HEY MIKI

Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Starting up and moving on

Since writing my last post, in which I entreated readers to join me for a collaborative project, I’ve let this blog fall largely silent. Here is why: I realized one day shortly after writing that post that the collaborator I’d been looking for was right in front of me, my boyfriend Jackson.

When he and I put our heads together, we came up with a much larger project than I had originally imagined. I wanted to teach creative professionals how to collaborate more effectively; but what if we could help them find the best collaborators to begin with?

That’s a problem I’ve helped hundreds of people solve through endless emails, Facebook posts, and phone calls. Now there is a single platform to help us all keep track of our trusted contacts, ask them for collaborator recommendations, and keep up with the most exciting projects across many industries—we’re calling it Dovetail.

Starting a web company with your significant other struck us as unusual (and difficult) enough to warrant a blog of it’s own, so we created This Starts Now, where Jackson and I write about this whole start-up thing. Between that and actually starting up, I don’t have enough time to keep up with Hey Miki, so I’m taking a hiatus for the foreseeable future.

I hope you’ll join me at This Starts Now, and sign up for updates from Dovetail if it makes sense for you. I’m unbelievably excited about this new endeavor—knowing you’ll be following along and hopefully offering your insights is the icing on the cake.

Will you be my collaborator?

WHAT IS the single most important skill you can develop to ensure success in today’s economy? According to this brilliant Fast Company article (and my own experience), the answer is…adaptability.

“The new reality is multiple gigs, some of them supershort, with constant pressure to learn new things and adapt to new work situations, and no guarantee that you’ll stay in a single industry.”

But what exactly does it mean to be adaptable? Is it really a skill you can learn and hone?

My gut says yes. But it also says: “Learning to be adaptable is not just one skill, it’s lots of complementary skills developed together.” One of the most important of those skills, which I believe encompasses many others, is the ability to collaborate successfully.

Collaboration & Adaptation: One coin, two sides

If you’ve followed this blog or my newsletters, you’ve undoubtedly heard me talk about the importance of collaborative skills, but let’s break it down further. I’ve identified six broad tools you need to excel at collaboration. Here is how each one can also help you adapt to a fluid new world.

1. Know your strengths (and weaknesses): As job titles disappear (or are routinely invented) and bios become more important than resumes, it’s imperative to know exactly what you offer, why your offering is the best, and why people would want you to pay you for what you’re offering.

2. Find & engage influencers: Now that you’re more likely to create your own job than interview for it, your potential clients, co-workers, and customers are everywhere. Identifying and creating an authentic connection with them is the foundation of today’s successful marketing and sales strategies.

3. Ask the right questions: As I like to say, in our present state of flux, no one is an expert—which means everyone is an expert. It’s not enough to take one workshop or hire the “it” consultant; you need to be asking everyone you meet the big questions that relate to your business and passion.

4. Define goals and meet deadlines: When your customer or client is a moving target and your own services are constantly evolving, you have to be able to quickly and clearly establish goals for all stakeholders, strategize action items, and then build trust by meeting agreed upon deadlines.

5. Communicate successfully: The writing on the wall says that soft skills (largely interpersonal ones) are king in today’s economy. In our super-connected world, you must deeply understand your own communication preferences, be aware what other people hear when you talk, and be comfortable with a variety of communication modes.

6. Learn from experience: The barriers to entry for almost every industry have crumbled in recent years—if there’s not a freemium web serviced doing what you need yet, there will be in a year. That means the new model includes lots of experimentation, and potentially lots of failures. Those who succeed will be able to take them in stride, learn everything possible from them, and then carry those lessons forward to the next experiment.

So, collaboration skills are also adaptability skills. But let’s not forget that collaboration skills are also incredibly valuable in and of themselves. I see dynamic professional collaboration as an important way for self-employed creatives (in particular but not exclusively) to create sustainable businesses where they don’t burn themselves out working alone, in front of a computer, doing five people’s jobs while also balancing a family life.

I’m looking for collaborators

I’ve wanted to help people become better collaborators for a while now. This is the year I get intentional about it (and make it into a self-sustaining business).

I’ll be dedicating my blogging to collaboration, refocusing my website around it, and working to develop a curriculum, eBook, and traveling workshop circuit within the year. I’m jumping into a handful of collaborations myself and creating case studies with successful collaborators around the world.

I’m so excited to get started on all this, but I’m missing one big thing. Collaborators!

I truly believe in the importance of collaboration, of dropping the “me against the world” attitude and asking for help when I need it, so it’s only natural—and necessary—that I find one or more people to join me on this adventure. Might it be you?

Some things I’m looking for in a collaborator: Someone with 5 hours a week they could dedicate to an exciting but unpaid opportunity; someone who likes the idea of running their own business, if they’re not already; someone who loves to help people, talk to people, be around people; someone with expertise in curriculum building and teaching, web design and eCommerce, and/or business financials.

If you’re interested, I’d love to hear from you at miki@mikijohnson.com. And if you would have expected me to email you directly and ask you to collaborate, please get in touch anyway. I could email 100 people I think might be interested, but I’ve learned that my network knows more than I do, so I’m letting it do its thing.

{UPDATE: It’s been called to my attention that I seem to be asking people to do work for free. Well, I am, but with the potential to build a business with me that will eventually pay both (all) of us. I am pretty sure this endeavor won’t make me money for the first year (other work pays my bills); I’m looking for someone who can afford to take that risk with me. The distinction between “collaborators” and “employees” is one of the big ideas my curriculum will tackle, for exactly this reason.}

A few important questions

To help us figure out if we’d make good collaborators, I’m including a short questionnaire below, with my answers. Please include your answers in your email. Looking forward to hearing from you :)

1. What are the most important qualities you can contribute to a project?
I’m good at taking in large amounts of information from different sources, synthesizing it, contextualizing it, streamlining it, and sharing it in a clear way with a specific audience. I’m good at getting people excited about things and helping them move forward on stated goals. I love talking with people and connecting people and do it constantly.

2. What skills or areas are you hoping to develop and grow into this year?
I want to learn how to create curriculum, how to truly teach (not just talk at), how to take people’s understanding from point “a” to point “b” and give them the tools to change their lives based on that shift in thinking. I also want to truly feel that I “own a business,” instead of “freelancing” or “being self-employed.”

3. What are your three preferred forms of communication?
I love speaking face-to-face, which has recently included a lot of Skype calls. I get so much energy from other people, from their excitement, from seeing the gears turning in their head as we talk. While this is my favorite, it can also be exhausting, so I do it less frequently. I also like brief, direct communication that includes email, IM, and text, depending on how urgent the question/request is and how likely the person I’m communicating with is to be at their computer. Finally, I’m a big Facebook fan. I love being able to seamlessly share great things I find online, as well as pictures of food I cook, events I’m attending, and questions for my network.

4. How would you describe the role you most often take in group projects?
I used to be a leader, but today I’d say a facilitator. This can often mean taking the lead, setting a schedule, and getting people organized, but it’s more in the service of the group’s needs and goals than my own vision of how we should proceed. I’m more interested in harnessing collective intelligence than focusing on my own.

What did you do this year?

From left: Working on a blog post at LOOK3, my third birthday tattoo (of an archaeopteryx), practicing my wedding speech.

I finally picked up my journal a few days ago and immediately wrote this question: “Why haven’t I been writing?”

Over the more than 20 years I’ve kept a journal, this question has come up a lot. I know by now that I am constantly flowing through cycles where I will discipline myself to write every day, feel naturally compelled to write once a week, or will not write at all for months. Yet I’m still trying to figure out why this happens when it does.

If you had to choose one word to describe my work, it would probably be “writer.” I edited my high school newspaper, studied magazine journalism in college, and have written for magazines, blogs, and creative clients ever since. (And aren’t we all writers now? I must write around 100 emails, text messages, and Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr updates a day.)

But I more often describe myself as an editor. Because, for me, writing has always been about filtering the world around me through my own thought process, then retelling it in a way that facilitates understanding. I know the root of this lies in my personal journaling — where I am most often trying to work out what’s going on inside myself by putting it on a page, and therefore examining it from a slight distance.

So, getting back to my original question, I know that I write less when I am not in extreme emotional turmoil (which I thankfully haven’t been) and when I’m not starting a new project (which often triggers a more intellectual turmoil). I also learned while traveling last year that I’m not good at writing while experiencing lots of new things (like when I quit my job and travel for five months). I seem to be able to either experience or write/process, but not both.

This brings me to another question: Am I not writing because I’m in the middle of a journey? If so, it’s one that I am unaware of (or was, until I started writing this post in my head).

After being on a very literal journey for months last year, it took a while for me to recognize the subtler journey I’ve been on this year. I started to see it when I made myself write down all the Things I’ve Done This Year:

1. Attended a 3-day silent meditation retreat
2. Helped start and facilitate a group of women creatives
3. Hosted an experimental collaboration event while visiting NYC
4. Broke up with my boyfriend
5. Moved out of our apartment
6. Lived out of a storage unit for five months
7. Moved into a new apartment
8. Built a wood canoe with my dad
9. Made a multimedia video of building a wood canoe
10. Live-blogged LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph
11. Spoke at Flash Forward Festival
12. Spoke at PartnerCon
13. Started a newsletter
14. Worked with 10+ new clients
15. Taught a class on social media for small business
16. Was a bridesmaid in two weddings
17. Taught cooking classes for my friends
18. Took a workshop on radio interviewing and became friends with The Kitchen Sisters
19. Did a video interview for the Musea Blog
20. Did a video interview for Heather Morton’s speaking tour
21. Was a remote guest speaker for John Kaplan’s social responsibility in journalism class
22. Modeled for a figure drawing class
23. Went to Mexico
24. Joined a Women’s Sacred Dance Circle
25. Went deer hunting with my dad
26. Got a tattoo

When I got to the end of this list, I thought: How could I have thought I wasn’t on a journey (or, equally silly and also something I imagined: that I hadn’t accomplished very much)? Sometimes I just have to write it down before I can see it.

Now that I’m finally settled in a new apartment, with all my things around me and an awesome roommate and a big kitchen for me to cook in, I’m feeling the calm space I need to write again. Possibly even the centeredness I need to commit to writing every day, whether I feel like it or not.

Whether or not writing functions for you as it does for me — to help clarify and process — I recommend taking some time before the end of this year to make a list of all the things you’ve done. Things you don’t do every year, things you did for the first time, things you’re proud of, things that left a mark. On January 1 our eyes will all shift forward, so now’s the time to look backwards, which is often the only way to really know where you are right now.

You already know the answer

As an introduction and because people keep asking about this video: My dad and I went to Northern Ontario a few months ago to build a wooden canoe from scratch….in 8 days. Needless to say, it was a lot of work. But I learned so much, and it was such a treat to have unmitigated father-daughter time, the long hours and sore back were worth it. Below is a multimedia video I made of the experience. It’s a rough, early attempt, so cut me some slack on the production quality, please :)

I haven’t felt much like writing lately…too much work, too much distraction, too little time to sit down and process, let alone write about it coherently. But I when I got off the phone with my dad the other day, I finally felt my fingers itch for the keyboard.

Since returning to the Bay Area in July, my work as a freelance branding/social media consultant/coach has taken off. I’m pleasantly surprised by how people keep finding me, getting in touch, asking if I can help them…and then me being able to. It feels good, but it also feels like I’m one of those jugglers riding a unicycle on a tightrope: just keep moving, keep the balls in the air, don’t look down.

Another opportunity has presented itself recently, one that is really exciting, seems to collect all my disparate talents in one project, and is a chance to work with a small team of people I could not respect or like more. Like most exciting projects like this, it presents a less than clear path to me getting paid, at least for the first few months. Yet to do it like I would want to do it, I’d need to do it full time, letting go of the freelance work that would pay my bills.

Sitting here pondering this dilemma, I did what I’ve done so many times before: I called my dad. I told him what was up, that it’s a great opportunity but the money might not be there. Like a good parent, he told me I was worth the money, and if they were worth working for, they’d find it for me.

Maybe, maybe not, I said. But this just seems like the perfect thing. It uses all my skills, it’s people I really want to work with, it gives me a chance to feel less scattered, and, and….Well, then, there’s your answer, he said. You call me up, you don’t know what to do about this job, and then you tell me all about why it’s so perfect. You answered your own question.

And he was right. And part of me knew that would happen if I called him. Then he said something even better.

This is just like how we used to do your geometry homework, do you remember? I didn’t. You would bring me some problem you couldn’t figure out, and I had no idea how to do it either, but I would just go back to the chapter before and start reading it. You’d start explaining it all to me, and by the time we got to that question that was stumping you, you’d say, “Nevermind, I figured it out.”

Wow. You know what you are, dad? What? A facilitator, I said. He laughed.

I’d never thought about where my own attraction to, and gift for, facilitating had come from, but this was clearly the root of it. I’ve learned that you cannot answer people’s questions for them, so the best kind of teacher helps you find the answer for yourself. So do good friends and family. Facilitators help us feel safe enough to try things we don’t know how to do; they help us gain confidence in our ability to make our own decisions.

Who are the facilitators in your life? Have you called them lately?

Hi, Social Media, nice to meet you

This is NOT a photo from my RenCenter class, but it is from a presentation I gave at the Apple Store last year. Can you tell how red my face was because of that silly mic-headset I had to wear? Thank goodness the RenCenter didn't have one of those ;) Photo by Matt Baume.

I taught my first class on social media for small businesses July 18 at the very cool Renaissance Center in San Francisco. (You can sign up for the second class here. )

There were so many great questions, and such a wide range of online experience, that I found myself running out of time before we’d addressed all the information I’d prepared.

For that reason, I promised to put up a post here on my blog, so people could ask specific questions that I will respond to (in the comments, please). Plus, anyone who wasn’t in the class can benefit from the discussion as well :)

Here are the slide presentations for my first class, as well as the second, more advanced class on August 2. If you press “play” on the first one, you’ll be able to listen to an edited version of the class, synched to the slides. If you just want to read them, you can use the “forward” and “backward” arrows. I’m still happy to take questions in the comments of this post.

And here are links and important quotes from several posts that relate to what we talked about in the classes.

Stop Selling, Start Connecting

“You would never walk into a room and, without introducing yourself, assume that everyone wants to hear about your latest greatest thing would you? Most of us will spend time actually listening to people, finding out who they are, and gaining their trust before we try to sell them our AmWay products. Just because it’s technology, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to abuse people with your sales pitches.”

The resume is dead, the bio is king

“If you’re a designer, entrepreneur, or creative – you probably haven’t been asked for your resume in a long time. Instead, people Google you – and quickly assess your talents based on your website, portfolio, and social media profiles. Do they resonate with what you’re sharing? Do they identify with your story? Are you even giving them a story to wrap their head around?”

What is a brand?

“So what is a brand? A brand is a promise. It is whatever people think, feel, trust, and believe you, your business, or your product will give them if they buy from you. It exists inside people’s minds, out of your reach — yet it’s a big part of why they buy from you.

Logos, colours, fonts and words are simply how you try to convey your brand’s promise to people. Thus a “brand” is a promise and “branding” is all the tangible things you use to express that.”

“Why” not “What”

Every single organization on the planet knows what they do. You know the products you sell and the services you offer. Some organizations know how they do what they do. What we think makes us better or stand out from our competition. But not many organizations know why they do what they do. And by ‘why’ I don’t mean to make a profit. I mean what’s your purpose, your cause, your belief. Why does your organization exist; why did you get out of bed this morning; and why should anyone care?”

Press Releases for Bloggers

“I went to drinks with the Brilliant Online Publicist one night, and asked her how she did such a good job while everyone else was failing. Was she clairvoyant? No: she just actually READ MY BLOG and knew the kind of things I liked to write about. How did she have time to give so much attention to the needs of a then relatively small website? She told me her secret: she only publicizes to eight blogs. She picked the eight blogs that covered her client’s subject, TV, that she liked the most on a personal level, read them religiously, and only sent them only the content she thought each blog would be into.”

Trust Agents (Trust Economies e-Book)

“The edges between work and social life are blurring. People are shifting their social network into their work networks and vice versa—business associates and childhood friends, side by side. We prefer to buy from people that are like us. You like Batman movies? Me too! That may not always be enough to move a sale, but it shows your human dimensions.”

New Media Professionals

A Tumblr I keep as a way to remember useful social media articles that I generally agree with. This is a simple list of links that I update every couple of days. If you want to dig deeper into my “suggested reading,” check it out.

Resources (not exhaustive, just a few I mentioned)

 

Men Being Emotional

I hope Ariel doesn't mind me turning her into a bit of a metaphor ... going through my pictures from LOOK3, I was struck by this image of her, surrounded by men who tower over her, yet at the center nonetheless, in the spotlight.

I spent last week at LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contend that LOOK3 is the best photo festival in the U.S. (if not world); however, I’m not exactly impartial. I helped organize last year’s LOOKbetween, a symposium for young photographers held in LOOK3’s off year, and liveblogged, Facebooked, and Tweeted for the festival this year.

I could go on about why I think LOOK3 is so great (limited attendance, small town setting, inclusion of younger photographers, passionate heart, amazing organizers), but I particularly want to talk about something I noticed in the talks and slideshows at this year’s event…as someone (I wish I could remember who) said to me after talks by Christopher Anderson and Ashley Gilbertson, “Today could have been titled, ‘Men Being Emotional.'”

Chris kicked off Friday’s Masters Talks with his usual thoughtful eloquence, focusing on his latest work, Son, an extremely personal project centered on his family (wife, young son, and ailing father). Ashley followed with an impassioned talk about his years of conflict work and especially his most recent project, Bedrooms of the Fallen, which quietly but undeniably demonstrates the price we pay for war. Their presentations were mentioned as a festival high point by almost everyone I met.

This got me thinking about photography that is more emotionally present, something I wrote about a few weeks ago here. There seems to be a trend, with photojournalism in particular, of going beyond an objective capturing of “who, what, where” to a subjective account, seen through the photographer’s own emotional lens.

Now, there is nothing to say that this is necessarily a movement from “male” to “female,” but I do think that to be emotionally engaged with your images you have to be vulnerable (a big idea in my life right now). And I think it’s fair to say that vulnerability is associated more with women than men, that it is something we are more inclined toward, or, probably, more encouraged by society to feel and express.

Which brings me to the second high point of LOOK3: the closing-night conversation between Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. Sally opened with this: “It occurs to me that Kathy Ryan put us here on stage together for a reason. We are perceived to be so strong and unflinching. Yet, I know that I’m fragile as ash. And I have the perception you feel the same.” And things only got more raw and more real from there. (Read the full conversation here.)

They admitted they envied each other’s lives, they commiserated about their work being dubbed pornographic, they talked about their pussies (and I don’t mean their cats). A few times I wondered nervously what the men in the audience were thinking. But then I thought, who cares? I’m sick of women acting like it isn’t hard to work in a male-dominated field, of not wanting to admit we’re vulnerable because it further calls attention to our “femaleness.” There was something so empowering and exciting about seeing these talented, wise, proud women talking just like they would if they were alone. “This is really how women talk to one another,” I thought.

What triggered my final “aha” moment was a slideshow presented on Saturday night: Steve Giovinco’s On the Edge of Somewhere. The artist’s description reads, “I photograph psychologically intimate and emotional relations between couples,” and the voice over clarified that the couple in the photographs was Steve and his wife. I liked the work, but I kept thinking, “This is just like Elinor Carucci.” Elinor’s My Children was shown a few slideshows ahead, so I doubt I’m the only one who saw the resemblance.

I don’t want to get myself in trouble by saying there is a “female” way of making photos, but if we had to draw some pattern from contemporary women photographers (at least in the fine-art world), it would be of making personal, vulnerable images, often of themselves or their loved ones. And here was a man doing exactly that! Women entering any male-dominated field have long been influenced by the men already there: insisting they are “just like men” or else working in conscious contradiction to “maleness.” I wondered if that flow of influence is starting to reverse?

Even more exciting is the idea that, like most walls in our modern society, the one between “male” and “female” art and artistic subjects/approaches is coming down. We are all given room to be vulnerable if we want, to make “family” photos that are still respected by the industry, or to do the opposite, if that’s your thing. More freedom and less pigeonholing can only be a good thing for art, right?

Stephen Mayes – Liveblog from Flash Forward

 

Stephen Mayes, Managing Director of VII Photo and one of my favorite photo thinkers, is presenting a lecture titled, “Restructuring the Photographic Process,” during the Flash Forward Festival today, June 3, at noon EST.

If you’d like to see what he has to say but can’t join us in Boston, please check in here, where I’ll liveblog his talk and any subsequent discussion.

09:04 PST

Studied psychology in college. Always been in the supply side of photography.

Started in photojournalism, ran a photojournalism agency, creative director for Getty, then to Ice Storm working with top artists selling large editions of work online, Art+Commerce in NYC, then back to photojournalism with VII.

Gives me perspective of the same landscape but from many different vantage points. Not stuck in silos like happens so often.

09:04 PST

I’m an optimist: a pessimist who doesn’t know all the fact.

09:05 PST

Talk: Two parts

1. Philosophical

2. Nitty gritty of actually selling pictures

09:07 PST

“Life must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” ~Kierkegaard

This is what we are going through now. Best analogy for us now is most like the invention of the printing press. This technology is changing our relationship with information.

If you look back at everything the printing press has effected in our world, the internet is taking us through a similar transition.

But internet is only part; the very nature of photography is changing.

09:09 PST

Many of us in photography are still living under the delusion that what we’re working with is still the photograph.

It’s now a fundamentally different medium.

What the photo is built of, how it works, where it’s going is totally different, despite the fact it still looks like a photograph.

The shift from film to pixel, something strange happens: the PHOTOGRAPH is about nailing something down, “fixing” something; the DIGITAL MEDIUM is antithetical to “fixing,” it’s absolutely fluid. Fred Ritchin’s book After Photography has helped me come to understand this.

09:11 PST

DIGITAL

Once you make the image, there are still an infinite amount of changes you can make to it.

Image is no longer understood as a physical image. It now lives online, and therefore the context is moving constantly. It is NEVER static.

“Quantum photography”: a photograph can exist in completely opposite contexts at the same time (from Fred Ritchin)

Because of this, we have to redefine ourselves and rethink how we use this new tool.

09:14 PST

Traditionally: Photography used to record something real that happened.

Now: We take pictures as part of the experience of being.

Example: Annual meeting of VII photographers, slightly bored, and a photographer starts taking unflattering photos of colleagues and sharing them on Facebook. And it immediately became a game they were all doing. Even though this was antithetical to the “serious” approach they all have to their professional photography.

 

09:15 PST

Photograph as experience: Not necessarily the full-fledged new thing, but it’s a crack in the door that allows us to see what’s coming.

09:16 PST

Also: Photographers are no longer in the driver seat. They cannot control the way their photographs are used once they are taken and shared.

Note: That sense of control has long been a slightly false illusion.

09:17 PST

Getting down to the nitty gritty

The photography business IS in decline.

But to me, this is a moment of invention rather than dismay.

09:21 PST

I. Fees for photography is declining rapidly

~ From stock to editorial and commercial

~ The internet has changed the value of advertising. Photography was before a pyramid which advertising was at the top of.

~ Now, advertising money has been split across millions more distribution points (online)

Our Response: Value comes not just from the image

~ Now, we are stuck on licensing/selling intellectual content by the “unit” (a book, an album, a photograph)

~ However, we are now participating instead in a “streaming culture,” that moves away from the unit

~ Even iTunes music now, you are essentially renting the music, not buying something physical that you own

~ Netflix accounts for 25% of web traffic in the US = streaming

~ Art objects may be the exception to this, the collectors’ market

09:23 PST

II. Starving to death in the midst of plenty

~ I believe if you have good data, value is there

~ Like the monkey trap: Delicious nut in the bottom of a jar, monkey reaches in and grabs it, can’t remove it’s hand. We’re hanging on to something we think is so precious, but it’s actually killing us. What are we hanging on to? The idea of value being attached to a “unit”

09:27 PST

Work at VII

~ When arrived, prices for photos were very low and fewer units being bought.

~ Traditionally: thought of ourselves as producing images

~ Now: with VII, the real value is integrity (also the case with many other photographic institutions)

~ In last few years, more than half money generated by VII has come from integrity, not the sale of images

~ Example: Canon sponsorship, want to be associated with the integrity of VII

~ Example: Project celebrating 150 years of Red Cross, who is also built on their integrity, trusted that VII would contribute to that and not put it in any jeopardy

~ Example: Working with MSF

 

09:34 PST

Mind Shift

Traditionally photographers have always been “suppliers”: buyer decides how much they want to buy, pay, etc. Can be a very vulnerable position. A closed relationship.

With Canon, Red Cross, MSF, we were partners. They came to us for almost a consultancy on media and communications.

Working with MSF, came with totally open dialogue. They said: We want to reinvent the dialogue on malnutrition. It’s very abstract and in some ways invisible. They asked VII, how can we tell this story visually?

Here we were, MSF and VII, both thinking expansively and as partner. Then what happened was that funding came from LG. They weren’t the client; they were buying into a project we were doing. Rather than selling something to them, we were inviting them to join our partnership.

With each addition of a partner, the project grew. LG not only contributed funding, but also technology.

Then added HC Films as a partner. Stories typically are told chronologically. But with film trailers, it’s a collage, totally non-linear, but you get the story and a call to action (to go see the movie). Experimented with that style of storytelling for the project. One lesson learned: They need to come in early as possible to the project.

09:41 PST

What’s Interesting about Integrity

It puts the value on the photographer, not the image. This fits with what’s happening in culture. 70% of American’s primary news source is recommendations from friends. Distribution through trust networks. We pay more attention to things recommended by people we trust more.

This is also better for the photographer (or content creator). Readers are less interested in a large brand (like Time Magazine), and more interested in who is saying what. So there is the opportunity for the audience to become acquainted with and trust individual photographers.

VII photographers are now interacting directly with readers, without the mediator of the magazine.

Example: I did a talk a few years ago, and Jim Casper, blogger, asked to record the talk to 150 people. A week later was stunned to find I was addressing this HUGE audience online. Now, the feedback I was getting had found me because they were interested in what I had to stay. Suddenly there were people out there keeping an eye on what I would have to say. Then I gave an article to a friend to put on a blog, which now was coming up on Google searches and went viral. And suddenly, without working on it, I had a brand as “that guy who talks about the changes in photography.

09:43 PST

It’s better to be small than big

You can be very fluid and mobile in a way a big institution can’t.

Most complaints you hear comes from big institutions who are having trouble paying these huge bills they’ve gotten used to and have a hard time changing to adapt to quickly changing landscape.

Small companies, little overhead, can change rapidly, and don’t have to earn nearly as much to be doing well.

09:45 PST

We are all on the same plane

People say, well sure, you’re VII, you can call up anyone and get a response.

But there is this huge population of 18-40-years-olds out there, who don’t care about newspapers, but care about the issues. How do I reach them? I’m in exactly the same position as any other photographer out there. Already as an agency, we are boxed in by expectations and our history.

09:47 PST

The evaporation of competition

10 years ago, to be recognized you had to get your stuff in print, and there were a very finite number of titles where you could do that. It was all about elbowing competition out of the way to get your cover story in those.

Now there are infinite outlets for distribution. Now, the greatest currency is imagination and ideas. So I can talk openly about how VII is approaching the market, and you can come up with your own ideas of how to do that, and we don’t have to be in competition.

No longer a top-down relationship of “I’m telling you this,” you’re making every reader a partner in distribution, information gathering, etc.

09:49 PST

The Subject

We think about the content producer, the editor, the publisher, the distributor, the reader. But we tend to forget about the subject. One of the things I’m excited about is finding new ways to bring the subject into that relationship structure. They understand the issue better than anyone, right?

09:52 PST

Transmedia

Old model: Cross-platform. One story that you would put in several different places: book, magazine, exhibition, etc.

Doesn’t work because: Each distribution is different. Transmedia: Apply your story in different ways that are tailored to each media/distribution platform specifically.

Effect: Incredibly engaged audience. People are investigating, inquiring, interacting. Has been very effective in advertising. Each small element builds up a more complete, collaged sense of the product. How can that be applied to media and photography?

 

10:00 PST

VII Magazine

Slideshows, interviews with photographers, videos. Fairly traditional at this point.

Engaged an advertising agency to help create the magazine. Had worked with Magnum in Motion and found it very exciting, but also frustrating because of certain limitations.

We wanted to go far beyond that and give lots of space.

Traffic was most important: more readers = more possibility for advertising

But rather than driving traffic to OUR SITE, we created an iFrame based platform that requires a bit of code to be embedded on other websites, where audience already exists, and they get the complete VII magazine.

It’s free for them. BUT: We have complete editorial control. We get the commercial benefit (they can place ads around it, but once they click on the story, traffic counts for VII).

Give away free content: Allows you to bring in more viewers, therefore more partners and sponsors.

Old model: Amount of money you make is linked to how much work you do.

In this model: Money comes from having something interesting to say. Could do ONE great story that blows up and supports you for the year.

Example: Life Without Lights by Peter DiCampo

10:04 PST

No Single Solution

The trap: What’s “the answer”?

My answer: There is no one answer. The “answers” are limitless.

We should not be trying to replace one monolithic structure with another.

Big message: Let go of what you think is precious and valuable. Take risks. Think big. The biggest risk is STANDING STILL. What you learn as you evolve and move forward is of equal value to any money you can earn.

10:04 PST

Questions

10:07 PST

Q. This works for VII, can partnerships work for individual photographers also?

A. You can do it on your own, you just have to learn how to do a lot more than take photos (social media, website, etc.). Or you can partner with people to help you with those things. I have this fantasy of new photo agency, a few photographers, plus a PR person, a lawyer, a web designer. Partnership is also great because you can work from trade, not just money.

10:10 PST

Q. How did it work, partnering between MSF as NGO and LG as commercial entity.

A. One of things MSF did, they held rigidly to their principals, and LG ended up accepting their terms. In part that was because of the inclusion of VII in the partnership. VII provided a promise of serious distribution.

This is not a new problem but people ask it a lot. We have to be very very careful, it’s true, but it’s something we’ve always done. We can’t forget that our role, even when we associate with big brands, which is to bring integrity and honesty to any work that we do.

10:13 PST

Q. I was interested in the idea of editing a topic across multiple platforms. How do you show something that is linked, without ever repeating yourself?

A. MSF was a great example. First, no single photo story tell the whole story of malnutrition. First there is a website that points to other things, then a traveling exhibition that is very short but takes you to the website to see more. Social media is like the blood that pumps between all these different organs.

10:14 PST

Q. NY Times has put up pay walls, but Al Jazeera is letting you stream everything for free online. Thoughts about where things are heading, especially as far as monetization?

A. I cannot imagine. And neither can the NY Times. With credit to them, they are experimenting and very publicly.

10:18 PST

Q. How does this apply to fine art photography?

A. Fine art photography is in a bit of a bubble. I divide fine art into two categories: 1. In museum, all about the idea. (Place of the work in the history of art) 2. In gallery, all about the object. Artists can use the internet to create a brand for themselves, but fundamentally their value is based on a physical object.

10:23 PST

Q. Does VII Photo engage in the fine art world?

A. Yes, but it’s kind of bizarre, because the content of the photos is often very sad or upsetting. One thing we do is auctioning prints to raise funds for non-profit organizations. One print went for ,000, which is now recorded in the art market, even though it was really an excuse to give money to the non-profit.

10:27 PST

Q. How do you contend with more competition and constantly lower rates in the advertising realm?

A. I think the answer is in diversifying. Print sales, teaching/lecturing for fees, books. It will take imagination for that, but it is a necessary process right now. When I was working at Art+Commerce with people like Leibovitz and Meisel, I was just stunned at the day rates they were getting. If I’m Dolce&Gabanna and I’m paying that kind of money, it means I really really believe in that work. So one answer is to actually increase your fee, people will assume it is more valuable. In the same vein, never do anything truly for free, without any negotiating, people won’t respect the work.

10:28 PST

~ All done! Signing off….

Panel discussions that don’t suck. Any ideas?

I’m leaving San Francisco soon for a month and a half of travel, which will happily include a stop in Boston, where I’m joining the Future of Photobooks panel discussion during Magenta’s Flash Forward Festival, and in Charlottesville, VA, where I may be organizing a panel for LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph.

As I wrote in my “manifesto” last year: I love photo events, but they kind of suck. And since I’m on my way to these panel discussions, I’m especially interested in how to make sure they don’t suck, either. (FYI, Matchstick has been tabled for the near future, but I’m still dedicated to those principles.)

Can we all agree to stop being this guy?

Ok, so I’m being a little hyperbolic, but I’ve sat through A LOT of panel discussions. When they’re good, they inundate the audience with so much information you leave feeling excited but overwhelmed; when they’re bad, they drag on while inept public speakers give overly vague or insultingly obvious “advice.”

In an attempt to improve on this scenario for the Future of Photobooks discussion, I’ve been brainstorming with FlakPhoto‘s Andy Adams and moderator Stephen Mayes. One of my ideas: Instead of each panelist talking about their own projects and providing disconnected overviews of a topic, we will each present a specific case study that we think exemplifies an important theme in the larger topic. For instance, I’ll talk about Simon Robert’s We English, a great example of how photographers can create a dedicated pool of supporters (and buyers) for a book through early online engagement.

I also love how Andy has been linking a larger online discussion to a real-world talk. For his recent Photo 2.0 discussion at the New York Photo Festival, he created a Facebook event where he asked people to send him discussion topics, which he folded into the talk. Now he’s asking his FlakPhoto Network to chime in about how best to integrate social streams with our Future of Photobooks discussion.

Do you have other ideas about how to improve the panel discussion template? Have you experienced panel discussions that worked really well, and what did they do right? Also, I’m particularly eager to get feedback on the questions below:

1. Discussion with the audience, helpful or annoying?
I’ve had varying degrees of success creating real dialogue between the audience and panelists, but I know that it’s key. Yet I often dread Q&A sessions when I’m in the audience, since “questions” are too often posed by people who just like to hear themselves talk.

2. Background Tweet streams, distracting or useful?
We are considering streaming tweets about our discussion in real-time, so the audience can comment instantaneously and content can easily be shared with those not in attendance. I often find these side conversations distracting, but I have faith we can find a way to make them work.

3. Setting intentions, too touchy feely?
I think it would be helpful to ask the audience, before we start, to take a silent minute and decide what they most want to get out of the talk. Why are they there? What questions do they want answered? That way they can zero in on the information most important to them and have a focused question to ask during Q&A. But, then, I live in San Francisco, where this kind of touchy feely stuff is totally normal ;)

I’ve Been Thinking: Emotionally involved journalism

“I’ve Been Thinking” is a new column on Hey Miki, spurred in part by my new bi-weekly newsletter. I’ve always got a few “big ideas” buzzing around my brain, maybe not so fully formed as my usual blog posts, but nagging a way that tells me there’s something important there. I’m hoping if I share them with you, I’ll be able to get to the bottom of them quicker :)

An image from Justin Maxon's project on Chester, PA, where he is getting directly involved in improving the lives of people he photographs.

Although I love all kinds of photography, photojournalism is what keeps me up at night (probably because I studied journalism myself). Dedicated photographers like James Nachtwey and EugeneRichards  have proven that photographs can change the tide of history. But I strongly feel that we need to refine and sharpen the way they do that for the current media landscape, which is fragmenting and/or going bankrupt at an alarming rate.

The photojournalism community (including myself) seems stuck on an old story: photographer makes image of something terrible, magazine or newspaper publishes it, people realize how bad things are and send help. Maybe part of you thinks, “How naive,” but I bet there’s another part that remembers that Nachtwey’s Somalia images led to international aid that saved 1.5 million people.

I’ve had many conversations with photographers who simply don’t believe in that model anymore. Although they still strive for fair and balanced coverage, they no longer connect to the concept of “objectivity,” and instead are actively working to change the situations their images highlight. Read more

How to fall in love a little with everyone you meet

 

Communicating through a screen can be hard, but a good story works in any medium. Image from video by Peter Earl McCollough.

I’ve been thinking about storytelling a lot lately. Partly because I recently read If You Want To Write by Barbara Ueland, which kindly nudged me into believing the title of its first chapter: “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” And partly because I’ve been reading a lot of inspiring writing, lately (the best parts of which I’ve shared below).

As I wrote in one of my first posts on this blog, “this year I’m determined to make friends with my lurking creative powers.” While I was traveling last summer, that largely meant publicly calling myself a “photographer.” Lately I’m remembering how much I love writing and realizing that I might make a damn good audio producer if I put my mind to it (to which end, I recently bought myself some professional recording gear).

A majority of the books I read are novels, yet I know that “documentary” storytelling will always be my true passion. Ira Glass sums up why in his introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction, a fantastic collection of inspiring non-fiction pieces he recommends to potential This American Life contributors.

“While this is the golden age of [great nonfiction] reporting and writing, it’s also a golden age for crap journalism. And for some of the most amazing technological advances for stuffing it down your throat. A lot of daily reporting and news ‘commentary’ just reinforces everything we already think about the world. It lacks the sense of discovery, the curiosity, the uncorny, human-size drama that’s part of all these stories. A lot of daily reporting makes the world seem smaller and stupider.

“In that environment, these stories are a kind of beacon. By making stories full of empathy and amusement and the sheer pleasure of discovering the world, these writers reassert the fact that we live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing. They make the world seem like an exciting place to live. I come out of them feeling like a better person — more awake and more aware and more appreciative of everything around me. That’s a hard thing for any kind of writing to accomplish. In times when the media can seem so clueless and beside the point, that’s a great comfort in itself.”

Maybe I forgot for a while how much I love telling stories because modern mass media make our world seem less interesting to me. I’m glad I’ve been reminded by Ira and others that’s not real journalism, at least not the kind I signed up for.

Maybe I’m also scared. Telling people’s stories, especially in a way that holds the attention of the iPhone generation, is one of the hardest things I can imagine myself doing. Malcolm Gladwell explains why in his introduction to What The Dog Saw, a collection of some of his best New Yorker articles.

“The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it’s a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one we want. We filter and rank and judge. We have to. There’s just too much out there. But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day. Shampoo doesn’t seem interesting? Well, dammit, it must be, and if it isn’t, I have to believe that it will ultimately lead me to something that is.”

I learned very early that the only kind of knowledge worth anything is the kind you get from asking other people questions. This passage from Ira Glass gave me chills because it so exactly describes my own experience.

“I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a  serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little. Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves. If you have half a heart, how can you not?”

If I ever taught a class on how to interview people (which I’d love to do), I might title it, “How to fall in love a little with everyone you meet.” Maybe I’d write this quote from Ueland’s If You Want To Write on the chalkboard the first day.

“[T]he only way to love a person is not, as the stereotyped Christian notion is, to coddle them and bring them soup when they are sick, but by listening to them and seeing and believing in the god, in the poet, in them. For by doing this, you keep the god and the poet alive and make it flourish.”

She is actually talking about how she convinces her students (all non-writers) that they can be good writers. In a way, this blog is a chance to listen to myself, to honor the poet, the storyteller inside me. Now that I’m thinking so much about storytelling, I realize that telling people’s stories is still daunting to me, but teaching people how to tell their own stories is anything but.

For the past several months I’ve been working with Heather Elder, a commercial photographer’s rep in San Francisco, to build her a dynamic blog and online presence. Instead of coming up with “social media marketing strategies,” I helped her define her voice, the personality of her company and her photographers, and what kind of knowledge she could share with the photo community that people would really appreciate. It’s been a great experience for both of us, especially since she’s been having great success.

People ask me a lot what I actually do these days. Being a freelancer, my work includes magazine writing, social media strategy, and curriculum development. But recently, I think I’ve finally found a phrase that sufficiently describes what I do, how I can help people.

I am a personal publishing strategist. In our internet age, everyone is a publisher. From your Tweet Stream to your self-published photo book, you are distributing a huge amount of content every day. It’s important to be honest, consistent coherent, and transparent in what you publish — so the right people find you and, potentially, hire you. That’s where I can help: by teaching you to listen to yourself with love and to share your story with skill.

Sorry I missed you – I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain

I went to Baja, Mexico, a few weeks ago, to a tiny house and trailer near San Felipe that my parents own. There is no electricity on the property, but my mom’s friend Linda lives nearby in a bigger house with solar and generator power, so we spent most of the time there.

Lately I’ve been hearing about all this disturbing research on how our brains are physiologically changed by computer use. They say it takes about three days of non-use for your brain to slow down and return to normal, so I didn’t look at my computer or iPhone at all for four days, and then I only checked email once a day and for no more than half an hour after that. It was absolutely the right decision, something I recommend everyone do at least every six months.

I want to share a few photos I made while I was in Mexico (with my Contax point-and-shoot film camera) — but that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing it because of what happened when I came back home to San Francisco.

My first day back in the city I had my first panic attack in almost a year. Maybe being back in the midst of all my responsibilities, the noises of the city, and the over-stimulation of the internet triggered it, but I think it was mostly because I lowered my dosage of Zoloft about a month ago, and my body was going through a readjustment period.

I started taking Zoloft about, not surprisingly, 11 months ago, in part to treat panic attacks. I didn’t have them frequently, but if you’ve ever had one, you know that once in a while is way too much. Zoloft and other SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are generally known as antidepressants, but, as it was explained to me, they just as easily could have been marketed as anti-anxiety medication. I have many hallmarks of the overly anxious — perfectionist, overachiever, stomach problems, trouble relaxing/sleeping, taking everything personally — and I’ve been working for years to mitigate those tendencies through therapy, exercise, diet, and meditation. But when I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and went on the road for five months this summer, I decided I needed some extra help. Now that my life is a little more stable, I’m ready to try it again without the Zoloft.

Maybe it’s weird for me to be talking about this amid posts about my career and the future of photography, but I deeply believe in demystifying things, especially our bodies and the way we treat them. I also believe that we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to connect with and help other people.

I’m also annoyed that psycho-pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy are still relatively taboo (I HATE taboos). I understand why they are, especially since many people still believe that those who take psycho-pharmaceuticals are “weak” and “need” them to be “normal.” As far as I’m concerned, deciding to take an anti-depressant is the same as deciding to take medication to lower your blood pressure. Anyone who takes any action to help themselves feel better is brave; trying something new, especially trying to change yourself for the better, is always harder than going along with things as they are.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been having a rough time the last week or so. The panic attacks I had were accompanied by bouts of depression. I knew they were triggered by the lower Zoloft dose — there was no logical reason for me to lie crying or immobile in my bed every morning — but depression does not listen to logic or reason.

Friends and family kindly suggested things I should do to make myself feel better: ride your bike, paint, cook a new dish. And I would calmly explain that the cruelty of depression is that it destroys your ability to make decisions or take actions that would help you stop being depressed.

Luckily the down periods were intermittent and when I felt up to it, I set up meetings with mentors and therapists. When people asked me in passing how I was, I didn’t lie and say, “Oh, pretty good,” I told them things were rough. I’m sure some people were taken aback, but the vast majority sympathized and have been there for me more than usual while I’ve struggled through.

I don’t want this post to be about depression, either. If you’ve experienced depression yourself, you might agree with me that once you feel like you’re ready to reflect on it, let alone write about it, you know that you’re near the other end of the tunnel. So when I was sitting here a while ago, and suddenly had the urge to write about what I’ve been feeling, I just knew I should honor that urge whether I knew what my point was or not.

I’m definitely not pretending I’m any kind of expert at all this, but I think there is value in sharing my own experiences. Especially because, as several of my friends have said, I don’t seem like the “kind of person” who would “need” to take anxiety medication. Well, then this is yet another instance where looks can be deceiving.

I hope that reading this reminds everyone out there that life’s painful periods pass. Time, it turns out, does heal wounds. That’s hard to remember when you’re at the bottom of the well, and I certainly don’t have any easy answers for how to crawl back into the daylight. But I have learned this: The most important thing you can do is to be really, really, really kind to yourself. This means putting yourself first (even if that seems selfish), forgiving yourself, and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Think seriously about what that means for a moment. It’s much harder than it seems. If you’d like any guidance, I’ve repeatedly found it in The Gifts of Imperfection, If You Want To Write, The Art of Loving and Buddhism Without Beliefs.

As a final thought, I know from writing other posts like this that those of you who read my blog often respond with words of kindness and encouragement. I love this and it’s a huge part of why I have this blog. But this time I’d love for you to take most of that good energy and direct it toward someone you can be with physically — bonus points if that person is yourself. Suddenly today, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by how lucky I am, mostly to have such amazing supportive friends and colleagues who provide me with opportunities to fulfill myself in the deepest ways possible. If you have the opportunity to be that for someone, I hope this will remind you to do it — that’s really why I wrote this post.

What travel is isn’t what you expect

I met Matt Austin, a talented young documentary-art photographer, this October at the Flash Forward Festival in Toronto. Shortly after, we struck up an email conversation, largely in response to my posts about traveling this summer, which I was flattered to find had resonated with Matt’s own recent travels.

Below are excerpts from our discussion, as well as a series of Matt’s travel images. He will be debuting a book of new work from this trip during his solo show at Johalla Projects in Chicago on March 4. You can see photos from my travels here.

Matt and I would love to know if any of this resonates with you and what you have or haven’t learned from being on the road.


Matt

I decided last July that I was going to go on a long trip by myself around the country, leaving straight from an artist residency. I wasn’t content with things in Chicago and wanted to practice the concept of self-respect, acting on the idea that I deserve to do what I want to do with my life.

I was pretty interested in the idea of scaring the shit out of myself as a means of learning. So I decided to camp alone in a tent most of the way, though I’d never camped before. I also decided to act on my whims, buying a guitar from a pawn shop in St. Paul, MN, though never considering myself a musician. And, too, shaved my head with a beard trimmer in a hotel bathroom. Consciously taking action without any commentary is a powerful thing.

MIKI

I love the idea of learning by “scaring the shit” out of yourself. I wonder if your idea of “scary” changed during your trip. Did you initially think you’d do things that were literally scary (like bungee jumping) but ended up doing things that made you feel kind of vulnerable (like learning guitar)? I ask because one of the scariest things I did during my travels was to take my photography more seriously, and putting that up for the world to see was terrifying at times.

MATT

I think the concept of fear originated in the idea of being unfamiliar with most of the situations I was in and having no one but myself to rely on; but you’re absolutely right about that shifting. Before leaving, when I would consider what may scare me about camping or driving long distances in my unreliable car, I was mainly thinking about bears and storms and car accidents. But when I was actually in those situations, it tended to be unpredictable people that scared me the most.

Purchasing the guitar mainly came from dealing with how lonely the trip could get. I started my trip by leaving from the ACRE artist residency, an amazing intellectual community, so it didn’t take long for me to feel lonely by comparison. I’ve also never been interested in the typical tourist experience, so I thought giving myself certain tasks like buying a guitar would allow me to ask locals about where to do that and come up with an unpredictable sequence of interactions. What were some of your methods of dealing with the loneliness of solitary travels? Or did you not find yourself experiencing that kind of loneliness?

MIKI

It’s interesting that you ask about loneliness, because the fact is I spent very little time alone during my travels. I admire you for pushing yourself to do so many things you weren’t already comfortable or familiar with. Some part of me thought that’s what my “sabbatical” would be like, but as usual my planning/connecting/organizing gene took over and I ended up, as my dad said recently, “the busiest unemployed person” he knows.

I’m glad you brought this up because I haven’t really examined why my trip ended up that way. The easy answer is that, once you suddenly have a large chunk of unstructured time, it seems like everyone has somewhere you absolutely have to stop by. The most obvious answer to me is that I am just one of those people; seeing friends and family face-to-face is something I crave and thrive on, so given lots of free time, that’s automatically where I put my effort.

But I have to admit that it was also the easier thing for me to do, the less scary thing. I am a chronic over-planner, so even waiting until I was in Istanbul to buy my ticket to Berlin was flying by the seat of my pants. I guess maybe this trip was only a first step toward being more comfortable on my own without a road map.

As for things that I did learn (or was reminded) … First off, I’m a pretty good traveler. I know how to pack light, I’m organized, and I’m comfortable on all kinds of public transportation — even if I have to look like a stupid American and ask someone four times in English how to get somewhere.

Second, I LIKE HAVING A HOME. I knew this going in, so this trip was kind of a test. Not only was I leaving a job, but also an apartment and city behind. I slept on couches and in spare rooms or tents for four months straight — and it got really, really old. The idea of being on the road for months has a romantic appeal, but I realized that I enjoy travel more when I have a stable headquarters to strike out from. Does that make sense to you? Did you have trouble letting go of a “plan” and just wandering?

The most important thing I learned was: There is no substitute for seeing people in their natural environment. This was driven home most poignantly by my good friend in Berlin, who went to a relatively remote college (that I never visited) and has lived abroad for the last six years. I literally hadn’t seen her for more than a day or two at a time, not over a holiday, in eight years. Seeing a friend for 10 days straight, living their own life instead of stressed out by travel, holidays, and family, and especially seeing them in the midst of the city and friends they feel best fit them: It’s like getting to know them all over again.

MATT

It’s interesting how our approaches to travel are almost completely opposite, yet result in the similar opinion of “I am a pretty good traveler.” You could say that I’m a chronic under-planner or maybe even addicted to the concept of being “unprepared.” I used to print out directions places, but I consciously decided to stop four years ago. I prefer to get directions from local waiters or gas station cashiers. I will never use a GPS, not for experiences like this; you can hold me to that.

As far as dedication to a home, I’m not sure I have much. Over time, I have learned to love Chicago’s centralized location, which provides a good driving position to anywhere in the country. But I’m not so attached to the concept of a permanent home. When I am home, I sleep on a futon mattress on my bedroom floor that was donated to me by a friend. I had a few blankets on the floor before that. I made a dresser in my closet that is actually just a suitcase I drilled to the wall. Unscrewing those screws would be the most work I’d have to do if I decided to move, and I kind of like that. To answer your question more clearly: Letting go of any kind of plan is one of my favorite things to do.

Your writing on your blog about the difficulties of producing something while on the road really stuck with me. For example: “[T]he whole point of this traveling thing was to help me see a bunch of people and get inspired and figure out what makes me really happy and write about it all. But here’s the thing I’ve realized over the last few weeks: Having no home and no routine actually makes it damn hard to do something like writing that requires concerted creative effort. Well, shit.”

I couldn’t agree with this more! I tried writing every day of my trip and I think I lost my consistency around day 12 or 13 in Seattle. First, there was the guilt that came with not completing my goal. But then when I would find time to write again, it felt weird. I felt like I was sacrificing having new and natural experiences to pause and write about ones that had already happened.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I have a similar outlook to yours in terms of how I would like to affect people: by using myself as an example to pursue what you enjoy doing, even if it’s scary and not going to be easy. I think the candor of your blog really illuminates the growth that comes from creative vulnerability. “This doesn’t have to be one of those blogs where I have all the answers. In fact, it can’t be. I’m not an expert here. I’ve never done this before. But hopefully through my experience people can learn a little about their own,” you wrote.

I find myself expressing similar values in my artwork and in my teaching. I often remind my students of two things in our lives that will never end, ever: 1) I don’t know, and 2) I’m still learning.