Columns / Insights

Farming the Fields of Creativity

Jocelyn K. Glei

Jocelyn   K. Glei
What are some of the most important lessons on creativity you've learned at 99U? 1. Creativity is more of a muscle than a lightning bolt from above. Brian Eno describes staying in shape creatively as having a kind of “mental tone” in the same way you have muscle tone. Exercise your creativity regularly, and you’ll stay in good shape.

2. There is no substitute for doing the work. Thinking about doing the work, planning how you will do the work or waiting for inspiration to do the work are all very poor substitutes for just starting.

3. Everything takes twice as long as you think it will, if not longer. So be wary of how much you take on at any given moment.

4. If you’re stuck, get away from your computer. Computers are the ultimate anti-inspiration, distraction, procrastination machines.

Who has been your favorite designer to interview so far, and why? Paula Scher from Pentagram gave one of my all-time favorite 99U talks. She has an incredible dry wit and razor-sharp mind. When a client gives her a brief, she’s not afraid to say, “you’re asking the wrong questions,” and rewrite it. She makes up her own rules, and that’s probably why she does so much great work. She’s always asking, “Why?”

How should creative professionals measure their productivity? There are so many things you can spend your time on these days that make you feel productive but don’t have any real value, like responding to emails or looking at web analytics or changing the font size in your Photoshop file 23 times. I think it’s more important to step back and look at what you’re actually trying to make in the grand scheme of things and measure by that yardstick.

I particularly like to make tangible things (e.g., books and magazines) that can have an impact on people’s lives. To me, saying, “Hey, we made two books and three magazines this year” feels productive. I sent a ton of emails, had lots of meetings and made a bunch of spreadsheets to make those things happen, but that’s not productivity to me. Productivity, to me, is looking at the finished products. Having brought the idea to realization.

That said, we probably won’t put out two books next year—that was sort of a flurry of finished products after years of planning. So being “productive” next year might mean something totally different: it will be time to rebuild and seed new ideas. As a friend of mine says, if you want to produce a good harvest, you also have to let the fields lie fallow sometimes.

In what ways should creative work be kept separate from monetary concerns, if at all? I think it’s important to acknowledge that if you’re not making enough money to get by, it creates anxiety. And anxiety destroys creativity. So you need to make enough to cover the basics like rent, food, your family. But there’s loads of research showing that after your basic needs are met, making more money doesn’t really make you any happier.

So I think the important money question for creatives to ask is: “How much money do I want/need to make this year?” Strangely, many freelance creatives fail to ask this question, so they don’t know what they need to make, and they’re always worried about not making enough. It’s distracting. So it’s important to set an income goal, make a plan to meet it and then free yourself up to focus on more important things.

Where do you seek inspiration? Away from a computer, because I need a quiet mind. Online, there are too many distractions and too many people telling you what they think, or worse, what you should think. I have to get away from that and let my mind wander.

I also leave behind my routines. I am a creature of habit, but habits are the bane of new ideas. If you do the same things, see the same people, go to the same places all the time, you won’t spark new ideas. But the minute I change my routines—check out a new design magazine, talk to someone at a party, etc.—I always get new ideas.

Having new ideas is actually rarely a problem for me. I have a list of creative projects that could keep me busy for the next ten years organized in my Evernote. The question is... will I execute on all of them? Or do I just like the idea of it?

What personal/pro-bono creative projects are you working on, if any? I’m thinking about writing a book about why we’re all so anxious these days. There have been a huge amount of developments in the way we work and the technology we use, which are creating a perfect storm of anxiety and fear of missing out (FOMO). I find it productive to understand why I feel a certain way—the root causes—and then I can begin to change the pattern. What if all this anxiety and busyness that we feel burdened by was unnecessary? And we could let it go?

What skills do young creatives need to succeed today? The most important skill is the ability to build new skills. Technology will likely continue to reinvent the way we work and communicate every five to ten years at a minimum. As philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”

Jocelyn K. Glei is the editor-in-chief and director of Behance's 99U. She has authored and edited three books—Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential and Make Your Mark—that make up 99U’s first book series, which offers pragmatic, actionable advice for creatives on managing their time, careers and businesses. At 99U, Glei leads the brand in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” to help make creatives’ ideas happen. She oversees the 99u.com website—which has won two Webby Awards for Best Cultural Blog—and leads the curation of the popular 99U Conference, which presents talks from top creatives, including John Maeda, Brené Brown, Jad Abumrad, Stefan Sagmeister, Jonathan Adler, AJ Jacobs and Paula Scher. Glei lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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