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Inbound Now #50 - Get unstuck & keep creativity flowing with Noah Scalin

Noah Scalin, the author of Unstuck: How to Get (and Keep) Your Creativity Flowing, joins us for episode 50 of Inbound Now TV to get our creative juices flowing!

This episode is near and dear to my heart and I'll tell you why.

I can't remember how many times I have heard colleagues, friends, or family members say "Well, I'm just not a creative person" and it bugs the hell out of me!

Convincing yourself that you weren't born with a certain trait is the biggest load of BS of all time. There is no bigger disservice people can do to themselves than using such a ridiculous excuse as "I wasn't born creative" or "I wasn't born a sales person" or "I wasn't born to lead."

It's garbage and it has to stop. Stop lying to yourself and try these things you "weren't born to do", you might just surprise yourself.

Everyone is completely capable of flexing their creative muscle and like any skill or process, it takes practice, refinement, and work.

So you are creative. There myth dispelled. 

In this episode, Noah explains how to foster creative growth and how to keep it (whether this is personal creativity or for the workplace)

"Creativity leads to inspiration, and inspiration leads to innovation"

In this episode we discuss:

  • Debunking the myth of "born" creatives
  • Where to source inspiration at home and in the workplace
  • Real tangible things you can do to practice creativity
  • & How to get outside your head to encourage those "eureka" moments

David: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of Inbound Now. I'm your host, David Wells, and with me today is Noah Scalin. Noah I caught at South By Southwest. He gave an awesome presentation on one of his books called "Unstuck: 52 Ways to Get and Keep Your Creativity Flowing at Home, Work, and in the Studio", and I thought it was really inspiring so I reached out to him and asked him to come on so welcome to the show.

Noah Thanks. Thanks so much for having me.

David: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So I wanted to pick your brain really on the creative process and really kind of have the audience take away the sense that they can be creative too and it's not a born innate trait, that you're either born with or you don't have it. So let's dive into it, shall we?

So in your presentation, you kind of talked about a project that you did that kind of helped you get out of a creative rut and that was the skull project. Can you give us a little bit of backstory on that?

Noah Yeah, sure. Basically what had happened is I'd been doing my own creative work for a long time. I run a graphic design company and so I've been doing creative work as a living for many years and I hit a place where I was actually really stuck creatively. I just wasn't inspired by the work I was doing and I was really feeling like I wasn't making stuff that I loved and the clients I think weren't getting the best they could get and so I was like, what can I do about this? And kind of just randomly was like, why don't I make some of my own art? And the concept was I'll make a piece of skull art every single day for a year. Which sounds really random and it really was, it was me just arbitrarily going, "Hey, this will be a fun thing to do." And it ended up turning into this crazy project which actually is still going on now. We're actually in the sixth year of it, so for something that was supposed to be a one-year-long personal project it turned into a giant, massive community project. But I got a ton out of it.

So, what's happened since then, is I've spent a lot of time talking to people about what really, creativity is about. Where does inspiration come from? How to you manufacture this, especially in a working environment?

because that's what I was trying to do for myself and I got a ton of benefits from it. And so even though it was sort of this silly, weird, random thing there's a ton of really great stuff that came out of it and that's what I've been sharing mostly.

David: Got you. So I guess speaking about the workplace, how do you kind of foster a creative community inside of your workplace and really, because I think getting started on projects is one of the hardest pieces, right?

Where people kind of have that blank page syndrome. What are some ways that you pull inspiration?

Noah Wow. Big question and there's a lot to it. I think one of the things I learned doing my project and what I really encourage people to do is to really think small. And I think a lot of times we're told to think about the big picture, write a novel, change the world, make all this money, whatever it is it's huge stuff and it's really hard to do. And yeah, the blank page is horrible; and so if you can really just start with very small, very manageable tasks, and for me it was like can I get one little thing done each day, those add up to the big stuff. And so really trying to break things down very quickly into small manageable parts that are accomplish-able, less stressful, less overwhelming, and then trust that the process works. That if you do a lot of little stuff it does add up to the big stuff. And so making it sort of easier and more fun too.

There was really no penalty for me screwing up on what I was doing and I gave myself the freedom to work that was like, "Hey, I'm just going to try stuff and I'll throw it out there." And once I started doing that I got a lot of great feedback on things I normally wouldn't have shared with anybody. So that was another cool part of it, was just sort of like letting go of what I call preciousness. This idea of being, "Oh, I've got to make perfect stuff every time and I've got to really spend a lot of time working on it," and instead it was like, "How about this? How about this? How about this?" And not all of it stuck but the things that people responded to sometimes weren't the things I expected. Then I had an opportunity to spend some time revising it, making it better later instead of trying to get it right the first time and spending all of my time on one idea that may not have turned out to have been the best idea.

David: Right, right. And do you think it was easier letting go of that preciousness because you were working on the skull project, it wasn't your day job, it was just something kind of tangential to what you do?

Noah Absolutely. In many ways what was cool, what I discovered was that by doing my own project, my client work got better because I was even holding less preciousness about their work because then I was like, "Hey, I'm channeling my energy this way, so I'm not going to fight them as much about the things I'm making for them. But they're benefiting too because the work I'm making I can use as examples for stuff that they can see, "Hey, you're capable of this." They didn't know I could make some of the stuff I made until they saw me do it. I knew I had the potential within me to do really great work, but my clients only knew what they'd ever seen me do or what I'd done for them already. So it was a really cool sort of relationship that was created. But absolutely by making a side project, a little fun thing, I got a lot out of it on that level and on the client level. And now I can turn to those skills at any moment, the stuff that I developed during the project becomes this wonderful bank of skills and bank of work, that continues to benefit my client work.

David: Right, right. And that was because you're using a lot of different mediums, right? To actually create the skulls, right?

Noah Yeah, my goal was to make a different skull every single day for a year; and of course those are easy things to say and much harder things to do. And as I moved forward each day it got harder and harder because I used up the skills I already had and it turned into like, "Oh my God. I don't know what I'm doing now." And that was frightening and a lot of people wouldn't put themselves in that situation normally, intentionally. So by forcing myself into basically out of my comfort zone, I ended up with a lot of interesting opportunities and learning what I was capable of and discovering skills that I didn't know I could have or could do, just because felt obliged to do it.

That was a key thing to the project was that I set up time limits, I had to get it done in a day. I set up things like an audience that was watching me so I felt obliged to finish the work. A lot of times people don't do stuff because there's no incentive to do it and you're saying like, "Starting on a project is really hard," and I agree and I wouldn't have gotten started had I not told people, "I'm doing this." Had I not said I will be done by this time. And the second you do that, at least I certainly I feel much more obliged to get it done because somebody else is now watching paying attention going, "Hey, where's that thing you said you were going to do?"

And I ended up doing much more much better from that. A lot of people want to keep things secret, private, not share them, not tell people, and I really encourage just to push beyond that and say, you know what? Put it out there. I know everyone's afraid of looking like a fool and getting in trouble and doing the wrong thing," but I never had the negative piece, I always got the positive from doing that, from putting it out there.

David: Got you. So would you recommend almost having a goal buddy, let's say, where it's like, "Hey, I'm doing this thing. Make sure that I'm doing it."

Noah Absolutely. A goal buddy, a goal office. Really, if you're talking about doing it in an office environment, how public could you make it?

Because honestly, once everybody's looking at it you're going to get this group of people saying, "Go, go, go," or, "I want to do it too," or participating or collaborating, which is another one of those key factors. A lot of time people think they have to get this stuff done, creative work, alone. And it doesn't' have to be done alone. In fact, it shouldn't be. When it really gets good is when you do start bouncing ideas off other people and so once you bring in those people you'd be really surprised at the outcome that happens and it's always greater than the sum of the parts. It always ends up much bigger and much more interesting, when you make that effort to reach out to other people and have them participate. Instead of being like, "Oh, this is all on me and I've got to have it within my head and solve all the problems," and it's that real egotistical thing that gets encouraged a lot but it doesn't matter. In the end, the skull project's my project but lots of people worked on it and helped me with it.

David: Right. Got you. So doing it on a day-to-day basis though, it's like I feel like a lot of projects get set out and they're very ambitious like doing something every single day. Is that something you would Absolutely recommend or maybe you should cut it back like, "All right, I'm going to make sure that I do this every week," and then ratchet up to every day or something like that?

Noah You know, it's entirely up to you. I will say a year-long daily project is a marathon and not everybody wants to run a marathon and certainly not everyone want to run one continuously one after the other. It's a big thing, so some people I know have built up to it so they've done some practice and then they will be like, "Okay, now I'm ready. I'm going to jump into it." But I do find that it takes the special person to actually complete it because a lot of times what happens is people say,

"I'm going to do it," and then they never even start. The more important thing is starting and doing it. If a year is too daunting, if it's too overwhelming, a hundred days, thirty days; how about 24 things in 24 hours. It's just a number to set to give yourself a goal and so that goal could be anything.

I know people have done very well with hundred-day projects who have gotten book deals out of them just from a hundred days. I know people have done weekly projects and gotten record deals, incredible stuff for doing once a week for a year. So yeah, it's just a number but it's so that there's a goal because obviously if you just say, "I'm just going to do this daily forever," too daunting, too overwhelming. If you say, "I'm not going to make any restrictions on myself," then there's no reason to do it. You need the incentive. You need the push and the reason and also as a goal, right?

"I'm almost done. It's getting closer." There's some relief to it. When you cross the finish line at the end of a race, you're tired and you've pushed yourself really hard but you know there's an end. So all of it helps because work a lot of times doesn't have that. Work is just endless. you might have a project that ends but then the work just keeps coming and coming and coming and that can really grind you down.

Noah That's fine. I'll tell you, one thing I've discovered is I've talked to hundreds of people who have done daily projects or year-long projects, either the hundred-day, thirty-day, weekly, and across the board they've said that withing the first basically two weeks their lives have been transformed by the commitment to daily practice. That's the thing that's interesting for me is that it doesn't matter even if you get to the end of the year, you get an experience right away. Within a few weeks you start seeing your world differently. You start seeing opportunities around you and it's the same as all other practice, right? Practicing yoga, practicing piano, practicing whatever, French. Anything you practice you get better at but people don't think it applies to creativity and that what I really want to emphasize that you don't have to practice it daily for a year and most people don't, but you can just do a small commitment to it and you still get a huge benefit from it.

David: Right. I just remembered exactly what I was going to ask. So with your feedback loop that you had was it mainly your blog that you were posting, "Hey, here's my skull today, here's my skull today," and kind of that feedback mechanism of people like, "Oh, that's awesome." So do you recommend that people publish what they're doing on a daily basis to get that feedback?

Noah Absolutely. I can't emphasize enough that the public aspect of it for me and for a lot of people is really key. Because it's so easy if it's in your head or private to just stop and there's no penalty for it and when there's a public there not only do you feel obliged to show it, but then you get encouragement when they see it and they like it and new opportunities come from the public pleas. So it doesn't have to be a blog though I think that's a really easy, nice way to do to reach a really huge audience but even within my circle of friends and family, them knowing about it they participated in the project. They encouraged me as well but the blog was what allowed it to go worldwide and to bring me a lot of really incredible opportunities.

David: Got you. So with the feedback people get I think one of the major problems and the reason people think, "Oh, I'm not a creative person," is because back in kindergarten or something they drew something and their teacher was like, "That's not right," or something, right? They got that initial like, "Oh, you did it wrong," so now they're afraid to try things. What would you say to those people to get them out of that?

Noah That's a tough one and you hit the nail on the head which is that really everyone is creative. Everyone was born creative. Everyone's made art. There's no one who wasn't an artist when they were two years old. Everybody made a piece of art. So somewhere along the line somebody told you, you weren't good or someone said, "Well, you're not good as someone else," and so you sort of pulled back on that. And so a lot of what I encourage people to do is to sort of have this willingness to what I call making a fool of yourself, but put yourself out there, take a little risk, discover that it doesn't matter. It's not about doing good work, that it's really a weird thing but it's really the quantity over quality thing here. Like producing a lot allows you to get to some really cool opportunities and so even if it's just ideas a lot of times when I do workshops about this I'll force people to make a lot of ideas in a short amount of time.

What we always discover is that the best idea they had wasn't the first one or the second one or even sometimes the tenth, but somewhere along the middle. There were tons of ideas and then they got some really cool unique ones. But it's that willingness to keep putting them out there even if those first few or even if the tenth sounds silly that the fiftieth might be a great one but how do you get to that point? And so it's a willingness to just sort of throw things out there, try a bunch of stuff, be comfortable with letting it go and not worry about like, "Oh, they're going to make fun of me," or, "It's bad," or put a judgment call. In my own blog we share work from people of all different ages, all different skill levels, and there's no critique, it's not about the quality and we don't say, "You're good. You're bad," because that doesn't help. What we really want to do is just like, "Yes, keep producing. Keep producing," because it does inspire people and then those people inspire you in turn and there's that feedback loop that happens, by just putting it out there.

