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(Hopefully not the) Last Lecture*

2010 December 12

On December 12, 2009, I posted “Hello World,” the very first entry here on Modern Ideas. One year and nearly 200 posts later, it’s time to mark another anniversary. For this one I’d like to share a few thoughts prompted by the experience of writing this blog for a year.

I’ve never been asked to deliver a lecture of any kind but, for what it’s worth, if someone were desperate visionary enough to ask me to speak about being a creative professional, and provided no more-specific parameters, the following is a little of what I might say if I felt like saying these things.

Ahem.

I have read various suggestions of late that blogging is effectively “over,” in some sense or other. No one seems to be suggesting that blogs or the “blog” format will disappear; near as I can discern, the gist seems to be rather that the idea of “blogging” as some special activity, and of bloggers and a “blogosphere” as some notably relevant factor in online stuff, I guess, will become obsolete. Or at least, not in any particular way “cool” anymore.

Barely one year into my blog. Isn’t that just typical?

Frankly, though, all of this sounds not only okay but rather long overdue to me. The word “blog” bugged me for years, because it sounded stupid, until eventually it became so ubiquitous that it turned into just another arbitrary word. All of the various blog- derivative words even moreso. “Blogging?” Perfect example of a needless neologism.

What I’m doing here is writing. Or typing, to be really precise, but I am composing text, which English speakers have for some time referred to “writing” regardless of what tools are involved. Why did the involvement of a “blog” ever seem so special anyway?

For that matter it’s always seemed rather sketchy just what a “blog” is. I think most of us can agree that this is one, but if one lists out the characteristics of what makes a blog a blog, I think one quickly finds that 1) they’re mostly rather technical and trivial and 2) there’s no clear standard as to which ones are just typical vs which are definitive, i.e. which must be present or else something is not a blog, however much it may otherwise appear like one.

So the blog is supposedly going to recede from being a unique, distinct modern thing and instead just be part of the plumbing of the internet, a handy format for presenting text content but otherwise nothing remarkable? That’s okay by me. There never really was any “magic” in blogs or blogging anyway.

However, I think that there is magic in having and using a publishing “platform” of one’s own (which a blog can be) if it prompts one to pursue an interest more actively and consistently than one otherwise might not.

That’s the one thought, if I were allowed only one, which above all else I want to share after a year of posting stuff here at Modern Ideas: Start doing.

Which need have nothing whatsoever to do with a blog, or even with writing in any format, but a blog may nonetheless be an aid; it has been for me. I should confess that, in recent years, I honestly have not felt particularly “passionate” about graphic design. Not like I was, or at least thought I was, in my early 20s when I almost-bodily threw myself into projects and did all of the AIGA stuff I could and was really excited.

After some years, I found that design felt a lot more like “a job” to me, instead. My job, and one worth doing well, certainly. All the same, a job rather than a deep, personal interest.

But I started writing Modern Ideas, and made a pleasant discovery: there are still a lot of things within design that are interesting to me. They were parts within a whole and I had not specifically identified them, but when I committed myself to writing about design, I needed to start thinking about design. I needed to start paying attention and considering more than just my own day to day work, if only because much of the very work which was simply not going to be more than just “work” no matter how effectively I completed it also, not coincidentally, was not of particular interest as something to write about.

So I had to go find things that were or, hey, perhaps make some things that were.

In that regard I think it’s been rather a productive year. I already did the occasional project for my own entertainment, anyway, such as the Spider-Man Timeline or the redesigned U.S. map. And I probably would have been doing some more things like that during the past year, blog or no. But I think keeping a record of what I’ve been up to as a designer, and which was at least potentially available for others to review, definitely motivated me to “get up to” rather more than I might otherwise have, as evidenced by:

Sketching out Cleveland Browns logo ideas, the Great Lakewood Pub Crawl Map, pretend covers for collections of Mike Mignola’s work at Marvel, a laboriously-created collage of 100 book covers I’ve designed, a web site for James Swanson’s book Manhunt and other projects for a self-taught course in Flash, a series of essays exploring the nature and significance of “iconic” design, an actual physical new dust-jacket for Voice of the Fire, and a map of Superman’s Cleveland, not to mention various smaller projects and of course a hundred thousand words or so of reflections on art, design and culture.

I feel pretty good about this, yes; thanks. Not only was it fun doing this stuff but, at 32 years old, I find the years blur past alarmingly fast and I really want to feel like a participant in my life rather than just a spectator. It’s nice to be able to look at twelve months and see some tangible accomplishments which I can be proud of and which, in some cases, have even been of interest to others as well.

None of this has made me a penny, of course. The bread-and-butter projects—the real-estate marketing, the book cover designs which end up being directed by the author and leave both I and my client to merely “deal with it”—are what keep the lights on. Which is important. Money matters, and money is not always found where we might wish it to be.

I grew up and went out into the world having been thoroughly sold on the idea: “do what you love, and the money will follow.” Frankly, I can’t endorse that view; I would not feel at all responsible in giving that advice to young people, personally, and in restrospect think that I probably should have asked the people giving it to me whether that concept underpinned their lives, or was just an idea that sounded nice. Honestly, “do what you love and the money will follow” is, at best, childish and silly, and at worst an example, at least, of starry-eyed, unrealistic “magical thinking” that is frankly dangerous when it gets out of hand.

But it’s not entirely bad advice. It’s just that the assumption contained in the second half is unrealistic. So just disregard that, and keep “do what you love.” Do what you love, do what is interesting, rewarding and/or meaningful to you, as much as your circumstances allow. If money follows, great. If not, you’re still expending your time in something valuable, you’re still getting something out of life rather than just hanging around while life takes things out of you.

That’s the most you can hope to rely on, in a sense; the money will go where it wants, and if you spend all your time chasing after it you may end up spending your life going places you don’t want to go and still never really “catch up with” the money. As Charlie Hoehn expressed it:

Therein lies the best career advice I could possibly dispense: just DO things. Chase after the things that interest you and make you happy. Stop acting like you have a set path, because you don’t. No one does. You shouldn’t be trying to check off the boxes of life; they aren’t real and they were created by other people, not you. There is no explicit path I’m following, and I’m not walking in anyone else’s footsteps. I’m making it up as I go.

Me, too. So start doing things. Start today. There will never be a better time. The fact that I began this blog on December 12 is kind of symbolic of that. I could have waited for the new year, but why? Why not now?

Just do things. You don’t need a blog and you don’t need to be “discovered” and you don’t need to wait for some special time in the future; the magic is not in any of those things. The magic is in the act of getting to work and making something, maybe not something remunerative, and probably not your Big Dream, but those things are very likely beyond your control at least in part. You can, though, hopefully control what you do this year, do today, do right now, and whether what you’re doing feels meaningful to you or not.

I’ll close with author Warren Ellis, who sums things up in his always memorable fashion:

“There’s That Goddamn Sun Again”

Another day down the mines of our lives. We drink ’til we stink and smoke ’til we choke because that’s how we get things done, you and me. Spending our lives making things and making things out of our lives, because anything else would be dull as hell and we’re damned if we’re going to sit at the other end of whatever years we get saying, well, what the fuck was that for?

* with respect to the late Randy Pausch.

One Response
  1. December 13, 2010

    Well put, and an excellent set of guidelines to live by.

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