A Creative Catalyst

Sometimes my brain feels stuck. I have a hard time coming up with new ideas, and I feel a general sense of stagnation. Dissatisfaction. Boredom.

I found myself in such a mood yesterday while I was in my room. I just felt so… bleh. I even did a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups, but nothing would shake the malaise.

It wasn’t until I left my room to go grocery shopping that I snapped out of it. I got in my car, put on Clockwork Angels at the appropriate volume, and started driving. Within minutes, I had an idea about something I wanted to write about. I jotted it down with Pop. A little while later, I thought of something else. And then something else. Before I had even arrived at the grocery store, I had a small handful of new ideas.

And I thought to myself, “Isn’t that funny?” All I had to do was start driving.

A creative block can have many solutions. Sometimes it pays to just sit in silence and think — to enter an oasis of quiet — until the ideas deep within us bubble to the surface. This sort of inspiration is internal.

But sometimes we need to look outside ourselves. In my case, sitting in my room wasn’t cutting it. It wasn’t until I got outside, in motion, that I was reminded of everything that existed outside my little room — including some things I could write about. The music, the sky, traffic, other people… observing all of these things — none of which were in my room — jumpstarted my brain and caused it to think differently. Suddenly, I wasn’t grasping for ideas in space. The ideas presented themselves to me, and I was fortunate enough to receive them.

I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying that inspiration doesn’t always have to be summoned from within. We can perhaps find it just outside the door. But then again, inspiration isn’t just over there, waiting for us to go get it. Rather, whatever’s over there may have the potential to stir something within us, something that leads to the next idea.

Instead of trying to squeeze water from a rock, consider the possibility that it may take something outside yourself to rekindle your creativity. You may be in need of a catalyst.

When stuck, take a ride.

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Stranger in a Strange Bed

Michael Schechter on The Make Mindset:

I want to do more, I want to make more and the best way to ensure that that happens is to continue this shift in my mindset from take to make. I’ve been pushing myself to put down the remote, to ignore my RSS feeds, to avoid my browser and to try and make something out of nothing. I’ve needed to push myself to make better choices and attempt more ambitious endeavors.

This is exactly the mindset I’m trying to adopt now that I’ve moved out of my parents’ house.

I haven’t been sleeping well since I moved out. The bed is loud. The birds freak out in the morning. The sun wakes me up very early.

But it’s good.

The thing about sleeping in a strange bed with a strange pillow in a strange room is that it gets me up in the morning.

My bed at my parents’ house is insanely comfortable. It’s queen-sized. The pillows are fluffy. The sheets are soft. The room is dark and silent. I can sleep for days there, in safety.

But it was too comfortable. It’s very difficult to get out of a really comfortable bed. Just five more minutes, you say. And before you know it, it’s lunchtime, and you haven’t made anything. And that’s depressing, so you retreat back to the comfort and safety of your bed.

A strange bed is easy to get out of. The mattress groans and creaks. It’s sway-backed on one side. The sheets are rough. Your feet hang off the end. This isn’t a long, deep, peaceful sleep, but merely a series of short naps, interspersed with strange noises and uneasy dreams.

And so getting up in the morning is easier. There’s no temptation to stay in a strange bed. And that initial motivation can propel your entire day forward.

A strange bed is a reminder that you are not where you want to be. Not yet.


I’m not quite who I want to be, but the more I align what I want with what I create, the more things begin to move in the right direction.

Maybe take off that extra pillow tonight.

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On Crush On Radio | Sanspoint

My Crush On Radio cohost, Richard J. Anderson, tells the story of how our little music podcast came to be:

It’s been great to learn the technical side of things, great to learn about new bands and artists, but just sitting with a glass of water, and chatting with good friends about the things we’re madly passionate about has been the best part. It’s proof that Obsession x Topic x Voice is a great way to make cool stuff. If you like the idea of hearing three complete music nerds talk about their obsessions for over an hour, this show is for you. If you like to hear about cool music you might not know about, the first half of each show is for you. In either case, I hope you’ll tune in.

Me too. I love this thing we’ve made.

The Quick and Easy Path

Luke: Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no. No. Quicker. Easier. More seductive.

What is easy isn’t always what’s right.

What is easy isn’t always what’s best.

Cupcakes are easy. They are seductive. Taking one out of its wrapper is quick and painless. The payoff is immediate. It’s sweet and delicious.

Eating healthy is hard. We’re surrounded by junk food everywhere we go. Cooking healthy food takes time and effort. It’s a pain in the ass.

Lying in bed is easy. It’s tempting, safe, and comforting. Nothing can hurt you there, under the covers.

Push-ups are hard. They aren’t fun. They hurt. Going to the gym is hard. It hurts. It takes consistent time and effort before you ever see any rewards.

Doing what you’re told is easy. Stay in the box. Keep your head down. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Be average.

Making something is hard. Creating something out of nothing is hard. Especially when there may be little in the way of tangible rewards.

We must be mindful of the choices placed before us.

Eating junk food is easy.

Not working out is easy.

Following the paths of convention is easy.

But is it what’s right?

Is it what’s best?

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Unemployment Opportunities

According to the Associated Press, half of new grads are jobless or underemployed:

“I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” says Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old graduated in 2010 with a creative writing degree.

Initially hopeful that his college education would create opportunities, Bledsoe languished for three months before finally taking a job as a barista, a position he has held for the last two years. In the beginning he sent three or four resumes day. But, Bledsoe said, employers questioned his lack of experience or the practical worth of his major. Now he sends a resume once every two weeks or so.

Bledsoe, currently making just above minimum wage, says he got financial help from his parents to help pay off student loans. He is now mulling whether to go to graduate school, seeing few other options to advance his career. “There is not much out there, it seems,” he said.

(Via NPR)

Yep. Regardless of whom you feel compelled to blame, the economy is down. I know nothing of economics, so I’ll just state that as known and leave it at that.

Here’s J. D. Bentley in his essay, “A Touch of a Revolution”:

I’ve been appre­ci­at­ing the light­ness of being slave to no one. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that free­dom is the qual­ity to be most con­sid­ered as I make deci­sions. The free­dom to do what I want, when I want, with whom I want, where I want is of para­mount importance.

My life is dri­ven by the desire to find the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples that fuel the great­est ideal and then to apply those prin­ci­ples so that I might one day achieve that ideal.

Regard­ing free­dom, the two great­est prin­ci­ples are these:

  1. Want nothing.
  2. Owe no one.


Do not misconstrue “freedom” as “sitting around playing video games and having no responsibilities”. I define “freedom” as having the ability and the opportunity to do great work — the work I feel is important, not the work society tells me is important.

It seems to me that despite the state of the job market, there is an intense silver lining here for us twenty-somethings.

While the economy is down, the Internet is thriving. Never before has it been so easy to create something on the Web. A blog, a website, a portfolio, anything. While the economy languishes, technology advances.

A down economy means that conventional jobs are hard to come by. Why should we struggle and compete to squeeze ourselves into the few remaining boxes in which society demands we live?

Why not create our own boxes?

What if, years from now, the history books read that my generation beat the recession with creativity and passion? With vision, care, and the tenets of entrepreneurship?

The older generations have never had available to them the technology that currently resides at our fingertips. It’s no one’s fault, but we cannot expect them to be able to comprehend the technology or how we wish to leverage it. The iPhones, and iPads, and computers — these are the devices of our generation. While our parents now exist alongside our technology, the majority lack the immersion afforded to us by growing up with it, rather than before it.

I can think of no better time to think and live outside the box. To build my own box. I have no desire to fight for a job I don’t really want, especially when such a job might as well be a unicorn.

What would happen if we saw unemployment not as misfortune, but as opportunity?

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The Superficial, The Metaphysical, and Why It's OK Not to Be Brilliant All the Time

A Creative Trough

My creative output tends to fluctuate from week to week. Some weeks I have a long list of ideas I want to write about, while other weeks I find writing to be absurdly difficult. Sometimes it's a lack of ideas, and sometimes it's a lack of motivation.

I've been in a bit of a holding pattern with my thesis this week as I wait for feedback on my new and improved (thirty-page!) introduction and start planning the final steps toward completion. This, coupled with the fact that the weather has been miraculous lately, has distracted me from the astounding productivity I saw at the beginning of the month.

I'm still getting up early and doing yoga every morning, but I feel like I've been accomplishing less. Sure, my thesis is on hold, but I could be using the spare time to push the site forward. Instead, I've been doing a lot of reading, exercising, and sitting outside.

I only have excuses for my lack of "real" productivity over the past week, but I also think there's a certain degree of value to this downtime.

The Superficial vs. The Metaphysical

I tackle a variety of topics on this site, and I tend to view each topic as falling into one of two categories. Some of them are "superficial", and some of them are "metaphysical". The superficial pieces — about apps, or shaving, or music, for example — tend to be more light-hearted, fun, and "easier" to write. The metaphysical pieces — about the beauty of being wrong, or letting go of Bruce Springsteen, or creativity — tend to be more serious, challenging, and subsequently more difficult and rewarding to write.

I feel most accomplished as a writer when I feel like I've created something out of nothing. Not just anything, but something of substance. I like feeling that I've reached with my writing, as opposed to, "Hey, here's my new favorite app you should check out." At times, this superficial posting feels a bit like a cop-out.

But, we are human, after all. Some days you don't have a brilliant idea. Some days you don't have the strength to ponder the depths of human existence. And I think that's OK.

Lighten Up

Life is too short to be serious all the time. Some writers may be able to push the envelope every single day, but I don't feel that would be the most honest representation of myself. Some days I feel like reading about eastern philosophy for three hours, and other days I feel like playing old video games from 1997. It's all fun. It's all good. It's all worthwhile.

The value of deep thinking and writing intense, thoughtful pieces is self-explanatory. We push our minds beyond their self-imposed limits to reach new levels of contemplation, understanding, and growth.

What's less obvious is the value of the so-called mindless activities, as well as the importance of rest.

The fluctuations in our creative output — the cresting waves of productivity and the lowly troughs of writer's block — are a natural part of our humanity. It's hard to be brilliant and earth-shattering every single day, just as it's hard to be relentlessly productive every day between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM.

Don't allow yourself to feel guilty about what you're excited about today.

It might be philosophy, or it might be video games. If it's video games, so what? There's value in shutting your brain down for a while. It's a form of rest, and the rest is what gives you the strength to do the hard work.

If a saxophonist never put any rests in his music, he would just keep playing the same note over and over until he passed out due to a lack of oxygen. It's the rests — the spaces between the notes — that give the notes their own unique life.

Writing is the same way. If I tried to write a challenging, deep piece every day, I would probably burn out very quickly. I might even stop writing the site for a while. By writing a mix of the fun and the thought-provoking, the superficial and the metaphysical, I keep myself sane and steady. And it's all part of the package. Everything I write about here is Me. I try to keep a general focus, but at the same time, you'll never find an article here about something I don't find interesting or consider valuable.

And look at that. Here I am, 900 words later, after wondering all weekend what I was going to write about for Monday. I thought to myself, "Maybe I'll try to write up some little piece about the value of doing nothing, and then I'll figure out something better for Tuesday." But what started out as a tiny, superficial idea turned into a piece I kind of like. Funny how writing works like that.

In short, don't be afraid to do "nothing" once in a while. Let your mind turn off or wander aimlessly. Sometimes, just sitting quietly and thinking is doing quite a lot. If you sit and think for long enough, eventually you'll arrive at a place of drive and inspiration, where you want to get up and build something amazing.

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Ubiquitous Distraction, Oases of Quiet, and Why You Can't Come Up with Anything

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea of ubiquitous distraction — the notion that distractions are everywhere, and that it’s increasingly difficult to exist in a state without distractions.

The trouble is that distractions often don’t seem like distractions, and sometimes we don’t even consider something a distraction, even though it’s preventing us from doing what we should or even want to be doing, which itself seems like a pretty good definition of “distraction” to me.

Take checking Twitter, for instance. I love checking Twitter. There’s so much cool stuff on Twitter. Many days, it’s a gateway to something inspiring, thought-provoking, or just plain interesting. It has value, no question about it.

But at the same time, when you’re checking Twitter, it’s very difficult to do anything else, or at least do anything else well. It’s the case for single-tasking. The reason for this inability, I think, begins with the fact that checking Twitter requires you to receive information.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. We’re receiving information all the time, through all of our senses, and probably even when we’re asleep.

I believe an incompatibility exists between receiving information and, shall we say, creating your own information. That is, there is a tension between absorption and creation.

When you’re receiving information, it’s difficult to put out information. For example, it’s hard to listen when you’re talking. When you’re talking, you’re acting as an output. You’re sending words out into the air. When you’re listening, you’re receiving the words from someone else.

A talker’s output is a listener’s input.

Talking and listening at the same time is very difficult. We think we’re capable of doing both simultaneously, but more likely we are alternating in rapid succession between talking and listening.

Suppose I’m reading a book and therefore taking in external information. To understand what I’m reading, I need to pause and think about it. This process happens almost instantly, probably between sentences. That’s what punctuation is for. Otherwise, we would never have an opportunity to understand a thought.

Beyond mere understanding lies the act of pondering. To think about what I read, I need to stop reading and process it. I might have passing, reactionary thoughts to what I’m reading as I read it, but to truly ponder on it, I’m better off pausing to reflect.

Our inputs are innumerable. Twitter, Facebook, texts, books, radio, television, magazines, etc. Whenever we interact with these things, we are receiving information, and thus we are unable to create new information, whether we realize it or not.

With that in mind, it’s clear that reaching a creative state — that is, a state where creation is possible — is incredibly difficult.

Suppose you’re trying to come up with a creative, original thought, or otherwise do some kind of work wherein you’re making something out of nothing. Writing a blog post, a poem, a short story. Painting a picture. Composing a song. Something that requires you to be creative if you’re going to produce anything significant.

If you’re surrounded by inputs, that state of creation is going to be difficult to reach. How can you create something while you brain is busy taking in and understanding external information?

As long as you are surrounded by inputs, you will find no room for your creative output.

This relationship strikes me as insidious in the sense that we may never realize it’s happening.

Say it’s a Wednesday night, and I just queued Thursday’s blog post for publication. But, now I’m in trouble, because I’ve run out of ideas for potential blog posts. I’m all tapped out. But, I need to publish something on Friday morning. The readers depend on it. No matter, something will come to me over the course of the day.

I wake up Thursday morning and check Twitter and RSS. I catch up on the day’s news. Then, I put some music on while I take a shower. I listen to a podcast as I’m eating lunch. Read the news some more. More music or podcasts in the car on the way to work. Actual working while I’m at work. More music or podcasts on the way home. Read some more news while eating dinner.

And now I’m screwed because the day is over, and still no new ideas have come to me!

Well, how could they?

If you were taking in information all day long — news, music, podcasts, other people, etc. — then how could your brain possibly have had a chance to create something original? There was no space to create.

This brings me to an excellent video featuring John Cleese called “A Lecture on Creativity”, which Merlin Mann referenced on Episode 62 of Back to Work.

In his lecture, Cleese advises creating what he calls an “oasis of quiet” when it comes time to do your creative work. He recommends five things as necessary to reaching a creative state, but I’m only going to refer to two of them here. You can (and should) watch the video for the rest.

The first requirement is space, which Cleese says means, “sealing yourself off” from the world. Some place without inputs, without distractions.

The second requirement is time, as in a set period when you wrestle with your problem and only your problem, and after which you go back to your life. He recommends ninety minutes, as it generally takes a while to get used to being alone with your problem and letting the creative juices flow.

Cleese’s “oasis of quiet” is something increasingly rare these days because we are so often surrounded by inputs. In my example of trying to come up with a new blog post idea, I never allowed myself the opportunity to experience an “oasis of quiet”. I was always receiving external information, and thus my brain never had the opportunity to create something of its own, or, to pull knowledge from the air.

To do our best creative work, to really make something great, I believe we first need to build that oasis of quiet. Because there are so many inputs — and therefore so much noise — in our world today, and because we have become so acclimated to them, we do not realize how stifling they are to our creativity.

I’ll end with a quote from Cleese’s lecture:

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent — like thinking — and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

Things like Twitter, as wonderful as it is, are trivial when it comes to creation. Sure, you might discover something that inspires within you a new idea, but following that, the actually process of making something with that idea can only be achieved in an oasis of quiet.

It’s up to you to determine what your oasis looks like. Perhaps you’re sitting. Perhaps you’re pacing. Perhaps you’re alone, or in a crowded café. Perhaps you’re on the couch in the dark, or out in the sunshine.

Whatever it looks like, your oasis needs to afford you and your mind the space and time to create. To do that, you must eliminate inputs. And, you must be patient while you wait for your creativity to come out of the woodwork.

