There are certain days in a life that, on looking back, turn out to have been major turning-points. Where up until that day, things are a certain way, and then from that point on, everything is completely different.
I had one of those days, and it lead me to make a decision, and to follow a simple rule from then onwards – to create something every day.
Each day, to attempt to wake up and by the end of that day, to feel that I’d made something new in the world. It’s a rhythm I’ve been in for over fifteen years, and I wanted to share some things that I’ve learnt.
I’m surprised I’ve never sat down and written something about it, but recently I’ve been standing up at one or two small events, talking about sketching with code, and I’ve found it impossible to talk about how I work without going into my motivations, even just for thirty seconds.
Young and directionless
1998. I was a young computer science student. I’d wanted to do some kind of combined computing / art degree, but sadly such things didn’t exist back then. I’d picked computing because, well, if all else went wrong there’d always be something to fall back on. The pragmatic choice.
I was a typical, reasonably-good student. In my exams I’d received mostly A grades and was fortunate to get to a good university. On arriving I felt I like I was on cruise control, however. I wasn’t that inspired by the lectures. I was able to do the coursework and the exams pretty easily, so I was slacking, enjoying the student lifestyle and not really sure what I wanted to do with my life.
Parties, graphic design in my spare time and electronic music were much more interesting!
For one particular piece of coursework I’d suddenly found that I had to work a little harder to complete it, and had been working late in the (notoriously smelly) computer labs. Late into the night I’d be wrangling with computer code in front of a screen and trying to get a program to work.
I didn’t have much money, I was under weight and had a pretty awful diet. As a result of that, and the impending deadline, I was tired, worn down and I put the regular headaches I was experiencing down to staring at those screens too much.
A brush with death
I was in a rhythm of coding, taking painkillers and sleeping. Except the painkillers weren’t working so well after about a month, and it got to the point where I’d walk along and almost fall over with the pain.
A friend convinced me to visit the doctor, and they just told me to take more painkillers!
The next day, I had the worst day of pain ever – like something piercing my skull, and went home to lie down. It was awful – I couldn’t look at the light, I had to close the blinds and I was feeling really sick…
At that point, you might expect that I just curled up and went to sleep. Except that’s not what happened. The opposite, in fact. I got out a canvas I had, some acrylic paints, and began painting.
I painted an image of a nuclear explosion with three overlaid graphic novel-style picture-in-pictures zoomed in on the eye of a viewer, and zoomed in, and zoomed in to the pupil so that it resembled a hydrogen atom. Yeah, deep, man.
The next day I wouldn’t come out of my dark room, and my friends, recognising the signs of meningitis, drove me back to the same clinic I’d visited earlier that week.
I woke up some time later in a nearby hospital to find that I’d been through a serious experience, that without the NHS I’d be dead, and that it was all due to a tiny brain tumour.
A “benign” one apparently, although it definitely didn’t feel benign at the time! I’d had meningitis as a result – the tumour had been in a very unhelpful place to start with, and had then popped. The resulting swelling of the brain caused all sorts or problems. Suffice to say, my bad student art was weirdly accurate – an explosion from something tiny, with massive effect.
Later, recovering, I had a sudden realisation (and not one that’s very original) — that I am, after all, mortal.
That each of us dies, and at some point it’s going to be me. Luckily not that day, but some day. We might write songs about how we’re going to live forever and make outlandish predictions about the length of human life, but it doesn’t make it so, sadly.
I still experience a similar feeling occasionally, and I’m sure it’s familiar to you. You’re going about your day, and then suddenly you remember this fact, and you get a rush of adrenaline and thoughts.
I call the feeling mortigo – it’s a kind of spinning vertigo, with all the adrenaline and confusion you’d feel if you were suspended cliff-hanger style from a precarious height. It’s not nice – like a series of overlapping thoughts about darkness, nothingness, cold, the end of things, terror, the unknown, sadness and unfairness hitting you at once. It’ll be different for all of us, yet I find it surprising that there’s no name for that moment, and to deal with it I had to name it.
There are few ways to respond to mortigo. One way is to stuff that whole chain of thought back into the place from whence it came and just get on with your life, trying not to think about it. Another might be to reach for whichever religion you adhere to and hold tight to a belief in reincarnation, an afterlife or something similar.
I don’t believe in such things. My reaction was creativity. I recovered swifty, with amazingly no lasting effects, and I made a decision to do one thing in response – to create something every day.
We experience entropy all the time. It’s the opposite of the creative endeavour. When our perfectly mowed lawns sprout with weeds, that’s entropy; when our beautifully engineered car shows the first sign of rust, when the first grey hair appears, and ultimately,as I very nearly experienced, we die.
There’s a beautiful Japanese concept that deals with entropy, and accepts it as not just a part of life, but something to be viewed as a form of beauty – wabi-sabi. We spend our lives trying to push back against the force of entropy – arranging things, making patterns out of objects, designing processes for how things happen, sometimes just attempting to keep things the way they are for a little while. Wabi-sabi is an acceptance of the inevitable decline of order and that the imperfection and fleetingness of things is to be celebrated, not mourned.
So, my reaction to my near-death experience was based in an appreciation that when things might not be perfect, you can still find beauty and purpose there nonetheless.
I’m writing this on the day that perhaps my favourite author’s death was announced. Iain Banks has filled my head with amazing science fiction ideas over the years, and I’ve admired his astounding creativity since I read the first of his Culture novels. Yet it was his ability, in his final message to the world, to apply some of these wabi-sabi ideas to his own coming death that inspired me the most. Here was a man, given news that he wasn’t to live more than a few months more, that took the news with realism, humour and grace.
I encourage you to read it.
Making a decision
In the hospital I started getting a flood of ideas. I asked a friend to bring in a sketchbook, and I quickly filled it with writing and drawings of things that I wanted to do with my life. It’s amazing what a dose of mortality can do to a young, directionless student!
I’d always loved music, so I wanted to start a record label. I loved design, I was obsessed with typography, I’d often talked about starting my own design agency –maybe I’d do that! Gosh, I really enjoyed all those club nights that I went to – I should try running one of them! Oh, and club visuals were brilliant, I should totally become a VJ. And a t-shirt designer. And I’d love to put some music of my own out. Oh, and I loved games – making a game would be fun too. And maybe write a book! And… and…
Those of you reading this who have that creative spirit will know what I mean – when you’re in a certain mood there’s just so much you can do, and not enough time, so where do you put your energy?
For me: Into an idea. I picked something, and that was essentially “every day, I’m just going to make sure I’ve created something by the time I go to bed”. Plenty of people live by rules, and that was to be mine.
I’ve talked about entropy, and for all that I’ve observed of human life, I’d say that counteracting, yet appreciating, entropy is its purpose. So I’d do my little bit once a day.
Some things I’ve learnt doing this
Since then I’ve put my efforts into lots of things. Some really are things that take less time than a day to do – drawing a picture, taking a photograph, or doing a hack, or giving a talk at an event. Some are longer term, about starting something and building it over time.
I won’t couch this as some kind of structured process. I decided on a very simple rule. Roughly, every day I’d have created something, and being one of those people who’s okay at lots of things but not amazing at anything I’d go for variety. There’s a simple measure – when you go to sleep at night, ask yourself what you’ve made that day.
What’s the definition of “a thing”? I don’t care — I know if a “thing” is a “thing” when I’m doing or creating it. There’s nobody watching or measuring, there’s just the process of making things.
A few things I’ve learnt trying to keep this process going:
Constant making makes me happy. Those periods of flow where time disappears and you look down at the finished thing are what I look to achieve. Find a way to make sure you can get into flow as often as possible and you’ve got the right set up around you so it’s okay for that to happen.
There’s no excuse – it’s easier than ever to start a thing. People are now happy with doing almost everything with or via the internet, and the price to put something on the internet is essentially just how valuable your time is. If you’ve got an idea for something, just get it out there and get going. Shock yourself by how fast you can go at the beginning.
Creating things is all consuming
If your job isn’t making things, then to live and work this way you have to make it your job. And your home life too. That’s got its down sides. I’m terrible at admin, at filling the dishwasher, at remembering things. But I’m great if you need me to build a web app in a day.
Surround yourself with the right people
You can’t do it alone. Try to find a way to get people around you with skills that complement your own. Grow a thing that helps you keep making, and is mutually beneficial for everyone concerned. Make it your mission to help bring their thing into the world as well as your own ideas. It’s taken me a long time but I think I’ve finally found that at my new company Makeshift.
You’ve got to get comfortable killing things
If something’s not working, then kill it. Go and do something else. I made such a huge mistake with my first company and spent years working on a bad business when I could have been doing something better. All of my making flipped into my spare time, and you know when that happens you need to step away. Being comfortable with killing something is crucial, otherwise you’ll get bogged down and not get anywhere.
The best tool in the box for creative work is the response “yes, and…” to most suggestions you hear, instead of “yes, but…”. You’ll be surprised what effect it can have. Try it.
You can’t eat awards
With my little design agency I became obsessed with quality of the work over building company that would sustain. That’s a bad idea – if I could go back and give some advice it would be to make sure that someone good is working on the numbers. It’s great to win awards, but if you can’t pay for the train fare home after the ceremony, what’s the point?
Creativity leaks into all areas of your life
I think the biggest thing is that by making this part of my daily routine, it’s affected all areas of my life – it keeps me interested and connected with other people around me. The approach improves my “bumping-into-ness” factor, because I feel like I can co-create more readily with others. And at home we’re always doing little creative things – particularly with children around.
It’s the process
I filled that little sketch book in the hospital with all sorts of things.
Looking back, what’s amazing is that thanks to my tiny little rule I’ve done a fair few of those crazy things I thought up that day.
Not in the way I imagined probably, but I did. Much of what you’d call my portfolio has evaporated thanks to the web being so impermanent. But John Xela continues to run the beautiful label we set up together (I’m no longer involved); over the last five years I’ve been averaging about a hack a month; I’m doing things all the time at Makeshift, the company that I set up just this year where the entire spirit of the place is around rapidly making new ideas; at home you’ll find me drawing monsters and making up stories with the kids, elsewhere taking photographs, doing mixes, designing web apps, going to hack days…
Creating something every day is now a way of life.
Creativity is a habit, and I think it’s one you can learn. I just hope you don’t have to go through a brush with death like I did to get a little bit of seize the day into your daily rhythm.