Draw, Shoot, Write to See

Lately I’ve been realizing the importance of creative practices to develop the skill of seeing. Often we think of art as a means of self-expression, a gift we can offer to adoring fans. But art – the process of making it – is important for the maker of it as well. It’s through drawing, shooting photos, or writing, that an artist develops their eye, and learns to see.

Today, more than ever, seeing one of the most valuable skills we can learn.

In my recent book, Pay Attention, I suggested that seeing is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to become stronger. Seeing needs to be practiced in order to become habitual and instinctive in new situations throughout our day.

Creative exercises force us to slow down, process the information we’re taking in, and notice details that often get overlooked.

Draw to See

“The act of drawing is seeing…”
– Chris Ware

Drawing is a great way to learn to see. Children are the best examples of using drawing to learn to see. (I’ve written before about how my daughter learned “look drawing” at school, which helped her learn to see animals in particular).

Austin Kleon, in his recent conversation with Jocelyn K. Glei on the Hurry Slowly podcast, talked about how his young son draws. As his hand traces the shape of a truck, for example, his mind is taking the truck apart, putting it back together again, understanding how the pieces fit together.

Apparently Kleon’s enjoying thinking about “drawing to see” as much as I am, as a couple days ago he also shared the above quote from Chris Ware, who also noticed how children use drawing as a way of seeing.

When’s the last time you got lost in doodling? I recently picked up a scrap of paper and drew some doodles of the birds at our backyard bird feeder. For 15 minutes, my hands traced my mental images of chickadees, juncos, and blue jays.

Through the process I was surprised to realize how little I’d actually seen some of these birds before. We all would say we know what a blue jay or chickadee looks like, but when we’re forced to actually draw one, it reveals how little we take note of the details. The exercise helped me see more of each of these birds the next time they showed up at the bird feeder, and appreciate the intricacies of their markings and behaviour.

Shoot to See

“Stop looking and begin seeing.”
– David Duchemin

Used intentionally, taking photos can help us appreciate and participate in the world around us.

One of my favourite voices about photography is David Duchemin. In his book Within the Frame, Duchemin discusses how to see even iconic travel destinations with fresh vision, using photography as a tool for honing your vision. When Duchemin visited the Taj Mahal, for instance, he jumped off the bus and quickly snapped the postcard photo that we’ve all seen before. But it was only when he slowed down, taking time to listen and look beyond what he expected to find that he saw the iconic structure from a different perspective. He took a beautiful photo from behind the Taj that captured his unique experience of the iconic tourist attraction.

Duchemin’s photo from a new perspective of the Taj Mahal.

Unfortunately, cameras can also provide barriers to seeing. The moment we pull out our phone to snap a picture, we’re viewing the world through a frame formed by a screen, which can limit our ability to experience it.

Before quickly snapping a picture, take a moment to consider what it is you’re trying to capture. Try moving to find a new perspective, let your eye wander through a moment to create a “seeing” exercise rather than a simple “snapping” one.

Write to See

“If you notice anything,
it leads you to notice
more
and more.”
– Mary Oliver

Writing also has the ability to help us learn to see. By taking the time to organize your thoughts, you learn to hone your vision.

Long-time daily blogger Seth Godin recommends that everyone start writing a blog; not to be heard, but to learn to see.

Lately I’ve been drawn to poetry as a way of processing my experience of the world. Mary Oliver is well-known for her poems about the natural world. What becomes clear if you read her poems is that what makes her a great writer is her ability to see. All the details and nuances of the creatures and landscapes come to life in her poems, as she points out the miracle of each blade of grass and each grasshopper inhabiting that blade of grass.

To follow in Oliver’s footsteps, I’ve been experimenting with writing poetry as a way of learning to see. I’ve been writing regular “RunHaikus” during my morning running routine (I post each haiku to Twitter, check them out here).

Learning to See

Seeing is an important skill, one that’s worth cultivating through regular practice. Pick up a pencil, crayon, marker, or camera, and let a creative practice teach you how to see.

True Geniuses of Technology

The term “genius” is normally reserved for leaders in a particular field. The forerunners who chart new ground or make new discoveries are dubbed “geniuses” by the rest of us who are following behind.

When you think of technological genius, you probably think of the kind of people who are inventing and creating at places like Google, Apple, or NASA.

But recently I stumbled upon not just one, but two writers who pointed away from the front of the pack when highlighting technological genius. Both Royden Loewen and Wendell Berry found what they called “technological genius” where you’d least expect it – in so-called “horse-and-buggy” communities of the Old Order Mennonites and the Amish. While this might seem crazy to you (it did to me!), I think that these writers and the communities they observed can teach us something about how we interact with technology.

