43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

The Problem with “Feeling Creative”

If your mall's bookstores look anything like mine (and it's probably safe to assume that they do), you'll find numerous sections devoted to helping writers, painters, musicians, and other aspiring artists to become successful in one way or another. There are books chock full of tips on finding an agent, on painting like the masters, and on composing and selling a hit song.

There are also dozens of books on "creativity" itself. Guides that are meant to help you access and unlock the artist within and to see the world in more creative ways. How to "be" creative, how to generate ideas, and how to learn to think "laterally."

Some of these books are just terrific, many are atrocious, and, at least in my anecdotal experience, only a handful challenge their readers with a fundamentally unmarketable premise:

Creative work only seems like a magic trick to people who don't understand that it's ultimately still work.

Bad for Business

But, let's be honest. This is a tough idea to sell to folks with "real jobs" who are just looking for a diverting bit of creative tourism or who find themselves yearning for a nostalgic amble past a mostly-abandoned adolescent arts hobby. People who want to learn how to feel creative. To feel successful. To feel like an artist. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

My sense, though, is that for most people who repeatedly do (and sell) creative work, this all seems a bit like wanting to feel like a world-class athlete. Because "feeling creative" produces great work in approximately the same way that "feeling like a doctor" makes you a gifted thoracic surgeon.

Let's Talk About My Feelings

The athlete got good not by reading reviews of headbands, but by waking up early, lacing shoes in the dark, and hitting the track to train hard. While the surgeon got good not by watching reruns of Trapper John, M.D., but by slogging through medical school, residencies, and hundreds of hours of face time with patients, colleagues, and mentors. "Feeling" had nothing to do with it.

But is it fair to compare creative work with physical and mental achievement? Having strong legs and support from a young age helped the athlete, and any aspiring doctor who couldn't pass 10th grade Biology is likely headed for a career outside the surgical theater. But, what about artistic "gifts?" And "talent?"

The Labored Metaphor About Mineral Mining

Even (or especially) for people with a notional gift for their chosen field, talent — like luck, rich parents, and unmined gold — is just a raw material. It's not the one-bit switch that determines artistic success. And, any "talent" one theoretically possesses is likely to stay stuck under a layer of river rock unless and until its claim-holder learns to repeatedly pan, sluice, or dredge it into something that can be refined, polished, and, in most cases, vended. Fancy ladies buy gold jewelry; not drawings of mining equipment.

Still, unlike metaphorical mining, it's rare for any artist who "strikes it rich" once to simply stop working. That's not how the temperament operates. You slake a thirst for creating by finishing projects, then finding new ones. Again and again.

It's this ability to create a long-lived career in creative fields that's gotten me wondering about design patterns. And, it's also apparently the topic I'll be standing in front of a bunch of people, trying to figure out, next Friday at my Macworld PULSE session. Oh, yeah. That's right. I'm doing a presentation in seven days, aren't I? Hm.

Right. Macworld Presentation. Check.

Anyhoo, I'm working on the talk right now (and for poor Paul Kent's sake, let's agree that it's "mostly done"). I expect I'll report back soon as the talk develops (or, for poor Paul Kent's sake, as it "gets one final bit of polish"). I haven't decided whether the whole thing is just a terrible idea to begin with, but I guess we'll find out in a few days.

Here's what the proposal looked like late last summer:

Toward Design Patterns for Creativity

"Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem in such a way that you could use this solution a million times over without doing it the same way twice." -- Christopher Alexander, 1977.

For over 30 years, "Design Patterns" have been been used by architects, designers, and software engineers to share useful ways in which the recurring problems of their fields can be identified and solved. By documenting and categorizing the things that "tend to work" within a given context (and within a given set of constraints), individual patterns can provide the basis for a pattern language that encourages flexible problem-solving that discourages the costly and time-consuming tendency to reinvent the wheel.

This presentation addresses the opportunities and challenges around developing design patterns for creativity. Is creativity simply an innate ability that one either has or lacks? Or, are there demonstrated habits, practices, and approaches to one's work that tend to help produce more consistent output (along with a more healthy and long-lived career for the creator)? Are there environmental and cognitive changes that can improve the quality of our work? Ultimately, could patterns for creativity help us learn to stop relying on an unreliable muse to inspire (and complete) the work that matters to us?

We'll look at the common myths of creativity and talk about ways in which the hard work of making anything might be improved by the application of patterns that have been shown to work for artists, writers, and makers of all sorts. We'll also address some of the ways in which OS X applications might be used to apply and support patterns for creativity at the point of implementation.

Wow. That's pretty ambitious for a 20-minute talk about a topic I don't really understand, isn't it?

All Downhill from Here

Well. If you're going to Macworld, do stop by and say hi. I'll be at PULSE and in a few other places that I'll announce soon, but I should be pretty easy to spot. I look like this and am easy to recognize as the middle-aged man with the amazingly polished presentation about design patterns. And a giant tote bag full of unintentional irony. As usual.

Yep. Pretty much just dotting i's and crossing t's at this point, Paul.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »