The Art of Experimentation: Embracing Risk and Failure…

At the time of this writing my kids are ages 14 and 11. Throughout their time in elementary school I’ve lost count of how many science projects we’ve had to do. It has to be 10 or more between the two of them, but that could also be the exaggerations of a frustrated parental brain talking. Regardless, it’s been a lot. 


I think about how every project begins with a question, a question we may only moderately understand, and a theorized or hypothesized answer to that question. From there, the experimentation begins. We design a series of trials with changing or alternating variables and conditions, and we run the tests over, and over, and over, and over, and over, again, and again, and again, and again…because that’s the only way the data gets clear.


It is laborious and monotonous, and sometimes painfully tedious.


Yet, the interesting part is that, even though we are testing a hypothesis, our goal is not necessarily to prove whether we are right or wrong. The goal is to observe and gather data. The goal is to see what happens and to see what we can learn from it.


In order to truly learn something we have to be open and able to receive data that runs counter to our preconceived ideas. We have to be willing to go through what feels like countless trials, knowing that most of our experiments will “fail” most of the time. The more experiments we subject ourselves to, the more tests we can take, the more trials we can stand, the more data we can collect – the more we learn.


Tina Seelig reminds us that “All of our paths are riddled with small and enormous failures. The key is being able to see these experiences as experiments that yield valuable data and to learn what to do differently next time.” 


Everything is an iterative process.


The process of experimentation is indifferent to success or failure. “Failure” doesn’t matter. “Success” is inconsequential. The only objective is to learn something profound about ourselves and about the way the world works.


There are no clearly defined answers to our questions. No ready-made conclusions. No concrete determinations. Everything is just a theory until it has been tested, and that includes the results of another person’s experiments. We cannot accept the deductions of their data without question. We are variables unto ourselves. The results can and will vary. We have to get our own hands dirty.


We are making this all up as we go along. Everything is an experiment, and every result is a forward motion.


I think this is exactly why John Dewey says that “one of the essential traits of the artist is that he is born an experimenter”.

Dewey explains that 


The artist is compelled to be an experimenter because he has to express an intensely individualized experience through means and materials that belong to the common and public world. This problem cannot be solved once for all. It is met in every new work undertaken.”


In fact, Dewey goes on to say that “Only because the artist operates experimentally does he open new fields of experience and disclose new aspects and qualities in familiar scenes and objects.”


To be an artist is to be in the constant throes of an experimental process. It is to be amidst a ceaseless series of trails and tests. It is to risk failure again and again and again.


Tom and David Kelley make clear that

“creative people simply do more experiments. Their ultimate ‘strokes of genius’ don’t come about because they succeed more often than other people—they just do more, period. They take more shots at the goal. That is the surprising, compelling mathematics of innovation: if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure.” 


This is certainly easier said than done. I have grown weary and despondent. I have found my resiliency waning. The constant bitter flavor of failure, without the palate cleansing sweetness of success, has caused me to begin to lose my creative appetite. So this reminder is as much for me as it may be for you.


We must, as Jocelyn Glei suggests, “Mine [our] ‘failures’ for valuable data about what works and what doesn’t”, realizing that  “As long as you learn from the process, it’s not a mistake.”


The risk of experimentation isn’t prompted by aspiring for successes but by the desires for discovery.


Our opportunities for growth are proportionate to our willingness to fail…

A Search to “See” the Words…

Liu Wei says that “a piece of art is never an answer to something”. The purpose of a piece of art is, rather “to pose a question” but, “the question is only the beginning”. To me, that says that art is the iterative attempt to ask better questions. It’s continuously attuning the questions expressed through the work directed at the audience, but it’s also the constant refinement of the way in which the artist poses questions to themselves.

I think that means asking ourselves questions not only about “what we have to say” or “what we want to say” in the work, but also asking ourselves questions about “how we say it”. In other words, I think it means examining and analyzing the creative processes we use that enable us to express our questions; questioning our methods of artistically asking the questions.


This kind of critical and creative soul-searching has been teaching me about myself and my own creative process. It’s becoming more and more obvious that, artistically speaking, I’m a writer before anything else. Such a realization is more an act of acknowledgement and acceptance than it is a statement of shock or surprise. The fact that I have a long held love of language is not a revelation. What is slightly more revelatory is how I’ve often neglected or ignored my predilection for literary expression purely out of vanity. In a culture that preferences the consumption of audio/visual arts, it simply isn’t as sexy to be a writer, a blogger, a poet, etc. And, rather than allow my writing to take the wheel, I have relegated it to the backseat. Sometimes even barbarously stuffing it in the trunk, bound and gagged.