David: Right, right. And that also kind of happens in brainstorming, right?

Where you're in a group of people and sometimes there's a dominant voice in that group of brainstormers, right? And maybe the more socially awkward people don't share their ideas, right? I think that's one of the biggest kinds of problems, with brainstorming and throwing ideas out there.

Noah: Yeah, it's interesting because I read a thing recently about how they've done some studies on brainstorming and the fact that it isn't that every idea is a good idea. That's not what it's about. It's just that you need to get through some bad ideas to get to some good ideas and if people shut down when they put out a bad idea and everyone goes, "That sucks," and then they don't say anything else, that's the problem. Versus like, "Oh, that a great, let's try that," and it's a terrible idea, you don't try it. Just keep going though. Keep moving, keep moving, because then you'll get to it. And what a lot of people find with creativity that I think is interesting is that it's not a well that you use up. You don't have X number of creative ideas in your life and then you're done. It's that once you start doing stuff, making things, being creative, putting yourself out there, taking these steps, you get momentum. That momentum is really where the great stuff comes from, that once you're moving you'll find there's a tendency to keep moving and make more things and make more ideas. And so a lot of what I do in the Unstuck book is really just encourage people to do a lot of little silly things, small amounts of time dedicated to it, because I get that the yea-long project thing is daunting. And so I'm like,

"Look, just try this little stuff," because you're making something. In the old writing exercise, you just write for thirty minutes and you're not allowed to stop so that way you're not judging yourself and so people just write and write and write because eventually you've warmed up your engine and now it's moving. And the hardest things is to go from zero to an idea. It's very hard just to be like, "I'm not going to do anything," and then boom, an idea comes to me. That's not the reality of it but people assume,

"Oh, it's that spark, right? It's the gods that throw the lightning bolt at your head and the music and inspiration shows up," and it's not that at all. It's really just doing stuff, and then eventually good ideas come because you've done stuff.

Over the course of my project I made a lot of things and a percentage of them I think are really good things that a lot of great stuff has come from, and then a lot of them are Okay things. But all of it was worth doing and worth going through the experience of. And for me the daily thing that was cool was that it showed what I was capable of, like a marathon. I was like, "Wow, I could do this. I know what I can do now." That's really a cool thing as well to show other people, so all of that stuff in beneficial. Regardless of whether that final outcome is like, "Look at this amazing thing I made." It's just, "Here's this experience I had," which is worth having.

David: Right, right. So from the book, from the "52 ways", which is one of your favorites for finally grabbing that spark?

Noah Wow. All of them are great and it really depends on sort of the amount of time you want to commit and the amount of effort you want to put into what you need to do and so there's some huge projects where I'm like,

"If you really want to make a commitment here's some fun stuff to try." A lot of it is about getting out of also your work environment. I really find that people look for creativity on the Internet and they sit at their desk all day. It doesn't happen. What happens is you've got to get up and away and so coming up with projects that force you to go outside, or force you to turn off the computer or any of those things and there's several in the book that are like that. That are like just spend an hour without using your computer and try to get your work done. So you do it. I mean, it would be hard for me, I'm a designer, I work on the computer. But I do things with my hands, and so when I intentionally take that chunk of time and go outside or whatever, go look at clouds. It's silly stuff like that where I'll say just spend some time doing those things that were the fun things you did as a kid; because then your ideas will come. I know for me, my best ideas often come on my bicycle. when I have nothing else to do but pedal and go from one place to another.

David: Right. It's when you take your mind off that task you've been just focused on forever and you go do that other thing like as simple as riding a bike, right? And then it's like, "Oh, yeah."

Noah Yeah. Giving yourself the permission to do that is really important. So again, that's why the projects in the book are sort of like, "Well look, it says I have to do it so I'll do it," instead of being like, "Well, I wonder if I could go outside instead." In a way I'm like, "Here's permission. Here's your project. Here's your thing to do today." So one of the big ones at the end of the book, because it's organized by time so it's like 30-second projects at the beginning and multi-hour at the end. One of them at the end is to find the entire alphabet in natural forms or just in your environment, like could you find the letter A, but not a real letter A, like made out of two twigs and a whatever that just happened to be around, like could you discover the entire alphabet in your environment around you? Maybe in your office or maybe outside, and maybe you could do that over the course of a few weeks. Maybe do one a day for the entire alphabet or something, but have a little task. I've been using Instagram lately as a way to force myself to keep making creative choices every day so I'm always like, "I've got to make one good photo every single day." So I use that. It's a free app on my phone and it makes me look at the world differently because I'm constantly thinking, "I've got to share something creative and there's an audience paying attention," so it works on the same principles of little actions that keep you thinking and then some of the photos I take I think are good and could be inspiration for the work I'm going to do later somewhere else.

David: Right. I try to do the Instagram thing too, but the problem I run into is I'm very much a perfectionist where I'm like, "Well, this shot is Okay, I don't know if it's Instagram-worthy, though," right?

Noah And that's interesting, because there's sort of a gameification going on Instagram, right? Because you get likes and then if you get a lot of likes you feel better about your work or worse and that's a part, right?

There's a judgment thing there. The thing for me about the daily process, and about a lot of the stuff was like the permission to just do whatever is to just get it done. Getting it done is the important part and so even Instagram is like, "yeah, there's better and worse photos for me but there's always going to be another one for me the next day. I know even if today's is flop I'm going to make another one tomorrow and that's going to be great. Everyone's going to know this one". So there's a little lessening of the impact, like, "This is my one only chance to get this right." And I think that happens a lot where people are like, "I've got to put all my energy into this one project," and then they get to the end and it was like, and it's Okay. Whereas if I put a hundred projects out there maybe one will stick and be good and so what if 99 were not the best? Nobody's going to remember those. They're going to remember the great one that at least I got to, because I put it out there and because I kept making stuff.

David: Got you. And then that great one is the one that you're showcasing, right?

Noah Exactly. Absolutely, yeah.

David: Got you. Awesome, awesome. These have been some awesome tips. Where do you go for your inspiration? Do you read up certain blogs or is it really just different activities that you do away from the Internet?

Noah I definitely read a lot of blogs. I do find that there's a tendency to get sort of inspiration overload online. Because if I look at too much other people's work I don't feel good, I feel bad. Because I'm like, "Oh, they are all making awesome stuff and I suck." Because you're seeing this conglomeration of either lots of people's work, which is like, "Oh, look at all this great work I'm not doing," or it's one person's work over their entire history. It's like, here's everything they've ever made and then you're like, "I didn't make all this stuff," and so that stuff can be daunting, and so where I tend to be is really I get a lot of inspiration from travel, going to new environments, new places, I'm always trying to put myself in unusual situations if I can get out of the country, especially, that's always great but just little bits of travel. So for me it's always like how can I get out of my comfort zone in terms of my environment, the workplace I'm in, daily in little ways, weekly in bigger ways, monthly, yearly, in bigger and bigger ways. But that for me just constantly trying to expose myself to new things but now necessarily in the traditional. It doesn't have to be a museum, and it doesn't have to be a place for inspiration or books that are collections. Just other, for a lot of people it could be just going to nature, and just getting the opposite of what they're dealing with all the time. Any small amounts of time.

Like I say, the bicycle is amazing because what happens is because I don't listen to music on the bike and because I have to focus so I don't get hit by a car, my brain is given a chance to do some processing in the background. So that kind of like putting myself in places where I'm just relaxed and enjoying myself and the back of my brain does the work that it needs to do; which I can't do if I'm trying to force it or if I'm staring at a computer screen, which it definitely doesn't do.

David: Right. Awesome. So where can people find you online?

Noah Boy, there's a bunch of places, but I'm going to say go to makesomething365.com and that's the website that's associated with the

"Unstuck book:" and my "Make Something 365" book and there's a ton of inspiration on there and I always encourage people if they do their own projects any length of time to send them to me and share them because I love to share those with other people and again continue that inspiration loop. If you want to see all the skulls I made you can go to skulladay.com and at the top it says Original 365 and that will fill you in on all the ones that I made in my year.

I hope it encourages people to try some stuff, to do some wacky things, give themselves permission. I give you the permission to be silly, try something, do a little thing. Don't stress yourself out. Creativity is supposed to be fun and I think a lot of people forget that and even the most serious work needs this. The equation I say to people is that a lot of people are like, "Why do you want to be creative? I'm not an artist, I don't make creative work," but creativity leads to inspiration, and inspiration leads to innovation and everybody wants innovation right now. That's how businesses survive. So if you want innovation you want creativity so that's the thing that you want to encourage and foster.

David: Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show. I really appreciate your time.

Noah Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.