Horse-and-buggy genius

Royden Loewen dubs traditional horse-and-buggy Mennonites “geniuses” in the title of his book Horse-and-Buggy Genius, which shares research on the struggles of today’s Old Colony and Old Order Mennonites in their struggle to resist the influence of the modern world. As a good researcher, Loewen avoids casting judgment – positive or negative – on these people as he shares their stories of fleeing modernity in pursuit of a life lived close to family, community, and the soil, but the title of his book suggest that these communities may have a strength for the rest of us to learn from.

It’s easy to dismiss these Luddites as outdated and backwards. In doing so you’d evidently stand in agreement with most of the modern world. But is their decision to avoid much modern technology made out of naivety or stubbornness, or is there some wisdom guiding their resistance?

Is there something we can learn from this little community of horse-and-buggy people?

Loewen admits that the Old Colony Mennonites, striving for a theology that is lived rather than spoken of, lack eloquence is describing their culture to outsiders. And maybe that’s why they’re often easy to dismiss by modern society.

Fortunately, we have other more eloquent writers who can help.

Enter Mr. Wendell Berry.

Restraint makes them whole

Wendell Berry, in his book The Unsettling of America, shares Loewen’s opinion of true technological genius. His book is a critique on our modern industrial culture, and how it has in particular affected agriculture (which, if you eat food, also affects you). Berry cautions is in our love of the future, the greed that drives much use of technology, and our uncritical adoption of any new technology without consideration of its effects on the earth and culture. He points to the Amish as “true geniuses of technology.” Their mastery of technology, he says, doesn’t come from being on the leading edge of invention, but in their consideration of the effects of technology on their culture, families, and way of life.

But it cannot be denied that [the Amish] have mastered one of the fundamental paradoxes of our condition: we can make ourselves whole only by accepting our partiality, by living within our limits, by being human — not by trying to be gods. By restraint they make themselves whole.

The way of genius

What can we learn from these horse-and-buggy geniuses? Is it time to sell the car and the iPhone and live off the grid? That sounds as extreme as it is unrealistic. But rather than dismiss these fringe cultures as crazy, maybe we can consider their approach to technology and let it inform us in our own contexts.

Here are a few takeaways I’ve been chewing on lately.

1. New isn’t always better.

Any old grumpy person will tell you that “they don’t make things like they used to.” That may or may not be true depending on the context, but one thing we know is that our culture is in love with shiny new things, regardless of their quality. We also place a lot of importance and social pressure on keeping up with the times. (What, you only have an iPhone 7?!? That’s, like, almost a year old!) It’s worth considering the quality of a technology, rather than being seduced by its shininess.

2. Consider the side effects of technology.

When the first iPhone was unveiled, few of us who have imagined how attached to these little screens we would become in such a short amount of time. After a decade of coming to grips with the power of these little pocketable mini-computers, we are finally also realizing the potential damage these devices can cause to the fabric of our society. Who would have imagined ten years ago that we’d all be walking around starting at these little devices for so much of the day?

In a recent interview on the podcast Hurry Slowly, Craig Mod describes the internal chemical response of merely glancing at his phone. He compares it to a tank full of guppies that at the first scent of food come rushing for a hit of dopamine. Using technology wisely involves understanding the full effects of a technology, both positive and negative.

Technology is a tool.

No technology is inherently good or evil. True mastery of technology means we are able to show restraint in our use of it rather than letting the technology dictate how it is used. Social media can be used as a powerful connector of people, but can also be used to perpetuate loneliness and keep people from developing healthy relationships. How will you use the tools which you have been given?

Becoming whole

Today we have more technology at our fingertips, more ability to connect, create, and help others than ever before. But with much power comes, how does that go again? Right, responsibility. We have a responsibility to use technology wisely, with restraint, with hopes of it bringing benefit to our own lives and those around us.

Maybe by using technology with restraint, wisdom, and true “genius”, we can make ourselves, our families, and our communities whole.

The Next Big Idea

Probably isn’t all that big, right now. Actually, It’s probably quite small.

Maybe it’s getting ready for middle school, might even be getting beat up by the bigger, cooler ideas currently running the show.

Big ideas aren’t born as grownups. There’s no overnight success, no sure-fire winner.

The next big idea starts as a small idea. A hunch. Then, through nurture and care, it grows. (And you grow along with it).

Which little hunch will you invest in today, to help it grow?

On Printed Words

Do you remember the first time you encountered a Kindle? After their release in 2007, these digital reading devices starting popping up in airports and waiting rooms, changing how we read and think about books.

I remember looking at my bookshelf, imagining how incredible it would be to carry those thousands of pages of printed words in a device smaller than a single book. The cult of the new told us that the book industry would be “disrupted” forever, that books of paper (along with libraries and bookstores) were a thing of the past.

