Hello, my name is Sandy.

Creativity and freedom

Someone once told me the best canvas for an artist was a postage stamp. Seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? You'd think a creative person could go on for ages. So I don't know if there's any truth behind it, but it still stuck with me throughout the years. Every now and then, it comes to mind.

Are we more creative when we have freedom, or do we need constraints?

When I worked as a designer, I always wanted more freedom and more time. I suspect this is always going to be the case when you spend the bulk of your day on buttons, banners and mockups for stakeholders who "know a thing or two about design" themselves.

Jokes aside, it might have been unrealistic to want a lot of freedom here, because the purpose of design is to solve problems, and problems are created by constraints. Juggling canvas space restrictions, colour palettes, brand styles, user attention, stakeholder idiosyncrasies and the technical limitations of the medium posed the total challenge. I wasn't asked to be artistic, I was asked to design an optimal answer within a particular combination of constraints. Therein lay my measure of creativity.

Some people need the pressure of a deadline to be creative, to get anything done at all. I've met many creatives who admit to squandering the luxury of time on procrastination. And even more who fall into the trap of over-thinking. When you have too much time and not enough parameters to give you direction, anything is possible - and not necessarily in a good way.

Say you're asked to design a couple of mockups, and are given a ton of freedom. Now you're not just solving a problem, you're finding solutions for several problems that may or may not be relevant to the greater objective - but you'll only know for sure after you've done the work and put it through the wringer. That's a lot of sweat, tears and Photoshop hours. Sometimes that much wiggle room triggers a creatively agoraphobic panic, even if you have heaps of time to consider every possibility. The task just feels big, you know? Insurmountable. Higher thought shuts down, and you fall back on safe, same-samey patterns just to get by.

Maybe I just wasn't a good designer, and this is what happens. But I can't deny how useful it can be to have limitations. I did find my creativity would skyrocket during highschool and uni exam time, or when I was sick - periods where I was technically busier or more stressed. Something about the pressure got me fired up.

On the other hand, science suggests we need freedom from cognitive load to be creative. I can't deny that either. It's hard to think imaginatively when burnt out - hard to think of anything but survival. There's a lot to be said for giving ourselves a chance to relax, giving our brains the space to process stuff and apply some higher thought. We're just treading water otherwise.

Perhaps the question is less about whether freedom or constraints make us more creative, and more about how much of both we need, and what we end up doing with it. It's not that we need to wish for free time or more space, but for purposeful time, with just enough constraint for guidance, in which we can freely move toward what we want to achieve.

For the past month, I've been tethered to this blog, promising myself I would publish 30 posts in 30 days. But not just any old post. The aim was to push myself - so there could be no BS token effort. And the content had to stay true to this blog. Nothing stupid, nothing not me for the sake of ticking a box. Those were the rules, and there were busy, uninspired days where I wished I could break them. But I didn't. I accepted the constraints and took liberties where I could.

Towards the end, words seemed to come more naturally, even when I was stuck for ideas. I found I could speak on things I was tongue-tied about before. Now on the last day of this challenge, I'm feeling sufficiently pushed, and more confident about my writing and creativity.

I guess this experience has taught me that to improve in any area, to achieve a more natural feeling of creativity in any discipline, it takes focus and a sense of purpose. Not the whim of inspiration - you can go to that mountain if it doesn't come to you. Not the luxury of free time - I've written less on longer deadlines. There's no two ways about it. If you want to reach a rewarding goal, you simply have to work for it.

What a bastard of a thing.

Making friends on the internet

When I first got online, I was 13 and very few people I knew had internet access. With the exception of one cousin at university, the only people I emailed and chatted with were people I had met in chatrooms and newsgroups. I'd stay up all night sometimes, on alt.something, email, IRC, ICQ, AIM, BBS, just 'hanging out' and having heartfelt conversations with these screen names, these people I had never met but felt very comfortable talking to.

There was a period where I felt closer to my online friends than to my offline friends. It should tell you something that I'd make the distinction at all between online and offline friends. That's what it was like back then. I was a kid with two distinct lives.

In the real world, I was a nobody teenager with braces, bad skin and a confusing social life. In the virtual world, which felt no less real to me, I had amassed a small audience through my writing and made friendships I still hold dear to this day.

My online friends and I swapped mail, talked on the phone, one even flew over to visit, though in hindsight, I was wholly unprepared and way too unsure of myself to know what it meant to suddenly become friends offline too.

As I got older, I started getting to know people in my city who didn't live close enough to just hang out with. It happens, I guess - you grow up, get jobs, meet more people. And offline friends moved away too and became online friends through distance. Technology made it possible to stay close.

