attention

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In the past, I’ve made a big deal about focus and how important it is to maintain. I still stand by my words. Or most of them anyway, generally in the same order they were written.

That said, research is showing a particular quality of creative people: something called a leaky attention. I know, sounds kinda messy.

Apparently, the propensity to shift attention often can lead to more creative thought. It makes sense to me;  creativity often means noticing the things other people ignore. And most creatives I’ve met are pretty easily distracted.

Hey what’s that over there?

Whether it’s noticing the sound of a paper bag crunching underfoot, a particular shade of blue painted on the wall, an unusual bug crawling across the table, or the fact that the man in the purple trench coat has been following you for the last three blocks—creatives have a special ability to take in their surroundings and use it toward a creative act.

But there’s a catch, this leaky attention can also become a hindrance when attempting to actually produce creative work, it can distract you from finishing the work itself—or even getting started for that matter. Hey, someone should write a course on how to overcome that. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.

As the Psychology Today article points out:

Artistic creativity is a delicate balance of spontaneity and deliberation. 

I’ve found this to be true in my own life. There is a time to be open, to breathe in the inspiration around you. But once that spark has ignited a flame, you must nourish and protect it. You must concentrate your efforts on building that flame into a bonfire, sheltering it from the winds of distraction. Like a vacuum cleaner, you’ve gotta flip the switch from intake to output. However, unlike my metaphors, fires and vacuums don’t mix. You can take my word on that one.

There are times when it’s best to pay attention and times when you’re better off taking a rain check on it. It takes time and practice to learn the difference. Still, there’s nothing keeping you from trying it now.

But first, I recommend ditching that trench-coated creeper on your trail. Based on his fashion sense, he’s either up to no good or he’s a distant relative of Grimace. Either way, not one to be trusted.

childhood dreams

Have you seen Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture

The video has been around for a while, but I just saw it for the first time recently. As a guy who works in the digital gaming industry and at a studio that has been part of multiple VR projects, this is right up my alley.

But even if you care not for such things, this final lecture is more than worth watching. In it, Randy talks about achieving his childhood dream, helping others achieve theirs, and what he’s learned in the process.

He also shares some great insights into brick walls and head fakes. I guess head fakery and walls of brick don’t usually go well together, but they’re great here!

I’m sad Randy isn’t still around, but I think you’ll agree the world is a better place for having had a guy like him in it.

Check it out, why don’t ya.

agency

How much control do you really have over your own life?

That’s a tough one. It’s a question I’ve often wrestled with and I’m not going to pretend I’ve found the perfect answer. 

I can tell you this much: it’s somewhere between absolute control and none at all.

I know. Helpful, right?

There’s a benefit to finding the balance here. If you believe you have no control, you might wonder what the point is in trying. If you think you have total control, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed when, inevitably, things don’t go your way.

Somewhere, there is a place of healthy surrender that allows you to accept what you can’t change and a determination to change what you can.

If this is sounding familiar to you, it’s likely because I’ve touched on it before.

There’s a word that’s come up a lot this past year, one I’ve rested my thoughts upon like a bag of potatoes on a scale. The word: Agency.

Just what is agency?

From wikipedia, agency is:

The capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Even in Christian circles (and squares too) there are some major disagreements on how much is up to us. Is God doing everything here or do I have some say in the matter? It all comes down to agency.

In story writing, the necessity to create characters with agency comes up again and again. Characters with strong desires and inner drives—the kind that make things happen—tend to be more interesting than those who just get bullied around by the plot and don’t put up a fight.

Indeed, some of the best stories (in my opinion, and probably yours as well) are those in which the protagonist refuses to back down or give up the fight, no matter how grim the odds. The movies IP Man and Unbroken come to mind here. Sorry, Japanese, you don’t get a lot of love in either of those. Does it help if I say Studio Ghibli is amazing? I mean, come on, a cat bus? Wow.

Where were we? Oh yeah, so where does agency come from? Do we muster it up ourselves or is it granted to us from a higher power? Why do some seem to have more of it than others?

Quite frankly, my dear, I’m not quite sure. There is much to consider about agency.

Like most things, it’s helpful to start with a few investigative questions:

What does agency look like in your life and in the lives of people around you?

Is it something you strive for?

Do you take responsibility for your actions?

Do you own the work you do?

Is anything truly yours?

Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But it’s something to think about isn’t it?

How about this: when I figure it all out, I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m going to try my darnedest to do my best at the things that matter most. But at the same time, I want to work on being humble and thankful for even getting the opportunity to try. 

Can any of us really say we’re the masters of our destiny? Or maybe secret agents of agency?

I have my doubts, but, at the end of the day, I’m just glad to be here and I’m glad to be me. And I’m glad you’re here too.

change of place

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Do you ever find yourself in a mental rut?

You’ve been chewing on a problem for a while, much like a cow and her cud, but so far you’ve got nothing to show for it but the bland taste of cud in your mouth. Ew.

You sit down to write and nothing comes. You just can’t figure out the next step for your grand business plan.

Here’s an idea: why not try a new locale?

This article I found (actually, it landed in my work inbox) offers some strong support for changing your environment as a way to stimulate your brain and help you be more productive, whether you’re on the job or working your creative craft.

Here’s a snippet of said article:

Checking off your tasks in a new location is a way to exercise your brain’s neuroplasticity. Essentially, when confronted with new stimuli your brain responds by creating new pathways and mechanisms to accomplish tasks. So what you see as being more efficient in a different location is actually your brain thinking about the tasks in a different light. By doing this, you are climbing out of the stale rut you were in before, activating your brain’s ability to think about things in a new way. 

Besides relocating, there are other things you can do as well. Try listening to some classical music or alpha waves. Try activating your olfactory senses with some new spices or going to a fragrant restaurant. In short, shock your mind by giving it something out of the norm.

Just be careful where you put your nose while you’re out on the hunt for some creative stimulation. Not all smells were created equal.

pain zone

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There’s the cone zone and the danger zone. But what about the pain zone?

Let’s be honest, no one really likes pain, at least not when it’s happening to them. Let me rephrase that, no sane person likes pain. I myself happen to have a very strong aversion to the stuff. I must be quite sane.

Pain is not fun. Pain is not enjoyable. Pain is highly unpleasant.

However, pain is a great indicator when something is wrong. Those who are unable to experience pain often end up causing themselves severe damage. They are a danger to themselves.

But what about those unwilling to experience it? It’s another sort of danger.

For many, pain is a limiter. Once they reach the threshold of pain, they stop. For others, it’s an open invitation.

After reading this post from Pressfield (who else?), I can’t stop thinking about what it means to be deep in the pain zone, and how to willingly stay there.

It’s a very short post, but in case you just can’t be bothered, here’s the gist: the difference between someone who is good and someone who is great is their capacity to go deeper into the pain zone and stay longer.

Personally, I’ve been holding this thought while doing my regular sets of pushups. Even when it’s burning and I want to collapse to the floor, I think, can I stay in the pain zone a little longer? Can I do just a few more?

Not all pain is physical. Indeed, some of the greatest pains can’t be felt in the normal sense. 

How many get stuck, unwilling to press on because their own personal pain zone is too much for them to bear? 

Does that pain zone keep you from accomplishing your goals and reaching your dreams? Does it leave you stuck in Decent-ville, right outside the threshold of Great-topia?

I invite you to feel a little bit more of that burn, to let the sting endure just a moment longer before you back down. Then, when you come back to it again, stronger than before, go just a little further. 

Is it fun? Heck no. But when you learn how to endure and you finally watch your  pain lead to progress, you’re gonna smile through the tears.

self check

When our daughter is getting out of control, my wife will often pull her aside and lovingly suggest (or strongly require) that she do a “self check”.

The self check is a reminder to pause and reassess how things are going, whether or not she’s behaving the way she ought. Sure, it doesn’t always work, and it’s still her call whether she’s going to make the right decision, but it often helps bring her back from the edge. It helps us temper our own anger as well.

The self check can be a handy practice, not just for kids on the verge of crazy, but also for your own personal discipline.

I’ve been reading through Dr. Wayne Andersen’s promotional booklet Stop. Challenge. Choose. It’s mostly about recognizing our habits and turning the unhealthy ones into healthy ones. At least, that’s what the parts I’ve read are about.

It’s Andersen’s own brand of the self check:

-Pause when you’re faced with a choice that could lead to unhealthy action.

-Confront the temptation by considering whether it will lead you in the direction you want to go.

-Make a decision.

Besides just examining my daily habits, I’ve been trying to pause and do my own form of self check. At present, I’m focusing on my posture (it can get pretty bad) and breathing.

At different times throughout the day, I’ll do a self check to assess where I’m at and what sorts of thoughts I’m holding. Then I’ll straighten my back, and breathe deep. It actually makes a difference. I’ve noticed I can think more clearly and just feel better and more emotionally stable.

I’ve even found it helps promote creative thought as I end up being less distracted and more open to new and exciting ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy to remember to do this and it’s not like I’m transported to some happy place where everything’s peachy and I’m floating on a cloud. But at least I come away a little more refreshed and with a better perspective.

So, next time you feel out of control or faced with temptation, try a self check. Take a little break and a big breath. Think about where you’re heading. Examine your thought patterns. Then straighten up and press on (hopefully in a better direction).

practice round

While playing board games—something I try to do regularly—there’s a little tactic I’ve found helpful for new players: the practice round.

When one or more people are unfamiliar with a particular game, it’s useful to play a round or two of a pretend game so they can get some idea of the rules and strategy of the game. Then the pretend game is over and the real game starts as if the practice had never happened. This helps beginners avoid making costly mistakes right at the start.

Now, I don’t do this all the time. Some games are easy enough even for the uninitiated. But some players will request a practice round and sometimes I’ll suggest it  for more complicated games or when I know the person playing may need a little help.

Practice rounds are great and occasionally they’ll go well enough that the players decide to just continue on as a real game rather than starting over. But I’ve never just stopped playing a game after a practice round. Any game worth playing is worth playing for real, right up until the end where a winner is determined.

When it comes to the creative calling, there are those who live in a continual state of practice round and those who play for real, win or lose.


I’m currently reading Pressfield’s The War of Art and in it he writes about the difference between the professional and the amateur. I think the practice round serves as an excellent example of an amateur’s mindset.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is a time for practice rounds, a time to test the waters and see if you’re ready to commit to learning a craft. But at some point you’ve got to decide whether you’re going to lay it down or go all in.

I spoke with a friend a few weeks ago who told me of the expensive recording equipment he’d purchased in order to begin making films for his business. It was a big cost, and he hadn’t anticipated some of the purchases. Still, he knew it was necessary if he was going to make top-notch videos for his work.

There’s no doubt in my mind whether or not he was serious about his pursuit. For him, practice time had ended and the games had begun.

I’d also like to point out that I’m not dogging on practice itself. The time and patience it requires to learn a new skill through repetition is all part of the game. What I am saying is that you won’t create something worthwhile by merely dabbling. You’ve got to get serious.

I once heard Brandon Sanderson relate the act of creative writing to a performance art, something you rehearse over and over until you’ve got it down just right.

Perhaps every creative undertaking is a performance in some way, even when the creator is both actor and audience. It’s a determination to go through your lines, reveal the inner workings of your character, and tell your story the best way you know how.

Even if it’s all an act, it’s not just for show. Whether you’re memorizing your lines and placement, sitting down to write the next scene in your book, or trekking around town with a camera and microphone for interviews, it’s all part of the buildup to the big finale, the final score.

Sure, commitment is hard. Games take time to learn and play. Any game worth playing has risk—the possibility of losing. But that’s what makes the win feel so good. Even a loss can be a valuable lesson, one that’ll equip you for the next game. 

When you really love the game, you have fun playing no matter what the outcome. Because sometimes a win is more than just a victory, it’s knowing you played the game well.

Besides, nobody wins in the practice round.

positive

Whether you’re still holding strong to your New Years commitment, or you’re just trying to be a committed person in general, your attitude will have a major impact on the results.

Some say attitude is everything. I don’t think I’d go that far, but it is super important.

The way you feel about a thing or task has a big impact on how you treat it. If keeping to that low-carb diet seems impossible, you won’t do it. If you don’t think you can become a better pickleball player, you probably won’t. But if you look at such activities and habits with a hopeful, expectant attitude then you’ll likely stick to them and improve.

The sage words from Diamond Dallas Page in his yoga video series keep forcing their way in my thoughts,

“If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Just after that, the venerable DDP turns and looks straight into the camera (I mean, your soul) and says, “Come on, you can do this!”

You know what, he’s got a point, even if his coaching methods are a bit cheesy. Then again, he’s buff and healthy, so he probably knows what he’s talking about.

When it comes to animals and children, positive reinforcement has often shown to be a more effective training method than the negative version. It helps to catch them doing the right thing and heap on the praise and treats. 

Don’t bother with cats though, they just do whatever the heck they want. No amount of catnip can get them to dance Merengue. Trust me on this.

Rewards and encouragement are a solid path to good actions getting repeated. But how often do we shut ourselves down with our own negative self talk?

“It’s too hard”

“I’ll never get there”

“It’s not worth the effort”

“I’m just not good enough”

I’ve caught myself saying these more often than I’d like to admit. The problem is, these statements only become truthful because we repeat them until we believe them.

It’s time to replace such statements with something more helpful.

“It’s worth a try”

“I can only get better”

“At least I can give it my best”

“I can do this”

Can these statements enable us to do humanly impossible things like jump to the moon? Well, no. But wait … no, still no.

However, they can change our attitude toward what is possible and get us to jump higher and farther than we ever believed we could. You just can’t know your limits until you try and push them.

What creative effort have you talked yourself out of? Why not give yourself a little positive pep talk (and surround yourself with encouraging friends) then try again? Where will it take you? You’ll never know until you try. 

Come on, I’m positive you can do this!

the elements of style

After having heard many recommendations, I finally purchased and read Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style.

If you write at all, in any capacity, this is a must-read.

Not only is it incredibly short, clever, and to the point, it also has some insightful thoughts on writing itself—some of which impacted me greatly.

Sure, it’s not the final word on proper writing and even I disagreed with some of the points (this from a rather agreeable guy), but it’s a great overview of the essentials. I expect I’ll return to it often.

Allow me to share just a few excerpts that I found striking:


“Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. … The first principle of composition, therefore, is to force or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. … The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.”

 

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

“All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.”

“Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.”

“A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it incredibly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.” 

mediocre

Have you ever felt like your hobbies weren’t good enough? Or maybe you considered starting a new hobby but never began because the bar for excellence seemed way out of reach.

If so, it’s a downright shame.

Personally, I’ve taken on many-a hobby over the years, some to a greater extent than others, but I’ve found all of them rewarding in their own ways. 

I dove into the fine craft of painting miniatures just so I could have nice figures for a board game that a friend had given me. It’s not something I plan to do again, but I was happy with the outcome and glad to have a deeper understanding of the process.

Lately, I’ve been trying my hand at piano. As is often the case for a skill with a broad spectrum of talent, I began thinking, “hey, I’m not too bad at this!” and quickly shifted to, “oh, this is super hard, I don’t know if I’ll ever get very good.”

But you know what? I still enjoy hitting those keys and making some kind of sound that isn’t totally terrible. Right now, I’m just happy if I can go through one full scale, back to front, without messing up the fingering.

All this to say, you should check out this article by Tim Wu 

In Praise of Mediocrity

In it, he makes a strong case for not only having a hobby, but also enjoying it regardless of your skill level.

I tend to agree; it takes a lot of the pressure off and makes things more fun that way. After all isn’t that what a hobby should be all about?