Curiosity Shouldn’t Kill the Cat

curious roy

I’ll admit it. I’m not the most focused person in the world. Sure, I can stick with a task if I set my mind to it, especially if there’s a deadline attached. But more often than not, if left to my own devices I’ll happily meander in and out the simplest of projects all day long.

My problem is that I’m intensely curious.  About everything.

As a kid it could seriously take me half an hour or more to look up a word in the dictionary.  I’m a terrific speller, so finding the word wasn’t the problem.  On the way to the word I was looking for I would stumble on another one that looked pretty interesting so I’d stop to check it out. Which would remind me of another word I had been meaning to look up. Which made me think of… wait, where was I? Oh yes, looking up that word.

Of course now that I do everything on my computer this is no longer a problem for me. I google the word and — bam! — the definition of one word and one word only appears.  No getting distracted by other fun terms along the way.  But while I’m on the internet, let me just check my email really quick. Cool, that new book I ordered has shipped. Which reminds me, I wanted to check out the author’s website. Maybe I should add him to my RSS feeds…

Okay, so the internet didn’t solve my wandering problem; I just traded up from analog to digital.

Actually I don’t consider my wandering off for a while a real problem at all. (Although I’m sure I could find a few people who would disagree with me there.)  It’s in those meanderings that I find some really nifty usable stuff, and that’s also where some of my best creative ideas start to form.  I’m very much a non-linear thinker – I work a little on this, then think a little on that, and research a little on something else. All the little bits and pieces start to ferment in my brain, and I follow the ideas as they bubble to the top. Makes perfect sense to me, although I’ve noticed this process of mine makes some people terribly uncomfortable. Especially when a deadline is looming near. (By the way, I’ve never missed a deadline yet.  I’ve learned to relax and trust in the muse.  She’ll give me the idea or solution when I need it, and her watch keeps pretty good time. )

I get to the end result sooner or later, and in my experience later often yields a better result. My curiosity is what keeps me informed, and what keeps me creative. So I’ll go ahead and keep indulging it when the urge strikes me.

Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. It makes her a better mouser.

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Creative Challenge: what can you do with an old phone book?

Now and then I come up with crazy little creative challenges for myself. (Yes, I’m bored and easily entertained.)  Today while rifling through the hall closet for something completely unrelated, I found three — yes, three! — old phone books.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t used a phone book for its REAL purpose in probably a decade. If I need something I either ask around for recommendations or look it up online. Apparently the only purpose they serve for me is taking up space in my already teeny-tiny closet.

So, being the (bored and easily entertained) creative that I am, I thought “hey, what else could I do with these?”  Here’s what I came up with:

The Phone Book in its Entirety

  • Booster Seat – a tried and true solution. People have been propping their kids up at the dinner table with phone books for generations.
  • Bug Squisher – Drop one from on high and the little critter will never know what hit it. As a bonus, you can tear out a page to clean up the resulting splat.
  • Door Stop – Provided it’s not a really heavy door, this should do the trick. Be careful not to trip on it, though.
  • Umbrella Hat – Stuck in the rain? No problem. Just flop it open and stick it on your head. Voila!  Well, okay – it’s highly unlikely that you will get stuck in a downpour while carrying a phone book, but if in the event it happens you’re covered.

Phone Book Pages

  • Gift Wrap – Tear out a page for that impromptu gift. If you work it right, you can highlight the person’s very own name right there on the paper.  Downside is it only works for relatively small gifts. And it’s kinda see-through.
  • Bird Cage Liner – Sounds like a good idea, but I can’t actually test this one out to verify. I don’t own a bird.
  • Cat Toy – ball a page up and throw it on the floor for hours of crinkly feline fun.
  • Coaster – Fold up and place under drink. I’m testing this one out now, and it seems to be working okay so far. Although I predict that on a very humid day a soggy pile of mush would ensue.
  • Origami – meh, not so much. I’m not exactly an origami expert, but I think the paper is a bit too flimsy to really do it well. Also it’s not perfectly square, so there’s cutting involved before you can start folding.
  • Hat for the Cat – I did warn you that I was bored, didn’t I? As you can see, Jake was not amused.

Okay, so this creative challenge was largely a bust. I didn’t find any nifty new and useful things to do with a phone book, other than toss it into the recycling bin. But that’s the nature of creativity, isn’t it? It’s not about always coming up with “perfect” ideas. It’s about exploring and re-imagining things in the pursuit of a new idea. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

In the words of Thomas Edison, ” I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

What creative challenges do you set for yourself? (And what do you do with your old phone books?)

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And the winner is….

A couple weeks ago I submitted a cover design to CrowdSpring for Guy Kawasaki‘s new book.

I was hopeful there early on (even got a positive comment from Guy himself!), but alas the $1,000 prize was not to be mine. Bummer.   Even so, it was still a valuable experience for me in a couple of ways.  I got the opportunity to make the digital acquaintance of a couple of people, including Ross Kimbarovsky (one of the founders of CrowdSpring) and a buyer on another project who happened by and really liked my work. I also got a chance to chit-chat with a couple of other designers on the project whose work I really liked.  I always enjoy an excuse to meet new people.

As an in-house designer, quite often the only creative solution I see on a project is my own. It was really interesting to watch so many solid ideas develop in so many different directions, when all of us were given the same basic project specs. I spent a good amount of time deconstructing some of the others’ designs, figuring out their thought process and why they made some of the design choices they did, or figuring out what I would have done differently. Excellent opportunity to stretch the creative brain.

If you haven’t stopped by yet, go take a peek at some of the great work there.  If you’re a designer, CrowdSpring can be a quick dose of “real world” inspiration so go check out what directions your fellow creatives are heading in these days.  If you are in the market for a designer for an upcoming project, it might also be a good way to do some window shopping.

All in all,  a very good experience. The thousand bucks certainly would have been nice, but you can’t win them all.  I’ll get ’em next time. 😉

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crowdSPRING: making a case for the demon of design

So tonight I made my first submission to crowdSPRING.  Yeah, I know, I know — they’re the bane of the design community, they’re cheapening the industry, yada yada yada…  As a professional designer I should hate them, right?

Nope. I like them just fine.

And here’s why.  There are many talented people out there that don’t have “professional” design backgrounds, or young’uns that just haven’t gotten their big break.  I believe they deserve a chance. So what if it means an increase of competition in the industry?  Competition is good — it keeps us on our toes.

There are many UNtalented people out there who think they are designers. (Some of these get a paycheck in the industry, by the way.) If their submission stinks, they’ve only wasted their own time, and a little of the buyer who has to sift through the crappy entries.  Has no effect on the rest of us.

It’s an easy way for those of us with talent to make a little pin money on our own terms.  No beating the bushes for freelance clients, and no being saddled with clients or jobs you don’t want.  You pick the gigs you’re interested in, and when you have the time. Sounds like a sweet deal to me.

It’s a great outlet for all that pent-up artistry that doesn’t get to see the light of day at your regular job. It gives you a chance to flex your creative muscle on a variety of projects that you normally wouldn’t get a chance to do. And you don’t have to stand idly by while your hard work suffers through design by committee – YOU get to call all the shots for once and let the work stand on its own merits.

It’s an excuse to create good stuff for your portfolio. We all know we’re “supposed to,” but when is the last time you sat down and created a “pretend” design to maybe show to a prospective employer one day?  Um, never?  Thought so.

And last but not least, it’s a good way to make professional connections and do higher-profile work that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Let’s say that Guy Kawasaki (who submitted a creative brief for the cover of his new book) falls head-over-heels in love with my design.  Where else in the world would I get the opportunity to do work for him? He’s certainly not going to find me in Podunk, NJ, even if he tried.

All boats rise and fall with the tide.

The tide is changing, and my boat is ready. Is yours?

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Finding your Tribe

They say that birds of a feather flock together. There’s some good wisdom in that. Diversity helps us expand our view and create new ideas, but at the end of the day we all need the fellowship of others who share some common thread. Even the most solitary among us need some sense of belonging, someone to fall back on and help us along our path – that’s why humans create families, communities, friendships, and even employer/employee relationships. Regardless of how you define it, everyone needs a tribe.

