Host and Creator of The Unmistakable Creative
What do you like to be known for?
Most people know me for The Unmistakable Creative Podcast, but I like to be known as an artist and digital storyteller that uses technology to tell stories about inspiring and interesting people.
We usually talk about design in the aesthetic sense, but there is design behind an interview as well, even though it’s harder to see. When designing your interviews, how do you decide on an appropriate structure?
We think about interviews and our entire body of work from the standpoint of creating experiences that are unmistakable; so distinctive and unique that you immediately know they’re ours.
I always view interviews as blank canvases. I don't usually go in with a plan or scripted list of questions, which allows people to really open up. People tend to tell much more engaging and interesting stories this way because I don't have an agenda going into a conversation other than having the conversation. The spotlight is always on our guests and is never on us. I think that's critical to understand if you’re interested in the craft of interviewing.
How do you decide who to interview?
That's a question I get asked a lot because we have had such a wide cast of characters on The Unmistakable Creative. We have had bank robbers, drug dealers, entrepreneurs, performance psychologists, visual artists - all across the gamut.
When deciding who to interview, I ask myself, am I genuinely curious about what this person is up to? Have they done something that gets my attention? If I am curious, it will naturally lead to a good story. There's no question that somebody who robbed thirty banks (one of our former guests), probably has a pretty damn interesting story.
Morbid curiosity always drives guest selection.
When you find someone that fascinates you, like a bank robber, how do you get in touch with them?
Almost all of these people have some sort of public presence. Very rarely do I find somebody that has no public presence at all, because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to find them. A lot of our really popular guests are not the most famous people, yet have an amazing amount of wisdom. I think we take wisdom for granted in a world that is so celebrity obsessed. We look at who has the most followers on Instagram and Twitter, and consider them to be the only people worthy of our time. I always look for somebody interesting over somebody famous.
When it comes to finding them, I mostly just keep my eyes and ears open. While I'm browsing through my Flipboard every week, I'm looking to see if there's somebody here that might make for an interesting conversation, or if there's a story that caught my attention more than all the others.
When did you discover you had a passion for interviewing and for learning about other people?
It evolved somewhat organically. I graduated from business school in April 2009, and I didn't have a job. The job market was awful and I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I ended up starting a blog, the blog led to the podcast. I'm not sure that I started off passionate about it, I just found something that I was interested in, and I got better and better at it. Of course, as my skills developed, my passion followed suit.
Did you start off as an avid reader or listener of different types of interviews?
Funny enough, even today I don't listen to a lot of podcasts or interviews. I started off as a blogger, and the interviews were an offshoot of my blog. Once a week I interviewed someone in a series I called Interviews with Up and Coming Bloggers, which evolved into what today is The Unmistakable Creative. The process took five years and involved a ton of ups and downs.
When we see a project in its final form, it's easy for us to assume that's the way it looked right from the start, because we don't get to see all the ugly parts that went into building it. Every now and then I like to go back to the most popular websites and run them through the Wayback Machine, because you can see where somebody started and where they are now.
You are not going to be amazing when you start. Ira Glass talks about that in his famous video, and you have you be okay with that. We started out just interviewing bloggers, and eventually it started to expand and we had the foresight to do some major branding and design overhaul. We had great content, but we didn't really have an identity or brand.
Speaking of identity, what inspired the art style for The Unmistakable Creative? It has a very raw, marker doodle look.
It came from a thirty day project where I was teaching myself how to draw. I was bored one day and watching all these friends of mine practicing visual arts. I was morbidly curious about their craft. As a kid I was always written off as somebody who couldn't draw, so I embarked on a thirty day journey to teach myself how. At the beginning, I could draw like a kindergartner, and by the end I could draw like a first grader. I never got any good, but my only goal was progress. To this day I believe the project was incredibly worthwhile and informative, because drawing teaches you to see. I finally understood how shading, light, and shadow worked, and why none of my drawings ever looked real.
Around November I asked Sarah Steenland, who worked with us for about two years, if she would be willing to draw a cartoon for each interview. I didn't realize what she was going to come back with, but her cartoon album covers became the aesthetic of The Unmistakeable Creative.
When we gutted the old BlogCastFM brand, our designer and developer came to us with the first version of the new site, and I distinctly remember thinking that a site called The Unmistakable Creative needed to be a lot more unmistakable and a lot more creative. The drawing project enabled me to see what was wrong with it. I decided we needed to illustrate all the icons. We went to Mars Dorian, an artist based in Germany who has played a huge role in the branding of our work. He has such a distinctive style, and really is the most unmistakeable artist we know.
Although I am not a visual artist, I realized I didn't have to be in order to incorporate the form into my work. I am skilled in the art of collaboration, and I brought together a group of tremendously talented artists who ensure that our work is always instantly recognizable.
Ira Glass has this great line in the video you mentioned about how most people get into an art form because they have good taste, but don't necessarily have the skill set at the beginning. With your drawing project, how did you approach becoming a beginner again, and how did you ensure that you made progress?
I documented the entire thing via Instagram. A lot of people find that silly - here you are, this thirty-something guy, who is drawing things that look like a kindergartner would draw. It was really important to be okay with knowing that most of what I drew wasn't going to be very good, and then to publicly share it.
I am also a prolific writer, so I understand how to embrace the blank page. My writing process mirrors this in a lot of ways, I just take a blank page and start writing. I don't really think about what I'm doing, and a lot of it starts out as nonsense.
There's this line in the movie “With Honors,” where Joe Pesci tells Brendan Frazer his senior thesis is “really coming out the wrong end." I feel like that often when I write, but that's just part of the process. The number of iterations that have led to the work we are doing now is in the hundreds. I started multiple blogs that nobody ever saw when Blogger first came out, YouTube videos that never saw the light of day, and all sorts of stupid things to play with the tools and technology we had. I never stopped making things.
In your book, you talk about how you have received both glowing praise and severe criticism for your work. When you put one of your creations out for the world to see, how do you separate the good criticism from the bad?
As artists and creators, we are all going to experience criticism. The nature of our work is incredibly subjective. We can keep watering down are work until it caters to the lowest common denominator and is for everybody, or we can say we're not going to be for everybody - we're for a small subset of people. Amazingly enough a small subset can be several thousand who happen to like what we do.
I happen to really enjoy Dave Matthews' music, but I have a friend who doesn't like Dave Matthews at all. It's funny because here's a guy who has 20,000 people in a concert venue going nuts, and yet, you can find a person who hates his work.
There are people who are going to hate what you do, and you have to learn to decipher between constructive criticism and criticism that's just designed to be spiteful. There are people, especially on the open platform that is the internet, who are just going to go out and be trolls because they have nothing better to do with their time.
In terms of constructive criticism, I think you have to ask if the criticism is valid. One of our listeners wrote in and said, "I'm a really big fan. I love what you do, and I am telling you this in honor of your work." He prefaced his email with praise, but continued to write, "You say ‘let me ask you this’ way too much in an interview, and it's annoying.”
I actually went back to one of my interviews, and I counted how many times I said “let me ask you this,” and oh my god, this guy was absolutely right. That one little critique made me a much better interviewer, because I was willing to listen. I emailed him back, and said "you know when I first saw this I rolled my eyes, and then I went back and listened to an interview, and you're right. Thank you for pointing it out, I will work on it."
It's funny how our first instinct is usually to put up our defenses. Criticism is so much easier to swallow after distancing ourselves from our own work.
Right, I look back at the book I self-published on Amazon and think to myself, “this is immature and needs a lot of work.” The book demonstrates the level I was at two years ago, and I have worked and worked and worked on my craft every day since. There's one woman who wrote a two-star review that said, "I hope this guy is a better surfer than he is a writer."
If you're going to reach a significant volume of people, you have to accept that some of them are going to hate what you do.
Since you brought up surfing, I want to talk a little about creative outlets that aren't tied to professional pursuits. How important do you find these outlets, and do they ever make there way back in to your main craft?
