Remembering Jason Polan to Find our Inner Artist

The artist’s job is to see the world around him.

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.

Jason Polan drawing
Man on 6 Train by Jason Polan

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.

Creating Space

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.

Microsoft iPod Pro 2005 XP Human Ear Professional Edition

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:

  1. Knowing who the customer is
  2. 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.)

Microsoft iPod Package

Multi-purpose spoon

Multi-purpose spoon

Your job isn’t to take the same thing that everyone else offers and pretend it’s something different.

You job is to create something that actually is different and then let people in on the secret that you’ve made something remarkable.

New wine, new bottles.

Two traps

Each day, each post, I walk a narrow path.

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.

Gifts – The Icarus Deception

The other day I received a massive, 40 pound box full of goodies from Seth Godin.

I was one of the 4,242 people who happily jumped in to support Seth’s Kickstarter project to fund his next book, The Icarus Deception.

Of course, for $111 I didn’t just get the book.  And I didn’t just get 8 copies of the hardcover book (to give away), which itself would have been a steal.  Those 8 books took up a tiny corner of this massive box, which also contained two copies of V is for Vulnerable, a alphabet book for grown-ups, with wild, wacky, beautiful illustrations by Hugh MacLeod, about leaning in, creating art, and having the courage to ship; a delicate, hand-made mug by Lori Koop, with a hand-written note from Lori that reads “Seth asked me to make this for you….this is my art. –Lori;”  an LP (yes, as in a record) whose contents I have yet to discover….I just need to get my hands on a record player; and a totally massive, 11 x 16 inch 800+ page full-color book that, impishly, has a bunch of rubber ducklings on the front cover.  It is a collection of Seth’s best online writing from 2006 to 2012, and it’s literally the heaviest book I’ve ever laid my hands on.

Icarus Kickstarter goodies

My experience of this whole thing is joy.  I can see Seth smiling as I smile; I’m wowed by the beauty and the irreverence of each and every piece, as well as the chance that each of them gives someone else – not just Seth – to shine.   And the whole undertaking is, literally, delightful – my high expectations are blown out of the water; even with inklings of what might have been in the box I was surprised time and again.

It really is possible to delight our customers, to thank our greatest fans, to make them feel special not out of a sense of obligation but because you want to and you can.

And going back to the massive, 800+ page book, I also think back to my many experiences of sharing Seth’s advice with others – whether on publishing or on courage or on pushing through the resistance.  Yes, tons of people get it and live it.  And then there are the folks who  say something like, “Well yeah, that’s interesting and that probably works for Seth because he’s Seth.”

When I take this book, which physically holds just a small portion of what Seth has produced in the last six years, the only thing I can think is: he’s Seth because he produced all of this.  He’s Seth because any bit of advice he’s giving is something he’s already been doing for years; he’s Seth because he ships; he’s Seth because he’s not afraid to take risk, to show up, to fail, to shine, or even to look a little silly.

Finally, as homage to all of this (especially the silly part) here’s a little video that gives you a sense of the mega-tome.  Of course it’s not just heavy, it’s also beautiful and it will transform the conversations you have around your coffee table.  And it will remind you not of what Seth can do, but of what you can do if you show up fully every day.

The Six Stages of Kevin Kelly

Last week I encouraged readers to buy the End Malaria book.  When 62 great thinkers line up behind a cause and offer to share their ideas with you for free, PLUS you get to make a donation to end malaria…to me that’s a no-brainer.

(one important clarifying point in answer to a question that came from a reader: the book itself is not about malaria, it a series of short essays on living a productive life.)

First, a reflection on my experience buying the book.  To my surprise, it did actually feel, when I curled up with my Kindle, that I’d gotten the book for free and had also made a donation to Malaria No More.  It didn’t feel at all like I’d paid $20 for a book (I hadn’t).  Interesting to think about that buyer experience in terms of participating in something as opposed to just consuming it.

Second, I have both the Kindle edition and the physical copy, and for the first time in a while I think the print is better just because it is so beautiful.  It will make a great gift.

Third, Tom asked for reflections from the book itself, so here goes:

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, wrote an essay in the book called What You Don’t Have to Do, which really has amplified my thinking on the same topic.  Here are the stages of professional life, according to Kevin:

Stage 1: Don’t Screw Up.   “When you start your first job, all your attention is focused on not screwing up.”

