Art

Turning Pro – Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro – by Steven Pressfield
Date read: 7/2/19. Recommendation: 7/10.

A solid follow-up to Pressfield’s earlier book, The War of Art. Short, concise, and relevant for any artist or entrepreneur. Highlights the difference between amateurs and professionals, and what it takes to reach the top of your craft. Pressfield discusses shadow careers, the power of concentration, navigating fear, and standing on your own. He also emphasizes that habits are the primary difference between amateurs and professionals. Professionals have better habits that help them simplify life.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Shadow Careers vs. Your Calling

  • Shadow career = metaphor for real career. Shape is similar but entails no real risk. No skin in the game. No consequences.

  • Pressfield’s version was driving trucks instead of writing…took pride in it, felt powerful + manly, the work was interesting, romance of being on the road.

Power of Habits

  • Habits are the primary difference between amateurs and professionals.

  • Professionals have better habits that help them simplify life.

  • “The Zen monk, the artist, the entrepreneur often lead lives so plain they’re practically invisible.” SP

  • Pros face just as much fear, but structure their day to confront and overcome it.

Overcoming Resistance

  • To overcome resistance, you need concentration and depth.

  • If you’re shallow and unfocused, you’ll never make it out.

  • The draw to failure or trouble is so strong because its incapacitating, let’s you off the hook.

  • What you’re must afraid of is what you must do.

Signs of an Amateur

  • Fear dictates decisions (fear of being different or rejected leads to inauthenticity, fear of solitude and silence).

  • Avoid resistance through drama, denial, distraction.

  • To combat this, you need self-awareness.

Signs of a Professional

  • Seek wisdom and instruction from masters without surrendering self-sovereignty.

  • Doesn’t sit around waiting for inspiration, acts in anticipation. Orderly, workmanlike in habits and routine.

  • Trusts and examines the mystery. “The place we write from (or paint from or compose from or innovate from) is far deeper than our personal egos. That place is beyond intellect. It is deeper than rational thought.” SP

  • “The best pages I’ve ever written are pages I can’t remember writing.” SP

Life is a Single Player Game

  • There is no tribe. The artist and the entrepreneur enter the arena alone.

  • “In the hero’s journey, the wanderer returns home after years of exile, struggle, and suffering. He brings a gift for the people. The gift arises from what the hero has seen, what he has endured, what he has learned. But the gift is not that raw material alone. It is the ore refined into gold by the hero / wanderer / artist’s skilled and loving hands.” SP

Steal Like an Artist – Austin Kleon

Steal Like an Artist – by Austin Kleon
Date read: 5/27/19. Recommendation: 7/10.

Short read on creativity and the importance of your influences. It reminded me of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Kleon discusses the creative struggle, where to find inspiration, and how to leverage influences. Anyone can imitate style on a surface level and copy what’s been done. But the most talented artists take it one step further. They steal the thinking behind the style–the mindset of their influences–to emulate and create something of their own. Great reference for smart creatives who want to hone their craft and build the endurance to play the long game.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Your Influences Matter:

  • “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” David Bowie

  • “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” Goethe

  • Start with a single thinker you love. Find and study three people that influenced them. Begin to build branches of your own.

  • “It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.” AK

Ignore Style, Look Deeper:

  • “Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, your want to see like your heroes.”

  • Similar to quote from Marcus Aurelius: "Take a good hard look at people's ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out."

Imitation:

  • Imitation = copying. Emulation = one step further, creating something that is your own.

  • “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.” Conan O’Brien

  • “Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.” AK

Inspiration to Create:

  • Step 1) Wonder at something. Step 2) Invite others to wonder with you.

  • “Complain about the way other people make software by making software.” Andre Torres

Power of routine and systems: 

  • “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert

  • Mark art your main relaxing activity (Derek Sivers). A day job gives you financial freedom, human connection, and routine. Use it to your advantage. 

Creativity is subtraction:

  • Limitless possibilities can be paralyzing, place constraints on yourself. 

  • “What we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.” Saul Steinberg

  • “It’s often what an artists choose to leave out that makes the art interesting.” AK

Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull

Creativity, Inc. – by Ed Catmull
Date read: 1/22/19. Recommendation: 9/10.

One of the best modern examples of the impact that comes from harnessing creativity and building a culture where the creative process can thrive. Catmull discusses the evolution of Pixar Animation, including the philosophies and strategies that have established them as creative force. Most notably, the team at Pixar embraces the years of ambiguity inherent to the creative process as a story evolves into its own. Instead of becoming attached to a single storyline or character, they seek out a deep truth at the core of the film–the guiding principle–and craft the story around that. Catmull also emphasizes the role of leadership in cultivating creativity. It starts with loosening your grip, accepting risk, trusting your people, and giving them space to do what they do best. See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Problems are the rule, rather than the exception. Even at great companies.
Mentality at Pixar is that they will always have problems, many of them hidden. But they work hard to uncover them, embrace the discomfort, and band together to solve them.

