From the category archives:


Make Something Day

by Matt Blair on November 27, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

Whether you are a celebrant in the tradition of Black Friday or a participant/non-participant in Buy Nothing Day, the day after Thanksgiving has become its own kind of holiday for many Americans.

Choosing between those two is a false choice, and I’d like to propose another option: “Make Something Day”.

Or maybe “Start to Make Something Day” would be more accurate, though more awkward.

Starting with Soap and Stone

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. Earlier in my life, I had a brief career as a soap carver. I’m not sure of my age exactly. I think I was 9.

I do remember it was around the time I realized that demand for my painted rock business was unlikely to return to its peak:

Hey, Kid! Your Florida's pointing the wrong way!

Hey, Kid! Your Florida is pointing the wrong way!

Business lesson #1: Supportive parents buying one unit of output per year is not a viable market.

I needed another outlet for creativity, and found it in soap.

I only remember creating one major work in this more-forgiving medium, and it was a nativity set for my grandparents:

I think those concave abdomens indicate wise men with gifts?

I think those concave abdomens indicate...wise men with gifts?

Though I remember spending a lot of time carving that year, it was just childhood whimsy, and I was soon off to the next thing — digging holes in the backyard, or whatever.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these little figurines meant a lot to my grandparents: they proudly put them on display every December, told their friends stories about them, then carefully wrapped each piece in tissue paper and stored them away for eleven months. (Luckily, I had the foresight to use a collapsible crib design.)

Decades later, the set is still in the family, unlike countless factory-made gifts that were tossed long ago.

And let me say “Bravo!” to Dial and Ivory for making archival-quality sculpting soap! What’s in that stuff!? Oh, wait — I probably don’t want to know.

More than Atoms

Handmade gifts are not just an economic ruse, a way to escape the madness of the shopping mall or an end-run on rampant materialism.

When you give something you’ve made, you aren’t just giving a physical gift. Atoms are abundant. The universe is filled with them. In terms of what any one of us as individuals can consume, they might as well be infinite.

To make a gift is to bundle up the most precious resources we have – attention, thoughtfulness and time — and put a bow on top.

The medium you choose is immaterial.

For whom?

Think of these creative gifts as imaginary commissions made to please unsuspecting patrons. Audience expectations and reactions may play a larger role here than in your other creative work. Making a gift is a chance to put your empathy cap on, and think more about what another person enjoys than what you enjoy.

Challenge yourself to try new styles and dabble in different aesthetics. For example, when I’m writing poetry, I’m rarely inclined towards traditional rhyming structures, but for many people “it ain’t a poem if it don’t rhyme” so a handful of limericks or rhymed couplets are good choices.

It’s still self-expression, just crafted into a form that connects creator and audience in a direct way. Depending on the way you handle your relationship with your audience in the rest of your work, that may feel like an awkward compromise, or it could feel revitalizing and authentic.


Have you ever gotten a gift made just for you? Was it something you liked? Did it feel meaningful at that moment? Did that change over time? Did it make you feel like the other person understands who you are?

If someone was going to do this exercise and create a gift for you, what would you like to receive? Do others know what you’d like? Do you give those around you enough clues or hints to guess?


Pick at least one person this holiday season and make something as a gift rather than buying them one.

There are two goals:

  1. To finish a specific project for a specific person (or group) on a specific occasion.
  2. To stretch beyond your creative comfort zone and express yourself in uncharacteristic ways.

The process I suggest:

  • Often the most creative — and difficult — part is thinking of something that truly engages your audience of one. (Remember: You are not the audience!) Set some time aside to think about the person, and come up with at least ten or fifteen ideas for gift projects. Set them aside for a day or a week.
  • Make a list of techniques that are a little unfamiliar or awkward, or that you’ve wanted to learn but aren’t comfortable with — especially if you are an accomplished artist. Why? Machines make perfect and predictable things. Humans make idiosyncratic and imperfect and complex things. As Gretchen Rubin recently put it: “Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.”
  • Come back to to your ideas, match them to some of the techniques you listed, and make it happen.

One more tip: Because of the uncertainties involved, I sometimes work on two or three ideas in parallel, just in case one of them completely collapses in on itself. If, for example, you discover that your Florida is facing the wrong way after the paint dries.

It’s been awhile since I’ve used the exercise format on this blog, and I have to admit, my own first reaction is to think: “Wait a minute, who am I to tell readers what to do?” It is a change in tone. If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read past exercises. And if you do undertake a gift-making project, please let me know how it works out.

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For many modern-day visitors to Egypt, Abu Simbel is an out-of-the-way excursion, an option at the end of the itinerary. Down near the border with Sudan, and much smaller than most of the high-traffic historical sites in Egypt, it is an afterthought.

Just another postcard:

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel Postcard

But what if it is approached from the south, as humans have approached it for millennia? Or as part of a 14,000 km walk across the continent?

“Alexandre and Sonia Poussin undertake to walk the length of Africa entirely on foot, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee. In a three-year trek along the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, their goal is to symbolically retrace the passage of early Man, from Australopithecus to Modern Man.”

After spending three weeks making their way through the deserts of northern Sudan towards Egypt, Alexandre said Abu Simbel seemed “huge and egoistic”, like an announcement that you’ve reached the beginning of civilization.

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Clambering up a fallen facade

So which is it? Just another set of statues at the end of the postcard deck?

Or a still-standing Ozymandias?

The order of our experiences, the precise sequence of where we’ve been and what we’ve observed, profoundly shapes our perceptions of our surroundings in the present moment.

When I heard Alexandre describe Abu Simbel that way last fall, it reminded me of a walk I had taken through the woods in Virginia several years earlier.

I was visiting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville. After buying a ticket next to the parking lot, visitors have a choice: take a bus up to the house, or walk up a gently sloping path. I took one look at the crowded line for the bus, and headed for the forest.

As I walked, I looked at the trees, the trail, the changing October leaves, and wondered how it all might have changed since Jefferson — or Sally Hemings, for that matter — walked nearby two centuries ago.

More poignantly, when approaching Monticello from the forest you pass the graveyard first, well before the house is in sight. Jefferson’s gravestone provides a concise outline of how he viewed the accomplishments of his own life:

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson (Sorry for the bad photo...)

I continued walking past the main lawn and the gardens, and rounded the front of the house to join the line for the tour. I listened to the chatter of those who had taken the bus to the top as they debated how long Jefferson had been president, and when, or which denominations of money featured his face.

Within the house at Monticello, the tour guides focused on Jefferson’s massive library, his incessant architectural tinkering, the specimens  Lewis And Clark sent him from their expedition, his prodigious correspondence, his wine collection, his agricultural experimentation, his massive debts, and, of course, his eight years as president.

I listened and absorbed all the historical details with my usual level of curiosity, but also through a more reflective frame: Before starting the tour, I had already seen how it ended, from Jefferson’s perspective.


Have you had the chance to approach an historic site or a work of art from multiple directions?  How was each approach different?

Do particular pieces of art imply a certain approach?  How is the work strengthened or weakened by arriving from another direction?

Think about the way paths are constructed in museums.  What can you glimpse from the outside? From the lobby?  From one gallery to the next?

Where does the ‘art experience’ start? How have the museum’s designers managed the transition from street to art? How does the sound environment change? The temperature? The lighting?

How would it be different if you came up an elevator from a parking garage instead of through the front entrance?


Find a place or work of art that can be approached by multiple paths, and take each.

Experience the same place or idea coming from these distinct perspectives, and make note of the differences.

A path could be a physical approach — the way you move towards something.

Or it could be a contextual approach: go to a gallery or a museum exhibit that you don’t know anything about. Note the experience. Then go study the historical and cultural context, and return.

Or it could be imagining a new path to a place you’ve already visited: Did the existing path enhance or detract from your experience of that place? If you were asked to redesign the approach, how would you do so?  What elements would you preserve and what would you change? What mindset would you try to create for visitors?


Ears Wide Open

by Matt Blair on May 31, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

Learning to think and craft ideas, and to creatively express ourselves, is a contribution to our community and a way of participating in the conversation of culture.

That conversation is multi-directional: Developing appreciation for ideas and stories and experiences of other people, and the ability to pay detailed attention to them, are intrinsic to creativity.