The way I understood friendships changed, broadened. Rather than being based on how much I saw a person or how often we giggled together, the relationships I valued came to be based on trust and care, mutual enrichment and a willingness to relate.

Some friendships are better over distance. There's just not enough of that day-to-day compatibility to weather constant contact. But some friendships are far better in person, especially when you respond to situations in ways that make the experiences more fun for both of you. These measurements, I realised, applied to every relationship regardless of whether they started in meatspace or on the internet.

As the years passed, it felt more natural to refer to online and offline friendships as simply "friendships". Turns out the distinction doesn't matter. One of my best friends lives a few suburbs away; we see each other every couple of weeks. Another bestie lives on the other side of the world; we talk every day, more than we used to when we lived in the same city.

Another good friend and I chat almost exclusively via post. We talk about life and love and fear in one long conversation stretched out over weeks and months. We've known each other nearly twenty years. We still haven't met.

The psychological toll of book club

Come July, I have a book club thing with a handful of mates. I'm super excited for it, even though I generally don't do book clubs. Or movie clubs. I don't do monthly get-togethers either; seasonal kibbutzes, other regular things like that.

There's something about monthly whatever clubs that starts to feel old very quickly. At least for me. Even in that first month, with the excitement of doing something new, I still get the sense of staring down a long sentence without parole.

Of course, in reality, parole happens. People take breaks, wane in enthusiasm, fade into the background. You're never truly locked into a book club.

But I don't like dithering on commitments. It doesn't feel good. If I accept an invitation to book club, I want to be sincere about the implicit promise to be there for someone in that bookish way. And I can't. I'm picky about the media I consume, I don't want to be told what book to read next.

It's not just that, though. I get the same feeling with monthly, or weekly, dinners or lunches or movies or picnics or catchups or so-and-sos. Most of the time, I want play-dates, not play-marriages. So as soon as I hear there's a time-based ball to chain myself to, I'm out.

Perhaps it's an underlying fear of commitment fuelling my aversion. Or what if I've cultivated a pattern of avoidance through type-A perfectionistic tendencies bordering on delusions of grandeur? That's getting heavy for a blog post on book clubs, isn't it.

To date, the only thing I've given myself to with regularity is indoor football. Christians have church, geeks have conventions, I have weekend team sport. I adore the psychological toll here. But then, maybe deep down it's because I know I'm on a time limit. That there's three decades at best left in my footballing body, barring some superb science or fitness secret that could make me match-fit until I die. I stare down this sentence of week after week, and wish it were several lifetimes long.

Well then. I'm trying something different with this book club by removing the regularity. None of us are trying to read more, just have a bit of fun. If anything, this affair is a big ask because we're all avid readers taking precious time out of our regular schedule to do this together. So, as the organiser, I want to respect that by eliminating the routine, the locked-in feeling.

Just one 398-page dalliance in July because we want to. No strings attached. They don't have to call the next day or month. We're ships, passing bookishly in the night.

Gathering my party

My past year has been full of lucky coincidences. Bordering on uncanny.

Like, one day, I looked at my post-konmari wardrobe and decided it was time to buy more work tops, then literally the next day, someone gives me two brand new shirts from the office swag box. Another time, just as I loaded up a job board to look for new gigs, I received a message from someone who needed some writing done.

And then there was the time a $300 cheque arrived from the tax department, just as a couple of bills were due. That was rad.

The latest exciting coincidence is a far nerdier one. I had been... ahem... thinking of hunting down a D&D meetup group.


But turns out I didn't have to brave the wilderness of people I don't know, because some dudes at work were up for a game.

We played Pathfinder, a fantasy RPG by Paizo Publishing, based on the 3.5 ruleset of Dungeons & Dragons. After the customary half-hour of creating characters and mashing chips into our hungry mouths, we set out in search of the legendary Black Fang.

quest party in a dungeon

The first time I tried to play D&D, it was in a group I didn't know well, who I didn't have enough in common with. I was also very new to tabletop RPGs and RPG culture, and in a particularly anxious phase of my life, so it was an uphill climb on all fronts. Eventually, my enthusiasm waned and I left to go play Five Pint Fridays instead.

People make a party. There's no doubt about that.

There was a time where, in my naïveté, I believed if you could find people who liked the same stuff you did, you'd find instant friends in them. This was followed by years of meeting people I didn't gel with despite us having the same hobbies.

Turns out it takes more than hobbies to sustain a friendship. You need compatible temperaments and perspective, overlaps in sense of humour, an awareness of each other's needs and communication styles, and enough similar life experiences to be able to relate to each other. Finally, you need an enthusiasm for the friendship, or at least for the activity you're sharing.

party, dice and character sheet

XP has taught me that if you do the things that align with who you are, you wind up in situations that suit you, and meet people you can get along with - maybe even people with whom you have the right things in common. You do what you do, and the more you it is, the more you you'll get.

In recent months, I have been doing a lot of me, exploring work and passions with greater intent and direction. I'm "following my heart", I guess you could say. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - one of my favourite, most influencing books - remarks on this, saying when you follow your heart, when you want something, "all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

Yeah, it's romantic, and probably not scientific. But maybe the coincidences this past year aren't uncanny at all, but the result of a heart-following, intrinsically motivated year of paranoidly overpaying my tax bills and meeting people who just keep spare shirts lying around. People who I have enough in common with that we can have an awesome, entertaining and comfortable evening of role-playing.

wearing hats and playing roles

So this time, almost exactly ten years after my first D&D attempt - as soon as I realised everyone was just as keen as I was to wear a hat and pass around props - I felt very at ease.

And how's this for a coincidence: when we all sat down to customise our characters, one of our players proclaimed his name would be Santiago, after the protagonist in his favourite book, The Alchemist.

The doing, and the having done

When I look back over the last 16 days, I think, hey I'm not doing too bad. I feel pleased with myself that I've managed to (sort of) keep up with this 'blog every day' challenge. It's all right, eh!

Then I look at today, and the fact that I starting my draft this close to midnight, and I'm like - shit.

I watched Tim Urban's TED talk recently. He's the Wait But Why guy, for anyone who doesn't know. Amidst the tomfoolery of deconstructing procrastination, one tiny thing he mentioned stuck out at me - that it's always been his dream to have done a TED talk.

Have done.

My life flashed before my eyes. At least, the parts where I've said yes to things because they sounded cool at the time, and later found that they were difficult and I hated them. Crocheting a kilometre of yarn, studying while working (twice), the 100 day project, NaNoWriMo. For these and many more, I'd feel the pinch not long after starting and find myself swearing to never do anything like that again.

Generally speaking, doing sucks. It's work. It's hard. It's anxiety-inducing. Your armpits sweat; your hair smells.

But in theory, to get to the end and be able to say you have done something is your reward. You complete the work and feel great as you feast on your accomplishments.

Except it doesn't always go that way. When I look back at the projects I struggled through, I can't say all of them make me feel good. In fact, there are a few that still make me mad at myself for having said yes to.

Sometimes the only reward I found at the finish line was simply that I could finally abandon the thing I didn't enjoy. The doing sucked, and the having done wasn't much better when it left me burned out and dealing with any fallout.

But time rolled on, and somewhere in a future I hadn't seen but eventually encountered, I found the payoffs from those crappy projects waiting for me. I came across situations where I could apply things I didn't realise I'd learned, or leverage qualifications and experience I'd dismissed as unimportant. So even those projects that stoke my angst to this day bore some reward after all.

With 13 more days to go, I'm not sure what my reward will be at the end of this challenge. I don't feel my writing getting better, but I do feel more confident - though it's more like 'confidence through obligation' as there's no time to maudle.

Admittedly (and pessimistically), I'm not expecting to be happy about having done it. But if in the distant future I manage to write a best-seller, would I look back at 2016 #blogjune and acknowledge its value?

I hope this doesn't mean that to feel rewarded, I must one day write a best-seller.

Or, should I say, "have written a best-seller".

Tiny fears, big happy

I finally have a Nownownow profile. Filling out the setup form and composing my what and why, was nerve-wracking. But this is where I'm at: I write, I make. And it's an awfully big undertaking if I don't have a good handle on why I'm doing it. Same can be said for a lot of things, I suppose.

You know what else was nerve-wracking? Emailing a complete stranger and asking him to take precious time out of his day to look at my page and help me set up my profile. It's not his job. I'm not paying him. Contacting him felt very personal and intimate and burdensome.

Admittedly, I didn't just set up my page and email Derek. My friend Kohan set up his page aaaaages ago, while I looked on in envy at his confidence and bravery. It took me months to work up the courage, plus a few days more to work up another batch of courage and fire off that email.

I feel shy around people I don't know well. Most of the time, I can push it away until I get to know them better (and have the shyness not be a problem anymore), but sometimes it gets the better of me. I mean, come on. Pulling a page together and emailing someone really isn't a big deal. What kind of idiot balks at that?

But it happens. And it's dumb. Dumb that such tiny fears can stop a person from getting big happy.

What's one email (or text or call) you've been nervous about sending? One with little risk of something going badly, and a payoff that would make you happy - if you could just get your act together?

Tell me about it on Facebook or Twitter, then go send it.