Seth, Sweatshirts and Creativity

The amazing Seth Godin cast his spotlight on creativity this week. In a short post he does a good job of using a sweatshirt as a metaphor for creativity.

For me, creativity is the stuff you do at the edges. But the edges are different for everyone, and the edges change over time. If you visualize the territory you work in as an old Boston Bruins sweatshirt, realize that over time, it stretches out, it gets looser, the edges move away. Stuff that would have been creative last year isn’t creative at all today, because it’s not near the edges any more.

It’s true, creativity is moving all the time. That’s why if you write an idea down and forget about for a few years, you’ll likely find someone has already done it by the time you get around to it. Seth uses this to persuade you to spend more time near the edge, which I agree with.

However, since creativity is a moving target, doesn’t that mean we should be moving quickly on our ideas? Each creative impulse we have is correct for a moment, but that moment will pass. Don’t spend time on the edge and then not take action. That’s the definition of creative frustration.

Act quickly and often, that’s the way to make progress. If you don’t, you’re just setting yourself up for regret.

We’ve all had to sit next to that guy on the bus that claims he invented Post-It notes in his basement in 1967, but never got around to doing anything about it and now all he has left to do is ride the bus and tell the same story over and over again about what an unrecognized genius he is.

Don’t be that guy. And don’t sit next to that guy if you can help it, his breath smells like tuna fish and socks.

Read Seth’s post here


Start with projects you can complete

Warren Ellis, novelist and comic writer, wrote a great post about the best way to complete a project that people will want to consume. He frames it around Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible web project

Part of his point is that you have to earn people’s trust before they will pay attention to something big. Instead of starting with a huge epic or a full length feature, start with something small and manageable and build.

The three strongest points he makes are, “Be Short, Be Bold and Get It Done.” Later in the article he adds, “Be Great.”

He adds:

I can’t tell you how many new hopeful comics writers I meet who have never finished anything in their lives because their intended first project is a hundred-episode epic that creates a whole new universe or three. And I tell them all the same thing: you’re screwed. No-one will want it. Not until you’ve written something short, capable of being produced on a budget, and finished. Your epic may be worldchanging, but no-one will ever know because no publisher will gamble that kind of money on an unknown. And that’s before you get to the vagaries of the attention economy.

I think this is fantastic advice, especially with web content. I know people who won’t even start a video on youtube if the length is over five minutes. Produce enough brief, memorable stuff and people will flock to your longer, more complex stuff. Build an audience, create desire with tiny savory snacks before you serve up a meal.

Also, limitations can be a powerful way to inspire yourself. Challenge yourself to Be Brief, Be Bold and Get It Done!

Read the whole article here

Playing the media like an instrument

Joey Skaggs is an artist, but his medium isn’t painting or poetry, he uses the media to create huge projects. You see, he creates pranks. He changes the world and people’s perceptions of reality by putting fake information into the machine that has been set up to show us reality. His point, that what the media reports needs to be questioned, is obvious, but his pranks are clever.

He has a list of all of his pranks on his site, but some of his more memorable ones include a cathouse for dogs (a doggy prostitution ring) and vitamin pills made from cockroaches. Both of these received huge media attention and his fake cathouse for dogs almost got him arrested after it was reported on ABC news.

While I was looking through his site, I came across a great essay he wrote on how to play the media. If you ever have to deal with the media, the advice in this piece will help you put yourself in control. Or, you can just use it to pull your own prank.

Concoct a well thought-out story. TV news producers, writers and reporters are greatly under the influence of Hollywood. Hollywood is equally influenced by what appears in the news. Our culture is reflected in both of these forms of media. So it’s important to combine the necessary theatrical elements to attract them. In essence, give them what they want!

Dangling the line:
You may select from any of the following hooks, lures, and tasty baits. Mix and match for a formula that is sure to work.

Dependable hooks:

New technologies
Little guy against the system
Anything with an animal or a child

The whole article.

