adopt, adapt, and improve

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There’s an old Monty Python sketch where a bank robber breaks into a lingerie shop. Even after he realizes his embarrassing error, and that the place has no vaults or large stacks of money, he doesn’t let it thwart his plans. In a form of self-motivation, he quotes his old teacher, “Adopt, adapt, and improve.”

I can empathize with the guy. Not that I’ve done much in the way of bank robbing or lingerie shopping lately, but we’ve been undergoing remodel for two of our bathrooms. It’s been a lengthier process than I expected with plenty of semi-permanent decisions to be made.

The toughest part, by far, was trying to pick out the right tile. So. Many. Choices! On top of that, we’ve had to consider what looks good with the parts already in the bathroom. Mainly, how do we work with what we’ve already got, but make it nicer?

I imagine you’ve had a similar experience if you’ve been a creative for long. There are different ways of going about a creative “remodel.”

It may be worth scrapping a project altogether and starting over. That’s a hard (and painful) decision to make. Sometimes necessary though.

However, more often, you’ll retain at least part of your work, but find ways to add to or change it. In that case, you’ve got to decide how to “adopt, adapt, and improve.”

This can be a challenge because, while you may have a sense of what isn’t working, it takes time and testing to figure out what does work. My advice: trust your instincts, even (and especially) if they lead you to unexpected places.

One of the tricky parts is knowing when to stop making changes, when you’ve finally reached completion (not perfection, mind you). Here’s some good writing advice I’ve heard, which applies to more than writing:

If you can’t tell whether the changes you’re making are improvements, it’s time to stop.

So go ahead, rework, reshape, and remaster. But don’t spend so long on it that you can’t see the garden for the flowers. In other words, take a good step back and reexamine the thing as a whole before you get too caught up on details.

And hey, while you’re at it, why not ask for advice? You might try your friendly lingerie clerk down the street for instance. Or not, depending on the street.

balance revisited

As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, I’m reading The ONE Thing. In the book, they talk about “lies,” people often believe.

I’ll admit, most of them I can nod along with and say, “sure, sure,” like Paul Newman’s character from The Hudsucker Proxy (great movie if you haven’t seen it). But some of the supposed “lies” are actually a bit harder for me to swallow. Two in particular: a disciplined life and a balanced life. The book’s authors claim both are a lie.

I consider myself to be a fairly disciplined person and I’m all about that balance stuff.

It turns out the disciplined “lie” isn’t so striking. The argument is that instead of trying to be disciplined in all aspects of life (and failing), just be disciplined in one thing. It makes sense and they use Michael Phelps as an example, so who can argue with that, right?

Balance though, that’s something I’ve really got to lean into (pun alert).

We live in a world full of extremes and I’ve always felt that balance is a healthier approach. There’s a balanced diet, a balanced checkbook, even balance bikes (you know, for kids).

The book makes the argument that while balance sounds great, no one actually achieves it—it’s an impossible ideal. Okay, yeah, maybe there’s some truth to that. 

In my mind, when I finally reach perfect balance I’m sitting alone atop a grassy knoll with legs crossed in some Zen-like trance and, somehow, little stones are hovering around me. That’s the moment right before I single-handedly take on an army of Storm Troopers. Hey, it’s my dream, I can do what I want.

Really, that’s never gonna happen. There are dishes to feed, mouths to change, and diapers to load. Oh, and that whole business about making money in order to keep the lights on. Plus the only Storm Troopers I know are just folks in costume.

Life is too full of important and necessary things to keep them all in balance. I get that. But I still think a mindset of balance is beneficial.

It’s better to allow yourself a little bit of sugar once a day (diabetics not included) than to go a few days without and then totally gorge yourself on it. Same with exercise. A little bit of exercise (like a short jog) every other day is way healthier than none at all followed by a day of pushing your body to the edge of cardiac arrest.

The book’s argument against balance is that only the people who live on the extremes are successful. That may be true in some sense, but I think it’s debatable as a principle for everyone. I know plenty of people who have lived their life on the extremes and done quite poorly for themselves.

The ONE Thing offers “counter balance” as the alternative to a balance life, where you focus on one thing while everything else gets neglected and then you return to the other things and focus on re-balancing. But even they can’t help but give the strong warning not to neglect family life too often for work. So even the balance haters have to admit there’s a need to hold work and family in some kind of equilibrium.

In the end, I think we might be talking about two sides of the same coin here. 

To me, balance is not holding everything equally, giving it all the same amount of time and attention. Clearly that’s not possible. Balance is finding the right amount of time to give every task, thought, emotion, goal, habit etc. If you’re angry all the time, or sad all the time, or even happy all the time, that’s not good. Life has rhythms and flows. For everything there is a season (you know the rest).

