Creativity

Thoughts on a year of Headspace

As I mentioned in my 2015 wrapup, this past year I practiced mindfulness meditation with Headspace. I wrapped up another “pack” this morning and thought it would be useful to collect some thoughts on the various approaches I’ve learned and the experience overall.

  • My main insight was that training the mind really is like training the body. It benefits from consistent practice, varied techniques, planned routines, and even interval training (alternating periods of focus and relaxation). Similarly, the mind can become detrained without regular training, and I noticed a real difference in my mental state after just a few days without practicing.
  • That said, I wasn’t very consistent with my practice, averaging a little less than one session every two days, and sometimes going up to two weeks between sessions (often caused by travel or illness disrupting my routine). Contrast that with some people who mention online that they’ve had a streak of 90 or even 365 days straight, and I wonder how their experience differs. I managed to maintain an overall sense of peace that persists even after a few days off, but some of the more advanced techniques and benefits didn’t stick around.
  • The only way I was able to fit this into my day is by waking up earlier. If I start my day with meditation (after a few wakeup stretches), I’m much better at staying focused. Once I’ve done much of anything else, my mind is too distracted to have a successful session.
  • Meditating on the breath always seemed to me an arbitrary choice–why not on a concept or a sound (like “om“). However, I gradually came to appreciate it, as your breath is always with you (and if it’s not, you have bigger problems than mindfulness), and doesn’t require conscious effort to maintain. When the goal is to clear away distracting conscious thoughts, the breath is a handy aid.
  • I was initially skeptical of the “pack” approach unique to Headspace, but it too proved itself over time. It’s nice to break down what could be a lifelong practice into manageable chunks, giving you a tangible goal every 10 or 30 days. And while I started each pack wondering how meditation was supposed to improve a skill like creativity or generosity, every time there was indeed a helpful insight or new practice. A few examples and reviews:
    • Focus was the first pack I tried. What stuck with me is the sense that sustainable focus isn’t something static and fixed, but rather the ability to steer your attention to different things at will–a dynamic experience. I wrote about how my son exhibits this trait naturally, but it was a new (or renewed?) practice for me. I continue to use the visualization of a glowing sphere moving through the parts of the body when I’m cycling, especially during hard efforts, to keep my overall attention on the body’s performance and prevent my mind from wandering.
    • Anxiety was next, and while this was a natural emotion for meditation to help, the approach was again surprising. The technique instructs you to first name, and then categorize, whatever stressful thoughts enter your mind. You might think of a difficult project at work, for example, which you could then give a title, mark as “negative”, and label as a “thinking” anxiety. The simple act of acknowledging the thought can be enough for your mind to let it go, a bit like how writing down an important todo item lets you relax mentally–it’s no longer your mind’s responsibility to keep track of it.
    • Appreciation was a nice shorter one and quite related to Generosity. In both cases you’re instructed to think about who and what makes you the happiest and most fulfilled, and the goal is to cultivate that feeling (rather than, say, translate into direct action). I found Generosity more valuable overall, as you extend that feeling toward others and into the world.
    • Creativity was a bit of a slog. 30 sessions, and again the goal was mostly to recognize the “feeling” of being creative. It introduced one nice technique though, the idea of rapidly alternating between focus on the breath and “letting go of the mind”, which trains you in the art of smoothly entering into a focused state at a moment’s notice. During this series I found myself better able to do “micro-meditations” throughout my regular day.
    • I’ve only tried 10 days of Headspace Pro, the packs with less guidance and no particular theme. I did find them more challenging, and less motivating, than the themed packs, and haven’t been back recently. Hopefully more consistent practice will make them accessible again.

I continue to find new benefits from Headspace, even after a year and over 150 sessions. Here’s to another year of mindfulness!

Research and believability in design

I always believe in research. No matter what the subject matter is. You cannot do enough research, because so much believability will come out of what’s really there.

Sending out the dogs

“Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey” – Werner Herzog

True of ideas and designs as well.

On surfboards and yachts

And being close to the water:

Baldwin: How many sitcoms could you have launched with the imprimatur of your name on it? You could have your own channel. The Jerry channel.

Seinfeld: Yeah. But I didn’t take that bait…because most of it is not creative work. And it’s not reaching an audience. You want to be on the water? How do you want to be on the water? You want to be on a yacht? You want to be on a surfboard? I want to be on a surfboard.

Let me tell you why my TV show in the ’90s was so good…In most TV series, 50% of the time is spent working on the show, 50% of the time is spent on dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99% of our time writing, me and Larry.

Why designers shouldn’t be smart

Recently Bruce Mau came to our office (I know, right?!). Bruce is known for his writing, including several “manifestos” over the years, and he asked everyone in the room to write their own manifesto in 3 minutes (he said he used to give people 6 minutes and they were all finished early).

The first line in my manifesto was “Be the dumbest person in the room”, which got a laugh from Bruce and prompted some followup questions from people around me. I’d written it as a bit of a lark, but the more I think about it, the more important I think it is. So why is it important for a designer to be the dumbest person in the room?

First, of course, it means that you’re always around people you can learn from. Great design is based on collecting insights from the world. If you are the expert in the room, where will you get your new insights? Always surround yourself with people whose experience and knowledge exceeds your own in important ways.

Being dumb also keeps you humble. Every designer knows how it feels to watch someone try and fail to use your design. The biggest temptation in that moment is to tell yourself “that’s just one person, and really this test isn’t representative,” and write off their experience as a fluke. After all, didn’t Steve Jobs ignore his customers? (Nope, and NOPE). But Henry Ford did, to poor results). Your confidence has to come not from your own opinions, but from the success real people have with your product.

Finally, when designers rely too much on their own experience and knowledge, they get lazy. When I’ve worked on a problem for a long time, and feel like I know it well, I’m less likely to do the research legwork needed for inspiration, less likely to ask other people their thoughts, and more likely to settle on the first idea that comes to mind. Conversely, a brand new problem forces me to start from scratch, with eyes and mind wide open to new possibilities (the next line in my 3-minute manifesto read: “When you get too good, start over”).

So really, the problem isn’t with being smart–it’s ok to get good grades, kids–but with acting smart. The best designers I know approach problems with the openness, humility, and excitement of a child seeing something for the first time. They acknowledge and work against their biases, and never let their intelligence get in the way of the right answer.

Just get started

“The muse visits during the act of creation, not before” – Roger Ebert

Working inside the barn

“I had some time on my hands, I wasn’t working much in my, ahem, chosen profession. An aspect of fortune is that, when it’s raining, then you gotta work inside the barn, you know?” – Robert Downey Jr. on recording an album

The beautiful question

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” – e.e. cummings

The genius of childhood

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recaptured at will.” ― Charles Baudelaire

My favorite movie design moments

Documentary or drama, I’m a sucker for watching people be creative. Here are a few of my favorites:

Drama

Documentary

  • Making The Incredibles (some clips; the DVD has the best stuff) – My all-time favorite. About 90 minutes of in-depth stories and explanation about the process of making the film, with a ton of similarities to great product design. I watch this at least once a year. My notes.
  • The Mystery of Picasso – Picasso painting on an illuminated sheet of glass, so you see the strokes build and change into something completely different than he started with. The paintings at 1:00:00 and 1:04:30 are mind-blowing.
  • Comedian – Jerry Seinfeld tries to follow up his outlandishly-successful sitcom career by getting back on small comedy stages and writing a new standup act. Inspiring to see the courage and introspection that goes into it. My notes.
  • Sketches of Frank Gehry – Gehry’s experimental way of developing buildings combines art and science in a unique way. My notes.
  • A Day in the Life of John Lassetter – Lassetter seems like a wonderful leader and his optimism is infectious. My notes.
  • Art and Copy – I find advertising has a lot of parallels to concept design, and this film collects the thoughts and processes of several different advertising luminaries. My notes.
  • The Pixar Story – The way they build collaboration among roles in a team is unparalleled. My notes.
  • Tough Room – Ok, this is just audio (from NPR) but The Onion’s headline pitch session is amazing. I love how they judge stories by the headlines alone.
  • Six Days to Air (not currently online) – How each South Park episode is made in a week. The forced constraints have created a lot of innovation in process and technologies.