Creative discontent

You are probably more likely to find a unicorn than a creative person who is content to do the same thing forever. The problem with being truly creative is that the biggest part of that word is create.

We love to create. To build. To make.

For me it started as design. I loved print design. Design evolved in to sales. Turns out that can be creative too. Then it was writing. Then photography. Then to business building and leadership. Currently I’m teaching myself to cook. I’m sitting here writing this while pondering how to start a business that makes high-end reclaimed wooden furniture.

I love to create, no matter what form that takes.

One of my favorite examples is my friend Allan, who built this, and also builds the most amazing desk lamps. To me the creativity is the same, whether you are building a web app or a lamp, the skill set is just different.

I guess my question is, is there ever a moment of creative contentment where you don’t feel the need to make new things? Is that moment the end of it all?

Do what’s best for the client, even when they don’t want it

“I’m not interested in your creative input. Design what I tell you.”

It’s not often I hear this, but I can still remember a few years ago when I had a new client tell me this. She wanted me to take her ideas, which weren’t great, and give her exactly what she wanted. The problem was I have a deep conviction about always doing what’s best for the client, even when they don’t want it.

Typically when a client wants me to do something that will hurt their brand (usually through bad design or poor strategic decisions), I’ll gently let them know why it’s a bad idea and offer creative alternatives. So what happens when they insist on bad ideas? What happens when I can’t talk them out of it?

At that point I have a decision to make. Continue to serve the client by doing what they ask, or politely let them know we aren’t a good fit. If the client is just belligerent in their disregard for what we do, I’ll end the relationship. However, if there’s hope there, I’ll often forge on.

Are you a teacher?

At the end of the day I see myself as a teacher more than a service provider. I want to educate my clients about great design, interesting marketing, and innovative thinking. Just like educating a child, sometimes that takes a few tries. Sometimes I’ve done work for clients that I wasn’t proud of. That usually leads to the next project and we have the same discussion again. “Why don’t you try this, it would be better for your business.” They might still say no.

But the next time, they might say yes.

The next time they might take the spec design I did, to demonstrate our thinking, and run with it. They might begin to learn the things I’m teaching. Eventually you can transform someone who doesn’t really know what they are doing, into a great client who values your thinking, and does interesting work. And at that point, you’ve enriched their businesses and lives, rather than just provided a service.

But none of that happens if you give up on the relationship the first time you’re asked to do bad work. Sometimes what’s best for the client is giving them what they ask for but continuing to push better ideas.

To me it’s the difference between a teacher and a service provider. I want to be known as a teacher.

The never-ending story

There are things I know I need to do more often. Things like writing, planning marketing for my business, and just taking time off.

These things are good for me, but I rarely take time for them. Usually it’s because there area a hundred other things I could be doing for my clients with that time. If I’m going to be doing something, it seems like it should be something to chip away at that never-ending pile of client tasks.

But, did you notice the key words in that last sentence?

Never ending.

Never. Ending.

The funny part is, I’m always busy. Even when I look back at times when this business wasn’t bringing in enough money to pay our bills, I was busy. I have always worked hard. I have always pushed myself and done more than I probably should have. Always.

And now that the business is taking care of us and growing at an insane pace. Nothing has changed. My days feel very much like the days when we weren’t making it. I get up, tackle as many things as I can throughout the day (and some of the night) and then go to bed exhausted, never pausing to do the things I need to do. Why is it that I’m the same amount of busy in a growing company versus a failing one? I don’t know. But what I do know, is I need to take time for things that are important, because there will never be a time when I feel caught up enough to do them.

I need to write more. I love it. I’m sure my high school journalism teacher would be happy/incredibly angry to see how much I enjoy writing now. It gets thoughts out of my head and on paper (screen). It allows me to think through problems and topics in ways that I don’t normally if I’m not trying to put them into words for the world to read.

I own a marketing company, and sell good marketing ideas to companies every day. And, yet, I don’t take time to plan mine out. I still do it, but it tends to be in more of an “oh crap I need to get something done this month” manner, rather than a nicely calendared plan (which happens to be what I counsel all my clients to do).

I’ve never been good at this and probably won’t ever be. If you look back through this blog, you’ll see an awful lot of “I really need to take time off” posts. More and more, though, I can’t push myself to work 100 hours a week too often. I can work through the weekend, and sometimes have to, but when I do, I can see I’m much less productive the week after. Maybe someday I’ll figure this out.

The mountain of tasks staring me in the face today won’t all be accomplished today. I hope I’ve learned that that’s okay. The world keeps turning. Clients keep paying. We do a good job and we meet deadlines. I think I can keep doing that and take times for some small things that matter.

Just get it done

I’ve never been a believer in New Year’s resolutions. There is not a magical switch that flips from December 31st at 11:59 p.m. to January 1st at 12:00 a.m. that makes you a better person. You aren’t somehow better equipped to stop doing bad things or start doing good things.

Now don’t get me wrong I do believe in getting better every year, but I believe laying the groundwork for that begins way before January 1st. My one goal this year is to stop procrastinating and just get things done. I started working on this way before January 1st so I think there’s some small chance of success.

This last year was like every other year, full of challenges and joys. My business grew by just under 300%. I learned a lot, including that I can’t count on always being healthy while working 100 hours a week. I’ve made adjustments, including getting some help and following my new rule: just get it done.

It’s easy when the sky is blue and the sun is shining to procrastinate. Things are so nice, I’ll worry about this tomorrow. The problem is there’s no guarantee tomorrow won’t be stormy. I learned that in a rapidly growing business tomorrow always looks different than you expect. Always.

So this year, instead of putting things off, I’ll try to force myself to get it done when I can. If that happens, then when the storms come I won’t feel the weight of so many unfinished tasks. I was sick for about two-and-a-half months straight during the late summer and early fall. Not one time during that stretch did I just get to take off and be sick. No time to heal. No time to rest. Granted we did as much business in August as we did in 6 months of 2012, but still. Had I known that was coming I probably would have buckled down more in June and July to prepare.

I’m not hoping for another 300% growth spurt. I’m not sure I could survive. But whatever God decides 2014 looks like, I’m going to try to just get it done and see where that leaves me on January 1st, 2015.

Early in the morning

Over the last couple of months I’ve started getting up early. I’m amazed at the difference it makes in my day. If I get up at 5:00AM, by the time the rest of the world is working at 8:00AM, I already have a few hours under my belt.

I really notice the difference when I don’t get up early. Yesterday morning I didn’t get up until 7:15. The entire day felt like I was under the gun. I was constantly running and my stress level was just higher.

Getting up early seems to lead to less stressful days for me and allows more creativity. Granted, I have to be in bed by 10:00PM at the latest, but that’s a fair tradeoff for more productivity and less stress. It’s been one of the best changes I’ve ever made.

The moments between moments

I’m sitting in the doctor’s office right now. Around the room, a dozen people are quietly waiting.

Waiting and tapping.

Everyone is silently tapping away on a phone. Reading. Sending email. Hurling ill-tempered birds to their death. I’m even writing this on my phone.

What did we ever do before our brains could be constantly engaged? What did we do in those moments between moments? Waiting in the doctor’s office. Waiting on food to arrive. What happened back when our brains were forced to just relax for a moment or focus on something other than this glowing thing in our hands?

I wonder about the effect these things have on our brain because much of what I do comes from some deep recess of my mind, and it’s kind of mysterious. I’d hate to do anything that would mess with that. Creativity is not math. It is not this quantifiable thing that is easy to understand on paper. People present me with problems and I design solutions. Most of the solutions come to me at odd times in odd places. Usually it’s not while I’m sitting and thinking about the problem.

How many things am I missing by not letting my brain just rest and disengage in those moments between moments? Could my phone, this vaunted scion of productivity, actually be hurting my creative output?

Defining what “taking off” means

Last year around this time I took a few months off from posting on Twitter and Facebook. It was so nice. I found the desire to write more long-form entries here on the blog and generally just felt more relaxed. It was like taking a breather after running for hours. I discovered that I had begun to think in 140-character snippets. Everything that I saw or experienced, my brain dutifully composed in my head as a tweet. My fingers would then, also dutifully, type that message into Twitter. It’s annoying, not only in my head, but probably to the world that reads those sometimes inane tweets.

As a result of that time away, I’ve used Twitter far, far less in 2011. Coincidentally, we’ve done an order of magnitude more business this year than last. Interesting.

As my stress level has steadily risen I decided to take the last few months off again. One week into that sabbatical, I noticed something different this time. I’m training my brain to think long form again, but I also miss Twitter a bit in one way: it’s actually useful. Several times I’ve wanted to ask a question on Twitter and stopped myself. But there are sometimes friendly people out there who like answering questions.

As with everything, it’s all about balance. I guess there’s nothing wrong with using Twitter for genuinely useful communication. I can use it when I need it. So now “taking off” means not posting every thought I ever have. It’s refreshing, and after just one week, I’ve found a renewed desire to write again. For a good chunk of the year I figured my not writing was because of having too much going on creatively. In the past week I’ve actually had to do more creative work than usual and yet still feel the desire to write. I still subscribe to the theory that I only have so many well-written words to give in a day. If I give a large portion of those to Twitter and Facebook, I rob my other endeavors.