It’s kinda like a hula-hoop. You might look pretty silly swinging your hips that way and at the start you just keep dropping it again and again. But, the more you work at it, the more you figure out just the right way to keep that thing going, around and around and around.

Wait, were we talking about balance or centripetal force? Ah well, save it for another post I guess.

By the way, here's my previous post on balance, if you're leaning that way.

a creative divided

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I’ve been reading The ONE Thing by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan. It’s got a lot of good information, much of which I’ve read elsewhere.

Let’s face it, once you start reading those sorts of productivity and success books, you get a lot of the same advice from different people. That probably means it’s good advice.

One practice it warns against (one I know I’m guilty of) is multitasking. The book points out that multitasking really just means dividing attention unequally between two things and, more often than not, doing them both poorly. 

It presents evidence that we can really only pay attention to one thing and the more we try to accomplish at once, the less productive (and more exhausted) we become.

Unlike computers, our minds are not great at quickly switching between multiple tasks.

Sure, we can walk and talk, but that’s because walking typically requires little brain power. Try walking on a tightrope and all of a sudden your jabbering goes away. This is what makes phones and driving a potentially dangerous combination (a little PSA for ya).

As for me, I often divide up my creative attention, and thus my creativity suffers. Writing a book and checking emails at the same time (or designing a game while surfing the web) turn out to be counter-productive. Instead, I should set aside specific blocks of time for each task.

But I have gotten better at doing this (as well as recognizing when I fail). There have been those long stretches of time where I really do sit down and write without interruption. And I feel much better for it.

How about you, have you noticed that your creative output suffers when you try to share your time? More importantly, have you done anything about it?

I leave you with two quotes (I’ll let you guess which of them comes from The ONE Thing).

To do two things at once is to do neither.

-Publilius Syrus

 

Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.

-Ron Swanson

 

your own thing

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Brief one today.

First, a confession. I really like Maggie Rogers’ music. I don’t know, it just moves me. Ya know?

I only recently watched her success story video, which you can find on YouTube here.

In it, Pharrell Williams (Mr. “Happy” himself), listens to Maggie’s song during a music class critique and is clearly blown away. 

Even better than his facial expressions throughout (and Maggie losing herself to the music) is his feedback. 

“You’re doing your own thing,” Pharrell says, “and that is such a special quality and all of us possess that ability, but you have to be willing to seek.”

I think it’s a wise outlook for any creative. 

You can learn from others and study a craft, but in the end, you have to be boldly creative in the one way you were called to be—your own unique way.

When you do that, it stands out because you're doing something truly special in a world full of imitation.

appreciation

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Typically, I’m about a year behind on watching movies—sometimes longer. 

A few reasons: we don’t make it to the theater much (a product of having two young children), movies take time to watch, and there are a lot out there to catch up on.

That said, we saw La La Land recently. This is hardly a review, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. The songs were great and I got to relive my experiences of life in LA, including my pursuits as both a budding actress and an underground jazz club owner.

Ok, maybe not the last bits.

One thing I found ironic (not sure if it was purposeful) was the song, “City of Stars” since, as anyone who lives there knows, both the light pollution and air pollution prevent the seeing of many celestial bodies in the sky. 

Something that really stuck out to me, and the point of this post (yes, I’m getting to it finally), was the presentation of this universal truth: 

You often won’t appreciate something until you see someone else enjoy it.

I don’t think the following is much of a spoiler, but, if you care, be warned.

One of the main characters, Mia, comes out early on in her relationship with Sebastian informing him that she hates jazz. Sebastian, however, is a jazz enthusiast who dreams of starting his own jazz club in hopes to revive the art form.

Sebastian takes the time to sit Mia down and show her why he loves jazz so much. Over the course of the movie, his excitement rubs off and she, too, learns to appreciate jazz.

Now, I’m no jazz buff, but I’ve seen the same story played out many a time through movies and real life. One person has a real passion for a hobby, sport, art form, etc. Eventually, as that passion is lived out, it spreads and others share the same love.

Why does this happen? Excitement spreads.

I’ve definitely seen it happen with board games, and it’s worked on both sides of the table (heh). I’ve learned to enjoy them because of other friends and family who shared them with me. In turn, I’ve shared them with my own friends and family and their interest has grown.

That’s the beauty of creativity: when you share what you love, others learn to appreciate and enjoy the same things you do. A community develops.

I encourage you, take time to sit with someone else and learn about the things they love and why. You may be surprised how your interests change and what you discover. 

In the same way, don’t be afraid to share what you love with others. You just might find a friend or a fellow aficionado. Hey, maybe you’ll find yourself dancing across tables playing jazz flute. You’ll never know until you try.

unqualified

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Elizabeth Swaney pulled off something I expect many of us have imagined attempting (or maybe I'm the only crazy one). She made it into this years Olympic Games despite being totally unqualified.

Swaney, a 33-year-old American exploited a loophole to compete for Hungary in the Halfpipe skiing event. While her performance was, well, exactly what you might expect from an average skier, her ability to get into such a highly competitive event is pretty impressive.

Sure, there’s plenty to be said about whether what she did was right or honest. Maybe it’s insulting to the other athletes. I wouldn't know. But I, for one, admire her cleverness and tenacity.

They don’t just let people walk in you know. Considering the qualifiers and all the various events one must attend as a competing Olympian, Elizabeth gave more than a passing commitment to endeavor—she was all in.

As creatives, we can start out feeling like we don’t belong in the games—in other words—completely unqualified. We begin to wonder, what are we doing here anyway. Everyone (even, and maybe especially, the people who have been at it a while) feels like a fake sometimes. But, you know what, if you never try, you don’t know what you’ll accomplish.

As the baseball-themed motivational saying goes, 

You can't steal second with your foot on first

OK, so you also can't get caught trying to steal bases with your foot on first. Even so, you won't go far (in sports or creativity) without taking a few risks.

I’ll admit, Swaney didn’t put in the years of hard training deserving the sport. This isn’t even her first escapade (she apparently ran against Schwarzenegger for governor of California). Still, you have to hand it to her, she’s got spirit.

If we had half the boldness to just step out there and show the world what we’re made of, well, the world would be a much more inspiring place. And hey, we might even catch the attention of a judge or two before they haul us off the snowy course.

overplayed

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Don’t you hate it when a good song gets overplayed? It is out-and-out the worst.

Ok, maybe not the worst, but it’s pretty bad, mostly because something quite enjoyable has now been ruined forever.

This is one of the reasons I just can’t stand listening to the radio.

I’ve found this happens all the time with Christian worship music. Some artist puts out a really moving, powerful song and, before you know it, everyone is playing it all the time. Suddenly you’re wondering if being deaf might not be that bad after all.

Of course, this happens with all kinds of music. I distinctly remember when The Bodyguard came out and I was subjected to hearing Whitney Houston sing, “I Will Always Love You” more times than should be legally permissible under any jurisdiction.

Overplayed songs are the audio equivalent of eating too many pancakes, what once is God’s fluffy golden-brown gift from heaven becomes a morbid, hellish form of unthinkable torture. 

What is it that makes us lose our sense of moderation and indulge in something far beyond any reasonable level of enjoyment?

I think C. S. Lewis may have touched on this in his book, Surprised By Joy. 

“Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

Too often we exchange joy for pleasure and then lose both. We find something which brings just the faintest glimmer of joy and then grasp it so tight, we squeeze all the joy out of the thing until the wet sponge we once held is now just a bit of chalky dust ground into the folds of our palms.

Even the creative process is subject to such dreadful behavior. 

We discover some method, some little trick that brings a measure of success and we cling to it like a life raft in the middle of a tempestuous ocean.

Trouble is, the same thing over and over gets old fast and a life raft can only take so many waves before it goes under.

Certainly, it’s good to take the time to appreciate a thing of art and beauty, but if you don’t eventually set is aside to make way for other things, you’ll drain all the life out of it, like some obsessive vampire. Instead, keep the door open for a fresh gust of the new to flow in. And mind the garlic.

Heck, I’ll bet even Whitney Houston had to turn off the radio for a while when her song came out. 

I’d also wager she shares my feelings for pancakes. Come to think of it, maybe that’s really what her song was about …

Recommend: LibriVox

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This week I'd like to share an excellent resource I've begun to utilize.

And that, my friends, is

LibriVox

(as if you didn't already know from the post title)

"So what is it?" You ask. "A live-feed of a chipmunk farm? A clown car storage facility? A whittling enthusiasts group?" Nay, nay. All great guesses though. 

LibriVox is a database of public domain audiobooks, recorded by volunteers.

I believe it's been around for some time, but I've just begun to take part in it and have enjoyed the site immensely.

I first listened to their latest Short Science Fiction collection (61) 

Here were a few of my favorites from the collection:
-The Eyes Have It
-Beyond Lies the Wub
-The Spy in the Elevator
-Once a Greech
-The Blue Tower

Now, I'm listening to the classic horror story, Frankenstein. Writing styles sure were different back then, but I'm enjoying it and, as a writer, learning a lot in the process.

