How To Decisively Move On After A Major Project

Right now I feel empty, like I have nothing to say. It’s a natural feeling at the end of a big project.

I’ve spent most of the last 12 months of my life working on No Missing Tools and now that it’s nearly ready for release I’m facing that big black chasm we all confront at the end of a major project – what to do next.

Having been here before, I know how easy it is to get stuck after a major project. So, here’s some ideas for how I tackle the gap and how you might be able to move more decisively from one major creative project to another.

Reward And Celebrate

It’s only fitting to tie a bow around completed projects. If they’ve gone well, we should celebrate the achievement, before parking it in the trophy cabinet of experience. And, if things didn’t go smoothly, then it is always a relief to say goodbye. Either way there are toasts to be made and thank yous to be said or written.

And, whether the project succeed, failed or went on to something in between, this is the moment to reflect on the lessons we learnt.

When the production schedule for No Missing Tools was decided I booked a little weeklong ski trip while the layout was being done. It was a week when I knew there was little for me to contribute. That time away was the perfect opportunity to get some distance from the project and make notes about how I might approach my next book. You might want to codify what you’ve learnt into a blogpost, a video, a manifesto or some other tangible thing you can share with others (I’m planning an epic blogpost on independent publishing).

Open Yourself Up

In order to complete a project our focus always ends up becoming narrower. When I started writing No Missing Tools, I was thinking about every aspect of creativity, but by the end of the writing, I was mostly deleting things that were not relevant to the main themes of the book. Along the way, I was spending less and less time making music or photos as the editing and design of the book took over all my time.

But, creativity is about being open to the world. At the end of a big project, it’s time to open the windows of our soul and let in some fresh creative air.

Give yourself permission to soak in whatever kinds of experiences fuel and inspire you. I’ve literally got it all over the next few weeks; travel, films, books, galleries, exercise, shopping, time goofing off in the studio – everything I’ve been putting off or doing less of in order to get the book done. Whatever you’ve been denying yourself in order to finish your project, now is the time to order a double serving!

Engage With Smart Creative People

If you want a really transformative tip at the end of a big project, this is it – go find really smart creative people and hang out with them. I don’t mean hang out in a social media, water cooler sense. I mean find a way to deeply and meaningful work with them, learn from them or in some fashion, let them into your world.

Nothing will kick start your creativity faster than adding some fresh good quality faces to your roster. We naturally feel stale and shorn of ideas at the end of a big project. So new collaborations, especially ones with people who have a sharp creative process, will liven up your transition to the next big thing. For example, right now I’m bringing all these new people into my creative world.

Mentor – in No Missing Tools I develop some of my previous thinking about the importance of mentors. After that, I had to take my own advice and find someone to fill that role for me. I’ve been fortunate to secure a respected artist, who is a creative and commercial success, from outside the worlds of music, photography and writing to help me be more bold and adventurous in my next projects.

Web Designer – I’ve DIY’d my websites since the 90s. Back in the days of HTML frames I was a core contributor to the King’s College London site and I’ve built a few commercial WordPress websites over the years. But, the last redesign of this site three years ago, took me most of a month and honestly, I was never happy with the result. Now I’m working with a great designer and already thinking more sharply about how I want this site to work in the future.

Copywriter – for years now I’ve been complaining about my inability to write a good bio or about me page. It’s a struggle for most creatives. But, rather than continue to whine about it, I’ve found a copywriter with great major agency experience, to coach me on writing better explanations of my work and projects.

Photo Editor – I’ve benefitted a lot in the past from image critique sessions with photographers and gallery owners. Now I’ve booked a session with an experienced photo editor to go through 200 of my best images from the past 5 years and whittle those down to a small section of 25 or so images I will highlight on the new site.

Photographer – the last time another photographer took my photo was 2011! Since then I’ve been reusing the same old images, most of which are self-portraits (is it a selfie if you use studio lights?). So, I contacted a Tokyo based portrait photographer I admire, who only works with natural light, to shoot some fresh new images for this site and my social media profiles.

All these people are not just giving me services I need, they are making me think in fresh dynamic ways about the style and substance of my work and helping me clarify what I should do next and what it should look like. They are people who’ve travelled a good way down the road and have great stories to share.

Find Your Next Big Thing

The space between delivering on our last big announcement and finding the next big project to announce can be a little dangerous. It’s easy to get stuck, spending too long either coasting off our last success or, wallowing in defeat and despair.

I hope these three ideas, Reward and Celebrate, Open Yourself Up and Engage With Smart People can help you navigate this space well. The examples I’ve given are the way I’m doing it after a really big project, the biggest one I’ve tackled in years. I’m sure if you give yourself some time, you can fill in your own ideas for look back, look out and look up as you embark on your next big creative adventure.

Chinese New Year 2015

Chinese New Year
Today marks the Chinese New Year and the start of the year of the Ram (or sheep, or goat, feel free to debate that one in the comments section below). For seven years I lived with Chinese New Year as the major holiday on the calendar in Hong Kong and Singapore, but the truth is, growing up with such a large and vibrant Chinese community in Sydney, the festival has always been top of mind at the start of every year.

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Kung Hey Fat Choy!

Of course, Chinese New Year is hardly a small, regional event. With over 100 countries holding celebrations (roughly 1 in 6 people in the world) and as The Guardian pointed (Chinese new year 2015 – in numbers) in China citizens spend more than double what Americans spend during Thanksgiving on shopping and food. Fitting when we consider that more than double the population of the US will be on the move in China over the weeklong holiday, visiting family and home towns, not to mention the huge numbers across the rest of Asia, especially Hong Kong and Singapore who will be taking international breaks at this time.

Despite the increasing ambivalence towards organised religion in most developed countries, major traditional celebrations are not going away. This is not a bad thing. Celebrations like Chinese New Year might be open to political exploitation, especially as state-run Chinese media try to wrap the festival up in nationalist propaganda, but the celebrations also mark important ways in which individuals connect with family and community.

Red Packet Reality

The traditional giving of red envelopes with cash, (lai see), was a fascinating and humbling experience. The notes in the envelope should be new (or fresh and near new) which usually means a special trip to the bank. Parents give lai see to kids, bosses to employees, married couples to their single friends, but also you give lai see to others whose services you regularly rely on. I always gave lai see to the doormen and concierge at my building because they were such a helpful part of life and the staff of the restaurants and cafes I ate at every week.

In fact, the practice always made me reflect on the human relationships that made up my typical day. It’s easy to take for granted how many people help our day run well, but once all those coffee cups, postal deliveries, hailed taxis, meals and, appointments start getting measured out in red envelopes, it all starts to feel more substantial and interconnected.

Cleaning Or, Bringing In The Luck

Chinese New Year also marks a time to clean one’s home, to make room for good luck to come in, while dispensing with old and broken things that have no place anymore. And, while I don’t believe my good fortune it tied to when and how I tidy my home, there is something rather nice about starting the new year with a clean and organised home and workplace. In Japan, there is a similar tradition to cleaning before the calendar new year and it felt great to greet guests at the start 2015 in clean home and start the working year with everything in its place.

Of course, the language of “spring cleaning” is still commonplace, but I like the idea of fixing it to a date in the calendar. In a way, it’s liberating, as a household the custom of the big annual clean becomes less controversial, less of a thing to fight over or debate.

Truth is we need rituals that help us reflect on our habits of clutter and consumption. If our lives are too full of junk, then we simply don’t have room to be open to whatever the coming year has to offer us, we’ll be too weighed down either to respond, or to enjoy gifts life might have in store for us.

No Missing Tools

Next month I will be releasing my first book. It’s called No Missing Tools: Creativity In An Age Of Abundance.

No Missing Tools is the biggest project I’ve undertaken in years and it has consumed a huge slice of the last 18 months of my life. Originally I set out to create an eBook of old blogposts, from ten years of writing on creativity. But, it soon became clear that in order to really do the subject justice, I had to dig deeper and peel back the layers, both of my own creative journey and also what it means to be creative in our age of abundance.

I believe we are living in an extraordinary time. So many of the tools and resources required for creativity are more readily available now than at any stage in human history. But, our ideas about how to express our creativity are locked outdated cultural assumptions that are no longer helpful to us.

I wanted to write a positive, hopeful manifesto for the souls who have read my blog over the years, the brave and resilient band of individuals whose creativity shines through in small and not so small ways.

No Missing Tools has plenty of stories and experiences I’ve never shared before along with examples from contemporary creative practice and insights from recent academic research. I also discuss some of the books, poems, films and of course music that say something about what it means to be live a creative life.

Divided into five chapters, No Missing Tools looks at how to discover your motivations, recognise your sources of inspiration, understand your place in the world, focus on your creative work, and rest and recover in ways that prepare you to be even more creative.

I’ve done my best to make sure No Missing Tools isn’t just a book for musicians and photographers. I asked my editors to push me hard to ensure the examples in the book touched on all sorts of creative pursuits, like design, cooking, painting, film-making, writing and even parenting.

In a few days I’ll be announcing how you can get your hands on a copy of No Missing Tools. The book will be available through Amazon, The Kindle Store, iBooks and also in a limited edition printed here in Japan. But, for now I just wanted to let you know a little more about No Missing Tools and I look forward to making the book available for you to read.

7 Things We Learned About You (The Readers Of This Site)

Last month I decided to survey the readers of this site, to find out a little more about your tastes and habits. It has been years since I did something like this and the results were fascinating and a lot of fun to read. Rather than bore you with a lot of explanation, I decided to put the seven key insights into an infographic.



While designing the survey, I wasn’t interesting in collecting the normal demographic information (age, location, job, etc). When it comes to online communication, our tastes, interests, habits and passions matter so much more.

Plus, I’ve been a crossroads for a while now, wondering where to go next with this site. The survey was another part on drawing a new map, not just for this site, but for my work as well.

So, do you see yourself in the results? I’d love to hear what you think, either in the comments, via email, or over on Twitter.

Why We Are Always Beginners

Fortress Rajasthan

It’s that time of year again, when the gyms start to feel less crowded, the diet books begin to gather dust and our email inboxes overflow once more. Despite being only a few weeks into 2015, we can already feel those brave, bold New Year’s resolutions slipping away. It’s like the sun is already setting on the dreams of a better life.

New Year’s resolutions are seductive. We all long to focus only on the things that matter to us. I believe we crave the feeling of control that comes from having mastered something, having moved beyond being a beginner — but in so much of life, we are always beginning, always facing something we have to learn, or re-learn.

Learning To Be A Beginner

As a kid, I played a bit of golf. While golf is normally seen as an exclusive sport, I was fortunate to grow up in a neighbourhood of Sydney that had some decent, affordable public courses. My friends and I would hit the fairways after school with our hand-me-down clubs and second hand balls. None of us were great, but by the time we graduated high school, we could post decent scores and get around more challenging courses.

I came back to golf in my early 30s, after moving to Delhi. A friend invited me to play on a spectacular championship course. It was a harrowing experience. I scored 147, which one caddie suggested might be the worst score ever posted at that club. Perhaps the only achievement was not giving up, as mishits, lost balls and penalties pushed me towards double the kind of scores I had registered as a kid.

All my previous experience didn’t matter, I was a beginner again.

Embrace The Beginner

I’ve lost track of how often this kind of experience has cropped up. When I went back to music full time in 2004, I had to re-learn the whole recording process. Last year on the ski-slopes, I felt like a complete novice again, nervously making turns on a beginner slope.

One thing all these experiences have in common, is dealing with changes in technology. Computers have replaced tape machines, memory cards have replaced film, and sports equipment, from skis to golf clubs have been significantly improved. Technology has changed technique.

Even if we don’t take a break from something, like I did with golf, it can still feel hard to keep up. Take web design, where the ideas that felt new and fresh 10-12 years ago (like html frames) are now useless and even concepts from 3-4 years ago (above the fold) are now being abandoned.

In every field new ideas and technologies keep making us feel like beginners again. It’s tempting sometimes to throw our hands in the air and say, “I give up, this is too difficult.”

Rethinking Difficulty

My Japanese tutor is very good, but she has the unfortunate habit of introducing new concepts by saying “this is very difficult.” While it’s true Japanese grammar is challenging, this approach puts the learner on the defensive. It’s kind of the opposite of the way I approach learning in my normal creative work.

“Nothing in music is hard, just unfamiliar.”
– Kenny Werner

When I first read this quote by Kenny Werner, it quite literally blew my world apart. We are encouraged from an early age, especially at school, to assume technically impressive things are difficult and therefore, out of our reach. Werner’s quote is part of a worldview that turns this on it’s head. It’s a more open, abundant view of our potential that reminds of another favourite quote, from Steve Jobs.

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is. And your life is just to live inside the world: Try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life; life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is, everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.

And, you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
– Steve Jobs

Feeling like a beginner is a natural part of the creative process, not some mark of failure or weakness. Beginning again doesn’t mean we are failing at life, it means we are making the most of the life we have, continuing to grow and allowing ourselves to be open to the fresh, new ideas around us.

Help Me Help You

I love the famous “help me help you” scene in Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise plays a sports agent who is down to his last client and struggling to sign him to a new contract. In a moment of passionate desperation, Jerry sprouts out all the vulnerable, self-revealing kind of stuff you are not supposed to say in a business meeting.

“I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be me out here for you. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok?

Help me… help you. Help me help you. Help me, help you. Help me, help YOU.”

The way this scene turns from Jerry’s frustration with his situation, to the moment when we realises success is only possible through a better relationship with his client, where they both understand each other’s needs and motivations, is pure genius. It’s also become something of a theme for me as I think about where to take this blog over the next few years.

