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John S. Couch: Designing a New Day

About this talk

Even those of us working our dream jobs have hidden ambitions that our routines don’t accommodate. For author and artist John S. Couch, that means the intimidating prospect of trying his hand at stand-up comedy. In this workshop, he leads us through a painting exercise where he shows us how to build time into your schedule for those secret aspirations, and how to create with soul to capture genuine energy in your work.

This talk was recorded remotely on May 18, 2020.

John S. Couch, VP, Product Design, Hulu

John S. Couch is vice president of product design for Hulu, where he led the successful 2017 redesign of the Hulu experience across mobile, living room, and web. John’s 2020 book, The Art of Creative Rebellion: How to champion creativity, change culture and save your soul, is a “letter to a young designer” on how to navigate the labyrinthine and often convulsive environments of modern businesses, while maintaining a strong grip to the reason why anyone becomes an artist, designer or maker: to create.

Materials you’ll need for this talk:

Download the worksheets for John’s Master Class

Full Transcript

Hi, this is John S. Couch. I’m the author of The Art of Creative Rebellion. And what I’m gonna talk about today is a bit about creative health. Creative health, in a sense of creative health for the creative self, in terms of putting it in the same kind of context that the theme is about. I wanna talk about how we devote our time and we spend so much of our days and so much of our time involved with work obviously, we have to make money.

And in this time of COVID-19, we’re lucky if we have a job and I am spending about seven to eight hours a day on Zoom in general. And when I’m not doing that, I’m spending time with my family, which is also important. But what happens is I think is that we have decided in society that of, course, your day job is important. And of course your friends and family are important, but what we lose at times is our sense of self. And what I mean by that is that we will be justified somehow in working out because we have to be healthy. So we go to the gym or nowadays we probably have to do pushups in between meetings or we do stairs, or what have you, in order to keep our bodies moving, good stuff.

The other thing that we do is we take care of our mental health, whether it’s meditating, using apps like Headspace, or whether it’s doing something like going to therapy, whatever it is for you, also good. The third thing I think is missing is our creative health. And what this involves is “me time” or what’s considered to be “me time” in general. And what I mean by that is that because we spend so much of our time focused on work and we feel very justified in that because we’re doing something which is socially sanctioned and necessary for buying groceries and necessary for basically life. But what we often neglect and what we often don’t spend time on our “me time” things because it’s considered to be a bit indulgent and selfish. But my argument is that for creative innovation, the ability to function better at work, you need time on your own. You need time to sit and contemplate and center.

Part of this to me, leads to the counterintuitive notion that investing an hour a day on something that’s exclusively for you actually recharges your batteries. So for me, for example, I get up early. I’m not a morning person. I hate getting up early, but I get up at 5:30 in the morning and then I spend time trying to wake up first of all, I have a morning brew that I make. And then I meditate for about 15 minutes. After that, I spend time writing. I write for an hour, hour and a half, I write an essay every week. And then on top of that, I also write fiction and nonfiction.

And what this does is it invigorates me. It makes me feel for a moment that I’m doing something, which is tied to my sense of self. And we spend all of our days giving it all away. We give away our energies and it’s good things. We give our energies that we should be engaged with work. We should be engaged with our families and our friends, but we also have to recharge the battery. And by allowing an unmitigated connection between you and your creative activity, whatever it is, by the way, it can be anything, for me it’s writing in the morning and in the evening, it’s painting. But for you, it could be yoga, it could be going for a walk, it could be learning a new language, whatever it is, it’s just for you.

And there’s no need to think of as a side hustle. Like I got to make money from this. You’re already making money or you’re doing something to make money, or you’re trying to make money already. This is separate from that. This is directly engaged with you as a person. So what we’re gonna talk about today is creative health and how we express that. And I’m gonna do this, not only metaphorically, but I’m gonna do it physically through a painting. So behind me is a blank canvas, literally the tabula rasa. And anytime you embark into the unknown, there’s a huge risk that’s involved. You don’t know what’s gonna happen, but throughout the course of this particular masterclass, I’m going to be recording alongside with you, my own thoughts and feelings and paint, and I’m gonna keep painting and then I’m gonna cover it up, paint, cover it up, paint, cover it up and at the end will be an artifact, a memory, so to speak, of the process of being in the creative flow of the moment that we’re both in right now.

So with that, we’re going to begin. So I would welcome you to first of all, pick up worksheet number one. You are your greatest design problem. This is something that we often don’t think about. But if you think about it as a designer, you spend a lot of time problem solving for business and for clients. But if you think about it on a macroscopic scale of your life from when you are relatively conscious, all the way to whenever you end, there’s a lot of time in between there that we just kind of like move from point to point. And we have to, of course, because no one can totally plan exactly how their life’s gonna go. But if you think about it in general day to day practice, I’m not talking about like, I have to be sticking to a plan exactly that goes out to a certain period of time in the future but right now in this moment, because the time is always now and now is all as the time. So with worksheet one, we’re gonna look at a day in the life.

So what I’m gonna do now is actually start to paint out on that thing a day in the life and the kind of questions that I ask myself, and I’ll be asking you. So I’m gonna go ahead and write out a day in the life. Kind of an homage to the Beatles song A Day In The Life, “woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head”. So what happens? Number one, you wake up. Number two, get coffee. Number three, breakfast, etc. This sounds really pedantic. And of course, but the question is, as you go through and you are making your schedule for the day, be brutally honest, not like what you’d like to be doing, but what do you actually do? What’s actually happening in your day to day life? How are you spending time? ‘Cause time is the most valuable asset you have. You’re gonna get paid every two weeks, if you’re lucky, you will have insurance, if you’re lucky and those are wonderful things. And having work and having a sense of purpose is incredibly important.

But no matter how much you get paid, if you’re doing a job that you don’t feel good about, or you’re not engaged with, then you’re kind of just working for the money. And yes, again, reality dictates of working for the money is a good thing. I don’t discount that at all, but what I’m saying is that in addition to doing whatever you’re doing, you should be always keeping the things that you love in mind. So as you go through and you look at your day, you have to think about what are the things that are important to you. So we have a day in the life. Now what I want you to do at this point, put a pause on your video. If you haven’t already downloaded a PDF, please do so and spend about, maybe five to 10 minutes just going through it and starting at the very beginning when you wake up, how many hours of sleep did you have? What did you eat for breakfast? How long did you take? How long did you take to get to work if you are commuting or did you Zoom in, how long did that take it, et cetera.

Break it down minute by minute, hour by hour as much as you can, including the times that you spend watching TV, on social media, what have you, it’s all okay. There’s no judgment. No one’s gonna see this, but you, but the important thing is that you actually are brutally honest about what it is it’s going on in a typical Tuesday or whatever day you happen to be thinking about. So while you spend the next few minutes, writing that down, I’m gonna continue painting. So as I’m actually working on a painting, a lot of things go through my head, I think about, well, I try not to think too much about art historical reference because I heard this really great quote by Agnes Martin. Agnes Martin was a very famous minimalist artists. And she said, the moment you start thinking about Picasso, when you’re painting, you’re screwed. So don’t, but I can’t help it. I still kind of think about other precedents. And what’s interesting to me about abstraction is it came out of early turn of the century in the 20th century, have the idea that the camera had made representational art somewhat obsolete. So they had to find new ways of expressing themselves.

Hilma af Klint as recently been rediscovered as being the first abstract artist of any note, before Kandinsky, by the way, who actually did these amazing giant paintings in secret, they’re just now coming out and being right now, exhibited at the Guggenheim. So in some ways I take inspiration because my head’s full of art history and design precedent. But what I try to do is when I’m in the moment, and I’m thinking about a day in the life, I’m thinking about, in this case, how the paint itself, it feels a bit like a Franz Kline.

Franz Kline was a abstract expressionist painter in the 1950s who was influenced by Willem de Kooning and did these amazing black and white paintings, which were just powerful because what they did is they took a lot of the kind of tradition of the Asian arts, Japanese Sumia art or ink painting, and applied it writ large on a canvas. And what I found fascinating about that is it supposedly the story is that Franz Kline was over hanging out with Willem de Kooning back in the late 40s and early 50s and Franz Kline was stuck. And de Kooning said, you know, you’re always walking around and doing these little sketches on, you know, ink sketches on paper and you’re putting them in your pocket, pull one of those out, so he did. And then what de Kooning did is he took that sketch that Franz Kline had made and put it on an overhead projector. And then, then projected that onto a giant canvas and some Franz Kline goes, “holy crap”. That kind of effect I wanted to get with the brush the ability to like, get this kind of movement was impossible to do if I was calculating it. However, blowing it up, and this is a design problem that’s been solved, I can now take the immediacy and urgency of that ink painting, blow it up on this and reproduce it and feel the same kind of energy.

So I think about Franz Kline when I’m painting, I think about most recently more contemporary example is Christopher Wool who works with enamel and alkyds on an aluminum surface. And it’s a smooth surface and part of his challenge was to continue to make painting relevant beyond the fact that representation has been kind of played out. Now, all arts, great, any kind of art that you do, wonderful. If you go the onto the internet, you’ll pretty much see everybody going, “it looks like a photograph, but it’s really a pencil drawing” and that’s fine, that’s craft. But the important thing about anything you’re doing, that’s quote “art” in a large sense, whether it’s writing or music or theater or dance is to do something that has meaning and purpose for you. That’s not just pure craft, but actually has soul. And the question of soul to me is always brought into the fact that there’s the idea and the Japanese characters of “ki”.

Ki means energy or life force in Japanese. It’s the key in aikido, ki as the idea in Chinese of “chi”. And the idea is that when you are working on anything creative, you must put that in there. And I have this kind of feeling where I have a very strong feeling that ki is captured in the moment that you are actually laying down anything, whether it’s paint or your finger on a keyboard or on a guitar, it’s captured, memorized. The work is memorized by the canvas, whatever state you’re in, according to Robert Henri of the Ashcan School, who wrote an amazing book called “The Art Spirit”, paint captures it. And everything you do is captured in general by the state that you’re in. There’s another wonderful apocryphal story about the world’s, well supposedly Japan’s greatest samurai Miyamoto Musashi, who back in the 1500s said you sweep and you rake leaves the same way that you would hold a sword. The point being that you don’t go into art mode at one point, you don’t go into design mode. You’re always in the state of constant meditation of thinking creatively. Even if you’re waiting tables, there’s a Zen-like approach to where you can actually be one with the thing that you’re doing at the time that you’re doing it.

So that everything that you do expresses the character and state of mind that you’re in. So with that being said, I’m putting a little bit of pressure on how this planning comes out, because if I’m in the correct state of mind, there’s no way this painting won’t turn out to be at least interesting because everything I’m talking to you about, I personally find interesting. And I’m hoping that that ki goes in to this work. Big question that you have to ask yourself is “what’s your story?” What is the story you’re telling yourself? We’re defined by stories. We’re born into story. You’ve inherited stories from your parents about how life works. You’ve inherited stories from perhaps your religion. You’ve inherited stories that you associate with the country you were born in, the state you were born and maybe even the town you were born in, and these are all good. These are all meant as constructive ways of getting you from point A to point B through life. But at a certain point, the notion of creative rebellion for me is to not attack.

But question why do I think the way that I think, because those stories have huge effect on how you walk through life. So this section we’re calling, “what’s your story?”, because we’re going to talk about what it is you really wanna be when you grow up, but in order to get there first, I’m gonna take a look at what my day is, and now I’m going to cover it up for the moment. And it’s important to realize that creativity is a huge form, in a lot of ways, of destruction, creatively, constructively destructing. So what I’m gonna do is something that would terrify most people when they’re in the middle of working on something, but it’s important to get rid of things that don’t serve you anymore. And then new things mutate out of that process.

This is white supposedly, but as you can tell, it’s going to be the color that it wants to be. And what’s amazing about the creative process is that once you’re in the flow, it takes you where it wants to take you and all you have to be is a conduit to that. The hard thing about that is that it requires the idea that you are negating your own ego, but you’re not. Ego is actually something that gets in the way of progression. Because if you think about it, ego is actually the need to connect to what is, and it means you’re change averse because you want the world to keep functioning the way that it has been. Because we as human beings love stability and that’s good and fine. We all need stability. But the reality is you get stability through the embracing of the unknown. It’s through not clinging that you actually find how to flow with life.

So what we’re gonna do next is talk about what it is you really wanna be as an adult. And what I mean by that, yes, you have a profession. Maybe you’re lucky that your profession is a thing you’ve always wanted to do. Fantastic. I guarantee you there’s things that were deferred from childhood. The thing that you loved doing when you were five, six, seven, eight years old is still in you. It’s a thing that still occasionally comes up in a conversation or comes up in a feeling of longing. So I’m literally talking about the crazier, the better, and what you’re thinking about for worksheet number two. I want you to write down everything that you ever wanted to do or be when you were a child, fireman, neuroscientist, astrophysicist, whatever it is, write it down. And if it’s embarrassing and if it’s really something that you feel kind of gross about, even talking about, make sure you write it down, because remember this worksheet is just for you. No one has to see it, but it’s good to get it out.

So for me, I find there’s many things that I wish I could have done when I was younger, that I wish I had done as an adult, but I’m continuing to try to pursue it. Number one, if I’m being completely honest, but everything is, I always wanted to be a full time artist. Now that’s a broad enough term to where I can apply it to everything that I’m doing, whether it’s painting, literally making art, or if I’m actually making a film, TV show, if I’m writing, that’s all creative endeavors. So I’m a little bit lucky that I got that, but to be a little more vulnerable, but what I really am interested in doing, I’ve always been kind of interested in standup comedy.

And I find that standup is probably the most terrifying thing a person can do. Literally putting yourself out there on the edge. Anything can fail at any time, but you keep doing it. To me is a huge metaphor with stand up and actually living. And probably part of my attempts at my pushing myself to speak publicly is a fact that I’m an introvert by nature. And I had to really learn how to embrace the part of me that’s terrified of public speaking. And by doing things like this, it actually helps me break through and not cling to my ego based ideas of what my own story is. So, but I got to go back and keep thinking about what it is I really wanted to do when I was a kid. So in addition to that, I also loved Bruce Lee. I always wanted to be a martial artist.

So I think it’s important that you consider every single thing that was important to you and what happens too, and this is part of the difficulty of finding “me time” is that you feel subtle pressures, too. There’s the idea that if you’re doing a full time job, how do you have time to do, I don’t know, write a book. Are you not paying attention to your job or are you not paying attention to your spouse or your girlfriend or your boyfriend or your children? There’s always that strange undercurrent of pressure that happens. The strangest thing about creative people is that they have to go through a gauntlet. That’s unbelievable. It’s hard enough to create, it’s hard enough to be vulnerable, but then you have societal pressures that are kind of like telling you, as you get older, he shouldn’t be really doing that much anymore. You know, shouldn’t, you kind of grow up on this. Ironically and paradoxically if you make it as a musician, if you make it as a screenwriter, if you make it as an astrophysicist, you’re suddenly venerated.

You know, you go from basically the bottom of the barrel to the top, in case in point, a famous writer named Charles Bukowski became somewhat famous late in career. Well, very late in career. And he spent most of his life working in a post office and was treated like crap had terrible jobs drank too much, smoked too much, was considered by everybody to be a loser. But he wrote exquisite poetry, real poetry that was from the heart. And everybody who gave him crap suddenly goes, Oh yeah, “I used to work with him at the post office”. So all the tragedy that’s happening right now becomes adventure. You know, basically on afterthought, suddenly you can talk about it. And it’s been talked about you in a way that becomes part of your legend, becomes part of your world. So anyway, I would say, you need to spend about, oh, I don’t know, give yourself exactly 10 minutes to write unmitigatedly all your thoughts about what you wanted to do when you were just seven years old. Make the list, write it down. I think for me, in addition to being an artist, being a standup, I’d probably also list being a film director or TV director. Clearly I have a theme. I’m interested like making things, but this is just my particular story that I’ve defined for myself. Your story is completely up to you and what you wanna do. Allow yourself to do the craziest list you can possibly do.

So what we’re gonna do next is actually look at worksheet number two, which is the one you just completed about the craziest things you’ve always wanted to be when you were younger. Choose one. Doesn’t matter which one, just choose one. And what you’re gonna do is you’re gonna write on worksheet number three, a new day. So choosing that one thing, what’s it require for you to actually move things around from worksheet number one. So you can start to actualize the thing that you have always wanted to try, give yourself one hour a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the morning or an evening. It doesn’t matter if it’s, you know, sometime at lunch. I actually find that taking a walk at lunch and allowing myself the indulgence of thinking about what it is I love for one hour, one hour out of your whole day, out of your whole life, you’re devoting to everybody else and everything else doesn’t seem like a whole lot of sacrifice. B

ut what you have to do is again, be okay with not being exactly what you want it to be. If you’re a 60 year old man, becoming an astrophysicist might be difficult, but it’s not, it’s not impossible. You just need to spend time going online, meeting groups, getting educated, but for an hour a day, that’s all you do. You focus on that and you take what was before and you build on it and you build on it. So what you’re seeing here is creatively taking what was underneath and adding to it. And so my thinking about what my ideal day would include doing the thing that probably terrifies me the most, which would be probably stand up comedy. Honestly, it’s a thing that I’ve always admired. And I admired, as I mentioned earlier, and in some ways, this is my attempt at actually performing and working out a little bit of how that might work.

So as you can see here, I’m covering up, but as I’m covering up the past, and what came before, the history of what is underneath it still shows through. Something new is being made. Something that did not exist before is now coming to existence. Whether one likes it or not, it is here. And the important thing to realize, ’cause there’s been billions of people born and died before you, there’s gonna be trillions. That are gonna be here after we’re all gone. There is no competition. There is none. Think about it. Who are you competing with? For what? To what end? Acknowledgement? Getting acknowledged, who cares? But the reality is you have to acknowledge yourself and acknowledge the moment that you’re in and enjoy it. I’m actually enjoying this, did not expect that.

This is kind of turning out to be a lot more fun than I realized. But the exercise of talking to you guys while doing this is interesting enough, forcing me to be looser about my creative process than I normally would be. Because like many people I’m too in my head. What we have to do our exercises to get ourselves out of our heads. So for one hour a day, give yourself the luxury. So look at your worksheet number three now. Go through it. Are you up at 5:00 a.m? Do you normally get up at seven, get up at six, whatever it is, pull it back. Or do you have an hour at lunch that you can do that novel you’ve always wanted to be doing, Do it! Write it on Post-it notes. It doesn’t matter, no one cares. No one has to see it. Same thing with dancing. If you wanna be a dancer, take lessons at night, take lessons online, do it in the safety and privacy of your own bathroom. Who cares, you know, just do it. You are here to create.

The energy of life is twofold. One is entropy. Everything is slowly falling apart. Even the universe is falling apart. It’s a strange thing, right? But what works against that is life. Evolution. Which actually takes complexity and makes it even more complex and makes even bigger systems more complex. Two things working against each other, chaos, which then becomes a thing. These are the two elements of yin yang that you should be thinking about whenever you’re working on your creative work. Now we’ve gone through the whole process. Number one, you have thought about your day. How did your day go? How does it go in general? How does a typical Tuesday go? Number two, you thought about the things that are truly important to you that come from childhood and you took one of those.

And number three, you built a new schedule based upon that. So what we have in the end is the foundation of that thought process of that thinking going on, and what we’re gonna do next is actually then move it from being in a state of black and white, because life is not that way. And what we’re gonna do is then add color to it, and add energy and add the thing I was talking about in terms of ki. So here we go. This is randomization, but I’m also going with intuition, intuition based upon years of having been a painter, a creator, an artist. And the question always is “why that, why that choice? “Why does that happen?” I don’t know exactly, but if you also think about it since the Big Bang, all the particles in the world, all the elements in the world have been coming together one after the other to make us. To make where we are now, to make this moment happen.

So is this random? Is abstraction random? Maybe, I’m not sure. I kind of find it to be strangely formative because I’m a big believer in the fact that again, the art itself captures the energy of the person as they’re making it and too much analysis can take the beauty out of something. I think there’s something gorgeous about the fact that the painting decides to make itself and do what it wants to do.

So one of the most important notions in Zen Buddhism is the idea of the enso. It’s the idea of the circle and the circle represents both the void, mu, emptiness, as well as the universe. So what we’re gonna do is cap off this painting with the enso and realize this is an artifact of the creative process. There’s a history of paint, history of story beneath it. And what you have to realize, as you paint is that the process of making, there is no failure in the process. There is only stopping. And what you wanna do is make sure that you don’t stop.

The enso typically is one perfect circle. I’m going to modify it and make multiple circles of the enso because there is no perfection, because everything is in flux, and everything is already perfect. And with that, we end the class on The Creative Self and the creative way of expressing oneself through a creative life. We end where we began. Keep rebelling creatively.

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