Breaks are boosts

No matter how much we love our work, we sometimes need a little time off to come back even stronger. For example, I love playing soccer but can’t do it for eight hours straight.

Illustrating is my greatest passion. I enjoy drawing every day, yet sometimes, I force myself to take a break for several days or even weeks. Then, I try to do things that have less or nothing to do with drawing. For example, I program and tweak my portfolio website, do the accounting, experiment with my concept for a fictional video game, or write texts like this one.

In my experience, I only realize how good this break actually feels as soon as I take a step back. Let’s consciously switch off our passion now and then so we can recharge. Otherwise, it may suffer from our ambition.

Seeing without knowing to get great ideas

To be able to orient ourselves in the world, we develop prejudices. Not in a harmful sense. But in order not to lose ourselves in the unfamiliar. We judge a situation based on our previous experiences and decide accordingly. These pre-judgments are like a template through which we see the world.

That’s helpful when visiting another city, learning a new program, or on our first day at a new job. Our experiences give us a sense of security and guidance.

However, this skill gets in our way when it comes to developing ideas. Children are much freer in this respect. We, adults, look at things in a biased way. A coffee mug is for drinking, a chair is for sitting, and a pencil is for drawing. Period. Or maybe there are other options? If you were born in the 80s like me, you know, for example, that there was no better tool for unwinding tangled tapes from audio cassettes than the pencil.

Let’s look at things through a child’s eyes as we search for ideas. Children are unprejudiced. They have no template yet, no bias. They look at objects they encounter from all sides. They twist, turn, play, and try all sorts of things with them. They discover.

Seeing without knowing is something we can learn again. Only when we can break away from our established prejudices do we recognize new connections because new connections are what make ideas original.

Each illustration deserves a certain amount of individual attention

In my work, creating an illustration usually consists of a rough sketch, a detailed drawing, outlining, coloring, and fine-tuning. When I receive a commission that requires the creation of several, sometimes dozens of illustrations in the same style, I notice the same phenomenon over and over again.

For some illustration steps, such as coloring, I’m on autopilot. By the third illustration at the latest, it’s like assembly line work. All that’s needed here is my craft and consistency. It doesn’t require a “creative view” or a willingness to experiment. In this phase, I can relax and listen to music, watch an episode of King of Queens on the iPad, or talk to friends on the phone.

But at some stage, I always get to the point where that’s no longer enough. It’s a moment when I have to look at the subject closely and match every stroke and detail, whether it’s a portrait, a product, or a scene. I’m sure it sounds clichéd and corny, but I have to feel it somehow, look at it sensitively. I can’t describe it any other way yet.

I have learned that every work deserves a certain amount of individual attention. Be it just a few strokes or color adjustments. Then it’s music off, smartphone on flight mode, and just feel and react, feel, react, until there is nothing more to discover.

Feedback is a double-edged sword when generating ideas

On the one hand, criticism and the opinions of others can encourage us. We learn from the experience and mistakes of others. That is precious for our development. How often have professors, fellow students, and clients opened my eyes in despair? Communication is an essential tool for creative work.

On the other hand, the quality of our work is highly dependent on our ability to protect ourselves from external influences and opinions when necessary. For only in silence can we listen to our inner voice.

But each person is different in this respect. Brainstorming in a group, for example, can inspire some people’s creativity. In conversation, they bubble with energy and ideas. For others, however, collective thinking is counterproductive. They need time alone to think about the problem deeply and introspectively.

Figuring out what supports or hinders our creativity is an exciting process. Recognizing our highs and lows, and perhaps even logging them in writing, can bring about fundamental change.

When our tongue betrays our feet – about sabotaging our dreams and goals

When I was about 18 years old, I read a sentence in a small book that I had never forgotten:

A bridled tongue makes the head wise.

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When we get excited about something, we want to talk about it. Maybe we want to apply to a university, go on a backpacking trip to Tibet, or take the leap into self-employment. These decisions are groundbreaking for our future. If we are serious about it, we should let this thought grow inside us before we spit it out too soon. Otherwise, the following may happen:

  1. There are always dozens of arguments against our decision, usually from people who care about us, for example, our parents. They wish only for the best and for us to have a more effortless and carefree life than they had. That is natural and lovely. But the easiest is not always what is also best for us. We can talk about our plan confidently when we are sure we won’t let ourselves be diverted from it. We have already reflected on these arguments and successfully disproved them for ourselves.
  2. Talking about our dreams gives us the deceptive feeling of already being in the middle of the process. In talking, we become euphoric and picture ourselves passing the aptitude test for college, standing in the Himalayan mountains, or driving our first Porsche. The feeling that we are already on our way creeps in. But that is simply not the case. We haven’t actively done anything yet to fulfill our dream. The journey does not begin until we have sat at our desks to prepare for the test, apply for the visa, or draw up a concrete business plan.

The tricky thing about talking about our dreams is that we load ourselves with unnecessary weight before we even take the first step. The arguments our parents brought up might sound reasonable and logical and now the first doubts arise. Or our friend, to whom we have described our plan so emotionally, now regularly asks how things are going. Without realizing it, we suddenly have to justify ourselves, and we take the risks that our motivation fades away.

Therefore, let’s mature our dreams long enough in silence before we destroy them by putting them out too soon.

Between precrastination and procrastination

Mentors, motivators, and coaches often use the term procrastination in connection with the creative process. Many people, especially inexperienced ones, can relate to it. They know the fear in front of the blank page and the constant postponement of the task.

The advice from experienced mentors is usually “Take action. Don’t procrastinate. The first step is the biggest.” I can also confirm this; you can find my thoughts about it here. Once we have drawn the first line, written the first sentence, and played the first note, we are already in the middle of the creative process.

Yet little is written about the opposite of procrastination: the precrastination, the tendency to do things too quickly, too soon, too hastily, or too rashly.

Great ideas require incubation time. We need time to look closely, observe, absorb, experiment, and let thoughts grow and connect. Leonardo da Vinci puts it this way:

“Creativity sometimes requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate”.

Leonardo da Vinci

Social media experts recommend taking action and posting consistently, daily, and as much as possible. I think that’s a great way to gain followers and attention and to feel productive. But is it the best and most effective way to get the most out of things? Isn’t this advice the fuel for precrastination and, thus, the direct path to banality?

As always, the truth lies somewhere in between. Let’s not wait too long, but let’s also think about Leonardo from time to time before clicking Publish too soon.

Ideas are like tiny stars: the closer we look, the less we see them

It is a phenomenon that only happens in the dark: a faint star will disappear once we look into the night sky and stare directly at it. We perceive its light only when we let our gaze jump and dance around the star. The reason for this lies in the anatomy of the eye.

It is the same when searching for ideas. As soon as we concentrate too much on it, we lose sight of the essentials. Our creative mind becomes stiff and stuck, but that will never work.

Original ideas don’t fall from the sky. We need to discover them. They arise through new connections, and we only find them once we let go and let our gaze jump and dance around them.

Do what you love and don’t spend money

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and yes, from my own experience, I can confirm that financial pressure can inspire creativity and productivity and drive us towards our goals. Many inventions in the history of mankind were born out of desperation and misery.

However, one of my goals is to enjoy life for as long as possible. The stress I feel from lack of money feels unhealthy. Unhealthy for my body and mind.

In addition, we always talk about creative freedom. But how can creativity be free if I depend on it to pay the rent this month?

Lack of money can make you inventive, but it also has the potential to lead us astray. It makes us accept commissions we don’t want on terms that aren’t ours. We begin to throw our principles overboard and, in the worst cases, lose the fire within us with which we started.

We need to protect our dream from these influences. Financial reserves are, therefore, so crucial for self-employed and freelancers. My finance accountant opened my eyes when he explained that most startups and freelancers don’t fail with their businesses because their products, service, or ideas are wrong or bad. They fail because of financial mismanagement (find more here).

A new car, the most expensive smartphone, or a bigger apartment are worthless if they sabotage our passion.

Austin Kleon puts it this way in his terrific book “Keep going”:

“Do what you love” + low overhead = a good life.

“Do what you love” + “I deserve nice things” = a time bomb.

Embracing the good pressure, discarding the bad one

Some projects, be they commissions or study projects, still make me feel stressed and nauseous from insomnia just thinking about them. The pressure I felt at the time while creating was not a good one, not a healthy one. Maybe it was beneficial regarding my productivity and focus, but only because I hadn’t yet learned to activate either early on. Although perhaps the result was convincing, in the long run, the process was destructive. I simply started to work on the project too late.

Bad pressure is the pressure we feel when the deadline is eight in the morning, and we’ve worked through the night until five minutes to eight under intense pressure. We are exhausted, haven’t eaten for hours, haven’t had anything to drink, and are dissatisfied with our creative results. There is nothing we wish for more than to have just a little bit more time (which would have been possible if we had managed to start working earlier).

Regardless of whether or not the client or professor is happy with our work, we have failed — not just because we pushed our bodies and minds to an unhealthy limit. We risked diminishing our enjoyment of our creative work in the long run because of our procrastination and poor planning. For our life, this would be a real tragedy.

We feel a good pressure early. It’s the kind of excitement and nervousness that drives us to our desks to do the work. We’re nervous because we don’t know where the journey is going. Can we meet the client’s expectations? Is there enough time for the deadline? What do I need to get done this week to keep on schedule? Good pressure pushes us right from the start. If we ignore it long enough, it turns into the vicious monster that hunts us through a creative hell.

Let’s not explain the idea. We need to show it

An idea that works in our head can collapse as soon as we try to articulate it. An idea we can articulate can crumble as soon as we try to visualize it. Only an idea that can stand up when visualized has the potential to work.

When I’m working on a conceptual illustration, it sometimes happens that an idea pops up, and I think, “That’s it. That’s on the spot”. But after years of experience, I’ve learned to be especially aware of these “flashes of genius.”

It would be nice if I didn’t have to be. If I could just call the client right after, get their convinced and enthusiastic confirmation, and start executing the project. I would save the client and myself so much time.

But what if the idea fails on paper? What if, for example, the provided color palette is unsuitable for that particular idea? If I underestimate the final format and dimensions? If elements don’t work together the way I thought they would? Or if, on reflection, the idea is simply not original enough? Then I wouldn’t be able to avoid a humble phone call telling the client, “Sorry, that was a dud. Everything back to zero.”

Instead, let’s put our ideas through their paces by creating a visual prototype. In an illustration, that might be a sketch. In a commercial, the creative director and intern might perform the spot. When it comes to movies, a “treatment” is needed.

We have to put the idea into a form that we can actually show and present. Only then can everyone involved see if and how well it works. Everything before that is Russian roulette.

When we feel close to a solution, we usually are. Let’s keep digging

Sometimes there is such a feeling of certainty. Like when we are searching for our keys, and we are sure that we haven’t lost them. They must be around here somewhere.

When I’m working on an idea for an illustration and start inspecting my rough sketches, I sometimes think: the solution is here somewhere. I don’t know what’s missing or what I need to connect to make it work, but the idea isn’t far away. Those are the moments when I need to keep digging.

There’s an opposite certainty as well. It feels like a roadblock. It just won’t go any further, even if I stare at the sketches all day. Then it’s essential to let go and head in a completely new direction.

We can create triggers to push our creative process

Creativity at the push of a button (if there even is such a thing) requires many years of practical experience. Even then, we can never be sure that ideas will pop out of our heads exactly when we need them.

In my experience, however, simple tricks give our creative minds a little support. We can build triggers into our daily lives that put our entire body into work and creation mode.

For example, I always run the same Spotify playlist when looking for ideas for my Mindshot illustrations. Sometimes I even start with the same song for months (currently Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence by Ryuichi Nakamoto). Most of the time, I listen to instrumental music, like movie soundtracks or video game tracks.

Additionally, when I want to work concentrated and effectively, I go to my favorite café and order a cappuccino and sparkling water. So far, this is my best routine to get work done.

Through such developed habits, we condition our minds. We create a button that puts us on autopilot, just like we brush our teeth when we get up in the morning. It signals to our brain, now it’s time to work.

Inevitably, I am reminded of the famous example of the cow whose mouth fills with saliva as soon as the farmer rings the bell. By habit, the ringing signals to the cow’s subconscious, now it’s time for food, and the legs automatically move towards the jug.

Let’s work the way Lionel Messi plays football

Playing soccer has always been my hobby and passion. I used to play in local football clubs three to four times a week. Most of the time as a goalkeeper.

As a teenager, I played as a striker in football clubs. I thought that was a suitable position for me. After all, I scored many goals on the small pitches in my neighborhood or in the indoor sports hall during school sports.

But in championship games, the pitch is larger. Here you don’t play 5 against 5, but 11 against 11. I was utterly overtaxed. Suddenly it was a completely different game. I didn’t know how to move right, I was blindly chasing the ball, and after a few minutes, my lungs and thighs were burning like hell.

On the big pitches, it’s not just about physical condition and skills. “Football is a game of the mind,” said Holland’s legend Johan Cruyff, and a game lasts at least 90 minutes. That’s why it’s essential to manage your energy, judge the timing for a full sprint, and let the ball run instead of the legs. A striker cannot afford to waste his energy carelessly. A striker lurks, then explodes at the decisive moment when a promising pass reaches him, or the opponent makes a mistake. Then he focuses all his energy, concentration, and talent on the objective: to score a goal.

I didn’t understand that at the time. Instead of using my energy effectively, I was constantly trying to be moving. I thought that if I didn’t, my coach would substitute for me. The problem was that I lacked strength and concentration in the few offensive situations. I was simply scoring hardly any goals.

In my working life, it helps to keep reminding myself of this. Being diligent or busy does not automatically mean being effective. I need to focus my energy. As an illustrator, I can’t afford to start a commissioned project immediately if all the necessary points and questions haven’t been clarified. I risk wasting my client’s and my own energy and time. It usually helps to hold off, review the situation, and go full throttle when the path is clear.

Let’s instead do it like seven-time record world footballer Lionel Messi. He’s already a living legend and scoring machine. According to sqaf.cluband besoccer.com, a striker runs, on average, 9.5 km in a game. On the other hand, Messi runs an average of 7.906 in Champions League games, making him the second least running player in the competition. If that’s not a role model for effectiveness …

Clients pay us for the process, not the outcome

Working as a creative requires courage. A writer doesn’t know how his book will end when he writes the first page. An artist doesn’t know what her painting will look like when she starts mixing the colors. Even the most experienced professional cannot guarantee that his next work will be a masterpiece.

The final result is written in the stars. To charge for creative work, therefore, requires even more courage. The outcome is intangible, and its impact is initially hard to measure. We need confidence in ourselves, a form of self-awareness that makes us realize that we can only influence and control the process. We are paid for finding the idea, not for the idea itself.