Looking Back – Looking Forward

During 2014 I spent a lot of time reading old blog posts, which also meant reading the comments so many of you have written over the years. This was a welcome reminder of how extraordinarily bold, creative and resilient all of you are, who’ve chosen to read this blog since 2004!

This also made me think about the best articles I’ve written. Not the blogposts that generated the most traffic, but the ones that attracted the comments, emails or social media interactions; the ones that connected. Many of these were passionate, personal and vulnerable; they were also, more often than not, helpful as well.

Help Me, Help You – The Survey

With that in mind, I’m asking for a few minutes of your time to do a little survey. I’d like to understand you a little better as a reader of this site and a fan of blogs.  Yeah – help me, help you.

The survey is now closed – thank you to everyone who took the time to reply.

Have A Wonderful Christmas

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Today is my last full day “in the office.” Tomorrow morning, I have a couple of Skype meetings, then a few emails to send and things to tidy up. Then, I’m taking a solid two week break. There will be one more article here next week, then I won’t be posting again until January 5.

It feels like a lot of folks are taking a longish break. Maybe it’s because of the way the dates fall this year. Here in Japan Christmas day is observed, but it isn’t a public holiday. However, the 23rd is a public holiday (Emperor’s Birthday) as is New Year’s day, with many businesses closed from the 31st of December to the 3rd of January, as New Year’s is an important family holiday for the Japanese.

A lot of people I know have been grinding away at the work pretty hard over 2014; some of them for quite a few years. We always hear the “I need a holiday” cry at this time of year, but it seems to be a little louder than normal right now.

However you choose to celebrate this time of year, I hope you find it to be a time full of rest, wonder and hope. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and for all the comments, emails, tweets and messages during the year. I’m deeply thankful that you’ve taken the time to look in on my journey during 2014 and I look forward to offering you some great new stuff in 2015.

Personal Branding

Rajasthan HDR Bicycle
I’m not a fan of ‘personal branding.’ To me brands are always works of fiction. Sure, Nike or McDonalds make actual things in the world and have a history, but the brands are real only in the same sense that Batman or Sherlock Holmes are real.

At its extreme, personal branding feels like vanity to the point of deceit. A few heavily photoshopped profile pictures, an exaggerated and overly flattering ‘about me’ text, all contributing to a carefully curated version of ourselves aimed at impressing an online audience.

And yet, so many smart creatives I speak to still talk about personal branding, that it makes me wonder what the phrase might mean in its best sense and how, if at all, it can be redeemed.

Personal Work – In An Artistic Sense

In most creative fields, personal work refers to those passion projects we do that don’t have a direct client or any immediate commercial value. So, for instance, a photographer might have a good business selling portraits, but their personal work might be something different, like working in an old medium (say, film or plate) or photographing other kinds of subjects, like landscapes or architecture.

We learn in school that the way to present ourselves to the world is through our CV, or a Resume–style listing of our achievements and work experience, in the hope that people will hire us to do more of the same. But, what if we don’t want to be defined just by what we have been paid to do in the past?

Personal work can often be powerful because it taps deeply into our motivations as the most authentic expression of our creativity. In this sense, personal branding makes some sense as an attempt to preset this aspect of our work to the world, trying to lead not just with what we’ve done, but with what we believe is the most unique and special contribution we can offer.

Personal Work – In A Psychological Sense

Another sense in which personal work is used describes a commitment to self–improvement. This might mean learning to better manage one’s emotions, commitments, or relationships, or trying to overcome something like addiction or grief. None of this, if done properly, is easy.

While writing my book, I had plenty of moments that made me reflect on my life, especially my early creative experiences. This was often a deeply emotional experience. It’s common for a major creative project that taps into our biography, our life–story, to have the potential to move us and to be able to change the way we understand our own work and true mission.

This kind of personal work really should change how we present ourselves to the world; in fact, it can help us to be more honest and authentic in doing so.

Personal Branding Should Point To Actual Work

What both these notions of personal work have in common is that they point to actual work. The personal branding they make possible is simply an exercise in trying to explain and articulate how that work looks to people we might meet, or who might encounter our work online. But, the substance is not the branding, it’s the work itself.

To be honest, I’m not sure quite how well we can reclaim a phrase like personal branding; it feels so hopelessly tarnished.

Maybe a better goal is to look instead at the things we’ve made, the work we’ve done that explains who we understand ourselves to be, and where we hope to go, and just point to that instead.

Who Do You Serve – Where Are You Going

Road To Tso Moriri
Why are we so obsessed with authenticity? Partly, it’s because with so many options and choices presented to us each day, with the torrent of ideas, opinions and personalities that spill out of out of the media we consume every day, we feel “info-whelmed” trying to decide who and what to trust.

The Trust Equation

One of the best explanations of trustworthiness I’ve seen comes from Charles H. Green. His Trust Equation suggests that trustworthiness is measured by the sum of someone’s credibility, reliability and intimacy (how safe and secure we feel with them), divided by their self-orientation.


Being too self-absorbed can undermine someone who otherwise seems likeable and professional. This is why we value authenticity so much; we are looking for a window into people’s motivations, into the longer story of who they are, where they’ve come from and where they are going.

Between Art And Commerce

In the most simplistic sense, we see art as nothing but self-expression and commerce as simply about getting money. Both clichés are selfish and wrong. Art isn’t art because of the self-expression, but because of the connection, the resonance, it has with those who experience it, the way it serves their need for beauty, truth, freedom or inspiration. And, commerce is possible only because goods and services meet needs and solve problems for consumers.

Service might feels like an uncomfortable goal. But, I’d like you to think about service not just in terms of satisfying clients, fans or followers, but more as the bigger, audacious dream you have for the work you do. What you serve, is a way of framing and identifying what problems, beyond your immediate need for food, shelter and affection, are you trying to solve?

Unless we can answer the “what/how do you serve” questions, we risk scoring low on the trust equation and appearing to be inauthentic and self-serving.

Show People Your Road

I believe our obsession with authenticity is a natural evolutionary reaction to the amount of salesmanship we see online; to all the relentless, often false, personal branding and general hype. It’s a refined, natural progression from Green’s trust equation. Authenticity involves revealing our purpose, being honest about the facts of our situation and having some significant, worthwhile contribution to make.

When you meet someone who feels authentic, you get a sense of the road they are travelling on, the places they’ve been in their life and where they might be going. This isn’t necessarily every detail of their biography, but it’s enough to show us what the big picture of their life is, what greater goals they serve.

An Aspect Of Marketing Few Creatives Understand

Christmas Wrapping Prep
This morning, while wrapping the last of this year’s Christmas presents, I was listening to The Creative Penn Podcast, by London-based author, Joanna Penn. The episode I tuned into was an interview with book cover designer Derek Murphy, which turned out mostly to be a conversation about the role cover designs play in the marketing of books, especially for independent authors.

The Commerce Of Art

While discussing how to understand what book covers and web site designs can do for an author, Joanna made a brilliantly concise statement that summed up something few creatives seem to understand.

“The writing is about you, the publishing is about the book, the marketing is about the customer.”
– Joanna Penn

Or, put it this way; the music is about you, the mixing and mastering is about the album (or single), the marketing is about the listener. For photographers it might be; the photography is about you, the processing is about the photo, the print is about the customer.

The Print Market

I’ve spoken with a quite a few photographers who’ve struggled to sell prints. One well known photographer even lamented that it was a “waste of time.” All the photographers seemed, to me at least, to be making similar mistakes. The photos we think are our best images, the ones we like the most are not, necessarily, the ones other people might want to put on their wall.

All too often, photographers spend their time, especially online, trying to impress other photographers, rather than trying to understand what makes consumers interested in buying or appreciating photographs.

Amongst the prints I had for sale in 2010-11, the one that sold best wasn’t my favourite photo. It didn’t (obviously) show off my technical skills. To be honest, this monastery photo feels kind of postcard-ish. But, I learnt some folks really like to have this kind of image on the walls of their home or office.

Stages Of Creative Process

We no longer live in a world where a photographer needs a gallery to sell prints, nor does a musician needs a major label to see globally, or an author a publisher to release a book. But, the thrill of being able to do it ourselves, shouldn’t make us blind to the benefits that existed in the old system.

The moment we start to render our work into a tangible form, turning music into an album, words into a book or photos into prints, we need to start asking ourselves what serves the best interest of the work.

I’m often asked to comment on projects by musicians who are DIYing their own albums. A lot of the music is really good. But, almost without exception it would have been a lot better if the musicians had invested a bit more in getting their music mixed or mastered properly, with techniques and approaches suited to the music that has been made.

And, if we choose to turn that creative work into a product, then marketing becomes essential. But, sadly, few independent creatives make the time to understand and have insights into the people who are, or could be interested in their work. To have a complete, sustainable approach you need to understand yourself and your work, but you also need to understand how to best realise the kinds of work you do, usually with the help of others and you need to find and understand the people who are willing to support your work, or buy the things you make.