Dan: Don’t tweet mean things about this talk, OK? This idea, to be a writer, you’ve got to be thin-skinned, but to be an author, you’ve got to be thick-skinned. It’s the same with the work that we do. To be a designer, you’ve got to be thin-skinned, but to ship a product, you’ve got to be thick-skinned, and that’s the problem.
How do we get over this kind of critical hurdle? It’s this idea of divorcing ourselves from anyone piece of work, and thinking about the body of work that we do. Picasso, in his life, made conservatively 10,000 pieces of art, maybe as much as 30,000 pieces of art, they don’t really know.
That’s one piece of art, every day, for like 27 years, at a minimum, and they weren’t all good. That’s the thing, they weren’t all good. How many were amazing, 50 out of 10,000, or 30,000? If Picasso is going to fail a lot, you’re probably going to fail a lot, too.
The way that people get great in their fields of study is by doing a lot, finding a lot, getting more variation in the kinds of stuff that they do. Getting up to bat a lot, to use the sports analogy. The more things that you try, the higher probability there is of doing something original, but you are going to fail.
People that celebrate failure, who are these people? Failure sucks, failure is terrible. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you my credit rating. It’s terrible. It’s terrible when something bad happens. The only people that will tell you to celebrate it are people that have never had a crippling failure in their lives. Failure can be just devastating.
What to do? How do you move past this? Especially when you get stuck, you have writer’s block, or you’re on a deadline, and you can’t get into flow. I’m sure most of you have seen this diagram, the shades in the eye flow diagram. It is almost obligatory to any design conference that you see this, so I’m showing it to you here.
What is interesting is that they never tell you what to do, if you’re anxious, or if you’re bored. They never tell you how to get into flow. They’re just like, “Oh, you should be in flow.” Great, thanks. If I’m bored, or I’m anxious because the work is too hard, how do I get out of those? How do I get into the zone?
If you’re bored, we should take some advice hear from Thoreau, where he says, “It’s the way that you do something that’s interesting.” How can we improve it? If the task is boring, the way that you make it interesting is you have to make it interesting for yourself.
You have to figure out something, make it personal. What is it that you’re going to get out of this job, out of this project? How do you want to make this interesting for yourself? What do you need to learn, and how can this project help you with it? What interests you?
I was front seat at this design project where an Asian company had asked a bunch of our strategists to do some evaluations of different mobile carriers in the United States. You can imagine that this could’ve been the most boring report you’ve ever read, that doctors would prescribe it to people who have insomnia, to read this thing.
What the strategists in the design team did was rather than give this report, they said, “OK,” they were going to do it by foods. They had a report to back this up, but they also said, “Hey, this group has these kinds of characteristics, and there is this kind of food that represents that.”
They made it into this interesting, sensory experience, something that could be really boring, because it could’ve been really boring, but it was something that instead, they love that, the client loved it. It became interesting for them. The designer Paul Sahre says, “Designers who aren’t selfish do terrible work,” which I think is really interesting, because we’re taught to empathize about other people.
Sometimes, in order to do better work, you’ve got to think about yourself, because there has to be motivation for you to go beyond where other people would stop, to really do great work. Now, on the other side…What about when the challenge is really high?
You’re like, “Oh God, I have real anxiety about this.” The first thing you need to do is to think, is the challenge that’s in front of me, is it really too high, or do I just think it’s too high? You have to do a reality check. Am I just afraid? The worst enemy to creativity is this idea of self-doubt.
Fear is born from the story we tell ourselves of what we can and cannot do, so it’s easy to become paralyzed with fear before you even start. How do we get over this? Act as though you’re 10 percent more courageous, 10 percent. If you can just be a little bit more courageous, this is the cure.
How do you do this? 10 percent, it’s not that much. Just a little bit more. This will allow you to be like, “OK, am I really afraid of doing this, or is this really hard?” If it’s really hard, there’s a solution for that, too. You can ask for help. It’s not an admission of failure. My daughter, she went to art camp a couple summers ago, and they’re like, “You know what? You can never say that you can’t do anything.”
That was their rule. You can’t say that you can’t do anything. You can only say that you couldn’t do something yet. That’s the kind of mindset you need to go in. Nobody knows everything, so ask for help if you need it. If you get into that anxiety thing, ask for help.
The two unstuck strategies that are fairly clear, power through it, procrastinate. How do you know when to do each? Powering through it means, sometimes you’ve got to just focus on the craft. You know what you need to do, you’re just bored by it. You have to think about going back to making it interesting for yourself.
This is why there’s a great creativity mind pack that says, “Stop when you know what the next step is, so that when you come back to it, you automatically know what to do next, and you can power through it that way.” You can procrastinate, when you hit the wall.
You haven’t found that hook, or that line. You’re still looking around. Procrastination is part of the process. It gets a bad rap, but it just means that you’re not ready to do something yet. Your brain is working on something. It’s working on something behind the scenes, or you just don’t understand yet, what it is that you don’t know.
You haven’t found that hook, or you haven’t found that line. Go back, look for the hook, look for the line. Some of this is also, with the feeling behind the procrastination, are you stressed, are you afraid, are you doubting yourself and your abilities? Search your feelings. Look for that.
There are, of course, better ways to procrastinate than others. The first, we’ve talked about pretty extensively, taking a walk is a great way to do this. Another thing that many people, including, and I’m very sorry for putting this image in your head, Woody Allen, take showers.
Woody, and many other people, take multiple showers a day, going back to that bored Elon Musk thing. You’re there, you’re warm, you’re relaxed, there’s no screens. Take a shower. Similarly, take a drive. It doesn’t matter where, take a drive. You’re trying to get your brain on autopilot, so it’s not thinking about the problem, it’s working behind the scenes.
You can go somewhere new. Think about going and seeing something new, could trigger something, could break something loose in your mind. Drinking alcohol, this has actually been shown to actually increase creativity in moderation. As my friend Jeff Bean says, “Alcohol is for generating ideas, caffeine is for documenting them.”