In any case, all of the articles on his site are an interesting glimpse into how the media works and how you can take advantage of it. It’s not easy. He points out that faking a business actually requires more work than actually having a business.

For me, it made me realize how many different mediums there are for us to apply our creativity to. Even if you can’t change the world to be the way you want it, maybe you can get the media to report that it’s that way.

The vultures of mediocrity

Seth Godin, marketing smartypants and action figure, has a great post about how the world drives you to mediocrity. It’s very short, so I am reprinting most of it below. I do recommend you read his blog if you are at all interested in marketing yourself or your work.

There’s a myth that all you need to do is outline your vision and prove it’s right—then, quite suddenly, people will line up and support you.

In fact, the opposite is true. Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths… whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it’s over.

If it were any other way, it would be easy. And if it were any other way, everyone would do it and your work would ultimately be devalued. The yin and yang are clear: without people pushing against your quest to do something worth talking about, it’s unlikely it would be worth the journey. Persist.

I wanted to add to it. Those forces are not just outside you acting on you. There is a drive inside ourselves to do things in a way that is “good enough.” Before you even start to worry about the world stopping you from being mediocre, you have to decide that you want to be better.

The difference between good enough and great isn’t always huge. It might just be a few extra seconds. It might be one more ingredient or one more draft that separates you from being extraordinary. If you want to be great, you have to convince yourself before you can convince anyone else.

Expect more than the mediocre. Stop settling for a C+ life, you deserve at least a solid B, don’t you? Just kidding! Shoot for the A+!

Trying for great and achieving mediocre half the time is much more satisfying than trying for average and achieving it every single time.

After you set your standards high, then prepare yourself for the forces in Seth’s post. The vultures of mediocrity are circling over every creative person, ready to rip into any good idea that dares to call attention to itself.

Articles Referenced In The NPR Interview

If you are visiting my site for the first time, welcome! If you like my site, please consider adding my RSS feed or sign up for email updated from the link on the right side of every page.

I thought I would post some links to articles and ideas I talked about on the air.

First of all, we never got around to explaining my intro. It was referencing two articles on attaching magical powers to objects. You can read them here and here.

Create a James Lipton of your very own.

Orson and Ed.

Here are five quick tips on creativity.

Here’s a link to page with all the creativity tips.

Here are links to the Yodelling Pickle and Deluxe Jesus Action Figure.

David Byrne on making money from music

Wired has just posted a fantastic article by David Byrne on the strategies of making and marketing music for emerging artists.

Touring is not just promotion. Live performances used to be seen as essentially a way to publicize a new release — a means to an end, not an end in itself. Bands would go into debt in order to tour, anticipating that they’d recover their losses later through increased record sales. This, to be blunt, is all wrong. It’s backward. Performing is a thing in itself, a distinct skill, different from making recordings. And for those who can do it, it’s a way to make a living.
So with all these changes, what happens to the labels? Some will survive. Nonesuch, where I’ve done several albums, has thrived under Warner Music Group ownership by operating with a lean staff of 12 and staying focused on talent. “Artists like Wilco, Philip Glass, k.d. lang, and others have sold more here than when they were at so-called major labels,” Bob Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch, told me, “even during a time of decline.”
But some labels will disappear, as the roles they used to play get chopped up and delivered by more thrifty services. In a recent conversation I had with Brian Eno (who is producing the next Coldplay album and writing with U2), he was enthusiastic about I Think Music — an online network of indie bands, fans, and stores — and pessimistic about the future of traditional labels. “Structurally, they’re much too large,” Eno said. “And they’re entirely on the defensive now. The only idea they have is that they can give you a big advance — which is still attractive to a lot of young bands just starting out. But that’s all they represent now: capital.”
So where do artists fit into this changing landscape? We find new options, new models.

Read the rest here

Tesla and Edison: inspiration vs perspiration

N.TeslaI’ve been reading about Nikola Tesla for the last couple of days. Tesla was a brilliant inventor that had flashes of insight so intense that plans for his inventions appeared whole in his head at once in every detail. Tesla and Thomas Edison were bitter enemies and I came across a Tesla quote that helps to define the difference between them.

