I spent the better part of six years taking a bus to my job in downtown Los Angeles where I would see the same people, perform the same tasks, walk the same routes and eat at the same restaurants every day. In the beginning I liked the routine but over time it became mind-numbing and soul-crushing. I was turning into a zombie. That is, until I decided to change my perspective and to embrace the prosaic by committing myself to seeing something new among the familiar — every day.
I’m an avid photographer and generally carry a camera with me at all times, even if it’s just my iPhone. In fact, I’ve come to enjoy the challenges and inherent aesthetic of shooting in a square format and in low resolution. Instagram became my daily companion — my blue sky — and each posting like floating a visual kite to anybody who was watching. My day became an exercise in seeing and not just looking — each moment presented new opportunities and visual gifts. I called it a visual meditation — sort of like Shaolin training meets street photography: The doing was as important as the end result. (If you’ve seen the movie, Smoke, you’ll know what I mean.)
My goal was to find a new way to represent the mundane without overthinking any part of the situation or the process. Be present and in the moment and appreciate every nuance in every day: Observe how light tracks differently across the urban canyon walls at different times of the year; smell the heady mix of street food and other urban aromas; notice the leaves that cling to the cobwebs in the corners; see the invisible among us and how the cast of thousands who surge through the city part around them like water rushing around a stone. I tried to adopt “beginner’s mind,” or Shoshin, a concept in Zen Buddhism defined in Wikipedia as “having an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.” It was as simple and as difficult as that.
Some results were predictable — I started to look forward to my work days again with each one providing an opportunity to retrace my steps and revisit what I may have missed — or to see what had changed since my last pass. I enjoyed seeing my life from the macro to the micro. It was like living a time-lapse movie one frame at a time where the city changed before my eyes against the inertia of everyday life. Powaqqatsi meets Koyaanisqatsi (great movies — look them up). Other results were less obvious, such as the impact of visual haiku on my creative being. With distance I’ve come to appreciate that we — as problem-solvers and story-tellers — we need to periodically revisit our predispositions and explore new ways of seeing, of being present and deliberately working through the inevitable creative inertia. We need this and our clients deserve this. Because, at the end of the day, we are solving the same basic set of problems over and over again and it’s easy for creative fatigue to settle in, like a fog. We need to review, revamp and refresh.
If one subscribes to the notion that all problems are essentially variations on a theme, then a great read on the subject is Problem Solved (Phaidon) by Michael Johnson, the creative director at johnson banks, a design consultancy in London. The author posits that all problems can be categorized under a basic taxonomy and he discusses “producing innovative work, avoiding repetition, standing out in the market place, reinventing a tired brand, keeping a brand young and trendy, using shock tactics, and word-based advertising in a world over-run with images and sound-bites.” It’s an interesting take on how we look at problems and how we can embrace that which is familiar yet make it new in our own way.
Ultimately, I was relieved of my job in downtown, a casualty of corporate restructuring. But I’m grateful for all that I learned during that time and dare I say, I kind of miss my routine. Just a little. I have a different take on my daily existence and I’d like to think that my modus operandi has changed for the better because of it. I’m starting a new routine.
Remember, you’re unique — like everybody else. The difference is in your perspective and the stories you bring to the conversation.
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All images © Yee-Ping Cho