Putting You In A Box: Titles, Labels, Genres, and Other Miscellaneous Classifications

Corporate America loves hierarchies and titles. So do databases and schools. Classifications of any type–titles, labels, genres, and other miscellaneous words created by systems–are useful for putting data in its proper context, allowing for humans to interact with the information accordingly and correctly.

The danger is when we attempt to classify human beings in the same way as information.

We automatically minimize a person’s level of contribution and worth to fit their pre-described label.

Some systems do need people that have abilities in certain areas that many do not have, but in a system where labels determine output and worth, humans will always be expendable.

The ROI of Creativity

As a person who makes, builds, and creates digital products that rely upon creativity, I am constantly thinking about how to increase the value of creativity and what the ROI of creativity actually is.

The temptation over time is to increase hourly rates so that I can get paid for my time and what I put into a project. However, if all I ever get paid for is my time, how will I ever know the value of my creativity and ultimately my work?

Time is not an accurate indicator of the value of creativity. If a creative solution appears quickly, say in 6 minutes, and I charge $100 per hour, I just made $10 on an idea. What if that $10 idea generated a cool million for the client?

How about a more accurate scenario? A development firm charged $10,000 to create an eCommerce website for a small business that in the first year resulted in an increase of $4,000 to business. What would the return on investment be for the business?

Calculating Value (The Business)

According to Investopedia, ROI measures “the efficiency of an investment” by first calculating the investment’s profitability (subtract the cost of the investment from the gain of the investment) and then dividing that result with the cost of investment.

In the eCommerce scenario above, the ROI calculates as: (4000 – 10000) / 10000 = -0.6 or -60%. Typically, a positive ROI is desirable. Most people want to get more money out of an investment. In this case, the business lost money in the first year.

From a business perspective, the money spent on creative work must be recuperated over time (the amount of time depends on each customer and prompts another question that deserves its own post: What is the lifespan of creative work?).

Ultimately, if creative work can quickly generate a profit for a customer, you as the creative person wield power over other creative companies and individuals. It becomes a tool in your sales kit to close the next big project.

Calculating Value (The Creative)

However, when it comes to the creative person calculating value for themselves, the variables are often not economical or based in time. There are intrinsic motivators that drive the work that is being done: Am I learning something new? Do I love this idea so much that I am willing to make next to nothing to see it through to completion? Could the successful execution of this project grow the relationship with the client to the point where I get more work than I thought previously possible?

The Trick is Balancing Extrinsic and Intrinsic Value Systems

Creative entrepreneurs must balance extrinsic and intrinsic value systems in order to stay in business over the long haul. They must understand both the economical decisions that result in cash flow (so devastatingly important) and the creative decisions that result in growth and new opportunities (equally important).

Without a healthy balance, you risk stripping the soul of your work bare or being so broke that you have to quit in order to find a better paying job.

Charlton Heston on Film Technology in 1979

In a 1979 interview with Charton Heston in Conversations at the American Film Institute with The Great Moviemakers, he has this to say about technology:

Technology has given us so much more opportunity to do unusual things that you couldn’t do with a camera before. The equipment is lighter, more portable; the film is faster, the lenses are faster. Everything is more readily available to you, and directors sometimes tend to get caught up in exclaiming how wonderful a shot is. But what is it about? How does it serve the story? I remember something Wyler taught me. I had come back from seeing some film and was saying how well directed I thought it was, and he said, “You have to be careful with that. If everybody says, ‘Isn’t that well directed?’ it means they weren’t paying attention to the story.” The direction should not call attention to itself. Neither should the acting or the writing.

This quote is even more true today and there are many more aspects of film production we can add to this list: color correction, motion graphics, computer generated imagery and effects. We can even add other industries that are affected by this thought: design, web development, app and software development, video games.

It all comes back to story. Want to stand out? Tell a story that really matters and affects people. Everything should serve that central goal, not the other way around.

Fresh Ideas & New Directions

In a vacuum, it is difficult to come up with fresh ideas. You have to go somewhere either digitally or physically. Searching the Internet is great, but there is often a lens of comparison, inferiority, and distraction that occurs site after site, tweet after tweet, like after like.

However, when you venture out into new places, you come across ideas that can direct you to try something different. You meet new people who have their own ideas that inspire you to go down an unfamiliar path.

One way to solicit ideas is to ask. This is what is done at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center: “Leave One, Take One.”

If you need an idea to act on…

A photo posted by Chris Martin (@cmstudios) on

Unplug and get out into the world. Meet new people. Listen to their dreams. Encourage them to continue walking towards the completion of their goals.

It’s amazing what can inspire you if you go searching instead of staying alone in your cubicle, office, or house.

The Journey of the Creative Career

During a coffee meeting with a friend, who is a photographer, I was struck by the notion that the expectations creative people place upon their lives and careers is insanely unattainable. In fact, these expectations are dangerous and have the potential to ruin the longevity of the creative person’s career as well as negatively impact their lives.

Example: we love to compare ourselves to 30 year veterans and say that we are equally as good, even though we have only spent 30 weeks and completed a few online tutorials practicing our craft.

Example: we fight for the label (professional) and validating the ownership of said label (this is what a professional does), instead of putting in the time to make great art.

Could it be that the journey to a successful career is found in learning the foundations of our trade and then consistently and constantly building upon that foundation over time?

Could it be that the expectations of being great today will limit our greatness tomorrow?


It’s Time To Get Over Yourself

Throughout the past few years I have taken moments to reflect upon all of the things that I’ve done in my life, business, career, and education. These moments of reflection feel me with pride and a sense of accomplishment. Occasionally I feel the tinge of arrogance (okay, maybe more than a tinge at times) and embarrassment.

But as I get older, what I am able to do as an individual isn’t very impressive. I want to do more. I want to be more. And that requires me to trust other people (which is incredibly hard for me to do). I have to get over myself.

I want to find kindred spirits that are building something greater than themselves. I want to find the challengers, the dreamers, and the doers who are creating something more than we could do on our own. I want to be called out for my weaknesses. I want to be raised to a new level by aspiring to be as great as the people who surround me.

I believe that my work could be better and it’s going to take someone else’s voice to break through my own barriers and excuses.

It’s time to get over myself.

The Power of Inferiority

I’ve been reading Mastery by Robert Greene and I was struck by his call to the apprentice “to revert to a feeling of inferiority” in order to learn all that could be learned. While he is focusing on the apprentice, I think everyone–amateur and professional–should resort to opening their minds to what they don’t know and embracing the wisdom of others.

Often times, I struggle with the negative aspects of inferiority: insecurity, lack of confidence, comparing myself with others. But this is not the inferiority that Greene is describing, which is grounded in humility and curiosity. It is the opening of the mind to new possibilities by not being constrained by the “expert” within.

How are you tapping into the power of inferiority? Are you allowing yourself to view things from the perspective of a child? Or are you embracing the stale methodologies of your past glory?

For me, I am pushing myself to draw more by using a step-by-step book meant for children. In fact, I remember this book from middle school. The adult in me wants to act all high and mighty, but the child inside says, “Whee! This is fun! I love drawing like this!”

This is the power of inferiority. To draw like a child. To enjoy. To learn. To not be trapped in the agony of what is known and what is safe. To play.

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.


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.