Become a teacher

You’ve  spent years developing your craft and you’ve seen firsthand that development is a series of gradually increasing plateaus punctuated by short bursts of growth. As time goes by major spikes in growth are harder and harder to come by. How do you push through sticking points? Try teaching what you know.

There’s no better way to learn about yourself than by teaching others - sharing all that accumulated knowledge that's banging around in your head, all the techniques you take for granted, all that amazing stuff you can do blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back.

What's second nature to you may be a complete mystery to others. And unless you take the time to articulate why do the things you do, your process might be a mystery to yourself. Sometimes the key to unlocking your next growth spurt isn't about what you make, but how you make it. Take some time to get to know yourself. 

Identify your questions

If your questions about a project aren't clear you won’t know how to prioritize steps towards the goal. Aside from acting as a To Do list there are several other benefits of listing your questions.

• It removes monkey-chatter. Until questions have been addressed they take up mental and emotional space in your brain. Documenting them helps eliminate that distraction.
• Once you have listed you questions they become more manageable, easier to address and prioritize.

We tend to spend our time on smaller, easy to solve problems because they’re require less energy and we can pile them up, which is good for the ego. At the end of the day we review what we got done and the bigger the pile the better we feel. But do all those smaller tasks require action? Be wary of filling your day with small tasks that don’t advance the larger concept.

Warm your brain before a brainstorm

I'm going to share a personal revelation from several years ago - designing and playing music use very different parts of the brain. If I worked all day then did an evening gig it took at least an hour before I warmed up and transitioned to using the right bits of my brain. The music bits. It wasn’t just a case of warming up my muscles, I had shift my emotional/cerebral patterns before I could play well. I learned to set aside time for the transition.

Warming up your brain before you dive into any creative task, like brainstorming, will make you more effective at that task. Well, duh. This isn’t a revelation so much as a reminder. Feeding your brain with ideas will help new ideas come quicker. If you’re about to choreograph a new dance piece, watch other dances (of other styles, even. Gasp!). If you’re baking a cake, visit a bakery. If you’re designing a new toy, visit a toy store. You get the idea. Then, when you’ve changed your state and fed your brain, start brainstorming. 

Your best talent will leave you

If you hire people this is going to happen. Most personal relationships don’t work out, why would professional relationships be any different? People grow, their needs evolve and at some point they usually move on.

When someone makes the decision to leave you’ll probably feel frustration because all those skills you taught them, all those experiences that sharpened their resume, will be walking out your door - and some other company, or client, will be reaping the benefits. Hey, you probably broke some bosses hearts along your way.

Let them go. By leaving that employee is doing you a favor. It’s better to let someone go than suffer the loss of focus that happens when they would rather be somewhere else. You don’t have the time or money that. You need people who want to work with you. And by supporting them you preserve that working relationship for another time and place.

Don't wait, act now

Great ideas are a dime a dozen. The thing that separates the artist from the frustrated artist is action. It doesn't even need to be monumental action - it could be small, consistent steps towards an idea. The more you practice making use of small chunks of time the more likely you'll be ready to act when an idea hits you. 

You need full access to your creativity on the drop of a dime. The good ideas don't always come to you at the ideal time. You need to be able to recognize a good idea and capitalize on it when its fresh. Even if it's just to write it down. Push aside the stories and excuses. You have 10 minutes on the subway? Use that time. You're tired? Turn off the TV and read something related to a topic you love. Take a shower and pay attention to where you mind is wandering then write those ideas down when you get out of the shower. You are a wellspring of ideas. Let them breathe, give them life and take shape at your hands. Be firm. Show conviction. Prioritize yourself.

The Idea Matrix

New ideas don't just appear. They are the result of conscious, or subconscious, connections being made by the creator. Someone took two or more disparate ideas and combined them to get an unexpected result. Concept artists use this strategy all the time. Need a cute dragon? Combine a dragon with something soft and fuzzy, maybe a peach or a puppy, and start illustrating. I call this the Idea Matrix.

The initial idea will probably evolve once pen hits paper but you're just looking for something to get the creative juices flowing. 

Here's how it works: I write down the thing I'm designing (character, logo, UI, etc). Then I'll list the qualities I want this thing to have. Following that I'll list other things in the universe that have those qualities. Once I have a list of those things I'll select my favorites and begin exploring combinations of the intitial concept with new references that represent more emotional associations. Try it out!

Brainstorming 101

As a creative tool brainstorms have taken a beating the past couple years. The key is setting expectations and organization. Don't throw a bunch of people into a room and expect magic to happen. Some tips...

1. Define the goals. Let the team know what the problem is that they're solving and describe criteria.
2. Appoint a leader. Keeps conversation moving along and polices judgement. Flags tangents.
3. Appoint a scribe. Documents all of the ideas on a flip chart or white board. Ideally in full view of the group.
4. Don't be critical. Nothing kills the desire to get involved like judgement. You can debate and argue later.
5. Embrace the wild ideas. The crazy thoughts can always be scaled back. 
6. Set goals. More ideas are better so go for volume. Set motivating goals like, "Let's come up with 25 new ideas."

Destory all typos

An ugly insight into the mind of hiring managers: they’re looking for reasons to reject applicants. A manager’s day can disappear quickly if a company is actively hiring so they have to be brutal when reviewing applications and typos are easy to spot and condemn. Did you catch the typo in the headline? How did you feel? Don't let anyone feel that way about you.

We all make mistakes when emailing friends or posting Tweets but if you’re serious about a job you need to proof your cover letter, resume and emails. If you can't focus, have a friend proof your material. Mistakes communicate volumes about your attention to detail. If you’re freakishly talented a typo may not work against you but a hiring manager may not get to your portfolio if your resume has mistakes.

Don't be laughed at or discarded. Destroy all typos.

Give Yourself a Daily Treat

Thirteen years years ago I started a routine in which I’d get a coffee every day around 3pm. I didn’t realize what I was doing until someone asked and I replied, “Giving myself a treat.”

A treat is something to look forward to during the day that has nothing to do with work. It may or may not be a reward for getting things done because it will happen whether you’re having a good or bad day. My treat happens to fall during that post-lunch lull when my energy is low and I need something to perk me up.

My treat schedule has been pretty consistent for all these years because working in an office is highly routinized and I'm a total creature of habit. Now that I’m working from home my treat schedule is changing. Currently my routine is shifting so my treat time hasn’t settle in any one place but I think it will once I settle into a groove. What daily treat do you give yourself?

More is not always better

People like the idea of having options but when faced with too many they shut down. It’s almost always better to present people with fewer, higher quality, options than to overload them.

Remember the last time you tried to make a selection from an ten page Chinese restaurant menu? You probably chose something from memory. Back when Blockbuster was in business I had to decide what movie to rent before I arrived because, if I didn't, I'd just wander the aisles in a state of information overload.

Whether you’re sending a client mockups or designing an interface keep the options focused and few. Of course there are exceptions. A power Photoshop user want an array of tools at their fingertips, a pilot wants all their instruments in view. But if you’re designing for the mainstream and want to facilitate decision-making present fewer options that represent your recommendations.

Working for yourself you'll spend less time doing the thing you love

Yeah, I know this sounds cynical but it's also true. When you make the decision to work for yourself, either freelancing or running your own company, you’ll end up doing less of what inspired you in the first place. That’s not to say you won’t learn to love all the new skills and duties essential to running a company but you can expect to spend 75% of your time finding work (and everything else related to running a business) and 25% of your time getting your hands dirty with creative work.

Is the autonomy worth it? For some entrepreneurial folks, of course it is. But some people would rather focus on making stuff and letting others handle the contracts, invoicing, biz development, etc. What kind of person are you? In either case, there are tons of tools out there to help you manage yourself and your business. Find and master the business tools that let you spend more time making stuff and less time managing stuff.

Seeing is believing: use art to develop consensus

Artists are in a unique position to develop consensus and prove, or disprove, ideas. Why? Because a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Put a group of people in a room to discuss a visual solution to something and I guarantee they will all leave the room with different pictures in the heads. Have that same group reacting to something visual and the conversation will be more focused, shorter and the picture in everyones heads will be more similar.

If visuals haven’t been prepped in advance, use a whiteboard or a scrap of paper. It doesn’t need to be a work of art, it just needs to communicate an idea. If conversation is going in a circle and everyone is championing their own idea I’ll even suggest a meeting be rescheduled so I’ll have time to make some visuals.

Use images to get gutchecks on an idea in it’s early stage and use them to help set agendas for conversations.

Stay Relaxed

Whether you’re facing oncoming opponent, a difficult meeting or a big project you’ll be stronger, more nimble and better able to improvise strategies if you're relaxed. Breathe, trust your training and preparation, and accept that there is no situation you can control 100%. Be prepared to take some hits but don’t hold onto those bruises emotionally. Acknowledge them and move on. You'll have time later to review where you went wrong.

Before your next meeting pause to take a few long, slow breaths. Slow yourself down and review what you know in your head. If you’re prepared and relaxed your ideas will come more quickly. We’ve all been in situations where we’re underprepared and out of breath. It sucks. If someone surprises you with an unexpected, stressful, conversation, take control - tell them to give you a few minutes or take a deep breath before diving in. Either way, it’s up to you to set the tone and pace of conversation.

Documentation doesn’t replace dialog

Have you ever sent an email packed with details and been frustrated because someone didn’t digest and retain all the information? Or maybe you drafted a comprehensive design doc that no one read. There are countless scenarios where we expect colleagues to dig into our documents like they’re the next GoT volume. It’s disappointing when we realize our efforts aren’t appreciated but here's thing: People don’t read, they skim. Don’t blame them. Chances are you do the same thing.

Email sucks for brainstorming and the exchange of abstract ideas. If you want your emails to be read, keep them short. If you want creative exchange, talk to your collaborators. If you’re writing documentation, you guessed it, keep it short. Writing consumable and clear documentation requires strong editing skills. Prepare to spend as much time paring down your text as you did writing the first draft. And be prepared to talk through your ideas.

Fake a commute

This advice came from Mark Smith, a friend and talented computer engineer who has been successfully self-employed for as long as I’ve know him. It’s the greatest advice anyone has ever given me regarding working from home.

My fake commute routine: Wake up, shower, stretch, get dressed and leave the house. No email or TV and no lounging in underwear all day. When you’re moving, your blood is flowing and that gets oxygen to your brain and the ol' endorphins flow. Ever wonder why so many people get great ideas while they’re walking? Bingo.

My faked commute has three parts. 1) Walk to a cafe while I think about, and prioritize, projects. 2) Drink coffee and identify questions and areas of interest for the day’s project. 3) Walk home, start making connections between ideas and visualizing solutions.

Make recommendations

I like asking bartenders about new beers. I enjoy trying their recommendations and determining whether I agree with their assessments. If I don’t agree with them I don’t get mad. I get a different drink next time, a little better informed. I won’t waste time being miserable about a bad beer. It’s not worth it.

You have expertise. Share it. If you’re not offering the whole of your skill and experience please ask yourself, “Why not?” Are you not being paid enough? Is it a fear that you’ll be judged? Do you not care about the project? You get what you give. If you’re holding back it’s likely the people around you are following your lead.

Make recommendations. Do you want to be valued as a creative person or a tool to execute some else’s ideas? Not all of your suggestions will be followed but the more you offer the more you influence.

Know your audience

If you've worked in a bar you know there are different types of drinkers and it pays to read them properly. Do this well and it will result in deeper relationships, greater tips, and fewer lawsuits. I cast a light into the dark recesses of my brain and there, under layers of dust, I found my old classifications of drinkers. 

The Health Drinker - Steady retention, low monetization. 
The Social Drinker - Sporadic retention, good monetization.
The Problem Drinker - Low retention, low monetization. Trouble.
The Under-aged Drinker - Heavy retention, low monetization. 
The Alcoholic - Heavy retention, heavy monetization. Guilt.
The Binge Drinker - Low retention, heavy monetization.

Do these classifications relate to your audience? And does the way you relate to them change positively based on their motivations?


How do you make the case for the unexpected?

My term for well-executed but flavorless, emotionally void, design is ‘cereal box art’. It includes actual cereal box art, architecture, music, dance, video games, movies and anything that has the potential to be daring but takes the frictionless path.

Not every design needs to be an emotionally rich, daring, adventure for the end-user but how do you determine when and where your work can be pushed to challenge expectations?

If you’re working on products for the mainstream this will come up. We all want our products to be wildly successful but that often results in designs and concepts whose edges have been filed away to maximize appeal. Focus testing is great but most of us don't have the budget to collect real data. So, when faced with conservative clients, how do you make the case for the unexpected?


Mastery is not an accident

Even though Luke had a natural gift for the Force he still needed to learn the ways of a Jedi Master. He had to travel across the galaxy to find a mentor and train hard to meet his goals. If he hadn't been committed to learning and growing he probably would've gone back to Tatooine and wasted away in the bars of Mos Eisley.

Through mythology we learn, over and over, that a hero needs to overcome trials before they can succeed but this is something we all face every day if we're taking steps towards growth. We're not all fighting Sith Lords but we do wrestle with the demons that supply excuses and limit the loftiness of our goals. Smite them.

Wishes and fantasies are great but they need action to make them happen. What do you want to master and does your effort match your expectations?

Consult the experts

I know you're probably amazing at whatever it is you do but I'm sure there are areas that are outside your depth of knowledge - areas where you aren't so amazing. No problem, that's why you have experts as friends, colleagues, and mentors. If you have the budget, hire them. If you don't have a budget, offer an exchange, or buy them dinner and drinks.

Consulting experts will get you to solutions faster and shorten your conversations with clients. That's more upside for you if you're working on a project or flat rate. If you work hourly it means moving to your next project sooner. 

Where do you lack expertise? Now, which of your friends and colleagues have the skills you lack? Reach out to them. Don't worry about being a pain in the ass, you'll return the favor at some point. That's cheaper than going to school or learning the hard way.