Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Debbie Millman’

20 MAY, 2014

Seth Godin on Vulnerability, Creative Courage, and How to Dance with the Fear: A Children’s Book for Grownups

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“If you just pick one human you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.”

At the 2014 HOW conference, Debbie Millman, host of the excellent interview show Design Matters and a remarkable mind, sat down with the prolific Seth Godin to discuss courage, anxiety, change, creative integrity, and why he got thrown out of Milton Glaser’s class. She used an unusual book of Godin’s as the springboard for their wide-ranging conversation: V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone (public library) — an alphabet book for grownups illustrated by Hugh MacLeod with a serious and rather urgent message about what it means and what it takes to dream, to live with joy, to find our purpose and do fulfilling work.

I had the pleasure of seeing and recording the conversation — transcribed highlights below.

On how moving away from the economy of scarcity is changing the motives for making books:

[You used to] create an item that is scarce, and that thing that you created that is scarce has value because it’s scarce and you can sell it. In the world we live in now, none of those things are true — we don’t know the people that made the internet, we don’t have to pay them. And we type something, or we design something, and it can be seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people, if it spreads. That’s a whole new way to think about how we make things. So why bother making a book, ever again? What’s the point, if can reach ten times as many people with a blog post as will ever read one of my books? … If I’m going to make a book, there’d better be a reason experientially.

On why he used the format of a children’s book to shake grownups into absorbing a serious message:

I wanted to capture the way [that] I felt as a three-year-old when my mom read me a book. I wanted to capture the way, as a parent, I felt when I read a book to my kids. And that feeling isn’t something we get when we hand a kid an iPad in a restaurant and say, “Don’t bother me.” Something magical happens when we read a book to a kid, when we’re read a book.

So I wanted to steal that feeling — that’s why the format looks like a kids’ book, so that I could get to that part of your head that’s pre-cynical, the part of your head that isn’t yet afraid of what other people are going to think of you, the part of your head that has the bravery to do this work that matters. If I can steal that and get in, that’s my goal.

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you'll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn't make you better.

On what telling ourselves that we’re limited in our work by faulty others — crappy clients, bad bosses — is really about:

My thesis of humanity is that we are not squirrels. If you watch squirrels in the fall, they all do the same thing — they hide the acorns and stuff, they never help each other out, and they don’t do anything non-squirrel-like. They’re just squirrels — that’s their job. We’re beyond that, I would hope. And if we’re spending a lot of time in squirrel-like behavior, we’re selling ourselves short.

There are so many people in this world that don’t have the leverage and the trust and the promise that we’re lucky enough to be born with. With got this huge head-start, and to use it just to hide acorns feels to me like a cop-out.

When we see the designers that we admire and the people that we look up to, they also have lousy clients. They also have bosses that are pushing them to fit in — but they refuse. Because it’s hard to refuse, and that’s the work. The work isn’t kerning — everyone here knows how to kern… Kerning just gets done for you — that’s not the craft. The craft is looking the client in the eye and saying “No” — that’s the part that computers are never going to be able to do for us.

Vulnerable is the only way we can feel when we truly share the art we've made. When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we've given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us. And that is part of our gift.

On anxiety and Steven Pressfield’s notion of the Resistance in creative work and the value of being disagreeable — for the right reasons — in the client business:

The discipline … is to first understand that “No” might mean you want to make art, but “no” might also mean you’re hiding — that being disagreeable is a perfect way to hide from criticism, because if you’re disagreeable enough, you won’t have any customers, you won’t have to do anything scary… I think we have to be disagreeable in the service of the client, not disagreeable in the service of the Resistance — that when we’re being disagreeable, we’re doing it on behalf of the client achieving more — not our ego achieving more, not us being more famous, but the client getting more of what he or she wants. That means you have to pick clients not who pay, but who want the things that you want.

Quality, like feedback, is a trap. To focus on reliably meeting specifications (a fine definition of quality) is to surrender the real work, which is to matter. Quality of performance is a given, it's not the point.

A beautiful definition of design:

Design, at its core, thrives when a human being cares enough to do work that touches another — it doesn’t thrive when it gets more “efficient.”

On how what to do, as creative people, when our amphibian brain begins to whisper into our mind’s ear every possible disaster scenario and assuring us of our prospective failure:

That is what we do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

On reconciling making art with making a living and how the sacrifices that art necessitates clash with our chronic discomfort with uncertainty, using Patti Smith’s time as a starving artist as a humbling example:

There’s a collision of the cultural and the Resistance and many other things, which is: “I would like to make art, but I’d like to do it while making a steady income, and I want to make sure that steady income is respected by everyone around me and has no uncertainty associated with it.” Well, there’s a good reason not a lot of people make art, and that’s one of them. If you read Patti Smith’s book about her and Robert [Mapplethorpe] called Just Kids … she was homeless for years — HOMELESS! — living on bread from the garbage can, sleeping in the park, to make her art. And what’s fascinating about the first third of the book is never once does she say, “I’m a homeless person.” She says, “I’m an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.” She’s on her way to being an artist and the homelessness is a temporary moment…

But what the industrial economy seduced us into believing is that the deal was simple: You work your day doing something you’re not proud of, and you decompress at night with television and whisky, and on weekends you can go for a run. Right? Do that forever, and forty years from now you’re dead — that’s the deal. And we sold that deal to a lot of people.

Gifts are the essence of art. Art isn't made as part of an even exchange, it is your chance to create imbalance, which leads to connection. To share your art is a requirement of making it.

On the difference between those who want more and aren’t getting it and those who want more and do get it:

It’s back to this idea of what are we truly afraid of. I am more afraid of settling — I am more afraid of not giving what I can give — than I am afraid of doing it. And so when we’re sitting quietly, there’s a debate we have to have with ourselves all the time, which is: “What is my work?” And if “My work is to have more impact,” I don’t think we start by asking — I think we start by giving… Once you get hooked on that, culturally, then doors open — doors open because your work precedes you. You are your work — not your resume, but the ruckus you have made before, the people you have touched before…

Can you name someone who has built a life around that who’s a failure? I can’t!

Zabaglione is a delightful Italian dessert consisting mostly of well-whipped foam. It takes a lot of effort to make by hand. Each batch comes out a little different from the previous one. It's often delicious. It doesn't last long. It's evanescent. And then you have to (get to) make another batch.

On creative courage — something Millman herself has addressed beautifully — culminating with an exquisite addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

The full conversation is well worth listening to, and V is for Vulnerable is an unusual delight in its entirety.

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29 APRIL, 2014

What It Takes to Design a Good Life

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“Busy is a decision… You don’t find the time to do things — you make the time to do things.”

What does it take to have a good life? That’s what Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, wondered when his daughter turned five and he grew tired of reading her fables about the knight who saves the princess to live happily ever after. So he set out to find more empowering stories of existential success from some of the most inspiring women and men of our time, and The Good Life Project was born — a wonderful conversation series, which also gave us Milton Glaser on art, technology, and the secret of life. In this remarkably wide-ranging and soul-stimulating episode, Fields turns the tables on master-interviewer Debbie Millman, host of the National Design Award winning radio show Design Matters and author of, most recently, Self-Portrait as Your Traitor. Together, they explore the question of what makes it possible to design your life — to design a good life. Highlights below.

On the shared humanity of the “impostor syndrome” most creative people feel and what years of interviewing great minds have revealed about the life-cycle of happiness:

The one common denominator [that great thinkers and creators] have shared with me over the years is that they all feel like they have to get up every day and do it again. They all feel like they may very well be discovered as phonies, they very well may never, ever achieve what they had hoped. The only two people in all the years that I’ve done this that have been different, that have had a different experience in articulating who they are and what they believe, are Milton Glaser and Massimo Vignelli. But I think the common denominator that they share is that they’re both in their eighties!

