Part 01 / / The story of a creative year
You know that Seinfeld episode where George announces he’s taking the summer off, calling it ‘The Summer of George’? That’s kind of what I did from September of 2008 to August of 2009. ‘The Year of Nate.’
I had some projects floating around in my head that I really wanted to work on and I was able to strike a deal with my better half that I could try, for a year, to get one of my ideas making an income equal to hers, or else I’d have to get a real job and pursue my dreams on my own time. I was confident I could do that much and more. After all, a year is a hella-long time, right?
It turns out my confidence was misplaced.
First was the comic book. For a while I had wanted to retell the ancient story of Gideon from the Book of Judges in the Bible as a science fiction story. I spent every lunch break at work (before the year off began) sketching thumbnails of what each page might look like. Then when that job ended (it was temporary), I started doing the actual drawing of pages, which I had never attempted seriously before. Then I learned the process of scanning the artwork and coloring it in various thirty-day trials of Photoshop.
Long story short, I decided to tell the story in five parts and I set a deadline to have the first part done by the end of 2008. I went over the deadline by a couple weeks, but I got it done. Instead of continuing on to part two, I was ready for something different, so I began working on a few other things. Just random projects.
I asked several artistic people I knew to help me revisualize the parables of Jesus in a series of photos and illustrations. I tried my hand at podcasting. I spent considerable time learning to build a website. In all these things I was trying to create a brand other people could get involved with and contribute to. I called it Scatterseed, a collaborative media lab.
Then in March I was on a Jetblue flight from Orlando to Boston and I was doing some deep thinking. I do some of my best work on airplane flights. I decided these things I was working on and trying to get other people involved in, and also the things I wanted to do to help some of my friends with projects they were working on, all needed some kind of common ground to tie them together. I’m an obsessive consolidator. I am compelled by the need to bring all things together. I realized on that flight that the most similar thing to what I was doing was a magazine. A magazine of, for, and about creative projects.
I had already had a magazine I wanted to make. In fact, I had had the idea back in 2001 to start a magazine. Back then it was going to be called One Generation Under God, or just ONE for short. Then there was Pepsi ONE and later Bono’s ONE Campaign, so I dropped the name and eventually the idea too.
The more recent version was going to be Worldchangers, for and about people changing the world. I would hear stories from time to time, or meet people face to face who were doing amazing things and I felt like the world needed to find out about these people too. In January my friends Doug and Allison had introduced me to NEED magazine, who were ‘not out to save the world but to tell the stories of those who are.’ NEED has since closed up shop, but at the time they were doing a great job, so no reason for me to try to do the same thing. So the magazine idea had gone on hold, again. Until this new evolution.
I got home from that flight, mind raging with ideas. I had gathered some friends into an email list and I would send them (way too many) emails about what I was doing and thinking, so I began testing different names and ideas for the magazine with them. We ended up with The Creative Revolutionary’s Handbook. I pulled together some of the stuff I had been working on and some of the stuff friends had helped with, and added some other stuff I thought would be cool in a magazine, and turned it into Issue #1. That was the May issue. After that came Issue #2 in June, and #3 in July. Then came a break while I pondered again.
I decided to use a blog instead of making a new website for each issue. I also decided out of nowhere that I liked the name ‘Octopus Exploration Co.’ I had been researching octopuses on a whim and thought they were amazing, and a great metaphor for the types of people I was wanting to connect the magazine with. My email crew weren’t all that thrilled, but Eric said I should try a shorter name that remixed Octopus Exploration Co., so I finally hit on Ocsplora. Eventually the original name, The Creative Revolutionary’s Handbook, became the subtitle and tagline.
My year of screwing around ended in August of 2009, just as we were moving to a new apartment. I added on another part-time job, sort of fulfilling my deal with my wife. I set up ocsplora.com and started publishing again. This time we used monthly themes and I continued to fool people into contributing. The posting schedule was completely scattershot of course, but consistency would come later. Update: No, it wouldn’t.
So my ‘Year of Nate’ didn’t turn into all my dreams coming true, people lining up at my door to be part of it all, money flooding in because my ideas were so genius and my talent so breathtakingly grand, but what I got out of that year, from September 2008 to August 2009, was a shock to my system.
All my life before then I had dreamed but never really attempted, never put myself so out there, never spent so much time trying to make something real that only existed in my imagination. Once I started down that road, there was no going back. There would be changes, evaluation and evolution of old ideas. Completely new ideas. But I couldn’t go back to not trying. Never again.
Part 02 / / Lessons for next time
have a plan
You might think this goes without saying, but if you’re like me you’re going to have a hard time staying focused on whatever dream you are pursuing. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose whole days when you’re free to do whatever you want, especially when you’re in front of a web-connected computer. Having a plan and a few goals along the way will help you to not lose momentum. Remember, they can be tweaked as you go.
One important thing I adapted from Tim Ferris of 4-Hour Workweek fame: write down your to-do list on a post-it note, so you don’t try to fit too much. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says only try to do three important things each day.
I ended up getting a 10-hours-a-week delivery job, waking up early in the morning to pick up bagels and baked goods from where I work and dropping them off at other cafes in the area. This was great for three reasons. First, it got me up early every day. I have a hard time getting up when I don’t have to, but I find I’m more productive in the morning, so this job was gold. Second, it kept some extra money coming in which we badly needed. Third, when people asked what I was doing, rather than saying, ‘Taking a year off to do whatever I want while my wife works herself to the bone keeping us alive and out of debt,’ I could lead with the part-time job and keep a little dignity. I think there was also something really therapeutic about having the morning drive to think and reflect on everything I was working on. Plus, free bagels.
One thing that probably helped me be productive this year more than anything else was our move from Florida to Massachusetts. The move came right before the year off started. Back in Orlando, there’s just way too many distractions. Too many friends, too many events, too much work. I’m one hundred percent sure it wouldn’t have worked there. So do yourself a favor if you’re considering a sabbatical – get out of town.
The funny thing is, ninety-nine percent of the judgement and criticism I’ve felt this year has come from me. I really don’t know what other people think about what I’ve been up to, but for one reason or another they haven’t said all the things I’m always expecting to hear. For most of us, our greatest enemy will be ourselves when it comes to following our dreams. Especially if you’re doing something like this when you know there’s loads of other people who would love to take a year off from life but just can’t. I still haven’t come to terms with that one. I just try to push the thought aside and keep moving, hoping one day I’ll look back and feel justified.
One thing I can’t stress enough is that you can’t do this alone. You may be the only one committed and the only one investing real time and energy, but you need people to encourage and support you and give feedback along the way. You need a team. A support team. An advisory team. A Council of Elrond team. Let them know what you’re up to, what you’re vision and goals are and how they can help. Keep them posted from time to time with what you’re doing, but be careful to respect their time and not abuse whatever commitment they give you. Keep emails short and to the point, as in all things. These people can be more valuable than gold. And don’t forget, you still want them to talk to you when this is over.
lay a foundation
Eventually the time off will come to an end. When that time comes, there’s a good chance you won’t have gotten everything done that you intended to. That’s okay. What’s important is that you can continue to build on what you’ve started when real life kicks back in. If you can think in terms of laying a groundwork for the future of your dream, you’ll be much better off. Don’t think you can or have to rush everything to get done in whatever amount of time you’ve got – at least not if you can help it. Think long-term.
I hope you can get something from these lessons I’ve learned. No matter how you decide to follow your dreams, it’s imperative that you do follow them. Just don’t expect them to always turn out the way you thought they would. And don’t ever expect them to be easy, but the good times will carry you through the bad, especially if you spend lots of time listening and talking to God and the people who support you, the people who have gone before you, and the people walking the same road in their own lives. That is the last and most important lesson.