How does one connect cartoons, Canada, ice sculptures, and giant thought bubbles in one post? If that got your attention, please read on about my trip last week.
First, I’m a Wannabe Creative
This story starts with a big disclaimer: I’ve have a secret desire to build my career off a creative and quirky personality. You heard me, I basically want to be Matthew Inman.
As you can tell from my below sketchbook doodles, this dream refuses to die. But when I try to take the extra step of tracing and maybe coloring my sketches on my computer to boost their quality, I hit a mental block. I’m not sure what creates it, but it always keeps these characters stuck in their paper pages and away from the digital limelight.
With that sad fact about my life cleared up, the real story can begin.
A Weekend Visit to a Canadian Festival
All the above was in my head during a weekend visit to Canada one week ago. The main focus of the trip, in addition to riding ice slides, eating beaver tails, sleeping in a hostel once was a prison, and ice-skating along a 8-km-long canal, there was the Winterlude festival. Specifically, the part with the cool ice sculpture art.
Sadly, getting to this amazing art was not easy due to a 15-minute walk through below-zero winds and piling snow. After one minute of this I realized I’d left my hat and protective face mask behind, which made the weather that much worse.
When we arrived at the park where said art was , I’d forgotten what it was like to feel my own face – but I did learn the feeling of my legs and teeth chattering so hard they may break apart like ice.
Once we finally arrived at the somehow colder-still park, though, seeing all the ice sculptures on display made the trek worth the pain. I could describe how amazing they looked with the artists’ attention to detail and when they were backlit by colorful lights below the night sky – but thankfully my fingers weren’t so frozen that I couldn’t take pictures. I invite you to see the pics below and let them blow your mind.
What Ice Sculptures Have to do with Creativity
You may be wondering, “Okay Max, cool ice sculptures and all, but what’s that have to do with being creatively frustrated?”
After walking back to the hostel and making sure no limbs had frozen off, I realized that going to those sculptures was actually very similar to my creative struggles. When I think about doing the work to trace, edit, and present my drawings online, my mind imagines all the work is like that walk to the park was: so difficult and uncomfortable that I can’t even start it.
But walking that walk in Canada showed what the results of that struggle usually are. For all that work you get amazing sculptures that, no matter how much work and cold weather one must endure, are worth the amazing feeling of seeing the result.
While I idled in my jail cell before enjoying the Canadian night life, a thought struck me: If the work of walking to a park in sub-zero Canadian weather was worth seeing those sculptures, wouldn’t drawing my cartoons on my computer be worth overcoming my creative block too?
It took a while to find an answer to this, but the eventual one was “Yes.”
I’ve known this answer for a while now, I’d just forgotten it at college when my future career ambitions took a vice-like grip over my brain. But I was more than happy to do the work and take those risks in high school, as this drawing I made before shows:
Another great, and likely embarrassing example, of this are some posts I made on my first ever blog. They were extremely long and philosophical, had needless image editing, and were probably never read by anyone. Yet I still enjoyed making them – they were worth the work.
So with all the other things I can thank Canada for, I can also thank them for some extra inspiration to beat the creative block stopping my mini-dream of being a digital creative. I beat it in high school, so why not again?
I’ll likely never be Matthew Inman, but I can keep trying, right?
As Internet law requires, I’m required to write either a review of something from 2014 or some expectations for 2015. I’m going with a checklist of new resolutions for the coming year.
If anything, this list only applies to the first half of next year, not the whole one. After graduation my life, and so many others, will change so drastically it’ll require some whole new resolutions. But that’s a post for the end of May. For now, these are the resolutions of a student facing their impending doom college graduation next year!
New Things to Learn
With most coming grads, there’s death sprint to learn some last-minute skills. This happens when we actually start looking at what skills employers want to hire, realize we haven’t been learning them enough, and rush to learn enough to put them on our resumes before sending them out. Thankfully, no one’s being crazy and just lying to save time.
So the first part of my 2015 checklist are some skill loose ends to tie up. Going by my interests and what’s in demand, as well as this swell video I found, I’m aiming mostly for web development.
One area where I’m deviating is with PHP and MySQL, the languages that let web pages have dynamic content and interact with databases. This is outside my comfort zone, and most of my understanding, but is also extremely useful since it’s a foundation for making web applications. But it needs pretty strong understanding of basic HTML and CSS first, so I’d caution my fellow soon-to-be-grads from jumping into it too fast.
There’s also jQuery frameworks, like Angular.js and Backbone.js, which essentially make it faster and easier to make web pages interactive. But after a little study, they seem too complicated and far-reaching for anyone not working almost solely in web development. They’re maybe something to learn later on.
What kind of graduation year would it be without scrambling everywhere to find employment? There’ll be internship and job applications flying everywhere soon, but mainly, lots of networking.
Bonus points for students who’ve never done any serious networking before this coming semester, you’ll enjoy it the most. I’ve managed to get some good networking in before, but that only helps so much when faced with the fiery pits of unemployment prospects. Now’s the best time for a serious networking resolution, since companies know we’ll be on the job market soon.
It’s not just about networking and cover letters anymore. Employers research online presences too, like personal websites and social media accounts. Students who have sloppily maintained their presence, like making stupid and unprofessional posts, or simply not worked on it, like not making their own website, will probably get knocked from many potential jobs. So I’m resolving to keep working on both of mine and pray someone offers me a job over Twitter. It won’t happen, I’ll just keep praying for it.
If you think the job market is good enough to not worry about this, I’ll leave you with this completely true tweet:
How you know comm is a tough industry: @NewhouseSU sends parents a letter to get off your child's case when she isn't employed by graduation
— Lisa Prywes (@Mona_LisaP) December 26, 2014
Fun Tasks to Relax With
Even as a student, not all time is spent working and studying. For the potential 15 minutes a day not working or pretending to sleep regularly, we should resolve to set aside for play.
I’m aiming to keep my fun tasks short and sweet this last semester. The biggest ones include:
Talking more walks and unplugging more from the Internet. My philosophy is that when all your work is done on a computer, all your free time should be away from it.
Do more reading. These consist mainly of thought-provoking articles clipped from websites, graphic novels, the disturbing yet intriguing comment sections from news sites, political news, and anything new Dan Brown publishes. Standard nerd reading fare.
Drawing! At this point I don’t need, or want, to write about how much I love drawing.
The simpler something is, the easier to find happiness in it
It’s better to get pleasure from a small number of simple things, since it’s easier to do what makes you happy. As you can tell from the two sections before this one, any side happiness will do plenty of good.
Bad Things to Do Less
Considering all the enjoyable graduation tasks soon to be on our plates, my “avoid this” list is anything big that bogs down the mind. Unfortunately they’re also things I tend to do a lot, so they could be the most challenging to stick with:
Working with online television or videos in the background. While this can work in small doses, after a while even hearing hours of Jon Oliver ranting makes any work feel grating. This resolution is especially true for videos I’ve ready seen, since they don’t provoke new thoughts and instead turn the brain to static. No one wants this, least of all me.
Feeling worried about my identity. It’s a common effect of working too hard, since all work and no play can make Jack think he’s a robot instead of Jack. The “fun things to do” resolutions should cover this, though it’s harder on particularly busy or hopeless days.
Making negative comparisons to other people. This, along with many other traits this handy graph describes, can really hurt someone’s general success. They’re all good traits to hold onto or lose for 2015.
In honor of the holiday season, I took a trip down memory lane with an old cartoon sketchbook. It was surprising to see how much my drawing had changed, so I did something fun: redraw old cartoons to see what’s gotten better.
In the midst of this, I reflected on some important lessons I’d learned from my drawing over the years. They apply to my drawing in the future and life in general, so they’re worth sharing.
Avoid Being a One Trick Pony
This was my biggest drawing sin in high school. My doodles were the same head and body shapes with slightly different positions and clothes. Like many drawing books warn readers, it’s easy to get locked into a single drawing style. I definitely fell into that trap, but at least broke out of it recently.
This still applies to me. A one trick pony would only study Twitter and no other social media channels. Or learn HTML and CSS without looking at other coding languages like jQuery or PHP. In any business you’d only get so far before someone with more variety pulls ahead.
