Aug 272013

That great idea for the better mousetrap might have gone to thousands of people, but few start and fewer finish.

I hear a whole lot of reasons why someone won’t put an idea or piece of work out there. Don’t have time, can’t start, can’t finish, can’t handle criticism in case the work stinks, it’s not perfect.

But one objection I’m hearing a lot these days is that someone might steal your idea or your work.

That’s enough to paralyze just about anybody, and if you have a thing about conspiracies you’re gonna drop down into that rabbit hole.

I like how the Nobel Prize committee awards groundbreaking work in a number of disciplines. Often two scientists will come up with duplicate or similar work even though they may have never heard of one another, never met, never worked together. If the work is deemed worthy of a Nobel, both will receive the award for separate but similar work.

H’mm. Maybe brilliant ideas are not so exclusive after all.

Noted writer and social commentator Mark Twain put it this way: There are no original ideas. Never really have been. It’s impossible, he said. All the same old ideas go into a kaleidoscope, given a good shake and whatever you see is the the recycled ideas arranged in a new way.

I have a real goofball theory, and I could be totally full of it. I’ll admit it’s happened before and will probably happen again in my life.

But here’s the theory: If something is meant to get done, it’ll get done.

Brilliance evolves, but not without starting

Because of that, a brilliant idea will go out to a random handful of people. Maybe a few hundred or a few thousand. But it’s dispensed to quite a few people with the thought that someone, somewhere will make it come alive. And eventually it will.

I have no numbers to back this up, but the rest is just a winnowing process:

  • I expect most of these people will never know they have this wonderful idea.
  • From there, others will know they have an idea but have no idea what to do with it.
  • Then you’ll have some who know what to do with it, but can’t formulate a plan to save their lives.
  • Of those who can, many will dither over the plan because it’s a fine substitute for starting. Many people don’t have the guts to start; already some excuses will kick in. Don’t have the time, don’t have the money, no one will buy it, all that good stuff.

OK, now we’re down to a small minority. Again, no real numbers but we’re getting to a select few here.

  • Of the starters, the majority will buckle under the resistance that is guaranteed to come up. They’ll go off the road, give up at the first roadblock, decide it’s safer to go golfing instead.

But not everyone can stand this kind of resistance. It knocks out the best of ’em. To even get this far is huge. Starters are definitely in the vast minority.

  • As the course continues and resistance increases, this whittles down the field considerably. Many will drop out and many will slow down. But notice something here. You’ll find fewer excuses per capita. Those who start can pat themselves on the back; at least they took some sort of action even though the dedication might flag.

Like they used to say with the Arizona state lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play.


Few chosen from among the many

By then, the idea is held by just a chosen few. These are the dedicated ones, who approach the whole idea with a single eye, and pay whatever price to bring this thing into fruition.

What about those who didn’t even get in the game?

Those are the ones who swear someone stole their idea.

Among the chosen few, the rest is a sprint. Several may finish, but whoever wins that race — either by getting there first or just building that mousetrap a whole lot better — gets to write the history.

That’s where the Wright Brothers are separated from the Langleys, the Edisons from all the other wannabe light-bulb makers, the Robert Pearys from the Frederick Cooks. The Americans from the Russkies in the race to the moon. These are the ones who finished, got there first or did it better. Or more likely, all of the above.

But they all started, which must be done before winning.

You don’t hear the Langleys, the Cooks and the Russians whining about how someone stole their idea, do you? Ask any of them honestly and they’ll tell you they put up the good fight but other guy won it fair and square. At that level you won’t hear whining.

They all started, which is the biggest prerequisite to finishing.

It’s those who are stuck at the bottom, those who won’t act on the idea, those who won’t start that’ll snivel that no one gave them a chance.

For years I didn’tdo anything with my gifts. I complained a lot, too. But once I made my mind to start something I didn’t whine near as much. Every time I bashed through a barrier, I just didn’t have time to whine. My level of commitment increases with each hurdle cleared. If I actually make it to the final sprint, sniveling is just not an option. Finishing and doing a killer job are.

Even if someone decides to lift an idea after someone else wins, more than likely it will be of inferior quality. Shoot, there are websites out there that will show you how to make something that mimics the In & Out burger. Will it be as good? Probably not.

On the other hand, if someone picks up a finished idea and does it better, puts it at a whole new level, then more power to him. He’s perfected the idea and gets noted for his achievement. It’s like the old joke that someone had to invent the toilet seat, but someone else improved it by cutting a hole in it.

The guy who designed all the hot new aircraft you see these days belongs in the winner’s circle, but it doesn’t diminish what the Wright Brothers achieved.

