I didn’t know Jason Polan, or his work, until I heard last week that he passed away. Jason was a 37 year old artist who, among other projects, had the beautiful, outlandish idea to draw every person in New York City. He completed 11,000 drawings, and would have gotten much further had he lived longer. Jason’s drawings are raw, irreverent, deeply human, joyful, and full of life. As Jason once quipped, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”
I particularly like this one.
The writer and artist Austin Kleon starts his homage to Jason with one of Jason’s tweets, “It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”
If the job of the artist is to see, then we have two questions to ask:
Am I an artist?
What does it take to see?
The first question, ironically, is the easy one. Today, you’ve no choice but to be an artist, even if, to start, you do it with a tiny, lowercase ‘a’.
The artist is the person who does more than she is told, who sees something unformed and forms it, who sees something that is missing and takes the steps to create it. To do art is to create, and no matter how big or small you dare to dream today, what we need from you is the creation of things that only you can see, the making of things that only you can make.
But what about seeing? How, as Jason asks, do we learn how to see?
We begin by deciding that seeing is a thing that we do. For me, that decision came in the form of deciding, in 2008, to write this blog. It’s been reinforced by the daily and weekly decision to keep it up for the last 12 years over more than 1,000 posts. That commitment, week in and week out, to create original content moves me from looking at the world to seeing the world; and the act of writing about what I see makes think harder about what I’ve seen and what it means.
But you don’t need a commitment as big as a public blog you’ll write for a decade. Not, at least, to start.
What you need is a bit more space.
Last week, in a rush of enthusiasm, my 15-year-old son shared a drawing he created last summer. He didn’t think of it as anything special, just something he’d done one day at camp when he sitting at Saturday morning services, a bit bored and trying to pass the time. (Apparently, as we just discovered, he also taught himself calligraphy over the summer.)
Because no good teenage deed goes unpunished, a few days after sharing how beautiful we thought the drawing was (and talking more about my son’s art—he makes beautiful ceramics too), we had a conversation about time.
Specifically, would that drawing have ever been created if he’d had access to his phone, to Snapchat, to Reddit, to YouTube?
And, before we get on our collective high horse about teenagers and screen time, let’s turn the mirror back on ourselves: we can easily replace “teenage-phone-distractions” with our “grown-up” distractions: the crush of email, meetings, our news feed, the latest crisis at work, and, yes, Candy Crush and its ilk.
Boredom is the Artist’s Friend
Think for a moment about what happens when we’re bored.
Our idle mind gets jumpy. If we can remind ourselves not to get hijacked by endless internal thoughts and dialogue, we find a bit of stillness. Our mind wants to turn this open, unstructured space into something.
If we allow it room to breathe, eventually our undistracted mind will chooses to create something.
This new thing, this interesting thing, is the (metaphorical) corner of the pattern my son drew: the start of something worth creating. Once we put this down on paper, we have a jumping off point. Then, having crossed the threshold from nothing to something, it is much easier to fill in the rest through a process that is as much discovery as it is exposition.
Our choice, then, begins with recognition that being always-on, always-busy eclipses the potential for any blank space. Without blank space, without a little boredom and the prospect of a blank page, we will never begin.
But begin we must.
A small shock to the system can help. Here’s a thought: try a painless, one-month commitment to something you want to create. Use Austin Kleon’s 29-day calendar (recently updated for the leap year), and see what happens when you do some new thing for 15 minutes a day.
Do it for Jason Polan, to make up for a fraction of the beauty lost when he passed long before his time.
I mostly did this so it would be easier for you to share posts and for new readers to follow the blog (follow here).
One of the additional benefits is much better statistics: open rates, bounce rates, new subscribers, unsubscribes. Though “benefits” may not be the right word.
Ever since migrating, I have been getting a steady drip of emails letting me know about people unsubscribing from my blog.
At least that’s how it feels.
The truth is, I migrated a few thousand people and fewer than 20 have unsubscribed. But, like rubbernecking, I can’t seem to look away. The unsubscribes cry out, “Look at me! Think about what I mean! Contemplate why this person no longer wants to read!”
It’s hard to remember that Laura wrote me a nice note. So did Amy and Jamie. Arnie and Cornelius left comments on a recent post. And, and, and… If you listened to the conversation in my head, you’d think that all that good stuff never happened.
The question is, why? Why does the good stuff fade into the background and the negatives stand out in such stark relief?
The answer begins with noticing that it doesn’t happen everywhere: for things that we don’t care much about (“you’re terrible at ice skating!”), and for things that we’re deeply confident about, we’re mostly immune to this nonsense.
But in that wide area in the middle—the things that we care about, but where we’re not fully confident—we’re wide open to fear amplification.
Unfortunately, this “middle area” is really important. It encompasses all creative endeavors, since we are never fully confident our art. And it thrives in any area where we’re trying to grow, because, by definition, these are the areas in which we are both less skilled and less confident.
The fear waits like dry kindling ready to be set ablaze.
This kindling allows me to construct an amazing, elaborate tower of meaning around something as simple as one person in one place unsubscribing. It is the same thing that takes us, when we make a suggestion in a meeting that’s shot down, from the words we hear to, “he thinks I do terrible work, always. So he must think I’m terrible, always.”
As we interact with those around us, our job is to be especially deliberate about how we interact with colleagues–especially when we talk about their art and support their growth edges. Unless we work in organizations with cultures of consistently direct, tough feedback that people are accustomed to, we will stamp out personal growth if we trample, Godzilla-like, over areas where colleagues already are holding armfuls of doubt and fear.
And, for ourselves, we want to keep asking:
How much kindling are we carrying around? And is it really helping us?
Do we want to be the kinds of people who are ready to be set aflame, our fears blazing around us?
Do those flames make us more more connected? More powerful? More brave?
Do they make us more effective? More willing and able to do what needs to be done?
People will always carry matches, often unintentionally. Part of our job is to learn to douse all the fuel around ourselves so we’re not so easily taken off our game.
Oh, and I also changed my settings so I only get that unsubscribe email once a week.
I hadn’t seen this video until now. It’s a 2006 spoof/thought experiment about what would happen if Microsoft designed the 2005 iPhone packaging (Step 1: rename it to “Microsoft iPod Pro 2005 XP Human Ear Professional Edition (with Subscription). The final reveal comes at 2:30 in the video, but it’s the build that really packs a punch.
We hear all the time that we can’t delight anyone if our products are created by a committee. Indeed, we nod knowingly at how everyone else falls into that trap.
But do we have one person whose sole job is to cut away absolutely everything (everything!) that’s unnecessary to achieving the vision, to delighting the customer?
N.B. there are two non-negotiable prerequisites in the prior sentence:
Knowing who the customer is
Having a vision of what you want her experience to be
Of course in the long term you don’t need just one virtuoso or visionary, but you do need a first time when you put out a product that makes a lot of important people within (or outside) your organization upset, because you’ll have put something out into the world that isn’t for everyone.
(And yes, sometimes we – you, me – end up being the committee. Oops.)
I avoid thinking too much about all the people out there who are going to read each post I write – people I like and respect and whose time I know is precious. Because if I get too hung up on that, I can easily decide that a post isn’t worthy of landing in thousands of inboxes.
Or I could worry that the number of people reading this blog isn’t big enough, and try to write posts that will get more people to sign up.
Instead, I try to show up and do my best, most honest work. I listen to my own standard of the work I’m striving to produce, and limit internal debates to conversations between me and my computer screen and ask: is this the best version of what I’m trying to say?
And each time I hit “publish” the inner critic, the doubts, the second-guesses lose a little bit more steam.