Archive for April, 2010

TED strikes again

photo of Mary N. Crawford / Smithsonian Institute

Here’s another intriguing TED lecture, this time from Sir Ken Robinson, filmed back in 2006. And yes, that’s “Sir Ken” to you.

Robinson is a professor, leader, speaker and author who has been decorated with more awards than he can juggle, and in 2003, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to the arts. An underachiever, really.

The TED archive is an endless vault of inspiration. Such amazing people and ideas. But back to the talk…

Robinson (funny and perfectly self-deprecating) believes we educate children out of their creative capacities. To paraphrase Picasso, we’re all born artists, but the challenge is to remain one as you grow up.

The highlights:

– “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

– We stigmatize mistakes and our schools reinforce the notion that errors are the worst thing a child can produce.

– Global education systems prioritize math and languages, then humanities. Arts sit at the bottom — if there’s any money left.

– Many brilliant, creative people think they’re deficient. They’re often tagged as unfocused, learning disabled, dreamers, and now, given meds for ADHD.

– Intelligence is diverse, dynamic and distinct. It doesn’t fit a mold.

– We need to educate kids as complete beings — not just floating heads run by left-brain logic.

This summary doesn’t do justice to Robinson’s well-woven argument. But I wanted to pull these points out and chew them over a bit.

My friends and I often discuss the idea that as you get older, it feels tougher to get out of your own way and create something truly new. We’ve debated the possible reasons: cynicism, financial struggles, life and family responsibilities, disappointments, becoming more set in your ways, losing a sense of “freshness” about the world and its possibilities, and on and on.

At the same time, all those opposing forces don’t eliminate the desire to push and stretch and surprise yourself. Robinson makes me feel better about actively protecting creativity. If it’s something you want (both for yourself and a new generation), you’ve got to fight for it.

posted 29 Apr 10 in: art, inspiration, media. This post currently has 4 responses.

the critical question

photo by Leo Reynolds

There’s a question that my friend & collaborator, Lisa Johnson, has taught me to ask — over and over again:

What am I noticing?

You can apply it to your career, a frustrating project, a personal issue, or any other situation that requires assessment. Somehow, this one question unlocks all the ideas and scraps of inspiration that lurk in your mind, eluding conscious thought. It’s a personal barometer — or thermometer. Either way, it pulls up the mental roots and forces you to tell the truth.

It can also provide a creative kick-start. Grab a pen and paper (and a double decaf iced Americano, if you’re Lisa), write this question at the top and get down everything that spills into your head. We’re all familiar with the brainstorming process, but you might be surprised by what this single question reveals.

Then ask it with a twist: What am I noticing about X? Or pose it to someone else: What are you noticing about X?

Ask it often enough and you’ll have a potent guide for your creative life.

posted 27 Apr 10 in: art, inspiration. This post currently has no responses.

food & finance

photos by Chiot’s Run

Even farmers and foodmakers are realizing that today’s market demands new revenue models. A recent Globe & Mail story titled, “Cash-strapped artisans turn to foodies for financing,” explored how savvy food producers are revamping their fee structures.

The highlights:

– Faced with an expired lease, artisanal cheese maker Ruth Klahsen is offering subscriptions to her Monforte Dairy. Cheese fans give $500 upfront to help her build a new dairy. She pays them back in five annual cheese deliveries worth $150 each.

In the last year, she’s sold 810 subscriptions and raised a total of $364,000 (some subscriptions were worth more than $500, some less) toward her $500,000 target.

– Ontario farmers Vicki Emlaw and Tim Noxon are battling the winter cash-flow crunch by selling Vicki’s Veggie Bucks. These are coupons that customers can trade for vegetables during the harvest season. They also offer a 10-to-15% discount for every $100 purchased.

Hungry buyers can use their bucks at the couple’s own farmstand or at the farmers’ markets they attend — eliminating the need to deliver boxes during the busy summer season and guaranteeing them a predictable income.

– Quebec microbrewery Boquébière creates beers infused with local maple syrup and honey. The company has started paying some of its suppliers in beer, rather than cold, inedible cash.

– Southern Ontario’s Creemore 100 Mile Store was launched with a funding party. Owners Jacquie Durnford and Sandra Lackie invited women they thought would be interested in a grocery store that sold locally produced food and shared their business plan at the soirée. That night, 17 women gave $1,000 each, which the owners have promised to repay (with annual interest) in five years.

The pair evenutally raised $47,000 and opened the store just one month after the party.

These examples are brilliant because they represent more than just creative financing; they’re also giving customers an invitation to participate in the business and a good story to share (i.e. “You have a chèvre subscription? They’re paying you in honey ale?”).

There are so many ways to earn money — and no rules that you have to follow tired revenue models. Think through your best attributes. If you’re offering something amazing and the demand is real, people will want to help. Get your customers or clients involved (and even invested) in your success.

$150 in cheese? Yes, please.

posted 22 Apr 10 in: food, media, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.

brief encounters

aerialist Keely Sills

What happens when you cross a marketing executive with a theatrical dance artist? How about a floral designer and an African drummer? If you’re lucky, you get Brief Encounters — the ultimate live mashup created by Vancouver’s Tomorrow Collective.

Produced by Katy Harris-McLeod and Mara Branscombe, each installment matches 12 artists in six unexpected pairings. The partners meet just two weeks before the show to create a 10-minute live performance. The results are strange, unpredictable and sometimes even breathtaking.

I had been meaning for months to check out Brief Encounters (they’re on installment #14), and a well-timed text finally got me in the audience on Saturday. Two high points of the night included a moving collaboration between hip hop dancer Yoshi Hisanaga and visual artist Yun Lam Li, and the partnership between aerialist Keely Sills and acclaimed storyteller Ivan Coyote.

producers Mara Branscombe and Katy Harris-McLeod

It all comes down to chemistry. Hisanaga and Li joked about their generation gap in an intro video, but blended video, music and masterful live dancing into an experience that stunned the silent crowd. Then, suspended high above the stage, Sills effortlessly flipped and stretched her body through the silks while Coyote wove a restrained tale of love, loss and family. Magic.

There will always be bigger hits and a few near-misses, but I love the spirit of this series. It made me think more deeply about collaboration — and breaking boundaries. What could give your work new colour? And why not impose a two-week timeline on an ambitious project? It’s an effective way to stop procrastinating and second-guessing yourself. There simply isn’t time.

Creativity is always pulsing below the surface, but sometimes it takes an impossible deadline (and flat-out panic) to push past what feels like a barrier. We’ve all had 11th hour triumphs. This show demonstrated that time and collaboration are ingredients — elements you can mix at will to create something surprising.

posted 19 Apr 10 in: art, dance, media, performance. This post currently has no responses.

meet sarah mccoll

photos courtesy Pink of Perfection

When the Internet feels bloated with inane semi-celebrities and nasty newspaper commenters, I gravitate to Sarah McColl – the sweet, gracious and whip-smart voice behind the popular blog, Pink of Perfection.

Described as “a guide to the simple pleasures of a creative life for the budget-minded bon vivant,” Pink of Perfection (or POP to its equally well-mannered readers) is a charming mix of recipes, inspiration, DIY projects, entertaining tips and thrifty finds. Sarah and her boyfriend (now husband), Sebastian, launched the blog back in 2006 as a forum to share the ups and downs of living a crafty, creative life.

The original POP featured video interviews and how-tos, but both Sarah and Sebastian were soon too busy with thriving careers to continue shooting and editing those time-consuming segments. Today, Sarah nurtures the blog for a loyal fan base and works as a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn. She’s written for high-profile magazines including Bon Appetit and currently blogs for the Shine network on

While it took some time to figure out what she wanted to reveal on POP, Sarah says the blog is now a comfortable online home and a source of creative motivation: “It’s as much a place of inspiration for me as it is for readers.” That down-to-earth approach comes through in a voice that’s warm, encouraging and unabashedly feminine – just like Sarah herself.

1. What fuels your work?

It’s like that old saying, “I only write when I’m inspired, but I get inspired every day at 9 a.m.” Habit is what makes me sit down every day, but inspiration is something totally different. I’ve been coming off a period where I felt like was phoning in my posts for Pink of Perfection, but I took a week off, relaxed, read some magazines, and that made all the difference. It’s important to let yourself go through those fallow periods.

It’s good to have habits that increase your chance of productivity, but when it comes to what actually fuels my writing, there are so many things: other blogs, great books, great art, podcasts, the seasons. I love being as open as possible to beauty. I’m really a sucker for beauty – in the biggest sense possible.

2. How do you organize your life so you still have the time, energy and focus to be creative?

You have to figure out what works for you and when you’re at your sharpest. I like to get up and just start the day. I like to get right into it. That doesn’t always mean that I get dressed, but it’s very ritualized, because I know that I can really focus in the morning. After lunch, it’s like my brain goes into a whole different space. But the morning is also the time when work is the most fun for me. So then it becomes an encouraging habit. And if your habits support your enjoyment of what you do, it’s much easier to get up the next day and do it again. You have to learn how to set yourself up to succeed.

3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

I’ve always really admired Molly Wizenberg from Orangette. I assume she had full-time job when she first started the blog, but after a while she landed a column at Bon Appetit, which is every blogger’s dream. It’s a very legitimate, old-school outlet. Then her book came out, and she seems very entrenched in her community with the restaurant she now runs with her husband. I’m sure if I spent a day in her life I’d think, “whoa, this is too much!” but from the outside it seems like a lovely mix of national-level publications, a personal blog, and a restaurant where she gets to do something practical and hands-on (the opposite of cerebral writing) and she gets to interact with the local community, too. She seems to have it figured out.

When it comes to someone who’s at the level of Nigella Lawson, for example, who has TV shows and books and fame, I worry that you’d actually get away from the nuts and bolts of what made you start in the first place. So if there’s somewhere in the middle where you can live and make enough money and not be a superstar, that’s definitely the goal.

4. How many revenue streams do you have in your work?

Two. Freelance writing and advertising income. Pink of Perfection is part of the Martha’s Circle ad network.  Monthly revenues are determined both by page views and how much ad space the Martha Stewart team sells.

Sometimes I have a crisis of conscience about advertising, but I always come around to the fact that people are getting to enjoy content that they like – for free – so it’s okay to find a way to make it sustainable for me.

5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Freelance writing, editing and blogging.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

Technically speaking, the blog ads. But I don’t think of the POP advertising as passive, because I do feel like I have to – and I want to – create new content in order to get the page views that pay the ad dollars.

7. What tools or moneymaking opportunities are available to creative pros that you think most people don’t leverage?

I always thought about selling stuff on Etsy, but I don’t think I’m a tremendous crafter who has the level of skill or artistry necessary to sell things that other people would spend money on. I love crafting more in the sense that it’s fun to do things with your hands and it’s meditative.

I also love Three Potato Four, which is a husband-and-wife team who run an online shop filled with a beautifully curated collection of great objects that you’d want in your home: ceramics, art, furniture, etc. I think so many people have that fantasy of having a shop of their own. But I’d only ever do that online.

This is random, too, but I’ve found that selling books on can be surprisingly lucrative. Every bibliophile has stacks of cookbooks they don’t use or duplicate copies of a book, and I’ve sold stuff on there, plus vintage dresses and other items on eBay. I don’t know if it’s a good tip, but it’s something I do sometimes!

8. What have you done that has brought the most opportunities and attention to you?

When I started the blog, it was really important to me to convey the idea the nothing is so hard. Our culture is obsessed with experts and people who are super-specialized. Throughout my whole life, I’ve felt frustrated that people want you to specialize. They want you to be really amazing at one thing. But for anyone who’s interested in a lot of things – like cooking and crafting and figuring out how to create a life for yourself – that feeling that “you have to be excellent at something or why bother” can be discouraging.

I try to use a voice on the blog that says “You can do stuff. It’s just dinner. Or it’s just knitting.” It is just that and you can do it, but it’s also so much more, because it can really transform how you feel about your daily life. I don’t know if that’s brought me the most attention, but it’s really important to me.

9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

As much as I hate to say it, buying a smartphone has made my life so much easier. I was afraid that having a phone that was clever would make me feel over-connected. But it actually makes me feel less panicky about whatever I’m missing.

Another important investment for me was changing blog platforms. I started Pink of Perfection on MovableType, and in early 2009, I moved it to WordPress and I hired these really great designers to redesign my blog. It made the blog look much more professional. The original design we had in 2006 was really forward, but by 2009 it needed to be spruced up.

I think sometimes people forget to make sure the look of their blog works with the content. If you have great, smart, intelligent, wonderful content, I think sometimes people might not get to that because we love things that are aesthetically pleasing and design-y and that can make as much of an impression as your actual content.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate?

You can do creative work, and your creative work can be important and it can be invaluable to other people and it can maybe even succeed in making the world slightly better. But you can’t continue to do that work if you can’t pay your bills, if you can’t keep a roof over your head, and you can’t keep eating. So, I definitely think there’s a line that you can cross, but you have to be able to take care of your basic needs so you can keep doing the work that is good. It’s hard though, because it’s a constant negotiation to figure out how to do what you love and stay pure and honest with it, and at the same time, get paid for it.

Thanks, Sarah!

posted 15 Apr 10 in: design, food, interviews. This post currently has 3 responses.

gen x & y on the radio

I did a fun radio interview yesterday with BCIT Broadcast Journalism student Vanessa Ybarra. We talked about the book I co-authored with Lisa Johnson, Mind Your X’s and Y’s, and the Free Agent Formula — the multi-media toolkit for entrepreneurs that we developed with our good friend and collaborator, Cassie Pruett.

Vanessa’s set to graduate in the next couple weeks and already sounds like a pro.

You can listen to our chat here.


We’re gearing up to re-launch the Free Agent Formula (more affectionately known as the FAF) in the next couple weeks, so watch for more news about this one-of-a-kind program. It’s a six-step modern business plan designed for freelancers, consultants, solopreneurs and creatives of every kind. We’ve road tested it with many of our friends and colleagues — and it works!

posted 14 Apr 10 in: business, interviews, media. This post currently has no responses.

april is for poetry

April is always a brighter month for my inbox. Each day, Knopf Poetry sends out a free poem from a diverse roster of writers including Marge Piercy, Mark Strand, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edward Hirsch. It’s Knopf’s way of celebrating National Poetry Month and bringing some well-deserved attention to the genre. The program also offers bonus features such as downloadable broadsides, audio clips and signed books.

This beauty by Anne Michaels arrived one April morning last year — right next to the cell phone bill and news of a Dutch lottery jackpot — and took my breath away. Hope it fuels your creative fires, too.

There is No City that Does Not Dream

There is no city that does not dream
from its foundations. The lost lake
crumbling in the hands of the brickmakers,
the floor of the ravine where light lies broken
with the memory of rivers. All the winters
stored in that geologic
garden. Dinosaurs sleep in the subway
at Bloor and Shaw, a bed of bones
under the rumbling track. The storm
that lit the city with the voltage
of spring, when we were eighteen
on the clean earth. The ferry ride in the rain,
wind wet with wedding music and everything that
sings in the carbon of stone and bone
like a page of love, wind-lost from a hand, unread.

posted 9 Apr 10 in: art, books. This post currently has no responses.