Take the time to turn off your inputs, and find the space and opportunity for your creative output to blossom.

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Finding the Space to Create

My first cubicle job was working as a graduate intern at Southern Connecticut State University. To be fair, it wasn’t a true heads-down-no-talking cubicle job. Being a graduate intern in Student Life requires a lot of energy, as well as considerable availability beyond the 9–5 hours. But, I was working in a manmade box, and some days were spent entirely at my desk, being — or trying to look — busy with menial tasks while dreaming of other things.

In retrospect, I’ve come to appreciate my job there, but it was during those cubicle days when I made an entry in “Thoughts”, one of my running Notesy files:

I wish I wasn’t so busy so I could get things done.

In rereading that sentence, I remember what it was like to be a busy graduate intern — busy in the sense of having lots of little things that needed to be checked off, none of which I truly cared about.

At the time, Quarter-Life Enlightenment was still just a pipe dream in the back of my head, waiting outside the bonds of 9–5 cubicle life. I wished I didn’t have so many obligations so I could focus on the things I was passionate about. I wanted to make things. Things that mattered. I don’t have time to fill out van request forms; I have a life to live!

I was reminded of this period of my life while reading Michael Lopp’s most recent piece, “A Precious Hour”, wherein he discusses the dichotomy between busyness (the “Faux-Zone” of productivity) and creation (the true Zone):

As a frequent occupant of the Faux-Zone, I can attest to its fake productive deliciousness. There is actual value for me in ripping through to my to-do list. I am getting important things done. I am unblocking others. I am moving an important piece of information from Point A to Point B. I am crossing this item off… just so. Yum. However, while essential to getting things done, the Faux-Zone is not a replacement for the actual Zone, and no matter how many meetings I have or how many to-dos are crossed off… just so… the sensation that I am truly being productive, that I am building a thing, is false.

My day job as a graduate intern was, for all intents and purposes, full of busyness. Many things needed to be done, but rare was the opportunity to create something. I may not have been conscious of it at the time, but this busyness frustrated me.

It wasn’t until I was asked to prepare a presentation for the annual Student Leadership Retreat that I found fulfillment. My “Simple Happiness” presentation was a labor of love and probably one of the best things to come out of my time at Southern (relationships notwithstanding). It wasn’t a to-do item to be checked off. It wasn’t some arbitrary task that had nothing to do with who I was as a person. It was a chance to build something I cared about and something that would have real meaning for people. It was a chance to create.

If nothing else, I appreciate my old cubicle for showing me that I will die should I ever be forced to work in one full-time. I need a creative outlet where I get to be nerdy and make things, whether it’s a slideshow about minimalism or daily articles on QLE.

As Lopp points out, though, busyness isn’t quite unnecessary. Things do need to get checked off, and at most jobs, that’s how you get recognized. The more things you check off, the more things you are given. The better you are at checking things off, the more trust and responsibility you receive.

But, if you’re like me, you can’t be busy all the time. You need to be able to make stuff. You need to be able to focus on the work you care about, even if it’s not the work you get paid to do.

But where do you find the time?

There are lots of productivity systems out there. Personally, I’m a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but the name never sat quite right with me. It always sounded like an endless quest to cross things off of to-do lists. Because what happens when you get things done? Other things take their place. Thus, there never really is a “done” moment. You’re always trying to get down to zero tasks — to “done” — but it never arrives. What’s the point?

It’s true: there will always be more things that need to get done. But what I realize now about the GTD system — and about productivity in general — is that it’s not about getting down to zero. That’s impossible; you’re never going to run out of tasks to do. What productivity does is help you control the busyness. If you don’t manage all the tasks that need to be done whether you like it or not, the time to create vanishes.

Thus, what we need to be able to do is find the space to create. We need to be able to get all the little things done quickly and efficiently so that there’s time for what really matters. Controlling the busyness, rather than allowing it to control you, creates space in your life. Beautiful space. And time. Time that can then be used for what’s most important, whether that’s spending time with loved ones, exercising, or creating.

Acknowledge the busyness. It’s here to stay. But learn to keep it confined. Do not let it run your life. Find the method that works best for you, and stick to it.

There’s a time to be busy, and there’s a time to create. The world will always provide us with busyness. Finding the time and space to create is up to us.

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