Interview with Danny Gregory, Author of Shut Your Monkey

If you want to be creative, you need to know Danny Gregory. This real-life superhero has dedicated his life to inspiring creativity and helping others tell their stories via several books, online communities and Sketchbook Skool, “a video-based art school designed to inspire creative storytelling through illustrated journaling.” SuperheroYou sat down to talk with Gregory about his latest creative venture: his new book Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write Shut Your Monkey?

Danny Gregory: Well, I wrote Shut Your Monkey because I couldn’t find it in the bookstore. I couldn’t find a book that was addressing this problem that I had faced and I had known a lot of other people who had faced it as well, which is: how do you deal with this little voice in your head that is getting in the way of being more successful as a creative person, taking risks, and moving my life forward, just being happy in a lot of ways. I’ve had this same voice yammering in my head for as long as I can remember, and when I would speak to other people, it seemed like they did too. So I read a few books that kind of were around the topic, but didn’t really address it the way that I had experienced it. Also, I was interested in finding out what exactly it was, where it came from, what purpose it had, and how to deal with it and perhaps shut it. And so writing the book became an investigation, an opportunity to delve deeper into it, to understand it better and then ultimately to share with the world and continue the conversation and find out how other people feel about this issue and what are they doing about it.

SHY: Why did you call the inner critic a monkey?

DG: I think in my mind it’s a little critter that is as much like Gollum from Lord of the Rings as it is like an actual monkey. So I wasn’t really thinking about the larger meaning of the monkey as an animal, but more – that seemed to capture the way that this creature, this voice was behaving in my head. It was nervous, it was anxious, it was fast-moving. It darted in. It understood – it was a variation on me. In other words, it wasn’t like a completely different kind of animal. It was sort of like me, but a cruder, more primitive form of me in a way. So “monkey” kind of describes what it is. But my feeling is also that that’s my version. My version is the monkey. Your version might be the crotchety old lady or the stern policeman. There are lots of different forms that this creature can take in your mind but mine happens to be kind of a five-pound monkey.

SHY: How do you want people to use Shut Your Monkey different from your other books?

DG: So I’ve written a number of books and a lot of them are about the issues that kind of touch on creativity. And I think when it comes to creative people and creative inspiration, we need it on a regular basis. Particularly in a book like this new book, Shut Your Monkey, it’s not designed to be a categorical solution to your problems. It’s not going to come in and say, alright, you know, just do this and then you’re done. I feel like the way that I wrote this book was really over the course of a couple of years. I wrote it in little pieces. A lot of the raw materials of this book were written in little pieces. As I was walking down the street, I’d have an idea and I would put it into my phone and save it to Evernote. And later on, I’d have another idea and then when I sat down to write the book, there were many ideas and I arranged them together and built threads through them. And so I imagine that people will sit down, get this book, read it from cover to cover and go, “OK, that was good.” But what I would rather they did is that they just kind of kept it around. That’s why it was really important to me to do an e-book version of it, and that’s going to be coming out soon. It’s because I wanted it to be a book that you have with you. So when the monkey is agitating you in some way or another, you can dig into the book in any place and find some small idea that will make a difference. It’s full of small ideas, bite-size ideas that add up to bigger ideas. But I think that it’s important to constantly give you encouragement and support in this battle. So I see it as a book that is a companion rather than an experience that you just sit and absorb at once. I want you to be engaged with it. I want you to come up with your own thoughts. And ultimately, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to know: what did you think? What did you do? How did you deal with it? What did it do to you? What did you find that was helpful? Because I’m constantly learning too. I’m constantly uncovering more and more layers to this whole phenomenon. And I think it would be great if it was a group project for all of us to say, how can we feel more comfortable with our creativity? How can we take more risks? And how can we share our solutions with the world?

SHY: Can you elaborate on this idea that the monkey is afraid of change?

DG: Well, the monkey is this force inside of us that has been a part of being a human being for thousands and thousands of years, maybe millions of years. It’s called the amygdala. It’s the inner, most primitive part of the brain that is responsible for the fight-or-flight mechanism – that part of the brain that says, “Get out of here now,” or, “Fight back and just go crazy.” It is responsible for injecting adrenaline into our bloodstream, making us feel kind of sweaty and anxious. It’s wired right into our central nervous system. And its main function is meant to protect us – from new things that come into the environment. So if you imagine a very primitive form of human being, you know, suddenly a saber-toothed tiger comes into the area. This part of our brain makes us scamper away and hide. So this part of us has always protected us from new things we don’t understand, new things that could be a threat. And over time, it’s evolved into something that warns us about anything new. It comes along and says, that could be dangerous. That could be poisonous. Don’t go down that road; you don’t know what’s at the end of it. And in our own lives, as individuals, we also have a version of this voice that gets wired into us when we’re little. It’s when you were 3, 4, 5 years old and your mom said, “Put that down. Get down from there. Don’t run with scissors; you’ll put your eye out.” All those kinds of things that said don’t take risks. Don’t do things that could really harm you. Unfortunately, that mechanism and that part of us grows and starts to invade other parts of our lives and our experience. It starts to say to us, basically, if there’s something new going on in your environment, you should shy away from it; you shouldn’t go and take risks that could upset everything that you’ve built so far in your life. It forces us to be conservative, very reactionary, very immune to change. Fortunately, human beings are able to overcome this to some extent, because if you aren’t able to change, then it would also be trouble. That’s part of what I talk about in this book: that in our own personal lives, we may have this strong mechanism that’s saying to us, don’t take risks, don’t make change, but simultaneously, the world is changing around us.  We’re growing and evolving. New opportunities are coming up. And if you refuse to face change, if you refuse to do anything that could be in any way a risk, you’re going to end up actually being in more trouble perhaps than if you took this risk that had unknown consequences. So I think it’s a really important thing for us to understand and to analyze ourselves: how do we feel about taking risks? Are we willing to do it? What gets in the way? What are the consequences of the kinds of changes we make? And for me as a creative person in particular, creativity is about change, about newness. So, for instance, I spent 30 years in advertising. And advertising is about solving problems. It’s coming up with ideas that present a brand in a new way and respond to the things that are going on around it. So if you’re always afraid of change, if you’re always afraid of newness, well, then it’s going to be really difficult to be successful as a creative person when that’s your very job. Also, I found that when you are a creative person, you work in that realm, a lot of the people you deal with are also people who are in the midst of change and your clients, your other colleagues and so forth, everybody is living in that world of change and they have monkeys too. Those monkeys can come up and interfere with the process. So the more you can understand about it and how to deal with it, the more successful you’ll be and the happier you’ll be.

SHY: You wrote Shut Your Monkey for creative people – what does that mean exactly? Who counts as a creative person? 

DG: I think that we all have opportunities to be creative and we all are required to be creative. We may not have that as a label on our profession. In other words, you could be a designer or a filmmaker or a musician, and then you’re creative. But you could also be an engineer. You could be a doctor who has to be creative, who has to come up with new solutions, who has to face new challenges. Or you could be somebody who doesn’t have a job outside your home at all. But it’s something we’re all facing. The world is changing so dramatically. Technology is changing things. Climate change is changing things. The world is in flux and so every one of us is going to have to deal with this issue. And the more equipped we are to do it, I think the better off all of us will be collectively. I think we see that in what’s going on in politics in America right now. It’s about change and about fear of change, and you can see the reverberations and the effects that it’s having on us all.

SHY: So then is your book geared towards anybody who wants to be creative?

DG: Absolutely, yes. I think it’s really designed for everybody. I think that this monkey voice is in everybody. Every one of us has this urge to run from change, this urge to question what we’re doing, to be a perfectionist, to constantly have self-doubt. I think that’s in all of us. There’s some people who are able to deal with it better than others. I happen to think that creative people feel it the most intensely. I think that creative people also generally tend to be a bit more self-analytical. Also, that’s who I am. That’s where I come from. So I speak about what I know best. But I do think that this is something that’s relevant to everybody, particularly people who are looking at their lives and thinking, How can I have a better life? And I’m sure the people who are reading this are reading it for that very reason. Because they’re looking for new ways and better ways. And that’s really what this book is designed for.

SHY: What is the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing Shut Your Monkey?

DG: Well one thing I’ve learned is that when you write a book like this, the monkey is there sitting on your shoulder through the entire process. What I also needed to realize was that there isn’t a neat solution to this. There isn’t a click bait answer, 10 great ways to shut your inner critic, although I do offer a lot of practical solutions about how to deal with it. But I’ve realized it’s an ongoing battle in a way. I think that, in a way we need this voice. We need it on some level. We just don’t need it to get in the way and undermine what we’re trying to do. So it’s important to have it but you have to always be creative and always be responsive to make changes in your life that will allow you to deal with it in different ways. So I thought that perhaps I would offer people a definitive solution. Here it is. But then I realized the book isn’t called Kill Your Monkey; it’s called Shut Your Monkey. And that means that it’s like having this little person in your life who you occasionally have to say, ok, please be quiet, let me get on with what I’m doing. And I think that that – a more gentle approach was important. I think the other thing I realized is that one of the most important things you can do to manage your inner critic is to find out how your work is helping others besides yourself. So look at your work and say, what is the purpose of what I’m doing? And how is it helping the world? And when you do that, when you start to have an ultimate purpose that is beyond you, it gives you the perfect answer to the monkey, which is to say, yes, I agree with you. I suck and I can’t do this. However, there are people out there who need me and who I have to perform for, who I have to deliver a solution for. And therefore I can’t listen to you today. I have to get on with it. That can also make the work that you do, ennoble it, and make it more important. And so that kind of conclusion that I came to was really important. It also made me look at the work that I do and realize that ultimately, I wrote this book for me, but I also wrote it for other people to read. And so it wasn’t just about having my name on a book or whatever else, other motivations you’d have for writing a book. It was really to say I’d like to help people with this and I think that it’s important for all of us to deal with it.

SHY: Why do we need the monkey sometimes?

DG: Well, I think the monkey drives us to some extent. I think that it continues to push us, this feeling that we can do better. I think that’s important. I think that looking at your work with a critical eye can be important when it’s handled in the right way and at the right stage of your process. I think if you start evaluating your ideas as you have them, then you’ll probably be killing them before they’re born. But I think there does come a point where you want to push yourself to be raw and keep making what you do better. So there is a purpose to that. But it’s very different than just simply the raw criticism that says because it’s you it’s bad. This part of your brain can find a thousand reasons to make you doubt what you’re doing. I think that doubt has a very very limited utility, as is perfectionism.

SHY: What is the biggest mistake that people make in dealing with their inner monkeys?

DG: Well, giving into it is the biggest one. If every idea you have, if you can immediately think of why it’s bad, that’s obviously going to be very damaging. But I think you also find that a lot of people develop bad forms of behavior. You know, the monkey can give you all kinds of reasons to not do what you’re supposed to be doing. So rather than just focusing on your work and doing the best you can, the monkey can tell you that it would probably be a better idea to lie on the couch and watch TV. Or it would tell you to self-medicate in some way that would distract you. You see a lot of creative people behaving really badly. You see a lot of people who resort to drugs, to self-indulgence, to bad behavior in lots of ways. And I think that is really damaging to your life and also really limits your creativity. So in general, all the things that we do to ourselves to stop ourselves from being productive, those are the effects of the monkey. You have to start to look at how they’re connected. I think also our fear of judgment can drive us to misbehave. I’ve seen a lot of people derail their careers because they can’t take input. So, you know, a client or a boss will comment on their work, and they can’t take it. They can’t absorb input in a proper way. They see it as an attack; they see this criticism and that derails their work and their career. So there’s a lot of different parts of this. And that’s why I wrote a whole book about it. But I think that it’s a complex and rich idea.

 

Liked this? Check out our review of Shut Your Monkey, and check back tomorrow for the second half of our interview!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

 

If you want to be creative, you need to know Danny Gregory. This real-life superhero has dedicated his life to inspiring creativity and helping others tell their stories via several books, online communities and Sketchbook Skool, “a video-based art school designed to inspire creative storytelling through illustrated journaling.” SuperheroYou sat down to talk with Gregory about his latest creative venture: his new book Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write Shut Your Monkey?

Danny Gregory: Well, I wrote Shut Your Monkey because I couldn’t find it in the bookstore. I couldn’t find a book that was addressing this problem that I had faced and I had known a lot of other people who had faced it as well, which is: how do you deal with this little voice in your head that is getting in the way of being more successful as a creative person, taking risks, and moving my life forward, just being happy in a lot of ways. I’ve had this same voice yammering in my head for as long as I can remember, and when I would speak to other people, it seemed like they did too. So I read a few books that kind of were around the topic, but didn’t really address it the way that I had experienced it. Also, I was interested in finding out what exactly it was, where it came from, what purpose it had, and how to deal with it and perhaps shut it. And so writing the book became an investigation, an opportunity to delve deeper into it, to understand it better and then ultimately to share with the world and continue the conversation and find out how other people feel about this issue and what are they doing about it.

SHY: Why did you call the inner critic a monkey?

DG: I think in my mind it’s a little critter that is as much like Gollum from Lord of the Rings as it is like an actual monkey. So I wasn’t really thinking about the larger meaning of the monkey as an animal, but more – that seemed to capture the way that this creature, this voice was behaving in my head. It was nervous, it was anxious, it was fast-moving. It darted in. It understood – it was a variation on me. In other words, it wasn’t like a completely different kind of animal. It was sort of like me, but a cruder, more primitive form of me in a way. So “monkey” kind of describes what it is. But my feeling is also that that’s my version. My version is the monkey. Your version might be the crotchety old lady or the stern policeman. There are lots of different forms that this creature can take in your mind but mine happens to be kind of a five-pound monkey.

SHY: How do you want people to use Shut Your Monkey different from your other books?

DG: So I’ve written a number of books and a lot of them are about the issues that kind of touch on creativity. And I think when it comes to creative people and creative inspiration, we need it on a regular basis. Particularly in a book like this new book, Shut Your Monkey, it’s not designed to be a categorical solution to your problems. It’s not going to come in and say, alright, you know, just do this and then you’re done. I feel like the way that I wrote this book was really over the course of a couple of years. I wrote it in little pieces. A lot of the raw materials of this book were written in little pieces. As I was walking down the street, I’d have an idea and I would put it into my phone and save it to Evernote. And later on, I’d have another idea and then when I sat down to write the book, there were many ideas and I arranged them together and built threads through them. And so I imagine that people will sit down, get this book, read it from cover to cover and go, “OK, that was good.” But what I would rather they did is that they just kind of kept it around. That’s why it was really important to me to do an e-book version of it, and that’s going to be coming out soon. It’s because I wanted it to be a book that you have with you. So when the monkey is agitating you in some way or another, you can dig into the book in any place and find some small idea that will make a difference. It’s full of small ideas, bite-size ideas that add up to bigger ideas. But I think that it’s important to constantly give you encouragement and support in this battle. So I see it as a book that is a companion rather than an experience that you just sit and absorb at once. I want you to be engaged with it. I want you to come up with your own thoughts. And ultimately, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to know: what did you think? What did you do? How did you deal with it? What did it do to you? What did you find that was helpful? Because I’m constantly learning too. I’m constantly uncovering more and more layers to this whole phenomenon. And I think it would be great if it was a group project for all of us to say, how can we feel more comfortable with our creativity? How can we take more risks? And how can we share our solutions with the world?

SHY: Can you elaborate on this idea that the monkey is afraid of change?

DG: Well, the monkey is this force inside of us that has been a part of being a human being for thousands and thousands of years, maybe millions of years. It’s called the amygdala. It’s the inner, most primitive part of the brain that is responsible for the fight-or-flight mechanism – that part of the brain that says, “Get out of here now,” or, “Fight back and just go crazy.” It is responsible for injecting adrenaline into our bloodstream, making us feel kind of sweaty and anxious. It’s wired right into our central nervous system. And its main function is meant to protect us – from new things that come into the environment. So if you imagine a very primitive form of human being, you know, suddenly a saber-toothed tiger comes into the area. This part of our brain makes us scamper away and hide. So this part of us has always protected us from new things we don’t understand, new things that could be a threat. And over time, it’s evolved into something that warns us about anything new. It comes along and says, that could be dangerous. That could be poisonous. Don’t go down that road; you don’t know what’s at the end of it. And in our own lives, as individuals, we also have a version of this voice that gets wired into us when we’re little. It’s when you were 3, 4, 5 years old and your mom said, “Put that down. Get down from there. Don’t run with scissors; you’ll put your eye out.” All those kinds of things that said don’t take risks. Don’t do things that could really harm you. Unfortunately, that mechanism and that part of us grows and starts to invade other parts of our lives and our experience. It starts to say to us, basically, if there’s something new going on in your environment, you should shy away from it; you shouldn’t go and take risks that could upset everything that you’ve built so far in your life. It forces us to be conservative, very reactionary, very immune to change. Fortunately, human beings are able to overcome this to some extent, because if you aren’t able to change, then it would also be trouble. That’s part of what I talk about in this book: that in our own personal lives, we may have this strong mechanism that’s saying to us, don’t take risks, don’t make change, but simultaneously, the world is changing around us.  We’re growing and evolving. New opportunities are coming up. And if you refuse to face change, if you refuse to do anything that could be in any way a risk, you’re going to end up actually being in more trouble perhaps than if you took this risk that had unknown consequences. So I think it’s a really important thing for us to understand and to analyze ourselves: how do we feel about taking risks? Are we willing to do it? What gets in the way? What are the consequences of the kinds of changes we make? And for me as a creative person in particular, creativity is about change, about newness. So, for instance, I spent 30 years in advertising. And advertising is about solving problems. It’s coming up with ideas that present a brand in a new way and respond to the things that are going on around it. So if you’re always afraid of change, if you’re always afraid of newness, well, then it’s going to be really difficult to be successful as a creative person when that’s your very job. Also, I found that when you are a creative person, you work in that realm, a lot of the people you deal with are also people who are in the midst of change and your clients, your other colleagues and so forth, everybody is living in that world of change and they have monkeys too. Those monkeys can come up and interfere with the process. So the more you can understand about it and how to deal with it, the more successful you’ll be and the happier you’ll be.

SHY: You wrote Shut Your Monkey for creative people – what does that mean exactly? Who counts as a creative person? 

DG: I think that we all have opportunities to be creative and we all are required to be creative. We may not have that as a label on our profession. In other words, you could be a designer or a filmmaker or a musician, and then you’re creative. But you could also be an engineer. You could be a doctor who has to be creative, who has to come up with new solutions, who has to face new challenges. Or you could be somebody who doesn’t have a job outside your home at all. But it’s something we’re all facing. The world is changing so dramatically. Technology is changing things. Climate change is changing things. The world is in flux and so every one of us is going to have to deal with this issue. And the more equipped we are to do it, I think the better off all of us will be collectively. I think we see that in what’s going on in politics in America right now. It’s about change and about fear of change, and you can see the reverberations and the effects that it’s having on us all.

SHY: So then is your book geared towards anybody who wants to be creative?

DG: Absolutely, yes. I think it’s really designed for everybody. I think that this monkey voice is in everybody. Every one of us has this urge to run from change, this urge to question what we’re doing, to be a perfectionist, to constantly have self-doubt. I think that’s in all of us. There’s some people who are able to deal with it better than others. I happen to think that creative people feel it the most intensely. I think that creative people also generally tend to be a bit more self-analytical. Also, that’s who I am. That’s where I come from. So I speak about what I know best. But I do think that this is something that’s relevant to everybody, particularly people who are looking at their lives and thinking, How can I have a better life? And I’m sure the people who are reading this are reading it for that very reason. Because they’re looking for new ways and better ways. And that’s really what this book is designed for.

SHY: What is the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing Shut Your Monkey?

DG: Well one thing I’ve learned is that when you write a book like this, the monkey is there sitting on your shoulder through the entire process. What I also needed to realize was that there isn’t a neat solution to this. There isn’t a click bait answer, 10 great ways to shut your inner critic, although I do offer a lot of practical solutions about how to deal with it. But I’ve realized it’s an ongoing battle in a way. I think that, in a way we need this voice. We need it on some level. We just don’t need it to get in the way and undermine what we’re trying to do. So it’s important to have it but you have to always be creative and always be responsive to make changes in your life that will allow you to deal with it in different ways. So I thought that perhaps I would offer people a definitive solution. Here it is. But then I realized the book isn’t called Kill Your Monkey; it’s called Shut Your Monkey. And that means that it’s like having this little person in your life who you occasionally have to say, ok, please be quiet, let me get on with what I’m doing. And I think that that – a more gentle approach was important. I think the other thing I realized is that one of the most important things you can do to manage your inner critic is to find out how your work is helping others besides yourself. So look at your work and say, what is the purpose of what I’m doing? And how is it helping the world? And when you do that, when you start to have an ultimate purpose that is beyond you, it gives you the perfect answer to the monkey, which is to say, yes, I agree with you. I suck and I can’t do this. However, there are people out there who need me and who I have to perform for, who I have to deliver a solution for. And therefore I can’t listen to you today. I have to get on with it. That can also make the work that you do, ennoble it, and make it more important. And so that kind of conclusion that I came to was really important. It also made me look at the work that I do and realize that ultimately, I wrote this book for me, but I also wrote it for other people to read. And so it wasn’t just about having my name on a book or whatever else, other motivations you’d have for writing a book. It was really to say I’d like to help people with this and I think that it’s important for all of us to deal with it.

SHY: Why do we need the monkey sometimes?

DG: Well, I think the monkey drives us to some extent. I think that it continues to push us, this feeling that we can do better. I think that’s important. I think that looking at your work with a critical eye can be important when it’s handled in the right way and at the right stage of your process. I think if you start evaluating your ideas as you have them, then you’ll probably be killing them before they’re born. But I think there does come a point where you want to push yourself to be raw and keep making what you do better. So there is a purpose to that. But it’s very different than just simply the raw criticism that says because it’s you it’s bad. This part of your brain can find a thousand reasons to make you doubt what you’re doing. I think that doubt has a very very limited utility, as is perfectionism.

SHY: What is the biggest mistake that people make in dealing with their inner monkeys?

DG: Well, giving into it is the biggest one. If every idea you have, if you can immediately think of why it’s bad, that’s obviously going to be very damaging. But I think you also find that a lot of people develop bad forms of behavior. You know, the monkey can give you all kinds of reasons to not do what you’re supposed to be doing. So rather than just focusing on your work and doing the best you can, the monkey can tell you that it would probably be a better idea to lie on the couch and watch TV. Or it would tell you to self-medicate in some way that would distract you. You see a lot of creative people behaving really badly. You see a lot of people who resort to drugs, to self-indulgence, to bad behavior in lots of ways. And I think that is really damaging to your life and also really limits your creativity. So in general, all the things that we do to ourselves to stop ourselves from being productive, those are the effects of the monkey. You have to start to look at how they’re connected. I think also our fear of judgment can drive us to misbehave. I’ve seen a lot of people derail their careers because they can’t take input. So, you know, a client or a boss will comment on their work, and they can’t take it. They can’t absorb input in a proper way. They see it as an attack; they see this criticism and that derails their work and their career. So there’s a lot of different parts of this. And that’s why I wrote a whole book about it. But I think that it’s a complex and rich idea.

 

Liked this? Check out our review of Shut Your Monkey, and check back tomorrow for the second half of our interview!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

 

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