No guts, no glory.

Stolen ideas? Puh-leeeze. No one can lay claim to an idea until he does something with it.

If the idea is worth a lick, someone is going to finish it. It’s like on the job where the boss man says if you can’t dig a post hole straight, he’ll find someone who can. Same principle.

Many are called, few are chosen.

# # #

Aug 192013

Can’t remember how it goes.

Is it cluttered desk = cluttered mind, or empty desk = empty mind?

I’m betting on the latter.

Actually, Albert Einstein said that, and based on the photographic evidence he knows a little something about that.

albert einstein's desk

Albert Einstein’s desk, as seen shortly after he died. It’s really not as bad as I expected; he must have been expecting company.

My old work desk at the newspaper office was definitely pure clutter. Open file folders all over the place. Papers and photos in random piles. Notebooks. Two loose-leaf phone directories of all my sources. Coffee cup. Ashtray (newsrooms used to have such anachronisms back then). Maybe even a computer in there somewhere. My boss (the publisher, not the managing editor) was a real clean freak and kept after me to clean up the mess. Of course, she never wrote a word in her life, which may or may not have anything to do with that. The managing editor, my rival in well-sculpted desktops, decided I was a blood relative.

I think it took some newsroom prankster (maybe the publisher) to drop a broad hint. Something like cordoning off the area with yellow police tape. I took enough of the hint to clean things up a bit, and everyone thought I’d resigned or something. Until I mentioned an amazing discovery:

“Hey, guys, look. I found a desk.”

Now, there were rumors that after the desktop had its massive deep cleaning, everyone saw what I really look like and begged me to start piling papers on the desk again. Of course, that’s just vicious rumor.

Surprisingly enough, everything else was well organized. My physical files — those I wasn’t working on — were stored away in a drawer, alphabetized. I even kept a database of photos, mug shots of all the regular newsmakers. The database — actually an alphabetized text document — directed me to the right envelope where I kept the proper negatives and contact sheets.


Junk science

OK. Long anecdote. But I saw an article about clean vs. messy desks. Seems your work environment has a lot to do with your creativity and ability to make decisions. And while everyone’s different, the messy desk wins out in most arguments.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota decided to take a look at a long-established principle of human honesty and productivity — keep your work area clean and you will be more likely to work your tail off, stay honest, be generous with your coworkers, and on and on … a messy work environment, the research suggested, can bring out a person’s creativity and lead to the birth of bold, new ideas. In other words, a less- than-perfect work environment can make a person more likely to think out of the box, or at least above the horizon of those neat people in the office.

Yeah, that seeing-above-the-horizon idea makes sense. Just being able to see over my desk is hard enough.

At Disneyland years ago, one tour walked you through the administrative section and Walt Disney’s office. I’m sure it was a mock-up; who can work when a bunch of tourists from Ohio stare at you through a big sheet of glass?

My desk is a wreck, but my computer screen is orderly. Note: No icons.

Disney actually had two offices. One was tidy, forbidding-looking, intimidation dripping from the walls. That was his public office where he’d greet visitors or maybe air out a recalcitrant worker.

His other office, to put it charitably, was a wreck. It was more man cave than office, but that was where he did his actual work. He might have even had an electric fence up to keep the janitors out, but that’s conjecture.

I’ve seen pictures of Albert Einstein at his work, and his desk … well, it was about as well-ordered as his hair.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who singlehandedly saved the game of baseball after the 1919 World Series gambling scandal (admittedly with draconian tactics), also keopt a scary-looking desk. Piles everywhere.

But he knew where everything was — all of us messy-desk aficianados say the same thing. Longtime manager Leo Durocher, a frequent visitor to Landis’ office on sime disciplinary matter or other, vouched for that in his autobiography. If you lied to the Judge, he’d reach into one of those piles without even looking, and pluck out the very document that nails your hide to the wall.

The grand tour, if you dare

OK. That’s historical stuff; let’s get to the here and now. My own work desk is in a relative state of disorder, though not as bad as it once was. And like Judge Landis, I know exactly where everything is.

  • Reference works on the top shelf, with a pair of Bose speakers serving as bookends.
  • Office supplies on a hanging shelf to the left.
  • Files, stereo and pencil cup to the right.
  • Random stuff to the left of the computer: Sunglasses, flashlight, dry-erase markers, last week’s mail, an 11/16-inch socket from my tool drawer, a wadded-up bandanna for erasing my white boards, decommissioned cell phones, another rolled-up bandanna to rest my wrist on when using the computer mouse, which was on the desk last time I looked.
  • File drawer is fairly orderly, but don’t ask about the open cubbyhole on top of that. It seems some creature has taken up residence there. Not sure what it is, but it has glowing red eyes and only comes out at night.

