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.
Over on It’s Nice That, Liv Siddall sat down with famed designer Shaz Madani to gather her insights on what every young designer should know about building a quality portfolio. One notable takeaway from Madani? Knowing what to hide:
It’s so important to be selective and have the ability to edit your portfolio. Often seeing one bad project can outdo all the good work.
It’s tempting to put in everything you’ve ever done, especially as a young graduate, when you just want to show as much experience as possible. But it’s not about quantity. If there is something you are not proud of, don’t put it in.
As creative workers, we tend to believe that the more work we show in our resume or portfolio, the more we demonstrate our broad capabilities. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. As Madani explains, all it takes is one bad apple to ruin the whole bundle.
Madani goes on to share additional insights from her years of experience as a designer, including the importance of exploring your possibilities before settling on a job or role.
Previously: 6 Steps To Creating A Knockout Online Portfolio
Approaching any big project can be a daunting and complex experience. Over on her blog, author Elizabeth Spann Craig gives us nine quick tips for tackling big projects, ensuring that we finish what we set out to do.
Show up. Religiously. It’s the only way to get through a project.
Avoid perfectionism….First drafts aren’t perfect either. But aren’t they better than the blank page?
Craig highlights the importance of finishing what you set-out to do before looking for ways to improve or change the concept. She calls this avoiding tangents:
Avoid going off on tangents….Wait until the project itself is done. For me, it works best for writing, too–I don’t edit/fix stuff until the first draft is completely done.
In her list, Craig also mentions the value of remembering the small victories as you go, emphasizing how motivating it can be to reflect on even the smallest of steps. She writes:
Fight the overwhelm….Remember how far we’ve come since the start of our project. If this is a home improvement or organizing project, it helps to take a picture of the “before,” just to remind us. If its writing–remember that blank page the first words we once wrote down.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with big projects, no matter what type they are. To cope, consider reading Craig’s brief advice and remember to set goals, work with a timer, avoid perfectionism, skip tangents (for now), and more.
Read all of the advice right here.
The first day back from vacation is the hardest: switching from beaches and cocktail umbrellas to an office chair and emails can be a jarring experience, especially if one of your first priorities is to get the inbox from 600 to 0.
Fortunately, Levo League offers a better way to deal with emails post-vacation: read them backwards.
Start from the most recent to the oldest so that you don’t waste your time (and annoy the people who took your load while you were out) by answering old emails that were already addressed and completed. The last thing you want is to spend time spinning your wheels only to realize that the question/issue you were working on solving for an hour and a half was already handled by the time you get to email 1,000.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two, speaks about the advantages of competitive collaboration in an article for The Atlantic. His famous example is that of The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon who would regularly “answer” each others’ songs in friendly competition. When John wrote “Strawberry Fields,” Paul came back with “Penny Lane.” Paul notes that the competition made them “better and better all the time,” and created a creative tension.
Despite the tension—because of the tension—the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions were often tense and unpleasant (Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit), they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.
The Beatles’ producer George Martin described the relationship as “two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might.” Not only did their competition create tension, but their contrasting personalities added to it as well. Paul was meticulous, diplomatic, and polite, while John could be chaotic, impatient, and rebellious. Although completely different, they complemented each other perfectly. As John’s first wife Cynthia Lennon observed:
John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence. Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking.
Although tension can foster creative productivity, remember to surround it with sufficient support and shared passions.
Creatives are subject to high levels of rejection. Even though companies seek out innovative individuals, they seldom listen to their new ideas due to the risk involved. Fortunately, research suggests that rejection may actually help – not hinder – the creative process. Rejection hurts, but if there is no pain, then there is no gain. In an article for Slate, illustrator Jessica Olien explains:
Perhaps for some people, the pain of rejection is like the pain of training for a marathon – training the mind for endurance. Research shows you’ll need it. Truly creative ideas take a very long time to be accepted. The better the idea, the longer it might take. Even the work of Nobel Prize winners was commonly rejected by their peers for an extended period of time.
Social rejection can be liberating. Once you know you don’t fit in, you can concentrate your energy on your creative projects as oppose to stressing about what others think. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.” Just be sure you know when to push through and when you should call it quits.
Now in its 40th anniversary, the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has emerged as an initial force behind many creatives’ success. As a piece in the New York Times explains:
Though Mr. Díaz never became a fantasy writer, he attributes his literary success, in part, to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in fantastic narratives.” From D&D, he said, he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play. . .
“For nerds like us, D&D hit like an extra horizon,” he added. The game functioned as “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.”
But the skills learned through play go deeper than narrative writing:
What makes a D&D story different from novels and other narratives is its improvisational and responsive nature. Plotlines are decided as a group. As a D&D player, “you have to convince other players that your version of the story is interesting and valid,” said Jennifer Grouling, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University who studied D&D players for her book, “The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.”
If a Dungeon Master creates “a boring world with an uninteresting plot,” she said, players can go in a completely different direction; likewise, the referee can veto the action of player. “I think D&D can help build the skills to work collaboratively and to write collaboratively,” she added. (Mr. Díaz called this the “social collaborative component” of D&D.)