But, no matter how much I try to place video, or design, or drawing, at the forefront of what I do, writing has been the tell-tale heart pounding beneath the floor boards, refusing to relent or subside.


Truth be told, when I’m being creative my thoughts turn to the language of the written word before anything else. That’s where everything begins for me.


Austin Kleon calls himself “a writer who draws”. Something about that feels right even for me. Maybe you could say I’m a writer attempting to make art, or maybe, a writer who makes podcasts, videos, and art. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue though, does it? I’ll have to work on it.


The point is that writing is the catalyst for all of my creative endeavors. Almost every podcast or video I’ve made has begun with a piece of writing. Even many of my art projects arise from something I’ve written. It’s like I can’t envision “imagery” or the “images” until I see the words. But, somewhere in the process of searching for the words, in sculpting the language, and guiding them from my head to the page, the pictures arrive.


For example, the picture at the top of this post came to me after I had written an essay called “Gratitude is Mutinous“. Interestingly enough, even the image I created for “Gratitude is Mutinous” came from another piece of writing as well.
That’s how it happens for me. Sometimes the simple turn of a phrase is the key that turns the lock to the door of a secret I’ve never seen.


In a way that’s gratifying. When it comes to writing I’ve always wanted my words to paint a picture, and it seems like it does, if for no one else than for me.


Suffice to say, whenever pen gets put to paper, I’m home…

The Weight of Secrets, Fighting to Succeed…

I think the job of the artist is to make the experience of mystery palpably vivid in a way that does not resolve the mystery but, instead reveals the mystery as more profoundly mysterious than we realized.


I think of the way that James Victore alters and modifies his brushes and paint pens to make them less predictable, less precise, less controllable.


Or, the way that George Condo draws; seemingly random, almost erratic, and often more concerned “with the diagonal motion of the drawing, caring more about “where it goes on the paper, without much concern about “what it is”. 


Or maybe even the way that Aaron Draplin‘s favorite pass time is “junking”, scouring thrift stores and estate sales looking for bits of old design, logos, and type, searching within them for the forgotten stories and hidden tales that will spark his imagination and catalyze his creative process.


The purposeful imprecision, the uncontrollable brush strokes, the unpredictable discoveries, in each case, the artists delve deeply into a “mysterious” pursuit, searching for secrets.


Maybe I’m grasping at straws but, there seems to be parallel between the pursuit of mystery and what Austin Kleon calls “dumpster diving”.


Kleon writes that 


Dumpster Diving is one of the jobs of the artist – finding treasure in other people’s trash, sifting through the debris of our culture, paying attention to the stuff that everyone else is ignoring, and taking inspiration from the stuff that people have tossed aside for whatever reason.


These are the things that draw me into all of my creative endeavors, whether in writing, collage, digital art, or even in my recent forays into more analog mediums and projects. In “sifting through the debris” of old magazines and newspapers, finding inspiration in “tossed aside” books, moving paint and pen with a seemingly unsteady hand, I am searching to revel in something unknown. I am forced to give up control, to exercise awareness, welcoming the imperfect and the imprecise. Searching for treasure without a name, guided by a map that can’t be written, I can’t foresee what I’ll find, what images will spark something, what words or phrases will whisper secrets, and what mysteries will come to light as the pieces are put together, shifted, and rearranged. I am simply doing the work of finding “the work”.


We are full of secrets. We contain a multitude of mysteries. We are breathing inkblots, walking Rorschach tests. Perhaps, its in experiencing the weight of our own untold secrets that we are driven to create and compelled to keep creating.


Maybe art, itself, is an external attempt to touch our deepest secrets, the secrets buried so deeply that we don’t even know that they’re there. And maybe, these are the secrets fighting the hardest to be unearthed.


The stray hairs of lacerated bristles, the hidden treasures of another person’s trash, the gems found amidst the junk, the stories pieced together with paper and glue, all bear the weight of our secrets, fighting to succeed to the surface of awareness…

I Am Grateful for the Insight of the Other…

Today marks the beginning of National Gratitude Month. I am a person guilty of harboring a multitude of character flaws but, if there is one thing I am especially guilty of it is being an ungrateful @$$hole. There’s a lot that hasn’t been going “well” for me lately, and I am a naturally “Glass half-empty” kind of guy but, I still have so much to be thankful for. While I can’t hope to radically alter my deeply ingrained habit of ingratitude in 30 days, I can make it a point to create spaces and opportunities to be more purposefully and intentionally grateful.


In his book Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson writes that

“When a person views the world only through his own experience, he divorces himself from the polarized flow of existence, that persistent dialogue between self and other, familiar and unfamiliar.”


I am grateful for Eric Wilson’s writing. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from it. Grateful that he was actually willing to be a guest on my podcast. And, I am so grateful for what I learned from the insights garnered from our conversation together.


When we fail to engage with the perspective of another, when we neglect the opportunity to see the world from an alternate view, we fail to see the fullness of the human experience, the fullness of the world, the fullness of “Being” itself.


Every one of us are on our own specific journey. Everyone knows something individually that we collectively don’t. Everyone has experienced something that I haven’t. Anytime we get to bridge the gap between ourselves and another person, it can only be fruitful, it can only be enlightening, it can only be insightful.


We live in an amazing time. The opportunities for connection and communication have never been more abundant, more alive, more vibrant, and more readily available. Kwame Anthony Appiah writes that “the worldwide web of information…means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere”.  Tim Harford explains that “the modern world gives us more opportunities than ever to forge relationships with people who do not look, act, or think the same way that we do.”


Every encounter with another person is an opportunity to get an insight that we didn’t have before, to get access to knowledge we wouldn’t have come across any other way.


 Jean-Paul Sartre says “The Other holds a secret – the secret of what I am”.

The insight of the Other is insight into ourselves. Revealed in the portrait of the Other is a picture of who we are. To gaze into the eyes of the Other is to glimpse into the reality of Being. To begin to understand the Other is to begin to understand everything.


I am grateful for all the “Others” I’ve been lucky enough to meet and deeply encounter, people who have given me their time to have discussions that continue to teach me so much about myself. I am grateful for the insight of the Other…


P.S. I am also specifically grateful for the conversation I had with Brady Hester on his podcast, The Braddog Media Show, which inspired parts of this post.


Keep showing up, Keep doing the Work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.


If you’d like to support my work, get shout-outs in podcasts and videos, and get access to Patron only content, check out my Patreon Page.

New Video!”The Child Who Survived Adulthood” w/ Jerome Shaw

This is a special episode/video for me because not only is Jerome Shaw a talented creator and an inspiring podcaster but, he’s also one of my Patrons. His support and his encouragement means the world to me, so I’m excited to share this conversation with you!

We talk about his theater arts background, his metamorphosis into a marketing Entrepeneur, and his creative journey into podcasting. He offers details about his meditation practice and gives us a glimpse into his creative process. This dialogue takes a lot interesting twists and turns, and ultimately I think its a beautiful adventure. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

If you want to listen to the full podcast you can find it here:

Be sure to check out Jerome’s podcast – https://anchor.fm/jshaw

And be sure to connect with him on Social Media:

https://twitter.com/jromeshaw

https://www.facebook.com/jerome.shaw.9

https://www.instagram.com/jromeshaw/

https://www.youtube.com/user/Peralisis/videos

Shout out to my Patrons and Supporters:

Jim Martin – https://theunusualbuddha.com/

Rev. Jerry Maynard – https://www.facebook.com/revjerryhtx/

Ben Bridges – https://www.myfpvstore.com/

Rajan Shankara – https://rajanshankara.com/

If you’d like to get a shout out in podcasts and videos then be sure to check out my Patreon page – https://www.patreon.com/duanetoops

For $3/month you get all the behind the scenes blogs, videos, and photos, plus shout-outs, plus early access to all my YouTube videos!

Keep showing up, Keep Doing the Work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful

New Video – “Lessons of Liberation W/ Rev. Jerry Maynard”

I sat down with Rev. Jerry Maynard. Rev. Jerry is a Priest, activist, and Interfaith Minister. He works within the Int’l Church of Mary Magdalene, which is a ministry of the Independent & Progressive Catholic Religious Order, Order of Mary Magdalene. He is also the founding pastor of The People’s Church.

In this conversation we talk about theology, atheism, activism, “liberation”, and so much more. I think you’re going to love it!