But my computer screen is fairly clear. No icons — I hate them anyway. One terminal window to open programs, because I don’t use drop-down menus very much either. A couple of open documents. Some notes elsewhere on the screen, in another terminal window.

Very orderly. Or not.

Forced adaptability

Of course I’m going to have my hypothosis, even though there’s nothing scientific about it. But a messy desk may force you to adapt, to think your way around corners, to come up with something amazing even if conditions say you should go back to bed. OK, maybe I’m justifying my own bad behavior, so take that into consideration.

Here’s my challenge. Grab a bunch of random papers and kitsch, and dump it on your desk. Rent a front-end loader if you have to. Slap a couple of HAZMAT decals on the pile to keep everything in sync with government regulations. See if that helps with your creativity.

If it doesn’t work, you can always light a match and get rid of the piles with no lapse in continuity.

# # #

What say you? Can you still see over your desk? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


Aug 092013
broken light bulb

Sometimes, shooting the lights out seems like a good idea.

Because of this blog, I’m always interested in articles that help a person become more creative. Of course, even if I didn’t have this blog I’d still be interested.

I recently read an article in Inc. Magazine about adjusting your lighting to boost the creative process.

Oh, really?

In its article, Inc. cites a study by two German researchers that suggests dimming your lights if you want to be creative.

Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up. This is from the horse’s mouth:

“Two researchers based in Germany, Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth, used six experiments to observe different aspects of creativity. The first three studies primed participants by having them describe a dark or bright environment or do a word search where the words were related to one of two illuminations. From there, creativity was measured by an imagination task, an alternative-use game, or a speed-accuracy test … priming dark conditions induces a risky, more explorative behavior, leading to creativity, Steidle concluded. But to generalize it, she and her partner had to use actual lighting variations …”

Don’t mind saying, I’m a little skeptical of this. Not all the way, though.

If you’re a cubicle dweller, you’re probably in one of those offices with fluorescent lights blazing nonstop, and they’re probably flickering all over your computer screen. Really, how creative do you feel in such surroundings?

Thought so. Kind of makes you want to shoot a couple of the lights out, doesn’t it?


Lights low in the studio

When he recorded one album, Charles Mingus used the same band that played in a club called the Showplace for about a year. In the studio he adjusted the lights to simulate the darkened club.

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about what scientists studied about creativity. He just wanted to recreate the surroundings where his band did its best work. He even went so far as to talk to the nonexistent audience between songs, just like he did during the live gig:

“We do not applaud here at the Showplace where we work,” he warned the non-audience at one point. “The reason is that we are interrupted by your noise. If you must applaud, do it at the end of the set, and it won’t even matter then. No rattling of ice in your drinks, no cash register ringing. Got it?”

During that recording, his band was every bit as strong as it was in a live set. This is quite unusual for jazz, especially the highly improvisational style Mingus liked.

But the lights? Maybe he was onto something.

Mood lighting … in more ways than one

I can’t vouch for the lighting trick myself. Really haven’t tried it, though the level of illumination does make a difference with me. I have two periods where I’m at my best: In the early-to-mid morning, and fairly late at night. Most of the time my morning work session is done while sitting in the doorway in a camp chair, front door propped open, bare feet hanging out the door. Enjoying the sunshine. About the only issue here is keeping the laptop screen halfway shaded so I can read it. The only dimming going on is when the clouds roll in.

Late at night, I’ll have lights on. Preferably from the side rather than in front or behind me, but I’m thinking of screen readability here. The lighting’s not like office fluorescents, which is probably a good thing.

Don’t know if it’s universal or just me, but I need natural light when at my creative best. Lots of it. But it has to be actual sunlight. I have those light bulbs that supposedly mimic natural light, but I can tell the difference. It’s a poor substitute for the real thing. Artificial light doesn’t do it for me, especially when too much or too little.

That’s why I don’t do much writing at the library. All fluorescents, but they’re not on all the way. No window nearby, so I usually do nothing but upload my copy from there. At Starbucks I can at least grab a window seat or write outside on the patio.

I know lighting seriously affects my mood. I can go wild during the summer (sometimes running faster than the Muse), but that’s not always such a good thing. Sometimes I go off the rails. On the other hand I’m in pretty sad shape during the winter. Even in South Carolina, the sun is just a rumor for weeks at a time. When the Muse shows up then I might tell her to bug off.

Or something.

