I just finished reading Austin Kleon‘s excellent book-manifestos ‘Steal Like an Artist‘ and ‘Show Your Work‘; I absolutely loved them and took pages and pages of sketchnotes.
Sometimes, we discover books exactly when we need to read them. I feel like I needed to read these books now, when I am beginning to (re)build a daily writing, sketching and blogging habit.
When I was reading these books, I felt like I was reading letters to my present self from my younger self. I spent my late twenties and early thirties living, learning and creating in public, and benefiting from the network effects that Austin talks about. I have been asking myself if these practices are still valid five years later, in a post-blogging, selfie-obsessed world, and Austin’s books reassure me that they are.
Here, then, are the eleven lessons on developing creative habits I (re)learned from ‘Steal Like an Artist‘ and ‘Show Your Work‘.
Lesson 1. Begin Again
Sometimes, you need to throw out old work to make room for new work. Sometimes, you need to take a month, or a year, or five years off to clear your head. Sometimes, you need to go away and grow up, perhaps fail a few times, before you begin again, with newfound humility. The good news is that when you do begin again, you are not really starting over. The lessons you have learned from your old work, and the lessons you have learned while you were away, will seep into and shape your new work.
I took almost five years off from this blog, and deleted 1500+ blog posts I had written over the previous five years. Now that I am writing again, I know that I don’t want to write about things that change constantly (like emerging technologies). Instead, I want to write about things that never change (like human behavior). While I won’t be able to reuse the 1 million+ words I have written before, I will be able to use the lessons I learned through writing them.
Lesson 2. Design an Apprenticeship
You can’t choose who your parents and ancestors are, but you can choose who your teachers are. Create a list of creators who inspire you, immerse yourself in their work, find out who inspired them in turn, and then immerse yourself in the work of those who inspired them. If they are active online, follow them, and follow the people they pay attention to. Going back in time, find patterns in how they built upon each others’ ideas. Then, connect the dots in new ways, and find ways to build upon their ideas, in turn. Go beyond their specific idea, or their specific style, and try to learn their way of thinking, their way of seeing the world, and apply it in your own work. Design a long-distance apprenticeship for yourself, watching them practice their craft, learning from their process and their products and improving upon both. When you share your work, share it as a public fan letter to your heroes, acknowledging their contribution, adding new dimensions to their work and introducing them to your own networks.
Here’s a short list of my own creative heroes: world-builders (George R. R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Stephen King), culture-mappers (Pico Iyer, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell) and life-hackers (Alain de Botton, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Timothy Ferris). As I design my own creative apprenticeship to learn from them, I’ll share what I am learning, so that you might learn along with me.
Lesson 3. Contribute to Communities
You don’t only need mentors, you also need peers. Seek out talented people who are asking themselves the same questions as you are, become a member of the communities they belong to, learn from the answers they have found, and share your own answers with them. Build upon each other’s work, introduce each other to your own networks, and help each other grow. Brian Eno calls these communities a ‘Scenius’ (versus lone genius), Seth Godin calls them a ‘Tribe’. Find your communities, join them, nurture them and contribute to them.
Here are some communities I am exploring at the moment: niche publishing, self-publishing, and life-hacking. As I map these communities and identify where their hubs are, I’ll introduce them to you, so that you might get an insider’s view of them.
Lesson 4. Collect Inspiration
You are a sum total of what you are curious and passionate about. You become the things you spend your time and attention on. You are shaped by the books you read, the artifacts you collect and the ideas you follow. Expose yourself to inspiration from a wide variety of sources. If you have multiple unrelated passions, nurture them all. Collect everything that inspires you, every creative work you want to steal, in an ‘swipe file‘ or ‘commonplace book‘, which can be digital or analog. Then, go through your file regularly, try to find patterns, connect previously unconnected dots, and remix your inspirations to create new creative works.
I collect things that inspire me in two places: an Evernote account on all my devices to save web stories, reports, photos and videos, and a Bullet Journal to note down quotes, sketch ideas, list resources, and write (sketchnote) book summaries.
Lesson 5. Become an Amateur
The best way to learn something new is to become an amateur again. When you behave like an amateur, you think of your work as a hobby instead of a profession. You free yourself to have fun, take risks and make mistakes. With a beginner’s mind, you allow ourself to be curious, ask silly questions and seek help from peers and mentors. You switch your focus away from perfecting the final product to the process of learning your craft. You look at criticism as feedback that will help you improve, not as judgement on your talent. When you become an amateur, you open yourself up to possibilities that are closed to the professional and the expert.
I am writing this blog as an amateur. I have hosted it on WordPress.com and used a free starter theme. I am writing about learning how to create a daily writing and sketching practice, instead of digital transformation or social innovation. My daily sketches feature my Persian cat Leela perched on various pieces of furniture in my house, and not sketchnote book reviews. My aim is to develop a daily writing and sketching habit, not to position myself as an expert. So, I focus on creating, instead of asking myself if what I am creating is substantial, or profound, or professional.
Lesson 6. Find Your Voice
You should think of the internet as a self-invention machine, instead of a self-promotion machine. Your website can be much more than a platform to distribute your ideas; it can be an incubator to develop your ideas. You don’t only share in public when you have something to say; you also think aloud in public when you want to find something to say. Thinking aloud in public will help you clarify your thinking, get valuable feedback, make new connections between ideas and find your voice.
I started blogging again partly to find out what I am curious and passionate about at this stage of my life, what life skills I might learn which will add meaning to the second half of my life, and what I might contribute in return to the communities I am learning from.
Lesson 7. Learn in Public
When you learn something in public, you end up becoming a teacher to others who are learning the same thing at the same time. When you wonder about something you are fascinated by, others join you to wonder together. When you share your obsession with something you love, you connect with others who love the same thing. Make a commitment to learning in public and, if your own work is not ready to share yet, begin by sharing your influences.
I am reading books and taking courses on writing, self-publishing, sketching, thinking visually, forming habits and lifehacking, and applying them in my own life. I’ll share my successes and struggles, but I am beginning by writing about my influences: Julia Cameron’s ‘Artist’s Way’, Ryder Carroll’s ‘Bullet Journal’ and Austin Kleon’s ‘Steal Like an Artist‘ and ‘Show Your Work‘.
Lesson 8. Journal Your Habits
When you are developing a creative habit, having a routine is more important than having unlimited time or resources. Use your constraints to channel your creativity, perhaps even create artificial constraints. Set ridiculously simple, easily achievable goals that you can consistently hit (Stephen Guise calls them ‘Mini Habits‘), create a chain of daily victories, and make a commitment to not break the chain. Start a daily journaling practice and use your journal to track your habits.
I have set myself a goal to write, sketch or blog daily. Some days, I do all three; other days, I do one or two of the three. For the first month, I have not set myself a goal to reach a daily or weekly word count; even one paragraph is enough, as long as I am writing (or sketching) every day. I am tracking my writing and sketching habits, along with other habits I am trying to develop, in a Bullet Journal.
Lesson 9. Become Findable
You can be found only when you become findable. You become findable when you do work that you love and then share your work. When you share your work, people who are interested in it will find you across geographical boundaries, and share it forward with their own networks. Over time, the network effect will kick in and your connections with likeminds around your work will create serendipitous opportunities that far exceed the benefits of traditional networking over cocktails.
I have experienced the benefits of being a part of global community of likeminds, and the network effects it creates, firsthand, and I am writing again party because I have missed it over the last few years.
Lesson 10. Tell Your (Back)story
Your creative process is as important, and as interesting to your community, as the product you create. Document your workplace, your process, and your work-in-progress product daily. When you finish the day’s work, share a snippet from it, and add context. Equally important is your own backstory; people want to know the person behind the creative product, and even value your product differently based on how they connect with your story. Learn to share your own story and how it has led to your current project, and learn to connect your story to your audiences’ stories.
Here’s my story and here’s what I think your story might be. Of course, all our stories are work-in-progress and I hope we can play a part in moving forward each other’s stories.
Lesson 11. Mix Analog and Digital
Your brain works differently in digital and analog modes, so learn to use both. Perhaps, create an analog workspace with paper, post-it notes, Lego blocks, pencils, pens and markers to think through your ideas, find connections between them, and figure out how they fit together. Then, use a digital workspace with a smartphone, tablet, scanner and laptop to create your work, publish it and share it. Or combine digital and analog in your workflow in different ways, by making part of your work digital and part analog.
I don’t have the space in my tiny apartment to have two workspaces, but I use a similar hybrid creative process. I sketch in my Muji sketchbook, then take a picture from my iPhone and post it on Instagram. Or, I write on my Moleskine notebook with a smart pen and the writing gets synced with my M+ Notes app. I am hoping to develop my sketching in both analog and digital modes, by learning to sketch in charcoal and learning to edit my scanned sketches on my tablet.
In Summary: Begin Again
Let me end this post with the lesson I started with. If you used to have a daily creative practice, if you used to learn in public, if you used to share your work, and you stopped, begin again. I would love to hear your stories of beginning again on Twitter or in the comments below.