The Value of Weird Little Projects
…and five things I was proud to put out into the world in 2018 😎
One of the most personally significant axioms I’ve taken to heart over the last few years is the value in creating things outside of a work context. As we get older and life inevitably fills up with obligations (both real and perceived), hobbies and creative pursuits — both continuing old ones and pursuing new ones — are usually the first to fall by the wayside.
There’s a social premium placed on busyness, as if being busy correlates to being in-demand and important — if we’re busy, we’re needed. There’s an unspoken badge of honor that accompanies the recounting of late nights and it’s the reason why people extrapolate that one day they worked 16 hours to then become their default answer when they’re asked how much they’re working.
The problem with this is severalfold: first, it’s a lie, and a fruitless game of oneupmanship. Second, it’s a long-term recipe for burnout, and further, treating everything as urgent and important really means that nothing is. But the more frequently overlooked consequence of the busyness trap is that it actually limits the amount of ourselves we can bring into our work and the rest of our lives — it dulls our senses and creativity and makes us less able to find interesting, non-obvious, non-consensus solutions to complicated problems because our ability to think and operate creatively atrophies.
When you’re thinking through a complex issue, sometimes the best thing to do is actually not to keep staring at your screen and turning it over in your head — going for a run or putting technology away to read, paint, draw, or make music can actually provide the space you need to find an answer you might not have otherwise.
There’s a body of research that suggests creativity and problem-solving are enhanced by things outside of work like reading and consuming information, physical exercise, and creating things in other fields. Over the last few years, at various times I’ve jumped into trying each of these three outside-of-work pursuits to see how they make me feel, see what I learn, and see if they resonate.
I. Consuming Information & Learning
I’ve always consumed a lot of information outside of school/work, for better or worse. I’ve spent more time than I‘d care to admit doing deep dives on Wikipedia (from helicopter prison escapes to crimes in Antarctica), reading books (from human irrationality to the psychology of infidelity to rappers’ memoirs), listening to podcasts (from urban design to comedians’ creative process) and spending Sundays making my way through the queue of Pocket articles I’ve amassed. Being curious has been a constant since I was a kid, and at various times has served as a benefit and a detriment. The other two, though — physical activity and creating things — are things I’ve wanted to really dive more intentionally into the last few years.
II. Physical Exercise
In 2016, I went all-in on physical activity. I was visiting my best friend in Portland and went for a run with him right off the plane, and realized I was gassed after four miles. I played sports through high school, but had never been much of a runner — certainly not consistently, and the way I felt after those four miles made me want to get better at it.
I set a goal to run 1,000 miles in a year, made a spreadsheet to track it, and by running a few times a week and pushing my distances, finished eleven months later. From there, I started training for and ran an ultramarathon the next year.
The time running wasn’t always fun — there were a lot of sore joints and Advil and IT bands getting destroyed by foam rollers. But it did give me a lot of time in my head, free from technology and distraction — someone recently described to me that feeling of thinking through things while running as being like the conveyor belts of floating sushi, with the plates being the various ideas in your head. On a run, in that headspace, you can choose to grab one off, sample it, and think through that idea or issue, and then go back to the floating conveyor belt to grab another one.
I like that analogy, and that time of distraction-free thought let me sift through problems and things in my life, directly and indirectly, and that thinking has been incredibly valuable and re-energizing when coming back to work or understanding intractable problems. And beyond that, running gave me an appreciation for what a body can do and what limits you can push it to that I never quite had in the same way playing high school sports.
III. Creating Things in Other Fields
I’ve spent a lot of time creating things: making music, doing mobile app design, and putting together album art, show posters, and video visuals for wait what concerts. Doing something that you feel like you’re good at is incredibly rewarding at the outset — each new track is my favorite thing I’ve done, and right after I make it I just want to listen to that song. But then after a few days, the lustre fades and I hear all the mistakes and little things that bother me about it, and I’m tweaking the little details until it feels like it’s something I want to put my name on. Sometimes it gets there, but often it becomes one of the hundreds of orphaned demos in my Logic folder.
At the start of 2018, I wanted to invest in creating things, but branch out further: I wanted to try creating things in fields where I was a total amateur, and not just fall back onto things that I felt confident in doing. So I set a goal to put any self-consciousness about being an amateur aside and committed to embracing the discomfort of being a beginner. I was going to try making new things in new fields and appreciate the process, and maybe even getting a little better at them.
I tried a lot, and here’s where I landed on that goal — at the risk of coming off as self-aggrandizing (but with the desire to celebrate small wins), here are the weird little projects in 2018 that I was proud to put out into the world.
I. Built a Browser Extension 🖥
I made a book of hip-hop cartoons called Cirque Disobey at the end of 2017, which was a really fun side project unto itself: listening to a lot of my favorite hip-hop, creating humor through juxtaposition, and learning all kinds of weird quirks about the physical design of books. I loved that at the end of it, there was something physical to hold or put in someone’s hands and be able to watch them thumb through it and see what reaction it elicited.
I started thinking about a very simple development project and thought about how many different things compete for our attention: the buzzing of our phones and the flashing of banner ads and the videos that autoplay with volume on. I started thinking if there might be a way to inject a tiny bit of joy while not contributing to the constant pull of distractions we have.
