Creativity

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.

Chronicles – Bob Dylan

Chronicles: Volume One – by Bob Dylan
Date read: 11/23/18. Recommendation: 8/10.

Dylan’s career is a master class in embracing the impermanence of identity and authenticity. The fragments of himself that he brought to life shows he understands this in a deep way. Dylan resonates with people because his songwriting tracks his own development as a human being. His songs reflect who he was–his observations, experiences, and imagination–and who he refused to be at each point in time. In Chronicles, it helps to be familiar with Dylan’s work since the chapters jump between different points of his career and he name-drops dozens of obscure folk artists. If that’s not your thing, it’s still worth reading. Just don’t get hung up on the dense sections. Dylan, full of complexity and brilliance, offers insight into creativity, identity and human nature. Chronicles will challenge the way you think and force you to consider things through a new lens–perhaps the highest compliment a book can receive.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

Mentors and Influences:
Woody Guthrie:
Dylan attributes his beginnings directly to Woody. The course of his life changed when he first heard him on a record in Minneapolis. Felt Woody had such a grip on things and a fierce poetic soul. On criticism that Dylan was trying too hard to be like Guthrie at the beginning of his career: “I wasn’t trying to fool anybody. I was just doing what I could with what I had where I was.”

Dave Van Ronk: “Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison.” Strong feeling of kinship, because Van Ronk took Dylan in and gave him a real stage with a real audience (Gaslight), a place to crash, showed him around Greenwich Village.

Van Ronk mastered his audience in a way that Dylan would take inspiration from. Would stare intently at someone in the crowd like he was singing just to them. He never phrased the same thing the same way twice.

Gorgeous George: Wrestler who visited Hibbing in mid-50s, walked by Dylan performing in the lobby of the National Guard Armory. Winked and said “you’re making it come alive.” All the recognition he would need for years to come.

“Sometimes that’s all it takes, the kind of recognition that comes when you’re doing the thing for the thing’s sake and you’re on to something–it’s just that nobody recognizes it yet.”

Johnny Cash: “He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest...”

Environment:
Importance of being in the right place. He moved to Minneapolis to find something new and get away from Hibbing. “Nobody was there to greet me and nobody knew me and I liked it that way.”

Then he moved to New York to be closer to the singers he’d heard on records.

Early days when he got a regular gig at the Gaslight he was completely content. “I could breathe. I was free.”

Authenticity:
“It wasn’t money or love that I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn’t need any guarantee of validity.”

“There were a lot of better singers and better musicians around these places but there wasn’t anybody close in nature to what I was doing. Folk songs were the way I explored the universe. They were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I cold say. I knew the inner substance of the thing. I could easily connect the pieces.”

Meaning > Influence. “Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn’t care about doing that. With me, it was about putting the song across.”

Never accepted roles placed upon him. More of a cowboy or rebel than a Pied Piper and the voice of a generation that people wanted him to be.

In an effort to create breathing room for himself and his family, he did things out of left field to confuse people. Recorded country album, used a different voice.

Authenticity can be deception (crafting alternate identity) if you know your intentions. Dylan’s were noble, protecting his family, his privacy, create space so he could get back to experiencing, observing, and creating art.
*Benjamin Franklin did this same thing as Silence Dogood and the personas he crafted to submit essays to his brother’s paper.

Much of Dylan’s art and identity centered around who he refused to be at specific points in time and who he wasn’t. And in a backwards way, this revealed truths about him and breathed a different type of authenticity into his work.

Books/Reading:
Foundation that allows you to piece together your own identity/philosophy.

Dylan tore through books in his early days in New York. Whatever happened to be at the house he crashed at...philosophy, history, political, novels, poetry.

Couldn’t put into words what he was looking for at the beginning of his career so he searched for the principles and outline of it in books.

Machiavelli - it’s better to be feared than loved. Dylan - someone who is loved can inspire more fear than Machiavelli ever dreamed of.

Songwriting:
Happens in degrees, don’t just wake up one day and decide you want to write songs.

If you want to resonate with people, help them discover parts of themselves that they didn’t know were there.

