Progress is the single most important motivating factor when it comes to work. That might seem obvious. But what’s not obvious is that we don’t always see our progress. In fact, we’re prone to lose track of it, if we don’t regularly document what’s happening in our lives.
Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has been researching what motivates creatives, and what keeps them going, for years. And it turns out the simple answer is: Keeping a diary.
Here’s what Amabile has to say about the power of diaries in an essay penned with Steven Kramer and Ela Ben-Ur for our new 99U book, Maximize Your Potential:
Creative people frequently work solo, without the benefit of colleagues who could help capture or develop their ideas. But even teams and organizations rarely offer creatives the necessary time, understanding, and patience to nurture their creative seedlings. A diary can help fill the void. It can serve as a sounding board and an alter-ego companion—one who will never forget what you say. What might otherwise have been isolated or passing thoughts become permanent and potentially powerful ideas.
This sounding board can serve a number of functions, the simplest of which is planning. Many entries in “The Daybooks” of Edward Weston reveal him focusing on future actions to capitalize on emerging opportunities:
“The excerpts from my daybook and photographs will be published in the August issue of Creative Art… It seems my fortunes are to change for something better. Now I must spend all my spare time in cutting and correcting my manuscript.” —Edward Weston, May 23, 1928
Of course, Weston could have used a simple calendar or to-do list to plan next steps. But notice his remark that his luck seems to be changing. What a calendar cannot do, and a journal can, is help you reflect on the big picture of your life and your creative work—where it is, what it means, and what direction you want it to take.
Diaries can be particularly helpful tools for accurately capturing positive events. In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between experience and memory, noting that human memory of an experience can easily be altered. Kahneman describes a man who was enjoying a concert immensely until the very end, when there was an obnoxious sound in the concert hall. The man said that the noise ruined the entire concert for him. But it didn’t really, of course; he had enjoyed the concert up until that moment. What it did ruin was his memory of the concert.
By keeping a daily diary, you will reduce the chance that some later event will transform your memory of the day’s experiences. So when you feel you have accomplished something, write it down soon, before a client or critic has the opportunity to say something that diminishes that sense of progress.
You can find the complete essay, as well as contributions from Joshua Foer, Jonathan Fields, and Tony Schwartz and more, in Maximize Your Potential, the latest addition to our 99U book series.
Do you get pissed off whenever someone asks you to setup a “quick call” to chat? Gary Vaynerchuk bets that you do:
We have gotten to a place where everything happens on our time. You watch the TV show when you want to watch it, not because it airs on Wednesday at 8 (7 central). You text because you can respond to that person on your time.
To avoid the awkwardness around small-talk, try to outline what the topic of the conversation is going to be. It makes you feel less guilty for transitioning into the purpose of the call.
Use email to get your high-level thoughts communicated first, and then use a phone call to add a personal touch or to have a higher bandwidth conversation.
If your work requires phone calls, that’s understandable. But remember that more often than not, synchronous communication puts you in a reactionary state. Don’t feel obligated to answer the phone every time it rings; what’s urgent isn’t always important.
Editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine Scott Dadich says it’s time to start getting it wrong. In the field of technology design, we have figured out how to do it right. We have beautiful, sleek devices that are an ease to use – and it’s getting boring:
…once a certain maturity has been reached, someone comes along who decides to take a different route. Instead of trying to create an ever more polished and perfect artifact, this rebel actively seeks out imperfection—sticking a pole in the middle of his painting, intentionally adding grungy feedback to a guitar solo, deliberately photographing unpleasant subjects. Eventually some of these creative breakthroughs end up becoming the foundation of a new set of aesthetic rules, and the cycle begins again.
Dadich emphasizes that it’s not about throwing out design rules and starting from scratch. You need to master the rules so you can effectively break them. In his work for Wired Magazine, Dadich would apply his ‘Wrong Theory’ in small ways by only breaking one or two rules to regain visual interest. He would make large images small, overlap graphic and type and put headlines at the end of stories. Our future lies in failure as Dadich states, “…only by courting failure can we find new ways forward.”
Being shy or introverted doesn’t mean you can’t network like a pro at events. Over at Atomic Spin, Phil Kirkham gives us three tips on how to get the most from a conference or event. Our favorite is The Restroom Test, a way to check how well you’re doing at mixing and mingling with your fellow event-goers:
Take a walk to the restroom and back and see how many people that you did not know previously nod in recognition or say Hi. By the second day of the conference, I could count on getting at least 5 nods of recognition during my walk.
Even if you’re not overly shy, conferences can be intimidating thanks to the sheer number (and talents) of those around you. If at the end of the conference, you still find yourself among only strangers, it’s a good indicator that you’re not making the most of your time there. At the heart of it, Kirkham’s Restroom Test is a great way to not only help measure the number of new people you’re meeting during the event, but also to strengthen your memory of them.
Web designer and author Paul Jarvis wants you to find your “rat people.” These are the people who are passionate about the same things as you, in Jarvis’ case, that’s pet rats. Not everyone is going to have the same interests and that’s perfectly alright. However, stay away from those who insult you because of who you are.
The ones who think your work is useless or worse, disgusting don’t truly matter. Their dissension should fall on deaf ears because they’d never support you, pay you or join your secret club. When you give up trying to please everyone your work becomes much more focused and valuable to the people that matter.
Your rat people get what you do and love it. These are the people you should look for as clients, have on your mailing list and friend on social media. Too often we let the client decide if we are the right designer for them when we should be questioning if they are the right client for us. Jarvis reminds us, “for your creativity to support you, you need to find your 1%. Your rat people.”
Creative professionals who practice rapid iteration believe in the mantra of “fail fast, fail often.” And while quickly bouncing back from mistakes is essential to accelerated progress, not adequately reflecting upon failure can prevent complete recovery. Sometimes, deeper reflection is needed.
Founder and CEO of “failure consultancy” Fail Forward, Ashley Good, recommends performing what she calls a “deep-tissue post-mortem” to thoroughly recover from failure:
Our tendency in times of failure is to try to figure out what caused it, fix it as soon as possible and move on. That undermines the depth of learning that’s possible.
Good suggests asking the following questions to get started:
Try to figure out why the failure happened. What assumptions were made? What experiences led to it? That really deepens what you can learn from the experience. Also, listen to other perspectives on what happened. I often bring together different stakeholders in the failure to talk about it. If you bring five people together, you’ll get five different stories about what went wrong.
Don’t just sweep the failures under the rug and move on. Take some time to sufficiently prepare yourself for when you will, inevitably, fail again.
Intentionally leaving part of an idea blank can actually make it more engaging. Over at Harvard Business Review, author Matthew E May describes the benefit leaving intentional spaces in our work creates:
When we respect the white space — or when we intentionally create by removing just the right thing in just the right way — we allow others to fill the void, adding their own interpretation and impact. In fact, I’d argue that some of the most engaging ideas have something purposefully missing. Limiting information engages the imagination…
There is nothing more powerful than the ability of the human mind to create meaning from missing information. Whatever form your idea takes–strategy, product, service, startup–if you want it to “tip,” you might just want to make it more about less.
A great example of this strategy in action would be working on a story — for a novel, or a project storyboard — and creating only the beginning and the ends. Presenting the story to your peers allows them to generate their own ideas for what happens in-between, ultimately creating a more powerful story than if you had otherwise come up with it entirely, from beginning to end, on your own.