. Don’t create because you want to but because you have to. If you don’t, some part of yourself will be gone forever. Struggle to reach the shore before that impulse to create is gone forever.

And if you can “trap” that feeling you won’t create just anything; you’ll create something of great value. The phrase “fur-bearing” refers to an animal with a valuable hide.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone

Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

We tend to underestimate the power of what we make. It is as powerful as a gun. It’s as powerful as lighting. It’s a grenade. It’s a meat cleaver. It’s a hungry tiger. It’s the worst thing someone said to you in high school. It’s an atomic bomb. It’s a bully waiting for you around the corner. It’s a lightsaber. It’s a surgical instrument. It can change the world if we control it correctly, but in its purest form, it can be dangerous.

We’re bringing these powerful forces through, and we have to treat them with the same respect we’d give anything else that powerful. Do not point it at anyone else. In fact, don’t even point it at yourself, that can be dangerous too.

During the act of creation, you’re dealing with pure emotion from the deepest part of yourself. That can be a lot to take. It needs some room before it’s ready for other people. Even for yourself, get some perspective before you observe it. Don’t try to experience it immediately, run outside to hear it, so there’s a wall between yourself and your creation.

However, even then be careful, if you’re still in a vulnerable position that lighting bolt will find you anyway.

Read part four here

Walk with the devil: Captain Beefheart and creativity part 2

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This is part two of my personal exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read the first part here.

3. Practice in front of a bush

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.

Play until that bush shakes. Sustain yourself with the basics, eat and drink and wait for the moment when you think all the forces have gathered and then let loose. Does the bush shake? Does the earth quake? Then, your practice is over. If not, circle your wagons and try again.

The interesting thing is that the bush isn’t capable of reacting. Is the guitar playing like a strong wind? Is it the vibrations? The force of the playing?

Nope, it’s you.

You decide when you’re ready. You know when the bush shakes or the tree cries or the rock in your garden explodes with laughter. It’s inside your head.

Don’t listen to other people. You’re the judge. If you can’t handle it yet, practice in front a bush until it shakes.

It reminds me of a zen story about a master who told his student to meditate on an ox until he understood it. When the student failed, the teacher told him he had to stay in his hut until he had a total understanding of the ox. After a week, the teacher came by and asked again. The student said he still did not understand the ox. The teacher said, “You may leave the hut now if you want, but you can never return.”

The student tried but found he couldn’t leave. When the teacher asked why, the student said, “I can’t get out the door. My horns are too wide to fit.”

Practice until the bush shakes. It’s probably already shaking and you just haven’t noticed yet.

4. Walk with the devil

Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

58659-10791-91654-1-casper-and-wendyAre you too meek in your art? What are kinds of ideas are you trying to attract? Do you think you’re being dangerous, flirting with the dark side and you’re attracting Casper the Friendly Ghost?

Dare to be loud. Don’t let fear hold you back from fully exploring your ability to create. Flirt with the darkness and see what’s there. It’s not that the good stuff comes solely from the darkness, but if you never go there, you’re cutting yourself off from a vast source of inspiration.

Also, you can choose to whisper your art or to limit your release of it, but you can also face your fear directly and sometimes bring over devils and demons from the other side. They’re always there, what happens when we recognize them and explore them instead of denying their existence?

The fact that you have an amplifier means you can play it louder and share it with more people.

Use the tools at your disposal to face your fears and shame, to summon the forces you want. Make sure you’re being challenged. Walk with the devil for a while and see where it leads.

After all, you don’t have to show anyone else what you’ve created until the bush shakes.

Read part three here


Listen to the birds: Captain Beefheart and creativity part one

A few years ago, I posted Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read that post to see all of them, but this week I wanted to take some time to comment on them a few at a time. HIs list is different than most “how to be creative” lists because it’s a poem, a magic spell and yet it still has very practical advice embedded in it.

Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) was an outsider musician famous for his unique sensibilities, intensity and for doing things like kicking a drummer of out of his band for being unable to follow the instruction to “play a strawberry.” Instead of struggling to be original, he seemed instead to be trying to find a way to make his endless creativity intersect with the rest of the world.

I am giving my imperfect interpretations below. Please leave your take in the comments.

Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

1. Listen to the birds

That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.

He’s not saying to mimic the songs of the birds, which you might assume since this list is about music, but to look at their method. Their music is not something they decide to do, it’s part of who they are. Birds don’t sit in front of a piano feeling anxiety about being able to write a top ten hit or a perfect love song. They don’t struggle to come up with something to sing, they know where it comes from so they have to let it out. They don’t make mistakes because it’s not possible for them to sing something that they wouldn’t sing. They just keep going with their endless song.

“Birds know everything” because they have no presuppositions about how their music should sound. There is nothing to know. Our knowing how it should sound or directing it to sound like we want gets in the way. Listen to the bird, don’t critique the bird or try and convince the bird to sing something else.

And, don’t forget the hummingbirds going full speed even when they aren’t going anywhere. They aren’t waiting for inspiration. Their effort is not based on a destination or a goal. While listening to the bird is wonderful, don’t forget to take action.

Constant effort based on your true self is his first commandment.

“Listen to the birds” could be read to mean, figure out who you are and put all your effort into being that thing without pretense or judgment.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

Never mistake the tools of your art for the art itself. Your word processor is not a word processor. Your paintbrush is not a paintbrush. Your ballet shoes are not ballet shoes. They are tools that take the spirits in the other world and transform them into something in the real world. They are what you use to find the ideas you need.

It’s interesting that Captain Beefheart also uses a magical example and a real-world example for this one. A divining rod, or dowsing rod, was a forked stick that you could use to find water underground using spiritual or pseudo-scientific means. So, both a fishing pole and a dowsing rod are used by a person above a giant hidden space to try and discern what’s underneath.

Is that space the subconscious mind? Other people think so. But, it doesn’t matter what metaphor you use. The important thing is to find the tool you need explore that space to get access to the ideas you need.

David Lynch also talks about ideas as catching fish, but his fishing pole is a camera and a paintbrush. In his book on creativity Lynch extends the fish metaphor, but I think it lines up nicely with what Captain Beefheart is saying. For example, Lynch says, “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”

What is your divining rod? What is your metaphor for the place where the ideas reside?

Click here to read part two!

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