A mid-career sabbatical in New York – why I did it, what happened and some of what I learnt during three weeks in the Big Apple hanging out with super creative folks.
I spent most of October in New York; three weeks, three hotels, three different slices of life in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. A lot happened over those days, so I’ve decided to break the story up into a few blogposts, this being the first of four.
Why I Went
The main reason for the trip was to attend The Dinner Series, an ultra-intense creative workshop run by designer James Victore. The other participants on the workshop (designers with experience in graphics, fashion and user experience) were super-talented & during the week I had the chance to spend in-depth time with some amazing people, including Debbie Millman, Stefan Sagmeister, Peter Buchanan-Smith (founder of Best Made Co), Mark Mann (Esquire photographer), Tina Essmaker (Editor-in-Chief of The Great Discontent) Jason Bacher (GFDA) & Jimbo Matison (animator with DreamWorksTV).
How The Dinner Series Was Different
The photo workshops I’ve been on over the years have focussed on developing skills and talent, along with bringing home a set of portfolio-worthy images. While some of these experiences have been worthwhile, there was always something missing, something crowded out in the rush to impress other photographers with the quality of your camera-handling and post-processing abilities.
The Dinner Series was different. No portfolio reviews, no exotic locations. The focus wasn’t on dissecting the work we had done in the past, it was on radically changing the kind of work we could create in the future.
What It Looked Like
We started everyday with a healthy breakfast in James’ Brooklyn studio (enjoying healthy eating & living was a theme throughout the workshop). Then we spent a part of every morning on creative exercises as well as hearing James share some of his wisdom and experience (“have an opinion,” “make work that matters”). But the focus wasn’t on developing skills or producing new work. Rather it was who we are as artistic souls, what makes our voice unique, and how understanding this can help us be brave in our work. As creatives, we are all prone to this kind of serious introspection from time to time, especially with friends over coffee or drinks. But, in the company of dedicated strangers, in a far off city, in the harsh light of day, around a table where everyone is committed to telling the truth about how they are and what they see, it can push you to confront some pretty deep things about yourself.
Having arrived in New York the day before the workshop, I checked into the very cool Wythe Hotel, and after a walk around Brooklyn and a light dinner, went to sleep. But, my normal approach to beating jet-lag let me down and I was wide awake and famished at 1am, hours before the workshop was due to start. Raiding the hotel mini-bar proved to be a big mistake. By 3am I was in the bathroom, trying to evacuate my late night snacks! I’ll never be able to look at artisanal beef jerky the same way again. After struggling to sleep for the next few hours, I didn’t know which way was up or down. I hoped that some light breakfast might kick start me, so I headed down to the hotel’s restaurant for a little yoghurt, fruit and granola, but as soon as the food arrived at my table, I felt alarmingly ill, and had to race upstairs. Thankfully, that short, violent excursion to the bathroom was the last of the nausea and I was then able to walk to James’ studio a little shaken, but feeling alive.
Purging, getting rid of toxins, became something of a personal metaphor for me during the workshop, a concept that appeared over and over in the journal entries I wrote at the end of every night, during workshop and in the following weeks I spent in New York. There were things I had to let go of, things that were slowly poisoning my creativity.
This was particularly clear in the afternoon sessions, which often involved us reflecting on our working background, on our experiences and also on the way we talk about ourselves, the way we tell our creative story. The things we say to ourselves, the excuses we make for what others might call our “failures” have a way of blocking or ability to see who we really are.
It’s not a comfortable thing to admit, but the inside of my mind can be like a scene from the movie Whiplash, a harsh and brutal place. The struggles I’ve had over recent years, moving country, health concerns, bureaucracy and red tape setting up business as a foreigner, are nothing compared to the hurdles I’ve put in front of myself, over-thinking pretty much every thing I do, committing to too many projects in an unfocussed way, and not trusting my instincts.
Every day, I was making note of things I needed to do, but largely they weren’t things I needed to add to my life, they were things I needed to remove. I didn’t need to build a path, I needed to clear the path. I didn’t need a long list of books to read, courses to take, lightroom and photoshop tricks to implement, I just needed to get on and do the work.
And, this is where The Dinner Series turned out to be radically different to any other workshop I’ve been on before.
A Few Other Details
The actual exercises we did were not as important as the atmosphere James created. There was no room for wallowing in self-pity, regret, or self-deception. I’ve had flickers of this kind of raw truthfulness in conversations over recent years, but not in the sustained way James created.
You can get a little sense of James’ style in this video (which features a few cameos of me as well). I’d also recommend checking out James’ YouTube channel, Burning Questions and also his column in Entrepreneur magazine (he also designed the cool new masthead and titles) and James’ course on CreativeLive, Bold and Fearless Poster Design.
Seek Out Your Truth
We all know what it’s like, finding ourselves in a rut, hitting the wall, feeling like we aren’t getting the results we used to get. Our culture wants to seduce us with hacks and tips, 10 ways to this, 5 sure fire ways to that.
But, to do better at our work, we have to change our way of being in the world.
Flying half way around the world, to hang out in an artist’s studio in Brooklyn with a bunch of talented, sexy, brave people was my radical step towards that. It was fun, but it was hard too, really hard.
Over the next few blogposts I’ll unpack this a little further and share some more stories and experiences from my time in New York.