Is this the secret to infinite creativity?
We look at the concept of mileage, how it relates to creativity, life and work. We also talk about Kanye West’s iteration rooted work process. Good times.
Why hello there, pull up a seat. I’d like to talk about a relatively simple concept that has had a very noticeable difference in my day to day life. Mileage.
What on earth are you talking about, are you a car?
No. Unlike cars, humans get much, much better with mileage. Let me explain.
Mileage in the manner I’m speaking about it is referring quite literally to distance travelled. But these are mental miles, and they come from practice and repetition. Working through processes and tasks repeatedly within the areas in which you want to improve specifically. With each run through you get those mental miles and over time they build.
Mileage teaches you the shortcuts, the patterns. With each run through of the process, task or repeated action, you improve, learn or gain a new perspective.
Say, for example, you’re learning to cook, and it’s time make a sauce. The first sauces you make, you’ll need to measure the ingredients and carefully read how to put together bases and all sorts of stuff. But with each time you make a sauce, those steps become more natural. You can eye the ingredients and you know the route to get to specific points. It becomes second nature, and the output becomes much better with a greatly lessened cognitive load.
No, this isn’t about “10,000 hours” or any of that shit. It’s about focusing on the things you directly want to influence and getting that mileage in on them. Breaking goals down so you can plan a favourite route. Then using your time wisely and being adaptive and iterative.
This advice supersedes just the things I talk about in this article. But to ensure this doesn’t become a thesis, I’ve kept it more limited to focusing around aspects of my life I felt were important and some easy to relate to examples. Feel free to apply it however you deem appropriate. It can be as basic as making sandwiches or as elaborate as becoming a rock star. The same mindset and processes applies.
Analysis vs Intuition
At present, I’m putting some of my time into learning about sketching and improving my drawing skill.
Recently, when watching a video on Iterative Drawing, I started looking at some of the methodologies and concepts outlined in this video and implementing them into my processes, but instead of looking at them as tools to just improve my sketching, I also set about applying them to my life. Primarily focusing on creativity and how it can be used to complete tasks.
For those of you that don’t have a free hour to watch the above video (understandable), I’ll try and condense the parts that spoke to me:
The introduction to the video talks about the spectrum between analytical and intuitive people. Where someone sits on the spectrum helps determine how their brain naturally works through processes. The video’s creator, Sycra, also speaks of dreams and how they relate to our perception of the world constructed by our brain. Fascinating stuff. Inception vibes.
Sycra goes on to speak about how no matter where someone exists on the spectrum, they can always tell when something is “off”, or wrong, at least to themselves. It’s all about the bridges between intuition and analytical and personal balance. How those bridges are built comes through mileage, and smart use of it.
One of the examples he outlines in the video is the process of learning to draw eyes. Let’s, for self-improvement and value demonstration, play along at home. If you give it the needed time. It’ll prove the point I’m trying to make rather well.
Task — Quick Sketching
Time needed: 30 minutes.
So, as I just mentioned. Today we’re going to learn to draw eyes. It’s only going to take 30 minutes to see some progress. Don’t believe me? Watch.
Instead of taking a piece of paper and carefully drawing a single eye on a page. Let’s start by quickly sketching 10 “eye shapes” on your page. Work through and flesh them out gradually one by one, thinking about what you remember from the previous eye and using your intuition, judging what you deem to be correct. Keep it simple and move fast, looking at your previous attempts and iterating, improving each time using your judgement.
So we’ve sat (or stood, laid down, whatever — I’m not judging), drawn out ten quick shapes and gone through and fleshed each one out, learning and iterating based on your past actions. By thinking differently with each iteration, the result is ten different eyes, unique to you and made through analysis.
Think about how you can expand this outwards and utilise this kind of process when you next have to complete a task. Taking ten (or whatever number you like) possible directions, looking at them and gradually fixing, tweaking and selecting. Using your analytical brain alongside your creative. Creating the directions and judging them to improve quickly.