“The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal–it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.” EC

Blending Art + Technology
Walt Disney embraced new technologies…he would incorporate it into their work (blue screen matting, multi-plane cameras, xerography) and talk about it on his show to highlight the relationship between art and technology.

Catmull and Pixar took the same approach, blurring the lines between disciplines. Result was Toy Story, the first computer animated feature film.

Leadership
Goal is to enable people to do their best work. That means more creative freedom (autonomy + empowerment), less tightening your grip.

The best leaders all have a single trait in common – self-awareness.

People > Ideas (because ideas come from people)
Always try to hire good people who are smarter than you. Then figure out what they need, assign them to projects that match their skills, and ensure they work well together.

“It is the focus on people–their work habits, their talents, their values–that is absolutely central to any creative venture.” EC

Bet on Yourself
George Lucas, instead of demanding higher salary after success of American Graffiti (the norm in Hollywood, bump up your quote), skipped the raise and asked to retain ownership of licensing and merchandising rights to his next film, Star Wars.

Ed Catmull felt like a fraud in his early years as president of Pixar. He didn’t share the aggressive tendencies of other flashy leaders. Imposter feeling finally went away after years later after repeated experience of weathering failures, watching films succeed, building Pixar’s culture, and developing relationships.

Decisiveness
“As long as you commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.” EC

Make your best guess and go with it. Decisions can be made far faster (product development) if you assess them in terms of how reversible they are (*See Shane Parrish’s interview with Shopify’s CEO, Tobi Lütke).

Avoid the temptation to oversimplify (and overcomplicate)
In early days of Pixar while Catmull was selling the Pixar Imaging Computer to make money, he sought advice of experienced professionals because he was unsure and stressed. Simple answers were seductive and prevented him from asking more fundamental questions.

Many leaders assume too much credit in their successes and ignore the role of randomness and luck.
*See Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness + Occam’s Razor

Important to acknowledge role of randomness and luck, because this allows you to keep an open mind, check your ego, and make rational decisions. Not everything you did was a stroke of genius.

Make room for the unknown in creativity. It can bring inspiration and originality. Not everything needs to have a point or be about productivity/efficiency.

Thinking Fast vs. Slow
Steve Jobs would often shoot down Ed Catmull’s arguments when they disagreed because he was a much faster thinker. Catmull would wait a week, collect his thoughts, deliberate, then state his case. Jobs always kept an open mind.

Candor and Trust
“A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.” EC

Without candor, you fail to establish trust. Without trust, creative collaboration becomes impossible.

You are not your idea. If you emotionally invest and overidentify with your idea, you’ll become defensive when challenged or given feedback.

Guiding Principles
The search for a story is the search for a guiding principle. This allows Pixar’s films to evolve drastically from their original treatments. Once they find the guiding principle, easier to build the characters, storyline, settings to better communicate that.

Don’t become emotionally attached to a single character or storyline, become emotionally attached to the guiding principle. Look for deep truths and build from there.

“Originality is fragile. And, in its first moment, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films ‘ugly babies.’ They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing–in the form of time and patience–in order to grow.” EC

Pixar’s use of “guiding principles” could be interchangeable with “vision” in product development. Don’t get attached to a single feature. Invest in the vision.

Experimentation and Failure
“Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information.” EC

Animated shorts are Pixar’s version of prototypes. Relatively inexpensive way to test the waters and see if they’re onto something.

Make it safe to take risks: “Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them...Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.”

Constraining creativity is a steep price: “The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.”

Depth
“We all know people who eagerly face the unknown; they engage with the seemingly intractable problems of science, engineering, and society; they embrace the complexities of visual or written expression; the are invigorated by uncertainty. That’s because they believe that, through questioning, they can do more than merely look through the door. They can venture across its threshold.” EC

Creativity
“Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hallow character finds its soul.” EC

“Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.” EC

Learn the fundamentals and key players (the map), then rip it up and make your own way (*See Bob Dylan, Chronicles). At its core, creativity is about embracing ambiguity and discomfort.

“There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.” EC

“Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.” EC

Multiculturalism
When Disney acquired Pixar, Catmull helped run both animation departments separately. Wanted each to have their own identities and be able to differentiate themselves, as long as they shared a sense of personal ownership and pride in the company.

Tobi Lütke, CEO of Shopify, has a similar approach. He encourages each group within the company to establish their own culture. He doesn’t try to impart a single homogenous culture across the entire organization.

The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World – by Andrea Wulf
Date read: 8/18/18. Recommendation: 9/10.

The story of one of the most profound polymaths you've probably never heard of. Humboldt was a Prussian explorer, writer, geographer, and naturalist born in 1769. He revolutionized the way we view the natural world by making connections and framing nature as a unified whole. He viewed everything as reciprocal and interwoven, challenging the human-centered perspective that ruled up until that point in time (i.e. 'nature is made for the sake of man'). Humboldt's fascination with nature brought together art and science, combining exact observation with painterly descriptions, which helped make science far more popular and accessible. His work also influenced generations of scientists and writers including the likes of Charles Darwin, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau. It's easy to see why Humboldt was so influential–the stories Wulf tells of his expeditions and adventures well into old age, are both fascinating and inspiring. 

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 

 

My Notes:

Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked.

A multidisciplinary approach:
Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world by making connections everywhere. He shaped our modern understanding of nature through his comprehensive/multidisciplined approach. "In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation." AVH

In nature (and in our individual lives) getting the overall conditions right is essential if we want to thrive.
-Neither our lives nor the forces of the natural world are siloed, independent components. Everything is interwoven.

Childhood tendencies:
-Escaped the classroom whenever he could to ramble through the countryside, collecting and sketching plants/animals/rocks.
-Would come back with pockets full of insects and plants, nicknamed 'the little apothecary'

Republic of Letters:
-During the new Age of Enlightenment, scientists around the world started an intellectual community that transcended national boundaries, religion, language. Used letters to pass along new ideas and scientific discoveries. Ruled by reason, not by monarchs.

Relationship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
-Despite Humboldt being 20 years younger, they became scientific sparring partners.
-Not a traditional master/apprentice relationship. One based on mutual respect, admiration, collaboration, and reciprocity.
-Goethe worked more intensely than he had in years after he met Humboldt.
-Goethe encouraged Humboldt to combine art and science.
-Goethe said that a single day with Humboldt brought him further than years on his isolated path.

"Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul." -AVH

Humboldt challenged the human-centered perspective that had ruled humankind's approach to nature for millennia (i.e. Aristotle: "Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.") He viewed everything as reciprocal.

Journey through Venezuela in 1800 would change the course of his life. This is where his fascination with the natural world married science and art.

No scientist had referred to nature like this (thanks to Goethe's influence)
Rapids of Orinoco: "Coloured bows shine, vanish, and reappear." Always measured and recorded, but brought the scene to life.

"What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements" AVH

Chimborazo Expedition:
-Snowcapped volcano in Ecuador, 21k feet (believed to be highest mountain in world)
-2,500 mile journey from Cartagena to Lima through harsh landscapes pushed their physical limits
-They were supposed to return home from Quito, but the ship that was supposed to come took a different route than they expected. Rather than despair, became an opportunity with Humboldt's perspective. Allowed them to set out for the volcanoes. 
-"Mountains held a spell over Humboldt. It wasn't just the physical demands or the promise of new knowledge. There was also something more transcendental. Whenever he stood on a summit or a high ridge, he felt so moved by the scenery that his imagination carried him even higher. This imagination, he said, soothed the 'deep wounds' that pure 'reason' sometimes created."

Naturgemälde, a lesson in the importance of the way you present/depict information;
-Drawing of Chimborazo that illustrated nature as a web in which everything was connected.
-By picking a particular height of the mountain, you could trace connections across the table to see temperature, humidity, species of plants/animals at different altitudes.
-No one had shown such data visually before, showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents. 

Unified Whole:
-He wasn't interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them. Less concerned with classifying the world into taxonomic units with a strict hierarchy and categories, like the scientists before him.
-To prove this, he couldn't look at it just as a botanist, geologist, or zoologist. Had to take a multidisciplinary approach and leverage each.

Racial Equality - Reflected his expanded worldview from being well traveled, greater empathy and greater tolerance when you've interacted with different people/societies/cultures. 
-Humboldt believed slavery was a disgrace and the greatest evil.
-All members of the human race were equal, from the same family (much like plants). Humankind just one small part. But nature itself is a republic of freedom (where he differed from Thomas Jefferson).

Location matters:
Returning to Europe after his adventures he chose Paris. Hub of like-minded thinkers, scientific societies, and Europe's publishing center (for fast distribution so he could share his new ideas). 

Broad appeal, reaching new audiences:
Scientists and thinkers were impressed by his publications and lectures, fellow writers adored his adventurous stories, while the fashionable world of Parisian society was delighted by his charm and wit.