If you want to connect with Rev. Jerry you can find his social links below:

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/revjerryhtx/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/revjerryhtx

The People’s Church on Twitter – https://twitter.com/ThePplsChurch

Shout out to my Patrons and supporters Jim Martin from The Unusual Buddha ( https://theunusualbuddha.com/ ), Ben Bridges, and Jerome Shaw from The Open Palm Podcast ( https://anchor.fm/jshaw )

If you want shout-outs in podcasts and videos, early access to YouTube videos, and access to Behind-the-scenes Patron only videos, blogs, and photos, then check out my Patreon page. For $3/month you get it all! – www.patreon.com/duanetoops

And be sure to connect with my at the social links below:

YouTube – https://youtube.com/duanetoops
Twitter – https://twitter.com/duanetoops
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/duanetoops/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/duanejtoops/

Keep showing up, Keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.

New Podcast Episode! “Lessons of Liberation W/ Rev. Jerry Maynard”

This week I sit down with Rev. Jerry Maynard. Rev. Jerry is a Priest, activist, and Interfaith Minister. He works within the Int’l Church of Mary Magdalene, which a ministry of the Independent & Progressive Catholic Religious Order, Order of Mary Magdalene, He is the founding pastor of The People’s Church.In this conversation we talk about theology, atheism, activism, “liberation”, and so much more. I think you’re going to love it!

If you want to connect with Rev. Jerry you can find his social links below:

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/revjerryhtx/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/revjerryhtx

The People’s Church on Twitter – https://twitter.com/ThePplsChurch

Shout out to my Patrons and supporters Jim Martin from The Unusual Buddha, Ben Bridges, and Jerome Shaw from The Open Palm Podcast.

If you want shout-outs in podcasts and videos, early access to YouTube videos, and access to Behind-the-scenes Patron only videos, blogs, and photos, then check out my Patreon page. For $3/month you get it all!

Be sure to connect with me at the social links below:

YouTube – https://youtube.com/duanetoops

Twitter – https://twitter.com/duanetoops

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/duanetoops/

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/duanejtoops/

Keep showing up, Keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.

A Blog About Nothing


I’ve made a few videos for my YouTube channel recently that are different from what I normally make. Maybe we could say they’re a bit more experimental, at least for me anyway. Whatever adjective is best suited to describe my burgeoning video work, its certainly been a departure and its certainly taken me out of my comfort zone.


I’ve come to realize that I’ve been taking myself and what I create too seriously, and I haven’t been giving myself room to experiment or space to play. So, I’ve been making it a point try to have a little more fun in the process.


In some ways, this realization, this shift, started when I watched a video on Daniel Pascual’s YouTube Channel. He made a vlog about nothing, purposefully and deliberately about nothing. He said he did it to take the pressure off and to kind of dumb things down a bit. That may not seem like much but, it really hit home for me.
It was oddly refreshing and it felt like exhaling. I came face to face with how much stress and strain I’ve been putting on myself and my creative process. It made me recognize how little breathing room I’ve been giving myself.


I commented on the video saying that I should really try to do a video like that. Daniel encouraged me to do it, or maybe its better to say he challenged me to do it, lol. I accepted. Even though he and I are on opposite ends of the country he still scares the fuck out of me.


I really struggled to get my head around how to do a vlog about nothing. Believe me I know how ridiculous that sounds. I made more than one attempt. I hit record and tried to just go, unfortunately nothing went, lol.


After the false starts and failed attempts at Daniel’s “nothing” challenge, I took the family on a weekend camping trip. I brought my cameras with me. I was thinking that maybe I could vlog, or maybe take some cool shots. In other words, I went to accomplish something, to produce something, to do something. I felt like I needed to. Internally, there was a pressure to use this trip as a means of creating content. It felt like if I didn’t create something then I wasn’t really a creative and I wasn’t really a creator.


I took some OK shots, got some OK footage but, I just wasn’t feeling it. It felt forced and uninspired. It just wasn’t working. I started to get really frustrated about it, and started judging myself kind of harshly about it as well. I felt as though I should have been able to create something brilliant and beautiful on command.


Slowly, I realized that I needed to just put the gear away and just be present. I needed to give myself permission to do “nothing”. I needed to enjoy just being there. This moment wasn’t about creating, producing, or doing. It was simply about being; being with my wife, being with my kids, being with our friends, being exactly where I was.


If I’m being honest, doing “nothing” is disconcerting. It makes me uncomfortable. I place an extremely high premium on productivity, on producing, on doing “something”. So much so that I almost never allow myself to really do nothing.


I’m addicted to “doing”. 


The addiction to doing came up when I Interviewed Stuart Carter from the Simply Mindfulness YouTube channel on an episode of my podcast.
Stuart reminded me that “we are not human doings, we are human beings“. He pointed out that “We so often get caught in ‘I must do this to have value, I must do this to have worth’, when actually just being is all we need.”


Intellectually, I know that my value isn’t predicated on what I produce or what I accomplish. But, I still fall into the trap of equating who I am with what I do. I attach my self-worth and my identity to what I create. Daniel’s exercise showed me how much of that desirous craving for production has invaded my creative endeavors.


I returned from our camping trip with a clearer head, a clearer view of my obsession with “doing something”. But, I had no clearer idea of what my “nothing vlog” would be.


Recently my wife started doing some wood-working projects and she decided to refinish our Corn-hole boards. As I sat frustrated and bewildered, I noticed her begin to set-up for this refinishing project. The thought occurred to me that it might be fun to film her working on it. I needed the break and she welcomed my company. I had no plans for the footage, no goal, no purpose, it was just about play. It was more fun than I even imagined it would be. Once I edited the footage I knew I had to share it. I had inadvertently stumbled upon my nothing vlog. You can watch it below:

This exercise taught me about myself and my creative process. It taught me to accept the opportunities that show up; whether it seems productive or not, and whether it seems purposeful or not.


There is a way of being creative that is more about probing than about producing. There is a way of creating that exposes the limits of what we can create. There is a way of ‘being’ that gives witness to the exceeding abundance of what we can experience.


Working with the medium of video is teaching me to document the dynamic discovery of every daily detail. It does not tell me to do something different or to be something different. Instead, it tells me to see differently, to “Be” differently. We are presented with the opportunity to begin seeing in a whole new way, an opportunity of “Being” in a whole new way.


Sometimes storytelling isn’t about creating a story but, about simply finding where we are in the midst of a much bigger story.


Maybe this wasn’t the vlog about nothing that Daniel would have wanted me to make but, it’s the one that represents where I am now.

New Episode! “Meaning & Melancholy W/ Eric G. Wilson”

I’m so excited to share this episode. I got the amazing opportunity to interview one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Eric G. Wilson.

A few months back I made a video and a podcast talking a little bit about one his books, Against Happiness.

Here’s the video:

And, if you want to listen to the podcast episode you can find it below:

That video put me in touch with both Eric and his podcasting partner, Joel Tauber. I was fortunate enough to have Joel as a guest on a previous episode of the podcast:

If you want to watch the video, here ya go!

You can also read a little bit more about it here and here.

Their podcast, which we talk about in the episode, is called Belt: A 2-Man Memoir. Its funny, smart, and irreverent.

This is an incredible conversation. I’m so unspeakably grateful to Eric for taking the time. 

As the title of this episode suggests, we talk a lot about meaning and melancholy. But, we also talk quite a bit about creativity, writing, failure, religion, spirituality, and so many other rich and dynamic subjects.

Here are a few of his books that we talked about in the episode:

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck

Keep It Fake

The Mercy of Eternity

Polaris Ghost

I hope you enjoy this episode. If you do, it would mean the world to me if you subscribe to it on whatever platform you’re listening to it on, leave it a good review and share with your friends.

If you’d like to support this work of learning out loud, contribute to creating a community of curiosity then please check out my Patreon page. For $3 a month you get shout-outs in all my videos and podcasts, you early access to all my YouTube video before they are released to the general public, and you get access to exclusive behind-the-scenes Patreon only blogs, videos, and photos.

Keep showing up, keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.

“Concentrated Curiosity W/ Jack Stolz”

A few weeks ago I got to do an interview with YouTuber extraordinaire Jack Stolz. I’ve written about it here and here.

Podcast episode below:

Jack is a musician, a vlogger, photographer, cinematographer, and all around awesome guy!

Jack has played a big part in my process of dipping my toes into videography and YouTube. As a result, Jack has become a good friend and he continues to inspire me.

Whether he realizes it or not, Jack has been with me throughout most of this endeavor, in one form or another. He’s been a big encouragement. He has continually made himself available to talk shop, to provide helpful tips and advice, and to give feedback.

It probably goes without saying it was great to spend some extra time talking with him. It was an even greater pleasure to do it for the podcast!

If you want to check him out, here’s all the places you can find him:
Instagram
Twitter
YouTube

If you want to support this work of learning out loud, if you ‘d like to help create a community of curiosity, and if you’d like to get access to exclusive, behind-the-scenes, Patron only content, and get shout-outs in videos and podcasts, then check out my Patreon page.

Keep showing up, Keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful!