3 Takeaways from “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp

I avoid dancing at weddings, playing softball at picnics, exercising in group classes and other public displays of physical coordination. It’s not merely that I’m embarrassed by my lack of grace and rhythm. I want to avoid the injury and mayhem that resulted in the past — broken bones, black eyes, and tripping and falling into an African drum band.

So I was unsure if a book about creativity by Twyla Tharp, one of the world’s most notable choreographers and dancers, would speak to me.

But “The Creative Habit” has an intriguing premise that mirrors one of my own deeply-held beliefs—creativity “is the product of preparation and effort, and it’s within reach of everyone who wants to achieve it.” And it is an inspirational reminder that no matter your natural-born talent, creativity takes a lot of practice and continual hard work.

Tharp shares dozens of specific ideas for how to stimulate creativity and produce creative work including practical exercises that anyone can apply, no matter their craft.

Here are three key takeaways:

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1. Establish a Good Start-up Ritual

 The first obstacle to creativity is fear. Fear of the empty stage, white paper, blank screen. Fear leads to distractions, procrastination, and paralysis – all excuses to avoid doing something that might fail. But it is also the barrier to doing anything at all.

A good start-up ritual immediately bypasses those fear-generated obstacles and prepares you to do the hard work creativity requires. Tharp tells the story of the writer Paul Auster never leaving the house without a pencil. As a kid he always wanted to be able to get an autograph. But he credits that simple habit as being the reason he became a writer. He says, “if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it.”

Instead of putting a pencil in your pocket you might say a mantra, visit a place, or do an activity. But the point is to develop and stick to a “start-up ritual that impels you forward every day,” bypassing obstacles and entering a receptive, open state of mind ready to capture the first spark of an idea.

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2. Think Small to Think Big

Sometimes, in spite of your diligent preparation, the Big Idea doesn’t come when you want it to. So Tharp recommends “scratching” for little ideas that might trigger the beginning of a larger one. The trick is to first immerse yourself in references, materials, and experiences that interest you. The goal is simple: uncover the smallest idea that inspires you to start working and the rest will follow.

Tharp illustrates her point by including a story Robert Pirsig tells in his book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

When Pirsig was teaching a university course in Montana he had a student who struggled to complete an essay about the United States. He advised her to focus on something smaller — their hometown of Bozeman. When she was still stuck, he suggested the town’s main street. Finally, out of anger and frustration, he told her to “start with the upper left-hand brick” of the opera house on that main street. That worked! Afterwards she said she “started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop.”

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3. Be Prepared for Luck

You need to know how to prepare to be creative. But you also have to be prepared to be lucky. Meaning, you have to be ready to let go of your plans so you can seize the happy accidents that will transform your work into something more.

One of Tharp’s rules for “scratching” is a great example of how good creative habits prepare you to be lucky – she says to always scratch for more than one idea and then look for ways to combine them. “Luck” may take the form of a perplexing contrast, unexpected intersection, or poetic metaphor that launches a brand new area of exploration.


In spite of years of high-quality arts education, my teachers never taught me a process for coming up with ideas. They taught me how to talk about ideas and craft them. But they expected that my ideas would come purely from talent and inspiration, not discipline. I now realize how odd and disappointing that is.

That’s probably why one of the most profound professional experiences I’ve had was documenting my team’s creative process and then teaching it to others. I developed that process over years and decades of life experience, trial and error, and the valuable input of other creative people who had already successfully done the same.

“The Creative Habit” is accessible, universal, and practical. Tharp is refreshingly transparent and generous in sharing her own creative process. Her ideas are applicable to any creative discipline. And her exercises support and strengthen any creative pursuit.

I only wish I read it sooner—and it taught me to dance a little better.


I want to remember what I read. So I doodle key takeaways on Post-it® notes and stick them to my wall. Hunting for the ideas keeps me engaged, doodling them is fun, and looking at them later makes me feel good. I figured: Why not share them?

 

4 Takeaways from “Epic Content Marketing” by Joe Pulizzi

Although I prefer a good novel to a marketing book, reading Epic Content Marketing by Joe Pulizzi was not terrible even on a beautiful summer afternoon. Plus, it satisfied a crucial metric for me: translating the key concepts to doodles was fun and satisfying.

First, Pulizzi spends some time helpfully defining what content marketing is and what it’s not. He includes a few similar definitions so you can pick what works best for you. Here’s a mash-up that I like:

Content marketing is creating and delivering interesting information that drives profitable customer action.

At a previous employer I had arguments with ex-journalists about the importance of driving action with our content, so appreciate the validation.

The rest of the book was equally strategic and tactical, easy to dig into or skim, and full of practical and actionable advice on how to run a content marketing program for companies large or small.

Although targeted to newbies with an accessible, empathic tone, there is enough there there to help those who have been at it for a while to reinforce, enhance, or tweak their approach.

I read it in one afternoon. And if I can, you can too. It’s good and not hard. And you’ll likely learn things.

Here are four key takeaways

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1. Find your niche

Don’t be all things to all people. It’s kind of obvious, but also perhaps hard to remember when you feel you’re competing with the universe of content on the Internet. To be cost effective and useful and drive outcomes, you need to focus. Content marketing is no different from regular marketing. You need to know the problems your customer struggles with and where your business makes the most money. Pulizzi’s simple formula to develop your content strategy is 1) identify the questions your customers most frequently ask through search terms or, better yet, just talking to them, 2) figure out which ones relate best to the products or services that make you the most money, and then 3) develop content that fits that niche.

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2. Plan it out

Plot your customers and their questions against phases in the purchase path. And then figure out if those are really the most important questions at each of those times. You should plot each persona separately. You can do this in a simple chart — personas down the Y axis and phases of the purchase path with corresponding questions along the X axis. Then, at each of the intersecting points figure out what answers you can provide and in what format. Content marketing is often mostly a lead gen and retention thing, so you may notice that there is more to do at either end of the cycle than in the middle.

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3. Reuse and recycle

Once you have a good story you want to tell, re-purpose it in as many formats as possible. Turn a white paper into a series of videos or a webinar. Turn an e-book into a SlideShare (which Pulizzi says is a vastly underutilized format in B2B marketing, by the way). Turn everything into social media posts. And then keep at it to maximize its value. Everything should always point back to your owned channels.

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4. Measure what matters

Data and analytics are critical, but can be overwhelming. Some is more important than others, and is useful for different audiences. Ultimately, the primary metric should be if your content is increasing profits and customer happiness. Everything else is a means to get there. Secondary metrics could be increasing or improving leads or saving costs or time to purchase. And supporting those could be metrics around views, likes, rankings, visits, shares, etc. The point is, don’t get caught in the weeds and miss the big picture. And, especially when you’re managing up to the executive level, primary metrics are the most relevant.

Satisfied, validated, and perhaps a tad smarter, I’m going back to Jazz by the brilliant and inspiring Toni Morrison. May she rest in peace.


I want to remember what I read. So I doodle key takeaways on Post-it® notes and stick them to my wall. Hunting for the ideas keeps me engaged, doodling them is fun, and looking at them later makes me feel good. I figured: Why not share them?


 

A bison, a duck, and a drowning man. Learning from other people’s stories about us.

This Thanksgiving was also my dad’s 80th birthday. In between turkey and two kinds of pie we marked the occasion with a game-show style quiz about key moments of his life with questions gathered from extended family members.

My brothers and I knew what animal once shat on the rug in his office (bison), what unusual pet he had as a child (duck), and which presidents he met as a newspaper editor (Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton).

His brother submitted the last question, and it stumped all of us.

What did my dad pull up from the bottom of Long Lake that brought him local fame?

When my brothers and I were kids sharing key moments of our lives was an evening ritual. Seated at the dinner table with my dad as moderator, we would answer the question: “What is your headline of the day?”

I credit this quotidian exercise with being one of the reasons I became a creative director.

I had seconds to pull my headline together before my dad called on me. I wanted it to be buzz worthy but not boastful and relatable yet exceptional to stand out against my two brothers’ answers. Sometimes if the headline was compelling we were asked for details. So I also wanted the substance of a good story to back it up.

Decent prep for concept development, headline writing, and pitching.

When my brothers and I were kids sharing key moments of our lives was an evening ritual. Seated at the dinner table with my dad as moderator, we would answer the question: “What is your headline of the day?”

So what was at the bottom of the lake? A drowning man.

Stunned silence followed.

Somehow this headline and the story behind it had never come up at dinner or anytime else.