Personal Narrative:
-Humboldt's book that followed his voyage chronologically to South America.
-First travel book to ever combine exact observation with a painterly description of landscape.
-Previous writers only measured, or collected plants, or gathered economic data from trading centers.
-Took readers onto the crowded streets of Caracas, across the dusty plains of the Llanos, and deep into rainforest along the Orinoco. Capturing imaginations along the way.
-Influenced British literature and poetry with his depictions of South America (Frankenstein, Don Juan).
-This was the book that inspired Charles Darwin to join the Beagle, and he knew it by heart.

Berlin Lectures:
-1827 arrived back to Berlin (reluctantly) after leaving Paris.
-Gave 76 free lectures over the course of 6 months that were unlike anything Berlin had ever seen. 
-Exhilarating, utterly new. By not charging an entry fee, packed audiences ranged from royal family to students, servants, scholars, bricklayers, and half of those attending were women. Democratized science.
-Took his audience on a journey - talked about poetry, astronomy, geology, landscape painting.
-One of his greatest achievements was making science accessible and popular.

Relishing adventure into old age:
-At age 59 on his journey through Russia, rarely showed signs of fatigue. He would walk for hours, crawl into deep shafts, chisel off rocks, scramble up mountains, then set up instruments at night for astronomical observations. *Similar to Ben Franklin, thriving on adventures in old age.

Humboldt's influence on Darwin:
-Showed Darwin how to investigate the natural world from within and without, not just from isolated approach of zoologist, etc.
-Both had the rare ability to focus on smallest detail then pull back to examine global patterns. Flexibility in perspective allowed them both to understand the world in a completely new way.
-Laid the groundwork for his theory of evolution.

Launch point for Darwin:
-Voyage of the Beagle by far the most important event of his life and determined his whole career, as he acknowledged.

Years of dedication:
-Voyage of the Beagle took five years. Much like Humboldt's voyages, these were years of painstaking work. 

Self-awareness:
-When Humboldt began work on his most influential book, Cosmos, he was aware that he didn't and couldn't know everything. Recruited an army of expert scientists, classicists, and historians to help.

Black coffee = "concentrated sunshine" AVH

Cosmos:
-Three sections: 1) Celestial phenomena, 2) Earth (geomagnetism, oceans, earthquakes, geography, meteorology), 3) Organic life (plants, animals, humans).
-Brought together a far greater range of subjects than any other previous book.
-Shaped two generations of American scientists, artists, writers, and poets.

Humboldt's last words at age 89: 
"How glorious these sunbeams are! They seem to call Earth to the Heavens!"

"Voyages on foot, Humboldt said, taught him the poetry of nature. He was feeling nature by moving through it."

"Not only was his life colorful and packed with adventure, but his story gives meaning to why we see nature the way we see it today. In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt's insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary." 

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

The War of Art – by Steven Pressfield
Date read: 4/15/18. Recommendation: 8/10.

Worth the investment for any creative. It's a short read and a manifesto that many hold dear. Pressfield cuts through excuses which embody what he defines as Resistance. He offers blunt advice to eliminate distractions and get on with the work you should be doing. The only thing that matters is sitting down and putting in the effort, every single day. The more you're able to remove your ego from that equation, the less interference there will be. We've all struggled with Resistance in some form–procrastination, fear, low self-confidence, rationalization. The War of Art is a call to overcome that and move yourself into a higher sphere by dedicating uninterrupted time to your craft. 

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 

 

My Notes:

A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center.

How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don't do the thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to?

Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity...will elicit Resistance.

The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Fear doesn't go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.

Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher.

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight.

Anything that draws attention to ourselves through pain-free or artificial means is a manifestation of Resistance. 

A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution out of one's experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat.

The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it. He is lucky. He was born in the right place...The fundamentalist cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. 

The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.

If you find yourself criticizing other people, you're probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.

The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.

The professional takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself...the professional turns down roles that he's done before. He's not afraid of them anymore. Why waste his time?

Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They're the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.

Rationalization keeps us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work.

The professional steels himself at the start of a project, reminding himself it is the Iditarod, not the sixty-yard dash. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. 

A pro views her work as craft, not art.

Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all compromise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.

The professional is prepared at a deeper level...His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.

The ancient Spartans schooled themselves to regard the enemy, any enemy, as nameless and faceless. In other words, they believed that if they did their work, no force on earth could stand against them.

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

What I call Professionalism someone else might call the Artist's Code or the Warrior's Way. It's an attitude of egolessness and service.

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now." -Goethe

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will:
-Seek to elevate his station by advancing against those above him
-Evaluate his happiness/success/achievement by his rank within the hierarchy
-Act towards others based upon their rank in the hierarchy

Qualities of a territory:
-A territory provides sustenance
-A territory can only be claimed alone
-A territory can only be claimed by work
-A territory returns exactly what you put in