CategoryCreativity & Design

Thinking about creativity and design in general. Also included: any thoughts on writing and blogging.

Daily Creativity (and one Meditating Ninja)

Austin Kleon, who wrote “How to Steal Like an Artist,” is a great example of someone who allows himself to be creative every day. If you look at his blog, you see that he regularly writes in a journal, makes drawings, doodles, and cuts up newspapers clippings into poetry. He often posts things he is watching or reading that inspires him. And he regularly posts things his kids have drawn, and his interactions with kids are a remarkable way to allow those “fantastic frustrations” (as a friend calls them) to spur one to greater activity.

I thought of Austin when I read a recent post by Scott Alexander, where he took a Tripadvisor review of Xanadu (the actual Summer palace of Kublai Khan) and rewrote it in the style of Coleridge’s famous poem. Scott’s creativity comes in a different form than Austin’s usually–it’s more logical and rational. But it’s no less creative.

Austin and Scott are great examples of people whose life is inherently creative. I admire them for that. Austin’s blog in particular is a large inspiration for this one–small and humble though it may be. I’m reminded of a quote from Deiter F. Uchtdorf:

The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.

Everyone can create. You don’t need money, position, or influence in order to create something of substance or beauty.

Creation brings deep satisfaction and fulfillment. We develop ourselves and others when we take unorganized matter into our hands and mold it into something of beauty—and I am not talking about the process of cleaning the rooms of your teenage children.

My resolution: I’m going to be more creative, every day, in some small way. (By this, I mean beyond interface design. My job is, gratefully, very creative.) So during a break at work, I drew this:

I call it: “Be Still, and Know that I Am Ninja”

Adobe Illustrator is Great

There’s a series of blog posts I want to write about voice interfaces, but I need to illustrate some things. And drawing–I love drawing, but I want something cleaner. So I found out that both my mother-in-law and my work have Wacom tablets. And guess what! They’re amazing. I was playing around in Adobe Illustrator today and had a lot of fun.

It’s neat when technology allows you to make cool stuff. As Horace wrote:

to push the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.

Obviously there’s more that can be done, but I made my name in a ninja theme.

Hi-ya! Can’t wait to start drawing more tomorrow.

Making Poetry of Familiar Things

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to push the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.
—Horace, Epistles, ii.3

When I wonder how to best describe the creative act, the act of designing–whether it be an interface, a blog post, sketchnotes, art, or even a life–I find this Roman’s words particularly fitting.

Work-Life Balance? Or Harmony?

I recently wrote about the point between contentment and ambition, and touched–briefly–on the idea of work-life balance. Basically, I said balance is important. You stray too far to one side, and you lose yourself.

My colleague and friend, Bradley, read this and pointed me to another concept: that of work-life harmony. This is an idea espoused by Jeff Bezos, who dislikes the term. I think it’s worth quoting in whole from the Business Insider article:

“This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in,” he said. “I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off.”

Instead of viewing work and life as a balancing act, Bezos said that it’s more productive to view them as two integrated parts.

“It actually is a circle. It’s not a balance,” Bezos said.

Bezos said that the relationship between his work life and personal life is reciprocal, and that he doesn’t compartmentalize them into two competing time constraints.

“If I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy,” said Bezos. “And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who’s that person — who, as soon as they come into a meeting, they drain all the energy out of the room … You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.”

I like this. A lot. Part of the reason I like this is because “harmony” invokes the idea of music. Life is a song, with various parts and instruments coming together to form some greater whole: a piece of masterful music. There may be different movements within that larger song, moments where one instrument or melody comes to the fore, but it can all string together effortlessly. This image of life is lovely, with work and life in lock-step with each other, each lending to the other a great deal of movement and progression.

Balance, by contrast, evokes more severe images: the scales of justice, or just a waiter at Olive Garden trying to juggle far too many drinks on that tray of theirs.

The one caveat, perhaps, is understanding this: some jobs are enjoyable, engaging, and energizing. Some jobs allow for flow. Some jobs lend themselves to a harmonious combination of work and life. But not all do. Balance can be a more apt metaphor when one’s job is draining or drugery. Ideally, someone could just leave their job in that case for a better one, but that’s not always possible–something Jared Spool, a UX Designer I admire, points out in a recent article.

Still, I think harmony is the ideal. It’s a lovely image, a life akin to music, “the shorthand of emotion” (as Tolstoy put it).

Between Contentment and Ambition

What is it called, when a man’s found balance between being content–and wanting more?

This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately, both professionally and personally: what is an appropriate ambition? Whenever I spend time in the classics, I’m always reminded–be grateful for what you have. Life’s short, there’s a lot you can’t control, and–well, I’ll let the Roman poet Horace take over:

… You’ve got to be well if you want
To enjoy the things you own. If you life is governed
By cravings for what you lack, or else by fear
Of losing what you have, then what you have,
Your house and your possessions, give you as much
Pleasure as a picture gives a blind man…

… The avaricious man always feels poor;
Set limits to what your desires make you long for;
When his neighbor grows fat the covetous man grows thin.
The worst Sicilian tyrant couldn’t invent
A torment worse than envy…

(Epistles, i.2)

There’s a lot of wisdom here. Be glad for what you have. “Enjoy the things you own.” And of course, I know that. But it’s also obvious that it’s possible to enjoy what you have too much. There’s a balance–and on the other end lies ambition.

There’s a tendency, reading the Ancients (and even many Moderns), to hear that wealth and power and fame are all bad. And with all of that, it might seem that ambition of every kind can be “bad.” But a careful reading show that Horace, at least, still has ambitions for something:

And if you’re able to learn to do without
Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow
The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.

Horace said he wanted wisdom, and history shows that he wanted, too, to be accepted and revered as a great poet. In other words, ambition wasn’t all bad. Ambition for fame, along with professional achievement as well as my own family legacy–that is alright for me to have, as long as it’s not to excess.

So e shouldn’t have too little or too much ambition. Too little ambition–that’s slovenly indifference–and we shouldn’t have too much ambition–that’s, well, I can’t think of a better word for it than excessive ambition, or over-reaching resolve. (It’s what ruined everything from the Roman republic to modern souls, like the people running Enron or Bernie Madoff.)

Now, whatever the state is called, of being perfectly balanced between contentment and excessive ambition, it is an Aristotelian virtue. It’s a virtue with too vices. Courage is a good example: too little, and you’re a coward, and too much, and you’re rash.

So, here’s my question: what is the middle point called? And as a creative as well as a human being, what does it look like?

I’m not going to belabor the point, but two things come to mind. First, I don’t think it’s bad to be ambitious in our careers. Writing this blog is, in part, an attempt to hone my thinking and, yes, showcase it as well. I want to design good things, and I want to be known for being a strong UX designer, capable in several domains. I think the danger lies in letting our careers and professional ambitions ruin the other dimensions of a good life, insofar as they’re present: marriage and family, recreation and leisure, emotional and physical health. I think balance is essential to being not just a great worker (creative work is hard if you’re exhausted or your family life’s falling apart), but also to being a great human being. In other words, desired rightly, professional success, accomplishment and even wealth can–along with wisdom and the other “classic” goods–can be worthy ambitions. We just have to find the balance, and remember which goals are most important.

My second point is about what to call this balance of ambition. There is a term I like, a term that has admittedly religious overtones: divine discontent. This was used by a leader in my church, Neal Maxwell, in a 1976 address to church members:

We can distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon…

Perhaps divine discontent is too religious a word to cover every kind of ambition. Maxwell is talking about ambition on the moral, character-forming front, but we can also feel a desire to improve our professional work, our net wealth, our notoriety, our knowledge in a particular domain, or our relationships. Maybe “righteous discontent?” “Tempered ambition?” Neither do quite as well for me as divine content, which has the benefit of a poetic, memorable phrasing.

There are still questions to ask and answer, but I’ve reached this conclusion: whatever lies between contentment and ambition, it’s real, and whichever way I’ve steered too far, I need to correct. How this reflects in my professional life is still, for me, up in the air–am I ambitious enough? Am I after the right things?

Creatively and morally, these are important questions, because I’m convinced that finding the sweet spot between satisfaction and ambition allow me to make my best work–not overburdened by “anxiety’s chilling effect,” nor under-burdened and incapable of making anything at all for lack of drive.

Preliminary notes on daily blogging

With blogging, I’m not so sure it’s about quantity as much as it’s about frequency: for me, there’s something kind of magical about posting once a day. Good things happen.

So wrote Austin Kleon, in “A few notes on daily blogging.” Austin is a writer and artist I admire a lot, and is one of a small coterie of bloggers who have got me thinking: why not try writing?

Since I graduated from college a year ago–in English literature–I haven’t written much. Oh, here and there, but nothing consistent. So here I aim to write. Every. day. I’m trying to remind myself, it doesn’t have to be big. Even ten words a day would bring me to 3,650 words after a year, and 36,500 words in a decade! Who knows? Maybe good things will happen.

© 2019 Bryan Sebesta

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