This is what we learned:

In the 1950s my dad, a gangly teenager, and his father were sitting with the rest of the family on the patio of their summer home overlooking Long Lake in northern Illinois. It was early evening.

My grandfather, an alert outdoorsman, heard a splash. He looked out at a swimming raft and saw ripples on the surface of the water. He told my dad they should see if someone needed help.

They ran down to the dock, jumped into their speed boat, and zoomed toward the spot where my grandfather had seen the ripples.

As they approached the raft, he slowed down and told my dad to jump in the murky water. Near the raft was a small boat. No one was in it.

My dad leaped in and shot down to the bottom. His feet landed on something big and soft. He reached down and grabbed it. Struggling with the weight, he pulled it up to the surface. It was a man, much bigger than my dad. He was unconscious or maybe dead.

They got the man up on the raft and stretched him out on his stomach. With a steady rhythm, my dad pressed down on the man’s back and lifted his arms by the elbows.

The man coughed and sputtered and started to breathe again.

Amazingly, he lived.

After he was released from the hospital, the man came to thank my dad. He said that he had gone fishing by himself, jumped from his boat to the raft, fell, and hit his head on the raft. He told my dad that he remembered crawling around on the muddy bottom before losing consciousness. And then he started crying.

Struggling with the weight, he pulled it up to the surface. It was a man, much bigger than my dad. He was unconscious or maybe dead.

Hearing this tale of saving a drowning man got me thinking about brands and their unknown, untold stories.

It’s all the rage to connect with new customers, new trends, introduce new product lines and new logos, and disrupt the marketplace. And there is a lot that’s good about all of that, at least when done well. It certainly keeps us all on our toes.

There’s also increasing buzz around telling brand stories. There are many knowledgeable experts writing how tos, which also are often great. And it’s critical to tell compelling stories about who you are and what you believe.

But the stories people tell about us when we don’t even know it are our brand stories too.

Brands, like people, also should look outward to the people who know and love us the most to hear what we may have been missing about ourselves. Hopefully, it’s good stuff that’s waiting to be discovered and shared. But, if not, you want to know that too.

But the stories people tell about us when we don’t even know it are our brand stories too.

When I was at Mount Sinai we tried our best to gather as many patient stories as possible both as research and as content to share.

It is a ton of work and requires an army of people to find the storytellers, gather their stories, write, vet, and publish them. And sometimes those stories don’t neatly fit the broader brand narrative. But they’re priceless nonetheless. All of them help you learn more about who you are as a brand and how you could or should evolve into the future.

For example, to promote a new children’s heart center, we gathered happy stories of infants who had life-saving pediatric cardiology surgery and were now thriving toddlers with ideal outcomes. But we also heard a more nuanced story about the gratitude a teenage patient and her parents felt for the continuing kindness of the physicians and staff in spite of their inability to reverse her deteriorating health.

From adult heart patients we heard stories about how much they valued the expertise and compassion of our doctors. But we also heard how even minor annoyances with the front desk or billing clouded their overall perception of their experience. And, importantly, we heard non-patients repeat similar stories they had heard second hand.

So, the question for all of us shouldn’t only be what’s your headline of the day, or the week, or even the year.

We should also ask what headlines the people we care about would write about us. And what stories are behind them.

It could be that untold story may tell more about us one, two, or even sixty years later than the ones we regularly tell about ourselves.

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Thank you to my father, Paul Janensch, for allowing me to share his story and editing my copy. You can read about Paul’s encounter with Bush 41 in his recent column.

Under a spreading chestnut tree, this creative director wanders around

It seemed like a simple assignment: determine how the village is spatially organized.

But I already felt stumped, plus jetlagged and a bit carsick.

It was day two of my semester abroad in Nigeria. About an hour had passed since another student and I had arrived after a harrowing journey at this village on the outskirts of Lagos. Our mini-bus had hurled us in between clogged lanes of traffic, dodged cattle, and launched airborne over potholes.

Now we were rambling through a maze of circuitous paths between buildings made of cement, wood and mud. But their purpose and the logic behind their organization was still a mystery to us. So we asked two local men for help.

Could they tell us why these buildings are here and those there?

They didn’t know.

Maybe, like a New England green, we could discover the town’s most important spatial relationships by starting at the center and working our way out. “Where is the middle of the village?” I asked.

Like a directional sign post they pointed to opposite destinations. “There.” “There.”

A map might help. Could they draw one for us?

Warily, they nodded.

I produced paper and pen.

They stepped back and consulted with each other. Then one man carefully drew two intersecting straight lines and handed me back my implements.

He had drawn the two main roads, their junction, and where they went. But he left the town off the map.

The mini-bus horn honked. It was time to go.

Later that night we wrote up what the assignment as best we could, but acknowledged we failed.

Hoping for leniency, I included a footnote. I wrote that while we didn’t learn how the town was spatially organized, we did come to realize that the relationship of the town to the broader context of its surroundings seemed more important. And that the importance of spaces within the town seemed relative to the individual. We wished we had come up with better, perhaps less leading, questions. When we got our paper back we saw that our professor wrote in effect, “that was the point”.

This was over 20 years ago. But recently this story came back to me when I was out walking in a local Connecticut park.

I had walked these paths hundreds of times, usually on a weekend afternoon and in the same direction and sequence. But this time I went on a weekday morning. I walk fast and look straight ahead at the view of the trees ringing the saltwater marsh or across the Sound to the blurry blue smudge of Long Island or the faint grey Manhattan skyline.

But now I stared at a collection of elderly people pacing in circles in the middle of a field looking down at their shuffling feet as they kicked the leaves.

At first I thought it was Tai-chi or something like it. But then I noticed that they weren’t moving in synch.

I stepped off the path and timidly asked one of them what he was doing. “Chestnuts!” he exclaimed. Then he walked over and handed me a little brown nut, warm after being squeezed tightly in his palm.

Counting out a few more chestnuts into my hand, he told me in a thick Italian accent how dozens of people came every day for weeks often early in the morning before the park opens and from as far away as New York City. Chestnuts are hard to find since many decades prior a blight wiped out most of the trees. And then he showed me how to use my feet to spread open the spikey exterior casing and expose the nuts inside.

For a couple of weeks I had been kicking these spikey bundles out of my way on my brisk walks, never looking down to see what peeked out from between the broken husks.

The next weekend my kids and husband joined me in the grove of chestnut trees, incredulous that we would find anything. In the brisk fall air we shook the branches, kicked the leaves, pricked our fingers on the spiky skins, and deposited a bounty of shiny brown nuts in a big plastic bag, handles stretched taut by the weight.

We didn’t go down to the beach or walk the paths. We didn’t kick the soccer ball or go fishing. Our familiar experience of the park was changed and broadened. By seeing the park through others’ eyes, it was like being in a new place entirely. In the car ride home we all vowed to look more closely at all the familiar places we went because maybe they too had new experiences to offer.

We shouldn’t have been so surprised. We already knew that Long Island Sound is home to a natural bounty that many don’t realize is there. When my husband goes fishing on the nearby jetty and hauls up a big striped bass or even a humble porgy, inevitably a walker, jogger, or someone sitting nearby will exclaim, “there are fish in there?” Admittedly, I didn’t realize the variety and size of fish until he started reeling them up a few years ago. But, really?

Everyone experiences space differently, noticing what has meaning for them but not the rest. And even though those other experiences are as deep and rich as your own, they don’t exist for you until and unless you are compelled to look and, with an open mind, choose to step over the threshold to learn about them from their perspective.

When it comes to creating experiences in real or virtual space as a Creative Director, I think Design Thinking can be pretty great for breaking through these barriers and incorporating diverse perspectives. Being grounded in empathy, Design Thinking mandates that practitioners consider other people’s perspectives when solving problems. But in response to building criticism that it may not be sufficiently inclusive of all voices, Michael Hendrix of IDEO recently acknowledged the limits of the methodology his firm popularized.

In my practice of Design Thinking, including diverse voices from outside of the creative team as co-participants, especially the end user, is the explicitly acknowledged ideal. But, in spite of the potential for rich insights, the reality is that ideal isn’t practiced as much as it should be. Time and money are the typical excuses. Instead, what passes for “empathy” can be two or three degrees of separation away summarized in a PowerPoint deck of qualitative research findings. And the “creative” still has the power to determine what solution should or should not be more fully developed and how it should be revised based on feedback.

Anything that can increase our capacity for — and practice of — empathy, curiosity, and humility is most welcome. Because in order to design real or virtual experiences that include people different from ourselves, it’s clear that we must understand their perspective as well as the limitations, assumptions, and prejudices of our own.

So I am excited to learn more from John Maeda, Kat Holmes, Bruce Nussbaum, Natasha Iskander, and others who propose helpful revisions to Design Thinking or alternate methodologies that seek to be more inclusive, ask better questions, inspire more innovative solutions, and/or produce better results.

Hopefully, we can all discover some chestnuts.

Waterfalls, cows, and farms. Are there lessons in design from the other side of the world?

Even before we bought the waterfall, I knew we were on to something.

Over the summer we visited the homestay we built in West Sumatra for the first time since its two-storied wood-framed house was completed. The house is perched over a fishpond and overlooks a patchwork of rice paddies and grassy terraces that slope downward to a clear, meandering river.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The craftsmanship of the house is outstanding and the view is stunning. But even more impressive is the community of people contributing to the success of the enterprise. Led by my brother-in-law, three generations of men do the backbreaking labor of clearing rocks from the land and digging new irrigation ditches. Women clean the house and cook the meals for guests, serving rice and spicy fish curry on banana leaves spread on a flat patch of grass under a banyan tree. In town, news of the homestay spreads through word of mouth by a network of guides and friends, resulting in it being booked nearly every day since before the house was finished.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The waterfall is a recent addition to the homestay. We bought it since coming home to Connecticut, so I’ve only seen photos. It’s not adjoining, but a short hike away. Just beyond up the hill are “The 1000 Caves” that the canyon valley is know for, and cliffs for a range of rock climbing abilities. Down the road is the small town that has a café owned by the family of the women who do the cleaning and cooking for us. You can also hire them to teach you how to cook their local dishes, including fried coffee leaves, which are delicious by the way. Their brother also teaches traditional music, the “saluang”, a bamboo flute, and “gamelan”, a small orchestra of gongs. Our homestay is literally at the center of this network of personalized, authentic, semi-adventurous, local experiences.

It recently struck me – our homestay is a success because it strives to provide customer-first service design.

Our extreme diversification started with cows.

In West Sumatra buying cows is a traditional form of retirement investment. When you have some extra cash, you buy a female cow and board it with a local farmer to care for and breed. When a calf is born, you split the ownership of the calf with the farmer fifty-fifty. If the calf is female, the farmer raises her to adulthood, breeds her, and then owns this third generation and beyond. If the first generation calf is male, it is usually sold to the local butcher for cash for profit or to buy a female cow.

Cows are a relatively predictable and stable investment. But it’s definitely a long game.

A partnership between owner and farmer, cow breeding takes singular focus and commitment and the ability to adapt and recover after unforeseen surprises, like infertility or illness. The farmer provides labor and resources like food, water and shelter. The owner provides capital investment, bulls for breeding, and access to the marketplace for selling the offspring.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business requires a product design mindset that relies on a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Our third investment is a small family farm.

The land stood mostly fallow until my sister-in-law and her husband, who we call “Uncle”, retired. Then they came to us with an idea. They would plant fruit trees and vegetables and raise chickens and ducks. Several years later it is a beautiful, shady, fragrant oasis that rivals any botanical garden I’ve seen. The land is teeming with avocados, dragon fruit, water apples, mangoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, chili peppers, and about a dozen other plants that I don’t know the English names for.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business is a product business that follows a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Uncle is the true genius behind the farm’s success. All along I assumed he must have grown up on a farm. But, during this past visit, I learned that his horticultural expertise is recently acquired from the Internet! In the evenings he reads about plants and their cultivation and during the day he puts his learning into practice. He tests and learns, iterates and refines. One of his early innovations was to weigh down fruit tree branches with boulders tied to long ropes. The boulders sit on the ground and gently pull the branches downward so the tree grows wide and full, making the fruit easier to reach.

Uncle is the designer of a living platform that houses a constantly evolving range of sweet, delicious content.

Indonesia is a booming, modern economy with innovative digital experiences that reach both large, sophisticated urban centers as well as smaller rural villages. For good or ill, you can see the glow of smart phones emanating from the windows of even the most modest house. But up until now I thought there was deep divide between our more traditional businesses and my work at agencies and technology companies.

Homestay, cows, and farm. Service design, product design, and a content platform. The parallels are surprising, and intriguing.

Perhaps I no longer have to be a New York creative director by day and a West Sumatran businesswoman by night. Now these two parts of myself can both beat within one heart and start to cross-fertilize in my rational mind. Maybe they have more in common than I thought.

I suspect, and kind of hope, there is still much that does not translate, and can’t be transferred, across those nearly 10,000 miles. Crispy fried coffee leaves, the warm, curly-haired head of a new calf, and the sweet, fuchsia juice of a fresh dragon fruit are just beautiful and perfect in what and where they are.

But someday it might be nice to tap on the screen to feel the spray from our cold, crystal-clear waterfall on my face.

The seduction of the second worst

I’m currently hooked on Forged in Fire and The Great British Baking Show.

Forged in Fire is a quick fix. With one person crowned champion in each episode, suspense only has to be maintained for 42 minutes. And midway there’s the spin-chilling promise of Doug Marcaida sliding a blade though a translucent, gelatinous, life-sized torso and pronouncing through lips pulled taut over bared teeth that it “will kill”.

On the other hand, The Great British Baking Show takes some fortitude to get through batter week and bread week, pudding week and patisserie week, and a lot of weird, unfamiliar British baked goods, to see the winner loft their etched glass platter above their head at the end of episode 10.

Short format or long, the formula is the same. Terrified, semi-regular people who are driven to pursue and perfect obscure art forms for which they are unflinchingly passionate are put through grueling, time-starved trials of their skill. Sweating in front of ovens, forges, and glaring judges, they craft, agonize over, and finally present their creations to be mercilessly critiqued.

Sound familiar to any of you?

Sweating in front of ovens, forges, and glaring judges, they craft, agonize over, and finally present their creations to be mercilessly critiqued.

There are many details to marvel at and wonder about, including the petty. How does her lipstick stay so perfect through hours of sweaty baking in a tent without AC? Or, I hope that sweet looking teenage boy forging a samurai sword in his backyard isn’t an outcast with a revenge list.

But what I marvel at most is the participants poise and grace when their creations are torn apart figuratively and often literally by the judges. Someone will be kicked off the show. And I feel (briefly) horribly for them. But I’m most inspired by our glimpse into the humbling power of relief and redemption felt by those who fall second to last.

“I really thought that was it for me.”

“Thank God I get another chance!”

“I’m even more motivated to be the best blacksmith/baker that I can be.”

And then their tenacious climb back from the brink.

But I’m most inspired by our glimpse into the humbling power of relief and redemption felt by those who fall second to last.

The second worst and all of the remaining participants reliably come back for the next challenge, knowing full well the pain and agony that is likely awaiting them at some point in the near future – after all there is only one winner. But they don’t give up and, what’s more, the best, having just looked over the cliff into the oblivion, still stubbornly refuse to play it safe and charge ahead knowing whether it’s now or later, the best go big or end up going home.

It’s the same reason that I always root for the underdog in sports, as long as they show the same persistence and drive.

Now meet the ground hog in my backyard.

My favorite work-at-home spot is on a couch looking through the sliding glass doors to my back patio.

Each afternoon during the warmer months, her golden, loaf-shaped body emerges from under the stump of what used to be a towering 50-foot pine tree. She stares at me through the glass, frozen for a few seconds. But she never is deterred by my furtive glances from her to the swooping hawks that criss-cross over her head and back again. She climbs to her perch on the boulder next to the stump, cleans her head and tail with her paws, and stands in the sun for hours.

I think her baby was taken by one of the hawks a few weeks ago. One day it was there. The next it wasn’t. I’m hoping it just grew up quickly and moved out. But, I’ve seen how those hawks chase down and snatch chipmunks and squirrels with their talons from the lawn. The baby ground hog was only slightly bigger. But her mom still keeps climbing to the top of the rock, tempting her own fate.

I feel a kinship as many of you in creative professions likely do.

In spite of coming out of my burrow time and again to receive an unexpected challenge to my skills, intellect, and instinct, and facing relentless criticism with only the smallest, miracle-sized chance of success, I gladly scramble up the side of my boulder looking for the sun.

Being creative is an inherently optimistic act.

In spite of coming out of my burrow time and again to receive an unexpected challenge to my skills, intellect, and instinct, and facing relentless criticism with only the smallest, miracle-sized chance of success, I gladly scramble up the side of my boulder looking for the sun.

Yes, you constantly see problems that need to be fixed. But you also believe you can fix them, in spite of consistently overwhelming odds. After all, those problems usually have been intractable for some time, hence they now are so unavoidable as to require intervention by a paid expert.

The terror of the blank page is a real thing, but it’s also a thrill like no other.

Launching work into the unknown is harrowing. The metrics are notoriously unsympathetic to your ego.

Losing a pitch after pouring your soul into the work in a series of all nighters is crushing. But when you do win, it feels cumulatively greater than all of the previous loses put together.

The ground hog still went outside the day after her baby was no longer there with her. But, to be honest, I’m not sure how much rational thought is going on in her furry head.

Losing a pitch after pouring your soul into the work in a series of all nighters is crushing. But when you do win, it feels cumulatively greater than all of the previous loses put together.

I am sure when the cameras aren’t rolling the bakers and blacksmiths release at least a few expletives, question the judges’ sanity, and struggle with the crushing weight of their own self-doubt.

And I’m equally sure that no matter when and why the bakers and blacksmiths go home, they face their ovens and forges determined to create something even better the next time. At least that’s what I would do.

Cut away to find space

I squinted to peer through the gap between the locked doors of the gallery for a glimpse of the serene, apse-like space that held my senior thesis art exhibition two decades earlier.

Although now empty, the grey, windowless room seemed to impossibly glow from within, lit by the sunlight piercing the oculus in the ceiling. It was a cathartic moment after an emotional yet celebratory memorial service for David Schorr, my college senior thesis advisor.

The remnants of the knotted ball of nerves I felt during my final crit with him still faintly twisted in the pit of my stomach. David was a printmaker, painter, illustrator, and graphic designer, but also a passionate lover of words— just the right words chosen for maximum emotional, or often comic, effect.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

At first the words stung. But, then they settled and started to make sense. Although my installation had the trappings of fine art with drawings, sculpture, and even a tree suspended over a rectangle of grass, the best part of it was the process and purpose behind it — how I rallied a team of local craftsmen and generous friends to help me make an installation of objects that told my story. In that simple yet profound observation, he both cut away who I was trying to be but wasn’t and found space for a future that could leverage my true talents.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

One of the hardest things to teach a budding, young soccer player is to run away from the ball when your teammate has it. Invariably they run toward the ball like iron filings drawn to a magnet. It seems counter intuitive. Don’t you want to run toward the action to add your two feet to the mix?

No, you want to cut away from the other players to find space, then open up to receive the ball. Only then can you deploy your best foot skills to drive the ball toward the goal. And there lies much of the beauty in the game.

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

My senior thesis project also involved literally cutting away to find space.

The most important elements of the installation were three large drawings suspended from the ceiling. To make them I adopted a drawing technique in which I held the eraser in my left hand and the charcoal in my right. I would draw and erase, erase and draw, until ghostly forms emerged from the background. A light gray shading lingered on the edges of the erased spaces, giving the forms both depth and a vibrating energy that was much more interesting than if I drew them directly.

I’ve found that cutting away to find space is a useful technique for creative thinking overall.

For me, a long walk in the wide expanse of nature results in more aha moments than a shower. But the same principle applies — absorb lots of information, then cut it from your conscious mind as you silently process it in the background. Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

When I’m helping my team evaluate ideas, I sit huddled with them holding a small pad of paper and a pen. I look at all of the comps, hear all of the explanations, and consider all of the cool innovations and clever extensions. But I only write down a keyword or phrase that sums up the core of the idea, stripping away the usually very well thought out, but at best supportive and at worst extraneous detail.

Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

After we cut away to expose the true essence of the idea, the team and I then evaluate it and, if it has promise, open our minds to find its possibilities and build it up again, bringing back some of those great supporting ideas and adding more.

As a kid, the farthest I got in soccer was the first grade town team. I was always lost in the pack, usually behind the ball, chasing it fruitlessly. I wish my coach taught me to cut away from the crowd, find space, and open up so I could unlock the beauty of the game.

But as I peered through the sliver between the doors, blinking from the bright sunlight, I felt tremendous gratitude for the lesson I learned from David. While standing together beneath the oculus in the same luminous room he encouraged me to cut away what wasn’t truly me and find my space in the wide open field of design.

I’m still working on it, David. But I’ve never looked back.


David Schorr, professor of art at Wesleyan University, died on June 16, 2018 at the age of 71.