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Distracted by Art

This week I asked a group of writers and artists about their biggest distractions — the thing keeping them from working on their craft. I called these distractions “cave trolls” because they stand between the artist and their creative vision. Again and again, I heard about the distraction of the internet, and of how hard it can be to focus one’s attention when life is so busy.

So today, I want to talk about distraction. But I want to share an inspiring example of one person who is able to:

  1. Manage distraction.
  2. While also earning a full-time living as an artist.

That person is Marc Johns, who creates “whimsical drawings filled with dry wit and humor.” Here are some of Marc’s drawings:

Marc Johns art

Oh, and this is Marc:

Now, I want to repeat something: Marc earns a full-time living for him and his family (wife and kids) through these drawings. That’s amazing, right?! Maybe you are thinking that he is one those people where this is “easy.” Unfortunately for Marc, it isn’t easy. He and I had a long conversation (you can listen to it here on iTunes, or stream it below), and he told me that:

  • He tries to have a weekly work process, but it always gets derailed by family or other opportunities.
  • He feels he is lousy at marketing.
  • He goes through dry spells in terms of sales.
  • He works from home and he says, “To be honest, it’s not ideal.” He doesn’t have the space or privacy that he needs.
  • He doesn’t think much about marketing, just sharing.
  • He can rarely tell what will work in terms of an illustation that will resonate with people. He shares different things, and he is sometimes shocked to see what people love. His conclusion: “I don’t know if you can have a strategy; you just have to be open to trying things. You don’t get to decide what works or doesn’t, they do.”

What Marc shares here is the reality of what it means to be a creative professional.

So, with all of this, how does Marc magically manage distractions? You are going to love this. It is a tool that all of us have access to. It is not only affordable, it is free. It’s called:

Not having a smartphone.

You can do this too! Walk to your trash can, put your smart phone in it, and walk away. Goodbye distraction!

Marc has never owned a smartphone. When I interviewed him, it was actually awhile back, and since then I see he joined Instagram, which REQUIRES a smartphone, or so I thought. I emailed him asking if he finally got one — he replied that he hadn’t. Instead, he bought an iPod Touch that allows him to use Instagram. He is diligent about turning off notifications.

So for Marc’s work, how does not having a smartphone benefit him?

Instead of being distracted by email or social media or texting, Marc says he is “distracted by art.” When he goes to a library or coffee shop, he doesn’t bring a smartphone and doesn’t bring a computer. He brings sketchbooks. Not only does he say that it focuses him on his drawings, but it also makes him more receptive to possible ideas throughout his day.

I understand what he means. Yesterday I was walking out of a restaurant, and the woman walking in walked in looking at her smartphone. The people on line were looking at their smartphones. The people eating were looking at their smartphone.

What Marc is doing is experiencing his day in a way that allows him to capture interesting new ideas. Being present in the world around him creates “space” in his mind to be receptive to ideas that will become art.

Now, is the smartphone the only thing that distracts people? Nope. But I find that it does come up a lot with the creative professionals I speak to. It also makes a larger point: distraction can be within your control, but it may require you to make polarizing decisions.

For instance: I don’t travel. Period. Travel stresses me out, distracts me, and quite frankly, I like being home with my family every single day. So I have a rule: no travel. But that has also effected my career in a profound way. I love public speaking, but can’t actively pursue that as a part of my career because I won’t travel to Portland or Austin or Charleston or many other wonderful places. Likewise, I can’t really take on many corporate clients because they would want a fair amount of in-person meetings with me. Again, travel and being away from family would be a core part of that. I choose not to do it, and over the last 7 years, that has cost me a ton of potential revenue and opportunity. But… that same decision has removed distraction and given me clarity to double-down on my creative work.

In my conversation with Marc, he shared his process for marketing his work and engaging in social media. If I had to whittle it down to one phrase, it would be this: be a human being. What Marc does:

  • He posts regularly on social media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • He answers questions on social media. He likes engagement and conversation, because it is about meaning.
  • He pays attention to the art that people respond to, and brings that back into his new work.

So instead of viewing social media as a distraction, he uses it as a way to develop his art and connect with his fans.

You can listen to my full interview with Marc here:

One more thing: I have to include this wonderful quote from Marc about how all of this is possible for him:

“My wife is one of my secret weapons. I couldn’t do any of this without her.”

You can find Marc in the following places:

For your work, what distractions — what “cave trolls” — stand in your way?

  • Dan, your interview with Marc reminds me of an older book I just completed by Cal Newport – Deep Work. You probably already know this, but he is totally against the distraction that smartphones and a lot of other modern technological amenities dangle in front of us. In fact, he thinks we should quit social media altogether, though when you read the chapter, you realize he isn’t providing a panacea approach there (e.g., you can take each site case by case and truly reflect on whether/how it contributes to meaningful work for you). I’m loving that so much of what I’ve read and learned lately has me thinking about what I can do to eliminate unnecessary distractions for my writing. I have done little things, and I’ve already noticed a huge difference in my work and productivity!

    • Such a great process to go through! Thanks!

  • I tell people while I’m smart, my phone isn’t. It could probably pass a 6th grade
    math test. I’ve never felt the need to have the latest in technological gadgets.
    Such things simply don’t impress me. I didn’t get my first personal computer until 2000 and my first cell phone until the following year. I have a laptop, which I use strictly for business purposes. And that would be if I was traveling and/or
    away from my desktop. (It’s still sitting in a box and probably needs to have the security on it updated.) Yes, I still have a desktop computer. And yes, it’s my primary p.c. I don’t have Internet access on my phone because…see above.

    About a year after I got that first computer, a friend asked if it made my writing easier. “It makes the mechanics of it easier,” I told him. “But the actual writing is still difficult.” He didn’t understand at first.

    I’m impressed by people who can accomplish things with or without the aid of machinery or computers. I’m impressed with intellectual capacity and ambition. That includes those who write and publish a book or even a short story. So-called AI may assist humanity in our continuing voyage forward. But actual human ingenuity must always be the greatest inspirational factor.

    • Dani Shapiro has this great line about those who write their books on a computer. That this tool we use to create is also the tool that offers wild distraction! Thanks.

      • We all can get distracted by anything. Creative types usually get
        bored easily. That’s how it was with me, which is why I often did poorly in school. I’m smart, but I get bored quickly. Thus, I would daydream a lot – a constant complaint from other people. Still, any major project – whether work-related or personal – requires deep concentration. That goes back to discipline. People need to focus on the task before them, regardless of what’s going on elsewhere. Yes, sometimes it’s difficult. But obviously, it must be done!

        • True. When I interviewed Elise Blaha Cripe, she mentioned that one of the most common questions people ask her is, “Elise, I have so many ideas, how do I know which one to pick?” And she tells them (something like): “It doesn’t matter which you pick. Pick one and do it.”