Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. David Lynch:
Two completely unrelated things happened this week.
Or are they unrelated?
First. Greece is now edging closer to an exit of no return out of the Euro which seems to be be pulling the entire Europe, nay, the entire planet on a course to macro-economic meltdown of cyberpunk proportions, leaving most of us, wandering a desolate landscape of dystopia in search of scraps fo fried chicken and lama beans.
Second. Two Zimbo’s have packed a Smart Car to drive up into Africa.
Ex-Saatchi Creative Director turned film-maker, Brett Wild, and my long-time Art Director, turned travel writer and photographer (of brightcontinent.co.za -fame) Anton Crone are undertaking the “Smart in Africa” challenge to prove the old Saatchi moniker that nothing, is indeed, impossible.
They are setting out to prove, that life’s problems might seem too big to challenge – when in fact, with ingenuity, any challenge could be overcome.
This is something I feel passionate about too and I will be following the chaps with great interest.
Africa itself, is a continent that has proven, that with scarce resources and plenty of ingenuity, anything could happen. Baby incubators powered by Toyota headlamps come to mind as an example.
And here’s where Greece and the impending Euro implosion comes in: in a world where governments and corporations can no longer provide the means for you to attain wealth, when resources dwindle and the going gets tough, its time for the going to get innovative.
There is no doubt that personal, small-scale ingenuity is going to become extremely important in the next few years.
Initiatives like Smart in Africa are a brilliant example to follow.
This blog has been a tad neglected as my spare time has been eaten up by completing a short story I wanted to put out on the Kindle. In this post, I want to reflect on
a. The importance of self-publishing platforms in the realm of creativity
b. My own experiences with working with the Kindle platform
Before we get into it, here is the title in question.
If you decide to read it, thank you. In itself the story is about my main passion – the power of creativity in every individual. Here is the synopsis:
One Tuesday evening, 143 people find themselves on board a subway train from East Tsim Sha Tsui Station to Central Station on Hong Kong Island. As the train hurtles through the tunnel, a freak power surge causes the lights in the train to flicker in a bizarre, random sequence, inducing epileptic seizures in all 143 passengers. When they wake up, they have all been transformed.
I planned the draft in Literature and Latte’s Scrivener. For long form text, Scrivener is unbeatable. You can divide text up into several layers of nesting and easily move concepts, chapters and sections around. Version control on different sections is also a breeze.
Once I had the basic structure on the cork board, I used iA Writer to write the raw text for the different sections. In this phase of writing, I write really fast, without thinking too much. I just want to get the ideas on the page as quickly as possible. And really, for distraction free writing and simplicity – nothing beats this beautifully designed piece of software. It works on the iPad and on the Mac too and unlike Apple’s own iWork packages, allows you to switch effortlessly from device to device on the same document. Whilst in this phase, I was switching between a MacBook Air (trains, planes and coffee shops), an iMac (at home) and an iPad (bouts of insomnia).
Each time I finished a section, I pulled the text back into Scrivener to populate the cork board.
Once I had a workable draft, I uploaded a version on Google Docs where I had some very good friends helping me with proofing and suggested edits. About five eagle-eyed (I hope!) readers commented and often debated merits of lines of copy in the manuscript. Google Docs’ commenting feature really is amazing for this type of application.
I went through two rounds of crowd sourced proofing. After the first round, I simply pulled the edited Google Doc back into Scrivener and rebuilt a brand new draft with the new copy. With Scrivener’s split pane function, this was pretty easy and really useful to compare versions. In each instance, I backed up .rtf copies of the manuscript in a special folder within the Scrivener project.
Once I had the manuscript done, we got to the hard part. Preparing the text for Kindle.
The way it works is not exactly consumer friendly. Kinde relies heavily on html formatting, so if you are comfortable with markup language you could probably prepare the book file yourself.
To understand how that works, and for deciding on what to include in this length of manuscript, I looked to screen writer John August’s posts on the matter. His post on publishing The Variant was pretty useful.
I decided I wanted a heavily stripped down book file. No table of contents needed (10’000 words only) and no images.
Scrivener itself offers a conversion to the kindle .mobi book file format using the Amazon command line editor (which you have to download – for free – from the Amazon site and then simply tell Scrivener where it is on your drive). In any event, this tutorial was incredibly useful.
I experimented with a few different compilation settings and eventually got to something that seems close to what I wanted.
The actual upload and publishing process could not be simpler. If you already have an Amazon account, you can easily sign up for the KDP programme and get your work out there.
And this is where I get to reflect on the power of this type of platform. In the pre-internet age of publishing, it was pot-luck to publish and achieve success with your work. Now, it will be the power of the market to decide what works and what doesn’t. No talent now needs to remain undiscovered. The only thing you need to have your ideas out there, is an internet connection.
As an experiment, I will also make the story available on Apple’s iBooks store in the coming days. Having just begun to convert the text using the new iBook Author, the differences are already apparent. Apple’s made a very consumer friendly product. What you see is what you get. No weird formats or surprises when you compile.
(If you don’t have access to the Kindle and you’d like to read the story, contact me and I can make an epub version available to you.)
Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.
The author also uses the story of the birth of Apple Computer to explain why the introverted Steve Wozniak was central to the creative power of early Apple.