Understanding and articulating the complexities and vagaries of mankind: “I wanted to understand things and then be free of them. I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library–everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right.”

Full complexity of human nature was template behind everything he would write. *Everything around him in the modern world, with all its myths, seemed absurd.

“Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work.” During the Woodstock years, it was impossible for him to observe anything without being observed.

Observation: things you see or hear outside yourself can influence your work. Dylan didn’t feel like he was in every song. But he didn’t feel like he needed to be.

Relaxed concentration: Working on songs for what would become “Oh Mercy” album. “It’s not like they’d been faint or far away–they were right there in my face, but if you’d look too steady at them, they’d be gone.”

Channeling personas into songs: Early days in NYC went to a musical production at a theater featuring songs composed by playwright Bertolt Brecht. Intensity and tough language of the songs drew Dylan in. Singers were thieves and scavengers, roared and snarled. Were like folk songs but more sophisticated. “Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop...”

Transcending the Fundamentals:
“Folk music was all I needed to exist. Trouble was, there wasn’t enough of it. It was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time. It was a huge story but hard to come across. Once I’d slipped beyond the fringes it was like my six-string guitar became a crystal magic wand and I could move things like never before.”

In the early days, Dylan did things right. Put himself in the right environment. Acquired the knowledge first hand. But at some point you reach a plateau of incremental improvement and have to learn how to transcend the fundamentals.

Depth: “You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular. The chilling precision that these old timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing.”

Beyond Folk: Dylan transcended folk roots by putting new imagery and attitude to them. Created something entirely new. What he was trying to express was beyond the framework available.

“It dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns...that I would have to start believing in possibilities that I wouldn’t have allowed before, that I had been closing my creativity down to a very narrow, controllable scale...that things had becomes too familiar and I might have to disorient myself.”

Easy to get distracted by minutiae. Claim a larger part of yourself, don’t get bogged down in the trivial details.

“I had the map, could even draw it freehand if I had to. Now I knew I’d have to throw it away.”

Expectations:
Never identified as the mouthpiece, spokesman, conscience of a generation. Those were expectations set upon him.

“All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”

Struggled with his image growing out of control: “You learn that privacy is something you can sell, but you can’t buy it back.”

“The landscape burned behind us. The press was in no hurry to retract their judgment and I couldn’t just lie there, had to take the bull by the horns myself and remodel the image of me, change the perception of it anyway.” Authenticity as deception

Authenticity and Identity are Moving Targets:
1987: “There was a missing person inside of myself and I need to find him. Now and again, I did try a few times, tried hard to force it.”

“My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces...I couldn’t understand where they came from. The glow was gone and the match had burned right to the end.”

Inspiration:
Dylan felt like he was at the end of the road, stranded. He walked out of a rehearsal with the Grateful Dead, dejected, and wandered into a random jazz bar. Old jazz singer’s voice brought him back to himself and his own voice. Dylan felt like he had opened a window to his soul. Instead, became a source on inspiration and a new beginning.

Films as inspiration...would go to movies to get out of his own head and get into something else for an hour or two.

In Victory, Learn When to Stop:
“I wasn’t looking to express myself in any kind of new way. All my ways were intact and had been for years...I didn’t need to climb the next mountain.”

“Masters of War,” “Hard Rain,” “Gates of Eden,” – “written under different circumstances and circumstances never repeat themselves.”

“I had done it once, and once was enough. Someone would come along eventually who would have it again–someone who could see into things, the truth of things–not metaphorically either–but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what was with hard words and vicious insight.”

Real Artists Don't Starve – Jeff Goins

Real Artists Don't Starve – by Jeff Goins
Date read: 6/8/18. Recommendation 7/10.

