The Climate Movement Needs Your Creativity, Not Your Guilt

Me, onstage. Photo credit: my sister.

(This is an annotated transcript of the TEDx talk I gave in April 2023. It’s 10 minutes long. I’d suggest watching it first and then coming here for supporting materials.)

Does climate action feel impossible?

When I was a kid, I was interested in everything. I’d need about 10 careers to do it all. So I got out my green and blue markers and made a calendar to keep track of which job I’d have on which day of the week. On Monday, I’d be a scientist, on Tuesday, a painter. Friday — some kind of explorer, because I loved nature documentaries. I related to how animals seemed fascinated by whatever was right in front of them.

Every documentary ended with a reminder that these animals needed our help, and all the ways they were threatened by human activity. I couldn’t believe no one had managed to do something about this. But I figured I would know how when I grew up.

So, though I kept changing my mind about what I would be, the one constant was that it would have something to do with climate and conservation.

Years later, I was working as an engineer and plugging away at my art and writing. I didn’t tell anyone about my master plan to connect it all to climate, but I hadn’t forgotten it. I kept looking for ways to make my engineering work overlap with climate science or renewables.

Still, I avoided climate news. I didn’t need to hear over and over that climate change REALLY WAS real to motivate me to take action. I didn’t need to see a picture of an animal choking on plastic; I already had the master plan. Meanwhile, I kept circling climate action from a distance without taking the plunge.

But that changed in 2020. The United Nations issued a report giving us a deadline of 2030 to make steep emissions cuts.

Taking action couldn’t stay theoretical and future tense any longer. So I dove into the research to catch up on what I had missed. And I started — tentatively — talking to people about climate change and my intentions.

And I got wave after wave of bad news. It wasn’t just the tight deadlines, scale of changes needed, and years of deadlock.

It was also the confusing responses I was getting in my conversations about climate change. I’d bring up something I found fascinating, people’s faces would drop. The’d say “Yeah… I should be doing more.” And the conversation stopped there.

We’d all finally grown up! and I was ready to jump into the master plan, but I hadn’t factored in when I was 10 that no one would want to jump with me.

And it was 2020, and the air in California was full of wildfire smoke — a constant reminder of what was at stake.

Defeatism had hijacked the climate conversation and it was everywhere.

Eventually, the gloom shifted just enough for me to start wondering. Maybe we were all so bummed because we couldn’t see through the haze. We’ve all been peppered with directives — reduce, reuse, recycle. Drive less. Fly less. Turn off lights. Don’t buy plastic.

And we try, pushing against a system that wasn’t set up for any of that. But we don’t have a clear picture of how this helps.

We may have a vague idea of our individual reductions adding up to collective reductions — but then, every single one of us would have to cut our individual emissions by over half, and then to zero. We can’t imagine the effort it would take to scale up our reductions by that much. And convincing every single human to do the same? Impossible.

This picture doesn’t add up because it requires us all to be perfect. And worse, it makes us feel like we are failing, every single day.

But let me paint you a different picture. If change could only happen with 100% participation and perfection, change would never happen. But I think we can all agree that sometimes change does happen, even positive change. So — how?

For one thing, you can move society in a positive direction without being perfect. Think of it like electric current. We are the electrons.

When we imagine current flowing through a wire, we might imagine an orderly stream of electrons all moving in the same direction.

“Orderly” current. Illustration by the author.

But actually, even before the current starts, the electrons are moving — randomly, at high speeds, in all directions. 

Before the current starts .

And when we apply a voltage to create current, it still looks like they’re moving at random, except there’s a change you can only see when you look at the wire as a whole. 

When the current starts, the electron motion still looks random.

Each electron shifts its velocity a tiny bit, all in the same direction. You don’t need perfect electrons to create current.

But the subtle shift in electron velocities adds up to a current.

Society is a bit more complicated than electric current. Still, it doesn’t matter that we aren’t each moving in a perfectly sustainable direction as long as our changes line up. And more importantly, pick up speed.

So what’s the voltage that directs us? I called it “the system,” and what I mean is the way all the organizations that touch our lives are set up — what they prioritize and where they get their materials.

We are constantly pushing against the system while trying to influence “our” consumption. What if we tried influencing the system instead?

So how do systems change? I found the answer in one of my math textbooks. Transformation builds under the surface as ideas brew, minds change, and small clusters of supporters gather — all while progress appears to be slow or non-existent, until suddenly, the support reaches a critical mass, and the system transforms rapidly in an emergent process.

Ideas spreading and social change. Illustration by the author.

Nearly every social movement that succeeded followed this pattern of slow, then all at once. To get to that point, a certain percentage of people need to participate (estimated variously as 3.5%, to 25%), but importantly, it’s not 100%.

So don’t think of the climate movement as something you’re guilted into. You can choose to be one of the 25% who become early adopters of change.

And you don’t have to worry about the people you can’t convince. They will change when the system changes because that comes first.

Changing the system requires creativity. The first act of creativity is to imagine the possible paths to transformation.

The second act of creativity is to imagine where you can fit into that picture. Old ideas need to be replaced by new ones — about everything from Social change. Illustration by the authortechnology to our day-to-day lives. The new ideas spread through you.

Social change: where you fit in. Illustration by the author

To make that happen, ask yourself these three questions.

One. What is a movement you want to throw your weight behind? Pick a trend or organization that’s already building, and that you can help accelerate. You can be another piece of its critical mass.

Two. What’s a practical obstacle that’s been keeping you from participating? Anything from not knowing what a word means, to having trouble deciding where to volunteer.

If you have this obstacle, others do too. So brainstorming a solution will help more than just you. That obstacle doesn’t stand a chance against your formidable skills at creative problem solving!

Question Three. What social circles that you’re already a part of, can you share your solutions and experiences with? Sharing in the circles where you can be heard is how your solutions amplify and ripple outward.

We’re facing unprecedented challenges, so our imaginations need to be nimble — zipping like a hummingbird — from the big picture, to our immediate surroundings. From where we’re starting from — to where we want to get to.

We can’t be nimble like this if we’re stuck in guilt and perfectionism, and gazing endlessly within our own homes and wallets at all the things we’re doing wrong.

No movement in history has been made up of perfect people, so stop worrying about the ways you’re not perfect. Perfect people are not required.

Instead, think of all the ways your creativity could accelerate us in the right direction.

If you haven’t already, check out the recording of my TEDx talk! And you can hit ‘like’ on the video if you want to help get the YouTube algorithm to distribute it.

10 Days of Scholarly Hobbits

An art series

I’m back with another 10(ish) day drawing challenge!

Lately, I’ve been knee-deep in research and writing, both for work and my various personal projects. Deadline stress and minutiae make it hard to remember what I like about research. Noticing it made me kind of sad.

I decided to lean on fantasy themes to recapture the old magic. Art challenges have become my go-to for unsticking my projects.

Adding an extra task to an already busy time is counter-intuitive, but somehow, it balances out my day to have something creative and visual to do. I design my challenges to address what I need most in the moment. (I also took inspiration from a painting I made over a decade ago for similar reasons.)

For 11 days, I drew hobbit-like characters reading or researching. On some days, I got ambitious and on others, I took as many shortcuts as I could, like making simpler scenes and reusing a rejected brainstorm thumbnail from a previous day. Either way, I looked forward to my drawing session at the end of the day.

The pictures where I took shortcuts turned out surprisingly well. Maybe that means I’m prone to overcomplicating things.

In the gallery above, I put the illustrations into an order that loosely suggests the characters are on a quest together. Maybe it’ll spark an idea for a story later!

These are my notes from the project:

  • Here are all the updates I made along the way: Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Day 11, wrapup.
  • As usual, I started by making a page full of thumbnail sketches to give a rough idea of where I was going with the series, and I figured out all the other details along the way.
  • I got a lot of practice drawing hands and everyday studying poses. Looking back, I can see bits of improvement, which is encouraging.
  • I want to get better at interiors and objects. I groan internally whenever I need to draw a room or furniture, so I have a longer way to go on those. A first step will be to look for ways to make it fun.
  • My process for starting an illustration is getting solid: the steps of sketch-ink-flat-color-shade-highlight finally feels comfortable. (I’ve described my process in slightly more detail here.)

I had a great time drawing these characters thinking hard and writing. Now, I’m ready to join them in hitting the books.

What I Learned from Setting Myself Five Creative Challenges

The characteristics the successful ones had in common

Illustration by the author from challenge #5

In the space of about a year, I set myself five personal creative challenges.

You may have heard of popular challenges like Inktober and NaNoWriMo, where you aim to write or draw every day, or reach a certain word count in a month.

I sensed the excitement around these challenges every year and even participated on rare occasions. I enjoyed it, but the timing and parameters of the challenge never felt right for where I was in my projects.

I’d also taken classes that followed a structure similar to these challenges. I was more successful at completing the classes, and following the structure always paid off enormously in productivity and skill building. Still, I found them taxing and overly restrictive. By the end, my willpower and creative resources were depleted.

Both of these experiences planted the seed that maybe I could design my own challenge, tailored to my goals and work style exactly.

I set myself a ten-day drawing challenge in May 2022, and came away from the experience so delighted that I set myself four more in the year that followed.

Of the five challenges, three were decidedly successful, and two had mixed results. Looking back, I have an inkling of what made the successful challenges work so much better than the others.

Let me share, since my experiences might be helpful in designing your own creative challenges.

The five challenges

Briefly, the five challenges were:

  1. ten-day challenge to make a digital drawing of a houseplant every day, as well as publish a YouTube video of my drawing process every day.
  2. ten-day challenge to write an essay every day around a particular theme (“Adaptation”).
  3. Another ten-day challenge to write an essay every day around a particular theme (“Time”).
  4. month-long challenge to do at least one of three activities (write, plot, or draw concept art for my novel) each day, and publish intermittent YouTube updates.
  5. 7-day challenge to make an illustration around a particular theme (“Recovery”) each day and post it on Tumblr.

Of these, #1, #4 and #5 were resounding successes, because I published a lot and ended up happy and energized.

The essay challenges, #2 and #3, were kind of duds.

Now, I don’t think the issue was that they were essay challenges. I’m confident, now, that I can design an essay challenge that works.

No, the difference was more to do with the challenge parameters.

What makes a successful creative challenge?

After each challenge, I took copious notes, reflecting on the experience. I believe five characteristics of the challenges can help them succeed.

1. The challenge addresses your most important current goal.

Each of my successful challenges was designed around what I wanted most at that moment.

I looked for clever ways to combine all my top goals, like finding time for art and connection to nature, wanting to publish more, and unsticking a big project, into one challenge.

As a result, the challenge was unambiguously my top priority. Working on it was going to get me everything I wanted. (I was constantly reminded of a quote from Mozzie in White Collar: “A true con gets you everything you want.”)

In contrast, the two essay challenges were built on themes that didn’t fall naturally out of my priorities. My goals were to write and publish, and I chose themes that were on my mind, but there was no reason to suppose that exploring them for 10 days would improve my circumstances.

I didn’t have a pressing need for the art I’d assigned myself to make, so I wasn’t as committed to making it. And I had other goals that I had to push aside to work on the challenge.

So, my recommendation is to pick something you want done, are itching to do or even, have already started doing, and turn that into a daily project.

See if you can design the activities of the project so that it simultaneously advances compatible goals like skill-building, having fun, and publishing.

Then build in activities for rest and recovery, or anything else you will need to keep up the momentum.

Creative challenges don’t have to be grand and elaborate; they can be a more consistent version of what you were planning to do anyway.

Illustration by the author from challenge #5

2. The challenge leverages skills you already have.

For two of my successful challenges, I had already started the challenge activity before I decided to make it a challenge.

The 10-day plant drawing challenge started after I’d drawn a few plants and realized I wanted to do more. I already knew how to draw in the style I was planning. I added one (just one!) new skill to practice, which was editing YouTube videos.

In the novel-related writing/drawing challenge, I leaned on the drawing skills I was more confident in to get better at revising my writing.

In both cases, I only needed to spend the first day of the challenge learning the steps of my daily activity. The days after that were spent just repeating the steps I knew how to do.

After the first day, I was honing skills I already had, not acquiring new ones.

3. The challenge closes the loop on each creative piece.

For the successful challenges, I built publishing into the process. I reached the end of the challenge with a stack of complete and already-published materials.

In some cases, I published every day, and in others, intermittently. But in either case, there was no follow-up needed after the challenge was done to get the benefits of all that creative work.

This is where I went wrong with the essay challenges. I couldn’t publish a full essay in a single day (the style of writing I was doing was too ambitious for that), so all I wrote during the challenge were first drafts. To be fair, they were quite good drafts.

But the issue was that I reached the end of the challenge, tired and without having published anything in over a week, and now I had a pile of editing to do.

All the work of the challenge would be for nothing if I didn’t follow up and complete each essay.

This didn’t have the motivating effect I’d hoped for, of looking back on a period of productive work. Even though I was prolific in first drafts, it only meant more work ahead in editing.

So, I recommend designing your challenge so that when you are done, you are done. All the steps of publishing are built into the challenge.

At the end, you have the option to tie your work up with a bow and move on to something else.

4. The longer the challenge is, the more flexibility it needs.

The one challenge I did that was longer than 10 days was also the most flexible. I gave myself the choice to do one of three activities, unlike the shorter challenges where I did the same thing every day.

This was by design.

With challenges like NaNoWriMo, where you do the same activity for 30 days, I found that the work fatigued some parts of my brain. The activities that would help it recover would take time away from the challenge and hence add pressure. This is why I ended these challenges so depleted.

With experimentation, I’ve found that my limit for doing the same activity consecutively is 10 days.

I can maintain a flexible type of continuity for 30 days.

I measure success for the longer challenges in ‘streaks’ (like in Wordle). On a given day, if I do even five minutes of one of the planned activities, I count it as a part of the streak.

Even with this much leeway, the challenge added consistency to my creative practice and kept my project percolating in the background, sparking all kinds of insights. Flexibility doesn’t take away from the project’s effectiveness.

You may not need as much flexibility as I do. You may be able to do the same activity for thirty or even a hundred days straight.

I suggest experimenting and finding a challenge duration that seems almost easy. And the longer you choose to make it, the more choice I would recommend in your activities.

Illustration by the author from challenge #4

5. The challenge is only as difficult as it needs to be.

As I’ve posited in the previous section, a challenge doesn’t have to be a grueling marathon to be worth it. Easy challenges are still beneficial, believe it or not.

The parameters of my challenges aren’t there to make the activities harder. I don’t require myself to work fast, long, or on increasingly difficult tasks. There are no rules against slacking as long as I show up.

The parameters are just intended to produce (a smidge of) consistency.

Within that container, I’m allowed to do anything I want, even to take the easy way out. I find that I rarely do. Once the impediments to getting started are out of the way, I naturally feel drawn to do good work.

This is why I find over-ambitious word count or publishing goals unhelpful. They feel arbitrary and don’t advance the goals I set out the start of the challenge. And they add new ways to fail or fall behind.

The parameters of a good challenge will set you up to feel more encouraged each day than the last. That means finding the process easier and easier with practice, while watching your creative streak grow.

Self-imposed creative challenges are my favorite way to start or unstick a project. Even the ones I deemed less successful led to periods of rapid skill growth.

And the successful ones did that, and more — I created, published, and learned, and kept creating even after the challenge ended because of all the momentum behind me.

It took a lot of experimenting and failing at NaNoWriMo before I found the formula that works for me.

That’s why I recommend tailoring your creative challenge to your unique work style. There is so much upside to be had!

Here’s my worksheet resource for having a deeply creative work session!

Originally appeared in Share Your Creativity.

Teaching Myself to Draw Birds!

I was still in the art mood after my last art series, so I thought I might as well teach myself something: to draw birds better!

My goal was to be able to pose birds in action, for future semi-realistic cartoons – basically, to reach a similar fluency with their anatomy as I have with humans.

The sketches below were done from photos and videos I took:

I started off by practicing how to build up from a gesture to a figure, using shapes.

For the first few studies which aren’t shown here, I referenced nature photography and anatomical diagrams that had more detail than my own photos.

This was loads of fun, and hopefully sets me up to include semi-realistic bird characters in my cartoons! And I need to decide on a category of animal to study next…

(Among the birds pictured are cedar waxwings, baby Canada geese, mallard ducks, a magpie, great horned owl, some kind of swamphen, a rail or crake or somebody, and a few fellers I can’t identify. If you know who and what they are, let me know!)

P.S. A few more details on how I got started.

  • I’ve been working through this class on drawing humans in action. ‘Gesture’ is a quick drawing that captures the dynamism of a pose with simple curved lines. I haven’t finished the course yet, but it’s already helped me draw people better.
  • I wanted to build up a similar technique for birds. This tutorial explains how to adapt the gesture technique to animals.
  • From there, I got a pile of photos and started scribbling. I landed on a method of starting with a curved line from beak to tail and a circle for the head, and adding forms onto that basic structure.

If you are brand new to drawing (and even otherwise), artist and author Betty Edwards recommends an exercise for seeing like an artist – drawing continuously while looking at your subject and not looking at the page at all. (Her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, was a huge help in leveling up my drawing skills.)

I Used Art to Unstick My Novel Project

A combined writing/drawing challenge may be just what you need.

Illustration by the author: a meeting room in my fantasy novel

I’ve been working on a fantasy novel for a couple of years now, and I tend to work on it in sprints between other, shorter projects.

In December 2022, I cleared my schedule to work on my novel for a month. I was on my second draft and I hadn’t looked at it for a few months, which made the prospect of starting up again intimidating.

After pondering over my next course of action, I arrived at my favorite solution to creative blocks: an art challenge.

I decided that, for the month of December, I would do at least one of three activities every day: draw, write my novel, or prepare to write my novel (e.g. plotting, world-building, etc.). In effect, I mashed together InktoberPreptober, and NaNoWriMo, with a bit of flexibility to choose between them day-to-day.

I also made intermittent updates on YouTube along the way.

Looking back, it was one of the most successful of my self-imposed creative challenges. I made huge leaps in clarity about my novel and kicked off some writing momentum that lasted for months afterward.

Writing and art go well together

I mostly drew on days when I was stuck in my novel. The main difficulty I had was in engaging my visual imagination for descriptions.

It’s easier for me to develop visuals through drawing, and then describe in words from there, rather than try to go straight from imagination to words.

Switching back and forth between writing and drawing was helpful in other ways, like in managing my energy and a sense of continuity. I frequently need to rest the verbal part of my brain, and it was nice to be able to do that while still steeping my imagination in my fictional world.

Illustration by the author: a library in my fantasy novel

The practice developed my art skills.

Even though I chose to write rather than draw on most days, I still got more art practice than in an ordinary month.

Generally, the biggest obstacle to sitting down and drawing is deciding on a subject. In this case, the subjects were dictated by the needs of my writing, so I could get into the art straightaway without having to make too many decisions.

That’s a lesson I’ve taken away from this experience: for art challenges, it’s worth taking the time to pre-decide what subjects to draw. It makes executing the project much easier on busy days.

As I write this, it occurs to me that one could use other types of writing projects to a similar advantage, for example, illustrating a month’s worth of blog posts could be a good theme for an art challenge. (If you are some type of writer, how would you adapt this approach to your needs?)

The result of all this practice was to clarify my illustration process and style (for this particular type of fantasy illustration), which I will go into a bit more in the next section.

Illustration by the author: a picnic spot in my fantasy novel

Illustration process

For the artists reading this, the process I used may be of interest, so I will share a few notes here.

  • These illustrations were done in Procreate on an iPad, but the process is similar if you use Photoshop or Clip Studio.
  • I used a few reference photos including pictures I’d taken on vacation and images I looked up of cliff dwellings from around the world.
  • I started each drawing from a template file with all the layers I need already set up. I got the idea to make the template from this video by LavenderTowne. The important layers are named (from the bottom) Sketch, Flat, Color (which is set to ‘clipping mask’), Shading (which is a multiply layer set to ‘clipping mask’), and Ink.
  • First I sketched roughly on the Sketch layer, and when I was happy with it, I jumped up to the Ink layer and made cleaner line art. Then I used the select tool on the Ink layer and filled the selection on the Flat layer. (If you’re wondering what ‘flat’ means here, this tutorial might help.) Then I colored and shaded with the brush tool on the respective layers.

After the basic steps, I usually ended up adding some extra layers (set as overlay layers) for fun, atmospheric light effects. I’d brush on a variety of colors, erase swirls out of them, and smudge them around to act like sunlight.

Having done a few of these art challenges, I’ve learned that the longer the challenge, the more flexible it has to be. I chose to make this a month-long, so I left room in the parameters to adapt to the needs of my project.

I knew this format suited me because it let me build momentum.

Best of all, I reached the end with some energy left in the bank, ready to keep up the writing habit for several more months. (I only stopped when I ran into a new obstacle in my novel, which I’m going to try to tackle now with, you guessed it! Another art challenge.)

This was my second art challenge (first one here), and the one that convinced me that I’d keep doing this style of project whenever I could.

If you’d like to read more about this project, you can read/watch all the updates I made along the way!

Originally appeared in Share Your Creativity