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How to be a Good Mentee to a Mentor

February 2nd, 2015 No comments

This week I was discussing with a friend the importance of mentors for your own work. Someone who has experience of whatever it is you are trying to do, who can be a good source of knowledge for the progress of your work. To whom you can ask questions.

But how the hell do you find such a useful person? Who actually wants to be a mentor?

I think you just write to people and see who responds. Because I was thinking that if someone asked, I would like to be a mentor. It’s flattering for someone to think you have knowledge to impart. (Whether I do or not is not up to me to know.)

But although I haven’t been a mentor myself, I’ve been around other mentors. And I’ve seen some v. bad mentees. As in mentees who ensure their mentor would never be a mentor again.

So here’s my suggestions for how to be a good mentee:

  1. Be self-reliant. Don’t expect being a mentee to mean sitting around watching your mentor work and waiting to be asked to do something. That’s school work experience, and this is not the same thing. A bored person in the corner induces anxiety in mentors. Mentors are not wanting anxiety from the relationship.
  2. Propose a schedule for your interactions with your mentor. Make it as easy on them as you can. Do not propose, ‘I would like to come and shadow you work for three months from next Monday. I am vegetarian.’
  3. Keep religiously to the schedule you devise. Be ultra reliable. Be more reliable than on a first date.
  4. Don’t act as though your mentor is a parent and needs to worry about you. Act as though you’re working with them and as though you are there to help if you can.
  5. Take your own work with you that you can get on with when your mentor needs to work on something alone.
  6. Set out in your opening email/letter to your mentor how you are going to do all these things.

Dynamic Quality and the Purpose of Work

September 30th, 2014 No comments

Why do I continually go on about the importance of innovative work of your own, about the pleasure to be taken from it? Why do I think it a good idea at all? These are not questions I can answer, they are the questions that bug me all the time.

On the other hand I know that when I am in the middle of good and innovative work it simply feels right. It has value to me. And although this value is hard to define, or perhaps because it is hard to define, I was delighted to be reminded of an entire book dedicated to the subject of this value, and the fact that it is difficult to define.

Lila: an Inquiry into Morals was a favourite of mine in my twenties – one of those youthful doses of heady philosophy whose ideas feel like they have permanently expanded your perspective on the world. (Which is a good reason for never re-reading such books, if your more ambivalent older self has a more cynical attitude towards what they have to say.)

But a re-reading of Lila was a pleasant surprise, because the ideas still resonated. Not only resonated – the book provided me with a label for The Tyranny of Career‘s pleasure-from-innovative-work which I have had a hard time trying to define: Dynamic Quality.

Lila’s central idea (which follow on from the ideas in Pirsig’s 1970s cult bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) is what Pirsig calls his metaphysics of quality. The idea that we can better understand the world if we think of it not as a material world, of subjects and objects, but of patterns of value. By which he means the cause of change in the world, at all levels, whether biological, social or intellectual, is through the preference for one pattern of value over another.

An example on the biological level might be that one human being values another’s physical appearance, which causes them to want to desire sex. On the social level a human being might value the stability and security of a relationship and family over the chance to have sex with as many people as possible. On an intellectual level, the value is at the level of ideas – the idea that we should not ostracise a person from society (such as happened in Victorian times) simply because they decide not to marry or have children.

Each of these different categories of value is separate from the others. Not only separate, but they work against each other, both within individuals and within society itself. The social value we place in a family works against the biological value for sex with multiple attractive people. The intellectual value of freedom-to-live-how-you-want works against the social value of promoting the nuclear family as the right way to live.

The different levels of value fight against each other not in the sense of one defeating another, but in the sense that they remain in constant tension. They are the source of tension in human lives, in society – they are the explanation for why the world appears in a messed up state. We value the intellectual pattern of value of equal rights for all, but, if we are Westerners, this fights against social instincts to keep our privileged status in the world. These tensions exists in all of us, to greater and lesser degrees.

(This is a very brief overview of the book’s ideas – I’ve read it four times now and I’m still finding new insights. If I haven’t explained it clearly – well, you’ll have to read the book yourself.)

How does this relate to pleasure from innovative work? The examples described above, of sex with attractive people, family, the right to live as you please, are patterns of value that we recognise because they are familiar, are widely recognised. Pirsig calls these familiar patterns static patterns of value, and the value contained in these patterns he calls static Quality (Quality with a capital Q is something he defines at great length in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The static Quality of the human body keeps it in one piece; the static Quality of traditions such as the nuclear family keep a society in a stable state.

But beyond static Quality there is another type of quality: Dynamic Quality. Dynamic Quality is a new pattern of value, in the intellectual sense a new idea, but one whose value is not widely accepted. Martin Luther King’s ideas about civil rights contained Dynamic Quality. The inventiveness in the films of Michel Gondry contain the same.

And Dynamic Quality can be used as the definition of what we seek when we do innovative work of our own. This Dynamic Quality is what we want to feel, to experience. We recognise it when it happens, and know when it is not happening, but it is very hard to say what Dynamic Quality actually is. It is what happens during flow, when you lose track of time. It is not limited to the ‘arts’ – it could equally be found in the idea for a successful fundraising drive for a charity.

As described above Dynamic Quality might be thought of as a synonym for creativity. But I do not think there is an exact correlation – Dynamic Quality is more ‘the thing which causes the pleasure from creativity’. It is what we look for, all our lives, in every aspect of our lives, without realising.

Dynamic Quality is not, needless to say, something readily found in a traditional career working for someone else. Rather a constant rediscovery of Dynamic Quality is a good definition of a successful self-made career. It is what keeps us going in life.

Recent links on careers, fulfilling work and writing:

In Success Small is Beautiful – and More Fulfilling

September 4th, 2014 No comments

The other day a friend who runs a social justice website told me the story of a former colleague. This woman (let’s call her S) had great success with the fledgling media company she started from scratch, providing the software and logistical support for a project providing access to educational services to disadvantaged people around the world. The project was featured on TED and hailed as a great success. It was quintessential innovative work that, according to my friend, gave her a great sense of work fulfillment.

After this initial success S had pick of future projects. She expanded her company, was able to offer her services to a wider range of clients. At this she was also a success – in as much as, before long she employed a dozen people and had more work than she could cope with.

Except now that she ran a bigger company and had bigger clients, none of her work was of the socially-beneficial kind, and none of it was the type of work she had found so satisfying in the first place. All her clients were commercial, paying more money but commissioning work in which S placed no personal value.

If by some chance I were to make a living from the writing work I like to do (an unlikely scenario), I don’t want this kind of success for my self-made career. For me this is why it is necessary to keep paid subsistence work and worthwhile work in different compartments – because money always affects the work you do. If your entire living is earned from the work that was worthwhile to you in the beginning, there’s a good chance your decisions about future work will be taken out of your hands.

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it. The more you need the money, the more people will tell you what to do. The less control you will have. The more bullshit you will have to swallow. The less joy it will bring. Hugh MacLeod

For ‘art’ read ‘any innovative activity’. If you can do the work you want to do without interference, and be paid after the fact, can be paid a living even, fantastic. This is a position very few people find themselves in – this is Danny Boyle and the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

But if we set up a scenario where we have the time to do innovative work that we value for no money,  supported by subsistence work, that can be a success. So long as we don’t think of it as a failure because it has not earned us money. Don’t think you need do what you love to earn a living to be a success. That’s the way to no longer love it.

Recent links on careers, fulfilling work and writing:

‘Every artist is a Kickstarter’

February 21st, 2014 1 comment

Some friends (Chris Callard and Catherine Grimaldi) recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for the children’s book they are publishing (trying to publish perhaps, Kickstarter being no kind of certainty). And whilst this is hardly unusual nowadays, I really liked what they wrote on their blog about the project, on their reasons for doing so.

They talk about how the despondency of finishing a book or whatever project that you have thought about, and slaved over for months, and then have the mountainous task of trying to find someone who might publish it…

So deciding to publish a book via Kickstarter is about seeing the project through yourself, until you have the finished artefact in your hand, rather than waiting for someone else, someone who has no real care for the work you’ve done, to make it for you.

… and that the best state for anyone who wants to live a creative life is, rather than craving success, one of ‘sustainable creativity’:

that so long as you have the time and money to continue doing the work you love to do, that’s about all that matters. You live cheaply so you fulfilled by the work you love

Kickstarter requires a certain amount of selling yourself – but this selling yourself can be in whatever form you decide. (This is what I’ve been trying to work out with what I’ve written about self-promotion.) It doesn’t have to be in the form of insidious marketing – for me, anytime you are telling people about something you are suggesting they might want to pay money for, you have to offer them something more as well, information, inspiration, value. The things which really need selling, the things which have huge marketing budgets, are those with less innate value – otherwise they wouldn’t need all that promotion.

Making stuff that you, and other people value – that’s all we need to do. Selling the stuff, at a low level of sustainable creativity, can come later.

(Read the whole post here<>.)

The Pleasure of Piracy

October 11th, 2013 No comments

In a Granta article from 2009, Peruvian author Daniel Alarcón discussed the rampant state of book piracy in Peru. If you think the present day electronic copying of ebooks is a problem, this is nothing to the large scale copying of physical books in Peru: a new book by bestselling author Paul Coelho was widely available on street corners before it was even in the shops.

Alarcón, a newly published author at the time, lamented the loss of royalties when he found his book had been pirated. But at the same time he acknowledged that piracy was also a badge of honour – an author whose new book was not pirated had somehow failed.

It made me think how I would feel if my (as yet unpublished) books were pirated. And I concluded: I would be delighted. I’d be happy that someone had taken notice, that they’d felt the book was worth pirating. I don’t want to be a full-time writer, to need to make a living from writing – I’m happy trying to find a balance between working for money and the writing work that I do for myself for pleasure (which is pretty much the theme of The Tyranny of Careers in a nutshell.)

Of course in order for a book to be pirated, it must be published in the first place. It is the publisher that has lost the most – it is their decision that your book is worth publishing that encourages the piracy. Philip Pullman recently complained about the loss of earnings for full-time writers, and the unfairness of some readers taking for free what others have to pay for.

These are valid complaints. But even so I want to take Alarcón’s ambiguous view of the Peruvian book pirates as a guide for good writing. I do not want to view any kind of creative work in the same way as work to earn money. As I wrote in a previous post, I think a healthy society is one where art/creative work is a part-time activity undertaken by as many people as possible. I don’t want to write with the expectation of money – if it became a grind I would give it up. If I am never able to earn money to live on from writing perhaps I will only produce a book only once every five years say, rather than every year. This is fine. An every-five-years book will hopefully be more considered and therefore better than an every-year book. It is not like there is a shortage of books in the world to read.

In fact I would go further: if I am not happy for any work I produce to be pirated, if I am not happy to do the work but make no money from it, then it is not work worth doing.