Danny Gregory, Author and Artist, on How to be More Creative

Yesterday, we chatted with artist and entrepreneur Danny Gregory on the lessons he learned in writing his latest book: Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done. In the second half of our interview, Gregory reveals what he wants us to take away from Shut Your Monkey and why every superhero should add a little creativity into their lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SuperheroYou: As a successful artist, you’ve spent decades fighting your own “monkey” or inner critic, which is why you wanted to help others with your latest book Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done. So what’s your origin story? How have you fought against your own monkeys in your path to career success?

Danny Gregory: I’ve definitely struggled with it my whole life. Really, the thing that I’ve done is I’ve been really productive. I like to work hard. I generate a lot of different ideas. Over time, I’ve also come to accept that I’m not good at most things, but that isn’t a reason to not do them. So I experiment lots of different ways. Frankly, even writing a book was something that was new to me the first time I did it. I’ve done about a dozen of them now. But I still it consider to be an ongoing learning exercise. I taught myself to draw when I was in my late 30s, and that changed my life in a lot of dramatic ways. But I think a lot of it began through the fears that most people have when they start to make something creative for the first time. You know, this sense that I have no talent, I have no ability, I can’t do it. And I forced myself beyond those thresholds.

I went to clown school, which was a really intense experience where I learned the incredible power and benefit of being willing to be a fool. Being willing to be foolish and to fall on your face and to do crazy things, to go out in front of total strangers and take ludicrous risks and to see that, in fact, it wasn’t terrible. I speak in public a lot, which is again something that everybody including me was afraid of at one point. Now I find it to be really fun and interesting. I started to teach and I also created a school which is called Sketchbook School, and that school is all about taking these kinds of challenges. So I’ve taken risks and I’ve flown in the face of the monkey to take risks. Another thing is I try to expose myself to as much stuff as possible. I try to learn the stories of other creative people. I try to look at different forms of art – filmmaking, music, literature, poetry, whatever it is. And I think that all those different things feed possibilities into me, inspire me and bounce off each other. So it’s an ongoing project. It’s not like you can find a switch in your head and turn it off. It’s an ongoing process but it’s a lot of fun. And it’s had a lot of rewards, and I really don’t regret the risks that I’ve taken. None of them have really been life-threatening.

SHY: In the first half of our interview, you talked about the importance of ennobling your work. That’s easy to do if you’re a doctor, maybe, but as an artist I imagine it’s hard to look at your work and insist that it’s important.

DG: I don’t think it’s that. I’m not talking about importance, because importance is a judgment. I’m talking about helping others, being of utility to others. And I think even if it’s entertainment that lightens somebody’s load that day and makes them feel good, that’s important. But more importantly, it’s about how is what you’re doing of service to others? So in other words, you could be a sandwich maker. You could think in terms of just getting it done, just punching in and punching out. You could think of your job in the most mundane terms. Or you could think about, well, somebody’s going to eat this. I want them to enjoy it. I’m going to try and do a good job at it. Therefore, this is a service to people.

Every job, everything that we do is ultimately part of a bigger chain of incidents of service to others. The idea that we are all superheroes, in one way or another, is a good way of looking at yourself. I think if you look at your job, and you say, honestly, there is no way in which it is of service to anybody, then maybe you want to think about what you’re doing for a living. Because if you really can’t find any greater value in what you do, maybe it’s not the best use of your time. But I doubt that that’s the case. And again with creative people, I’ve seen it often enough where somebody will say, “I’m a designer, and I have to design a stupid brochure for a bank’s mortgage program. Ugh, it’s so boring. I can’t stand it. I suck at it. It’s going to be a terrible project. I’m not going to get anywhere with it. I can’t put it in my portfolio. Who cares? My boss is going to hate it. I’m not going to get a raise. Blah blah blah.” That’s the monkey. Instead what you can say is, you know what? What could be more exciting than getting a mortgage to buy your first house? And what if I am the gateway to that happening? What if I am the first voice that this person encounters, that lays it out for them and explains to them how they’re going to do this? What an incredible service that is. How important that is – and to be clear in my design, to be engaging, to make sure I really understand how they feel. All those things can go into. And then suddenly it changes the process, and it changes the value of what I’m doing, and I think that then, the monkey has to step back from the mic and let you get back to doing your job because it matters to somebody else.

Instead what you can say is, “You know what? What could be more exciting than getting a mortgage to buy your first house? And what if I am the gateway to that happening? What if I am the first voice that this person encounters, that lays it out for them and explains to them how they’re going to do this? What an incredible service that is. How important that is – and to be clear in my design, to be engaging, to make sure I really understand how they feel. All those things can go into it.” And then suddenly it changes the process, and it changes the value of what I’m doing, and I think that then, the monkey has to step back from the mic and let you get back to doing your job because it matters to somebody else.

SHY: If you could have people take away just one lesson from this book, what would it be?

DG: I think it would be that being productive and making stuff is the most important way to deal with your inner critic. I use this analogy of another creature, which is the honeybee. The honeybee flies out from its hive every day and it goes and it gathers pollen from all the different flowers and brings it back to the hive and contributes to the honey. And if the honeybee was filled with self-doubt, if the honeybee was constantly thinking about – well, am I flying correctly? Is somebody else flying better than me? Are they gathering more pollen? Is the queen bee going to notice me? If you were constantly obsessed with all these things, she wouldn’t be able to be very productive, the bee. But if we just say to ourselves, you know what, I’m going out there and I’m just going to make a bunch of stuff. It may suck. It doesn’t matter. But the more I make, the more likely it is that I’m going to enjoy making it and that something good is going to come out of it. Thomas Edison made 10,000 designs of the lightbulb before he came up with the right solution. And his response to the fact that he had made all these others was not that it was a waste of time but that it was a necessary journey to take to get to the right solution. And I think that we have to look at our work that way. I want to make as much stuff as possible. Good and bad are indifferent. It’s much more important to make a lot of bad work than it is to make no good work. And so rather than being a crazy perfectionist, just get to work and start doing stuff. But there’s a lot more to it than that. That’s it in a tiny nutshell, but it’s a bigger nut than that.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

DG: It’s funny. I’ve been doing artists-in-residencies at various schools around the world. I was just in Vietnam, I was in Beijing and Prague and various other places. And almost at all of them, they somehow found something about me and they put this up as a little poster when I came. And it says who is Danny Gregory? His superpower is helping other people to be creative. So I think that in the end is probably the core of everything that I do. There are a lot of obstacles to our making new solutions to the world’s problems. There are a lot of things that we do to ourselves that inhibit our creativity. That’s probably the common thread between all of the things that I’ve been working on, is to try to get people to get over that. To get over their fears of not having talent and not being able to pay the rent, of not being able to contribute – and to say to them, I think you can, and let me explain to you how we can deal with these problems. Because in the end, I hope that what I’m doing is making people happier on one level. But also I think that if I can influence enough people to be more creative, to do more things that are beautiful or new or interesting, that some of those things will make a bigger difference to the world than if I hadn’t tried it at all.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent Van Gogh is a person who had lots of obstacles. He probably had a huge monkey. But he also was very brave and worked really really hard to develop himself as an artist. He found it very difficult to integrate with other people socially. He was doing things that nobody had really done before from an artistic standpoint and so he had to teach himself how to do it. He got very little support from the world or the universe. Nobody bought his paintings. Most people thought that he was crazy and shunned him. But he worked really really hard. He made over 1,000 paintings in the 10 years that he painted. And he made incredible progress. I think in the end, the monkey caught up with him and he killed himself unfortunately. But as I write in the book, imagine if he had been able to shut his monkey. Imagine if Van Gogh, rather than dying at 38, had lived like a lot of other artists that lived to be 93, like Picasso. Or lived to be as old as Matisse or Cezanne. If he had managed to continue painting, how he would have rocked the world. And so I think he’s a real superhero and the more I find out about him, the more inspired I get by his example.

SHY: What’s something you do every day that you wish everybody else did?

DG: I try to make something. Often I draw in my illustrated journal. I have a sketchbook in which I record the things in my life. Or I’ll write a blog post or I’ll make a little film or I’ll work on a book. But every day I make stuff. And I think some of it’s good, some of it’s mediocre and some of it contributes to other things that make them better. But I do it all the time and I never really stop to tell myself I can’t, and I wish that everybody would say that to themselves. Not, I need to be great or I need to be professional or I need to make money at this, but instead, I just need to make something because it’s good for my soul.

SHY: Would you say that to people who aren’t in creative professions or who don’t want to be an artist?

DG: Yeah, I don’t think it has anything to do with wanting to be an artist. I think that there was a point in everybody’s life when we were 3, 4, 5 years old where we made stuff every day and it made us happy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that you’re making a drawing or writing a story. I think it’s just making something for the world – and ideally making something that’s new. So what can you do to contribute? What can you do to make something new and add it to the world? It could be the flowers that you plant in your front lawn. It could be a cake that you bake and share with your neighbors. It could be so many different things. But I think increasingly, we have so much stuff that we can absorb. We can be an audience constantly. We can always be looking at our phone and watching other people’s videos on YouTube. But make your own video. Tell the world about how you feel about something. Share your point of view in some way. Do that in some form on a regular basis, or learn more about it, or figure out different ways of doing it, or see what other people are doing and how that can inspire you. But don’t just be a passive absorber and consumer of stuff. Try to make stuff as well.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

DG: I don’t know, I don’t really think about it that much. I guess I’d like to be remembered that I helped people to be brave and to do some things that they were afraid of doing.

 

SHY: One of the things I liked most about the book was that you were rather blunt and didn’t pull punches. You weren’t holding the reader’s hand. Why did you choose to do that? 

DG: Yeah, I think it is OK to be struggling. But the fact is that the root causes of this thing are really deep in who we are. And you have to do some serious self-analysis to do that. This is a phenomenon that’s trying to prevent you from shaking things up in your life. And I think there are times when you do have to shake things up in your life. You do have to get past the things that are holding you back, and sometimes that can be a little jarring. You know, I try not to be brutal in the book. I try to be funny, and it’s full of little cartoony drawings to soften the blow a bit. But in the end, this is serious business  and it really matters. So I guess I am pretty blunt in places. Hopefully not in an off-putting way, but I guess we’ll find out.

SHY: Do you have any advice specifically for people who are a little bit younger, who are starting their way in their creative process?

DG: Yes. I wish I had known a lot of this stuff when I was in my 20s and 30s. Honestly, it’s taken me a long time to understand it. I think that when I was younger, there were a lot of times when I would be arrogant. And I think that now, I realize that a lot of that arrogance was based in fear. I think that when you’re younger and you’re in an adult world perhaps for the first time, you can mask your lack of knowledge or experience and fear. You can mask it with arrogance, with a refusal accept the newness of what you’re experiencing. I think that the monkey is basically telling you that. Don’t acknowledge it. Don’t face the fact that what you’re doing is new and different. But when I allowed myself to talk to people who were older and had more experience, that was really helpful because it showed me that other people have this concern and that other people have faced obstacles. So I think finding mentorship is really important – really at any stage in your career. I mean, I still have mentors. But I think it can be really helpful when you’re younger. I think another thing is also, don’t be too afraid when you project the consequences of what you’re going to do. If you say, I’d really like to do this but I’m afraid I’ll never be able to pay my rent and I’ll basically ruin my life, that’s the monkey speaking. So I would say when you’re young, you can take all kinds of risks because the consequences are a lot less. Take a risk with your career. I think that you can afford to take jobs that are really going to give you interesting and varied experiences, even if they don’t necessarily pay off right away. Even if they don’t necessarily have a clear growth path for now. Try and have as varied and as diverse an experience as you can. I have a son who’s 21 years old. He’s about to graduate from college and go out into the world, and I have these conversations with him all the time. I say, follow your passion. Do the things that you’re really interested in. As long as you don’t have a family and dependents, you can afford to take risks and to seek adventure and it will pay off in the long run. You’ll be a far more interesting person and a far more successful person as a result of it. So be varied. Be broad. Don’t be afraid.

 

Liked this? Check out the first half our interview and our review of Gregory’s book, Shut Your Monkey!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

Yesterday, we chatted with artist and entrepreneur Danny Gregory on the lessons he learned in writing his latest book: Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done. In the second half of our interview, Gregory reveals what he wants us to take away from Shut Your Monkey and why every superhero should add a little creativity into their lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SuperheroYou: As a successful artist, you’ve spent decades fighting your own “monkey” or inner critic, which is why you wanted to help others with your latest book Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done. So what’s your origin story? How have you fought against your own monkeys in your path to career success?

Danny Gregory: I’ve definitely struggled with it my whole life. Really, the thing that I’ve done is I’ve been really productive. I like to work hard. I generate a lot of different ideas. Over time, I’ve also come to accept that I’m not good at most things, but that isn’t a reason to not do them. So I experiment lots of different ways. Frankly, even writing a book was something that was new to me the first time I did it. I’ve done about a dozen of them now. But I still it consider to be an ongoing learning exercise. I taught myself to draw when I was in my late 30s, and that changed my life in a lot of dramatic ways. But I think a lot of it began through the fears that most people have when they start to make something creative for the first time. You know, this sense that I have no talent, I have no ability, I can’t do it. And I forced myself beyond those thresholds.

I went to clown school, which was a really intense experience where I learned the incredible power and benefit of being willing to be a fool. Being willing to be foolish and to fall on your face and to do crazy things, to go out in front of total strangers and take ludicrous risks and to see that, in fact, it wasn’t terrible. I speak in public a lot, which is again something that everybody including me was afraid of at one point. Now I find it to be really fun and interesting. I started to teach and I also created a school which is called Sketchbook School, and that school is all about taking these kinds of challenges. So I’ve taken risks and I’ve flown in the face of the monkey to take risks. Another thing is I try to expose myself to as much stuff as possible. I try to learn the stories of other creative people. I try to look at different forms of art – filmmaking, music, literature, poetry, whatever it is. And I think that all those different things feed possibilities into me, inspire me and bounce off each other. So it’s an ongoing project. It’s not like you can find a switch in your head and turn it off. It’s an ongoing process but it’s a lot of fun. And it’s had a lot of rewards, and I really don’t regret the risks that I’ve taken. None of them have really been life-threatening.

SHY: In the first half of our interview, you talked about the importance of ennobling your work. That’s easy to do if you’re a doctor, maybe, but as an artist I imagine it’s hard to look at your work and insist that it’s important.

DG: I don’t think it’s that. I’m not talking about importance, because importance is a judgment. I’m talking about helping others, being of utility to others. And I think even if it’s entertainment that lightens somebody’s load that day and makes them feel good, that’s important. But more importantly, it’s about how is what you’re doing of service to others? So in other words, you could be a sandwich maker. You could think in terms of just getting it done, just punching in and punching out. You could think of your job in the most mundane terms. Or you could think about, well, somebody’s going to eat this. I want them to enjoy it. I’m going to try and do a good job at it. Therefore, this is a service to people.

Every job, everything that we do is ultimately part of a bigger chain of incidents of service to others. The idea that we are all superheroes, in one way or another, is a good way of looking at yourself. I think if you look at your job, and you say, honestly, there is no way in which it is of service to anybody, then maybe you want to think about what you’re doing for a living. Because if you really can’t find any greater value in what you do, maybe it’s not the best use of your time. But I doubt that that’s the case. And again with creative people, I’ve seen it often enough where somebody will say, “I’m a designer, and I have to design a stupid brochure for a bank’s mortgage program. Ugh, it’s so boring. I can’t stand it. I suck at it. It’s going to be a terrible project. I’m not going to get anywhere with it. I can’t put it in my portfolio. Who cares? My boss is going to hate it. I’m not going to get a raise. Blah blah blah.” That’s the monkey. Instead what you can say is, you know what? What could be more exciting than getting a mortgage to buy your first house? And what if I am the gateway to that happening? What if I am the first voice that this person encounters, that lays it out for them and explains to them how they’re going to do this? What an incredible service that is. How important that is – and to be clear in my design, to be engaging, to make sure I really understand how they feel. All those things can go into. And then suddenly it changes the process, and it changes the value of what I’m doing, and I think that then, the monkey has to step back from the mic and let you get back to doing your job because it matters to somebody else.

Instead what you can say is, “You know what? What could be more exciting than getting a mortgage to buy your first house? And what if I am the gateway to that happening? What if I am the first voice that this person encounters, that lays it out for them and explains to them how they’re going to do this? What an incredible service that is. How important that is – and to be clear in my design, to be engaging, to make sure I really understand how they feel. All those things can go into it.” And then suddenly it changes the process, and it changes the value of what I’m doing, and I think that then, the monkey has to step back from the mic and let you get back to doing your job because it matters to somebody else.

SHY: If you could have people take away just one lesson from this book, what would it be?

DG: I think it would be that being productive and making stuff is the most important way to deal with your inner critic. I use this analogy of another creature, which is the honeybee. The honeybee flies out from its hive every day and it goes and it gathers pollen from all the different flowers and brings it back to the hive and contributes to the honey. And if the honeybee was filled with self-doubt, if the honeybee was constantly thinking about – well, am I flying correctly? Is somebody else flying better than me? Are they gathering more pollen? Is the queen bee going to notice me? If you were constantly obsessed with all these things, she wouldn’t be able to be very productive, the bee. But if we just say to ourselves, you know what, I’m going out there and I’m just going to make a bunch of stuff. It may suck. It doesn’t matter. But the more I make, the more likely it is that I’m going to enjoy making it and that something good is going to come out of it. Thomas Edison made 10,000 designs of the lightbulb before he came up with the right solution. And his response to the fact that he had made all these others was not that it was a waste of time but that it was a necessary journey to take to get to the right solution. And I think that we have to look at our work that way. I want to make as much stuff as possible. Good and bad are indifferent. It’s much more important to make a lot of bad work than it is to make no good work. And so rather than being a crazy perfectionist, just get to work and start doing stuff. But there’s a lot more to it than that. That’s it in a tiny nutshell, but it’s a bigger nut than that.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

DG: It’s funny. I’ve been doing artists-in-residencies at various schools around the world. I was just in Vietnam, I was in Beijing and Prague and various other places. And almost at all of them, they somehow found something about me and they put this up as a little poster when I came. And it says who is Danny Gregory? His superpower is helping other people to be creative. So I think that in the end is probably the core of everything that I do. There are a lot of obstacles to our making new solutions to the world’s problems. There are a lot of things that we do to ourselves that inhibit our creativity. That’s probably the common thread between all of the things that I’ve been working on, is to try to get people to get over that. To get over their fears of not having talent and not being able to pay the rent, of not being able to contribute – and to say to them, I think you can, and let me explain to you how we can deal with these problems. Because in the end, I hope that what I’m doing is making people happier on one level. But also I think that if I can influence enough people to be more creative, to do more things that are beautiful or new or interesting, that some of those things will make a bigger difference to the world than if I hadn’t tried it at all.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent Van Gogh is a person who had lots of obstacles. He probably had a huge monkey. But he also was very brave and worked really really hard to develop himself as an artist. He found it very difficult to integrate with other people socially. He was doing things that nobody had really done before from an artistic standpoint and so he had to teach himself how to do it. He got very little support from the world or the universe. Nobody bought his paintings. Most people thought that he was crazy and shunned him. But he worked really really hard. He made over 1,000 paintings in the 10 years that he painted. And he made incredible progress. I think in the end, the monkey caught up with him and he killed himself unfortunately. But as I write in the book, imagine if he had been able to shut his monkey. Imagine if Van Gogh, rather than dying at 38, had lived like a lot of other artists that lived to be 93, like Picasso. Or lived to be as old as Matisse or Cezanne. If he had managed to continue painting, how he would have rocked the world. And so I think he’s a real superhero and the more I find out about him, the more inspired I get by his example.

SHY: What’s something you do every day that you wish everybody else did?

DG: I try to make something. Often I draw in my illustrated journal. I have a sketchbook in which I record the things in my life. Or I’ll write a blog post or I’ll make a little film or I’ll work on a book. But every day I make stuff. And I think some of it’s good, some of it’s mediocre and some of it contributes to other things that make them better. But I do it all the time and I never really stop to tell myself I can’t, and I wish that everybody would say that to themselves. Not, I need to be great or I need to be professional or I need to make money at this, but instead, I just need to make something because it’s good for my soul.

SHY: Would you say that to people who aren’t in creative professions or who don’t want to be an artist?

DG: Yeah, I don’t think it has anything to do with wanting to be an artist. I think that there was a point in everybody’s life when we were 3, 4, 5 years old where we made stuff every day and it made us happy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that you’re making a drawing or writing a story. I think it’s just making something for the world – and ideally making something that’s new. So what can you do to contribute? What can you do to make something new and add it to the world? It could be the flowers that you plant in your front lawn. It could be a cake that you bake and share with your neighbors. It could be so many different things. But I think increasingly, we have so much stuff that we can absorb. We can be an audience constantly. We can always be looking at our phone and watching other people’s videos on YouTube. But make your own video. Tell the world about how you feel about something. Share your point of view in some way. Do that in some form on a regular basis, or learn more about it, or figure out different ways of doing it, or see what other people are doing and how that can inspire you. But don’t just be a passive absorber and consumer of stuff. Try to make stuff as well.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

DG: I don’t know, I don’t really think about it that much. I guess I’d like to be remembered that I helped people to be brave and to do some things that they were afraid of doing.

 

SHY: One of the things I liked most about the book was that you were rather blunt and didn’t pull punches. You weren’t holding the reader’s hand. Why did you choose to do that? 

DG: Yeah, I think it is OK to be struggling. But the fact is that the root causes of this thing are really deep in who we are. And you have to do some serious self-analysis to do that. This is a phenomenon that’s trying to prevent you from shaking things up in your life. And I think there are times when you do have to shake things up in your life. You do have to get past the things that are holding you back, and sometimes that can be a little jarring. You know, I try not to be brutal in the book. I try to be funny, and it’s full of little cartoony drawings to soften the blow a bit. But in the end, this is serious business  and it really matters. So I guess I am pretty blunt in places. Hopefully not in an off-putting way, but I guess we’ll find out.

SHY: Do you have any advice specifically for people who are a little bit younger, who are starting their way in their creative process?

DG: Yes. I wish I had known a lot of this stuff when I was in my 20s and 30s. Honestly, it’s taken me a long time to understand it. I think that when I was younger, there were a lot of times when I would be arrogant. And I think that now, I realize that a lot of that arrogance was based in fear. I think that when you’re younger and you’re in an adult world perhaps for the first time, you can mask your lack of knowledge or experience and fear. You can mask it with arrogance, with a refusal accept the newness of what you’re experiencing. I think that the monkey is basically telling you that. Don’t acknowledge it. Don’t face the fact that what you’re doing is new and different. But when I allowed myself to talk to people who were older and had more experience, that was really helpful because it showed me that other people have this concern and that other people have faced obstacles. So I think finding mentorship is really important – really at any stage in your career. I mean, I still have mentors. But I think it can be really helpful when you’re younger. I think another thing is also, don’t be too afraid when you project the consequences of what you’re going to do. If you say, I’d really like to do this but I’m afraid I’ll never be able to pay my rent and I’ll basically ruin my life, that’s the monkey speaking. So I would say when you’re young, you can take all kinds of risks because the consequences are a lot less. Take a risk with your career. I think that you can afford to take jobs that are really going to give you interesting and varied experiences, even if they don’t necessarily pay off right away. Even if they don’t necessarily have a clear growth path for now. Try and have as varied and as diverse an experience as you can. I have a son who’s 21 years old. He’s about to graduate from college and go out into the world, and I have these conversations with him all the time. I say, follow your passion. Do the things that you’re really interested in. As long as you don’t have a family and dependents, you can afford to take risks and to seek adventure and it will pay off in the long run. You’ll be a far more interesting person and a far more successful person as a result of it. So be varied. Be broad. Don’t be afraid.

 

Liked this? Check out the first half our interview and our review of Gregory’s book, Shut Your Monkey!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

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