In a more entrepreneurial sense, building your tribe – your mentors, cheerleaders and co-conspirators – is an important step in success. They are the ones that can see your vision (although maybe not as clearly as you do) and genuinely want to help you get there. When others dismiss your ideas as just crazy, they are the ones that listen intently and say “That sounds interesting. You’ve got me intrigued. Tell me more. How can I help?”

Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of thinking they have to do everything themselves or it somehow doesn’t count.  You can’t do it alone, and you don’t have to. That’s what your tribe is for. Connect yourself with others who are like-minded or have done something similar. Learn from their mistakes. Make the best use of their expertise, and offer up your own when you can. Find people that recharge you, inspire you, and are willing to lend a hand when you need it.

Find your tribe.

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Photo courtesy of Jan Tik

My New Favorite Software

Freeplane in action

Today I think I met the software equivalent of my new best friend.

Between work stuff and personal stuff I do a lot of writing. Product literature, articles, blog posts, powerpoint presentations – you name it. Before I really start the writing part, I try to create an outline to organize my thoughts and keep my content in some kind of sane order. But here’s my problem – I tend to be a non-linear thinker. No matter how much room I leave in my initial outline for subsequent thoughts, I always end up with a page full of arrows and comments written sideways in the margins, or numbers and stars that point to more thoughts on a separate page that I inevitably misplace.

Today I found heaven.

Freeplane is a free mind-mapping program that is tailor-made for people like me. You start with a central concept, and then create branches off of it for each of the topics you want to cover. Each of these can be further branched off for subtopics, and so on.  Forgot a point? No problem. Freeplane lets you add additional branches wherever you want on the map, and it will shuffle everything around automatically to accomodate it. As far as I know, you can keep branching off endlessly, making it as complicated as your little heart desires.

Once you get to the writing part, you can collapse and expand the various branches so that you can focus on what you need instead of getting distracted by all the information at one time.

The app can be used on Mac or PC. (Yay! I use both.)

Download it. Use it. Enjoy it.  Never create a disorganized outline again.

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Synchronicity PostScript:

I posted this last night, and woke up this morning to find Chris Brogan talking about mind-mapping as well. Freaky.

Check out his post here to see how he’s using mind-mapping software (different package, but essentially the same thing) to help organize is business and keep him on track.

Are You Creative?

Image by Myki RoventineIf someone asked you if you were creative, what would you say?

This is a question I posed recently to a bunch of friends and colleagues in various places.  And I was quite surprised at some of the answers I got.

Of course my wildly creative friends belted out and emphatic “YES!” and proceeded to tell me all about the projects they were working on or just finished or had in their head for the future. No surprises there – I already knew what they would say, and it was fun to get an update on where they were going.

A few others said that they were decidedly not creative. The surprising part for me was not that these people didn’t think of themselves as creative, but that they were quite happy with that.  They didn’t want to be creative; they were happy in their little box and didn’t really care to venture outside of it.  Of course, as a creative myself, I had a very hard time wrapping my head around this – not wanting to be creative? To me that would be like not wanting to breathe. But to each his own.

The one that really floored me was an old friend from college.  Probably one of the more creative people I know.  Ever since way-back-when he’s had a very sharp wit and a wicked sense of humor. At college he masterminded quite a bit of creative stuff, although admittedly the campus Powers That Be were usually not as appreciative of his inventiveness as the rest of us were.

So I asked him the no-brainer “are you creative” question and he said…

“No.”

“I might have been once, but now I don’t feel that’s true.”

Totally blind-sided me with that one. What?!?  That’s an answer I may have accepted from some people, but certainly not him. Really?? Just – poof – it’s gone??  It made me kind of sad to think that he had lost such a great part of himself somewhere along the way. (Or at least believed that he did.)  Is it even possible to “lose” creativity, or does it just get beaten into hiding by social conformity and rusty from disuse?

I don’t believe he really lost it, he just thinks he did.  Go find it dude, it’s in there somewhere.  Did you check in the garage…?

——————————-

So what would you answer to the question? Are you creative?

“If we think about it, the magic will come.”

This profound statement was handed to me by my 4-year-old yesterday.

We were sitting on the living room floor playing with Legos, talking about what we could build. Then, as our creation took shape, we started figuring out what else it looked like or what else it could be used for.  The boat turned on end and blasted off into outer space. The house became a telephone.  What else could it be?

“If we think about it, the magic will come.”

He’s so right. But as adults, we forget that. We forget what incredible powers of creativity we have, the ability to connect completely unrelated things in innovative ways.  And everyone has it buried in there somewhere – but somewhere in the growing up process we lose that belief in ourselves. We forget how to suspend reality for a while and let our imagination take the reins. As adults we negate the possibility of thinking about things in ways other than what we’re told is appropriate.

An empty paper towel roll isn’t really a telescope or a megaphone.

An empty tissue box isn’t really a shoe.

A shirt stuck on your head isn’t really a cascade of long hair.

Heavens, no! Just imagine where those kinds of thoughts might lead someone!  But that’s my point – imagine where those kinds of thoughts might lead someone…

This very short yet very wise person has helped me open myself back up to the “magic.” To let myself think about things in unconventional ways, and to come up with solutions that go against the rules. To let go of the self-censoring for a while and imagine possibilities rather than focusing so much on why it couldn’t possibly work.

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin argues that  our society has been structured to churn out “mediocre;” there are set parameters that we must stay within for the factory system to maintain its privilege, and we’re taught from a very young age to stay within them to be accepted, to get a job, to live the “American Dream.” Except that system isn’t working anymore, and those that can think beyond those walls are the ones that have the upper hand now. (I won’t spoil it for you – if you want to find out more you can read the book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? [affiliate link] for yourself.)

My young one will learn soon enough that the outside world is a little uncomfortable with playful thinking, so I’m going to encourage him to keep it going on the home front – as much for my sake as his. Don’t be surprised at anything you see when you walk in our front door. With any luck, we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by what comes out of it.

So go think about it. The magic will come.

Newton’s Law of Employment

An old colleague asked me the other day, what would be my perfect employment scenario?  Good thing he asked me via email, because I’m afraid if he asked me in person I would have blurted out, “Anything, anywhere, as long as it’s not HERE!!”  Very unprofessional, I know — but also not very far from the truth.

Over the last couple of days I’ve really been thinking about this.  What IS my dream job?  If the Employment Fairy flitted down right now and told me I could go forth and do anything my little heart desired, what would that be? Truth is, I don’t really have a good answer. (At least not yet, but I’m working on it.)  I’ve been “stuck” (in quotes because it’s my own fault) here for almost a decade, and I now realize that I’ve wasted far too much energy railing against the negative changes in this company that I can do nothing about, instead of funneling that energy into initiating positive change for myself.  In this case, finding another job. One that I like.  I mean REALLY like, not just tolerate in exchange for a paycheck.

Why do we let ourselves get stuck in these dead ends? Part of it is that it’s just easier.  It’s always easier to complain than to initiate change.  It’s easier to stay here where you are than face the uncertainties of going elsewhere.  It’s the law of inertia – a body at rest stays at rest.  This isn’t working for me anymore. I need to get restless.

So back to my “dream job.”  I don’t have a specific title or position in mind, but I’m pretty sure that I want to stay in design and marketing.  I like the creativity and the challenge, especially when I’m allowed to be creative and take on challenges. I want to be part of something big, even if it’s on a small scale.  I want to be part of a positive driving force that can make something bigger, better, faster or more; for the world, or the country, or the consumer, or the local retirement home. I want to take pride in what I do, and be able to take ownership of my work;  to wholeheartedly celebrate the successes of the company, as well as dig out from the failed attempts, shoulder to shoulder with others that share a common vision. I want to help shape that vision, help map out the route for our collective forward progress, and help build the roads we need to get us there if none already exist.

A body at rest stays at rest.  A body in motion stays in motion. Looks like my colleague gave me that one mental push I needed to start moving on. Where will I go? What will I do?  Not sure yet, but I’m really looking forward to the journey.  Maybe I’ll see you there.

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Give something of yourself today. Donate a few dollars to a local charity; take a few minutes to listen to someone who is largely ignored; teach a kid to tie his shoes.  Then go convince someone else to do the same.  It’s good karma.