Edison famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Tesla’s response, recalling the time he spent working for Edison, was, “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.”

Edison was of his age, approaching the problems of the world as a laborer. Tesla was more of our age, creating ideas easily and watching them spread… or not.

Here’s another quote of Tesla’s, “The practical success of an idea, irrespective of its inherent merit, is dependent on the attitude of the contemporaries. If timely it is quickly adopted; if not, it is apt to fare like a sprout lured out of the ground by warm sunshine, only to be injured and retarded in its growth by the succeeding frost.”

Edison understood what people wanted and worked on that. Tesla was a fountain of ideas, but he had no idea what people would accept.

Another interesting distinction in creativity and marketing.

Pitching Yourself

On Tuesday I watched the first episode of the reality show On The Lot. Supposedly, through a series of Survivor-like eliminations, they’re going to discover a great new director and let them direct a film. To get on the show people had to submit a film, so they already know that everyone involved can produce a viable product. The competitions seem to focus on other related skills. Tuesday’s show focussed on giving a "pitch," from a one-line premise they were given, to a group of industry people who would judge them on their idea and presentation skills.

I was shocked at how horrible most of the candidates were at selling themselves. Instead of talking excitedly about how fantastic all their ideas were, most of them started with an apology or communicated how little they thought of the premise they were given.

It really brought into focus how terrible most creative people are at selling themselves. If you can’t convince someone how fantastic what you’re doing is, why should they even bother to check it out?

Even if what you are doing is complex and layered, shouldn’t you be able to clearly and enthusiastically describe in a way that would make someone want to learn more about it? Isn’t it worth a few minutes to figure our how to describe what you do to other people?

One of the judges on the show said, It costs about a $100,000 a day to film a major motion picture. When you are a pitching a story to a company, they have to feel like they can trust you with that much money. Even if they like the story, they might not trust you.

Don’t apologize for what you’re doing! Let other people know how great
it is. They may decide they don’t want it, but they’ll walk away
feeling like you know what you’re doing. Get so good at selling yourself that everyone you talk to would trust you with their money!

Here’s an idea, pretend you are sitting across from a New York Times reporter. He/She is bored, doesn’t know who you are but has to interview you, He/She says, "So, what exactly do you do?"

Answering this question is the key to getting an audience to trust you.

What Is Beauty? An Experiment

Does context matter for beauty? Do people need to be told what is beautiful? Or, does beauty stand out no matter where it is?

The Washington Post did a simple experiment to try and answer this question. They got Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most famous violinists who can charge $1000 a minute for his services, to play in a crowded pedestrian area in Washington D.C. during rush hour. They had crowd control measures in place in case things got out of control and let him loose. He played for 43 minutes.

Any guesses as to the outcome?

The Post went to the director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, and asked his prediction.

"Let’s assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

So, a crowd would gather?

"Oh, yes."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

There was a shoeshine place nearby and the lady running it usually calls the police on musicians because they drive away her business. She didn’t call the police that day even though the music was far too loud for her liking because the musician was pretty good. A postal worker stops at the top of an escalator when he hears the music. He has to go back and find the source. He gave $5 and still didn’t recognize who Bell was even though he was a fan.

In total for that day he collected $32.17. Some people gave him pennies and he was recognized once. No crowd control was needed.

I think this just goes to show the importance of context for art. Also, it shows how much other people depend on experts and crowds to tell them what is good. Most people like what other people tell them to like. They don’t have time to find beauty on their own.

I’m betting if he played there for every single day for a year, by the end of the time he would have fans and crowds. Eventually the early adopters would find him and then the rest would follow.

Kind of sad to think of beauty as a commodity that needs to be marketed instead of beauty having its own appeal.

There are great videos taken of the experiment embedded in the article.

Read the article and watch the videos here

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