Taming Emotions. Igniting Focus.

As I was planning my weekly schedule this past Sunday evening, I had planned to write about how to tame emotions and ignite focus. As a creative person, I have struggled with a wide range of emotions as I go from project to project: insecurity, fear, anxiety, mania, flow, excitement, and dread. It’s amazing how difficult working on a project can be.

About an hour ago, I was reading Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields and he artfully dismantled my feelings that I was the only person who struggled with these emotions. He tells several stories about how creativity can sap your brain power and leave you vulnerable to emotions as well as a loss of willpower (which explains my Hot Tamales addiction). Because the brain is easily fatigued, Fields provides two reasons why this should cause everyone to take notice:

What we often experience as resistance, desire, distraction, burnout, fatigue, frustration, and anxiety in the process of creating something from nothing may, at least in part, be PFC [prefrontal cortex] depletion that reduces our willpower to zero and makes it near impossible to commit to the task at hand . . . . In addition, what so many creators experience as a withering ability to handle the anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty as a project nears completion may actually be self-induced rather than process-induced suffering (p. 56).

Lightbulb moment: This explains a lot of my emotional struggles the past year. But what I love is that it hasn’t been the work that has made me suffer, it has been me. I have been forcing myself to work longer hours, with less breaks, eating horrible (although tasty at times) food, and not working on passion projects.

What is the solution? Fields suggests, through a literary hat tip to Tony Schwartz, that we work in 45-90 minute bursts, then refuel our prefrontal cortex by walking, relaxing, or engaging in activities that refresh us. In addition, he talks about the importance of maintaining a daily ritual for the purpose of gaining momentum through difficult times.

What does your daily ritual look like? Are you planning every moment or do you give yourself time to breathe?

Thank you Mr. Fields.

Data Management and Alerts in Online Education Systems

As an instructor I have worked with two learning management systems, Moodle and Canvas, delivering content and grades to a maximum of 20 students at a time. While I have my preferences, there are two problems common to both: the management of massive amounts of data generated and a faulty implementation of alerts.

Management of Data

While all of my classes have been face-to-face, there are still online activities that generate a massive amount of data: messages, homework assignments, grades, pages, and discussions. Not to mention the scale of management problems that occur the more classes taught.

In a training class for teaching entirely online, I was floored by the amount of data generated in order to meet the accreditation requirements. All of the normal in-class activities were being replaced with digital alternatives all resulting in a lot of poorly searchable and unlikely archivable data.

Forums were the popular means of organizing discussions and content and as an instructor I felt overwhelmed. I could not imagine how the students might have felt. I constantly asked myself: How in the world am I supposed to manage this? How is education supposed to scale? Do I trust the system to manage this for me?

I felt paranoid that I was going to miss something. Which brings me to the problem with alerts.

Alerts

From my experience there are three approaches to alerts:

  1. Funnel everything into one spot, Facebook-style;
  2. Generate a worthless daily digest email;
  3. Only alert when a message has been sent, but report no other activity.

All three of the options listed above are worthless. The first is spraying me with a firehose. I could potentially have 60+ alerts in one day, spread across multiple students and classes. The second is addressing this issue by letting you know daily the activity that occurred with links to view said activity. The final does not provide any peace of mind for the instructor or student.

What if the solution to the alerts is the ability to create people-centric alerts? For example, defining the common activities per student and letting instructors know that new activity has occurred in each activity through alert buckets.

I would personally love that alert system.

Online Education Is Big Business

Online education is a huge growth industry with new training sites popping up daily. It is my belief that the system that addresses data management and alerts will be the front-runners of transforming online education.

What do you think?

 

 

The Power of Cynicism

I originally planned to write a few thoughts about the power of cynicism thinking that there was some good that could come from my periodic moments of being a cynic. I told myself that there was value in constantly battling between my hopeful and cynical natures. I wasn’t one of those people being sucked into the status quo. I marched to my own drum, my own beat. I did what I wanted to do.

But then I looked at the definition of cynic and saw a word that described an all too familiar feeling: bitterness.

There is a power in cynicism. But its power is a lot like the palantir in the Lord of The Rings: by touching this magical orb you have a vision of what is to come, but you do not who is on the other end of the palantir and if they are telling you the truth. It could be a force for good or it could drive you mad.

Cynicism can help you to see alternatives, but too much of it can make you bitter. It is addictive. It makes you feel powerful and better than others because of your insight into “reality.” Cynicism can make you an ass, a buzzkill, and someone no one wants to be around.

I would much rather learn to find alternatives without cynicism, but I guess that is the optimist in me.

The Power of Idealism

Take a look at any news headline (clickbait or not) and it is easy to get a little bit cynical about the world: War, Famine, Wealth Inequality, Old White Men Who Have a Difficult Time Working Together (Congress), Gender and Racial Inequality, Sequels (Toy Story 4), ad nauseam. The power of social media to bring people together all over the world also has an infinitely greater ability to bring the depressing and negative stories (but incredibly important to know) to our doorsteps. But what about the stories of people doing amazing things to better the world? What was ever wrong with celebrating the visionaries of idealism? Turning the spotlight on the men and women who believe that the world can be a better place?

I think of Bill Gates and his challenge to engineers to figure out a way to turn sewage into potable water at an affordable price. That sounds completely unrealistic. And yet, the smart people of the world figured it out.

I think about the nonviolence protest movement and the unrealistic expectations of changing a violent system through nonviolent means. What will it take for the people of the world to rise up out of their comfortable recliners and take their place in the nonviolent protests all around the world in support of the many people gunned down in displays of power and fear?

I think about the film directors who make beautiful films outside of the Hollywood system in order to show the world what they see and yet struggle to get their work seen because of the barrage of marketing that shoves the latest sequel down the global throat.

Why would anyone strive to create new works of art in today’s society?

Because of idealism and love for expression.

Why would anyone bring children into this world?

Because of idealism and hope that they will make the world one person better than before.

Why would anyone?

Idealism.

Hope.

 

Generational Awe

When my parents were kids and visited Disneyland or Disney World, the sense of awe and wonder had to have been off the charts due to the level of technology being a lot lower than it is today.

Kids today have a level of personal technology that potentially makes the theme park less amazing and more a one-shot novelty. They still have fun, but perhaps only to please their parents for whom this trip equates to dollars spent, not imagination fueled. For value achieved, not memories created.

The Power of Scribbles and Sketches

The art says it all

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

I’m a huge fun of scribbling and sketching. Even though there are no easy ways to learn, I find that scribbling and sketching give me a chance subvert the confines of the mind and find unknown (to me) thoughts and ideas.

One year of blog post ideas. #oneperweek

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

Scribbling and sketching give me a chance to write down my thoughts and create lists of ideas in fun ways, playing with different handwriting styles. They also give me a way to sketch grids and box-like shapes, focusing on the relationships between nodes, letters, shapes, and lines.

@belgort on the whiteboard in his super cape

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

While my drawing skills are severely limited, I at least have fun with a whiteboard. I love to sketch fun caricatures of friends.

The path to the future

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

Being a fan of systems and processes, scribbling and sketching allow me the opportunity to visualize abstract ideas. For example, if the path to the future was not a single path, what would it look like? Analyzing the drawing above, where does it start and where does it end? Exactly.

How I Write #process

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

From chaotic and abstract paths to the future, to fun ways to procrastinate while finishing my homework, scribbling and sketching helped me to articulate my writing process (in fun comic/animation style).

Today's task list is ready

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

They also help my daily task lists be a little more artistic and enjoyable to look at while giving me a canvas to doodle on, all day long.

Presentation hell

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

I’m a huge fan of sharpies and ink pens. The lines are permanent and it takes a confidence to lay them down.

I have a lot to learn about scribbling and sketching, but these are just a few ways I use them daily to have a little bit of fun.

How about you?

 

“Fake It Until You Make It” – Random Thoughts on Determination

A few random thoughts on determination and what it means to be creative in a digital world.

It’s so easy to get distracted, to lose focus and stop doing the work that needs to get done. Excuses are rampant with blame being cast upon internal and external reasons, beings, deities, and weather. The Imposter Syndrome, the Fraud Police, awards and praise, all present in the face of success. All make it that much harder to feel determined to want and to work for more.

Depression, inspiration, comparison, procrastination, and busywork rear their ugly heads in the trenches of creation. Loneliness breeds a need for connection. We’ll settle for anyone, but we often choose to buy the candied words of the sycophant: “You’re great. Everything you do is perfect. I want you.”

No one wants to be lied to. Everything can be improved upon.

Your mask reveals your lust for perfection. Your mask hides your insecurity and lack of motivation to push forward. Your mask is your loss of faith in your creative ingenuity. Your mask is the acceptance of ignorance and heresy that in order to succeed you must look and behave like everyone else. Moo.