It's funny you mention that, I was just working on a piece about creative cross-training. I think that having an outlet of some sort that has nothing to do with your primary work is very, very powerful. Surfing is one of mine, and the drawing project is another. It's a bit like putting Google's 20% policy into your life: 20% of your time should be spent on projects that have nothing to do with your professional pursuits.
I'm writing a book with a publisher right now, and my writing coach suggested surfing as a structure. I went back to one of my moleskins from a year or two ago, and sure enough there's actually notes about structuring a book based on surfing.
One outlet that seems like it has absolutely nothing to do with the other can end up playing an instrumental role in its development.
I just read a great New York Times article that discussed how smartphones have diminished our conversational abilities and capacity for solitude. When you're thinking about your work schedule, how do you find a way to separate from technology at the right times, but still embrace it when needed?
I agree with that article based on my own experience. I know my creative rhythms really well, and I think it's important for everyone to understand their own. Some people work well at night, while others have to be logged on to social media in the morning. I can't use technology in the morning - it will throw off my entire day. My most productive time is from six to eight in the morning.
I leave the phone out of the room that I'm in so I don't have to check it. If I do a meditation session using Calm, I'll put the phone in another room right after the mediation session, so I'm not tempted to use it. I use a distraction free writing program called MacJournal, that makes the whole screen go black except for text. I also use a tool called HeyFocus which blocks distracting websites, and I'll block stuff for 80-90 minutes at a time. Right now for example, I know I'm going to go on Facebook and waste an hour, so I set HeyFocus to prevent me from going on Facebook or checking my email until 4 pm. These are my rituals.
I interviewed Gretchen Rubin recently, and she said all of the discussion and self-help books surrounding habits usually fail to acknowledge that everyone is different. Different things energize us, and give us rhythm. I am very much a morning person. I always have been.
I'm the complete opposite.
There you go.
Besides Dave Matthews, are there any other artists you look to for inspiration in style or creative process?
I once prepared for a conference by watching Michael Jackson's “This Is It.” There was an element of his live performance that I thought could work in a conference room. I’m not talking about the crazy pyrotechnics (we didn't have that kind of budget), but his overall thought process.
There's a graffiti artist named Eric Wahl who says that live music has engaged participants, while keynote speaking has passive consumers. When you watch “This Is It,” the sheer commitment to craft and excellence is so obvious. The attention he brings to the smallest details reminds me of Steve Jobs’ philosophy about making even the smallest parts no one notices beautiful.
Even if an audience can't articulate why something is great, I think they usually know it subconsciously.
The point you made about active and passive engagement hits close to home. My main craft is video game design, and I have always found it alluring because it demands an active audience. When it comes to interviewing, how do you go about bridging the gap between these two types of engagement?
An interview isn't the end of a conversation, but the start of one. I want to create a ripple that sparks conversations between my readers and listeners.
One of my listeners once told me that every week when my interviews come out, he and his wife exchange text messages to share notes and insights. Here is a medium that supposedly is happening in solitude between two people, and yet there are thousands of people sharing ideas all over the place. I love that. It's like a ripple beyond any measure.
How do you define success?
You know it's funny, I've heard Tim Ferriss ask this question to so many people on his podcast.
I promise I didn't steal it from him.
Even if you did, steal like an artist as Austin Kleon says! This question is fresh on my mind because it's what the last chapter of my book is about.
We live in a world where there is a lot of opportunity for external validation - Facebook likes and Twitter followers provide endless hits of dopamine. That said, the more I build my body of work, the more I believe that the greatest reward is that I get to keep doing it.
Why does anyone really want to make money? The idea of an exit is weird to me. Do I really want to exit from doing the thing I love? Money should allow you to keep doing what you're doing. When you've reached the point where the process itself is so rewarding, it carries so many intrinsic benefits that the external validation is just an added bonus.
There’s a strong analogy to another one of my creative outlets. Surfers don't surf for waves, but for the feeling they get when they leave the water.
We’ll chase that feeling until the grave.