I don’t understand how a person can live in a place like Seattle, a place Bill Cosby once said was where the people would cut up a calf and lay it out on a rock whenever the sun came out. But up there, people are doing amazing stuff with computers. In Redmond the Microsoft coders come up with extremely creative ways to screw up your computer with each new release.

I wonder if a lack of sunlight contributes to all the depressing angst-ridden music that comes from Seattle. More than likely, I’ll wager. Give it this, though. It is creative stuff.


@work in different surroundings

On the home front it’s a battle keeping my lighting the way I want it. The town drunk who painted the interior went with a murky color reminescent of something you’d shovel in a horse barn. Just looking at it zaps my mental and creative energy. I have several 4×4 whiteboards on the wall to brighten the place, and of course some real heavy jazz or some energetic bluegrass playing.

As I write this, it’s around noon. The weather is cruddy, and the intermittent rain puts the kibosh on the feet-hanging-out-the-door setting. I have the drapes open to let in some natural daylight (such as it is), and the lights are off. Don’t need them right now because there’s enough sunlight punching through the rain clouds. John Coltrane’s playing a live version of “One Up, One Down.” The stereo’s not loud enough to grab the attention of North Charleston’s Finest, but it’s pretty close. I can operate on that, and in fact I’m kicking out some pretty good work right now.

Some other surroundings where I’ve done good creative work:

  • Parked in the driver’s seat of my old taxicab, windows opened and the car aimed so I get the best breeze. The steering wheel serving as a desk.
  • In the front of a newspaper office, in some stinkin’ cubicle but close enough to the huge front window. In Arizona. If you can’t find sunlight there, you’re not gonna find it anywhere.
  • Speeding along a curvy road in southwest Indiana during the summer, clipboard on the console, and I’m writing without even looking at it. Sometimes it’s even readable when I get to the newspaper office.
  • Pounding out a few hard miles on a bicycle. Forget about actually writing stuff down then, so I hope I can remember things when I get somewhere I can take things down.

Only common denominator I can see here is natural light and lots of it.

I can sure see the idea of muting the lights when indoors. But if it’s the real stuff let’s have it full blast.

Tell the researchers to take that dimmer switch and … well, it seems so appropriate to suggest someplace lacking sunshine, but let’s not go there.

# # #


What say you? What lighting conditions are best for your creative work? Leave a comment and we’ll talk about it.



Aug 082013

C’mon Charles … quit pulling your punches. Tell us how you really feel without going all PC on me.

“I say, let my children have music … rid this society of some of the noise so that those who have ears will be able to use them someplace listening to good music.”

— Charles Mingus, from his liner notes for Let My Children Hear Music.


Oh, yeah. Vintage Mingus, for your listening pleasure:

Haitian Fight Song (That’s one scary album cover).


Tensions (He’d make coffee nervous).


# # #




Aug 072013

Stop me if you’ve lived this before.

My personal bucket list is insanely full. I feel like Roy Scheider in the movie Jaws when he told Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Like the shark hunters, I tend to take on a whole lot more than I can actually do.

But then, that’s part of this creativity thing. I want to do everything, and in more than one discipline.

Some of the items on my bucket list (2013 version) are more viable than others, and some are pure fantasy:

  • Write and self-publish some fiction.
  • Pitch and land some freelance magazine work.
  • Be in a position where I can phase out my relatively low-paying Web content writing.
  • Land some local (or not) freelance clients.
  • Start a podcast based on the principles laid out in creative&dangerous.
  • Start coaching, again based on this blog.
  • Start a mastermind group, again based on the same idea as the last two items.
  • Build a telecourse, another creative&dangerous-based project.
  • Get the ebook writing on a reliable paying basis, enough to cover my simple financial needs all by themselves.
  • Assemble a new, custom Linux system from scratch, built from my own specifications.
  • Record a full-length album built from my own musical ideas.
  • Learn and master the tenor saxophone.
  • Through-hike the Appalachian Trail.
  • Make a four-corners trip around the United States, driving and camping my way across, stopping at any place that sounds interesting.
  • Pee in all 50 states. (For the record, I’m about halfway there.)
  • Tame my bipolar illness to the point I’m almost functional most of the time.

Wow. That’s a lot of stuff.

No wonder I feel so overwhelmed, and I bring that on myself.

But here’s the thing. God willing and the crick don’t rise, I have time. Based on my age, health and heredity, I’ll have about 20 years to do this. I don’t expect to start losing my marbles until I’m about 75 or so (just shut up).


Batting averages and the Mendoza Line

But this bucket list is extensive to the point where I’ve stopped sharing these ambitions with my parents. In fact, I hope they’re not reading this now. They’ll think I’m even more dysfunctional than I already am.

See, of these 16 items, I’ve accomplished none of them. If this was baseball, I’m batting .000.

However, I’m close enough to accomplishing two of them. Close enough to call it soup yet. Batting average: .125, well below the Mendoza Line.

I’ve actually started two others, for a batting average of .250. That’s enough to land me a seat on the bench even though I’ll get splinters in my butt.

OK, that’s the stuff I’ve started. Of the rest, I’ve done enough to get my feet wet on three and roughed out a game plan on another six.

But these don’t count. These nine are still in the dreaming phase, though it’s a little more fine-tuned. I haven’t committed anything, though. With those nine I’m still taking my brains out and playing with them, or whatever metaphor you choose to insert here.

Improvement breeds improvement

To be honest, it hasn’t been but a year or so that I actually got around to completing stuff. To wit: Completing an ebook, starting a blog that has an actual theme, taking a short hike on the Appalachian Trail, finishing a first draft on some fiction without getting so disgusted with my work that I burn the manuscript in a trash barrel.

If you asked me if I intentionally completed anything before that, I’d have to sit down and think about it real hard.

That’s an improvement anyway. Baby steps, man. Baby steps.

I mentioned the four items I’ve actually started and the fact I’m close enough to completion on two of them to almost call them done.

Maybe in the last couple of years I’ve sprouted a sufficient enough pair (don’t ask) to actually see things through.

But still, most of this bucket list is still dreaming.

The power of just starting

OK, I’m almost done with the self-absorbed crap. I’ve wasted about 675 words on that.

Here’s the thing. Assuming I’m at least reasonably functional, a major key to realizing any of these dreams is in taking action.

That’s it. Just starting.

Plus, realizing that whatever I do isn’t going to be perfect no matter how long I tinker with it, but that’s another post for another day.

  • Just. Start.
  • Develop some realism of what I can and can’t do, and what dreams are serious enough for me to expend some effort to complete them.
  • Don’t try to start everything at once or nothing will get done. Stick some aside in a queue, revisit them once a year, finish one action item at a time and holler next.
  • Have maybe two active items from the bucket list, one in the works and one on deck. Two, not four like I’m doing now, and just plain start. I’ve got time.

The last few principles are kind of like the Dave Ramsey method of wiping out your debts. Start with the smallest, easiest one, build your confidence and momentum, and work from there. While I like giant steps as much as the next fella, save those for when you can smell the finish line. You’ll need them then because those last few steps can get pretty hairy. Until then, baby steps are sufficient.

start button

Starting is the biggest part of the battle. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

That idea of just starting isn’t exactly new, but it’s important nonetheless. David Allen, he of Getting Things Done, teaches this. For each project in your system, designate something — anything — as a Next Action. It could be as insignificant as making a phone call, but let’s get this thing rolling. Start on your Next Action.

Starting is the biggest part of the battle.

Maybe my time frame still lacks some realism, but by just starting — and completing — an arbitrary two in a year it won’t take long to nail this list.

Don’t want to put too much pressure on, though. None of these are exactly time sensitive, and even if they were, blowing a deadline won’t kill me. I mean, in another 50 years I’m not gonna notice the difference anyway.

With very few exceptions, these listed items are for fun. I can only see one that’s an absolute must-do and it’s started and ongoing. Because it’s ongoing and more a process than a goal, I didn’t include that on my two-per-year list. I may have one or two others that are almost must-dos, but they’re probably not as crucial as I try to make them.

Maybe that’s another key to finishing stuff. It’s supposed to be fun and/or profitable. Preferably both.


Sometimes you have to let something go

Just for grins, let’s add one more principle:

  • I mentioned revisiting the list every year or so. If an item has been sitting there way too long, it probably means I don’t have enough fire in my belly to start or finish it. Either start today and ship it, or let it go. Something about getting off the pot.

Maybe pick it up later if I still have any desire for it, but get it out of the queue. Right now. But that’s hard. To my (warped) way of thinking, abandoning something is tantamount to quitting, of admitting defeat. I’m just not wired that way. Real men don’t quit. If you think finishing something is hard, try letting it go. You’ll see what I mean.

On my list, one sat there for 40 years. Fortunately, it’s one of the two that’s nearing completion. Five others were on the list for a decade, but a couple are still doable and/or worth doing. Three more sat on the list five years ago. OK, so maybe I’m not real good at eating my own dog food, but you get the idea.

Save the unformed dreams for later. Barring the unforeseen, there’s still time.

# # #

What say you? How are you on starting stuff? How about finishing once you start? Can you take unrealistic dreams out of your bucket without feeling like a quitter? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.