Why I started to suck & how I plan to stop.

Let me be honest. Over the past few months, I’ve abandoned this blog — a vital part of my creative life for the last dozen years. I have been just using it as a soapbox for hawking books, talks, interviews and klasses. I’ve ignored why I’ve kept it for so many years: to explore my ideas about creativity and my experiences as an artist and a human being.

Where did I go wrong?

To find the answer, I’ve been doing a lot of self-analysis and reflection. And I’ve realized that I started to lose my perspective last September, around the time that Jenny and I drove across country, leaving sunny Cali behind for the familiar grey canyons of a New York winter.

This wasn’t how it was meant to be. When I left my advertising job almost two years ago, it was to set myself free. I wanted to slow down, to paint, to draw, to write, to ruminate, and to see if the path I had been following since college was in fact the best one for me.

Moving to LA with Jenny scared me at first but I understood myself well enough to know that, if we stayed in New York, walking the same streets I have for decades, my resolve to leave advertising and pursue my own path would be sorely tested. Before long, someone would tempt me into putting on a jacket and tie and sitting in a conference room once again. I had to get outta town.

Before long, someone would tempt me into putting on a jacket and tie and sitting in a conference room once again.

Going West transformed me. I fed hummingbirds, bought a truck, grew kale in the backyard, built a studio in my garage, made Art Before Breakfast, met Koosje on my travels and we launched Sketchbook Skool.

The first six months of SBS were amazing. It was mind-blowing that so many people signed up straight out of the gates and we were having an absolute blast working with talented friends and seeing our dream come to life.

Our ambition was grand: ‘art for all’ was our mantra from the get-go. We wanted to inspire people everywhere to start making stuff. We wanted to capture the sketchbooks and processes and ideas and experience of brilliant artists and share them with anyone looking for a fresh start.

At first, we thought, let’s just make it free — but we discovered that would mean a severely compromised version of our vision. So we settled on charging the minimum that we could to still deliver on our promise to pack each klass with quality. But charging tuition led us into a whole new world.

Welcome to Capitalism®. If you take money, you must have a bank account. To open a business bank account, you need to be a corporation. To be a corporation, you need a lawyer and accountants. To operate globally in a non-traditional business, you need more lawyers and accountants. Soon, instead of spending all our time making videos with our friends, we were doing a lot of administrative work that was not in our DNA.

We live in a time that celebrates entrepreneurialism, where twenty-year-olds assume they’ll be billionaires, where people make a living selling artisanal okra instead of taking corporate jobs. There are endless online tools and services that entice anyone anywhere to start a corporation, set up a website, and be a star.

We live in a time that celebrates entrepreneurialism, where twenty-year-olds assume they’ll be billionaires, where people make a living selling artisanal okra instead of taking corporate jobs.

I knew the appeal. Although I started a Marx-Engels study circle in high school, I spent much of my career writing poetry about business, corporate manifestos, sixty-second Super Bowl commercials about ideals and values and romantic visions for the future of mankind for my clients.

Inevitably, Sketchbook Skool was morphing from a pure passion project into a demanding business. We had to bring on a raft of advisors to cope with the ever-shifting matrix of requirements for operating a global online business. It became clear that if we didn’t want to raise prices, we had to increase sales — so we added a bunch of marketing consultants. In order to grow, we had to address the emerging limitations of our existing platform which just couldn’t handle so many students so next we brought in a team of developers.   I was working for a company again. How the hell did that happen?

I was working for a company again.

How the hell did that happen?

After much development and expense, we launched our new platform. It caused a lot of confusion among our students. Thousands of people with different computers, browsers, operating systems and varying bandwidth speeds mean that, despite all our Beta testing, we had to deal with a steady stream of concerns. Anyone who understood what we were doing told us that this was totally normal, that every new platform or system has bugs that take time to work out but it was still painful. One by one, we knocked them each down and the platform works reliably now, in a way that our old one never could. But people were unhappy and that was awful.

Meanwhile, Art Before Breakfast, came out to stellar reviews and my publisher and I were ecstatic. Only problem: there was a strike at the docks and new copies of the book were stuck in the harbor on container ships coming in from our printers in China. Despite all the NPR interviews whipping up enthusiasm for the book, no one had copies for a month or more. More people were unhappy.

Ironically (and this strikes me as the dictionary definition of irony), I was also in the middle of writing a book called Shut Your Monkey: How to control your inner critic and get more done. It was the hardest book I’ve ever written because the subject of the book, my own inner critic, was having a field day with all of the stresses I’d taken on, delighting in telling me I was the cause of them all.

Now, I don’t think I was wrong to have so many balls in the air. My error was in losing sight of what I wanted. I was defaulting to a lot of ancient habits, using a few overdeveloped muscles instead of developing the ones I really cared about. It was easy to default to having wall-to-wall logistical meetings and never saying no.

Soon, I got to the point that I just didn’t want to do anything. It was really scary to think that I had no one to blame but myself but here I was, in a rut, not having fun, feeling beleaguered. I barely had the energy to do any drawing of my own, let alone write my blog or teach. I’d been in this corner before but I could always blame my job, my boss, the Man. Now I was the Man.

… I could always blame my job, my boss, the Man. Now I was the Man.

At first, I didn’t know what to do. I was apprehensive about telling anyone how I felt because there had been so much hoopla around the success of Sketchbook Skool and Art Before Breakfast. Who would understand if I wasn’t happy about it? I felt like an ungrateful ass.

Eventually I discussed it with Jenny. We decided that something had to change. Should I just quit? Should we fold the Skool? It meant so much to so many people, especially me, but there had to be a better way.

Next, with a lump in my throat, I called Koosje. It turned out she was feeling much the same way. We talked about how we had lost our original reason for creating the Skool and we needed to have more creative fun, to reset expectations, and dial back the scope of our plans for the Skool.

First up, in the next kourse, we would be the teachers. That would give us a chance to make stuff again, to express ourselves, to get out from the back office. It would be a total departure from anything we’d done before —  playful, light, experimental and fresh. Our inspiration comes from when we most loved to draw and explore as kids, full of animation and crayons and fart sounds. It’ll take work but it’s the sort of work that creates energy rather than depletes it. Maybe some people won’t like it. Oh well, Koosje and I do. We’ll see what folks think when it starts in about a month.

I also decided that I would have to deeply examine and reconsider everything else I had on my plate. Blogging helps me further that goal. It is the seed-bed out of which grow all my ideas, projects and connections. I pledged to get back to writing new (non-self-promoting essays) several times a week, starting today.

Next, Shut Your Monkey is an important book to me and it needs to be treated with care. I am working with an incredibly talented book designer to make it look beautiful and wild and new. I think it has the potential to help a lot of people and I really want it to be great.

I also need to fill my well. That means more time reading, drawing, visiting museums and galleries, hanging out with artists and traveling. I have been invited to be an artist in residency in several international schools this fall and I can’t wait. Working with kids is the greatest inspiration for me and I crave being immersed in their creative energy. Plus, I will get to visit some amazing new places on this beautiful world we live in.

I’ve also been thinking about why I stopped blogging. Busyness isn’t the whole reason. I have written even at the busiest times over the years. I think the issue has been honesty, honestly.

I’ve always tried to be painfully straightforward when I write here. Similarly in my books and when I teach classes. I try to be myself, warts, carbuncles and all. As a writer, an artist and person, I can be flawed and vulnerable. This works less well as an entrepreneur. As person taking credit card payments, I need to project an unimpeachable face.

I try to be myself, warts, carbuncles and all.

It’s not a face I’m unfamiliar with. I wore it for years, in board meetings, client presentations, job interviews and staff briefings. The authority. The decider. 100% sure. But it’s just not me. And it’s just not my voice, especially not the one I use here, among friends. But increasingly, as the face of Sketchbook Skool, when I came to write here on my blog, I felt I had to be the shill, the Mad Man of Mad Ave, always upbeat, bringing the most awesome! things.

And that’s probably not why you read this blog. I know it’s not why I wrote it all these years. That Slick Willy facade (a close pal of the Monkey’s) is strongly advising me not to post this little diatribe on my blog today, that it’s Too Much Information, that it’s whiney. But I owe it to you and to me to explain what has been going on and why I think it has to change.

Thanks for hanging in here with me, despite my ups and downs. I appreciate it.

Honestly, I do.