It makes me wonder if I’ll use tools like Twitter even less next year. Probably so. I need to treat it as just that, a tool, and not a place for everything that sails between my ears.

Writing the anger out of roast beef

I occasionally like to have Arby’s. I say occasionally because my wife doesn’t like it that much and the nearest one is about 30 minutes away. The main reason, though, is the ridiculously long wait at the drive-thru.

Always with the wait. Arby’s always delivers decent food (for fast food) at a slightly high-end price (again, for fast food) but by the time I’m through the drive-thru I’m usually so irritated about the wait I don’t even want the food anymore. It happens every time at every Arby’s I’ve ever been to. Obviously it can’t be fixed or they would. The delay is because they put together all the food fresh (once again, for fast food) when you order it. I guess if they just pre-made everything and left it under hot lamps I’d be angry it wasn’t fresh.

So how do you fix a problem for a customer who won’t be happy either way?

Good writing.

On a recent trip (by myself) I decided Arby’s was what my rumbling stomach was asking for. I pulled up and ordered (By the way, why can’t we list the main deals on the menu? I hate having to ask if you still have something.) and was about the pull through. The lady on the other side of the worst-speaker-ever-conceived-by-man gave me my total. I was about to pull forward when she threw one last line at me.

“Give us a few minutes while we make your order fresh for you.”

The phrase bounced around in my head for a few seconds as I pulled around. “They are making my food fresh,” I thought. I pulled up to the window and handed her my card. I then pulled up my e-mail on my phone and proceeded to return a few messages. A few minutes later I looked up from my phone and that old impatience began to well up inside me. “I want my roast beef!” it said loudly. Then another voice quietly protested, “But they’re making it fresh for you. That takes time.”

And my anger disappeared. With one friendly, well-written line, they managed to diffuse my annoyance. Amazing. Each time in the ten minute wait I would start to get impatient, the line would do its job and quell the anger.

I know the girl, nice though she was, didn’t come up with that turn of phrase on her own. No, somewhere in the bowels of Arby’s HQ, they collect data about customer wait times and subsequent complaints. Eventually the complaints reached a level that couldn’t be ignored. They looked at the process and discovered they couldn’t speed it up if they still wanted to make the food fresh. They would rather be known as being slow than serving stale food. Instead, someone in the organization handed the problem off to their ad agency.

And this is the beauty of ad agencies. We don’t just create ads. We use creativity to solve business problems. “We have an image issue,” Mr. Arby said, “We’re known as being really slow.”

“Let us see what we can come up with,” Mr. Ad Agency responded. He then handed the problem off to the Arby’s creative group. Some smart writer in that group realized that you have to explain the benefits of the wait to sell it to people. After much thinking, strategizing, brainstorming and concepting (all of which, by the way, looks like doing absolutely nothing), that great line was born. “Give us a few minutes while we make your order fresh for you.” I’m sure it ended up being a minor line item on a huge bill. “Drive-thru copywriting, four hours, $500.”

And yet how much good will that $500 line do them? When you consider the millions of customers Arby’s sees each year, I’m guessing a lot. If even a fraction of those customers returned again because they didn’t mind the wait anymore, it would yield millions in revenue. All from one well-written line.

The moral of the story: Don’t make people wait for fresh roast beef. If you have to, hire a smart writer.


Steve Jobs changed the world. I don’t think that can be effectively argued against. The products Apple has introduced in its history have revolutionized the way we create, communicate, and consume.

Every bit of that change was because of an undying pursuit of excellence. That pursuit means attention to every detail. That pursuit means skipping shortcuts. That pursuit means having a vision for how great things can be. That pursuit means focusing on what’s best for the customer, even if they don’t know it’s best yet.

Apple has always had a laser focus on creating the best user experience. “Everything just works” has been their mantra. In an industry of over-complicated products and techno-babble, Apple’s approach is a breath of fresh air. Many have tried the same approach, but cut too many corners to make it work.

People ask me a lot why I use Apple products so much. I’ve never been one to evangelize for the company. If you don’t want to use the products, then don’t. It doesn’t effect me. But I know a lot of people that try them, and like them for the same reason I do. They get out of the way. I don’t spend my day tripping over clunky user interfaces or software that constantly crashes. My computers and phones get out of my way and allow me to do what I need to do.

In my case that thing I need to do is creating. I have no trouble admitting that my business would not exist in its current form if not for Apple. Because I don’t spend my days dealing with tech issues, I am able to create more than a single person should really be able to. Because of that I can provide for my family and create work that my clients love. I spend my days doing the same thing Apple does. I think about the people involved. I try to make their experience perfect. I obsess over detail. This year I had some stickers made and I apply them to the box of every printed job that goes out. They read: “Designed and printed with an obsession for detail.”

Jobs’ legacy is excellence.

It’s the excellence of Apple’s products.

It’s the excellence of the things we create with those products.

What a legacy to leave.

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Scheduling to my strengths

I’m endlessly fascinated with what successful people’s days look like. How do they schedule? How do they work? How do they, in short, accomplish all the things required for success?

I’m always toying with my own schedule, trying to find a way to really be productive (most days, I’d settle for just feeling like I was productive, whether I really was or not).

Usually this involves coming up with some new schedule, doing it for a week, loving it and then abandoning it to die as soon as a big deadline hits. This seems to be an endless cycle in my life.

So, for the next step in that cycle, I came up with a new schedule to accomplish a few goals I have. It should be nice for a week or so.

7:30AM Up and Ready For the Day.
Might get up earlier. Might get up later. Working from home I have that freedom. But the goal is to be showered (ha!), have the first batch of e-mail returned for the day, and be in the office by 8:00AM.

8:00AM – 10:00AM Writing
I write best when my mind is fresh. My mind is freshest in the morning. It’s one of those creative endeavors that, for me, requires more brain power than, say, designing a company’s brochures. I might as well churn out my day’s words in the morning, when they’ll be the best. I’ll use this time for any kind of writing, be it blog posts, client work or fiction. I’ve been a semi-professional writer for a few years (meaning I get paid for some my writing, but it’s not the majority of my work) and I think it’s time I started seriously working toward getting rid of that “semi” part.

10:00AM – 11:00AM Creative Work/E-mail
Whatever needs doing at this point. Lots of e-mail comes in every day so this hour can be for that or doing any other work that I need to clear out before lunch.

11:00AM – 12:00PM Lunch
I like my lunch early. Then I can work through the normal 12-1 hour when most people are eating. If my clients are eating, they aren’t calling me and I can have an uninterrupted hour to work. Also I try to spend my lunch time somewhere other than my office.

12:00PM – 2:30PM Creative Work
I can churn out a lot of work in two-and-a-half hours. Especially if I close down my e-mail/Twitter/the internet and stay organized.

2:30PM – 3:30PM Siesta*
A nap? For an hour? Probably not. But it helps me to take an hour at about this time to rest, read or, really, do anything but stare at a computer monitor. At this point I will have churned out quite a bit of creative output and by about 2:30, my brain is mush. I’m basically useless. I can sit at my computer drooling on myself (with the client’s meter running, mind you), or I can take a break (turning off the timer) and do something to disconnect my brain from my task list. If I try to power through this hour I never get much else done that day. At least nothing you’d consider quality work. If I take an hour to rest, it makes my last part of the day so very productive. Trust me, it’s a fair trade-off for my clients.

3:30PM – 4:30PM Wrap Up the Creative
Time to put a bow on this day, it’s almost done. I spend this hour returning the last of the day’s calls/e-mails and wrapping up any projects due that day (or, if by some miracle of God I’m working ahead, the next day).

4:30PM – 5:00PM THE FUTURE!
If I don’t spend a specific amount of time each day working on gaining new clients, well, they don’t usually just back the dump truck filled with cash up to my door. I have to go find them and then ask them to do that. Such a pain. Incidentally, when I’m fishing, the fish don’t just jump in the boat. Who do I see about that?

5:00PM – 5:30PM Organize the Next Day
Time to get the task list ready for the next day, send some e-mail and generally make sure I set myself up to be productive again.

Once again, all this sounds nice but any number of things (calls, meetings, being sick, deadlines, rabid weasels, being out of bacon) can come into play and screw this schedule up. But it would be nice if it lasted. I think it would be productive and allow me to continue taking on new opportunities. Also it would allow me to quit most days before midnight. That’d be nice.

*This would be the point, dear reader, when you might be thinking, “wow, this guy sounds like a jackass. A nap, really?” I don’t deny some amount of jackassery involved in this list, after all, there are people who have to really work for a living. I mean physically work. Roofing houses, this ain’t. Well, I earn my living with my brain. All the creative work I get paid for comes from said brain and if I don’t treat it right (rest it often, don’t do drugs, don’t stab it with an ice pick) my work is not as good. And if it’s not good, I don’t get hired, which means my kids starve. So, yeah, I’ll grant you I don’t do a lot of physical labor (although my photo shoots should qualify) but it’s still work.

**Also a note about the times: if I screwed any of them up, it’s because I’m currently hopped up on Nyquil and, man, it does weird stuff to my aforementioned brain.