Pattern Minded

My happy place is an art studio where all of the items have their own section.

I love to draw. Ever since I can remember I’ve created doodles, pictures, paintings, and other kinds of art. And it generally comes naturally to me – the kind of skill that other people call “artistic” and that I call “just drawing” – until it doesn’t.

I’m not sure what this gap feels like to people who don’t draw, so I’ll try to describe it in terms most people find easy to understand: imposter syndrome. When I don’t “feel” like drawing, I come up with every excuse to avoid that practice. I stay away from art materials and all of those wonderful colors. I stop drawing because there’s no chance of messing up.

That’s really not fun. Sometimes it has lasted for years. I am not sure of the first time I had this feeling but I would guess it happened when I enrolled in a Ph.D program in History instead of renting an Art Studio and drawing for a living. Maybe not drawing was a good thing, though.

If I hadn’t taken a break from drawing I would have spent much less time with computers. I might have missed out on learning to program. I might also have not engaged with new technologies like mobile and social and local commerce.

I am drawing again.

 It doesn’t take much to get started again on drawing. Just a little bit of time.
The hack that got me going again? Repetition. Small pictures. Doodling. Pretending “this drawing doesn’t matter.” Because the real benefit to creating and writing about it is a pattern itself – the self-reinforcing loop that happens when you make stuff, and look back later to see whether it’s good – and its absence is an anti-pattern.

So if you see me stop drawing, ask me to draw you something. Give me a commission. It doesn’t need to be paid, and it can be just enough to give me an idea. Making art pays off for me in many more areas of my life than the artwork I create. That process of making is a pattern that leads me to a place where I build amazing things. 

Why I wish Jelly were more like whiteboarding

Jelly Collage, (photo by Mashable)
Jelly Collage, (photo by Mashable)

You may have heard of the new app Jelly – it’s a simple idea, really – that people would rather share questions with each other through pictures and then use those pictures to elicit discussion. Find answer to important things, the pictures say, and help your friends solve their problems and answer their difficult questions. (Or perhaps their more juvenile ones. But I digress).

I think the folks at Jelly are on to something interesting, and I wish they had extended their idea to include the kind of sustained noodling one does at a whiteboard. Let it be said that I love whiteboarding. There is maybe nothing more interesting than standing up at a whiteboard and working through the confines of an idea visually, perhaps drawing and redrawing an idea until it becomes reality. When you’re done with a whiteboard session you can literally see the ideas falling off of the wall, made whole by a process of drawing, erasing, and ideating. So I wish Jelly worked more like a whiteboard.

What do I mean when I suggest that a question interaction be more fluid? For starters, I love the ability that Jelly promotes to draw on a photo using a stylus. This is nifty and allows for a lot of creativity. It’s also really hard to draw with your fingertips on a phone screen with any kind of fidelity. What if you could pinch zoom the photo and start drawing in a higher fidelity. What if you could string some of these Jelly “tiles” together into a kind of mosaic? And what if you could lead people in a “choose your own adventure”-style conversation through multiple tiles? You can start doing some of this today, but there isn’t really a narrative yet in a single question and answer format.

It’s clear that the folks behind Jelly didn’t make the medium for storytelling, or really for serious conversation (yet). The idea of long-form storytelling, or even the art of asking a good question that requires some exposition to solve, demands a bit more resolution. What if there were a place to share bigger images that acted more like a whiteboard and gave people the opportunity to make mini-canvases. I’d certainly like to see the whiteboarded solutions to many problems in the style and colors people would use if they were having an animated conversation and interaction in the same room.

Yes, you say, there’s no real need for this – we’ve got web conferencing, and we all know how engaging that can be sometimes (ew). But I think there’s something more here. Jelly points at a need for human storytelling, and I think that the combination of this idea with a tablet, smartboard, or another kind of stylus will soon make it easier to collaborate on remote whiteboard drawings at the same time and not have it feel laggy or dumb. At the end of the day it’s just drawing pictures.

Starting from the empty page.

A blank page is a prison and the ultimate freedom. When the paper is blank there are no constraints. Anything can happen and a masterpiece feels (tantalizingly) within reach. Yet making the first line is the most important line because without making a line, your drawing goes nowhere. But you have to act because if you don’t make a line there’s no drawing.

Mixed Media Drawing by Greg Meyer
Mixed Media Drawing by Greg Meyer

You hold your breath and put pencil to paper. And then immediately feel the feedback of a great beginning or one that isn’t so great. And then the creation gets easier. It becomes possible to make more lines in the company of the ones you put there first. And refining the existing lines get easier because you can define them in relation to other lines on the paper.

But all is not perfect. Because when you erase the lines or refashion them you can see the echoes of what went before. The drawing gets an inevitable style and it starts to feel like it has your signature. It might be your best work yet. Or maybe not – because you can’t look back at your progress and see it yet.

Working on a startup is like making that first drawing on an that empty page. Some days it feels effortless to draw a new thing into being and on other days it’s the hardest thing in the world to spend the time drawing on your business canvas the way you know you should. Yet you keep going. On the best days, the feeling is incredible.

The solution to balancing out more of the ups and downs of of startup life? Practicing simple, mindful things that make a difference is never a bad way to start a day. What were the most important lines that I drew yesterday that I need to connect to others today? What shapes are not on my canvas yet that need to be there? Who should I ask for feedback to know if the drawing I’m making is similar to the one that they are expecting.

Drawing and business are not dissimilar – they both draw from a creative resource that’s not there every day. But creativity is not a zero sum game. Place creative people in the same room and suddenly there is geometric or exponential growth, creating amazing things out of raw materials. And sharing those drawings with a small and ever-widening circle of people is a frightening, intense, incredible experience that forces you to accept the drawing for what it is: a drawing. And then you can go back to the canvas and try again to make the same drawing a little better by incorporating what you learned yesterday.

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