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!

Making useful mistakes: creativity tip

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 9.05.05 AM

Having your thoughts organized is usually a good thing, but sometimes to get creative you need to shake things up. If everything is where it’s supposed to be it’s hard to actually see anything. Sometimes, logic doesn’t work when you’re trying to come up with something new. In fact, a lot of inventions and scientific discoveries are mistakes.

How do you wake your brain up to the potential of the world around you? Can you make useful mistakes on purpose?

There’s an improvisational exercise I’ve found helpful. As quickly as you can, go around the room and point at ten objects. Then, give each object an incorrect name. If you point at a lamp, call it a slow cooker. If you point at a chair, call it a knife.  Don’t sit in your chair and look at things, actually get up and move around the room and physically point at objects. Look at them closely as you name them.

The first time you do it, it will probably take you a while to come up with wrong answers. The more you do it, the faster you’ll get.

This process actually helps to break down predetermined categories in your brain and forces you to see things again for the first time.

I find that if I do the exercise quickly enough the world actually seems brighter and I notice details in things that I’ve never seen before. The effects also last for hours.

If you want to follow the exercise even further down the road, apply your logical brain to one of your incorrect answers.

Why did I call the lamp a slow cooker? Is there a connection? The light bulb does produce heat, could it cook? An Easy-Bake oven was just a light bulb in a plastic box and it cooked very slowly. Could you use the heat from the lighting in your house to cook? What if ovens were all boxes with giant light bulbs and you had to wear protective goggles to cook so you didn’t go blind?

Try the exercise and see if it works for you. Imagine how useful it would be to have a tool to help you wake up and pay attention whenever you wanted to.

Do your very worst work: Laurie Anderson on getting past a creative block


I often tell young artist who are like, “How can I get past these things?” I’m just like, “For one thing, try doing your very worst work. Do the worst song you can possibly think of. At the very least, you’ll get some idea of what your rules are. At the most, you’re going to get something that’s better than anything you’ve ever done because it has a lot of pure energy.” Nobody going, “That’s not good.” Somebody was going, “Just make it bad. Just make it really bad.” You know, so pure and bad. I have tried that. That works well. Sometimes I clutch on that, too. I think, “No, that’s so bad it’s good.” Go on and on and get yourself twisted up into a language!

Laurie Anderson, The Creative Independent

I love the idea of purposely doing your worst work to get past a creative block.

As Laurie Anderson says in the quote, you are forced to define what “bad work” is when you do that. What rules are you breaking? Are they your rules or the rules of some objective source?

When doing your worst work, there is no judgment. (Or is it all judgment?) In fact, the criticism in your head fuels what you’re working on. That voice in your head that tells you what you’re doing is bad is suddenly empowered. Instead of shooting down your ideas, it’s coming up with ideas to make it worse!

Of course, good and bad are just tricks of language. Maybe what you do will be too obvious or too obscure, and it will turn out that that is exactly what your work needed. Sometimes our rules are not about producing what is best, but something in our comfort zone.

Doing putrid work relieves you of responsibility for the final work and pushes you over the boundaries of what you’d usually try.

Try doing your absolute worst, definitely no good, all-time stinkeroo, very bad work!


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!

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

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 6.11.33 AM.png

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

Keith Johnstone and obvious creativity


In 2003 I took a two day improv workshop with Keith Johnstone. One of the first things he said to us was, “I have to warn you that this sweater is going on day 5 of being worn by me and I will probably be wearing it again tomorrow. The smell is quite strong.”

He was brilliant, strange, hilarious and grumpy. If you aren’t familiar with his work, he is one of the founding philosophers of improvisational theater and author of the life-changing book Impro. He believes most school and parenting is set up to destroy our natural creative state of being and he developed his methods to help to bring us back to that natural state.

I recently stumbled across my notes and wanted to share the best bits in a series of posts. This first post is just going to be one note, because I think it is so profound.

You should be as obvious as possible. At its heart, your obviousness is unique because it is only obvious to you. In Kafka’s story the Metamorphosis, it is obvious that the character would wake up as a cockroach, because that is how Kafka felt. But, that is not what is obvious to everyone, so it appears creative. You are the only one that thinks you are being obvious.

It seems so simple when you read it, but he’s right.

When we try to be creative, we try to surprise ourselves instead of just being ourselves. Our thoughts and perspectives are unique. What comes naturally to us is surprising to other people.

When you ask most people to be creative, they come up with the same boring things. For example, when I was doing improv and you asked for a suggestion the most common “creative” answer was cheese. When we start to be concerned about what other people think instead of creating something that reflects us, we try to think of something that will appeal to them.

We worry about whether or not people will understand us. We are afraid that if we offer what is obvious to us it will be found lacking. We worry that we are not enough and try to pretend our creative impulses come from outside sources. That muses and voices are whispering in our ear when really it is just the sound of our own voice.

Are you brave enough to be obvious and let that be enough? To let one thought follow the next in a way that makes complete sense only to you? To paint something exactly the way you see it?  To make an inside-joke that no one else might get?

All the best things are obvious to everyone, but they aren’t obvious until someone is brave enough to create them.

Click here to read part 2

Make a poster! Inspiration for making it through the hard part


Every summer the music school in my neighborhood has weekly summer camps to teach kids music. Some of the kids are experienced, but most of them are beginners picking up an instrument for the first time.

Unless you’re a musical prodigy,  the first lessons when you’re learning to play are drudgery and repetition. You play the same chords and rhythms over and over until you can do them without thinking. How do you turn that into a fun summer camp experience?

Well, one way is that they have the campers split into bands and do a performance at the end of camp. Part of becoming a band is naming it(So far my favorite name is The Best) and coming up with an image for them. What kind of band is it?  What do we play? Every Wednesday during the summer, we see the posters for these bands go up on telephone poles. It got me thinking about my own projects.

There’s a lot of hard work that goes into a creative project and when you’re in the middle of it, it’s easy to lose sight of the end. What if you designed a poster for your project to remind yourself what it’s eventually going to be? It’s nothing you need to share with anyone else, but it can really be an inspiration for you.

Making a poster for each one of your upcoming projects and hanging them up in your workspace would be a fantastic way to remind yourself of the benefits of the work ahead. (Unless your work is making posters. In that case, write a song or poem about upcoming projects.)

A similar concept I use all the time at my work is keeping a list of product names without ideas attached. If I write “spaghetti mask” in my journal, it may start to collect ideas around itself. The best ideas eventually bubble to the top and the bad ones (like spaghetti mask) fade away as my journal fills with new stuff.

I may start drawing the most promising ideas and hanging them up around the office.

Continue reading

The shampoo secret to creativity

Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 1.35.47 PM

Since so many people say that they do their best thinking in the shower, it only makes sense that shampoo holds one of the keys to creativity.

But David, I can hear you say, shampoo is just liquid soap for your hair.  What could a bottle of Pantene have to do with increasing my creativity?

Well, it’s not the actual shampoo but some marketing on the bottle.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

That simple instruction contains a lot of metaphorical wisdom. (In realistic terms, unless you shampoo only once a week, you probably don’t need to repeat. It’s something they made up to sell more shampoo.)

People look at creativity as a beginning, middle and an end, but it’s not. It’s an endless loop of new projects and ideas. Too many people get stuck on having an idea (lathering) or overwhelmed with the process (rinsing) and never get to starting a new project (repeating).

Lather people have an idea that they’ve held onto for years. It’s their pet idea and they aren’t willing to let go of it and move on to the next one. A lot of  latherers want to talk endlessly about that idea, but never do anything about it. You’ll know someone is in lather territory when she brings her pet idea up and all her friends groan.

Rinsers get caught up in the process. They can’t start writing their novel until they have the right laptop to use in the corner of a quiet coffee shop while they’re wearing their lucky sweater. His 50th take of that song is going to be way better than his 49th, maybe he should book another week in the studio. For rinsers, there’s always one more thing they need before they can complete what they’re doing.

Repeaters are the winners when it comes to creativity. Their skills improve. They have tons of completed projects that they can use as springboards to greater things. It’s hard work being a repeater, because you know that any pleasure you take in an accomplishment is only a short break before the next project starts.

Most repeaters I know have multiple projects going on at the same time so that if one gets stalled out or delayed they can switch over to another one. But, they are also always finishing something.

Being a repeater means letting go of perfectionism. It means opening yourself up for criticism because you have to tell something is finished. It means having a stack of failures way bigger than people who never finish. It also brings huge rewards and will change your life forever.

The next time you find yourself stuck while thinking in the shower, just read the instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle and get inspired.

Just think how clean your hair will be!





Finding your creative community: We are Devo

Devo pin and astronaut cat

Creative people sometimes start out isolated and different. No matter how positive and full of energy we are, we still stand out from everyone around us because we want to change their environment. We are full of ideas and questions things. The vast majority of people expend their energy making sure that nothing changes, so when someone creative appears, they are diminished and ignored. The urge to fit in and be like other people is strong and for a lot people, that leads to their creative side being completely submerged. They would rather be someone they aren’t than be lonely.

However, sometimes you get a signal that no matter how weird or different you are, there is someone out there just like you. That signal is an important indicator of the path you are about to go down. For some people it’s a book or a movie, sometimes it’s a person you meet or a specific location. Whatever it is, it’s an indication that it’s ok to be yourself.

For me it was the summer of 1979 and and I was 10 years old. I was riding to Graceland shopping center on my blue BMX bike with a banana seat. I made my way through all my usual stops — the hobby shop, the toy store — when I noticed a new store. It was a music store and I didn’t know anything about music. I hadn’t had much exposure to music beyond TV and music class at school. My parents played the occasional Simon and Garfunkel record and some Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the music in our house came from a tinny radio in the garage as my father worked on Volkswagens.

I walked into the shop without any thought of actually buying something. It was more of an exploration to see what it would be like inside. I knew I enjoyed the Beatles, but not much beyond that. I wandered the aisles without direction, soaking in the hyperreal fluorescent ambiance and avoiding the vaguely punk cashiers, when a cassette tape caught my eye. It was a peculiar figure wearing a hat with the letters D-E-V-O next to him, and for some reason, I felt an instant connection to it. I was drawn to it. I knew, in that moment, that whoever had decided to put that image on that case was talking to directly to me. He was whispering a message directly in my ear.


“You are not alone.”

That’s what it said. Those words formed in my head. No exaggeration or hyperbole involved. If I made a movie of it I would animate the lips of the man on the tape saying them to me. Seeing this album cover was love at first sight – not me loving it, but it loving me.

I bought it, took it home and listened to it over and over again on my dad’s handheld, monophonic tape recorder. I memorized it. I was so unsophisticated that I didn’t even look for other albums by the group or try to look up any information about them at all. I didn’t even know that “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was a cover of a Rolling Stones song.

For at least six months, all that existed of those mythical creatures “Devo” was that one gray cassette tape in a cracked, clear plastic case. Even the album name spoke to that question of connection. Are we not men? We are DEVO! I included myself in that “we” as I sang along.


When he was asked about that album cover, Mark Mothersbaugh, one of the founding forces of Devo, told this story:

Continue reading

Three Meditations on a Gorilla Suit: Letting objects tell their stories


One of the things that spurs my creativity is to consider the impact of a specific object on my life. What stories surround it? Why do certain objects seem to capture energy and hold it? Some objects seem to acquire meaning over time. Other objects seem to explode with energy all the time, changing the world around them.

While thinking about that, I wrote a piece about the various meanings behind a gorilla suit I bought.

Three Meditations on a Gorilla Suit When Throwing it Away


The day we started selling gorilla suits at work, I had to try one on immediately. It’s a big reason why I work where I do. Some people wouldn’t understand the compulsion to put on a gorilla suit when fate presents a gorilla suit, but I absolutely had to.

The suits were “one size fits all,” so I threw one on and ran around the building. If you want to be creepy in a costume like that — which is really the point — you have to be completely silent and refuse to answer people’s questions. At first they laugh, then they smile, but soon they’re nervous and contemplating the nearest route to safety.

As usual, one size fits all turned out to not apply to me. My overly long mid-section stretched the costume to its fullest and as I reached up to mime picking a banana, the crotch ripped out.

I broke it, I bought it. After applying our generous employee discount, I was now the owner of a gorilla costume. In my eyes, this was far from a tragedy.


My wife and I have game that we play with one another. We don’t have a name for it, but the general idea is to not acknowledge that the other person is doing something strange. If, for instance, my wife were to put on a Tammy Wynette wig and greet me at the door with a big kiss, if I laugh or ask her about it, I lose. No reaction, no matter what, is the only way to win. The only other rule is that you have to continue the behavior until the other person acknowledges it. So, if you don’t smile or laugh, the other person has to continue looking like an idiot until you let them off the hook.

This is an amazing game and I recommend it.

So, that night, I waited for her car to pull into the parking garage and then slipped into the gorilla suit. My pug, Roscoe, looked at me startled for a moment, but as soon as he saw me move in the suit, he knew it was me. In fact, even my moving around in a gorilla-like manner and reaching out for him only resulted in a slight tail wag.

When my wife walked in the door I was in the gorilla suit watching TV with Roscoe on my lap and a remote control in my hand. No reaction except her usual greeting.

I got up and hugged her. She chatted with me as if nothing were different.

Gorilla suits, actually character costumes of all kinds, are like mobile fur-covered sweat lodges. At first you smile at the discomfort, but after a few minutes, you start having hallucinations from the heat. It’s basically like that desert scene in Oliver Stone’s movie about The Doors. In fact, I’m convinced that Jim Morrison’s tight leather pants probably caused him to hallucinate even when he wasn’t taking other drugs. In any case, I was in there, hot as hell, convinced that my wife wasn’t going to win this one.

I am the gorilla king, I can do anything.

My wife started cooking dinner and I went into the kitchen to talk to her. The heat from the oven made it even worse and I could feel myself getting dizzy. She had been home less than an hour and I was about to break and give her the win. I was weak.

My hand went up toward my head to pull off the rubber mask with its tiny nostril air holes, when she took pity on me.

“I see you got a new product in at work. Did you buy it or borrow it?”

She didn’t smile, just tilted her head and tapped her foot.

The mask was off so fast that I caught myself mid-breath and ended up gasping in the cool air like a drowning swimmer surfacing for the last time.


My family rented a vacation house in the San Juan Islands one summer. It was in the woods, not tremendously remote, but the closest house was about a quarter mile away.

My wife and I had secretly brought the gorilla suit with us and kept it hidden. We also peppered the conversation over a couple of days with mentions that in the Pacific Northwest we were in Bigfoot country. Telling everyone they should keep their eyes open.

One night, during the first episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I snuck away. I grabbed the gorilla suit and ran to the bushes outside. At the appointed time, my wife called everyone over to the porch claiming that she had seen something in the distance. Something hairy.

I shook branches, but didn’t come out right away. I figured the more mysterious it was, the more their imaginations would run away.

My sister said, “I see it over there; it’s some kind of animal!”

I ran across the field, getting closer to them as I swept from bush to bush. Never letting them get a clear look at me. One of my sisters ran inside to hide or, she later claimed, to look for the phone. My father snapped pictures as quick as could.

I heard a scream and decided to let them off the hook, pulling off the mask. They all laughed. I was now down in the annals of family practical joke history.

None of my father’s pictures turned out. He was moving too quickly and the camera was shaking. That coupled with me running meant that the pictures were about as clear as any picture of the actual Bigfoot.

Everyone acknowledged that they had been tricked except my mom. She said, “I thought it was one of the neighbors dressed up in a costume and running toward the house. If it had been some crazy guy who lived on an island in the woods wearing a gorilla costume and menacing tourists, it would have been much scarier than if it were Bigfoot.”

I couldn’t argue with that.


Years later, I was cleaning out my closet, sorting clothes into bags for donation, dry cleaning or garbage. I couldn’t decide whether or not to keep the gorilla suit, so I set it off the side.

The next morning I set a few bags down for the collection truck and took a few more into the dry cleaners.

When I got home from work that night, I found a bag of my dry cleaning. I would have sworn that I had picked it all up, but there it was. That was when I realized that I had dropped off the gorilla suit.

My dry cleaner is Korean and his English is patchy. He had told me that he liked me for two reasons, I always knew the exact count of my shirts when I brought them in so he didn’t have to count them and I paid in cash. That will give you a pretty clear picture of our relationship from his perspective.

I called him on the phone and said, “Hello, this is David Wahl. I think I made a mistake when I dropped off my clothes this morning.”

He started laughing really loud, “You played a joke on me! I opened the bag and screamed. I looked around for the cameras to see if I was on TV.”

“It was just an accident, I didn’t mean to -”

“You are a funny man! So funny.”

When I went to pick it up, he had the whole staff come up and laugh. I think it must have been the most exciting thing that ever happened in the shop except for the time they were robbed.

Now whenever I take my clothes in and he’s at the counter, he makes a big deal out of looking in the back as if he expects a cobra to leap out and bite him on the face. Then he smiles at me and points to let me know that I won’t be tricking him again.

“You are so funny, I never know what to expect from you.”


I am now deciding once again if I should throw the suit away. It is ten years old, tattered and dirty; it even has twigs still knotted in the fur from my run in the woods. It’s hard not to feel that its purpose has been fulfilled — that all the meaning that one could wring out of a gorilla suit has been wrung.

Part of me wants to take it to the bus stop down the street late at night and set it up as if it were waiting for the bus. Or, to abandon it in the park as if someone stripped it off quickly and left its pieces in a trail to a cliff. Or, leave it hanging in the closet for our next tenant to wonder who would own a gorilla suit and then forget it. Even if it’s done for me, perhaps the time has come to release the suit’s power onto the world and let it become a prop in the story of the life of someone else.

If you see a homeless man in Seattle dressed as a gorilla, think of me.

Man smelling gorilla suit

Here’s a picture of an older gentleman smelling my gorilla suit before I bought it at the Archie McPhee store.


%d bloggers like this: