Broke Ninjas: Origins

 

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There’s a long and a less-long story behind the ninja cartoons that appear with some of my posts. I figure I’d try to share the less-long story here, in the standard 800 to 1,000-word blog post.

Back in 2014, I went to an SCBWI conference in New York and attended the illustrators’ workshop they offered. Mind you, I’m a writer rather than an artist. But I’ve always loved drawing, so I figured seeing how the illustrators did things would be fun.

Before the conference, the workshop attendees were told to illustrate a scene from the classic Snow White fairy tale in our own style. As a non-artist, I don’t have an “artsy” style. My stuff always ends up cartoony.

So to shake things up, I changed the story and placed Snow White in feudal Japan, where she escapes from her evil stepmother the Empress and ends up crossing paths with seven little ninjas. They were thinking of killing her too, because she found their hide-out, but decided against it since they didn’t like the Empress either.

The scene I drew (and finished about five hours before I had to board the plane for said conference) was at the end, featuring Snow White (whom I called Shirayuki), a young samurai (instead of a prince), and the seven ninjas.

In summary, the workshop sucked. The AD who reviewed my work didn’t give me any helpful feedback. Not even a, “I don’t really like this because of …” She had just said, “I don’t know enough about this [cartoon] style to make a comment.”

Waste of an air ticket and conference fee. Did I mention I was unemployed at the time?

Anyway, I started my little eBay gig later, so I forgot about the ninjas for a while. I’d sketch some of them on the paper table covers at restaurants with crayons while waiting for food, but that was about it.

Fast-forward to 2016, and I was feeling like a failure. It’d been nearly two years since I’d lost my full-time job, and I’d gotten another rejection on a book (I’d stopped counting after I’d gotten rejection letter No. 300 a few years back). But I’d been reading Start. by Jon Acuff and several articles on Forbes and Entrepreneur. And I had a crazy idea that maybe I was still a little hirable.

So, for the first time in over a year, I started looking for a job again. The funny thing about looking for editing and writing jobs is that you need to have writing samples. I didn’t want to send potential employers stuff I did for my old employer. For one, I have a much wider and creative range than the mostly bone-dry material I was paid to do in the past. Also, I’d never been paid to write about topics that interested me, like personal finance, professional growth, movies, history, travel, creative processes, and so on.

So, I started writing about things that interested me in my own style here, on this blog. My goal was to post something consistently once a week and build up to more if I could. I figured that if an employer could understand and appreciate my raw writing, then it would be the kind place I’d like to work for.

But of course, with blog posts, I needed some kind of visual. And rather than pull the same stock photos that appear on every other blog on Planet Earth, I thought it’d be fun to draw a cartoon instead. The first post I needed a cartoon for was 3 Reasons You Need a Side Hustle, and I thought it would be funny to resurrect one of my ninjas from years ago and pretend that he needed a job. I gave him a bigger head, a blue mask, and named him Sam. I thought he was cute.

As I wrote more posts, I drew comics with Sam attending job interviews. I sketched more ninjas and found that Sam had three younger brothers—all unemployed and broke just like him. They had left their village together to find work in the city. And they had to share a tiny apartment and take whatever jobs they could get to get by.

One of them, Chris in the green mask, started blogging about their experiences. The younger two are Red (red mask–original I know) and Mackie (orange mask), and their capacity for making trouble is endless. Naturally, being ninjas, they approach things differently. Sharp things don’t scare them, but their landlord on rent day does.

I started posting some of the comics on Instagram. A few people like them, so I think I’ll keep making more. I’ve looked into what it takes to be a syndicated cartoonist, but the rejection rates are high—even higher than trying to publish a book.

Considering my history with rejection, I doubt the ninjas will get picked up. Still, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to try.

Interestingly enough, my blog posts with the ninjas did help me get a couple of job interviews. Fingers crossed that I’ll start work soon.

Anyway, that’s a little bit about my four little broke ninjas. If you want to follow their escapades, follow me on Instagram @brokeninjascomics or visit www.brokeninjas.com. I hope to post a new comic every Tuesday—possibly more frequently once I get more drawn.

Ways You Are Hurting Your Own Creativity

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Whenever I hear someone say, “I’m not creative,” I call BS.

“But I don’t [draw, write, play a musical instrument, make red-carpet clothes out of used water bottles].”

The word “creative” isn’t limited to the arts. Everyone is creative. The medium of expressing it is just different. Some use pigment and textile. Others use food. Some use code and strategy.

Creativity does not discriminate. But you can hinder it with habits you may not have thought about before.

You’re Not Making Restful Sleep Your BFF

Working too much and not getting enough sleep? You’re only doing yourself harm, as sleep deprivation can lead to a host of health problems.

You may think you’re hustling it by riding the adrenaline of a caffeine boost or sheer force of will. But just like all living (and even non-living) systems, continued and heightened activity without rest will only lead to a system failure. Your body is a system of systems that need time to rest and reboot to operate well.

A couple years ago, I attended a writing workshop led by Delacorte Press’ Krista Marino, who has edited such books as The Maze Runner series. She mentioned that when she ran into a challenge and couldn’t figure a way around it, she noticed it helped if she stepped away from the problem for a day and slept on it. More often then not, when she came back to the same problem the next day, the answer would just suddenly “click.”

“So, I’m a big believer in naps,” she said.

Sometimes the best thing to boost your creativity is to do—wait for it—nothing. Take a short rest instead.

You Are Not Eating Enough Nourishing Food

You know the old saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”? Researchers have suggested a correlation between junk food and kids’ lower scores in math, science, and reading.

It logically follows that the same goes for adults. If you’re taking in food that is void of the nutrients that your body needs to work, then (surprise) your body—including your brain—won’t function optimally. Your creativity will suffer as the lack of nutrients makes your body go into survival mode.

So, the solution is to eat better, right? But how?

Everyone has different requirements. You can check with a trusted nutritional counselor, but solutions don’t have to be drastic or huge, depending on your current state of health.

A pretty common sense start can be to cut out a serving of junk food (like a dessert or chips) each day and replace it with a serving of a healthier alternative (like a piece of fruit or some lightly salted nuts). Do it for a week, and if you like how you feel, swap out something else.

Small and manageable victories are better than going all out and risking withdrawal symptoms that would just lead back to problematic habits.

Your Space Is Sucking the Inspiration Out of the Air

Research has suggested that bland architecture can have a negative affect on the health of humans, including increased stress levels.

Is it any wonder why some of the best companies to work for have really interesting office designs? Headquarters like Google’s and Intuit‘s popularly sport unique and inspiring spaces designed for cultivating creative thinking.

Take a look at your space. Is it boring to you? Maybe something as simple as adding an interesting piece of wall art, opening a window, or cleaning out clutter will help make your space more welcoming to creative thought.

You Are Working in a Bubble

I do a lot of writing, so I understand needing quiet (or the white nose at a café or hotel lounge) to concentrate on the physical work of getting the words onto the page. But as I mentioned before, creativity does not turn off. It’s always on, gathering experiences and working out problems in the back of my mind as I go about doing non-writing things.

Last year, I spent five weeks in the UK, France, and Italy. I did a few touristy things, but most days I spent simply walking around and watching people. I snapped a lot of pictures and jotted down some notes of what I thought about the things I saw and how they made me feel.

Everything I absorbed in those five weeks may not materialize into any future projects. But some of it might. One thing that’s for sure is that I wouldn’t have had those experiences at all if I’d stayed locked up in my house with just the Internet as my window to the outer world.

You don’t have to fly across the ocean to get out of a bubble. Even just going for a jog in the park or having coffee with a friend can be enough. If you’re under deadline, then yes, shutting the door and turning off the phone until the task is done is effective. But the inspiration that builds creativity muscles lives out in the wild, and you have to be willing to get off your duff and find it.

You Are Being Too Harsh on Yourself and Your Work

“Art is never finished, only abandoned” is a popular quote of unclear origin (sometimes it’s attributed to Pablo Picasso and sometimes to Leonardo Da Vinci). Regardless of who said it, it’s a good one to remember.

If you do any type of creative work, then you know that your work is never actually finished. You can tweak and edit and redo a piece to death and it will never be exactly perfect.

And that’s okay.

At some point, you’ll either hit a deadline or a dead end, and you will have to let that project go. No, it will never be perfect. Nothing you ever do will be perfect. But if it gets the message across clearly and it does it with flair, then you’ve done your job. Time to turn your creative energy to something new.

Ten Things I Would Tell My Graduating Self

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Graduation season is underway, and a new crop of former college seniors are about to learn that being an adult is a lot harder than it looks.

Just over a decade has passed since I made it out of my university with a newly minted diploma in hand. Since hindsight is 20/20, here are ten things I’d tell my graduating self if I could:

1. “Ditch the ten-year plan.”

You were an ambitious little snot with the best of intentions. But you expended too much energy in working hard, rather than being more strategic by working well. It’s great to have goals and some direction. But just go in understanding that if things don’t work out how you expect, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means the beginning of a new one.

2. “Take a gap year to go abroad.”

I know, you had just graduated with college debt up to your ears. You were anxious about taking any job so that you could start paying those bills. You did what you had to do.

But if it had been possible, I would’ve recommended a gap year abroad. I don’t know if it would’ve made you more hirable, but it definitely would’ve cured some of that wanderlust. Maybe getting a glimpse at how much bigger the world was would’ve helped with some of that anxiety as well.

3. “Have faith in people, but don’t be surprised if they disappoint you.”

People are human, so their capacity for doing stupid things is limitless. Don’t hold it against them. It’s not worth it. There will be times you’ll need to find some grace, too.

4. “Don’t buy the first iPhone.”

5. “Or the first 3-D printer.”

6. “Beware of the entitlement ladder.”

In his book Start. author Jon Acuff warns of the entitlement ladder. It’s a short cut that you think will get you to where you want to go, but it only leads to disappointment. Surer foundations for your career (and life in general) only come with experience and are tempered by time.

7. “Be patient.”

Especially with yourself. Things are not going to work out as planned, and you’re going to make some mistakes. It’s okay. Learn, grow, and roll with it. You’ll have a much better time than beating yourself up over what could have been.

8. “Sleep well.”

Unlike what others may say, losing sleep is not sexy. It’s unhealthy, and your body was not designed to go without restful sleep for long. The deadlines aren’t going anywhere. Get the rest you need, and your work will not suffer for it.

9. “In 2015, Dad will find out he has cancer.”

In 2016, he’ll get the official report that he’s cancer-free.

10. “Go through the fear.”

Acuff called it “awesome.” C.S. Lewis called it “joy.” Whatever it is to you, there’s usually a nasty chunk of fear standing between you and it. Don’t be afraid to go through the fear and get what belongs to you.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ Shows You How to Kill Your Team’s Morale

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m usually behind when it comes to movies—except when it involves the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: Civil War has raked in nearly one billion dollars since its release on May 6.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go. It definitely makes up for Age of Ultron’s lackluster storytelling. Hats off to the Brothers Russo, who had also helmed the second movie in the Captain America trilogy, Winter Soldier. I can’t wait to see what they do with The Avengers: Infinity War. (Although, I admit to rolling my eyes at the fact that it’s following in the steps of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games by splitting the last movie into two.)

Besides just being awesome, I love the fact that Civil War highlights the detriment that division has on a team. They’re a crew of fictional superheroes, but the same can apply to any group—including a business segment.

Here are a few ways Civil War shows you how to kill your own team’s morale.

NOTE: Spoilers!

Letting Ego Take the Pilot’s Seat

It was clear from the first Avengers that tension between these strong-willed (and just plain strong) characters would be an ever-present theme throughout these movies. Civil War, as the title and trailers suggest, elevates that tension to a whole new level.

Like the Avengers, you want your business to be awesome. That means on-boarding amazingly talented individuals. Some team members may have the best of intentions, but if they refuse to work together, things will eventually fall apart.

Great leaders need to read the people on their teams so that they can best address unhealthy tension before it becomes a bigger problem.

Handling Mistakes Out of Fear

In the first few minutes of Civil War, Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen), makes a massive mistake. No one takes it harder than she.

Captain America/Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) acknowledges her good intentions (as well as his fault for hesitating to take out Crossbones). He also sympathizes, since their line of work is dangerous and always presents the possibility of collateral damage. Basically, he tells her to not beat herself up anymore.

Iron Man/Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) doesn’t see it the same way. While he also understands Wanda’s intentions, he views her as a danger to herself and others. So, in a way, he puts her under house arrest.

One can argue that Cap is being too lenient and Stark is being too harsh. The point is that she made a mistake and she can either be punished for it or grow stronger from it. If she were not remorseful, Stark’s methods would make more sense. Since she was, however, I’d have to side with Cap on that one.

Mistakes are bound to happen. With some, the damage is worse than others. Handling them out of fear rather than respect is a surefire way to kill your team’s morale and post a giant “Do Not Enter” sign for any future creative energy.

Telling Lies and Twisting Truths

Speaking of mistakes, no one has screwed up more than Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan). He makes Wanda’s slip-up look like child’s play.

Joe and Anthony Russo (and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) did an amazing job developing Bucky into perhaps the most tragic of all the characters in Civil War. And it takes only a few lies and twisted truths surrounding his past activities to divide a Marvel universe.

A recent Forbes column by David K. Williams highlights the costs that “mean” people can wreak on an organization. “Mean people, or individuals who engage in ‘workplace violence,’ are perpetrators of physical, mental, or emotional abuse, bullying, or threatening behavior,” he wrote.

I knew a company that had a mean individual. Some of his colleagues likened him to Sheldon Cooper, the sociopathic character from The Big Bang Theory and portrayed by Jim Parsons. And just like Sheldon, he talked down to scientists who held only Master’s degrees as opposed to Ph.Ds. (Heaven forbid you should only have a Bachelor’s.)

Mean people like Sheldon tell lies and twist truths, like about Bucky’s past, to manipulate others into turning against each other. It’s stupid, it’s costly, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

Micromanaging the Fire Out Of People

Micromanagement is rooted in fear and distrust. While Elon Musk famously micromanages his companies to astronomical success (no pun intended—okay, maybe a little), in most work environments, it’s a fast way to kill creativity and increase stress.

On movies like Civil War, the geek in me seeks out behind-the-scenes peeks and cast and crew interviews online. After watching a few with some of the actors, including Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Sebastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen, and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), it seems that the Russos were not micromanagers when it came to their performances.

I don’t know if they were more like that in other aspects of moviemaking. But at least from the people whose faces we see on the screen, I didn’t get the sense that their directors were also dictators.

If you’ve hired amazing talent, then chances are you don’t really need to look over their shoulders with a yardstick in one hand and a cattle prod in the other. The actors in Civil War don’t seem the type to trade mediocre performances for a paycheck. They seem passionate about, and highly trained in, their craft. The Russos just gave them the environment that would naturally draw out those performances.

As a leader, you really just need to give your team the tools, the space, and the trust to take an assignment and let them unleash their own creative energy. Healthy teams will keep each other in the know and make adjustments as needed.

The freedom to do an awesome job transcends industries. Most people will work hard and work well if they are allowed to do so. In fostering division, however, no one wins.

And with that, I will leave you with the last doughnut.

Writing Badly May Help You Write Better

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“Move fast and break things,” is a popular Mark Zuckerberg quote. It makes perfect sense to developers, many of whom have probably coded since they were in utero. Breaking things is characteristic of the young and limitless, which is how we end up with things like Facebook.

But that approach doesn’t have to be limited to software development or the marketing of such. Moving fast and breaking things in the creative arena, such as writing, is also important. (It’s just not considered sexy.)

Since branding is a big issue, you should never publish your bad writing unless you want to actually be known (and quickly forgotten) for it (think William Hung). But if your aim is to find your voice and uncover your best work, here are a few ways intentionally writing badly can help improve your game.

Memory and Conceptualization

A recent study suggested that people who took notes by handwriting versus typing on a device were more likely to retain facts as well as conceptualize what they learned (as opposed to parroting back facts that were forgotten after a short time).

You don’t have to write by hand to write badly, but it’s not a bad idea. On a device, you can easily hit the delete button and wipe out your mistakes. On paper, you’re forced to cross it out and try again. When you’re finished, you can see all your mistakes in their blinding glory.

But having a page full of pen marks isn’t a sign that you’re doing anything wrong. You’re just training your brain to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Taking Yourself Less Seriously

Some folks take writing too seriously. So much so that they are afraid to try. Or if they do try, they don’t finish what they started. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps you wrote your first story years ago and asked a few close friends to give you some feedback. “Great!” they all said. Then, you sent it to a magazine editor or a publisher and they told you (in polite terms) that it was crap and you might benefit from taking some writing courses online or at a community college.

Your dreams of becoming the next John Grisham, J. K. Rowling, or George R. R. Martin were dashed upon the rocks of rejection. You tossed your script into the bowels of your desk. Your writing career was over before it had even started.

You need to give yourself a break.

There are a number of factors why your work wasn’t picked up. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. The vast of majority of writers, even successful ones, have received some form of rejection. They just kept moving forward.

Writing badly allows you to make mistakes and experiment with various voices and storytelling styles. You let yourself write mess that you’d never let anyone read—just to see if you can. You give yourself permission to laugh and groan at yourself. Who knows? Maybe you might learn something about yourself even you didn’t know.

Racking Up Hours

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” is widely known. While I don’t think it’s a bad guideline, it should make allowances for breaking things. Success makes the most sense in the face of failure, as inventors like Thomas Edison and James Dyson can probably attest to. Software companies popularly put out products with the anticipation that users will find and report vulnerabilities that need patches.

Even if you’re spending a lot of hours writing badly, at least you’re still writing. You’re working towards the one light bulb that doesn’t explode. You’re one step closer to the one prototype that isn’t rubbish. You’re finding your bugs and working out fixes. Those hours, days, even years are just part of the process.

Once you see how badly you can write, you might start to see things that you like. Certain turns of phrases that you particularly enjoy. A background character might be way cooler than your current hero. Staccato-like dialogue suddenly seems more appealing to you than long flowery prose (or vice versa).

Whatever they are, they’ll start coming out more and more as you practice. The next thing you know, you’ve uncovered the writing you actually like.

Freedom to Suck

There are certain pursuits in which it would be best to not move fast and break things, like eye surgery.

But sucky writing doesn’t have to affect anyone else as long as you don’t share it (see previous reference to William Hung). In fact, once you get it out of your system, you can toss it and never see it again (although your muscle memory and subconscious might hang onto it for a rainy day).

If you want to improve your writing, give yourself the freedom to suck and write something that starts with, “Once upon a time,” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” You just might be surprised at what appears on the page afterwards.