Practical and refreshing resource for smart creatives and entrepreneurs. Goins picks apart the myths surrounding the Starving Artist and offers an improved alternative of the Thriving Artist. There are dozens of useful rules of thumb you can apply to your own position, no matter where you are in the journey. Thriving Artists build their creative dreams step by step (not overnight). They focus on rearrangement and building upon the work of those who have influenced them (not obsessing over originality). They leverage their existing jobs for resources (not quitting too early and without reason). They recognize the value of a multidisciplinary approach and multiple revenue streams (not mastering a single skill and risking it all on a single bet). Goins follows this same pattern throughout the book, detailing the difference in mindsets, how to position yourself in the market, and how to make a living. It's a modern-day guide for living a better, more creative life, without struggling for the sake of struggling. 

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

 

My Notes:

Adrian Cardenas left MLB to pursue writing. To begin a new journey, he had to let go of what was expected of him.

Before you can create great art, you first have to create yourself.

The reason many of us never self-actualize is because it's easier to play a role in life than it is to become our true selves. It's easier to conform to what people expect than it is to stand out. But this is not the way great art is made, nor is it the way real artists are made.

Eventually, you have to decide who you are. You have to choose your role and own that identity. 

Creative dreams aren't launched overnight They are built gradually.

Study of 5,000 American entrepreneurs
-In the end, the more cautious entrepreneurs ended up being the more successful ones, whereas the risk takers who quit their jobs early were 33 percent more likely to fail.

The creative life is a series of small steps more than any single giant leap.

"Nothing is new except arrangement." -Will Durant

Creativity is not about being original; it's about learning to rearrange what has already been in a way that brings fresh insight to old material. Innovation is really iteration.

The Starving Artist worries about being original, whereas the Thriving Artist knows that stealing from your influences is how you make great art. (but you have to carefully study your influences before you steal)

Rule of Creative Theft: Greatness doesn't come from a single great idea or eureka moment. It comes from borrowing other people's work and building on it. We steal our way to greatness.

Such discipline is all but lost in our world today. We are far too impatient, too eager to show the world what we have to offer, too unwilling to take the time to learn the fundamentals of a craft. 

For generations, writers have done something similar in copying the words of their favorite authors verbatim. Hunter S. Thompson did this with the work of his idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he wrote out the pages of The Great Gatsby to get a feel for "what it was like to write that way."

The marks of a good apprentice are patience, perseverance, and humility. 
-If you put in the work you will eventually see results.
-If you keep going, you will outlast the majority who quit at the first few signs of trouble.
-And always remember how far you still have to go.

The moment we begin to believe we deserve success is the very moment it will elude us.

Opportunities may come and go, but in the end, hard work is all we can measure.

"Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon, his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course." –Angela Duckworth

An artist's job is not to be perfect but to be creating.

Jeff Bezos: We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.

Gradatim Ferociter: step by step, ferociously.

Can you stick around long enough to see your work succeed? Do you have enough grit to take a few critical hits and keep going? Or will you get discouraged at the first sign of failure?

If you are going to create work that matters, you are going to need an advocate–a person who sees your potential and believes in your work. This isn't just about money. You need someone to give you a chance, maybe even connect you to the right people.

Any job can be a means to making your art, if you have the right perspective. Employers become patrons when we begin to see them not as obstacles to the work we want to do but as a way of funding it.

One of the most important issues for a member of the Creative Class is location.

You must earn the attention of those already established in the scene. How do you do this? Serve them somehow. Use your gifts and talents to help others succeed.

Put your work where it has the greatest potential to succeed.

Study the people who already are where you want to go.

Rule of the Portfolio: Starving Artists believes she must master a single skill, whereas the Thriving Artist builds a diverse body of work.

In the Renaissance, people embraced this intersection of different disciplines, and those who blended them best were rightly called "masters."

Thriving Artists don't just live off their art. Like good investors, they keep diverse portfolios, relying on multiple income streams to make a living...The challenge, then, is knowing what investments to make and when.

Ability to hold multiple conflicting ideas in tension with each other in a way that they can build upon each other.

Every artist must fight for margin to create.

This is what most of us want: not to get rich off our creations but to have enough time and freedom to create what we want. We want to have the means to focus on what matters to us.

We often live out the stories we've been told, sometimes without questioning the truthfulness of them.

First master the mindset. Then the market. Then the money.