I hope you’re doing well and staying safe. It’s been a rough week in America, and I don’t have the words to articulate the web of calamities we find ourselves in. How exactly does one describe a struggle for racial justice, threatening of democracy, and devastating effects of climate change in the midst of a global pandemic? I can barely even process what’s happening, let alone think critically about solutions and actions I can take.
I’ve been trying different ways to keep myself grounded, lest I sink too deep into an ocean of rumination. I took a drawing class this week which gave me a chance to practice ‘drawing without thinking’, and it made me appreciate the value of giving my ‘thinking mind’ a break. Taking a break from thinking typically involves relaxing, meditating, exercising, or distracting oneself with some entertainment. All those activities are extremely important as part of a healthy mental diet, but there’s also room to reduce the weight of thinking in our creative work.
Today’s newsletter explores the burden of expectations and the potential benefits of embracing ‘mindless’ creativity. I also share some tips on getting started with writing, some stunning captures of hummingbirds, and some useful links for folks looking to make a career transition.
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The biggest obstacle in creative work is the burden of expectation. We build an idea in our minds of what it should look like, and compare against it at every step. Our imagination is simply too vivid, too crisp for our own good. With every stroke we make, we see all too clear the gap between what lies before us and what floats in our minds.
In the ruthless game of self-criticism, our judgements are binary: everything we make is either perfect or garbage.
Our expectations are often informed by others, but we alone implement them. We are the security guards in our own mental jails. As terrorizing as they may seem, these judgements can actually benefit us if we allow them to. How we view these thoughts can alter their meaning entirely.
By changing our mindset, we can liberate ourselves from the burden of expectations. Ira Glass notes that it is this very skill — the ability to tackle our inner critic — that ultimately defines our success:
There’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.
But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit.
We have to keep going long enough to survive our own criticism. Once we do, our expectations evolve into an advantage. So how do we control our self-critical thoughts while we work? How can we tame our own thinking?
One approach is to apply constraints in order to limit the space for thinking. Surrealist automatism is a unique art-making process designed to “suppresses conscious control over the making process, allowing the unconscious mind to have great sway”. In the surrealist lens, when the thinking mind disappears the subconscious takes over.
I got a taste of automatism through an intense exercise in high-speed gesture drawing. We would look at a reference photo of a human pose, and then try to draw it in two minutes. Then we had to draw it in one minute, then in 30 seconds, and finally in just 10 seconds (!). When you have so little time, you can only focus on the overall lines of action for the gesture, and a few details of the body’s outline. There is simply no room for thinking.
I found the experience exhausting. At first I thought it was because of how many successive drawings we did…. but my exhaustion was more mental than physical. My mind was so used to driving the process — it’s like it was fighting to maintain control. With two minutes, I was still thinking a fair bit. But by the time I hit thirty seconds, I had to stop thinking and let the strokes flow. I had to trust that something else would take over. The more drawings I did, the easier it got. It turns out we can train ourselves to loosen our iron grip on thinking.
What I find most compelling about this approach to creative work is that yields more power to chance. I’ve talked about making space for serendipity in our own lives, and a lot of the same principles apply in the scope of a given creative project. The thing that makes us most comfortable is letting go of control. Once we find a way to do so, however, we find that the show still goes on. This can catch us by surprise. After all, we are used to being the main act in our own show. We may look back at our work and wonder, “Well if I didn’t make that, then who did?” It’s a good question.
If it is the subconscious that is taking over, then everything about the work becomes a telling indicator of our own psyche. Our output becomes like a creative journal, exposing deep secrets within us that we didn’t even know we had.
Despite all our advances in science, however, the brain is still not fully understood. There are many other theories of who or what could be in the driver’s seat when we go into autopilot. In the 1840s, Spiritualists believed that spirits were taking control when we let go. These ideas are what led to the creation of tools like the Ouija board. In a different interpretation, one might say it is the universal spiritual essence that takes over (which is perhaps another way of referring to God). Are we channeling a higher power when we do something as routine as writing or drawing?
There are no definitive answers to these questions, but they are nonetheless interesting to explore. The more time we spend in a non-thinking mode, the deeper we tap into the essence of ourselves. With every piece we create, we take a tiny piece of us and put it into our work. We shed another layer of ourselves in the process of peeling our onion.
What lies hidden within us? Let go of your mind, and you just might find out.
Writing Guide: Getting Started
After getting a few questions on how to get started with writing, I added a short section with some rough notes to my Writing Guide:
Setup a blog — Don’t overthink the tools, hosting, or your process too much. You can always migrate your posts later. Start with something simple like a hosted Squarespace or Wordpress site. Pick a simple theme, add in some basic information and links about yourself, and push it live. If possible, try and get a nice custom domain for yourself and point it at your blog. If you’re looking to start a newsletter instead, I’d recommend Substack.
Write your first post — Once you have a site setup, think of what you want to write for your first post. What is one thing you really want to say to the world? A good prompt for this can be to answer a Frequently Asked Question for yourself. What is something you can talk about that a lot of friends/peers have been curious to learn more about? Pick one prompt, answer it, and write the post. If you’re struggling with a blank page, start with some bullet points. Or use a service like Otter to simply talk it out and get a transcription.
Publish! — Edit your post a bit, and publish it. It doesn’t have to be perfect! Don’t get caught up questions like, “Am I a writer now? What’s my brand? What’s my niche?” All that can wait. For now, just get a post out there. Share it with a few friends, family and peers. Don’t worry about feedback, just share it so they know it exists. The only goal for your first post is that it should exist.
Start writing your next post — Congrats on publishing your first post! The most important thing to do now is to start writing the next one. Don’t get caught up into analyzing your first one, how it went, how it was received and so on. Once you start getting busy with your next post, you won’t have time to obsess about the last one.
Be prolific — You don’t want your first post to be your last, so you’ll need to start building your writing muscles. The best way to do that is to keep writing. Try blocking out time every week, or setting yourself a deadline for each post. My writing completely transformed once I started publishing a monthly newsletter, and then it jumped to another level once I started a weekly cadence. Pick what works best for you, and stick to the schedule no matter what.
You can access the full Writing Guide note here: salman.io/notes/writing. I’ve been slowly adding to it and I think it’s coming along quite nicely!
Brain Pickings - Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Prejudice: This week we mourned the devastating loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a pioneer for gender equality issues and left an incredible legacy of tireless progressive work. May she rest in peace.
Black Tech Pipeline — An excellent new service providing resources and opportunities for Black technologists, along with a job board that connects them to potential employers.
Coursera + SV Academy — My good friend Rahim and his team at SV Academy have partnered with Coursera to launch two new programs that help learners of all backgrounds prepare for in-demand roles in sales. This pandemic has disproportionately affected individuals without college degrees in terms of job loss rates, and programs like this can really help them revitalize their career.
Press Play To Pause Your Thoughts: A wonderful little site that lets you relax to music while popping clouds. It’s a breath of fresh air.
I’ll leave you with these absolutely sunning photos of hummingbirds captured by Matthew P. The detail on the feathers is just unbelievable!
Until next time,