Category Archives: Reading List

PRO vs Amateur: Reflecting on the War of Art

The War of Art is one of the best books I have ever read which dispenses with the cliches and gives a much more honest view of what it takes to be a Professional Artist,  Writer of to be creative in any endeavor.

PRO vs Amateur List: I’ll give myself a 1-10 score, and talk about what I could do in areas that need improvement.

The PRO shows up every day: Uh, I’ll say a 4. I shift channels a lot, but I work on creative projects virtually every day.The PRO stays on the job all day.

The PRO is committed over the long haul:

I give myself an 8, I slough off, but since I was 13 (50 years ago) I have a consistent thread of making, painting, writing, and innovating in what I do.

For the PRO, stakes are high and real: 6, I think. I have sometimes been guilty of a value judgment I can’t stand in other people. Arts matter a lot, but sometimes you have to put relationships, or simply putting food on the table ahead of that. Being in my 60’s the stakes are getting more real. Life is more precarious. A Productivity Expert was once asked, “Tell me something that will really increase my productivity.” To which he responded, “You are going to DIE.

The PRO is patient: 7. I will take an eternity on fiddly details in a painted surface or a piece of wood, but lately it’s come to my attention that if I want to place my furniture in a gallery like Twentieth, I have to be twice as good in the execution of detail, the quality of materials, and the clarity of concept. If I need to spend $800 out of pocket for a few pieces of bronze hardware, so be it. Same goes for hiring someone for an element that they can handle better than me.

The PRO seeks order: 3, because I’m not even clear what the author means. A tidy studio? Bins for every material. Or is it a Steve Jobs type laser focus? Where the same garb every day, so I don’t have to waste a nanosecond picking out a shirt.

The PRO demystifies: 9. I know this one well. I bring it up in my classes. I have a couple dozen tactics, which if you just do one, you will probably take a fresh view, and release that control freak tension, that is plaguing you, creative soul. As one wise soul said, “If I had one line of advice for people struggling with increasing their creative output, I would say NEVER work when you are in the mood. (reference a list of writers rituals). I would say with writing, I have been more disciplined. I go to a set place (a library with a view). I employ Deep Work principles and work in intensely concentrated 90-minute sessions.

The PRO acts in face of fear: 8. I know fear, and worrying about what others think is the enemy. I learned in my twenties to not overthink the first brush stroke of a painting. DIVE IN! As Frank Lloyd Wright said, I am not doing work at this level because I am a genius. Faced with a challenging project, I have embedded that habit of diving in immediately and feel free to fill up a big trash can with much of what happens.

The PRO accepts no excuses: 7. I did this just as I started this post. Couldn’t find a text copy of the Pro vs Amateur list, and could have wasted ten times what it took to just GO, and type in each item from a PDF. This evasion is the essence of resistance, and I’ve gotten pretty good at nodding when I am ‘medicating’ myself with these sorts of evasions.

The PRO is prepared: 8. I can relate to this when I’m building furniture. I set up every tool, make sure they are set properly, and I have a cut list, detail drawings, and proceed in a linear fashion.

The PRO does not show off: 9. Having been envied so much in my youth for pyrotechnic creativity, I learned that being brazen drew out the vampires who didn’t want to deal with their own creative beasts. It was easier to rub shoulders with someone like me, and catch a little bit of the glow. They could even use me as a sort of it will never come so easy for me, so why bother talisman. I don’t create in order to communicate. That idea is to me a big myth. So in a balanced state of mind, I’m pretty calm about praise, or criticism. Indifference is harder to deal with.

The PRO dedicates himself to mastering technique: 9/5. In painting or furniture making I’m on autopilot with improving my craft, and getting new tools or materials if I need them. In writing… well, discipline there is newer to me. And I have a reasonable concern about not learning so much about story structure, that the scaffolding kills off some of my expression.

The PRO does not hesitate to ask for help: 8. Getting much better at this. I don’t know everything, and there are plenty of things I should not attempt to learn in depth. I don’t need to be the best in the world at Fusion 360 (3d printing design software) to make incredible sculptural chandeliers. There are expert young people to help me with that at a cost I can afford.

The PRO does not take failure or success personally:

I give myself a 9. I get this. Much of time I expect failures, I mean this in the sense of I experiment a lot in art and business and even if only 10% works out, I can be a highly expressive millionaire or a stable genius. To not risk, is like making a salad with stale vegetables—not much chance of SOARING. Success, in the worldly sense, would mean more to me if I didn’t have so much inner frame a reference. Intrinsic motivation is a mountain in me.

The PRO does not identify with his or her instrument: 5. Because I’m not quite sure what this means. Perhaps it’s the sense that I am a ‘natural’ when it comes to playing/innovating with materials and tools. That isn’t exactly god-given, but I didn’t work at make that happen.

The PRO endures adversity: 9. I might whine a lot, but I’m tough. In art school I became some people dabbled with their making. From outside, it looked like they were trying to dress like, talk like, and pose as an artist, but lacked soul, lacked inspiring messages pouring into them from unknown places.

The PRO self-validates:

I give myself a 10 on this one. When you have a vision as soon as consciousness emerges, and those surrounding you, and supposedly nurturing you kick you down the stairs in envy due to their bug-like self-esteem, you can be crushed, or you can grow armor. Flashed into my mind: brainy people due better in therapy. They survive trauma better. Probably because they can zoom up and above for an aerial perspective on their lives, and see other Edenic places across the horizon, over the walls.

My favorite movie: Le Quatre Cent Coups (the 400 Blows by Truffaut).

The PRO reinvents herself: 10. Of course, we do. Sometimes so much that we shed skins to quickly. It also causes us to sometimes dissolve connections that don’t get us. Like my xBF Brant, a guy who developed a crush on me because in my sports coat with a roll of blueprints under my arm, I fit some inner picture he had of a successful architect that would take care of him. Two months later, in my apartment, he said why did you buy all these weird paintings. Um, those, I make them. They are the real me. I’m not this guy in the tie. It’s just a game I play.

The PRO is recognized by other professionals: 6. I like this when it happens. On some level, other pros can admire my work without falling into an envy trap. And we can talk about our process and emotions, which is the part that really matters. For outsiders that can be a glimmering distraction from looking at pretty paintings that they can’t imagine making.

Inspiring and challenging ideas from a book that continues to guide me.

Reflection: 6 myths about choosing a college major…

Many graduates in fields perceived as low paying make as much over their lifetimes as those in high-paying fields.

So the university class I’ve taught for 18 years, Visual Thinking: art and innovation, covers a lot of territories. One of its tenants is to focus on Working with Passion. That means, choosing what might be your life’s work based on what people tell you is a big money field, or even choosing based on the fact you’re really good at a particular thing. But they may not lead to fulfillment, happiness, AND it may not even lead to a field in which you financially prosper.

I loved this article from The New York Times about choosing a college major. It dovetails with my belief that more and more students at my university are choosing majors base on what they perceive as safe bets. But look at the chart (below). If that huge decision is based on practical thinking and majoring in something ‘safe,’ which may not interest you much, maybe that doesn’t add up in terms of lifetime earnings.

People at the top of the heap in STEM often do very well. But if you excel, or are even at the 60th percentile in the Humanities, your earnings may not be that different.

Lifetime Earnings Chart, STEM vs Liberal Arts

Teaching at a good liberal arts college for 18 years, I’ve noticed that it seems to no longer be ‘cool’ to be a Liberal Arts Major, or to remain undeclared for too long. It seems that many students in creative fields hedge their bets by minoring in visual art and majoring in entrepreneurship, for example. Actually, I think those two things go together.

But why the significant tilt toward Management, Marketing, Finance, and Accounting? I assume it has something to do with the $200,000 in tuition for an undergrad degree at LMU. In many cases paid by years of saving and sacrafice by very hard working parents.

And why focus so much on the perfect degree? As the author says:

“Of students who said they felt committed to their major when they arrived on campus, 20 percent had selected a new major by the end of their first year.”

Based on my own college experience, Myth 3 rings true:

Choice of major matters more than choice of college.

Not so, says the author. After all, the better the college, the better the professional network opportunities, through alumni, parents of classmates and eventually classmates themselves.” I went to what is now a globally famous, innovate school for architecture. Thirty-five years later, it’s weird how current jobs link to connections formed so long ago at the Southern California Institute or Architecture. Not only did I have great teachers, and passionate fellow students, but I found the two great mentors in my life, Architect, Coy Howard, and Artist, Alexis Smith. I had my dream job with Coy from age 24-26 and spent years working with Alex on projects in L.A., New York, and Aspen. Great times, and the most valuable learning I’ve experienced.

Myth 4, “Liberal Arts Majors are unemployable,”

is close to my heart. So many valuable, meaningful forms of work require the ability to write and speak with clarity, to synthesize ideas. And one of the most prized skills in any business is creative problem solving, a ‘Right Brain’ skill better developed in an art program, than in a physics lab.

And do you even need a major? Some colleges offer the chance to depart from the official list of majors and work with students to design an optimal program for individuals.

“Majors are artificial and restrictive,”

said Christine Ortiz, a dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on leave to design a new nonprofit university that will have no majors, and also no lectures or classrooms.

James Turrel, one of the most famous artists in the world, created his own combo degree at Pomona College and it’s neighbor, Claremont Graduate University, uniting interests in Perceptual Psychology, Sculpture, and Physics.

2/3’s of college graduates work in fields unrelated to their degree.

My first degree was in architecture. It is a wonderful, holistic creative process combining the rigor of structure with the visual beauty of a well-composed facade. Yes, I still do interior architecture and furniture design, but much of my life is now focused on being a teacher, a career I would have disdained in my youth.

An iconic image of an artist from my youth… Paul Newman as the suddenly successful painter in the film, “What a Way to Go!”

Want to be more creative? Focus on doing “First Things First.”


If you want to accomplish important things focus on your internal compass of what matters most now, rather than a clock, a to do list, or trying to stuff everything into a jamb packed calendar.

This idea comes from my favorite book by productivity/meaning of life expert, Stephen Covey. It’s called First Things First.

He divides all of life’s activities into four quadrants, and I have found it very helpful, in avoiding other people ‘junk’ in both my work and personal life.

Are you immortal? If so, just add everything to a list, knowing that eventually you will get to each item.

But time is precious, so consider Covey’s Quadrants.

I used to feel like I had all the time in the world. No more. This is a simple model. The left column is filled with things that are URGENT, the right is NOT urgent.

Zoning out with TV, drugs, overuse of social media, etc. is quadrant 4. If you park there, the best you can hope for is to be entertained but idle.

Quadrants 1 & 3 are relative, in the sense that what’s urgent to one of my design clients, may not be urgent to me. I’m thinking of the time someone called my at 11pm on Saturday night do to a “Sofa Emergency.”

There are no Sofa Emergencies.

The interesting quadrant is #2, the realm of Planning & Prevention, both things I avoided until I was about 40. Planning a career move, rather than rashly quitting, getting to a skin doctor for an 5 minute annual check, instead of having your life destroyed by an easily treated disease. And, even if your life is hectic spending time on Quad 2, which will do more make your life better months or years in the future. If a brushfire is spreading toward your home, of course, switch into Quad 1, drop everything else, and evacuate.

But when we let our important stuff, #1 & #2 get shoved aside by other people’s priorities, we become victims of False Urgency. It rules many people work lives, and if you don’t make a change, you will wake up one day with regrets for all the deep accomplishments you missed.

When this compass guides your time and energy, you will not let the deep things in your life get extinguished by other people’s confusion. That old aphorism / shop sign, “Your poor planning is not my emergency,” is a good example.

We can’t LIVE DEEP every day, but there is always some room for planning and self-care.

If you entirely stop expressing yourself creatively because your kids need you, you have an 18 year + hiatus in store.

A well know truth is that our kids learn more from our deeds, than for our words. You art, craft, adventurous travel, writing, etc., matter. The can’t wait. As Eric Maisel, another favorite guide for me says, “It’s a fantasy to wait for that clear calm time. It’s a form of self delusion. What you have to do is learn to be creative in the midst of the things you must do.

That doesn’t mean daubing painting on a canvas with a brush in your mouth while you do the ironing. It means, sometimes it’s good to have wrinkled clothes for a few days, and savor the feeling of making something beautiful.

FIRST THINGS FIRST is really, really important.

The image of that chart with four quadrants got embedded in my head 15 years ago.

I still fall victim to urgency often, or shut down and watch reruns of my favorite sitcom, when it’s too stressful to work on the book I’m writing.

Once you have that image in your mind in a way similar to warning lights on your cars dashboard, you can realized that another person pseudo crisis, and instead listen to music that inspires you. You can spend 20 minutes, even in the most hectic day, stretching or exercising, turn off the TV after enjoying a good show for an hour, and then move to a quiet space and read a book like Deep Work, which can hone your skill at avoiding hooks of frantic/busy people.

I’ve been meeting lots of new people. It’s a time in my life where growing connection matters deeply. When I meet someone who’s 3rd sentence, is, “I’m so super busy,” I quickly excuse myself to chat with someone else, who might actually have time to share something interesting. Busy people are mostly just busy in my opinion. Like work-a-holics, they tend to not actually be that productive.

Why go out to a mixes, and talk about how nuts your life is, or focus on the things that aren’t working well.

Imperfect as I am, I can say making Quad 2 a priority every day guides me to put my energy into the big stuff. Growing older, I hope to spend more time in that realm.

Deep work; the story of the blacksmith…

So, “Deep Work” by Cal Newport is the most influential book for me this month. I was hiking along the beach, and the chapter I was listening to, was about a person who had a career in a tech industry, burned out, eventually honed the skill to be an artisanal blacksmith. He had delved into historical techniques for purifying & forming metal.

There was a vivid description of his forging  a sword blade from a small ingot of metal and rendered, and it captured the intensity of working with metal, and having the risk that if you hammer just a bit too hard and your work is cast asunder.

That resonated with something I read once about craft: “Craft, is the predictable manipulation of material to create an object, and the deeper aspect, is when, regardless of your experience level, you’re on the edge of feeling that it is all about to blow apart. (I’m putting my own words to concepts I read in David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship,” a book that clarified the essence of what it means to craft.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Newport draws a clear distinction between two types of work: deep work and shallow work.

Deep work is defined as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate (page 3).

Shallow work is:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate (page 6).