I think browser extensions, and specifically new tab page extensions, are underrated — they’re an opportunity to very quickly provide insight or inspiration or humor in someone’s day with only a second or two of their attention, multiple times a day. So I learned how they’re built and made my own that randomly shows one of about a hundred cartoons on every new Chrome tab, and it’s available here, free: http://bit.ly/cirqueext
II. Made a Font ✏️
Making a font is something I’d always toyed with — I really love fonts, and especially appreciate geeking out over well-designed fonts. From the very first album art design I ever did, I belabored the font choice and the weight and the kerning, and in the back of my head always thought it’d be a cool thing to create a font one day.
People with nice handwriting have always impressed me, in part because I’ve never been a person with nice handwriting. Most notes I take look like a kid wrote them, and a kid with pretty mediocre handwriting at that. I was looking at something I’d written in middle school and realized that my handwriting looks pretty similar eighteen years later. With that context, I spent an afternoon and created a font: middle school boy handwriting, available free here: http://bit.ly/msbhw
III. Created Some Digital Art 🎨
I’ve never been good at drawing. In my high school art class I made a bunch of weird stuff with found objects and mirrors and newspaper collages because any time I put pen to pad, I couldn’t create things the way I saw them in my head. The chasm between my ability and what I appreciate is huge with drawing and painting, and it’s something I’ve wished I could get better at.
At the start of the year, I started looking into digital art outside of Photoshop, and specifically drawing and painting. I took an online class, practiced drawing shapes and figures and comics, and messed around with brush textures and shading. It still takes me an hour to create something that would probably take a more experienced artist ten minutes, but even so, I’m happy that it’s something I’m able to make that I couldn’t have a year ago.
The tools available today (Procreate, the Apple Pencil, and an iPad Pro, for me) remind me of digital music production at the end of high school in the mid-2000s: they allow for someone like me with a clear vision and amateur skills to create things closer to their level of taste by making very granular edits possible and enable easy mistake correction in a way that drawing and painting historically haven’t.
I keep a list of weird ideas in my phone notes, and a lot of them are odd takes on rap lyrics or ideas for funny portraits of people. The one above, Drake’s Hierarchy of Needs, was one I’d kept there for a while and finally drew on a flight, and used my font as the text. I need to figure out how best to put out digital art, and have a lot of half-baked projects to finish or abandon in 2019, but for now have just been putting them up on Instagram.
IV. Curated an Ongoing Playlist 🎧🔥
Starting in high school, right when I turned 16, I made a mix CD every month: 80 minutes of all the music I liked, complete with movie quote skits to break up song sequences across genres. I started burning copies of these for friends, and now certain songs are tied to exact months and specific memories from that era.
When I moved to New York for college, I mailed out mix CDs to friends, and eventually went all digital and hosted a site with tracklists available. Now that we’ve gone from physical to mp3’s to streaming, people don’t even really download music much anymore — there’s not a great way to send someone a link and let them download music onto their phone. And our attention spans today are such that many of us probably don’t sit down and listen to 80 minutes of music at a time — we tend to listen to one-off tracks friends send us.
In the vein of Rap Caviar, the idea of an ongoing, ever-changing playlist with regular drops of new material and a culling of the old felt like the spiritual successor to making mix CDs. And even though it’s something that I used to do a lot, making it in a new form was something that I was excited to get going. At the start of the year, I made ‘NOW that’s what I call 🔥🔥🔥,’ (an homage to the NOW series of premier commercial pop mixtapes of the late 90s), got a small following, and have been updating it since —you can take a listen and follow along: bit.ly/nowthatsfire
V. Wrote About Running In Different Cities 👟🌆
I used to write a lot, and I was reading some old creative writing from college and realized how much I missed it, and trying to communicate feelings and ideas and the constant search for le mot juste. I was traveling for work a lot this summer, and was in Mexico a few times, Berlin, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, New York, Boston, and Chicago. My routine for jetlag and getting to know a city was to go for a run through it, and there’s something really magically perfect to me about running through a new city.
I was turning this over in my head a lot, and thinking through how incredible it is to be able to go halfway across the world and get to see and feel and be immersed in this entire culture while running through the city streets. I sat down on a train and wrote this piece, Run These Towns 👟🌆, and it reminded me of how good a feeling it is to collect your thoughts, work through them a bit, and try to translate them into something digestible and understandable for someone else.
Bonus: Had a Patent Approved 👨🔬
This one’s cheating a little bit, because we filed for the patent before 2018 and it’s not a side project, but it was really cool to put this out into the world. Based on the work Dylan and I did at Chronos, we got a patent approved this fall that looks at mobile sensor data and contextual and behavioral patterns to assess whether someone may be in danger, and then execute a chain of events to help ensure their safety.
Here’s to a 2019 full of all of us embracing being beginners, diving deeper into weird little projects, starting new ones, and learning new things as we go. And while we do live in the midst of look-at-me, attention-seeking culture, take some time to celebrate your small wins as you go — there’s so much more to our lives, work, and the things we create than just striving to be busy all the time and talking to our friends about that busyness.