It’s not just about “drawing a ton of eyes” or doing a bunch of “stuff” for the sake of it. You can’t just have confidence that will help, and it’s not just about mileage alone. It’s using your brain to analyse “how” you draw those eyes or complete tasks. This process strengthens your intuition through mileage. Now intuition may not be the right word. But it’s muscle memory. Instinct. You build and train through repetition, just like learning riding a bike. Once you’ve got the processes down, it’s second nature.
Approaching tasks in this manner builds that instinct and muscle memory. It teaches you to apply the theory that you’re creating and parsing in real time. You’re straddling between the intuition and analytical. You build the bridges. The outcome is that for each task you apply this process to, you get to the point where you “know” what to do. You know what colours to pick, you know what shape you want to make something, and as you grow, you build and apply a style that’s honestly yours.
In the last few months this mindset based around “mileage” has had a considerable effect on how I work on a day to day basis. I love building processes, so this kind of methodology is ideal for my style of working. This reframing of mentality to further creative power has become very important to me. It’s eye-opening to work in an iterative way to get towards a goal and to build those mental roads. Those roads become more worn with time and link together to make the shortcuts I spoke upon earlier. They become a familiar path.
Let’s look at those sketches closer
Take that example of drawing the eyes and look at how it’s applied. Thinking objectively and from a high level: What kinds of elements did you need to think about with each iteration, to get that mileage? — How can you apply these kinds of methodologies to other parts of your life?
You’ll notice that throughout the whole process of sketching you’re looking at your own work. Thinking about the how and why behind what you did and working out how to improve it. Asking yourself questions. What happens if you draw the lines as zigzags? Are there any parts of the piece that don’t look or feel right? Try new perspectives. Try different line widths or materials. Just try new things. This is a vital part of what makes this process so compelling, you learn from your own work and exploration. At no point is reference needed for you to get to a point you deem to be “correct”. Because “correct” is so subjective, that it doesn’t matter if others love it. This is about your creativity right now. Finding what excites you and makes you excited to iterate more.
Learn through iteration
I found that there is a multitude of different things you can try out, in a whole host of different verticals. You just need to make sure to take each task and break it down, look at what needs to be done. What are the different ways you can construct it? How can you best iterate and think through all the possibilities to see what works best for you?
Ponder the variety of methods you can apply to each process and in turn, learn those patterns that lead to the momentum that comes from that path being familiar.
Mileage in the writing process
Moving on, to look at another example from my own life and one that you’re currently joining me in, by reading these exact words right here. Writing. When I first headed into writing this article, I hadn’t written in a while, over a year in fact. So in yet another “inception vibes” moment, when writing this article about iteration and mileage… I looked at applying this iterative, mileage-based methodology to the process.
By working this way and doing what I consider to be the “right” tasks, in quite a high-level manner, comparing my previous work to what I’ve done. I can pick the parts I want to improve and look in that direction more with laser focus. I see what happens if I tweak the tone slightly with each iteration or move some sections around. It keeps things fresh and exciting as you’re always working on a “new” task with each iteration.
Let’s run through my process for writing this here article and see where mileage comes into play to assist my creativity:
Step One: I am usually in the shower, on the tube or walking down the street and an idea will hit me out of the blue. I’ll often stop whatever it is what I’m doing and put a note in my phone (I use Notion on both Mac and iPhone). In this case, as part of my day to day sketching, I watched the video linked in the first article, and after a few hours thinking around the idea and trying it out in my practice, I started a new document when I was confident I could write about the matter. You’re reading the result.
Step Two: In most cases, it’ll be those bolt from the blue inspirations I act on. So when I’m first getting that idea down in Notion, if I have some free time (or can make time) at this point, I’ll try and take between 20 and 60 minute) to vomit out an ocean of thoughts onto a page, watch some YouTube videos or do some research on the subject. For this article, I had already put those ideas into action, so I had a lot of thoughts to build notes to later flesh out into sections and the flow of the article.
Step Three: If there’s any further research I feel I need to do, I’ll do it here. I don’t want to be referring to reference outside of my own notes once I’m inside the process of writing. To avoid copying ideas or fundamentals. I want my thoughts to be my own, so I cultivate an environment for that to be the result.
Step Four: It’s time to dig through all these damn notes. I’ll read through everything and, after wondering just how I stoned I was, I’ll get into expanding the reams of bullet points, questions and the like into something comprehensible. I’ll run through and ensure that I’m illustrating the more substantial aspects of the article I want to convey and jot choppy sentences that I’ll want to include and build into larger sections later. Keeping little structure and ensuring the constantly be refining the notes and points by iterating on their wording and tone.
Step Five: At this point, I’ll try and put together a plot and skeleton from the parts I have so far. Here is where I’ll try and answer the all-important questions: What is the point in the article? How can I best put that across to my audience? — If I can answer those, I have an article that can be posted, eventually.
Step Six: It should be coming to a point where I can start shuffling sections around and pulling things together. Here’s where it gets real iterative. Firstly, I’ll take each of the parts and rewrite them in isolation. I’ll then take all of these elements and tie them together again, continually shuffling and improving. Considering the whole article and reading it aloud, changing and tweaking parts as I go. Going through as many times as needed until “happy” that it isn’t boring as fuck.
Step Seven: If at this stage I don’t re-write the whole article because I have decided I hate it, it’s time to run through Grammarly, no human is better than a robot at finding duplicate words and incorrect punctuation. Massive time saver. However, after the robots have had their time, it’s time to let some fellow humans read what I’ve made and ensuring that I haven’t gone completely insane. Once that check is complete I can go ahead and pop the article in the to post pile and eventually, it’ll make its way onto these here internets.
I know, I know. It’s a bit long. But it’s not quite as elaborate as you think and it’s done (in my case anyway) at break-neck speed. An essential part of this process is making sure to limit the iteration once the changes are getting smaller, or very picky. That’s when you get help, finalise and put it in the “To post” pile. No decent mileage comes from small, picky changes. Move fast or you’ll just get bored and what’s you’re working on will likely never see the light of day.
Applying the methods to hobbies
As someone who has struggled for a significant portion of their life finding hobbies (outside of my job, design — which stemmed from a hobby I suppose), music has always been one of the things that has always kept me riveted.
I’d played around with DJ-ing before, but have recently got back into it and practising every day with this iterative mindset is making a huge difference, to the point where friends have commented on how quickly I have improved. I’ve found the fastest way of developing is to practice with the same core set of songs (say in this example, 20–30) and play them every day, but each time try different orders, transitions, “bridges” between songs and ways to travel through the set.
The next step I’m going to take in this is one that I learned when I used to play video games competitively and is heavily used in sports all over the world. Taking advantage of footage. I’m going to start recording my sets and pinpointing where my mistakes are, so I can improve and alter my iterations based on, once again, data that I’ve created myself. I’m not listening to other’s mixing work at this moment, I’m working out my taste, finding my style and getting that mileage needed to get to the best version of the set.
Push your life forwards
Somewhere in the world I’m sure there’s someone crying: “Oh, Jamie. All this mileage stuff. It all seems a bit simple doesn’t it?” — And I respond: Yep. It’s super easy to apply to your life and I’d recommend give a try, there’s no barrier to entry really. It’s more the building of momentum and framing of the mileage that is important here. It helps improve your mentality and puts you in a great place to push things forward in your life as a whole.
As you can see, from some of the examples above, I’ve been applying it quite liberally to my own life, and so far I’ve noticed that even something as simple as thinking through a series of design problems quickly as thumbnails. Exploring a variety of options and directions with haste, I’m able to push out significantly more work and improve substantially in shorter periods of time than I had been before. As long as I look at the parts of what I need to do and how they’re put together, I can pick a direction and start “driving” a road. Looking along the way for those “bridges”.
I used to look at things in a very black and white manner and thought that just because I “understood” something, meant I was great at it. It took a while (likely longer than it should have) to realise that just because you understand the theory, you aren’t the master of it it, and that is very important. You don’t just go to the gym, learn to pick up the weights and then go “OK, I did it”. You have to put in the reps and improve with time, make small adjustments and learn over time. The more efficient you become at that exploration process, the better you’ll be at applying this concept.
How does mileage scale?
A great way to frame your practices is through finding successful or remarkable people who have had similar problems or goals to yourself and looking closely at their previous applications of methods and studying them in detail, you can learn so much. It’s insightful, inspirational and puts you in the right mindset to construct plans and visualise what success looks like to others and engineer how to apply that mindset to yourself.
To get a good idea of mileage at scale executed by an outstanding person. Let’s talk about Kanye West. If you love him, hate him, or don’t care, it doesn’t matter. He’s a shining beacon of mileage, process and momentum. Just look at the level of consistency and quality he’s achieved in a career spanning over 20 years.
Take even the most recent example, five albums released between May 25th and June 22nd worked on by Mr West — releasing his own “Ye” album, a collaborative album with Kid Cudi titled “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” and handing the executive production for Pusha T’s — “DAYTONA”, Nas’ “NASIR” and Teyana Taylor’s “K.T.SE.”. An exercise in consistent content, iteration and a remarkable feat. Let’s look at this a bit deeper.
What Kanye was doing was adding mileage through regular releases, be it production, rapping, singing or whatever is needed. With all of these albums being experimental and intriguing they create a lot of discussions and provide a reaction so even with such a rapid release schedule he can make small adjustments based on the reception of an album from week to week.
Whilst very experimental. It isn’t just an exercise of pure expression for Kanye, he’ll be studying the results and reacting to the responses. Following a similar structure to most creative projects of “ideate, implement, test, iterate”. Using that information to alter the upcoming album releases or future projects.
Kanye rides the line between eccentricity and genius very well, using his carefully honed talents to create vast bodies of work, but always swiftly iterating, keeping the attention of the masses and building momentum, audience and reach. As you can expect, pumping out high-quality, consistent content leads to an increase in reach. Releasing five high-quality albums worth of material in as many weeks leads to an explosion.
But it’s not the first time we’ve seen something like this, it’s been a long-running trend in his career. If you, like myself, are a fan of Kanye, you’ll almost certainly remember “GOOD Fridays”.
If not and either way, I’ll elaborate. Leading up to the releases of “808s & Heartbreak” in 2010 and “The Life of Pablo” in 2016, many free singles were released every Friday leading up to the albums. From old songs, no one had ever heard to demos from the upcoming album. He used the feedback on those demos to adapt the songs that eventually released on the album. Kanye was essentially applying the same process as detailed above for the writing, but using his legion of fans instead of Grammarly. Smart guy.
With exercises like this, Kanye West has built a career on iteration, building and rebuilding himself in different images and styles. Constantly improving and progressing. An inspiring mindset to have. He has shown time and time again that polish is sometimes not always the key to success. Take the fact that for one of the recent releases “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” with Kid Cudi. One of the verses was recorded by Kid Cudi the night before the album’s release and barely mastered. It’s an incredibly raw moment that stands out as one of the best moments of the album. Which goes to show that you have no idea what’s going to work or be amazing until you try it and you also can’t say how you’ll perceive something until you do and hear what people have to say about it. A system Kanye embraces wholeheartedly.
This mindset has lead to projects changing names, being altered and updated after release. The best example of this is the “Life of Pablo” album. Following its release, three reissues of the album, with altered mixing, added guests, removed guests, corrections and such, were pushed out online. A new song “Saint Pablo” was also added a full four months after the release of the album. Four months.
But it worked. It captivated in just the way Kanye intended. With Winston Cook-Wilson of Inverse saying of the album: “As a way of holding the public’s attention span, Kanye’s choice to continue to tweak The Life is Pablo indefinitely is genius. It encourages people to spend time processing an album that deserves it: a bewildering, sprawling, and controversy-courting piece of art.”
Everything we’ve spoken about with mileage and the processes and examples outlines something important. Talent is only half of the solution, sometimes even less. Talent only takes you so far. You need to get the distance in, experiment, iterate and learn. It can’t just be all of one and none of the others. You need balance. Find your passion, work out what you’re good at. Get the mileage and remember to refuel. It’s a long, long journey, but if you break it down and focus on the directions you want to go. It’ll be a good ride.
Is this the secret to infinite creativity? was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.