Can This One Short Book About Creativity Help You Be Happier at Work, and in Life?

Adam J. Kurtz explains Things Are What You Make of Them

Adam J. Kurtz wants you to feel better. About yourself. About the world. About the creative process, which, if you’re anything like him, you’re well aware can stomp on your dreams and grind your optimism down until you’re an unproductive mix of insecurity and self-doubt.

But there is help. It comes in the form of the author-illustrator-ex-adman‘s third book, the upcoming Things Are What You Make of Them, which takes Kurtz’s familiar product—a mix of art and therapy—and distills it down to 144 pages of funny, wry, straightforward advice for young people about how to navigate the world as a creative employee and creative person (or any person, really).

Adam J. Kurtz
Photo: Daniel Seung Lee

The diminutive, nicely designed book offers Kurtz’s life lessons on topics big (“How to Be Happier”) and not-quite-as-big (“How to Stay Sane When You Work From Home”) across handwritten pages that serve as mini self-help essays that will hopefully get you on the way toward accomplishing the great artistic feats you believe you’re capable of—but sometimes feel out of reach.

Adweek spoke with the former Barton F. Graf designer and BuzzFeed social web artist about the new book, whether creative people are really more insecure than other people, and how he offers good advice without veering into cliché.

Adweek: Your previous books, 1 Page at a Time and Pick Me Up, both served as journals, where the reader was encouraged to sketch on the pages. This is more straight-up advice. Why go in this direction?
Adam J. Kurtz: I think all three books, and the majority of my work, exist in the same world of self-care art therapy—but also dissecting the creative process. The first books are interactive journals. 1 Page at a Time was really literal—you do it one page at a time to get you through a year. And then you look back and you’re like, “Holy shit, I wrote a really thick book.” Pick Me Up wasn’t meant to be a sequel, necessarily. It was actually sort of the opposite, where you slowly build on pages, coming back to the same pages, adding a little bit more. As opposed to a linear journey, it was meant to replicate how our brains actually work, where we cycle on ourselves, where we give good advice and then forget it when we need it later. Both books are meant to be really blunt metaphors for elements of being human.

When I put out the first book, I was working full-time at Barton F. Graf. When I put out the second book, I had just left BuzzFeed. So I had worked in these fast-paced, full-time creative careers—arguably, certain people’s dream jobs. And then I left to do my own thing, and figure out what that meant. The first few years of that are what Things Are What You Make of Them came from. Things I had learned about the reality of being a freelance creative, or starting a project on your own, or forming a business. I also saw what people were sharing from the first books—a lot of it was the longer-form writing. People like interacting, but sometimes you want to just not think. As opposed to giving people the pieces to find their own answers, I’ve learned a whole bunch of stuff and I love to present it in this small, sharable, fun and digestible way.

The new book is still interactive. The pages are perforated, so you can pull them out and share them physically. 
Right. I don’t think I know how to make a book that’s just a book. It’s a designed object. In the same way that the pages are designed to look like torn-out notebook pages, I liked the idea that the reader could tear out the actual pages too and share them. There’s always a meta layer there.

What does the title of the book mean to you?
It’s something that’s been kicking around in my head for as long as I’ve made anything. I think it’s two parts. It speaks to the fear of creating new things, where we see a finished product and we think, “Oh, I could never do that.” And when you realize things are just the sum of their parts, it gets a lot easier. Like when you consider that a book is just a bunch of paper. Anyone can write one page. Do that 200 times, and you have a book.

But also, Things Are What You Make of Them is optimistic, but it’s not pure optimism. It’s this realistic notion that every situation has a positive element and a negative element. And you can turn something shitty into something great if you find a lesson in it. Or you can seek out the one positive out of every negative. In that sense, Things Are What You Make of Them is more about our mental perception of difficult situations. This book is targeted to creatives, it’s presented in the context of creative entrepreneurship, but it’s really just a book for any person who’s alive. So many of these things are universal truths and universal struggles that we have. Fear of failure, striving for happiness. Those are not limited to artists or writers or art directors.

The book does deal a lot with fears and insecurities. Are creative people more susceptible to negativity than other people?
I think so, just because of the nature of creative professions. There are some professions where your job is to come in and do your job in the way it needs to be done. There a way to do it, and you follow the steps. In most creative roles, we’re walking into problems that are entirely new, and looking for solutions that maybe have never existed either. Every step of the way, we are leaning into our emotional intelligence. We’re having these ideas and finding these solutions that are intrinsically very personal. Every time you make something, you’re opening yourself up for criticism or rejection that cuts deep, because these solutions come from the very core of who we are. I think in that way, being a creative is to be vulnerable, whether it’s creating a TV spot that flops or writing a book that critics call trash.

The other thing that I think leads to a lot of torture—and I think creatives are tortured—is that if you’re a creative person, you see the beauty in the world. And it kills you, because you want to be able to make something like that. You want to create work that evokes that emotion, but we don’t always know how. You’re good enough to know that you’re not that good, but you don’t know how to get there yet. That’s the constant creative struggle. If you’re at the beginning of your career, you don’t know how to make that work that you’ll make at the end of your career. You’ll never be as good as what you know you could eventually be.

You spent time at Barton F. Graf. How much of what’s in this book did you learn from working in the ad business?
I don’t know if there are specific lessons. I will say that Barton F. Graf was this amazing opportunity to learn from industry greats, and to really experience what it’s like when a bunch of great minds are all in a room together. Seemingly spitballing. Like, a joke comes out of nowhere—obviously not out of nowhere, those people are geniuses—but a joke happens. Six months later, that joke is a billboard. Seeing that happen in an organic way, and seeing people who have dedicated their careers to that—to tapping into a very specific kind of humanity, to have this understanding of what sticks, and what has value, and what has a wide range of appeal. It was really just fascinating. I fell into advertising by mistake. I had no idea what Barton F. Graf was. I had never heard of Gerry Graf. Obviously I knew his work without knowing that I knew it. I was just looking for a design gig.

There are 13 chapters in the book. Was that a lucky coincidence?
At first I didn’t realize it was 13, and that it might be superstitious for some people. Although, as a Jewish person—I was bar mitzvahed. Maybe this book is just me becoming a man again! But actually, it had a lot to do with just the standard page counts, where 144 pages is one of the standards. One thing I always think about when I make anything is the end product. How do we create something that feasible, that’s affordable? The cover price of this book is $1 less than my other two books. It seems arbitrary, but the way Amazon does their discounting, I knew this book would be under $10 on Amazon if we made the cover price $14. And so I really fought for that $1 difference. I want young people to be able to afford it.

We started at 144 pages and a 4-by-6 trim size. I started there and worked backwards. How much of this can I put in here? What can I do within those limitations? That’s very much the ethos of Things Are What You Make of Them. Everything is the sum of its parts. If you have this idea of what you want to make, you can break that up and work backwards to accomplish a goal. And the fact that it’s full-color at a $14 cover price is mind-blowing. I don’t know how Penguin did that.

How do navigate the line between offering helpful advice without veering into cliché?
That is a really interesting dynamic, and a really fine line to straddle. Something that was really important to me with this book, and with all my work, is to not be creating a book of expert advice. Yes, this is my third book with Penguin Random House. Yes, I have six successful Kickstarter accounts. And I’ve got brand collaborations. Objectively, I have accomplished a lot in a little bit of time. But I’m not an expert. I’m not better than anyone. And it’s very important that this book feel like, one, that these are just my own notebook pages, and two, it’s very much inclusive. I talk about we all the time instead of you. And I think that makes a difference. If you want a book of expert advice for entrepreneurs, that book exists. The world does not need that from me.

It was really important to think about, What can I add to the conversation? How would someone who thinks the way I do about their professional life, their personal life, how would I reach that person? And the answer is by being open and inviting, but also self-deprecating. By countering pure optimism with sarcasm. There’s cursing in this book, although it is scribbled out. Whenever I say anything that’s too saccharine, I sort of cut it with the work fuck or shit. Just to bring us back to reality. That’s also why it’s handwritten in my shitty pencil handwriting. There’s only so much you can say in a beautifully typeset, inspiration meme. There’s so much of that on Instagram. I don’t want to be that. I think if it’s too perfect, it’s patronizing.

Do you have a favorite chapter, or a favorite page of the book?
One of my absolute favorite pages is the first page in “8 Things Every Creative Should Know.” That’s the only chapter that has that really clickbaity title. It starts out with “It’s Magical, Not Magic.” People say to me all the time, “You’re so creative, I could never do that.” I hate that people think creativity is something you’re born with, and that some people just can’t have it.

There are people who tap into their creativity more often because it’s their full-time job. But if you put on an outfit in the morning, or you make a sandwich, you’re using creative problem solving to tackle a task. I hate the idea that people think it’s this magic juice that they don’t have. It is magical, but it is not magic. It’s accessible to anyone with some thought, some time and some hard work.

“How to Be Happier” is an ambitious section.
That’s an interesting chapter, too. That’s on my Tumblr. I posted that about a year ago, and that’s been reblogged like 150,000 times. It gets reposted all over the internet. That’s a really good example of something that occurs a lot in my work, where I’m really just reiterating common-sense advice. There’s a page in that chapter that just tells you to go outside and get some vitamin D. I’m not the inventor of “Walk on the sunny side of the street.” But having it all right there, staring you in the face, can really help. Reminding people to be content with what they have—that’s just important. And when you see it all together, it just reminds you of what you already know.

So, you’re not opposed to repackaging or restating things that have been said many times before.
That chapter in particular, it’s just about the presentation. And I can’t tell you how many people have reached out and said, “Wow, this really helped.” And I’m just sitting there, like, yeah, it helped me too. One thing about my work is that it comes from a place of internal struggle. I’m just not always a happy person, and I think it’s important to be open about that, especially in this world of Instagram inspiration and everyone pretending they’re perfect, and it’s just fucking exhausting.

Fear and insecurity is also a potent topic nowadays, with the political life that we’re experiencing.
Absolutely. I’ll be honest, that’s why this book has a rainbow cover, the chapters are in rainbow order. Penguin is donating $1 per pre-order to the Tegan and Sara Foundation, who support and fight for LGBTQ women. I’m an openly queer person navigating a creative space. It’s never been a secret, but post-Trump, you’ve just got to shout at the top of your lungs. You need to exist as hard as you can. I’m certainly not a role model, but in this specific space that we’re in—within the creative community and the design community and the advertising-adjacent community—I thought it was time to say, “What’s up, everyone? I’m gay as hell. Let’s do this.” We have seen, post-election, that there are people who don’t want anyone not exactly like them to exist. And so the rest of us have to exist as hard as fucking possible.