I didn’t mean to write this. I was going to stick with the topics out of the yellow envelope until I hit day 30. But this is something I had to figure out.

I started Retinart because I was done with my studies but not yet finished with my study.

I had graduated but had so much more I wanted to learn, so I thought blogging would be a good way to fill the gap I was terrified of falling into, one that has you land on a nice soft padding of stagnation.

Things went pretty well. I wrote a few things, and they were well received. Then I burnt out.

Several times.

Then life… then life happened. The most crushing moment of my own occurred and from it I never quite recovered, in a myriad of ways, but the one I want to talk about today is creativity and skillset.

I found myself putting my hand up for the most boring jobs that came into our studio. The copy+paste ads, the template filling, the dullest of the dull. I took them not because I wanted to do something easy, but because I didn’t want to do anything other than sit and listen to podcasts and music.

Whatever skill or talent or whatever I had started to dry up, stuck at a level barely above what I had when I first started my studying years prior.

I work at an in-house studio at a university. Coasting is practically in the job description. The level of expectation can be extraordinarily low. Not within the studio or from our direct bosses, but from our clients. The brand has to be stuck to, the client has to be happy, which is rarely difficult.

Here’s the kicker: While my skills became stagnant, my desire grew. I looked at the probloggers and those building their own business and thought I could easily do the same! My ego which is, let’s just say, healthy at the best of times, was doing a lot of talking, growing fatter and increasingly arrogant.

I figured that because I had written an article that had gotten over 600,000 page views, that I was something shit-hot in waiting. I figured that because I had a healthy relationship with the best design site there is, Smashing Magazine, that I could just show up and things would go well for me elsewhere, on my site, in our community.

When I started this 30 Day Writing challenge a couple people stuck their hands up and said “count me in.” This was an incredibly humbling moment, one for which I’m grateful. Les James and Paul Scrivens have been writing daily and it’s been exciting to see their thoughts develop each day. I love reading their work daily because they’re both students of their craft and that comes through.

What’s surprised me is how similar Paul and I are in terms of our goals. He’s building something from which he’s hoping to derive a portion, if not all, of his income, he’s got a previously established brand, so he’s not starting from scratch, he loves design theory and practice, and wants to share what he knows with people.

Hey, me too!

But there’s a difference, one that I couldn’t put my finger on until a couple of days ago. He’s doing what I’m doing and I foolishly thought I was merely a few months behind him. That once this 30 Day Writing thing was done, I’d start to build my own platform.

The thing I didn’t think about was skillset. He’s leagues ahead of me. I’ve seen little of his work, but I know, without a doubt, he’s got me trumped a hundred times over.

I’m behind.

Even if I were given every day for six months to develop an ebook or course or something similar, I’d still be behind. Not behind Paul as where we want our skillsets to lie are probably quite different. But I’m behind where I would have been, where I want to be.

As these thoughts shuffled around my skull, it suddenly became clear. I was trying to be a teacher. Somewhere in the mix I’d forgotten that I started Retinart and had my greatest luck with it when I was doing what students do best – following their curiosities.

I looked at the probloggers, I looked at people doing amazing things, I looked at the writers in our community and thought of each of them as teachers. They know their shit in ways I couldn’t imagine. I’ve been reading about UX lately and have never felt so humbled.

Design has always been a little bit easy for me, mostly because I find great joy in it. But this UX thing everyone’s been talking about since I’ve been gone feels so alien to me. It’s becoming easier the more I read, as I’m finding more to be excited about, but I can’t shake the feeling of being left behind.

I previously thought that with my skillset being lesser than what I wanted it to be, all I had to do was dust off the tools and I’d get back into my groove soon enough. Now I realise there are tools I’m not even familiar with that I need to first learn, then I can play, then I can write.

This is where I can be a student again. I’m not saying that I’ll necessarily be focusing on UX or any other topic that feels new to me. I’m saying I’ll be a student again, and follow my curiosity where it wanders.

The articles that did best for me (The Secret Law of Page Harmony, the National Geographic deconstruction are probably my proudest two moments) are the ones in which I’m a student exploring a curiosity.

It’s a subtle shift, especially from the outside looking in, but for me this feels like I’ve finally found home after living in a hotel for 5 years.

Being a student is relatable and charming and endearing. The blogs I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones in which there’s no feel of a teacher giving out a lesson – they’re the ones in which it felt like, at most, it was a friend showing you something cool they’d found.

Many years ago, when I first started blogging there was one guy who was a student. His skills weren’t amazing (they are now), and his writing nothing particularly original (it got better, fast. No, it got great, fast). I was jealous of him at the time. He had found an incredible success at incredible speed.

And he was a student. It helped he was a nice guy, who was relatable, and always honest. But he was a student, and he showed his work as he went, giving advice where he could, but always trying and pushing. Every project he’d put up, you could see the mistakes he now knew how to correct for from the previous project.

More recently there’s been Pat Flynn. Pat is a problogger I’ve been following for a few years and he’s someone you can’t help but love. And my god does he make bank.

There are a lot of probloggers and marketers out there who try to teach you how to do things and, at best, most of them come off as assholes. But not Pat. I look at what he writes and he’s never once presented himself as the priest to whom we could trust our souls. He’s always been the buddy.

He’s trying to figure these things out, too, and as he does, he shares what he finds. Sometimes he’s wrong, and makes mistakes, but he always comes back and corrects. But as he’s grown he’s made less mistakes. Now his writing feels somewhere between Teacher and Student. Someone incredibly knowledgeable, but humble and curious all the same. He’s learned, quickly. He’s been playing the student enough that it’s worked for him as it’s kept his curiosity alive.

Pat calls himself the crash test dummy for online marketing and problogging.

I love that. Why couldn’t I do that?

Why couldn’t I be the crash test dummy for design? Why couldn’t I explore work that excites me, deconstruct it to understand its inner workings, and then bring it back together in my own way, for my own needs? It might work, it might not, but that doesn’t really matter a great deal – what matters is keeping my curiosity well fueled, applying what works, correcting for what doesn’t, and working, working, working.

Being a student will teach me to look, then to see, then to understand. I can look at how creative things come about, I can see how creative habits work, I can look at techniques and practicals – how things work, then how to make them work for me, for you.

(I’m also hoping that it’ll destroy an ego I’m often embarrassed by, one which is always ready to explain, rarely happy to ask questions. When you’re a student it’s not hard to see everyone as a teacher from whom a great deal can be learnt.)

Everyone wants their skills to develop, at least those who haven’t fallen into that awful pit I’ve been in for too long. Being honest has always worked for me.

My skills stopped developing how I wanted them to and that kills me. It breaks me down into pieces. I’ve been brought to pain and anguish and tears because I’d lost something I had held onto so dearly.

Being a student allows me to focus, unabashedly, on the skills that I suck at and develop them, sharing that process as I go.

And being a student means I’m telling a story. It’s not a constant stop/start/stop/start as I egotistically bestow upon you mere mortals my teachings. I’ll be working through things as I find something interesting and point at it, then pull it apart and point at what I find, and then try to bring those pieces into my own work and point at those, too.

Within many of the articles online there are stories, because we’ve known for a long time that this is how information is best conveyed – our attention naturally attaches itself to stories. The joy of blogs is that we can do this over years, and we can invite others into the stories, allowing them to tell their own or to change the course of the ones we slowly build as content authors.

For now I’ll keep writing, but when my thirty days is up I’ll start to study, and tell more stories that I hope an audience will want to attach themselves to. I’ll actively hunt out story tellers, talk to them, trade advice.

What will Retinart look like, in terms of content? I’m not sure yet, but I think the process might be something like this:

  • Find a topic I’m interested in. Perhaps a piece of theory, or a finished work that I find beautiful.
  • Deconstruct it to its essential parts and see how it works. Why this typeface? Why does it work better than another? Why this color next to that color? What if we changed them?
  • Reconstruct it for the web. Editorial design gets my engine going, and I want to see how I could apply what I find exciting in that medium, onto the web. (Of course, it won’t just be editorial design, and it won’t just be websites, but it gives an idea of what I want to do).
  • Review the reconstruction. Was it helpful? Did it work? Did it help me reach my goals? Does it work as well as the original? Or better? Or worse?
  • More than anything else though, I’ll be pointing at stuff that’s beautiful and interesting and clever.

All of the above might happen in a single article in barely a couple hundred words, or I might find a vein so rich that’ll pull a dozen articles weighing two thousand words each from a single curiosity.

That’s just the few thoughts kicking around in my head. There will be more, and it’ll change over time. And I’ll still write other pieces – I do love the kind of writing I’ve been doing daily, but perhaps that’ll be done weekly, in a kind of ‘column’ I might have.

So at one end of the line there will be the punchier, opinion like pieces I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks, and at the other end there will be the articles I want to do that will be features. Almost like mini-sites, perhaps several thousand words each, with a unique design tailored for the piece, and if I can, perhaps even some sponsorship.

And there’ll be something in the middle. This’ll be the bulk of the writing done here. It’ll be similar to Farnham Street, and Smashing Magazine – little love letters to my curiosity, with lessons I’ve learned and a whole lot of pointing.

So rather than hide the fact that my skills aren’t where I wish they were, I’m going to celebrate it. Instead of pretending I know something everyone else is ignorant of, I’m going to look at my own ignorance, then point at what might be of enlightenment.

And what of all that problogger stuff? The desire I have to make a living doing this full time? It’s still there. It’s not going away. I’m desperate to show my son that he can do whatever he wishes as long as he works hard.

For me, a life worth living is one in which you never stop being the student. A student who shares what is found with the group of people you’re surrounded by.