On our culture of entitled impatience and why we should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time”:

I was doing a lecture for a group of students several months ago and I was talking about how long things can take… And a young woman raised her hand at the end of the lecture… and asked for some advice, because she had started a blog and she was hoping to get some pointers on how to get people to come to the blog, to read the blog, because she was feeling very discouraged — she’d been doing it for a while and people weren’t reading it. She wasn’t getting any traction. And so, of course, my first question was “How long have you been doing it?” And very sincerely, very earnestly, she said, “Six weeks.”

[…]

And this is, I think, a really unfortunate ramification from this 140-character culture — that people in their twenties, when they graduate from college, expect that they have to be successful. And if they’re not successful right out of the gate, then there’s something wrong with them. And then that builds into this real sense of hopelessness, because they haven’t achieved something quickly.

On synthesizing our own happiness and making our own luck, and the importance of mental health care:

This is where we run into trouble in terms of being fulfilled… You have to make your own happiness, wherever you are. Your job isn’t going to make you happy, your spouse isn’t going to make you happy, the weather isn’t going to make you happy… You have to decide what you want, and you have to find that way of doing it, whether or not the outside circumstances are going to participate in your success… You have to be able to create your own happiness, period. And if you can’t, then you need to find a good shrink who can help you figure out what it’s going to take.

On finding a sense of purpose:

What I think has helped propel me to live a more purposeful life [is] to feel that what I’m doing is coming from my heart and not my head so much. And it’s still a struggle.

On how our actions, not our words, reveal our true priorities:

I’m a big proponent of “busy is a decision.” You decide what you want to do and the things that are important to you. And you don’t find the time to do things — you make the time to do things. And if you aren’t doing them because you’re “too busy,” it’s likely not as much of a priority as what you’re actually doing.

On what it means and what it takes to have a good life, adapted from Millman’s remarkable commencement address:

Imagine immensities. Pick yourself up from rejection and plow ahead. Don’t compromise.

Start now.

Start now, every single day.

The entire conversation is well worth watching, as is subscribing to both The Good Life Project and Design Matters (also on SoundCloud). Complement with Millman’s heartening commencement address on courage and the creative life and her illustrated poems and essays.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2014

David Foster Wallace on Leadership, Illustrated and Read by Debbie Millman

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“A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.”

“Leadership” is one of those buzzwords — like “curation” — whose meaning has been forcibly squeezed out of them by regurgitative overuse and relentless overapplication to things that increasingly dilute the essence of the concept the word once used to capture. In a culture that calls pop culture celebrities “thought-leaders” and looks for “leadership ability” in kindergartners, we’re left wondering what leadership actually means and questioning what makes a great leader.

The best definition of the essence beneath the buzzword comes from David Foster Wallace, who would’ve been 52 this week and who, even amidst heartbreaking and ultimately fatal personal turmoil, was able to distill the meaning of life with crystalline poignancy. In his 2000 essay “Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate,” found in the altogether fantastic Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (public library), Wallace considers the leader.

In this beautiful addition to the Brain Pickings artist series, Debbie Millman — who has previously illustrated memorable words by Anaïs Nin, Edith Windsor, Herman Melville, and other beloved writers — captures an abridged version of Wallace’s timeless wisdom in a painstakingly handcrafted felt-on-felt typographic art piece, created as a poster for the 2014 How Design Live conference. The artwork is available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It is just about impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are hard to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time — as in e.g. “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc. — and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

As the host of the National-Design-Award-winning podcast Design Matters, it is only fitting that Millman would bring Wallace’s words to life in this gorgeous reading, recorded exclusively for Brain Pickings:

Get the print here. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays is a remarkable read in its entirety. For more of Millman’s own illustrated typographic essays, treat yourself to her Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, one of the best art and design books of 2013.

Donating = Loving

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