Ignore everybody, and 39 other keys to creativity

In 1977 a creative named Hugh MacLeod went to Manhattan to take a 10-day advertising gig. He stayed at the Y, and at night went to bars and watched other people. At the bar, just for something to do, he started doodling on the backs of business cards.


And he kept going out, and he kept drawing. A few years later, by the time the internet was hooked into most homes, he had amassed quite a collection of these consistently framed and composed drawings. So he started a blog, naming it Gaping Void, and he began posting his work.


Fast forward just a bit. By the time, in 2009, that he published this book, he had more than two million unique monthly visitors to that site, which featured only his often dark and occasionally surrealistic drawings. And by then more than one million people had downloaded a manifesto he had written called “How to be Creative”.

This book is a 2.0 version of that document. It’s as fun and inspiring as his drawings are.


McLeod’s philosophy of creativity, and of life is: don’t rush. Slow and steady wins the race. His objective is not to win any race to any definition of the top, it is simply to set himself up so that he’s in charge. When he started drawing his doodles, most of his friends thought they were cute, but had zero idea what commercial value they had. (Chapter 4: Good ideas have lonely childhoods.) He didn’t care. His interest wasn’t in being a professional cartoonist. “I’d just be chained to a drawing table at home all day, scribbling out a living in silence.” His interest was in developing his own, unique vision.


“Simply put, my method allows me to pace myself over the long haul, which is critical. Stamina is utterly important. And stamina is only possible if it is managed well. People think that all they need to do is endure one crazy, intense, job-free creative burst and their dreams will come true. They are wrong, they are stupidly wrong.” (Chapter 3: Put the hours in.)


This book is a slow and relaxed walk with a really bright observer. He’s also really practical, making direct connections between artistic and financial freedoms. He points to how his various day jobs in advertising and marketing have provided him the liberty to pursue his creative interests. “Don’t quit your day job,” he says. “Keeping one foot in the ‘real world’ makes everything far more manageable for me. The fact that I have another income means that I don’t feel pressured to do something market-friendly.”


He does an admirable job of avoiding sentiments better suited to a Hallmark store. Chapter 20: Sing in your own voice, is about as close as he gets to that edge. Others, like Chapter 23: Nobody cares. Do it for yourself, are as relevant for a twenty-something just starting on the trail as they are for an elder finally finding his or her real gift.

He closes with a neat summary, Chapter 40: None of this is rocket science. “If I had to condense this entire book into a line or two, it would read somethings like, “Work hard. Keep at it. Live simply and quietly. Stay positive. Create your own luck. Be nice. Be polite.”

And, of course, the story doesn’t end there. For one, he’s moved what he ended up calling his ‘Hugh Cards’ to Instagram. Today, when you link to gapingvoid.com his funky and fine-to-use-the-f-word ethic has been transformed into a “culture design group” that “helps create more engaged organizations that consistently outperform their competitors, by designing a better and more meaningful culture.” Hugh is listed as one of two co-founders, and the artistic director. Yet, judging from the drawings featured on the new Gaping Void, his latest endeavor is more prone to stoop to Hallmark-level schmaltz. Clearly there are more chapters between this updated version of “How to be Creative” and the current version of the Hugh MacLeod story. I hope he keeps sharing. His voice is clear and refreshing.

In the meantime, this 2009 check-in has earned a place on my “remind myself” bookshelf. It’s a book of learnings and teachings that I want to read more than once.

Chapter 28: The best way to get approval is not to need it.

Ignore everybody, and 39 other keys to creativity
by Hugh MacLeod
2009, 176 Pages

Available from Amazon

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