What do you do when your determination has waned and your faith–in art, business, creativity, God, gods, the world, humanity–is left for dead in an untouched corner of your soul?

Do you fake it until you make it?

Yes!

No!

You just make it.

Because if you fake it long enough, you’ll make it a habit and eventually people will know. You’ll know.

We know when we are sold lies, concealed in the polish of marketing, advertising, and politics. We know that when race and gender are strategically placed next to the corporate logos of finance, insurance, fast food, and healthcare a statement is made about value: The greatness of the logo is legitimatized by the inclusion of all people. Even if it’s a lie. Or a stereotype.

But we don’t care anymore.

The polish of modern society numbs the despair felt when we realize we sold our soul, our art, and our voice for the weekend. Sold for our security in a system meant to keep people in line, dropping existential quarters in the slot machine of life. Waiting to hit the jackpot; dying at each pull of the lever.

Jackpot.

Going longhand this morning. "Fake It Til You Make It and Other Thoughts on Determination"

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

A Deliberate Life

What does it mean to live a deliberate life? One where I consciously and intentionally do what I set out and intend to do each day?

This week I have made an effort to write every day and work on projects that have lost their momentum. Instead of spending time doing other things, such as watching TV, working, or playing games on my phone, I am reflecting, creating, and acting upon my dreams. That is what living a deliberate life means.

When I go to sleep at night, I am not fretting about the projects that I didn’t work on. I am not bemoaning the fact that I am not doing what I want to be doing. That is what living a deliberate life means.

Each day, I want to connect with other people and listen to their dreams and what’s going on in their lives. That is what living a deliberate life means.

Living a deliberate life means I am no longer waiting for validation, permission, acceptance, or approval, I simply do what needs to be done. Excuses disappear.

All that remains is the ticking clock. Today’s metronome. The pace never changes. The only change is how much I try to cram between the beats.

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Tock.

Getting Unstuck

There are two types of “stuckness” often dealt with on a consistent basis.

The first type is temporary and fleeting. It is the momentary blank stare that occurs when staring at an empty page, canvas, or screen. What is going to happen? Will the results match what is in my imagination? Is it going to suck? Ask too many questions and the alluring call of social media or your distraction of choice begins to erode your sense of focus.

The second type is the systematic avoidance of working on a project because of fear. Fear you aren’t good enough. Fear you will be called out for being a hack. Fear people won’t like what you do. Fear you will have wasted your time. Fear. Fear. Fear. Excuses become the glue that keeps you stuck in a constant state of inaction.

Getting unstuck in scenario one is fairly easy. You entertain your distraction, you get a cup of tea or coffee, but ultimately realize that you do need to get your work done regardless of the outcome. You are externally motivated by keeping your job or demonstrating some resemblance of progress at the end of the day.

However, getting out of scenario two is difficult because not only are you dealing with issues of self, but also grappling with the realities of internal motivation. How do you get motivated when there is no boss, budget, or brief to keep you in order? How do you avoid getting stuck on issues that are driven by unknown variables, such as the opinions of others?

So, How Do You Get Unstuck?

1) Ask For Help

During a hike with a good friend last week, I asked him how to get traction on several video projects that are just sitting on my hard drive waiting to get completed. He said, “Ask someone else to edit the videos for you.”

Ask someone else to help you.

Ask for help.

Ask.

Get out of your own head and talk with other people.

2) Act In The Simplest Of Ways

Regardless of whether a project has been neglected for days, weeks, months, or years, something needs to change. Immediately. At this very moment. Because the inactive project is occupying precious space (emotional, physical, intellectual, digital).

You either need to let the project die, which is an appropriate action if you no longer care about the project.

Or you need to do something that gets the project moving again. Even in the simplest of ways, action builds momentum.

Action can be as simple as opening the project file, spending as much time in front of the monitor as you do entertaining the fear, or picking up a brush and painting a stroke on the blank canvas.

3) Stop Comparing Yourself To Others

Finally, stop comparing yourself, your work, your looks, anything and everything, to others. Specifically, stop comparing your daily thought life with the finished products of others. There is no comparison. Even comparing finished product to finish product is futile and unproductive. You’re only going to get more stuck and be afraid to act.

Joe Wilson and the Manifesto of Truth

“I thought it was going to be easier. I didn’t think I would have to fight so hard. What is wrong with me?”

Over a year ago (more than 16 months ago actually), I was working on a video documenting the process of my friend Joe Wilson. Joe is a commercial photographer working out of Portland, OR and I pitched him the idea of making a short documentary about his photography. He agreed. He set up a shoot with a model, a group of other photographers, hair and make-up artists.

I shot interesting B-roll of Joe working with the model and with others. I filmed the entire shoot with a GoPro in time lapse mode resulting in an interesting video of Joe’s physicality and rhythm. I interviewed Joe for over an hour about his process, what he has learned as a commercial photographer, and the importance of working with others. I even cut a trailer with the promise of the full video to come in September 2013.

But something happened between the promise of things to come and today: I got busy. I made excuses. I lost my nerve as an artist.

I Got Busy

It’s easy to get busy and forget about the things that are important to you. I have been caught up in “the tyranny of the urgent” for far too long. I have become more reactionary and desperate as opposed to being strategic and intentional with everything that I do.

Being busy allowed me to focus on the tasks that came easy to me, without any fight or heart. I became a robot. I did whatever I could to satisfy the short-term demand, while sacrificing my long-term sanity. I unlearned what I knew to be beneficial to success and through unhealthy habits learned to be okay with far less than what I would tell others to demand and hope for.

Being busy brought out the hypocrite within and led me down the path of making excuses instead of performing admirably and timely.

I Made Excuses

I am a people pleaser. I want people to like me. That means I say yes far too often, no not enough, and have learned that there is an art form to making effective and acceptable excuses.

Being a people pleaser also means that I will sacrifice my happiness in order to make someone else happy. I will eat poorly, I will not exercise, I will not do the things that bring me joy and fill me with sustenance (hiking, taking photographs, reading, and writing). I make excuses why I can’t do those things. It’s a vicious and torturous circle that has no end.

Eventually, I became better at coming up with excuses than doing the actual work I set out to do. I continued to focus on what came easily and that led me to lose my nerve as an artist.

I Lost My Nerve As An Artist

In Conversations with Scorsese, film director Martin Scorsese is talking about the importance of tenacity and what tenacity means in the context of reading or hearing what people have to say about you (both positive and negative):

But I must say that when young people ask me what’s the most important thing, I do use the word “tenacity,” and that means, no matter what, you’ve got to be like Odysseus tied to the mast.

I can’t say “Don’t listen”–you’re going to hear it, and it’ll be with you for fifty years. You’ll always hear it, even if they change their opinion. But if you get a lot of praise very often, there has to be an attack, or many attacks. There has to be. And then you just weather that, and you have to have confidence in yourself, and that’s the tenacity. (pp. 184-185)

Scorsese’s definition of tenacity is similar to how I would describe nerve. Through the good and the bad, you wake up every day and tell the story you MUST tell. But what does it mean to lose your nerve as an artist? How did I lose my nerve?

First, I listened to the positive things said about me and I believed them so strongly that I no longer felt the fight to tell my story. I had arrived. I had become someone important. My success had become the story.

Second, I let the negative things said about me overshadow the amazing accomplishments and praise that I had received. “The Fraud Police”–fabulously labeled by Amanda Palmer–were out to get me and I believed every single word that others said about me. I even believed every single negative word I uttered to myself in the sanctity of my soul. I lost the confidence in myself.

Weeks became months, which eventually dragged into years. I lost my nerve as an artist. Until I couldn’t take the pain anymore. Until I wept for who I had become. Until my pity for myself became genuine sorrow, allowing me to take action. To pick myself up, to tell my friends I am sorry for ignoring them, and to get back to telling the stories I HAVE to tell.

The Manifesto of Truth

I love to ask questions. It fills me with joy as I ask a question that gets the other person to talk. The reason I love to ask questions is because I love to listen to others. I love what they have to say. The wisdom and insight garnered throughout a lifetime of living their own lives. I love that a question I asked 16 months in the past, can provide a response that would hit me right in the artistic gut.

During the interview with Joe, I asked him: If you were to write a manifesto on pursuing photographic excellence, what would be your first commandment?

It didn’t take long for Joe to respond: “Thou shalt not assume anything.”

I assumed being an artist would be easy.

I didn’t think I would have to fight so hard.

I thought my experience would be different.

I assumed everything and gained nothing.

But fortunately, I have hope. That I can change my attitude towards busyness, that I can make less excuses, and that I can grow my nerve as an artist. After all, Joe had assumptions, but he was ultimately changed by the experience of doing what he set out to do.

Thank you Joe.