That may be so, but Wozniak himself admitted that his creations would have been nothing without Steve Jobs being able to connect the dots and making his creations commercially viable.
There is not doubt that introverts in creative companies, the so-called back-room workers, are key to any of those companies’ output (the incredibly shy Charles Saatchi as one example – so shy that he would pretend to be a janitor if he encountered clients in the agency) but it also takes the synthesis of a the connectors to lift ideas into the sphere where execution is possible. And ideas are nothing without embodiment – or execution.
The next interesting quote:
Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. “The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,” Mr. Osborn wrote. “One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets.”
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
In my view great ideas to come from the individual, but groups make them better. That is why brainstorming sessions where teams can work alone before bringing their ideas into a wider network work better. One needs a good understanding of the pro’s and con’s of both individual and group work to get the best out of your teams. Perhaps the author agrees in her conclusion about Steve Wozniak’s time at HP:
Before Mr. Wozniak started Apple, he designed calculators at Hewlett-Packard, a job he loved partly because HP made it easy to chat with his colleagues. Every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., management wheeled in doughnuts and coffee, and people could socialize and swap ideas. What distinguished these interactions was how low-key they were. For Mr. Wozniak, collaboration meant the ability to share a doughnut and a brainwave with his laid-back, poorly dressed colleagues — who minded not a whit when he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done.
Loved this little postulation on thinking:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
- Mary Oliver
(via Harry Kalmer)
Here is Fincher, talking about fame and why it is perilous for him as a director to be recognised:
One of the things I like about being a director is, when your plane is late, you are doing homework. Because you are sitting there in the lounge, listening to people talk. That’s your job. When you become the focus, when people feel like ‘I can’t act like myself, because that’s the guy who did whatever’, all of a sudden you lose an advantage.
Listening to people talk. Or gathering the lego blocks. The hunches. The half-formed insights for future assembly of great new ideas.
I also loved this thought around ego in terms of creativity:
I don’t want to be a Winchell’s Donut. Even if my last name is ‘Winchell’. I want to be able to make something like Zodiac. I mean, shouldn’t your movies, if they are truly personal, change the way you change? Every seven years all of the cells in our bodies change, everything is in this process of evolution; so the notion that the director is a brand–?
Indeed. We are only vessels for ideas to take shape in.
In fact, ego just gets in the way of creation.
Having just finished reading the excellent biography of the late Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, here are the key take-outs on creativity, innovation and purpose that we can gleam from his life and success:
1. Be a generalist
Have an interest in a wide variety of topics. Don’t be afraid to learn new things, even if it just amounts to superficial knowledge. During Jobs’ childhood he took an interest in almost everything that came his way – from organic farming to electronics. This is about filling your bag of building blocks. The more hunches and half-formed notions you have lurking in your subconscious, the more likely you are to make new connections later on.
2. Design and purpose
Design can help illuminate the purpose of anything. When Jonny Ive designed the original iMac he thought about his mum and how he could somebody like her establish a relationship with the computer:
Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared of something then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch. It gives a sense of deference to you.
In an organisation, cross-pollination helps creativity. Jobs recounts that he used to hire people in specific disciplines by also having them talk to specialists in other fields. What was important was getting “A players that wanted to play with other A players.”
He would also regularly take his engineers and design teams to go look at other fields of manufacturing and design to try and expose them to as many different stimuli and inputs as possible.
At Pixar, Jobs also has the office space designed so that people from all different disciplines would continually bump into each other randomly.
4. Purpose is forever
Could this be Jobs himself speaking?
We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products, and it’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control primary technologies behind the products we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.
Answer. Not Steve Jobs. Although it sounds a lot like him. In fact, it was (at the time) stand-in CEO Tim Cook responding to rumours about Jobs’ health. This goes to show that purpose is more enduring than the individual. If purpose is the glue that binds an organisation together, than the organisation is bigger than the sum of its individuals. Because purpose is eternal. Humans aren’t. And most importantly, I personally don’t think purpose can be profit. Profit is a by-product of purpose.
Jobs himself said this about business culture without purpose:
I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company.
5. Innovation is not always about creating but sometimes about synthesis
Steve Jobs was not a designer. Yet he is credited as such. He was not artistic. Or technical. Yet he is credited as the father of the Mac. In his analysis, Isaacson says:
He didn’t invent many things outright, but he was a master at putting together ideas, art and technology in ways that invented the future.
Sound pretty ingenius to me.
Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. He was indeed, an example of what the mathetician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.
Immense ingenuity can come from anyone who takes a broad interest in life and everything in it, allows their intuition to make random connection between a wide range of stimuli and who then have the courage to go beyond idea to execution.
By being able to allow hunches, interests, intuition and inputs from everywhere to freely flow through his mind, coupled with a steely will, he was able to launch a series of products over 30 years that had completely transformed whole industries. From the Mac to the iPod, the iPhone to iTunes all the way to digital animation with cross-age appeal, Steve Jobs was the Da Vinci of our time.
This is what he said about his own driving force:
What drove me? I think the most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language of mathematics I use. I make little of my own food. None of my own clothes.
Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the way that most of us know how – because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.
A touching, straightforward film about a very special employee at Droga5, Sydney.