Myke Hurley of Relay.fm fame has, through many lunches and much coffee, convinced me to do a podcast with him for ten episodes. We've been working on it in secret and today it's live.
Welcome to Cortex where Myke will be asking me about the ways that I work and we'll both be talking about getting stuff done and our experiences with self-employment.
This is the second installment of the book notes series. These aren't book reviews but a place to record some notes and a place to think out loud about what is to be gained from the book.
The Big Idea
Creativity isn't a magic process, there are concrete, repeatable steps that will produce more and better ideas. Catmull, the current president of Pixar and a former computer engineer, takes a systems approach to increasing the quality of the creativity of the people working for him and showcases the way they come to think about their work.
As Brad Bird… likes to say, "The process either makes you or unmakes you."
Katherine Sarafian… tells me she prefers to envision triggering the process over trusting it–observing it to see where it's faltering, then slapping it around a bit to make sure it's awake.
At too many companies, the schedule (that is, the need for product) drives the output, not the strength of the ideas at the front end.
The pressure to create–and quickly!–became the order of the day… and its unintended effect is always the same. It lessens quality across the board.
It's been my experience that deadlines are anti-creative. Videos I've produced under deadlines usually come out worse.
Also useful is the notion of 'The Beast', the part of your business that needs charts and numbers that go ever upward.
The Beast cannot be sated. It is one of life's cruel ironies that when it comes to feeding the Beast, success only creates more pressure to hurry up and succeed again. Which is why at too many companies the schedule drives the output, not the strength of the ideas.
When I set up Subbable -- my first attempt at crowdfunding -- it ended up increasing stress in an unexpected way. Subbable billed people automatically every month. I had created for myself a 30-day production deadline when the natural life cycle of my projects is closer to six weeks. While I produced videos like Humans Need Not Apply under that system, the biggest result was guilt and stress every month there was no video. Creativity, Inc is one reason why, when setting up my Patreon page for the eventual merger of the two companies, I made funding be per video. It's early days now, but I think this is an improvement to the process worth the decrease in revenue for months when no videos are made. (Though I can already tell that the trade-off is worrying about videos that are 'too small' to charge for.)
This section caught my attention:
In December 2009, more than three years before the movie premiered in theaters, a dozen people from Pixar… flew east to visit MIT, Harvard, and Princeton. "Monsters University was to be one of the most prestigious campuses for scaring, so we wanted to visit big-name, old-world, prestigious schools"… They visited dorm rooms, lecture halls, research labs, and frat houses; they hung out on the campus lawns, ate pizza at dives that students frequented and took a lot of pictures and notes–"documenting everything, right down to the details of how pathways integrated into the quads and what the graffiti scratches looked like on the wooden desks." The finished film was loaded with these kinds of details… all of which gave audiences a feeling of reality.
Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.
This is something I'd like to try and work into my own processes. My work tends to be extremely insular, if I can work more with experts or visit locations related to the topic of my video, it might introduce some beneficial randomness into the information-gathering process.
You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.
Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong.
Easy isn't the goal. Quality is the goal.
There is a bit of a weird creed passing around business circles about how amazing failure is. This is a good explanation of the process on a more individual level:
The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren't experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.
Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.
If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.
The above matches my (limited) personal experience in working with other people.
… copying what's come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe–to succeed with minimal risk.
Buy The Book:
Music by Kevin MacLeod
Photo by Cecil
Look at this Arctic wonderland -- fjords, saunas, fjords, lutefisk, blondes, vikings, blond vikings?, fjords, Ikea, babies in government issued boxes, Santa, death metal, and fjords. But like, where exactly are the borders of Scandinavia -- because not off of this stuff is in it. Scandinavia is just three countries exactly: Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Three kingdoms to be more precise, all of which are on the Scandinavian peninsula -- well, except Denmark, and errrr plus Finland. Wait, this doesn't help at all. Forget that.
The three countries on this peninsula can be collectively called Fennoscandia -- but if you do everyone will look at you weird because no one except the nerdiest of geography nerds uses that word.
So, Scandinavia is a term that's one part geography, one part history, and one part linguistics -- which is why people will argue about who exactly is included. Finland is normally excluded because she used to be considered one of the Baltic sisters with historical ties to mother Russia. And Denmark, though on the other side of the sea is included because of her relationship 'it's complicated' with Sweden. They've had something like 15 to 21 wars between them depending on how you want to count it. And it's complicated-er because they mostly fought over Norway. And who wouldn't? She beautiful -- and rich.
Anyway, when outsiders say Scandinavia they probably mean The Nordic Countries. That's these three plus Finland and Iceland.
Though you can hardly blame people for confusion when organizations like the American Scandinavia Foundation lists everyone as members. And all the Nordic Countries sometimes advertise abroad under the banner of Scandinavia anyway. This is the 'Holland' approach to international relations: if there is a fun name that everyone likes and keeps using wrongly, just go with it.
The Nordic countries get along well enough that they've made an official union: The Nordic Council, a Viking cool kids club, that other Northern European places occasionally unrealistically dream of joining. Though the Baltic sisters do get to sit with them, but not actually vote on anything.
The Nordic Council is largely a collection of committees that tries to get its members to cooperate on common problems like the Arctic environment and social welfare, and business in the region. And also finds time to make a surprisingly long and hilariously specific list rules for how their logo can be used. Including a 'respect distance' the sovereignty of which must not be violated. But the biggest deal of the Nordic Council is that citizens of these five countries get to live and work in any of the others.
(Which, if you've seen the EU video -- adds yet another semi-overlapping bubble of complexity to an already complex region)
The immigration rule, however, doesn't apply to Icelandic horses which are
- Super adorables
And 2. Banished from returning to Iceland should they ever leave. But that's a story for another time.
Now, it wouldn't be a political union in Europe without some special territorial weirdness to mention, mainly:
Aland: an autonomous region of Finland, that speaks Swedish.
And The Faeroe Islands and Greenland, both countries in the Kingdom of Denmark.
Greenland is really the odd girl out in the Nordic club, given that she's in the wrong hemisphere and that Greenlanders aren't historically or linguistically related to Nords. Also, her flag ruins the otherwise consistent design motif. But she's part of Denmark because Vikings.
Lastly there's Svalbard, an unincorporated territory of Norway, that must be mentioned because it has prepared for the apocalypse with a seed bank of every plant to rebuild all of agriculture should it be necessary. And it's also guarded by armored bears.
So that's that -- next time you say Scandinavia, and you're not 100% sure who that includes, just say the The Nordic Countries instead.
Though people think my job is making YouTube videos, most of my working time is actually spent writing.
When I think about how to work better or faster, it's all about improving the writing process. I read a lot of books about writing because that's where 90% of the benefits and 90% of the bottlenecks of my working life reside.
I've been doing this long enough to have developed a rough process of my own and I'm comfortable enough to let you, dear reader, in. If you want to see this messy process of mine, this article is for you.
Now, I'm not actually a good writer, I'm a competent writer. This isn't false modesty: competence, it turns out, is depressingly rare as is.
But where I excel is iteration. Re-writing and re-writing.
If you want to be a better writer but, like me, you know you're not actually great at it, I suggest you try iterating a short piece of work, over and over.
How many iterations?
As best I can tell, going back through all my files, writing the script for this video took somewhere between 30 drafts at a minimum to 50 drafts at a maximum.
Here's how that happens:
A video starts its life as a collection: a folder for a topic I have any interest in doing. 'This Video Will Make You Angry' began as a collection named 'memes'. The intention was to talk about the phenomenon of image macros -- a sort of meta-know-your-meme video.
The collecting stage can be very, very long -- the 'memes' collection started in 2012. My oldest, still-active collection is from 2011.
Right now I have 217 collections. Obviously, I'm by no means working on 217 things, but that's the number of topics that I'm at least aware might make for a good video. Everything I read or watch or listen to or think of, if it's relevant, goes into one of the collections. My biggest collection has fifty items in it, the smallest just one.
A collection can get promoted to a zeroth draft -- where a dedicated text file is made in my system so that it can be accessible at any time. I take morning walks and during this time my brain often thinks of sentence fragments for some of the videos in zeroth draft stage. Anything interesting gets added via my phone.
Zeroth drafts then are semi-stream-of-consciousness thoughts on a topic spread out over weeks. It's completely unreadable to anyone other than me, often hugely repetitive. But, importantly, they're the repository of ways my brain has tried to explain all the junk in the collection.
It's hard to say exactly why a collection gets promoted to a zeroth draft, but for this most recent video I know exactly when and why: in June 2014 I came across two things in a short period of time: Trust Me I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday and This is Phil Fish. Both are brilliant and both approach the topic of how things that make us angry get out of control on the Internet.
As a somewhat public Internet person and someone who observes a lot of Internet arguments I felt there was something more here. For a long time, I'd had an 'arguments' collection, that contained this sketch of something I'd observed with groups:
'Memes' combined with 'Arguments' to become a zeroth draft called 'How Ideas Spread'.
Right now there are about 11 videos in the zeroth draft stage. But lots of projects die here -- five of these my brain hasn't added to in months. They'll probably get killed at my next post-video review.
'Active videos' are where the iterations really begin. Start with the 5,000 to 10,000 words of near nonsense in the zeroth draft and iterate over it again and again with two goals in mind:
These drafts are where I spend the majority of my working mental energy. The end goal is 800 to 1,200 coherent and interesting words. Were I a better writer I could get here faster, but I'm not. I have to iterate draft by draft, day by day. As such I limit 'active videos' to three -- more than that slows down everything. Too little butter over too much bread.
'How Ideas Spread' got promoted to active-video status in the beginning of January. This means it gets three to four full drafts a week. Drafts are slower at the beginning -- it just takes more time to go through 7,000 words than 3,000 -- and I rotate the three 'active videos'. Usually two get iterated on a working day leaving one to rest.
One 'active video' is also The Next Video. This script I work on almost every day. It really hurts, but about one in three videos that make it to this final stage still get killed. Either because of research problems. (This happened to one in January) or because they're just boring (February) or because I break my keep-your-mouth-shut rule and tell someone what I'm working on (November).
But even when things seem to be going fine scripts can get stuck. Something isn't working and it's hard to say what. If this happens I break out the big guns: pen and paper.
I don't know why but switching to paper can burst the mental log jam. Often I find big sections to cut or realize that I need to re-order the way that I've explained things. Stuff just looks different on paper.
But if I do drafts on paper, they always get turned back into a digital version near the end which is just faster for what I do best: endless iterating until I have something worth recording.
So that's the basic process right now. If you're really interested in the details, I've attached the three physical drafts for This Video Will Make You Angry. Be warned: I don't use spell check.
About 10 drafts before final version:
Draft not-exactly sure when:
About 5 drafts before final version:
You may notice that I'm still using the word 'ideas' instead of the final word 'thoughts'. That was a change made in almost the very final draft.