Archive for the ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ Category

Gumption Traps for Graphic Designers

On Tuesday I wrote about gumption traps for artists. Today I’m going to talk about gumption traps for a subset of artists, graphic designers. I figure I’m pretty qualified to write about this since I myself am a graphic designer, and I’ve been pushing pixels and type for about 9 years now.

In thinking about the different things that frustrate the fire out of designers, I’ve realized that you can group them into categories different from the ones discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There are internal and external frustrations, like with everything else. It should be noted that where fine art is internally driven, graphic design is externally driven. A graphic designer is quite often given a task by someone else, or the designer creates his/her own tasks in order to fulfill some external requirement (such as generating new business). The same principles of line, color, form, texture are at work in both disciplines, so the two practices have a lot in common. But Graphic Design, formerly known as Commerical Art, is driven by commerce rather than self-expression. This is an important distinction to make, and if a new designer isn’t careful, it can be the source of many frustrations. I can’t remember who said it, but I remember reading many years ago an interview with some late, great designer who said that “design is about solving problems, and art is about making them.”

External Gumption Traps

So with the thought in mind that many of the gumption traps for designers are external, I’ve found they fall into four main categories:

  • Environmental Traps
  • Communication Traps
  • People Traps
  • Project Traps

Environmental Traps

These are the ones where your environment prevents you from accomplishing what you need to do.

  • Insufficient equipment - If your computer is 10 years old and has almost no RAM or hard drive space, you’re sunk. You’ll be watching spinning beach balls all day while Photoshop tries to do a Gaussian Blur. Get the best equipment you can afford. It’ll save you hours of frustration. It’ll make you a faster and more productive worker in the end.
  • Poor ergonomics - When your mouse makes your wrist hurt constantly or your chair makes your lower back hurt, or you’re otherwise uncomfortable, it distracts you from focusing on doing good work. I want to encourage design managers everywhere to invest in good furniture that won’t hurt workers.

Communication Traps

There are a lot of problems that can be prevented by clear communication upfront, regardless of what field you’re in. One thing I’ve learned: never assume anything. If you’re in any doubt, ask.

  • Unclear communication - When objectives are unclear or there’s a lack of communication, it’s hard to know what to do on a project. Once I was working on a project I thought was a trifold, but it turned out to be a rack card (roughly 4 by 9 inches, two-sided). It was an embarrassing miscommunication. The trick here is to be pro-active and ask. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how dumb or silly it may seem. Remember that the only dumb question is the one that goes unasked. This is important to remember no matter what your role is. If someone asks you a question you think is dumb, bite your tongue. they’re trying to save themselves (and you) a lot of trouble later on.
  • Client expectations are way off or just plain wrong, or they dumb down the work - When this happens, you need to be proactive in communicating to the client what to expect, and make sure you have all the project details in writing, agreed upon by both sides.

People Traps

Unfortunately they don’t teach interpersonal relations in art school, and I’ve learned that it’s important to have a thick skin around other designers. If somebody doesn’t like the logo you’ve done, don’t take it personally. Commerce is objective, not subjective, and that objective is to sell something. You have to remember that design work is not personal; it’s commercial. Save the personal expression for your fine art.

  • Office politics - This happens just about wherever you go, no matter what industry you’re in. The key here is to learn how to work with people.
  • Someone else is in a bad mood - If you’re in a small office, this can be demoralizing. Learn how to deflect people’s bad moods, or learn to ignore it. If there’s someone who absolutely can’t stand being around, you may need to talk to your manager and request to be moved farther from that annoying peson. If all else fails, consider a change of jobs. Life is too short and too long to work with obnoxious people, although it can do a lot to build your character.

Project Traps

Sometimes it’s the work itself that saps your enthusiasm.

  • Work is tedious and repetitive - It may be OK for some people, but most really creative people tend to like variety. I think a lot of designers are bored easily, so tedious projects get old in a hurry. However, this may be a good time to sharpen your organizational skills, since it’s easy to get sloppy with tedious work. Take pride in a tightly-assembled project.
  • Deadlines are too tight or close together, or there are too many at once - Nothing causes burnout faster than burning the candle at both ends to get everything done. If you’re in the position to do it, learn to say “no” when necessary. You’ll be doing everyone a favor, not only because you’ll cause less stress for yourself and your team, but the client won’t get a hastily-put-together product.
  • Skills/talents are underused/undervalued - This is perhaps the most frustrating issue of all. Let’s say you’ve got a knack for a certain type of project that you always gets assigned to someone else. If you’re unsuccessful at convincing management to grant you more of those projects, or you can’t come up with these sort of projects on your own free time, it’s probably time to look for a job that lets you do these things. Or you feel like you’ve maxed out at this particular job. In that case, it’s probably time to move on.

Internal Gumption Traps

As for the internal gumption traps that come to designers, they’re very often the same as those of artists (coming at something from the wrong angle, focus is too narrow or too broad, fussiness, mistaken either/or thinking, etc.). If you’re still stuck by running through all of those, it’s probably a good idea to step away from your work for a little bit and come back with fresh eyes. Take a walk around the building to clear your head. Or go peruse the design annuals. A change of environment can do you good. Also, try to get another pair of eyes looking at your work. Two heads are always better than one.

This is by no means complete, and I’m sure that as I move on up into more and more senior positions, I’ll discover other kinds of problems that destroy enthusiasm. I get the feeling that those kinds of problems are more common among management than design.

Have any gumption traps you’ve run into as a designer? Feel free to share in the comments.

Gumption Traps for Artists (and What to Do About Them)

About a month ago, I wrote on Gumption Traps, those things that slow down one’s momentum and enthusiasm, as mentioned in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We all run into them, no matter what our area of work is. But artists are particularly prone to them, since we put so much of ourselves into what we do.

As a quick refresher on Gumption Traps, allow me to quote myself:

It’s important to remember that there are two primary sources of gumption traps: external, which are really setbacks, and internal, which are really your own hang-ups of some kind. Knowing where the source is helps you figure out the solution, whether it’s something outside of you, or something to do with your own approach to the problem that’s keeping you stuck.

I also mentioned how external setbacks come in a variety of forms, and there are a number of strategies for dealing with them, many of which are already available if you do a little research. External setbacks can be frustrating, but it’s the internal hangups that you really have to watch for. And since artists so often do self-defined work, most of the setbacks they experience are internal. That brings us to the three kinds of internal hangups:

  1. value traps
  2. truth traps
  3. muscle traps

Value Traps for Artists

Since value traps are the ones where your thinking is not as clear as it should be, it’s easy to see how the first one, value rigidity, comes into play whe we put the emphasis on wrong area in our work. Our focus may be too narrow or to broad. We may get all caught up in one particular thing that the rest of the artwork gets ignored or ends up halfway done. The solution is similar to that of truth traps: change your focus and shift it to something else. Another solution is to consciously avoid developing one area more than the rest of the piece, and develop it all at the same time.

If you’ve got a lot of anxiety about the piece you’re working on, you’ll see it in your fussiness, nervousness, and generally overdoing things. In this case, you’re probably expecting too much out of yourself. You have to relax and lower your expectations. Don’t put up with mediocrity, but don’t be hard on yourself if every piece you produce isn’t a blue-ribbon winner.

Along the same lines, you might be really overwhelmed by the magnitude of your project, no matter how awesome you know it is. when this happens, try breaking it down into more manageable pieces.

Truth Traps for Artists

When you’re thinking of things in terms of either/or answers, try thinking of a third option. As I’ve said before, it might be that the “question” you’re trying to ask is too small, or just plain irrelevant. Try changing your angle. You might be coming at your piece too directly or too obliquely. Try doing just the opposite of what you’re doing.

Muscle Traps for Artists

Like I said before, muscle traps deal with your physical capabilities and available tools. Sometimes the equipment you have is not adequate and hinders you from getting the job done. Low-quality brushes, paints, canvas, pencils, clay, paper, scissors, computer hardware and software, etc. will do you in and frustrate you more. Invest in the best tools you can afford.You’ll be glad you did.

Another muscle trap for artists is a lack of strength or knowing how far to push your materials. Mechanic’s feel is a great analogue for this. This problem crops up with throwing pottery on a wheel or stretching a canvas, or anything that requires a bit of physical strength. The trick here is to know how far your materials and tools can and should go. This comes with experience.

As I mentioned last month, your physical environment can affect you a lot, bordering on external setbacks. If you’re hot, you get frustrated and angry easily. If you’re cold, you get in a hurry and make mistakes. You become careless. Pay attention to ergonomics and comfort. Make sure you have adequate lighting and ventilation, especially when working with oil-based paints, clay, or airbrush/spray paint.

I’ve tried everything and I’m still stuck

I can think of two things here: you’ve got something else bothering you on a deep level and you haven’t taken care of it, or you just need to take a break. Know your own limits.


Please Help!

“Stuckness” is a problem that visits all of us and is the commonest trouble of all. Robert Pirsig devotes a whole chapter to it in his classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It comes up when the narrator’s son is trying to write a letter to his mother, but doesn’t know what to write, so he asks his dad for help:

Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.

Stuckness is right up there with Gumption Traps, and is a gumption trap in itself. Fortunately, though, dealing with stuckness is something that artists are naturally good at. The scientific method isn’t really good at dealing with it, since the scientific method is great at telling us where we’ve already been. It won’t tell us what’s next unless we’re just going around in circles (and that itself will get us stuck!)

It turns out that stuckness is a good thing! In fact, this stuckness is exactly what Zen Buddhists try to induce with koans, special breathing exercises, sitting still, and the like, all with the goal of having an empty “beginner’s mind.” Try this: consider that stuckness is something to be desired, rather than feared.

The solution will eventually show itself. Remember that all solutions are simple — in retrospect.

Gumption Traps

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceA few months ago I had the treat of getting to spend some time with my old college roommate, Nick. He and his wife and one-year old little girl came to town about a month before my wedding. When I told Nick about Mysterious Flame and what it’s all about, he said it reminded him of a section in a book we read back in school, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the author talks about “Gumption Traps.” I decided to re-read the book.

Gumption traps are those things that slow your momentum. “Gumption” is one of those fun words that is really a synonym for “enthusiasm.” Enthusiasm literally means “filled with God (Greek theos).” When you’re enthusiastic about something, you’re ready to jump in. You roll up your sleeves. You’re energetic. But when you’ve lost your gumption you just don’t feel like doing whatever it is you’ve set out to do. You get unhappy and maybe a little depressed. There are a lot of ways to restore your gumption, like going fishing, napping in a hammock in the summer, or lying on the beach. The problem is, there’s no “intellectual justification” for those things that seem to be just being lazy. However, when you recharge your gumption, things that bugged you before you took that vacation, they no longer bother you so much. You’ve got renewed enthusiasm. Says Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before. He hasn’t been wasting time. It’s only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it seem so.

But what to do about all the little things that sap your gumption and drain your enthusiasm? Pirsig in his book goes on for several pages about different gumption traps, joking that he’d like to start a new whole academic field and call it Gumptionology. Ever on the analytic side of things, the author breaks them down into several kinds and catalogues them, which we’ll sum up here.

It’s important to remember that there are two primary sources of gumption traps: external, which are really setbacks, and internal, which are really your own hang-ups of some kind. Knowing where the source is helps you figure out the solution, whether it’s something outside of you, or something to do with your own approach to the problem that’s keeping you stuck.

External setbacks come in a variety of forms, and there are a number of strategies for dealing with them, many of which are already available if you do a little research. Most of the time, though, hard work and experience pay off and you’re faster at overcoming those setbacks. You learn to not get too sure of yourself, since some things keep cropping back up when you think you have them licked. While external setbacks can be frustrating, it’s the internal hangups that you really have to watch for.

Internal Hangups

There are three kinds of internal hangups:

  1. value traps
  2. truth traps
  3. muscle traps

Value Traps

Value traps are the ones where your thinking is not as clear as it should be. Value rigidity is the first one. It is a refusal to value anything other than a certain thing just because it “has” to be that way. A lot of times a solution will be staring you in the face, but you’re in too much of a hurry to notice it. Slow down — stare at it for a while! It’s very much like a fisherman sitting and waiting for a nibble. Value rigidity is usually an ego problem. Lose the ego and be humble. Let yourself be surprised, and solutions will show themselves.

Anxiety is another value trap, and it shows itself in excessive fussiness, overdoing things, and messing things up with your own nervousness. It leads you into a downward spiral. You have to relax and realize that everybody messes up, even the old pros.

Boredom is yet another value trap. The problem is that you’re no longer seeing freshly like a beginner. The best solution is to just stop and refill the well. Take a break. Go sleep. Or drink a cup of coffee. If you’re still bored when you get back to your project, it’s very likely that there are deeper distractions that you need to deal with before you can move forward.

Impatience is the next, and it’s often the first reaction to any sort of setback. When this happens, again you need to slow down, but allow yourself twice as much time as you think you need to so that you don’t rush and mess things up. Rachet up your immediate goals and forget about the overall goals for the moment.

Truth Traps

Truth traps come in the form of mistaken dualistic thinking, which is a common problem in Western societies. Our culture is based on the assumption that every question has a yes or no answer. Sometimes there’s a third option. Or the question you’ve asked is too small. Sometimes what you’re after is just plain irrelevant. When you hit a truth trap, don’t give up and think you’ve just been spinning your wheels. The reality is that you probably need to broaden your focus or shift your attention to something else.

Muscle Traps

Muscle traps deal with your physical capabilities and available tools. If you have inadequate equipment, you’re likely to get more frustrated than if you have the best tools you can afford. You won’t regret having good gear. You can also be influenced by your physical surroundings: if you’re hot, you get frustrated and angry easily; if you’re cold, you get in a hurry and make mistakes and hurt yourself easily. Comfort and ergonomics are more important than a lot of people give them credit for. Another aspect of muscle traps involves muscular insensitivity or “mechanic’s feel.” Train yourself to know how far you can push your materials and tools. This is one of those things that comes with experience.

Live Right!

Finally, the way you live predisposes you to avoid traps and see the right facts that will help you solve problems. As Pirsig puts it:

If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharper on the seventh?