I bought my first eBooks in 2010, reading them on my iPod (which is like an iPhone, but with no calling feature ;) ) at the time. A few years ago I finally got a full-sized digital reading device (an iPad, which is my original iPod, the grownup size), excited to tap into the wealth of information on the web, and read in comfort.

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone

Rationally speaking, reading digitally makes so much sense, right? An iPad is lighter than most books, giving you access to libraries-worth of books. The words themselves (the content) are identical as the ones in printed books, plus has all the benefits of the internet to discover more books than ever before.

But after reading digital books for a while, you can pick up a paper book and appreciate it in new ways. It’s all the intangibles: the smell of the paper, the note-taking, the visual reminders of how far you have to go on a particular book and where you read a particular passage that you want to flip back to.

Part of the problem of reading on a screen is the screen itself. I’ve found that after spending a day staring at a computer screen at work, reading on a different screen in the evening is a strain on my eyes, and hardly a relaxing endeavour.

Hyper-connected devices, which on one hand provide accessibility, on the other hand offer multitudes of distraction that paper books. Screens are masters of distraction, so if you’re using one to spend time focused on reading, you have to be intentional about cutting the device off from potential distractions (link to do not disturb post).

Re-discovering the importance of paper

Which is better for reading then, print or screens? What’s your preference? Both screens and printed books have advantages and contexts where each shines more.

Personally, I’m re-discovering the importance of paper books for digesting printed words. Here’s what I’ve come to appreciate:

  1. Paper books eliminate distraction. Books are a “single task technology”, and offer an escape from distraction-filled screens.
  2. Tactile reading makes me a better reader. I find myself visualizing the spot on the page where a particular idea was mentioned. And I love being able see and feel my progress through a book’s pages, and the feeling of accomplishment when I finally close a particularly thick book.
  3. Physical books are symbols. The secret power of books is that, more than words on a page, books are a physical manifestation of an idea. The reason we love to display our books on a shelf, and take photos of book covers is because they trigger ideas, memories and thoughts.

Then I printed a book

Since 2010 I’ve enjoyed producing digital books. eBooks take a lot of work, but they also have a relatively low barrier to entry. If you have an internet connection and a copy Keynote, you can launch your ideas into the world! Why bother wasting paper and paying money to produce a physical thing?

But, just like reading them, writing printed books is different than writing for screens. It’s important to get words off the screen and into a physical form that can be touched, handed from person to person, interacted with.

Once you hit Print (or, send the final files to the printer), something changes. Suddenly an idea that existed in pixels on the screen now occupies real space. Once you can smell and feel them, your ideas come to life in a new way.

Print gives ideas weight, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

I used to love the mantra that “if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist” (I think I got this from Craig Mod, whose thoughts on books and publishing in the digital age have been extremely helpful). In some ways this is true. After all, if you can’t Google it, it’s difficult to spread an idea. But on the other hand, there’s a sense in which a thing that exists only in bytes and pixels doesn’t really exist either.

The medium is part of the message

In writing a book about the importance of attention, space, and stepping away from distraction, the medium became an important part of the message. I decided to create a book/notebook pack that encouraged the kinds of pace and practices that were talked about in the book.

I also found out firsthand that my book worked well as a symbol.

One day I entered the house after work, took off my shoes, and spotted one of the proofs of my own book on the kitchen table.

Pay Attention.

The symbol became a reminder for me to slow down that evening as I greeted my family. To notice, to listen, to pay attention.

So I hope that this little symbol works on others like it’s worked on me. I hope that the printed book carries a little more weight, and that the message goes a little further, or deeper.

So about those Kindles…

It’s hard to deny the benefits that digital books and reading. New technology has made the spread of ideas faster and easier than ever. We’re able to get our hands on a wider variety of content and carry it around in our pocket. It’s incredible.

But I’m also excited for the enduring power of the printed word to give ideas weight and become symbols of the ideas that they present. Now we get to throw all our rough drafts into the world in pixels, and save the printing process for the ideas that need to be given the extra weight.

Do you prefer reading from screens or paper? Have you noticed a difference in how the medium of a book influences how you interact with or remember it?

Few Words

When I grow up
I want to be a man of few words
Like the frame around a picture
Or the timber beams arching over the dance floor
Who never seek the spotlight or the focal point
Content, they quietly stand
Creating a wide and open space
A world for your imagination
And colour and grace

Tomorrow’s Yesterday

Tomorrow
These might be known as the early days
Or the good old days
Or the aching-for-tomorrow phase

Today
Remember the scent in the autumn breeze
The sound of the geese’s wings stretching over the trees
Their last brilliant expression fading with falling leaves

These are the hues that will paint tomorrow’s memories

An Autumn Morning’s Night

Autumn has arrived in full here in Manitoba. I’m daily reminded of the changing seasons during my morning running routine. While I was running during the mid-summer sunrise in August, I now lace up my shoes and head out into near-freezing temperatures and pitch black darkness at the same time of day in October.

But the morning darkness has been far from depressing. The world by dark is fascinating and ever-changing. I’ve noticed the stars and the phases of the moon, and have chased up animals enjoying the safety of darkness.

My mornings have been almost, poetic.

So I’ve taken to crafting some words about my experiences. And what better way than through the poetry form of haiku? Here are a few lines that describe the autumn morning’s night.

Moonlit winding path
Poplar leaves shiver from cold
Winter approaching

And this morning I enjoyed running under northern lights:

Orion keeps watch
Aurora dances gently
An ocean of stars

As the season’s change, what do you notice that you’ve overlooked before?

80/20


The 80/20 rule is frustrating, but often rings true. The majority of any project is easy, but it’s the last 20% that will take the majority of your time. And sweat. And tears.

Yesterday I sanded down more than 80% of my deck with a big drum sander and made quick progress. Today I looked at the small edge around the inside that the big sander couldn’t reach – those 2″ that were “no big deal” when we started – and realized that this project had only just begun.

The optimist starts a project saying “it couldn’t be that hard” because they’re looking at the 80% that will go quickly. (If we looked at the whole project we might never start!) That last 20% is just details, right?

But it’s those details that will kill you. It’s the last 20% that will take most of the time and cause most people to throw in the towel.

Don’t quit or get discouraged, just realize that once you’re 80% of the way there, you’re only just getting started.

Slow Drips vs Sump Pumps

Many writers I respect recommend a practice of daily writing. The daily drip helps you improve as a writer and slowly works on you and your readers. I admire people who publish consistently, every day, and have gone through seasons of trying this practice on for size, but it’s never been a consistent practice for me.

Rather than the daily drip, I’ve often felt like writing is more like a sump pump. My tank slowly with fragments and thoughts and snippets, then once the tank is full it comes pouring out over a short season. And after emptying, the tank is dry and any attempts at output feel less productive.

I appreciated the quote from Sam Anderson’s profile of writer John McPhee (shared recently by Austin Kleon), who compares his writing practice to crop rotation:

During a semester when he teaches, McPhee does no writing at all. When he is writing, he does not teach. He thinks of this as “crop rotation” and insists that the alternation gives him more energy for writing than he would otherwise have.

How do you write, or do your creative work? In small daily drips, or seasonal sump pumps floods? And if you’re currently spinning your wheels at your practice, is it time to take a step back, rotate the crops, and re-approach your craft in the next season?

 

Update:

All metaphors are imperfect but, as Greg pointed out, the “sump pump” metaphor might have a fatal misleading flaw.

Filling your tank is essential. So are breaks, rest, sabbaticals. But the output of a sump pump is very unlike the creative output. Water gushing out of a sump pump is sudden, rushed, violent. The effective creative practice, in my experience, looks indeed more like a slow, steady drip. Greg compared it to endurance sports, where slow sustained effort is required, and short bursts of effort can knock you out of the game.

Fill your tank, then release it, slowly.

 

Success and Its Secrets

I went to a half-day leadership conference last week, where a bunch of big successful business leader types got up and shared their secrets to success.

I usually enjoy conferences like these. Sometimes experienced leaders have a way of clarifying your thoughts or giving insight to a certain problem which help direct your next step forward.

But do you ever get the feeling that these 3-step patented processes and easy anecdotes over-simplify things a bit? As I listened to these speakers paint their journey into a “here’s how we did it, 1, 2, 3”, I couldn’t help but have my doubts. Leaders will to you to “plan the work and work the plan”, but it’s usually much easier to write the plan once it’s already been worked.

Since that conference I came across Merlin Mann’s interview with The Great Discontent, which provided and helpful counter-balance to the 3-step plans to success. Here’s what he said:

I don’t think there are that many of us who deliberately end up where we are for any reason.

It’s easy to start regarding yourself as some kind of big success, crowing about all the things you did to get there and how you became a serial entrepreneur. But, most of us are just lucky to be alive. We like to come up with stories about our lives that are sensible; stories that make us look good, like we’re survivors of adversity.

When we mythologize ourselves, we tend to amplify the things that turned out okay and try to turn the failures or lack of success into something we learned from. You can do anything to make your life look really grand. It’s a shame that so many people find it difficult to do the things they’d like to do because they feel cowed by seemingly successful people who appear to never do anything wrong, or always learn from their mistakes. That just rings as a lot of B.S. and self-mythology to me.

Plan your work, work your plan, but remember that the path is rarely clear until you’ve already fumbled your way through it.