For the pragmatists, yes, there are benefits: the ideas of others are nutrients to plow into your creative fields, and nourish the seeds of your own ideas.

But silence, observation and listening have their own rewards.


As creators, we are used to thinking of audience as a kind of target: who will see this or hear this, and who won’t? What are we trying to communicate, and to whom? Audience is that set of people we’d like to enthrall with our performance or ideas.

When we go to a gallery or a performance by other artists, we think of ourselves as members of their audience.

But audience has a meaning beyond groups of people. Its roots in the romance languages are the same as those for the word audible, and relate to hearing and listening. Audience isn’t merely a group you focus on or join, it is something you can give — the gift of your attention.

Giving an audience might bring to mind antiquated notions of royalty, of a higher class deigning to a lower one. Forget that association, or, even better, reverse it: in a world with so many stimuli clamoring for our attention, paying attention is an act of elevation.

If creative expression is a mix of thinking, exploring, articulating, crafting, presenting, sharing, and storytelling, the flip side of that process is listening, observing and absorbing.

The final exercise for May: Make space in your life to behold and appreciate the lives and stories of those around you.

Put down your pen, don’t go to the studio, don’t click the shutter on your camera, don’t put a fresh canvas on the easel.

Set your ideas aside for a little bit, get out of your own head, and let someone else fill it up for a while.

A Few Tips for Listening

Don’t judge, or wear your own opinions on your sleeve. You often learn more about a person if you are open and receptive, rather than framing the conversation with strong statements about who you are or what you do or don’t believe.

Focus on the details — in the moment. Don’t get caught up in taking notes, or thinking about your next piece, or thinking of their words in some other goal-oriented context. Leave your own projects and plans for another time. Listen without pre-text. Notice their cadence and emphasis: What catches their throat? What brings out a gleam in their eyes? What makes their eyelids flutter?

Don’t anticipate or interpolate. Don’t fill in the blanks and assume you know what you don’t know. Ask questions carefully — if at all.

Be patient. Don’t rush the other person. Part of making space is also making time.

Let silences happen. Let the other person unfold the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them. The best parts often come after pauses.

Practice empathy. Listen to understand another person’s perspective, not reinforce your own.

Show reverence. Both verbally and non-verbally, let them know you appreciate their time, and their sharing their life with you.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read past exercises.


In the northern hemisphere, the summer travel season is upon us. In addition to thinking about sight-seeing and noshing over the next few months, I want to encourage you to go here-hearing, place-touching and site-smelling.

That may sound a bit glib and silly, not only because of the wordplay and alliteration, but because it isn’t how we typically think of travel.

When people return from a voyage, they talk about the places they went, the people they met and the conversations they had. In terms of making sense memories, they may have lots of photos and videos, and tales of food and drink, from the fantastic to the horrific and everything in between.

Sound, touch and smell are often minor characters in the story. Maybe they took note of the smell of a particular flower, or the roar of a waterfall.

But did they touch anything they couldn’t have touched locally?  Did they hear anything they’d never heard of before? Was there a smell they hadn’t encountered anywhere else?

Like a Small, Insistent Earthquake

About ten years ago, I booked a ferry from Stockholm to Turku, Finland. I was expecting a modest little boat for the overnight journey, and was astonished to arrive at the port and see what was essentially a cruise ship looming a dozen stories above the water.

As we boarded, I noticed many of my fellow passengers with folded-up carts and large empty bags were all rushing in the same direction. Curious, I followed the clamor, careful not to get trampled. So much for Scandinavian reserve.

After several twists and turns, I rounded a corner, and ran into a store teeming with activity: Ah. Booze. Now it made sense.

I remembered reading somewhere that the ferries were popular day-trips or night-trips for those buying duty-free alcohol, because the taxes on both sides of the Baltic were so high.

As I turned to leave, the engines engaged, pushing the ferry away from the dock. The massive ship shuddered at the force required to overcome its inertia, and all the bottles began to clink softly against each other.

I entered the store and tiptoed as quietly as I could through the aisles, listening to the highs and lows of the bottles delicately tinkling amid the din of alcohol purchases. Imagine being in a wine shop or liquor store during a mild but continuous earthquake, with thousands of glass bottles barely touching one another.

It lasted several minutes, and it remains one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.

Nose and Skin

To retrieve scent memories, I have to think a little more deeply. Here are two examples:

  • The aroma of olive oil extraction that fills the countryside in Andalucía, Spain in mid-winter.
  • The incense-infused wood in the Todaiji temple in Nara. I went there at least a dozen times while living in Japan, and every time, in every season, I was captivated as soon as I stepped over the threshold.

I really had to scratch my head to come up with a touch memory — I guess I need to pay closer attention to storing tactile sensations in the future! Here’s one:

I used to climb the hill behind the apartment building where I lived on the edge of the sprawl surrounding Osaka, Japan. The hill faced the west, and much of the trail was in the sun, but there was one little pocket about halfway to the top that didn’t seem to get any sun at any time of day. There was nothing visually distinct about this part of the trail, but the quality of the air was entirely different: fresh and dramatically cooler.

I always looked forward to that spot, especially in the heat of July and August. Better than any air-conditioning!


Before your next trip, get a pocket notebook. Divide it into three sections, however you like: Sound, Smell and Touch.

Even if you don’t have any travel plans, try doing this exercise on walks around your neighborhood or even the clothing aisles of a local mall. Seek remarkable sensations all around you, even in seemingly unremarkable places.

Every time you take a photo, sip a drink or munch a snack, make a point of entering something in each of these sense categories in your notebook.

Try to get in the habit of reaching for this notebook when you smell something or touch something interesting, in the same habitual way you might reach for your camera.

Describe the sensations in anyway you like: just tune in and capture it in some way.

(I’m a big fan of traveling with audio recorders, but for the purposes of this exercise, I want to encourage you to be in the moment, so please listen with your ears, not your microphone!)

And when you return, give your memories of these sensations top billing in the stories you tell: “You won’t believe what I touched this summer…”



Home Made Pumpkin Pie

“If you don’t need a new technique, then what you’re saying probably isn’t new…” — Philip Glass

I like pumpkin pies. A lot.

Over the years, I’ve baked a lot of them, trying nearly every recipe I can find, and I’ve been intrigued by the variations.

I remember one recipe that didn’t mention turning the oven on until after you’ve already put the pie filling together.

Pumpkin Pie in progress

Measuring is important, too (via marymactavish on Flickr)

Others merely list ingredients, followed by terse commands to mix and bake.

Of course, some recipes — especially the older ones — make assumptions about what ‘every homemaker’ should know about cooking and baking. Such stereotypes about audience are a topic for another time…

The recipes I’m drawn to carefully explain the steps: mix the sugar and spices first, then beat the eggs, add the pumpkin, stir in the dry ingredients, and slowly adding the evaporated milk, until everything is well-blended — but not whipped.

That’s the process I prefer. I’ve learned that without following the right order, you can end up with a mess of nutmeg clumps and unblended eggs.

Pumpkin pie shouldn’t be chunky.

Sequence matters.

After working with the same materials, in the same medium, for years, we have developed skills, and patterns and habits.  Many of them are good habits.  We are so used to our standard sequence that it becomes difficult to imagine other ways of doing it.

I would never do this, for example:

recipe #2

But maybe I should try it?

If you are creative in your work, why not re-create how you work from time to time?  Or at least try other ways, to gain a new perspective on why the methods you prefer actually work?


What sequences in your creative work are assumed or automatic? Which change the most from project to project?

When was the last time you had a major change in your process? What caused that change? Was it voluntary?  How long did it take to feel comfortable with the new change?

What’s the most inviolable part of your process? Do you preserve it for practical reasons?

If you had to leave any step out, what would it be? What if you had to leave two steps out?


On a single sheet of paper, make a flow chart of how you plan to turn your next creative idea into a project. This should be a linear map, from A to Z, from starting idea to end result, that shows every action you will take.

Next, write each step down on an index card, and stack them in order.  Go through the stack, and put a number on the back of each card to indicate the original order.

While looking at the numbered side, shuffle the cards.

Flip them over, and go through the new sequence. Identify any truly absurd or impossible series of steps.

For example, putting the raw eggs and bottles of spices directly in the oven is not going to make a better pie, and we can guess that without running an experiment.  Negotiate a little bit around the physical impossibilities, but don’t go too far with it.

Once obviously bad sequences have been eliminated, go through the new order step by step. Examine each transition. Could this re-ordering reshape your work in a useful or interesting way? Why or why not?

What does it tell you about the way you’ve been working? Does it suggest any experiments worth testing in your next project?

The point of this exercise isn’t necessarily to change the way you work permanently, but simply to encourage you to examine why you work the way you do, and at hint at some alternatives.

Be really honest about the possibilities, and if anything even slightly piques your curiosity, try it, and please share what you learn!

If you liked this one, I invite you to read the rest of the exercises on this site. I’ve been posting one a week through the month of May.


Larger Than Life

by Matt Blair on May 12, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Perception



That’s probably all you need to get a particular music theme in your head.

It is a pattern found all around us, from the way we knock on doors to the way advertisers frame the ominous.  It might be one of the most recognized and over-exposed musical phrases in history.

The source? The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor.

To my ear, the loveliest and most under-stated presentation of that musical idea comes at the end of the third movement of that symphony:  Most of the orchestra has fallen silent, while the strings gently pluck a flattened version of the theme. And then it is reduced to a simple pulse played on timpani — one of the first moments in the Western “art music” tradition when percussion carries the main theme.

From there, the orchestra slowly reassembles around that insistent beat, mustering the bombast of the opening of the fourth movement.

It is an extraordinary moment, more than 20 minutes into the piece.

But how often do we get that far?

Daily life keeps us busy.  We’ve all heard that theme dozens or hundreds of times. The initial notes enter our ears, and, if only subconsciously, we think: Yep, I’ve heard that.

Now that I’ve pointed it out, there’s nothing to stop you from going directly to that part of the third movement on a CD or an iPod and listening to the transition.

And there’s the problem: that’s akin to walking into a concert hall with a full orchestra, asking them to pick it up 80 bars before the end of the third movement, and then disrupting them after a few minutes with a “Thank you, that’s enough.”

Described that way, it is absurd. But that’s how we so often treat great music and great ideas.

And by we, I mean me, too! I’m not saying it is easy. Even listening to the Fifth while writing this post, I cheated and started at the beginning of the third movement.  Sorry, Ludwig: You and I both deserve better.

There is an inherent beauty to this passage of the symphony, but what makes it profound is the twenty or so minutes that precede it.

If we encounter the passage as a 30-second excerpt, underscoring a particular emotion in a film, or by starting up the car after an hour shopping for shirts, we have an entirely different experience.

Art, Squeezed Into Life

We tend to connect with art that fits within our hectic and idea-saturated lives.

At 227 minutes long, “Lawrence of Arabia” sits gathering dust as we plow through shorter films in the Netflix queue. The Salman Rushdie novel that makes us wish we knew more about the Partition of Pakistan and India gets postponed, half-read.  Self-appointed critics describe a seven-minute pop song as “artistic self-indulgence”.

I’ve noticed that YouTube has warped my perception of short films: When watching something online, my hand rarely leaves the mouse. Barely thirty seconds in, I find myself grumbling: “If this doesn’t get interesting in the next 10 seconds, I’m on to the next thing.”

That’s not a disaster for most of the trifles on YouTube, but what if I subconsciously transfer that same sensibility to other experiences of art or music or film — or even human interaction?

The experience of beauty often requires sustained attention, physical expanse, perception of nuance and deep thinking.

When we “don’t have time” for such experiences, we will have less beauty and awe and inspiration in our lives.

Meeting Claudio

When I was eighteen, I had a chance to hear Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” performed on 17th-century instruments.

I had never been to an opera. I had never even listened to a single act of one, let alone a whole work. How long would it be? Would I get bored? Was it worth the time?

I went, and was enthralled from the first note. Monteverdi remains one of my favorite composers to this day. How much later in my life would I have discovered that music if I hadn’t gone that night?

We don’t have time for such experiences every day.

All I’m saying is give 220-minute-long Italian Baroque operas — or something like them — a chance.


Clear some space in your schedule for a big idea or big art. Set aside the time, make a date, and go to a specific place, if needed, to experience the enormous, however you define that.

Choose something you don’t typically have time to enjoy and absorb, and that you think might be humbling and awe-inspiring. It could be:

  • Something physically or sensually larger than you, like standing in the middle of a redwood forest.
  • Something on a timescale outside your everyday experience — like “Lawrence of Arabia”.
  • A complicated idea that requires intricate thinking and focused attention.

Seemingly small ideas and experiences can become enormous in our heads. An Emily Dickinson poem may seem small, but if it expands in your mind and occupies your thoughts for days or weeks, its import and impact could be enormous. Give yourself time to let a small idea grow in your mind.

The amount of our time and energy attracted to an idea is a much better measure of its size than word counts, duration, or physical measurements. The critical ingredients are time and the ability to focus.


  • How was this experience different from your typical day-to-day encounters with art and ideas?
  • Was it worth devoting the time to it?  Was it worth whatever hassle you had to go through to make the time in your schedule?
  • Will you do it again?  How often?


Twenty Ways

by Matt Blair on May 5, 2009

in Exercises

Since I first read Steve Pavlina’s article “20 Ways to Improve” a couple years ago, I’ve made a habit of doing this exercise a few times a month as a way to continually re-assess what I should be working on and thinking about in my life, or in relation to my current projects.

Here is Steve’s intro:

“A simple yet powerful idea I learned from Earl Nightingale is to grab a blank piece of paper (or a blank computer screen) and brainstorm a list of 20 ways to improve. You can write down anything — ways to increase your income, improve your health, better your relationships, etc. The focus is on generating ideas to make your life better.”

Re-reading his article recently, I realized that I have interpreted the approach and intent a little differently to suit my own ways of thinking and working.

Subtle Tweaks

In his article, Steve says the exercise may take 30-60 minutes, but I rarely spend more than 10 minutes on it. I think Steve and I are generating different kinds of ideas, at different levels of detail. I try to come up with them as quickly as I can. Each one is a single sentence or maybe even just a phrase, and I try to write without thinking or pondering or editing too much. For me, the exercise is a way to get out of a contemplative or analytic mindset, and tap into my intuition.

I start by putting twenty dashes on the paper or in the editor on my computer, so I can quickly see how many I have left to go without counting.

The first dozen or so ideas usually come easy. I always seem to run out of steam at about sixteen. That is the moment to keep going! Often the most interesting and unexpected ideas appear after the easy ones, when I’m fidgeting and squirming and trying to convince myself that sixteen is good enough.

In Steve’s framing, the scope is life in general, but this exercise applies just as well to specific projects or areas of life. If it seems daunting to think about twenty ways to improve your whole life, start with a specific topic or project, or a challenge you are facing.


I keep all my lists in a single folder, so that I can go back and compare my newest lists to those I wrote a month or a year ago.  What keeps coming up?

I regularly review these lists to look for patterns, and summarize what I find: What items or themes keep coming up again and again? Are these areas where I need to focus? Or, more importantly, are there things on the list that I have been nagging myself about for months that, with time, I can see just aren’t that important after all?

For example, I had one item that kept surfacing in different forms for over a year, related to a new system of organizing notes and drafts for writing projects. Looking back on it now, I was actually fairly functional without trying such a system, and was hesitant to start work on the new system because of the time it would take and the disruption it would entail.

The consistent self-hectoring wasn’t providing any benefit to me. By writing it down and externalizing, I was able to see just how much it was bothering me, move it to the “someday I’ll work on this” list, and get on with my work with one less worry on my mind.

One final review tip: Don’t look at previous lists until after you have finished the current one.  I’ve found that if I review first, I’m inclined to think that something that was on a previous list should be on this list. If I haven’t done it yet, how can I leave it off? The goal of the list is to find out what you think you need to do today, in the current moment.

Beyond Improvements

When I was in elementary school, our report cards had three kinds of grades:

  • S: Satisfactory
  • U: Unsatisfactory
  • NI: Needs Improvement

Steve’s exercise is focused on the NI or the U categories: the parts of your life (or project, etc.) that aren’t quite working and need attention. This bias can make completing the exercise regularly feel sort of like continually getting a report card with all NI’s on it: You aren’t doing well, and you better pick it up, or you’re going to fail!

Running yourself down is not the point of the exercise, so I think it makes sense to offset the list of improvements with a list of twenty things you have already improved or that are going well. Spend time coming up with an equal number of items in the “Satisfactory” or “Much Better” categories, and make note of your accomplishments as well as what you could improve.


It takes an instant to have a thought, a few seconds more to cast it into words or symbols, a few seconds after that to admire it or refute it or disregard it. My mind makes a quick set of clarifications, and then I have a decision: Is this idea a keeper?

I’m in the middle of washing dishes — suds to the elbows.

Rinse off the soap. Turn off the water. Dry my hands. (Ten seconds.)

I fumble for a pen and index card (a second or two) or find a clean page in a notebook (another three seconds) or go to the computer, wake it up, flip to the right window (add ten seconds), then page back through my memory to extract the idea, including all the refinements my subconscious has made while I was preoccupied with the mechanics of my “capture” technology.

I write it, save it, put it somewhere that matters, and that thought is saved — for a little while, anyway.

But what was the cost of all that?  In time and energy? Forty seconds? Ninety seconds? Four minutes? Was it worth it?

Once I’ve scribbled an idea down, has this minor investment created an implied obligation towards this nascent idea: to transcribe it, put it in a system, review it, edit it, and connect it to everything else I’m thinking about at the moment?

Have I made a deposit in the bank of big ideas? Or have I incurred a debt that I’ll have to pay back? Can accumulating ideas leave us with more liabilities than assets?

Can you tell it is tax season by the financial metaphors?

Opportunity Cost

We often have our best ideas in the most inconvenient places or at the most inconvenient times.

Choosing which ones to capture is an editorial act — the initial edit. And this initial edit is the most essential, because each moment we spend on one idea is a moment that can’t be spent on other ideas or other projects, washing the dishes or listening to friends or living our lives.

Time and attention are the rarest ingredients of the creative process. Our use of them deserves the most thought, the most practice, the most consideration, and the most care.

We are finite. We can’t follow every idea to fruition. We have to let some thoughts go.

How do we decide which ones?


  • How do you decide which ideas to write down or capture and which to let go? Does your approach consciously and deliberately change, depending on what you are working on?  Or is it more circumstantial?
  • Do you find yourself running out of new material to work on?
  • What tools do you use to capture emerging ideas? Do these fit well with your creative process? Are you able to keep up with ideas as you have them?
  • How many ideas or sprouts of ideas do you have laying around on index cards or in notebooks or emails? Do you have a backlog? Do you feel any pressure or obligation to do something with them?


  1. Spend a day or two recording absolutely nothing.  When a new thought enters your mind, mull it over, play with it, and then try to remember it without relying on any external “capture” or reminder system.
  2. Spend a day or two trying to capture everything.
  3. On the continuum between those two extremes, what works for you?  When do you feel like you are capturing enough, without flooding your system? Consciously experiment with the balance between trying to keep every idea, and letting some of them go.


Eat the Stinky Cheese

by Matt Blair on March 13, 2009

in Exercises,Senses

Saint Albray Cheese

Saint Albray Cheese

I do not know any words in English — or any other language — that could come close to describing the way Saint Albray cheese arrives in the nose.  Aromatic is far too dainty.  Acrid is too derogatory. And pungent isn’t strong enough.

Something emanates from it — almost a physical presence — that fills the nose and then the mouth. On more than one occasion, it has caused me to cough, as if encountering a chemical spill. Through experimentation I found that it becomes more itself if left out of the fridge for an hour or so to warm up. The taste is much more mild than the smell; rich and complex. If you can make it through the shroud of stench that surrounds it, this cheese is exquisite.

At least it is to me.  I’ve tried to share my enthusiasm for it with others, often to their horror. One or two have found it ‘interesting’ while politely declining a second bite, but most have looked at me as though I’ve tried to poison them.  Well, we all have different tastes.

However horrendous this cheese smells, it is still made for some reason or other. Its fans can’t all be stupid or wrong.

And the same goes for all sorts of films and books and works of art. It’s easy to dismiss something that we don’t understand, or that seems repellent on its face. But the simple fact that an idea continues to be part of our culture — that people still make that cheese or sing that song or tell that story — tells us something important about our culture, something we might miss if we go with our initial assumptions.


