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

Headshot of Tim Nudd

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.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.