Stage 2: Learn New Things. “At this stage, working smart means doing more than is required.”

Stage 3: Exploration“Working smart here means trying as many roles as you can in order to discover what you are best at.”

Stage 4: Doing the Right Task. “It takes some experience to realize that a lot of work is better left undone.”

Stage 5: Doing things well and with love. “At this stage, you can begin to do only the jobs that you are good at doing and that need to be done.  And what a joy that is!”

Now here’s where things get interesting, because it doesn’t stop there.  The meat of Kevin’s essay is about getting past this stage, which is asking a lot.  Stage 5 sounds pretty great.  But, Kevin tells us, through real dedication, hard work, and honest reflection, we can go a step further and discover the things that ONLY we can do.  Counter-intuitively, this means taking all things that are worth doing and that you do really well (but that others can also do well) and letting go of them.

As a magazine editor, that meant Kevin giving away all his story ideas to other writers, except the ones that no one would take on.  These felt like duds, but Kevin discovered that some of them would keep coming back to life AND that he couldn’t get others to write them.  So he hung on to them, and eventually he wrote them.  They became his best stories.

That’s the last stage, not just for Kevin but for all of us: finding those things to which you are uniquely suited, and doing only those things.

Think of the discipline that requires.  Think of the faith it takes to let go of all sorts of things you’re good at and that are worth doing – and the fear that if you do that, you’ll be left with nothing (which of course you won’t).  Think of the courage and conviction it takes to realize that when people are telling you something is a bad idea, they may just be indicating that this one, and only this one, is the one that YOU need to make happen.

Kevin’s essay is much better than this blog post, so I hope you have the chance to read it.

Potshotters

POTSHOTTER  noun \pot-ˈsho-tər\

1 : someone who primarily or exclusively provides criticism

2:  a person who critiques, tears down, weakens

 

What could be easier than sitting back and describing how something could be better?

“If I were in charge, I’d…”

“This thing is a mess, I can’t believe they let this happen…”

What could be harder than leaning forward and making it better?

Leaning forward, putting yourself on the line, coming up with your own ideas that might be right and might be wrong, getting into the messy thick of things….that’s the hard part, the real part, the valuable part, the part that scares the pants off of most everyone.

Secret weapon

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to break through all the clutter, to stand out from the mountain of emails in your customers’ inbox, to have your voice be a clarion call above the deluge of Tweets and Facebook updates?

Guess what, there is:  a mode of communication where instead of competing with 150 others’ messages in a day, it’s just you and maybe 1 or 2 other folks; it’s direct and gets people’s attention right at that moment; it’s a way to show that you care more than the other guy.

It’s called a telephone.

Yeah, that’s right.  Pick it up, dial the number, talk to another human being directly.

All those scheduling emails are a way to hide.  All those emails full of questions and a proposal that you find a time to discuss three weeks from Tuesday are an even better way to run away.

Today, pick up the phone three times (let’s start small) when you otherwise wouldn’t.  Call up a customer, impromptu, and talk to them.

That customer is getting 150 emails a day and 3 phone calls, and you’re wondering why you’re having trouble getting her attention?

Call.

A better list

Lists are great – a systematized, orderly way to keep yourself on task and keep track of tasks.

Except of course that lists are usually an excuse – an excuse to do everything but the real work we have to do.

Some lists, full of seemingly important stuff, actually just say:

  1. Stall
  2. Stall
  3. Procrastinate
  4. Put stuff off
  5. Stall some more
  6. Look busy
  7. Have a meeting that looks busy
  8. Etc.

(By the way, your inbox is just a fancy list.  And don’t get me started on your Facebook / Twitter feed).

So how about this: keep the list, work the list, but act based on the knowledge that you’ll never get to the end of the list.  Knowing that, why not commit, once a day, to add one thing to the list (just one!!) that’s hard or scary, and commit to getting that thing done today.

Hard and scary is, it turns out, a pretty great proxy for “worthwhile.”

One item, once a day, every day, that terrifies you.

It finally happened

Cranking through my inbox for a few hours doesn’t feel like real work.

Satisfying? Yes.

A relief?  Yes.

But not real work.

Pretty sure this is a good sign.