Category Archives: Creativity

You need your own workshop

This is originally Derek Sivers’ idea, from his book “Anything you want”.

We all need a place to play.

Kids need playgrounds and sandboxes. Musicians need an instrument. Mad scientists need a laboratory.

Those of us with business ideas? We need a company.

Not for the money, but because it’s our place to experiment, create, and turn thoughts into reality. We need to pursue our intrinsic motivation.

We have so many interesting ideas and theories. We need to try them!

The happiest people are not lounging on beaches. They’re engaged in interesting work!

Following curiosity is much more fun than being idle. Even if you never have to work a day in your life.

That’s the best reason to have a company. It’s your playground, your instrument, your laboratory. It’s your place to play!

Get the ideas out of your head and into the world.

https://sive.rs/laboratory
  • Gardeners need a garden.
  • Car enthusiasts need a garage.
  • Entrepreneurs need a business.
  • Artists need a studio.

But what about systems programmers?

Systems programmers need a project. A place for them to explore, work, play.

Live streaming myself working on my baby operating system has felt great over the last 14 weeks. And now with Sivers’ idea in mind, I can totally see why. It’s finally my own project where I have full control, and it’s a large enough project where there is infinite potential for the things and can do and learn within it.

No matter what your craft is, if you aspire to be great at it, you need a safe, comfortable “space” to work on your craft.

If you have aspirations, but don’t have a space, you likely haven’t fully committed, or given yourself permission to publicly identify as an enthusiast of the craft. (Actions speak louder than words).

Taking action to make that space for yourself can be scary, because it exposes physical, undeniable proof of your interest, which is vulnerable. But in my experience, it can also be deeply affirming, exciting, and motivating.

Be your most authentic self (and write about whatever you want)

I love writing about computers, but I also love writing about other topics like creativity, art, and productivity. However, many programmers out there strictly blog about technical topics, which made me feel a bit weird for posting random stuff like poems or my experience with GTD.

This led me to a dilemma: Do I blog all in one place, or do do I perhaps create a separate blog for non-technical content?

My answer is to apply my “golden piece of advice”: Do what feels most authentic to you.

For me, writing about all of my interests is the most authentic expression of myself, so when in doubt, I do this. Curbing this instinct, and making a strictly technical blog just to be like “all the other programmers” wouldn’t be.

It’s totally possible that “all the other programmers” simply don’t feel a desire to write about anything else. So making a strictly technical blog is their maximally authentic expression of themselves — which is great for them! Let’s all do what feels most authentic to us.

Hiding in this case study is a profound lesson about life. The situation applies equally to any other life situation where you feel some pull to act in one way, but feel some hesitation upon observing “everyone around you” seems to act.1

When in doubt, apply the “golden advice”: Do what feels most authentic to you.


I’m very happy with this decision. It feels great to have a single place which all of my thinking, which also has the practical benefit of making it easier for potential followers to submerge themselves in all my content.

I also believe this will win in the long run as it’s more likely to resonate with like-minded people that can respect having a myriad of interests — the kind of people I’m looking to connect with!

Lastly, there’s the non-trivial but subtle benefit that simplicity of infrastructure & accounts actually matters and translated into a lot of time saved.

Even if people already know the plot, they appreciate the way you tell the story

This is something my former colleague, Trent Brunson, told me on Twitter once that I’ll never forget. I tweeted earnestly how there were many things I wanted to share, but was concerned that everyone else knows these things already.

Trent’s (now-deleted) reply was:

I can’t think of a single time where I haven’t learned something from you. Keep sharing! Even if people already know the plot, they appreciate the way you tell the story.

So go forth, share freely, and don’t worry if the topic has already been covered, or if people are already familiar with what you’d like to share.


Creative potential energy

Creative potential is to potential energy as creative output is to kinetic energy.

I feel strongly that everyone has potential in them to be creative in some form — “creative potential”. When someone creates something, the potential is released into some kind of output — “creative output”. (This applies even to ephemeral creativity like a live performance.)

Just like how electric potential energy (voltage) is converted to tremendous kinetic energy (current) with lightning, or via a short in a circuit, creative potential can be violently converted into creative output when the conditions are right (a “channel”). Another name for this process is “creative flow”.

The trick is finding the right conditions for a person to unleash their creative potential. The space of environmental conditions is vast with infinite parameters, including:

  • Art form
  • Instruments available
  • Time & place
  • Solo or with others

While I firmly believe people can discover their medium at any age, I think it’s important to focus on finding at least one pre-adulthood. Unfortunately after that point I think people lose confidence in themselves and resign themselves as “uncreative”, which can be a tough hurdle to get over.


I’m happy to say I’ve personally, finally found a channel for my writing practice, right here on this blog. More on that here.

Unpublished content is like cash under your mattress

I think a good reason to publish art sooner than later, and to default to creating in public, is so your art can start accruing interest as soon as possible. (“Art” used loosely; think content & projects also).

If you make art but only ever keep it private, there is a zero chance of it ever being discovered or enjoyed. In that sense, there is some wasted potential, like cash in the mattress.

But if the art is published (not necessarily promoted), there’s a non-zero chance of it being discovered and enjoyed by other people (potentially many others) with no work on your part. That’s what I mean by interest — some potential upside, at no cost to you.

I’ve been practicing this with this very blog. I write a lot and tell no one because that feels good at the moment. However, I already did spot some interest accrued: The “Nixers” newsletter #221 included a link to a recent post where I did zero promotion. Thank you!


P.S. Another advantage is that the work is readily available to be shared if you ever choose to at any point in the future — no need to dig it up and upload it.

Life is a business; life is a game; life is art

Here are three ways to view your life:

Life as a business

Life is a business, and you are the Founder & CEO.

You have goals, resources, and agency. The idea is to build the strongest business and life for yourself. You do this by making good decisions and generating profit.

The most savvy founders look for holes in the fabric of society, the market, their industry — and exploit them. They seek trends that allow them to be ahead of the curve.

Life as a game

Life is a game, and you are a player.

You are initialized with random parameters that inform your strengths, weaknesses, and initial environment. There’s an endless world in front of you to explore and play in.

The idea is to do well at the game — build points, power, connections. You encounter other players, transact with them, exchange moves, determine if they are trustworthy or hostile.

You learn the rules over time and understand what game you are even playing. You discover that within the greater context of “the game”, there are many sub-games you can play.

Randomness and luck are all built into the game.

Life as an art piece

Life is an art project, and you are the artist.

You have a blank canvas in front of you and an infinite number of creative decisions to make. The idea is to find a beautiful & satisfying creative endpoint for your piece.

There are many creative paths to take, leading to different ends. There is no best end, but some ends are better than others.

Like any other artist, you must apply techniques to manage the decision space. You apply constraints — sometimes artificially, sometimes destructively — to move forward.

Art/Artist Fit

Product/Market fit is when you’ve made a product that people actually want.

Product/Founder fit is when your product is a good fit for you, personally, as a founder.1

Art/Artist fit (something I just made up) is a generalization of Product/Founder given the point of view that products are art and making a product is an artistic practice.

Given that art is a reflection of the artist, it makes sense that certain kinds of art will be more or less natural for someone to make, given their personal inclinations.

A few examples from the wild:

In this episode of the Art of Product podcast (1:11:00), Adam Wathan talks about how a subscription-model content business isn’t a good fit for him, while it is a good fit for a friend. Adam doesn’t like the idea of “being on a treadmill” to constantly create new content for the subscribers but conversely his friend appreciates the continuous dopamine hits as opposed to a longer 4 month long effort to create something like an e-book or course.

Next is from Dan Luu, one of my favorite bloggers:

[Paul Graham’s writing] uses multiple aspects of what’s sometimes called classic style. […] . What that means is really too long to reasonably describe in this post, but I’ll say that one part of it is that the prose is clean, straightforward, and simple. […]

My style is opposite in many ways. I often have long, meandering, sentences, not for any particular literary purpose, but just because it reflects how I think

Dan Luu, https://danluu.com/writing-non-advice/

Last is from Kareful, one of my favorite musicians:

“does anyone have tips for finishing a song? these days i can only write the intro and 1st drop, and i can’t get passed this point” – Vavn

Maybe you’re not meant to write long music, I also had this discovery recently, now all my tracks are around 2 minutes, but I find this means I now finish 3/4 tracks a week.

Kareful

Personally, I find short, several-paragraph posts about a specific thought very much a fit for me right now. This blog started in a very different way, doing long, deeply technical researched pieces which were a fit for me at the time (gap year) but no longer are.

Musically, I loved hyper-technical electronic music production ~2020 (also during my gap year) but recently have been doing simpler, more “beatsy” music.

Creativity is like gardening

I see a strong parallel between creativity and gardening. Like a fruit, growing from seed to ripe, ideas do the same.


Idea seeds are those vague, half-formed thoughts that quietly appear in your mental space. They occupy a strange state where you are aware of them, but would struggle to write them down or explain to someone else coherently. That is the defining characteristic of an idea which is not mature yet.

Slightly more mature ideas are in the growth phase. They form of the idea has started to emerge, and you can half-express it, but there might be logical errors as you still haven’t fully thought it through yet.

Ripe ideas are fully developed and can be coherently expressed with the fewest words necessary.


Ideas can grow along this path explicitly or implicitly. You can explicitly grow ideas by sitting down and trying to write them. Or they can grow implicitly in the background as you live your life and expose yourself to experiences and other ideas.

Sitting down to write an idea is like trying to harvest it. It’s easiest and works best when the idea is ripe — the idea will almost pour out of your brain onto the page in this case. If you try to harvest an idea before it’s ripe, it will be harder.

The analogy might break down slightly here. With ideas, the act of trying to harvest them actually accelerates their journey towards ripeness. Trying to express an idea forces you to understand it better and clarify it. This is one way of growing an idea: the explicit way.

Ideas can also grow implicitly. They can quietly sit on your mental back burner as you live your life and expose yourself to experiences and other ideas. Maybe another idea acts as a bee that pollinates the first idea and together they form a complete, ripe idea. But in order for them to be able to safely sit on the back burner as long as it takes, they should be still captured in some kind of way, or else you’ll probably forget them.


Note that an idea’s state of being written down vs in head, and public vs private are each orthogonal qualities. Ripe ideas aren’t the only ones that can be written down and published. Idea seeds can still be attempted to be written down (although it will be hard), and also published.

How I create so much content

Between my two personal projects, I create a lot of content.

offlinemark:

  • Blog – Writing
  • Twitter – Shorter writing, writing meant to be seen more widely
  • Youtube – Educational content, screencasts
  • Podcast – Stories & lessons from my life, more personal

comfort (my music production project):

  • Music
  • Youtube – Educational content, screencasts on music production
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Podcast

I also have a travel blog that I don’t share publicly.

Some of these channels are more active than others, but I have three principles that help me do it all.

1 – Harvest, don’t generate

I try to harvest content from what I experience & learn in my life, rather than sit down, brainstorm, and generate content from nothing.

2 – Respect inspiration

I’m significantly more productive when I’m inspired, so I try to treat moments of inspiration with great respect and get to work when they come. Sometimes this means being awake at 5:18am writing (as I am now).

Rick Rubin talks about this exact concept in “The Creative Act”.

I try to avoid queueing things at all costs; if possible I just sit down and do it now.

3 – Have buckets for everything

Different kinds of ideas naturally have a medium in which they are best expressed. Insights or essays are best expressed in writing. Educational walkthroughs are best done via screencast. Stories are best told via audio.

I try to have “buckets” (media channels) ready to receive ideas in their best form the moment they strike. This helps you harvest as much of your creative potential as possible.

For a long time, I left content on the table by not having a podcast for offlinemark. I regularly had stories I thought of and wanted to share, but simply had no great place for them, so they weren’t shared. Now that I have the podcast, I notice that I fairly regularly have a thought that is suitable for that medium, and can capture it.


Bonus: 4 – Default to public, and iterate

Don’t get tied up polishing content before you publish it. Default to publishing whatever you have, and remember: You can always polish, expand, or re-release content later. Defaulting to in public maximizes the potential for it to be discovered.


Bonus (Dec 2023 ):

5 – Never let an idea slip

If you’re going to create a lot of content, step one is to not needlessly throw away good ideas when you have them. Ensure that you have some system or tools in place for quickly capturing ideas wherever you might have them. I heavily rely on “Hey Siri, remind me…” on my iPhone which lets me quickly record notes to process later. I use Omnifocus as my todo app which integrates with this. Omnifocus and most other todo apps have a “Quick Add” global keyboard shortcut which is useful if you’re already on your computer.

6 – Not all content needs to be long

Not all blog posts or content needs to be long and arduous to write. In fact, it’s better if it’s not.

7 – Minimize friction

My current blogging setup with WordPress feels very friction optimized — I just browse to my blog, click new post, write, and hit publish. No command lines. No writing in a separate app, then copying the post over. In-place construction if you will.

8 – One-shot it

Get in the habit of “one-shotting” content — forcing yourself to “finish” it in some way in the same session of work. It’s incredibly tempting to leave a piece in a half-finished state and say that you’ll come back later. But rarely does that ever happen and adding things to todo-lists/queues adds weight to your life that doesn’t feel good. Plus, forcing yourself to finish is a creative muscle in and of itself that can be exercised and improved at. I’ve noticed improvement with this for me for music making and writing.

What cured my writer’s/publisher’s block

I’ve managed to make writing fun again and have been publishing a lot on my blog lately.

It’s due to three reasons:

1 – Having explicit content categories creates the freedom to post things that aren’t highly effort intensive deep dives.

By introducing explicit post categories (i.e. Micropost, Lab Notes, Essay, Deep Dive, etc) I feel much more free to post without the expectation that every post needs to be a time consuming, deeply researched technical post (which are the kind of posts that are popular).

I don’t have time for those lately, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write or post anything! Explicitly tagging something as a micropost or lab notes takes a lot of the pressure off, and makes me much more willing to write and publish.

2 – I stopped sharing on Twitter.

The curse of growing an audience is that posting to that audience has increasing weight as the audience grows, which creates stress and friction about posting. What if I post something that people don’t like and I lose a bunch of followers? What if I’m straight up wrong? What if I want to share something but don’t have time to fully polish it and people judge me? What if I post too often?

It’s also distracting to share on Twitter, and very difficult to not monitor notifications afterwards.

Furthermore, writing on Twitter was actually difficult in that it took extra energy to abide by the character limits, or fit things into threads otherwise. Writing freeform of my own blog is easier in this regard.

Not posting on Twitter removes a nontrivial amount of friction and stress that used to prevent me from sharing.

3 – Using WordPress (i.e. not a static site generator) removes a ton of friction.

The fact that I can click buttons in a web interface, write and post as easily as sending a tweet makes all the difference.

It’s so nice being able to change the website without coding. For instance, I just added a “Popular posts” feature in the sidebar in the last 5 minutes. Turns out Jetpack already has the feature included and I just had to enable it. I don’t even want to imagine what it would have taken to implement that by hand or with a static site generator.

Though not as fast a static site, the blog loads fast enough and I’m more than happy to take the performance hit.

It’s also awesome that I can quickly edit posts to fix typos, even from my phone with the WordPress app. I do this very often.

(bonus reason: It’s also due to the realization that posts don’t have to be long, can be written in one sitting, and don’t have to be absolutely perfect!)