I'll admit, the recordings are are varying degrees of quality, but always listenable. And, hey, it's free after all.

So why not head on over there and take a look (or listen rather) in a book?

A brief regard of slow things

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With apologies to Patrick Rothfuss ...

Things take time. Some very good things take a long time.

I’ve been learning to appreciate this, to enjoy the process itself.

The Sequoia national forest is a good place to observe this. Those immense trees have been around for hundreds of years through fire and storm and they just keep on steadily growing. They are remarkable in many ways and, unlike a Los Vegas hi-rise, they didn’t sprout up overnight.

Most of the time, I want to rush everything. Whether it’s my culture or personality (let’s just blame culture, shall we), my tendency is toward instant gratification.

I want it now. Actually, I wanted it yesterday, but since we haven’t quite got time travel down, now will have to do. 

A lot of businesses run this way (even my own at times), and I think the frantic demand for faster and more is killing us.

It definitely doesn’t help where sleep deprivation is concerned.

These last few months have been more a time of rest than rush for me. While I still struggle with feeling unproductive and unaccomplished, I think there is a definite positive side to taking things one slow, measured step at a time. 

The theory holds true with compound interest—very small amounts added in over time equal a much greater end result than a few large deposits.

I heard about a study where they had one group wear spf 15 sunscreen every day and the other wear 65 spf only when they were outside and it was sunny. The result, after only 5 years, was the 15s looked about the same and the 65s look noticeably older. 

Hey, maybe I’m not so crazy when I fret about unprotected exposure to even trace amounts of sunshine. Mr. Sun is a big meanie. 

Anyways, I’m trying to enjoy more things that take time. Lately, I’ve been making batches of cold brew coffee, which, in my completely accurate opinion, tastes way better than the hot brewed kind. But it takes 24 hours of brewing as well as some prep work and cleanup.

Besides the end result (smooth, delicious coffee), the process itself is kinda fun. It makes me feel like some kind of coffee connoisseur.

In my office, I’ve got a standing desk with a hand crank. It was way cheaper than the electronic one. It takes longer and requires some effort to crank that baby up and down a few times a day, but it’s also a nice little break for me.

Sure, it’s more work to grow your own vegetables rather than buy them from the store, to write a letter by hand, or to take a break and soak your feet at the end of the day. But the attention required by slow things leads to a greater appreciation, and, ultimately, enjoyment of the thing itself.

So take a break now and then, smell the flowers or put a kettle of hot water on the stove for some tea. You may just find yourself smiling. 

And, hey, you could use a break.

pandering

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As a writer, I’ve thought often about working with the audience in mind. It’s advice I’ve heard from many a source: know your audience.

It’s not always easy advice to follow. Do I pick one person and write with them in mind? Do I try to guess exactly what an entire demographic would want to read?

I’ve heard some folks advise extensive research before even getting started. First discover a popular subject and then choose a niche market within that. Make sure your every word caters to those within the market.

While this approach may turn out lucrative for some, I fear it may also be soulless, passionless, and disingenuous. In short, it’s pandering.

The way I see it, pandering is playing tunes you know the crowd wants, even if it’s not the music of your own heart.

I saw a comedian making fun of this in country music. I couldn’t help but laugh at how dead-on his spoof of the popular modern country song turned out. He even had a gust of wind blowing his hair at just the right moment.

On the other hand, I just read an article from an author I respect who suggested that writers don’t need to know who their audience is (at least not at first). It took me by surprise, since I don’t think I’ve heard that from anyone else. I appreciated the untypical approach.

Whether you’re a writer, musician, designer, director, chef, or any other form of creative, there will exist a temptation to take the popular route, to put the audience first. But, may I humbly submit, good art is never made this way.

True art is made from inside.

I know, it sounds so hippy and new-agey, like something my high school art teacher might have (most definitely) said. But I’ve found it to be the case. 

When you begin with the things you care about, when the art truly matters to you, it will inevitably matter to someone else, too.

Pandering, on the other hand, may win you some fans, but you’ll also lose a lot of respect from other creatives and you yourself will not find satisfaction in your work.

Now, it’d be wrong to say the audience doesn’t matter. Of course they do. You don’t create in a black hole.

There is clearly a time to consider who would be most interested in your work—once you’ve made it. But don’t start out with the goal of winning friends and influencing people by making what you think they’ll want.

You will find the right audience when you produce the best work you can. 

That happens when you let your creativity flow out of something you delight in, something real to you. Then you will naturally draw the best kind of audience, the one that appreciates you and your work for what it is, an expression of your true self.