Jan 312013

Sure your best efforts will draw criticism. if you’re doing anything significant, some toes will get stomped and a lot of people will be howling at you. Book it.

If you have a trusted friend to take on the antagonist’s role (and you are sure enough in your abilities to take some abuse), have him tell you what a bum you are and why that sucky idea of yours won’t work. The more crass his descriptions and the more impolite he is, the better.

I thought this was a stupid exercise when I heard it, but it makes sense. Better to get used to having your guts torn out by an imaginative but trusted ally; by the time you unleash your idea on the public you’ve already heard the abuse. (Personal note: My ‘nads aren’t big enough or brassy enough for me to try this.)


Jan 302013

Facts are facts. If you’re going to create, your work will get rejected. You will get criticized. It’s a one-on-one battle with resistance, and most of it is in the head.

Have you ever seen those great one-on-one moments in sports? I’m thinking Ali/Frazier, Wilt/Russell, Clemens/Piazza here. It’s intense stuff, and each man will try to shy the other off with death stares, scowls and growls, and a lot of trash talk. If the other peerson blinks, battle’s over. No battle necessary; the outcome’s decided.

The exercise here is to stand, ready for anything. Without blinking. Without being intimidated.


Bonus this week: My new ebook, “Meditations 1 / Brain candy from creative & dangerous,” is nearly completed and will be uploaded on Amazon Friday. I’ll have it available free for a few days starting this weekend, so grab it and tell me what you think. Price will go up to 3.99 next week. I’m having fun with this stuff.

Jan 292013

It’s pretty overwhelming when you look at the scope of a large project. You plan to write a 90,000-word novel, build a company that will out-FedEx FedEx, pitch your idea to a few hundred or so investors/agents/buyers; all of that looks huge. It’ll kick your butt before you even start.

Rip that project into manageable chunks. Rather than taking a constant look at the big picture, what’s the next action? It’s easier to write 500 words or pitch to two markets today than it is to gulp down the whole project.

Like a friend of mine said, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. (This friend also swears it tastes like chicken, but let’s not go there.)


(If you’re interested in this idea, check out David Allen’s Getting Things Done. While his productivity methods have a high geek factor, his idea of next actions makes his whole concept worthwhile, even essential. You”ll find a link to his book in this blog’s sidebar.)

Jan 282013

[Backgrounder: Like many other endeavors, the creative act requires exercise to bring out your best. Most of this exercise is mental, though, because creating anything — great music, that great novel, that wonderful business idea — is more brain work than body work. Persistence, resilience and the hide of a rhinoceros are more valuable here than those washboard abs and 19-inch guns. This week in 3 Graffs, I’ll trot out some exercises to try.]

You’re not an aspiring anything. Let’s get that up front. If you’re an aspiring writer or artist or musician, that means you haven’t done a thing yet. I know better than that.

If you write, you’re a writer. If you have a business idea, you’re an entrepreneur. If you’re aspiring, you’re a wannabe. Pros don’t aspire, they do.

Take that “aspiring” thing and drop it from your vocabulary. Better yet, wind up and throw it, kick it, punt it, body-block it, but get that nonsense as far away from you as you can.


Jan 252013

I like approval. You like approval. Everybody likes approval.

For many, approval is the juice that fuels all actions.

If you’re a living-on-the-edge creative type, approval is probably more important to you. We think we’re understood less than the average Joe, and that sense of validation lets us know we’re not going where the buses don’t run.

Am I on the right track?

Am I in the ballpark? Preferably the right ballpark?

Is this a good idea?

You understand what I mean?

We’re always seeking feedback, as long as it’s positive. We all like good reviews of our work. Negative reviews, not so much.

But here’s the bloody truth: The need for approval is tantamount to asking for permission.

It’s also a trap. A drug. It’s addictive stuff that grabs you and pulls you right down into mediocrity again.

It ain’t rocket science

If you think you’ve come up with a totally out-of-left-field idea and want to get it knocked out of your head, go fishing for approval.

I remember reading about Robert Goddard, the first great rocket scientist. It was all right when he was fooling around with all of this explosive stuff on his own time, but when he suggested that technology could get men to the Moon and beyond, he was considered a nut case. The Smithsonian, his biggest patron, distanced itself from him. The New York Times ran articles ridiculing his theories.

Goddard, of course, being the kind of guy who needed approval, packed up his theories and blueprints before heading back to his aunt’s farm in Massachusetts with his tail between his legs.

OK, that’s the revisionist story.

What really happened was that he began to shun the publicity, spending more time with scientists he trusted and testing out his theories. Finally, in 1926 he fired off his first liquid-fueled rocket, scaring all the farm animals and jump-starting the space age.

Flash forward a few years, to 1969. While Apollo 11 was en route to the Moon with Neil Armstrong anticipating his first steps on another celestial body, the Times printed a correction to its stories bashing Goddard, who was no longer around to see his vindication.

But here’s what Goddard had to say about his efforts:

“Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it,” he told a reporter. “Once realized, it becomes commonplace.”

Into and out of approval mode

I admit to falling into that approval thing. More than I’d care to admit. It was a big part of childhood (having high-achievement parents with strong personalities tends to raise the bar a bit), and I carried a lot of that to adulthood. I worked for Charlie Hand and Verne Peyser, editors with a ton of credentials and personalities to match, and of course I tried my level best to please them.

But you know what? I did my best work in those moments when I was able to forget Charlie or Verne were around, went to doing my own stuff and working to the point where even I was pleased with what I did. Sure, it was great to have these guys there to provide guidance, but when I’m not working solely for their approval that’s when I really shone.

Working for approval is really taking the easy way out. I find it prevents me from trusting my own gifts.

Plus, in seeking approval you’re probably asking the wrong people anyway. Not everyone has your best interests at heart. Everyone’s got an agenda.

If you’re fishing for approval from those closest to you, consider they might not want to see you make a lot of progress. As you grow in your gifts you’ll offend many. They may tell you to cool it; exercising those gifts may become the wedge that separates you from your old pack. Why would they want to encourage that?

Even if you’ve had some success behind you and now have a fan base, they’ll want to keep you as you were instead of what you could be.

Approval can be the thing that entangles.

Despite my own best efforts to break that cycle, I still drop into this need-for-approval mode. I check all the metrics of this blog and obsess over them. The more readers I get, the longer they stay on this site, the more subscribers I get, those are some of the benchmarks. Even though this blog hasn’t been around all that long and has been moved once (readership always takes a hit when you do that), I still worry about the numbers.

The bigger the numbers, the more approval this means. See how that works?

I also check my Amazon figures more than a grown man should. The more book sales, the more approval. And yes, I do check my Twitter followers. If they’re on the rise, all is well. If they drop, I wonder what I did to tick someone off.

I tell you, it’s enough to make a guy want to change his approach. There’s good news, though. The fact I have not changed my approach much indicates this need for approval doesn’t rule my life like it once did.


Jan 242013

[Backgrounder: Again, taking an institutional look at how to quench the fires of creativity. Any resemblance between this 3 Graffs series and the workaday world of cubicles and assembly lines is strictly coincidence.]

You’re the boss. You got there because you’re smarter and tougher than anybody else. Those folks under you cleared grade school only with political influence; never forget that.

Because of this, your underlings are incapable of thinking. Any good ideas came from you. If one of your workers comes up with an idea, a) dismiss it out of hand, b) tell him to do his work, and c) claim the idea as your own if it’s good.

If you faithfully apply these steps, you’ll get your wish: An organization that is afraid to think and too immobilized to move forward. But be careful what you wish for.


Jan 232013

[Backgrounder: Again, looking at institutional ways to snuff out a creative mind.]

One of the great enemies of efficiency is a workforce with too much time on its hands.

Load yours with all sorts of tasks, even if they’re nonessential. Put a premium on having your help look busy. That’s why companies are likely to cut research and development first when preserving the bottom line.

There’s no room in this organization for a bunch of half-occupied workers looking for trouble. They might start noticing things and (gasp) finding new and better ways to do the job. You don’t want that when the status quo is so safe and comfortable.


Jan 222013

[Backgrounder: While creative thinking is a way for any organization to grow and thrive when times change, it’s not always a welcome thing. Many companies choose to stay comfortable and live in the status quo, and will use any means to quash creativity. I’ve worked for a few like that. If you run a company and want to keep those freethinking troublemakers in their place, this week’s 3 Graffs series is for you. If you’re one of thosr troublemakers, you might discover you’re in the wrong house and this series is still for you.]

Mistakes are bad. They get in the way of a perfectly good status quo, and tend to gum up a well-oiled time-tested system.

Mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. If this means terrorizing your workers into avoiding mistakes, so be it. If someone steps out of line, thinks too much on the job and makes mistakes, make sure he gets the blame when things go wrong.

Then prepare for an organization that, at best, remains static and fades into obsolecence while the competition is out there kicking tail.


Jan 182013

Stepping out of the comfort zone puts you squarely in the combat zone.

It’s that classic scene in just about every war movie you’ve ever seen, to the point of cliche. You’ve got a bunch of green recruits cowering in a foxhole with all this artillery going off in the background.

To make a proper war movie this foxhole crowd is a cross section of America. Got the Italian guy. Got the Pole from Chicago, a black, a Navajo, a Southerner, maybe even a surfer dude from California. They’re all there in one crowded foxhole with the gunnery sergent/den mother.

Finally one of them speaks up. “Sarge, I’m s-s-scared.”

Picture this. The salty old Gunny, with all the gunk on his face and greenery on his helmet, speaks up without taking the unlit cigar from his mouth.

“So you’re scared?” he askes in those tones that could only come from Brooklyn (told you this was a cliche). A pause as he shifts his cigar to the other side of his mouth a la Clint Eastwood. “Kid, I’m scared too. I’m always scared.”

There it is.

My better instincts tell me he’s just dumping a lot of snow on his troops, trying to boost morale, but that’s probably not the case. Forgetting it’s a movie for a minute, the Gunny knows there’s a lot at stake. There’s a war going on, and the losers don’t live to tell about it. But in the movies, the worst that could happen is the Gunny gets panned for overacting, the movie tanks at the box office, and he plays nothing but commanding officers in war movies for the rest of his life. Or something.

Leaving the movie and going into real life, there’s a lot to be scared of when you create something. Especially because you’re going out on a limb with nothing but your judgment holding you up.

Every time I write a blog post, I get scared. What if no one reads it? What if people do read it and think it stinks? What if I tick off half my readership? What if they call BS on me in the comments section?

What if I just hear the chirruping of crickets?

Monsters in the closet and laughing manuscripts

There’s that fear of rejection. Every time I submit a piece there’s that misgiving. The editor doesn’t like it. It stinks. Or I’m just barking up the wrong tree and it will take an extensive rewrite to make it passable for my client’s purposes.

I have one of those on my terminal right now, an article I wrote that completely missed what the editor was thinking (mind reading is not one of my strengths) and I’m just staring at it now. It came back to me with a ton of annotations. When I pick at it, I know in my heart it’ll be every bit as bad as the original. It’s just a small, 500-word article for a website with a limited audience, but I can’t get rid of the feeling that my whole career hangs in the balance here. Never mind any past success, never mind the other, better-paying stories I’m pitching right now, this is the article that sits on my screen laughing at me and telling me what a hack I truly am.

Even when things go well, there are still enough fears to disturb me. What if this post you’re reading goes viral, millions read it and subscribe to this blog? What if they expect more of the same on my next post? What if that’s the absolute best I can do and any future efforts get compared to it? What if I fall flat?

I don’t have any stats to back me up, but the creative landscape is littered with the corpses of artists who were an overnight success and couldn’t sustain it. That second novel, that second album was a bunch of garbage and no one bought it. Career over.

Elizabeth Gilbert can tell you about it. In a highly-recommended TED talk a couple of years ago she spoke of the “freakish success” of her book, “Eat Pray Love.”

“People treat me like I’m doomed,” she said. “Doomed.” The success of that book forced her to recalibrate how she looks at things. What if she can’t sustain her career?

“It’s exceedingly likely my greatest success is behind me,” she said. And she wasn’t quite 40 when she wrote that monster bestseller.

Shoot, it’s enough to make a creative want to pour Jack Daniels over his Wheaties in the morning.

By the way, I highly recommend checking out Gilbert’s talk. You can grab it here. I’ve saved it on my cell phone, and when I get to questioning the course of my life and mission I’ll play it.

Out of the foxhole

When you’re creating, you’re going places where you’ve never been before. You’re stepping out of your foxhole and going someplace where you just may get your butt shot off. There’s really no neutral zone; you’re either in your comfort zone or in the combat zone.

If you tote around a lot of fear and anxiety there’s a lot of stuff to feed it.

Let me be blunt here. If you write, if you play music, if you stake a lot of pride and capital on an idea of yours, there’s nothing safe about it. If you’re honest about it, you’re scared spitless half the time.

Years ago, my shrink tried to lay a little cognitive therapy on me, urging me to change my thinking a bit. Part of it is asking myself in the face of fear, what is the worst that can happen?

Dunno. I have a lot of imagination. It’s probably the worst question to ask a person with a creative mind.

Even with all that, I try to soldier on. I try to laugh outwardly at these fears. On my writing.com bio page, I list my hobbies: Reading, music, hiking, collecting rejection slips. I’ve posted photos of my rejections pile on this blog. I tell myself it’s just a part of writing, I shouldn’t take any of this personally, that it happens to the best of ’em. Sometimes I actually believe this.

Then get back to work like a real professional and test the bounds of gravity some more.





Jan 172013

OK. I’ve found myself in some situation that I didn’t want to be in, through the usual mix of poor planning, lousy execution and dumb luck.

My first impulse is to work backwards again, just like setting a deadline or building a dining-room table. It works on hard-edged projects, right?

Here’s the problem. The more fluid the circumstances, the less likely reverse engineering works. There are times I have to swallow my pride and ask for help. Maybe Google.