What, for you, is the cultural equivalent of Saint Albray? Think of an artist or art work that others respect and appreciate but that has always repelled you for some reason? Can you imagine why other people like it?

Have you judged it unfairly?  Has your judgment caused you to miss important aspects, or avoid certain situations that might have been enjoyable?

Do you feel like you have to rationally justify your aesthetic tastes, or are you comfortable following your intuition where it does and doesn’t lead you?

Have you ever felt intimidated by works of art or experiences that others find profound, but that seem inscrutable to you? Or that don’t affect you in any way?


Go see art you don’t expect to like.  Art that’s not your style.

Sit through a film by a director that you can’t stand.  Go to a retrospective for a sculptor that’s always caused you to quicken your pace through that part of the museum.

Pick a well-known creative work or cultural phenomenon that you have dismissed in the past, and re-experience it.  Find at least one redeeming and worthwhile aspect that you didn’t experience on first exposure.

The goal of this exercise is not to change your sense of taste, but to get you out of the comfort zone of your assumed preferences.  You may discover something new, or you may not, just as in any adventure.

This may seem like a perverse way to indulge your dislikes, but there’s always the possibility of discovering the unexpected, glimpsing a nuance you hadn’t perceived before, finding what your well-developed tastes had kept hidden.

Think of it as an opportunity to exercise aesthetic empathy: imagine experiencing art through the minds of others, and pay close attention to what they might see or hear or taste in it that you don’t.


In the interest of thoroughness, I attempted relive my own experiences as I was writing this. Unable to find any Saint Albray in the store’s case, I asked the cheesemonger, who informed me that they no longer carried it because they ended up throwing so much of it out — unsold! Quelle horreur!

She suggested Chimay as a substitute. I like their beer, so I thought I’d try it. The verdict: I think the monks should stick to beer.  Their cheese was to Saint Albray as Velveeta is to an aged cheddar, as Silly Putty is to potter’s clay. Bland to the palate, and completely lacking the nasal intoxication that makes Saint Albray so affecting. (But don’t let that bias stop you. Maybe you’d like it, even though I don’t!)

My search continues. In the interim, the myth must suffice.


Boxes of Your Own Construction

by Matt Blair on February 26, 2009

in Exercises,Life Cycle of Ideas

Creativity is often presented as the key to thinking or working “outside the box”.

In many situations, that is exactly the right way to frame it.  Organizations and traditions tend to codify and calcify over time. As they do, the structures they form can limit lateral thinking and creative problem solving. When standard patterns and old approaches don’t work, escaping from boxes — anything that limits the scope of thinking and doing — is essential.

However, associating creativity with “out of the box” thinking can lead us astray, especially in less-structured situations. Creative minds can wander aimlessly, ambling unimpeded across the vast open spaces of the mind, on a journey unshaped by a formless landscape.

There are phases of particular projects when such an approach is optimal. When brainstorming, for example, you don’t want to get tangled in barbed wire or have your ankles caught in cattle guards. You want open spaces.

At other times, directionless causes anxiety, and brings us no closer to a particular goal.  What are we trying to do?  Explore the territory, or reach a destination?

Personally, I need boxes to push up against and work within. I need deadlines and structures — external or self-imposed. Constraints and obstacles can provide just the resistance we need to make decisions, understand our mistakes, better understand our options, and re-double our resolve.

I’m not urging you to climb back into any old box within reach. The key is to consciously build a box appropriate to the challenge, one that contains and shapes, yet leaves enough room for the project — and you — to grow.


  • Where does most of your work take place: inside a box or outside it?
  • Where do you feel more comfortable thinking?
  • Are these circumstantial? Externally-defined? Self-imposed? Intentional?
  • Do different phases of your projects benefit from different forms of openness or constraint? Is there a repeating pattern, or do you decide which is best with each new project?


  • Choose a project that you’ve been working on “outside the box”.  Did you intentionally move your activity there?  Why?  Was that a good choice?
  • What constraints could you add to the situation?  Try a couple different sets and see what works. Compare the results of each.
  • Then try working in an entirely free way again. What works best for you?
  • Would any of the constraints you contrived be helpful in other projects?  Start keeping a notebook of arbitrary constraints and refer to it anytime you find yourself wandering in the wilderness.

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