Don’t Avoid Better Work than Yours
I’m not ashamed to admit I often avoided looking at better art in high school since I felt insecure. Okay, I’m fairly ashamed, but can still admit it. It’s human nature, especially when we’re younger, but thankfully that changed. Otherwise I would’ve stayed in my little drawing bubble, making the same figures over and over without improvement. Popping the bubble hurts, but it leads to improvement and is worth it.
I liked this guy’s outfit, but he needed a much better pose. I used an online drawing with a good pose as reference for the new version.
The biggest improvements I saw were using more shape varieties and perspectives with characters. Outside of drawing it means surrounding ourselves with work better than ourselves. Thankfully all that takes is some Twitter lists and Google searches and there’s tons of people to get inspired by. There always will be, so people have much fewer excuses to avoid this today.
Work on Something a Little Each Day
My own rule is “draw a new cartoon a day.” Otherwise I’d slack off for a whole week, try to cram seven drawings into one day, and then ignore important work. I understand binging behavior is rising, but it’s best avoided. Skills and hobbies need to grow overtime to stick and have a real impact on us.
I played around with proportions here but it’s not perfect. I’ll give you a hint: the head’s too big.
When I told this to a colleague two days ago, she laughed and said it requires something rare these days: focus. I know that’s hard when we have limitless distractions at our fingertips, but if the self-control is there, focus is easy to come by. Presumably.
If You Love it, It’s Worth Any Struggle
Just because I love drawing doesn’t make it easy. Plenty of times I’ve wanted to stab the sketchbook, rip my hair out, go on a horrific rampage, or some combination of the three. The same thing happens with other things I like, like coding, or often loathe, like dating. But has that stopped me from doing any of these?
For the most part, no.
That’s because with things we love, the end results are always worth the struggle. A good drawing is worth the holes in the sketchbook, and a good webpage is worth the hours looking for the small mistake we overlooked. Most people in Newhouse will say the hours spent researching, investigating, scheduling and interviewing are worth that final story. Whatever’s worth those struggles differs with each person, but once they’re found, they shouldn’t ever be forgotten.
Certainly explains why I’ve never forgotten drawing all this time, and look forward to improving more.
Today marks the end of my time with AmeriCares. It was good since it was the first real job I’ve had that dealt with so many digital areas I’ve studied all at once, including social media, web management, WordPress, and content writing. It was great since, through it all, it hardly ever felt like work. The classic sign we all feel when we’ve found our calling.
So on my last day with AmeriCares, I can honestly say I’m extremely satisfied.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of challenges that varied in how much they made we want to kick something. If I may list them…
There were daily duties for posting social media content I always had to get around to finishing but never seemed to find enough time for until the end of the day (meetings are curious things).
My workload could change drastically in a few minutes depending on what was trending, and I’d have almost no time to adjust these face-heel turns made me crash into a wall.
Some long-term projects would appear that needed careful thought to capitalize on, such as posting about the recent Ebola outbreak, and having to do so on Pinterest only made it worse.
A few select projects were so big that they needed plenty of approval and attention to detail to finally try out, mainly redesigning the health blog site, and even after finishing them they need ironing out. Otherwise the ghosts of the web management Gods will refuse to stop haunting me in my sleep.
Sounds difficult (and borderline in several cases), but oddly enough, dealing with each one of these obstacles never felt like work. The solutions just came naturally, like going for a walk (albeit sometimes with too many mosquitoes).
Daily posting was a matter of just scheduling posts far enough in advance, and I’m already in the habit of scheduling at least a day in advance for my own accounts. This time, for many posts, it was often for days in advance, which wasn’t a major leap. Maybe a light skip, even though doing that in the office gets some odd looks.
When a new trend popped up that AmeriCares should post about, solving the time issue was just about finding a tool that was quick, easy, but could still make an impressive photo so share. So I wound up finding QuotesCover, and used it for both #MalalaDay, #MandelaDay, and the recent passing of Robin Williams to great effect both times. Like using a slow-cooker to cook, it creates an illusion of working harder with a veil of resourcefulness.
The Ebola outbreak was a major global health story with legs, and on the second day I realized it was as easy as setting up a Pinterest board on the virus to curate news from AmeriCares and other sources. Another way to capitalize on the trend was making a simple infographic for people to share and use to spread awareness on Facebook. Both wound up doing very well almost right away, and only my personal opinion of Pinterest remained low afterwards.
Redesigning the health blog was a lot of work, but also an idea I pushed a lot on my own initiative. Finding a theme, editing the color and functions, making sure all the content transitioned smoothly, and keeping the look and feel consistent with the AmeriCares brand. The project slipped naturally into my workflow without overloading my mind with extra stress that couldn’t be handling with some extra-loud headphones music.
In some cases I was even a big resource of social media knowledge to others, mainly to the other interns when giving a “Twitter 101” presentation on how the social network can be a valuable tool for marketing yourself to potential jobs (aside from originally using Prezi instead of SlideShare, it was a reasonable success).
For other areas of the internship, such as every intern needing to make a blog post, it just seemed to happen on its own. I wound up doing an animation on one of the lesser-known garden projects AmeriCares supports in Japan, and thankfully it stayed true to the brand and has been received well for something filled with stick figures.
All my subtle bragging embellished with sarcasm now aside, the thing that keep striking me this last week or two is that none of this ever felt like work. It was all natural, enjoyable, yet still challenging, much like a good gym day where you can keep pushing yourself since you don’t get tired, only more energized and determined. With a blistering playlist that only plays the good songs to boot. You know the feeling.
I wasn’t perfect by any means (my fellow interns will happily testify to that if you find them), but I also don’t have any regrets about this summer internship. While none of my other positions online have ever felt like work, this was the first time it was at a large enough scale for me to really realize it. Finding that affirmation for the work you do is always one of the sweetest feelings.
For all of us, it’s one of those priceless things that sits with you forever. Amidst how screwed up and dissatisfying we feel our life is, it’s one thing we can never twist into something we regret. A solid pillar that even our subconscious can’t find a way to destroy, making for some true happiness, which is truly priceless.
One of my favorite online articles is also one of the most painful for me to read.
With that attention-getting line done with, here’s why. This article is “Waiting for the 8th,” a Washington Post piece by Eli Saslow that takes a personal, insightful look at an impoverished family’s reliance on food stamps. It’s great since it does so much of what good journalism should: it gives a deeper understanding of a different culture, shatters common stereotypes (it’s amazing how much more caring those in poverty can be than others), and made me take a serious look at my own life with new perspective. To put it simply, the articles inspires a lot of empathy for those worse off than me, and I can’t resist revisiting it every now and then.
However, it also makes me anxious. There are times when I just want to stop reading and do something else. To lose myself in Twitter or funny YouTube videos. To avoid the painful clarity the article brings.
For me, this symbolizes something about the Internet that’s always fascinated me: it gives us so many chances to discover new ideas and build empathy towards others; yet even if someone like me wants to, we’re often resistant to it. It’s like wanting to hit on a girl but feeling too worried since you don’t know if she’s dating someone already: Part of us wants to so badly, yet another part keeps hitting the brakes too hard. The result is humiliation and lost opportunity, as I know all too well in both cases, and can often be a never-ending struggle.
Distractions Block The Path to Empathy
The best benefit of the Internet for me is based on exposure to new ideas. We can read about and understand different cultures, religions, social circles, political parties, and almost anything to get a clearer understanding of the world. The internet, unfortunately, only implies the ability to bring us all together through shared knowledge.
I say “implies” because it’s no secret that the effect has been mainly the opposite. Instead of a lecture on why, I’ll just condense the facts to some bullet points:
People are prone to look for info that already agrees with them. There’s so much online it’s not hard at all, even for fringe conspiracy theorists.
People spend so much time online they spend less with actual people. Being away from real people is a major empathy drawback.
People prefer to rant their own narcissistic thoughts on a blog where their name is the freaking URL and then make posts that are disguised as informative when they’re just unconsciously showing off their skills to any employer who happens to google their name. They’re the worst kind, in my own unironic opinion.
The overall message here is that people are more likely to use the Internet for comfort and confirmation instead of exposure to new ideas that help us feel empathy. It’s why I instinctually prefer watching those youtube cat videos instead of reading another heart-hitting article.
It’d be hypocritical to say I don’t fit at least one of those above bullet points (thankfully not the fourth one). But a decent amount of what I do online still ranges from comforting illusion to flat-out distraction. I’d spend a few hours watching online shows or movies (legally, or course) and have my head buzzing full of all the same fluff for even longer afterwards. I know we all need time for our minds to unwind, but there’s a difference between relaxing and just turning your mind off. I’m guilty of crossing that line multiple times.
This “mental turning off” is a major barrier to putting the Internet to much better use. These distractions and selective comforts are like drug addictions that distract us from a healthy diet – even though they’re ultimately worse for our health, our brains are wired to want them more and not truly consider the consequences. Those are staying in our own little worlds instead of taking a step into someone else’s.
Finding Empathy Online Is Tough Yet Possible
I can still say I’ve tried several times, though. I read online articles from both sides of the political spectrum (risking brain damage in some cases) and trying to at least understand what good reasons or good logic they stem from. I sometimes read about different religions to see what’s real and what’s distorted by the lovely monster known as broadcast news to get a more accurate understanding. Once I can find reliable information, it always has the desired effect.
There are times when this understanding has really shown through. One day at Syracuse University I visited the Islamic Center of CNY for some interviews, and what I’d read about the basics of Islam made it feel much less alienating than it has before. This helped me talk just fine with the people there, and they were just that, they were people. Heck, they were actually nicer and more approachable than many outside the center. One person working there told me he believed God was so far above us, that compared to His power everyone on Earth was all equal no matter what. This meant God had the same expectations of all of us to be caring and loving, regardless of how different we think we are. His Islamic faith was the basis of universal caring and compassion.
It’s amazing how what I’ve read gave me (and helped me find elsewhere) even more empathy for different people. Certainly not how I’d feel learning about Islam from what’s on many broadcast channels…
I haven’t been completely successful, but I haven’t completely failed either. That counts for something, at the very least.
Can We Make Finding Empathy Easier?
Even with what progress I have made, I still feel resistant to lots of different ideas in sensitive areas that would break down my old beliefs. I’ve been thinking why this is the case, and have managed to come up with some commonly-held core beliefs in people that make it harder to seek new ideas and perspectives online.
These beliefs are that:
Our own views must be objectively true.
We have total control over our lives.
People worse off than us get what they deserve.
There’s only one possible path to be happy.
We shouldn’t be around people different or “below us.”
At this point in my life I know most of these points are complete crap. To debunk these going down the list:
Our own views are just the ones that fit best with our identities and can’t always be the same for others. Therefore, they can’t be objectively true, only relatively true.
There are tons of outside factors that control our lives, such as society, culture, our circumstances of birth, and everyday chance. We just like to ignore them since we don’t like admitting how little control we ultimately have.
Just because we’re raised to believe in a “just world” where bad things only happen to bad people, and vice versa, doesn’t change the fact that the world can still be unfair and cruel.
There are all kinds of paths to be happy, we’re just assaulted with messages that make us think there are only a few – any other ones must then be “bad” by comparison.
We need people with different ideas to broaden our perspective of the world, even if we think those people are “below us.” Otherwise our minds become stagnant and unchanging, unable to correct any ideas we fear could be wrong.
For me, this adds up to the biggest obstacle to empathy, from the internet or otherwise: We can know all the truths above and even accept them as values we should have, yet never live our lives by them. I’ve known them for a while and can still list countless examples of being closed off and frustrated over meaningless things I know shouldn’t affect me.
In that vain, I don’t think people can ever fully overcome those beliefs that stand in the way of empathy. I certainly never completely will. The internet can’t change the fact that we’re human, after all.
Can We Ever Find Empathy Online?
In the end, do we have a responsibility to overcome all this? To break through all these false beliefs and feel more empathy and understanding for others? Is it a tough obstacle we have some moral obligation to clear for the sake of a better world? Should we try to do the same thing for ourselves and even inspire that thinking in others?
I personally think so, and I’ll keep trying to get better at it somehow. That’s one benefit of living a digital life – We can find tons of ways to win the struggle for empathy if we look in the right places online. Every little step in actually finding them means more than I think.
Last year on my way off campus, I saw a man standing on Waverly Avenue with a large sign saying how the bible was the only hope one had for salvation and shouting at passerby. Instead of walking past him trying not to make eye contact, I smiled and walked over.
This man was talking to two girls, saying how he’d been an atheist before but had now seen the Bible as the ultimate source of truth and as his salvation. He talked mainly about living by passages in the bible, and condemning homosexuality since the Bible didn’t support it. At one point, I even asked about one passage I know of that says a woman who isn’t a virgin but gets married should be stoned to death. The man said that if the woman wasn’t honest with her fiancee about not being a virgin at first, he would agree with throwing rocks at her until she died.
At this point, one of the woman listening actually apologized to the other woman about having to hear this man’s words about gay people, and both of them walked off. This was after an angry student going by splashed a bottle of water on him, called him a few choice words, and stomped away.
But after hearing all this man’s religious ramblings, it actually put me in a much better mood for the day. Overall it was a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t feel angry, I felt intrigued and fascinated, like a child seeing a huge laser light show.
Why was this such a pleasant experience for me? It’s because no matter how crazy or radical they may seem to others, I just love ideas different from my own to any degree. That’s the beauty of the marketplace of ideas, and is something I think everyone should have a better appreciation for, not just people in the idea and information business like I am.
But why should people be so open to these kinds of ideas that can come across as downright insane? Here are the reasons I’ve found:
Boosts Your Critical Thinking Skills
With critical thinking always being one of, if not the, most important skills in any profession, this is always a priceless benefit. It mainly helps with pointing out nonsense in arguments and finding the reasons and rationality that work the best, although even just this can help with anything. People who know how to make a good argument and break down a bad one are in high demand everywhere.
One favorite thing of mine to do is to hear a series of bad or poorly thought out arguments, and pointing out all the logical fallacies you see in each one. Then you watch how the argument given changes over time. If they moderate or adjust their views based on their faulty logic, you’re debating with a smart person. If they stubbornly cling to their views or just move onto other logical fallacies, then they’re not.
Your Horizons Will Either Grow or Strengthen
I believe this is a win-win. When you engage with ideas different from your own in the marketplace, one of two things will occur:
You accept the reasoning behind them and incorporate them into your own ideas, growing your horizons.
You reject the reasoning behind them and as a result, need to defend your own ideas with the reasoning you already have for them, making them stronger.
So no matter what happens, you gain something from the exchange. The more extreme or far away the other person’s ideas are from your own, the bigger the benefit. That way seeing the religious people screaming on the streets puts me in a better mood than regular political debates, although both are still very nice.
Form Bonds Based on Intelligence
This is one of my favorite ones, assuming you debate with the right people. If you can find people who can separate the facts from their feelings, you’re in for a spirited debate where you both appreciate each other’s intelligence. This leads to respect, which leads to a kind of mature bond that’s surprisingly strong. After all, bonds based on what people think last a lot longer, since how people think tends to not change very much in their entire lives.
If you have someone who can’t separate their facts from feelings, however, I’ve found that the opposite happens. Disagreeing with these peoples’ ideas is seen as a personal attack on them, and instead of adjusting their viewpoints they’ll become angry and resort to bad logic or arguments to defend themselves. Plus they’ll likely not ever want to debate you again (which is always a bit disappointing for me).
You Meet a Lot of Great Characters
Lastly, of course in your search of interesting ideas, you’ll meet a lot of interesting people like the usual suspects on Waverly Avenue by Syracuse. Even if you take the arguments seriously, it’s nice to just appreciate who the person is and how their ideas relate to their unique identity. As you can see below, it can take something serious and help make it something more enjoyable.
This well-known picture actually did happen on Waverly Avenue in Syracuse as well. In almost the exact same spot I met the man I described at the start of this post.
While having this passion for all the good, bad, and nonsensical in the marketplace of ideas has its drawback (sometimes people think I personally believe the ideas, even though I just like discussing them), in the end it’s always worth it for me. Not just for my career, but just for a great way to experience all the different facets of people and life. If I may end with a quote from a favorite video game of mine: