THIS IS A "HOW TO LOOK WITHIN
& GET OVER YOUR OWN
There's an abundance of "How To" books by "experts." WNW Member Adam J. Kurtz doesn't see his new book, Things Are What You Make of Them, in that light, nor does he regard himself that way. But would you really want to read a book that purported to have it all figured out by someone who's tagged themselves with every complimentary title? As Adam puts it, "This isn’t a 'how to win at business' book. It’s more of a 'how to look within and get over your own bullshit' book. Adam's honesty, humor, and human touch are written all over his new work, both figuratively and literally. "It’s not exactly a scientific or academic approach. Truthfully, I think the main giveaway is that it’s entirely handwritten."
In our interview below, the "Brooklyn-based designer, artist, author, and internet person" tells us why he wanted to share what works for him with fellow creatives, how feeling feelings guides his personal yet universal work, and what you should and shouldn't expect. "There’s nothing in here that’s completely revolutionary but sometimes just having a whole bunch of reminders served up in a way that feels smart, funny, and inviting is enough. I’m not an expert on anything, I’m just sharing the things that help me." It's worth checking out, since Adam runs his own practice as a full-time freelancer. The inviting way in which Adam lays out useful lessons actually increases the likelihood that you'll absorb his sentiments. They're not a series of mantras you're expected to memorize on a path toward creative enlightenment.
Adam also offers some great advice on how to simplify your obstacles, both tangible and imagined. "Make it first, worry about it afterward. If it’s really just a thing you’re doing for yourself, or mostly for yourself, then there’s nothing to worry about!"
Tell us a bit about your creative background. Who is Adam J. Kurtz and how did he get here?
I studied graphic design in undergrad after building fansites throughout my teens. It was really the only thing I was interested in. In the years since, I’ve worked in a number of creative roles at agencies, a media outlet, and freelance. Now I’m mostly doing my own projects full time, focusing on books, stationery, products, and collaborations with other brands and institutions.
My personal work is really, really personal, and has always been my main outlet. It’s been a hobby for so long and I think I’m as surprised as anyone that it’s a full-time job now. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does.
How would you distill what you do as a creative? How do you put your creativity into words?
I like to say that my design and illustration is rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness. I’m creating relatively straightforward work that tackles life and my own human experience. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not.
The title of your new book, Things Are What You Make of Them, implies taking control. Is that something you initially struggled with as a creative?
I honestly have felt empowered to make my own little projects my way pretty much from the beginning. When it’s just you printing 10 zines on your own, the stakes are low and you can just do it. Make it first, worry about it afterward. If it’s really just a thing you’re doing for yourself, or mostly for yourself, then there’s nothing to worry about!
Shit only starts to get harder, messier, and seemingly less within your control when there are others involved. That might mean a project for a client or a collaboration. Those are scenarios where your work requires a certain amount of balance. If you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of control over their creative output normally, I suggest coming up with a fun little personal project that you can work on when you have the time. Just make stuff. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It’s just paper. It’s just digital kilobytes and shit. I know I’m oversimplifying but truly, things are what you make of them. Just make something.
What was the impetus behind sharing some of your secrets? Is there anything you keep secret to gain a competitive edge or are you an open book?
I don’t think the new book is full of secrets at all. If anything, it’s the opposite. I’m kind of shouting HEY EVERYONE, THERE IS NO SECRET WE CAN ALL DO THIS! This isn’t a “how to win at business” book. It’s more of a “how to look within and get over your own bullshit” book. There’s nothing in here that’s completely revolutionary but sometimes just having a whole bunch of reminders served up in a way that feels smart, funny, and inviting is enough. I’m not an expert on anything, I’m just sharing the things that help me.
As for being an open book, I am pretty open in general as a person. Maybe that has cost me opportunities. But what’s the point in being a closed off, fabricated, workshopped version of yourself? To succeed at the office? I am just trying to be a happy person. I’m trying to focus on the shit that actually matters. I’m figuring it out.
How much are self-discovery and self-reflection a part of your creative process? Do you view it as essential for any creation?
My entire body of work is pretty much “hey I felt a feeling and then I made this about it.” Being aware of my surroundings, having conversations with myself, and finding the humor or silver lining in negatives is exactly what my art-as-therapy has always been, and now it’s really what I do for “work.”
In general, it’s our job as creatives to make emotive, compelling work, and it’s very hard to do that if we’re not in touch with reality – our own, and others’.
Did writing this book open up your eyes to potential creative adjustments, or offer certain breakthroughs? What did you learn during the writing process?
This book really came together over two years of ongoing learning, lessons, and anecdotal research as I started working for myself full time. There are some chapters I don’t think I’d have written on Day One of “Adam The Full-Time Business.” So I definitely learned as I went, and the words followed. In the same way that Sex and the City bookends episodes with Carrie’s writing, I almost feel like different months or periods of time had different themes. Almost like October 2015 was the “How To Work From Home” episode and February 2016 was when the “Comparing Yourself To Other Creatives” narrative arc began. The entire book was born from my own lived experience as a creative person and as a human person trying to be alive.
How have you worked to become literate in discussing the subjects that are often most difficult to put into words: depression, creative blocks, seeking help, addressing failures?
I don’t know that I’ve actively worked in becoming literate in these topics. There are researchers, therapists, people who really do this for a living and do it well. I’m not that. I’m not an expert. Things Are What You Make of Them is absolutely a book about dissecting and working through a range of emotions and experiences that all creative people face, but it’s not exactly a scientific or academic approach. Truthfully, I think the main giveaway is that it’s entirely handwritten. Nobody is expecting a scientific journal.
Do you see creativity as a double-edged sword? What do you see as the correlation between creativity and indecision? Or creativity and procrastination? Or creativity and self-doubt?
I don’t really think “creativity” is one thing that can necessarily be quantified. I think of creativity as a catch-all term for a kind of thinking, types of emotional energy, approaches to problem solving, and ways we experience life. We know it when we see or feel it.
Being especially good at finding multiple unique solutions to any given problem is a tremendous gift, and in that way, creative problem solving or ideation is wonderful. Some brains are quicker to dissect a challenge and adapt than others. Obviously, the flip side is that we end up with a lot of options that can slow us down, give us cause for doubt, or just plain drive us crazy.
Everyone is different and everyone is tackling related but individual challenges when it comes to how to process and navigate the world. That’s not limited to “creatives” or people in creative fields. That’s just human.
Do you ever worry that you’re giving bad advice?
My work always comes with its own set of warnings, basically reminding you that I’m a person and not an expert. The book has an inclusive tone that makes clear that I’m in the shit too. I’m not better than anyone. There’s also a note at the end that straight up is like “I’m not an expert and writing this book doesn’t change that.”
I wouldn’t even call Things Are What You Make of Them an advice book exactly, at least not in a traditional sense. I think it’s more of a reminder than anything. I am taking things that we know to be true, approaches to common issues, and just breaking them to their base elements and holding them up for you to inspect for yourself. I’m saying “hey actually we do all have these specific fears that might stop us from making work, but here is why they’re irrelevant.”
What do you see as the benefits of creative communities and collaborators in fueling creativity?
You need people to celebrate with, and you need people who will call you out on your shit.
What’s next for you?
I literally have no idea and I’m very excited about that. I’m getting married in December and I am looking forward to sitting in the kitchen eating toast with my husband.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Follow me on Instagram.