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.

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.

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