June 1st, 2009 by Jessica Tsai

Managing Editor Josh Weinberger and I had the opportunity last week to speak with Hugh MacLeod, a blogger (GapingVoid.com) and author known for his witty cartoons (originally on the back of business cards) about life and its idiosyncracies. His new book, Ignore Everybody And 39 Other Keys to Creativity (entry from gapingvoid.com, which includes a book excerpt), challenges readers to pursue their passions, sans any delusion. As much as MacLeod says that creativity is a prerequisite for happiness, he told us that it’s often an element we sacrifice first, opting instead for the “safe” path of stability and predictability. Social media, however, has helped empower the individual. Blogs, for example, are, as MacLeod so concisely put it, “cheap, easy, global.” (See our just-posted June issue on Social Media for more on how social media is changing everything.)

MacLeod’s central message seems to be: Tap into your creative ambitions and keep at it, regardless of whether you have an audience of one or, as Kevin Kelly famously suggested, a thousand—or, in MacLeod’s case, 1.5 million. Maybe one day someone will find value in it and share it with their friends. You never know—but, then again, neither does anyone else, so ignore everybody and (to quote a certain shoe company) just do it.

Some of the excerpts from the interview are here, after the jump; look for the rest of this interview in the August issue of CRM magazine.

Ignore Everybody And 39 Other Keys to Creativity will be available on June 11.

CRM: Your “keys to creativity” are relevant to a broad audience, but did you have a particular demographic in mind?

MacLeod: I’ve stepped on a lot of land mines over the years. If I can keep one or two [people] from stepping on one then that’s a good thing…[There are] people who are getting a bit restless, thinking, “I’ve been in this cubicle for 20 years, I feel like breaking out on my own.” It’s pretty terrifying.

CRM: Do you think it typically takes 20 years for people to hit that realization?

MacLeod: People become dormant and reawake at various times in their career. When I landed my first advertising job, which was really hard to get back then, I was really delighted. Then after a while, it became less interesting—I was wondering why all the senior copy writers were writing screenplays.

CRM magazine: Do you think creativity is a kind of currency now? [Note: We’ve been talking about “currency” quite a bit lately in the magazine. Columnist Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal of CRM consultancy Beagle Research Group, talks about “The New Currency of Social Media” in our June issue, and we’ll have an interview with author Tara Hunt on her new book about currency in the digital age, The Whuffie Factor, in our July issue.]

Hugh MacLeod: It’s always been a currency, more so right now because if you’re creating a lot of stuff that’s interesting, valuable, meaningful, that’s a lot safer to me than just pushing paper around a desk all day. Those kinds of jobs are being replaced by computers every day.

We want to be creative. We want to be more useful and tap into something deeper and more meaningful. We don’t want to sit around and be a schmuck our whole lives; what I’m hoping the book will do is get people to start a dialogue with themselves and with other people. It’s an interesting dialogue because [creativity] is such a primal need.

You work in an office building. I worked in an office building—you see these guys who just kind of avoid conflict at all costs, don’t do very much, and you wonder why they’re not interesting to have drinks with after work.

CRM: The title of your book is Ignore Everybody, but who are the people you listen to?

MacLeod: Who’s influenced me a lot these days? Mostly dead people: Shakespeare, William Blake, Picasso. Writers I like now [include] Seth Godin [whose book, The Dip, MacLeod illustrated], Clay Shirky, Doc Searls—most of the people I pay attention to were bloggers, or have blogs. Blogs are a very good medium for people to have strong opinions and original thoughts.

CRM: It’s a good soapbox for thought leadership.

MacLeod: Yeah—it’s cheap, easy, global.

Twitter is interesting to me. I’m pretty savvy on this whole Internet game, but I have no idea [if a] tweet will be retweeted or not. I’ll write something I think is pretty trivial and it gets retweeted many times and I’ll write something I think is insanely great and no one cares. But again, it’s cheap, easy, global—and because [of that], you keep doing it, and hope something good will happen out of it.

CRM: Seth Godin, author of The Dip, also gave your book positive reviews. How do you compromise your philosophy with Godin’s, which asserts that sometimes there is a quitting point?

MacLeod: A good idea might be a good idea, but it might not stay a good idea. Timing’s important, but events change things, so you don’t know if it’s a million dollar idea or not. You don’t know if it’s going to change the world or not. But there’s a voice inside you that wants to do it.

CRM: When do you tell your passion that it’s wrong?

MacLeod: You see that happen all the time. To hold onto your passion, you have to fight like hell. Life is a risk. You can’t be distracted by vanity. C.S. Lewis said a great thing—he said that of all the Seven Deadly Sins, pride is the most deadly. Pride is what gives you permission to commit the other six.

CRM: Tying that into your “Cube Grenade” concept, how does your focus change now that your work is affecting other people?

MacLeod: I draw cartoons. I know what’s interesting, but how other people use these cartoons and do their own thing is interesting to me. When someone has [my cartoon] up in their cube, and [his] boss walks by to ask about it, [that] creates an engagement that enriches his relationship with people, not just his relationship with me as a “consumer” of my product. What other people do with the work is more interesting than what I do with the work.

Doc Searls said that traditional method of marketing is like pushing a rock up the hill. The new way of marketing is like rolling snowballs down the hill. There’s no guarantee that it will get traction. You just keep throwing snowballs down the hill and hopefully one of them will get traction. By the time it reaches the bottom of the hill, it’ll be six feet wide.

You have to kind of let go. If you try to control everything, the snowball never leaves your hand.

CRM: How hard is that to master?

MacLeod: The older I get, the easier it gets. The older I get, the fewer the people I feel I need to impress. Like being a writer—your next book may not be a masterpiece, but [if] you crank out 500 words every day, then your chances of creating that masterpiece are a lot more likely.

CRM: One of your recent tweets says, “Being a cartoonist terrifies me, it always has.”

MacLeod: You always want another turn at bat, you always want to hit the ball out of the park, and you always wonder if this is the last time you’ll be able to do this. You have to be humble, but at the same time, you’re always trying to improve your skills. It’s much easier to improve if you stay humble than [if you] say, “I’ve got everything, I rock.”

CRM: Your cartoon becomes a “social object” as it does in the Cube Grenade. [Here are three MacLeod posts on The Social Object.] At what point do you become the social object—and, because of that, do you lose the ability to be the thing that made you a social object in the first place? Truman Capote, for instance, became so famous after writing In Cold Blood, that he [eventually] couldn’t do the work that made him famous in the first place.

MacLeod: It’s a risk. You look at someone like Picasso who was very famous and astronomically gifted. He lived in a little villa in the south of France, kept to himself. Got up at 6 a.m. every day, worked his butt off, stopping only to eat and screw. Maybe Capote went to too many cocktail parties. Harper Lee [author of the novel To Kill A Mockingbird and, incidentally, a close friend and inspiration of Capote’s] never wrote [a second book] because she didn’t want to be under the same pressure.

CRM: When you see successful people, most of the time, you only see the snowball at the bottom of the hill, you don’t see how it started.

MacLeod: In Texas, Willie Nelson is almost God-like. He’s a legend. I spoke to his PR agent and he told me that he has a house in Hawaii and one in Austin. But when he’s back home, he doesn’t use the house, he stays in his trailer. He’s so acclimatized to being on the road.

You have acclimatize yourself to “being on the road.” If you just want to be the socialite darling, if that’s what’s driving you, I think your likelihood of being Truman Capote is greater; or Salvador Dali, who was an extraordinarily gifted painter in his 20s, but then hit his 30s and became a parody of himself.

How do you know you’re going to sell out or not until someone offers you money? You don’t know what you’re going to say on your deathbed until you’re on your deathbed. I have no idea if something’s going to be successful or not. It all just kind of happened. I just start thinking, start going—[the ideas] are just captured thought, and I like the captured thought. When you get one, it provides a great moment of clarity.

CRM: Is success, then, ultimately just a crazy, random happenstance?

MacLeod: Let’s take backgammon, for example. If you just rely on skills, you’re going to lose your money; if you just rely on luck, you’ll lose your money. Somehow you have to have a dance between skill and luck. You try to be fluid with the game. You don’t impose your own structure on the game.

If you look at classic success stories like Henry Ford, The Beatles, Apple—the story is often told in a linear way. But a lot of random stuff happened that allowed them to do what they did, and there was a lot of random stuff they could have done that could have ruined it all.

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