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While our earliest steps might involve making things for ourselves, we also must eventually show someone else our work. The goal isn’t validation, recognition, or business. Rather, the fact that we know someone else will experience it will enable us to figure out and further refine what we’re trying to say.
It’s almost as if there’s a compulsion inside us—perhaps personified by the judge—that really wakes up when we know that somebody else is watching. This compulsion will enable us to take our work to the next level.
Experiment Your Way to Something Big
Science for me is very close to art. … Scientific discovery is an irrational act. It’s an intuition which turns out to be reality at the end of it—and I see no difference between a scientist developing a marvelous discovery and an artist making a painting.Carlo Rubbia*
In 2014, while she was working at Google, Sarah Cooper found an old note. Years earlier, she had seen a colleague make a strong impression in a meeting with a completely nonsensical Venn diagram. She wrote down “How to look smart in a meeting,” with a note to herself to draw Venn diagrams. She added another nine parodical observations, and published her first post on Medium. She said, “It was just really—to use the cliché, it was low-hanging fruit for me to be able to finish it, especially since I was in a ton of meetings at the time anyway.”
Cooper eventually migrated these blog posts to her own parody blog, titled The Cooper Review. A year prior, she’d started a parody of Cosmopolitan, called oolalove!, and made videos on YouTube. She illustrated by tracing photos she took of her friends. She made a calendar. For a short while, she even made memes. Millions of people read her work at Medium and The Cooper Review, leading her to a three-book deal.
Cooper’s willingness to try new things and see how they work out is crucial to her success. So is feedback.
Before Cooper publishes any work, she shares her ideas with a small group of friends and family. “I look for a few different kinds of feedback. Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Oh, I have this idea, what do you think?’ or, ‘I have this idea, let me know if you have any other ideas,’ or something like that. And I’m looking for if people think it’s funny at all, even if they don’t have anything to contribute, I still want to know if the idea is a funny idea. Some people just like the post or laugh at it or they’ll contribute ideas.
“It’s turned out to be a pretty good gauge of how well something will do, ’cause sometimes I’ll put something out there and people don’t really like it on my private page, but I’ll go ahead with it anyway just because I like it. But even in those situations, the response I get in the private group is pretty indicative of the response I’m going to get publicly.”
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The problem has two parts. First, each of us has limited time and energy—we can’t do everything we want to do. Second, it would be nice if we could always forecast what resonates with people and what won’t, but nobody can. Cooper solved this by running small experiments with her friends and family, and seeing what people responded to.
Cooper continued moving forward with her work, trying new things, until another small bet paid huge results years later. This time, Cooper tried TikTok. Her first video had the caption “How to emote with your eyes when you’re wearing a mask.” In the next ones, she mimicked some of Donald Trump’s speeches, both lip-syncing and speaking in her voice with his mannerisms. She also lip-synced Poppy Jennings and filmed a walk with her dog.
Perhaps it was because of her instinct, paired up with the feedback and data, that Cooper decided to double down on the Donald Trump lip syncs, each of which went viral. She grew her audiences on TikTok and Twitter, with many—including prominent people in the entertainment industry—showing public appreciation for her work. In the following months, Cooper would guest host for Jimmy Fallon, and sign deals with Netflix and CBS.
If you ever find that imposter syndrome blocks you from talking about your work or asking for feedback, consider legendary comedian, actress, and writer Tina Fey’s words, “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I’ve just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”
Release Your Work
When you release your work, you show the world—and yourself—that you are worth the space. You declare it. You get used to sharing your work, even if it’s not your best, or if it’s not perfect. You tell yourself, as Lindsay Jean Thomson said, “I have a right to be here. I have a right to create. I have a right to be seen and appreciated.” In addition to building your confidence, releasing your work can produce interesting tangible outcomes—whether it’s new opportunities, feedback, or lessons you learn about yourself.
Now that you’ve put some work together, it’s time for you to release something. Make it the main focus of your day. If you are releasing your work on a social network, just upload your work, release it, and then go on Airplane Mode. Do something else, so you’re not worrying about how it performs.
It might feel natural for you to seek validation, especially early on if you’re uncertain of your work, but the residue of the data will take up a lot of attention. And if it falls below your expectations, then the feedback (or lack thereof) might feel discouraging. It’s more fruitful to spend the time enjoying yourself, at least.
I’d encourage you to reward yourself after you release your work, regardless of how other people receive it. If you’re anything like me, releasing your work will be scary and involve checking your phone or computer a dozen times an hour to see if anyone liked it. This could put you into an unproductive headspace. After all, we don’t control how other people receive our work—only if and how we release it.
Consider actor and filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, who created and starred in the cult classic The Room. While he may have been making a genuine attempt to make a critically acclaimed film, it was not well received, or even taken seriously. Still, people loved it for different reasons. As actor and filmmaker James Franco puts it, “The Room is not the worst movie. It is the best worst movie.” And in an unpredictable outcome, Wiseau ended up making his living as a filmmaker. There was also the notorious creative process of filming The Room, which Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell document in the memoir The Disaster Artist. The Disaster Artist and The Room then served as Franco and Seth Rogen’s own departure point for their film, titled after the memoir.
Imagine all of the other movies as badly made as The Room that we will never hear about. And yet, it worked. This is why creative work is, at best, probabilistic; there will always be outliers, and The Room is one of them. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a principle to learn here: if Wiseau hadn’t made and released the movie, then he would have had a very different career arc. Ultimately, investing in, shooting, producing, releasing, promoting, and distributing The Room may have been the best decision he made for his creative work, and for the artists who were inspired by his story.
Make Something You Won’t Ever Show Anyone Else
In Minor Feelings, poet Cathy Park Hong writes, “We say we don’t care about audience, but it is a lie. Poets can be obsessed with status and are some of the most ingratiating people I know. … A poet’s precious avenue for mainstream success is through an award system dependent on the painstaking compromise of a jury panel, which can often guarantee that the anointed book will be free of aesthetic or political risk.”
All too often, considering an audience gets in the way of creative work. It’s not an easy habit or thought pattern to break; even if you think you’re not making for an audience, you’ve gotten into the practice of it. The key is to practice making something you’ll never show anyone else. In doing this, you’re gaining valuable feedback from yourself.
One of Dacoury Natche’s collaborators, Donald Glover (who makes music as Childish Gambino) has talked about the importance of making work that you won’t show anyone else. Glover says, “Making songs now that I know aren’t going to be heard by anybody else, it is an interesting thing. Because I think you have to do that now as an artist. I really do. Because you start to manipulate your work based on other people, which is fine depending on what you’re trying to do.”
It’s only once you’ve gotten in the groove of making things you won’t show anyone else that you’ll make something truer to what you want to make, that enables you to find the stories you want to tell, that are worth taking risks for, and eventually to find your creative purpose.
I’ve been writing online for years. With the best of intentions, friends would suggest that I start a vlog, or a podcast. It used to bother me, but now I take it as part of a vast feedback channel. Instead of starting a vlog or podcast myself, I look for people who work in those areas and try to get my work out to them. Rather than repeating my work or reading it out loud, I prepare and improvise points from my writing into a more conversational format like an interview. I also keep my eyes open for visualizations that might better convey my message.
It’s in making the work more portable that I’m able to put a portion of it out for feedback. The simplest version of this is getting feedback on names—which ones did a friend remember? Or, which concepts or ideas from an interview stood out to listeners or readers?
Chris Kim is obsessed with these different areas, which he calls contexts. It’s important to him to find new contexts for his work. For example, he’s interested in building in a more modular way—saving melodies in their own track, saving drums on another, and sharing these individual elements with people to get their perspectives.
Similarly, when Louis Vuitton menswear designer Virgil Abloh was working with his team on designs, he wouldn’t be able to do it in person, so one of his team members would have to take photos or create digital versions so that everyone else could provide feedback through WhatsApp. They transferred the item of clothing from the context of the physical world, into the context of an image on WhatsApp. When producing a song, you need to listen to the track in your car, through your headphones, and through all the speakers you can.
Context is not just about different media or forms, although that certainly counts. It might be the same piece of work but shared to a new audience (sharing a link or image of your work at a subreddit they’re active in), or in a different place (I republish my article at Forge to Business Insider). Or, it might be taking that song you’ve produced and listening to it outside through a portable speaker or through your car stereo on a drive.
Be Specific when Asking for Feedback
When author Derek Sivers wrote every day for a month, he realized that there wasn’t enough time to take his writing to the standard he preferred and that he was emailing this subpar writing to tens of thousands of readers. He found it taxing to write something to his own standard every day, and he worried that he was emailing his audience too frequently. He stopped publishing every piece he wrote, only to release it publicly when ready.
You don’t need to release your work to everyone for it to be complete. Sometimes, you might realize that a version of it is complete—but you’re dissatisfied with it, or you want a second or third perspective on it. In situations like that, you can release it to a small group of friends or peers to get their feedback.
Asking for feedback on creative work is an incredibly difficult task. For starters, your family and friends will have an instinct to protect your feelings. Most acquaintances or strangers won’t know you well enough to share. And how do you know what, and whom, to trust?
The first step is to clarify your intention when asking for feedback. You decide how to ask, whom to ask, and how you know whom to ask, when you decide what you’re interested in finding out. Some starting points:
Are you looking to nurture your idea, still fragile and in its infancy? You might be looking for generative feedback and validation, someone with an opinion that could expand your vision for the idea, and to give you energy to run with it. In this case, a supportive friend or a coach might be the best person to ask.
Are you looking to refine your work? Peer feedback from someone else in a similar stage to your creative journey, familiar with your craft, who can make educated suggestions and ask the right questions might be your best bet. Ask them to focus on a specific part of your work, and come prepared with specific questions for them.
Are you preparing to submit your work somewhere, or to release it to the world? You might be looking for a candid and critical opinion from a potential stakeholder, tapping into someone else’s inner judge and asking at least one question you’re terrified to ask.
Are you looking to promote your work? You might be looking less for feedback, and more commitment from an influential figure. It would be wise to make sure you’ve supported and promoted their work before you ask them for a favor. (Check out Groove founder Alex Turnbull’s very comprehensive post on the topic.)
Want to know how a group responds to your work, what conversations they have with each other in response? You might be interested in throwing a feedback party, sharing your idea with as many people as possible and getting their quick impression of whether or not something resonates.
The next step is to actually identify the person. You may or may not know them. If you don’t, then it would make sense to at least reach out first, probably to introduce yourself, before you ask them to give you some of their time to provide feedback.
The third step is to ask. My personal preferred way of doing this is simply to catch up and reconnect with a friend that I’m comfortable with—who I’ve talked with about my writing before and who has shown both emotional and promotional (and even financial!) support of my work—and then to mention what I’m working on. I watch their body language and listen to the questions they ask. If they seem curious about the work, I’ll probably ask, “Hey, can I run something by you?”
When you ask for feedback, you may think you’re asking for a favor. Okay, let’s be honest, you definitely are asking for a favor. Still, that favor may be exactly what the other person is looking for. As author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes in Your Music, Your People, “You might be the coolest thing that ever happened to a teenager going through an unpopular phase. You might help someone start a new life after a break-up. You can provide some exciting variety to their boring routines.” Thank you, and you’re welcome.
Maybe you’re an artist who recently reconnected with a friend who studied art history and is working an unrelated full-time job. Or maybe you’re a novelist who just found out your friend has made a new year’s resolution to start reading more fiction this year.
While I’ve provided just a handful of starting points for asking for feedback, you can get super creative with how you receive it. For example, when Carly Rae Jepsen wrote 200 songs for her albums Emotion and Dedicated, she invited family and friends over for a listening party. She describes the process, “We have these listening parties at my house where I feed everyone and give them copious amounts of wine hoping that they’ll have opinions about the music. And then they all send in their votes to me, including my bandmates, my manager, and girlfriend Alex—she sends me notes in the night. There starts to be at least six to eight common songs that are all resonating with people. Then I pick the rest myself from my favorites and fill in the blanks of what’s missing from the album.”
Release in a Lab
Typically, creative work takes place in what psychologist Fabra Robin Hogarth calls a “wicked learning environment.” These are environments that involve many variables, which make correlations and causations difficult to form. Predictions are very difficult to clearly make.
In this case, you want to release your work in a kind, closed, learning environment. This prompt calls for you to show your work to 10 different people. Ask 10 of them the same questions, and you’ll start to see patterns. If you’re uncertain of which questions to ask, try this ABCD framework from novelist Mary Robinette Kowal:*
What Didn’t you believe?
“What didn’t you believe?” may be most helpful when responding to fiction, but disbelief is a form of distraction—a part of a story that I simply can’t believe. So if “What didn’t you believe?” doesn’t seem like the right question for your work, you may ask, “What is distracting?” In other words, you’re looking for elements of your work that take away from what you’re trying to express.
Listen to or read their answers carefully. Or, if you can see them in person, watch their nonverbal reactions. Do their faces look impassive, or concentrated? Are their shoulders pointing away from the work or towards? Sit back and don’t say anything. The silence is supposed to be there. There’s no need to judge exactly what’s happening, but do take note of the reactions.
The only variable that changes should be the person. Hold as many other variables constant as possible. Time of day. Place. The piece of work should be the same (don’t make edits or revisions between feedback interviews). You may be surprised at what you learn, and how good a gauge even a small group of people can be. If you’re interested in learning more about how to get feedback, check out how product designers do it. There may be some methods that serve you.
Share Your Intention
On occasion, an intention—a reason, or a purpose, or even just a hypothesis—can be enough to get an idea started. When you share your intention, you give the other person or people a chance to make sense of it, which refines it and provides a space for it to grow.
It can help to be clearer with how you’re asking someone to support your intention. I remember once introducing two friends over coffee, and one was sharing a vision of setting up a dome installation during a film festival and making a request for the other’s expertise with cameras. I left in awe of my friend’s informal presentation and vision.
Perhaps the request isn’t supporting an end result, but for support during the process. For example, “I’m planning on writing for 100 days, and I’d love your support because I’m trying to be an author and it’s going to be hard!” You might also make a request more specifically for accountability, or for feedback, or just general moral support.
Setting your intention and action in the right direction will help create momentum. Communicating that intention and showing people your work will get others involved. Given enough time and space, someone will see it and suggest a way they can contribute. Don’t limit your vision to your work to yourself. Invite family and friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances to experience your work, and allow them a chance to understand and further your intention.
Discard Some Feedback
Early into his career as a designer at Adobe, Andrei Herasimchuk had designed and programmed a prototype over the weekend and a few days into his workweek. One of the product managers, who had worked at Adobe for a while and was well liked by the team, stopped by Harsimchuk’s cubicle.
After a question on how long this took, they said, “While I certainly applaud your effort, I must say that you really don’t need to go to this length. You’ll have to do this all the time for all the products going forward. These screenshots you have here are plenty. It’s all we’ve ever done before, so there’s really no need to spend this kind of time on a prototype.”
Herasimchuk identifies the point when things went wrong, which is when he accepted the product manager’s feedback blindly, “Um… Ok. I guess. If you think so.” He never built another prototype while working at Adobe. His coding skills would dull over five years, and he missed a chance to make coding a part of Adobe’s design culture.
Listening to other people’s feedback is important—for certain. But as it turns out, they just might not understand your work. Or, they might not have been deliberate and thoughtful about your situation. If that’s the case, it would be terrible for you to limit yourself because of one person’s off-handed comment about your work or your process.
Throw out something that somebody else had said. Don’t listen to it. If someone has told you they don’t like seeing this part of your work, and you’ve cut it out, try to put it back in. If you’re looking for a place to start, throw out the piece of feedback that drains your personal energy, and makes you feel less excited about your work.