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Canvas #3 — ARTIST 360

7 Tips for the 21-Year-Old Me
by Bobby Chiu

When I was a student in college working on my skills as a character designer, I’d had periods where I would sit at my desk working as hard as I could but having little to show for my efforts at the end of the day. I remember sitting there surrounded by blank pieces of paper, trying to come up with an amazing style that nobody had ever seen before. I would do one drawing and not be satisfied, so I would lay a new piece of paper over it, re-draw it with slight changes to features here and there. This would still not be good enough so I would put another piece of paper over my revision, make more minor adjustments trying to perfect this new style I was searching for.

I did this for weeks on end, tweaking and polishing over and over, working hard every day. But in the end, did I come up with a brand new style, something amazing that nobody had ever seen before?

No, unfortunately I didn’t.

And how much did I improve from this experience? Not much at all.

Spinning my wheels like this made me a little depressed and I thought to myself, “If only someone could tell me what to do to become a great artist, I would do exactly that and do it with all my heart.”

That’s what this article is about: seven key things that I would tell the 21-year-old me, which I’ve found to have contributed the most to having a successful career in art.

1. “Focus, Bobby. Undisturbed focus, 90 minutes at a time.”

It’s actually really great to work intensely for short segments of time and take regular breaks. I’ve found that when I split my work into intense and focused 90-minutes sessions, not only do I have a good sense of urgency as the 90 minutes expire, but the regular breaks also give me wonderful, fresh looks at my work multiple times throughout the day.

2. “You have to practice, Bobby. There’s no way around it and there is no substitute for good, purposeful practice.”

There are many different ways to practice but I have found that practicing as a way of trying to learn has the greatest impact. What I mean by this is, I don’t practice drawing something just because it looks cool—I always have an objective in mind. What am I trying to learn?

Am I studying how an artist does a certain technique or achieves a certain look?

Am I learning muscles and other anatomy?

I didn’t practice simply how to copy what I saw but rather I practiced fully understanding what it was that I was drawing and painting to the point that I could do it out of my imagination.

If I had only practiced how to copy things, then I would have become a great copier. But by striving to understand what it was that I was referencing and trying to create something with the same essence and feeling, I worked multiple parts of my mind and skills.

3. “Embrace your routine, Bobby.”

I used to be against routines.

I used to think routines would take all the fun and excitement out of my life and lock me down. I started my own studio because I wanted to be free.

But I’ve since discovered that I looked at it all wrong.

Freedom isn’t necessarily a result of having spontaneity, it’s the result of having time.

I feel the most free when I have time to do the things that I really want to do, and the best way to have a lot of time is to be better organized. Having a great routine allows me to be more productive, which gives me more time to do the other things I love to do.

Routines are also extremely powerful for creating momentum but they only work if we make them a priority. I became better at drapery and drawing people by sketching for a few hours on the subways of Toronto every Sunday. This was part of my routine for five years and I did it consistently even if it was raining, Christmas, or my birthday. And even though subway sketching only took two or three hours every seven days, the routine helped improve my skills dramatically.

Try it yourself! Start off with something small that you know you can commit to. Do that thing consistently and you’ll quickly see the benefits of a great routine. Once you get used to it, add something new and soon you’ll have a great routine that will improve your skills and save your time.

4. “Cultivate a love for what you do, Bobby.”

As a student, I was afraid to really, truly love doing art. Some artists get too obsessed about their art, and I didn’t want to go that crazy about my work.

But what I found was that loving what I do doesn’t automatically make me crazy about it, and that’s a good thing. Loving art not only helps me get through the day, it makes me eagerly await the next day because each day is another opportunity to get better at doing what I love.

Most of us who call ourselves artists love art, but like with any relationship, we have to put in the effort in to make our love affair strong and lasting. So we should all try to cultivate our passion, enthusiasm, and love for art; these can only help us on our artistic journeys.

5. “Build a network of like-minded people, Bobby. Everything is easier when you have a group.”

I could never do as much or go as far alone as I could with a group of like-minded people.

I think part of the reason that I’ve had a successful career over the years is because I’m naturally curious about people. I love learning their stories and, in turn, making friends. In this way, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of the artists that I look up to and admire, and today, call them my friends.

Because art is typically a solitary pursuit, many artists are naturally shy individuals, so building a network can be daunting. Nevertheless, I cannot overstate the value of having people. To get over my natural shyness, particularly when I first met my heroes, I had to consciously dig around in my mind for that little tiny piece of me that is not as shy, and expand it even if it’s just for a short period of time. I let this little piece steer the ship for a while, and that was how I got myself out there to meet interesting people or people that I didn’t know.

Think of it this way: not meeting one person doesn’t mean missing out on that one person that you could have been friends with; it means missing out on that one person and every person that that person could have introduced you to, and one of THOSE people could have been the one to give you your dream job, been your best friend, or your wife or husband.

Take every opportunity you can to get out there and talk with people, in person or online. Who knows where it will lead you.

6. “Discomfort and fear can’t hurt you, Bobby. By challenging and overcoming them, you will always continue to improve.”

I have learned to challenge challenges, to be comfortable in discomfort, and to overcome my fears. By doing so, I constantly push my limits and therefore expand my potential and possibilities. I love doing things that are challenging, even when I might not know where to even start. These are the things that I live for and they have helped me to push my limits further and further.

When I’ve been too comfortable for too long, I get unsettled. An alarm will go off in my head, compelling me to get up and do something challenging.

Comfort is one of life’s traps and many new professionals fall into it, preventing them from continuing to learn and improve every day. The moment this happens will be the exact moment that you start to fall behind.

The whole world keeps evolving and learning every day, so to stay relevant and to have the best chance at a successful career, we must continue to learn as well.

7. “Exercise your willpower, Bobby. When the mind is willing, the body has no choice but to follow.”

We are not born with willpower. As babies and children, we have to be taught (and taught and taught again) to resist urges, wait for rewards, and basically do the things we know we should do but don’t particularly want to. This challenge doesn’t end at adulthood, either. In fact, I’m sure we all know grown men and women who still have trouble resisting that extra slice of cake, hitting that snooze button one more time, or doing that uncomfortable and inconvenient thing in order to get the reward that they want.

Willpower is something that we can develop, like a muscle that we can grow and strengthen. To exercise it, do things that are challenging or which you don’t want to do but you know are good for you.

Willpower drains as we make decisions such as resisting what we want to have, waiting for a reward, or doing something we don’t want to do. For example, perhaps you can decline a piece of chocolate cake, but what if it was followed by brownies, ice cream, French fries, and potato chips?

This is why I always prefer to make will-draining decisions the night before so that the following morning, I don’t have to make ANY decisions and can just jump right to the first item on my to-do list.

Explaining the Rise of Donald Trump, part 6: So is he going to win?

The sixth and final part of my series on the rise of Donald Trump, derived from lectures I have given as Fulbright Bicentennial Chair at the University of Helsinki. Parts 1-5 can be found here, here, here, here and here.

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So, if I’m right, we’ve spent the last 40 or so years building a world in which the line separating fake and real has eroded, in which the difference between celebrity and accomplishment has been obscured, and in which the gap between skills and appearances has collapsed. As a consequence, candidates who “look” good and draw attention for its own sake might well be as electable – or even more electable – than “traditional” candidates.

The obvious question is: Why Not Donald Trump?

Let me suggest three reasons why a Trump presidency is unlikely. Let me then offer two caveats to these arguments. Then, perhaps, we’ll be able to assess if Donald Trump – or someone like him – will be the United States’ next president … or, not.

Personality and ideology: First, it should be noted that Trump is neither a natural politician nor a natural Republican. I am not much for predictions, but this one isn’t so much a prediction as an inevitable conclusion to a well-framed mathematical equation. A thrice-married (twice divorced), multiply-bankrupt germophobe who doesn’t like to shake people’s hands is not going to enjoy the one-on-one politics of the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. For that matter, for all his birtherism and anti-gay marriage blatherings, Donald Trump is neither the kind of social conservative who tends to do well in Republican caucuses in Iowa nor the kind of fiscal conservative who tends to do well in the Republican primaries in New Hampshire. Among other things, in the past he has advocated both national health care and a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Thus, as a practical matter Trump isn’t likely to do all that well in either Iowa or New Hampshire (or in South Carolina either, which has its primary the following week). Historically, if you don’t do well in one or the other of those states, your campaign is likely to fail. As a practical matter, then, Trump, despite his current lead in NATIONAL polls, isn’t likely to win the Republican nomination for President once the state-by-state contest begins … and if you can’t win the nomination, you can’t win the presidency.  

The backgrounds of US presidents (so far): A second reason Trump is unlikely to win even his party’s nomination for president, much less the office itself, is that Americans have tended to look for professional politicians when electing people to the Presidency. This seems almost too obvious to bring up: after all, you go to dentists for dental work and plumbers for plumbing work so why wouldn’t you go to politicians for political work? As Albert Einstein noted, politics is harder than physics. Why would you hire, say, a political science professor from Illinois to rewire your house?

If you just look at the question of who has been elected president since the rise of what we in political science refer to as the “modern” presidency – roughly since 1900 or so – you see some interesting patterns:

–for example, all but 3 of the people elected president, from Teddy Roosevelt on, had elected political experience of one kind or another.

–of the three who didn’t – William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower – all had held a significant political office of one kind or another. Eisenhower, after all, was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, hardly an unpolitical job. Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce and head of US relief operations in Europe after WWI. And Taft had been both Solicitor General of the United States and Governor General of the Philippines. Indeed, the only person who spent the bulk of his career as a businessperson that the US has ever elected president was Herbert Hoover … and I don’t think anyone really wants Herbert Hoover to serve as a model for the next US president.

–Moreover, most of those who held elected office before becoming President held one or both of two specific offices: Governor, or Vice President. Three people were directly elected from the Senate to the Presidency: Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. No one has ever been elected President from the House of Representatives directly. (Ford wasn’t elected).

The Electoral College and the Structure of American campaigns: Third – and it seems like I have to make this point over and over again every 4 years – US presidents are not elected in popularity contests. As Al Gore’s campaign reminded us in 2000, it is possible to win the most votes in an American presidential election and lose the presidency in the Electoral College. Presidents of the United States are elected in 51 state and district elections, most of which have rules that determine that whoever gets the most votes in their state gets ALL of that state’s Electoral College votes. As it happens, if you add up all the states that have voted Democratic in the last 6 presidential elections – that’s every election since Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 – and assume the state will probably vote Democratic again in 2016, that means the Democrats go into the 2016 general election with 242 of the 270 votes they need to win the Presidency. Using the same “last six elections” standard, Republicans, by contrast, control only about 102 Electoral College votes. Now, history is not guaranteed to repeat itself, but just in structural position my guess is you’d rather run as a Democrat than a Republican in 2016. Thus even if Donald Trump were to win the Republican nomination, he is unlikely to be elected President … especially given his particular talent for insulting women and minorities, who make up the significant majority of presidential election year voters.

Put in a more colloquial way, as South Carolina Senator (and recent dropout in the 2016 race for the Republican nomination for president), Lindsay Graham put it in 2012, the Republican Party is “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Taken together, these three factors suggest that Donald Trump has a long row to hoe to become president. He is a classic “silly season” candidate: fun to talk about in the long period before elections start actually happening, but who fade once the professional politics get underway.  

Still, I have to offer two caveats to my otherwise dismissive expectations for the Trump candidacy. The first of these involves money. The second involves American popular frustration with the politics of the moment.

Money: As to money, while there isn’t time to go into it here, American elections are extremely expensive, even for minor races. At the presidential level, the numbers are staggering. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney (and his supporters) and Barack Obama (and his supporters) spent very nearly $1.5 billion on their campaigns … each. By the end of the 2016 campaign, it is reasonable to suppose that each of the two major party candidates and their supporters will spend over $2 billion running for the office.  

Money at this scale is hard to raise. Historically, the difficulty of raising massive amounts of money has acted as an agent of natural selection in American campaigns: those candidates who couldn’t raise money dropped out, often after losing a few elections (like in Iowa and New Hampshire). Meanwhile, the winners of the Iowa and New Hampshire elections were usually well-positioned to raise enough money to compete for the nomination nationwide.

Donald Trump, however, doesn’t really need to raise money. He has it to hand. And he gets lots of free publicity to boot. As a consequence, he may be able to keep going well past what, historically, would have been his expiration date. Under such circumstances, traditional expectations about how campaigns ought to unfold may be dated and inaccurate.

Public frustration: As to American public frustration, it is clear that voters are unsatisfied by the autotuned nonsense churned out by established politicians. The current political stasis in Washington only feeds this impatience and unhappiness since, from the outside, it seems that the position-taking and gamesmanship of politics has overwhelmed the desire to use politics to promote the public good.

Meanwhile, the traditional politicians in the Republican field are desperately trying to autotune their messages to satisfy both donors and voters. After all, established politicians have learned over the years that whatever citizens say, they almost always vote for the polished, autotuned candidate who tells them what they want to hear … even when those same citizens insist that such tuning makes them unhappy, unsatisfied, and prone to hold their noses while they vote.

As a consequence, it is possible – not likely, mind you, just possible – that this is the year the conventional analysts get it wrong and we all get reminded that human beings are more creative than sometimes we give them credit for. If the voters are just angry enough … if the establishment politicians are just tone deaf enough … if the money is just right … well, maybe. Maybe.

This, it seems to me, is the dark side of the crisis of authenticity in American politics. Candidates like Donald Trump seem authentic. They look like leaders unafraid to speak their minds. They appeal to people who don’t like “traditional” politics and seek to shake up the established order.  So they gain support. But as celebrities with no actual political or much other practical preparation, they’d almost certainly be terrible presidents. Which is sort of a problem, since the US gets to only have one president at a time, and they serve for four years … at least.  

So to end where I started: Why Can’t Donald Trump Be President? Well, as it happens, as I said earlier in my talk, I don’t think he can. I think the realities of the campaign process will weed him out, while more established political leaders will find their footing a and grow more effective over time.  

That said, in a world where people distrust government, where we believe that political skills are actually about deception and distortion rather than building good lives for members of the community and where we are accustomed to celebrating people because they are alleged to be worthy of celebration, who knows? In a world where reality TV isn’t real and authentic experiences can be faked, maybe Donald Trump (or someone like him) CAN be president.

I hope none of us have to face that prospect. But, maybe.

In any case, as I draw to a close I take some measure of comfort from something I’ve learned while preparing this lecture: if I don’t like the reality where I came to Helsinki and ended up making a fool of myself in public, hopefully I’ll be able to photoshop myself out of the picture.

Please Don't Take Living In California For Granted

Look no one’s going to get through this thing, its for me not you.

After dropping out of high school because of violence, harassment, and at the time what seemed like an unconquerable learning disability, I was put into a Charter program in Madison, Wisconsin near the South Bus Transfer point on Park St.

All the worst kids in the county, about 30 of us, sent to one “school.” A windowless cockroach infested office building (shared with a city program for Hispanics to get food stamps without green cards) located above a fried chicken joint that later became an Asian Grocery Store.

My second day of school there was 9/11/2001 and the world changed. It was like day care for truants and fuck ups; we turned it into an art school. I played in a band, made relentlessly offensive art, escaped to Chicago on the weekends with friends to see shows, tried every drug imaginable and survived as a white post goth/proto-hipster kid with big fat fucking braces in eyeliner by learning how to use my mouth as a weapon. I degraded myself for gang members amusement so they wouldn’t take my shit and beat me and just laugh at me instead.

When I “graduated” from that program that gave passing credits rather than GPA’s, I lost my job at McDonald’s because of my depression and drug use then was promptly kicked out of the toxic home I grew up in as soon as I turned 18.

All my friends left state for college. For a summer, I’d steal cans of beans from my friends parents houses and break into cars at night to steal enough change where I could get to the city and back to find a job. 5 months of complete poverty. I weighed 108 pounds.

I’d crash at my girlfriend’s parents house (she is now in prison for robbing 8 banks for heroin money with her boyfriend who then hung himself in jail before going to prison.) I think October of that year I finally found a job, 17 hours a week for $6.25 an hour at a grocery store. The guy I worked for bought me new tires on my car so I could drive 20 miles into work everyday and thought he owned me. He used to hit me, lock me in a freezer to “toughen me up” and throw pans at me and tell me rape stories.

I worked my way up and transferred to another store away from him, worked every odd job imaginable; a bookkeeper at a gas station at 3 a,m, a maintenance worker on section 8 low income housing, a janitor at a medical clinic cleaning up pus filled vomit.

I then took out a loan and worked 2 jobs to try and house myself while being a full-time student at one of the most rigorous programs in Madison from age 23-26. I went from having an 8th grade level math education to doing college algebra then later pre-calculus physics, and taught myself by failing the class a handful of times at $3,000 bucks a pop.

In those 3 years I moved 5 times from slum to eventually a nicer place, back to a slum. I had a landlord that stalked and harassed my girlfriend and cornered her threatening to kill me to get to her. We got a restraining order and he pumped poison into my apartment until my cats eyes crusted over with blood and I passed out. This was my first semester of college. I drove 120 miles a day from home, college and to work in brutal Wisconsin snow storms and underneath funnel clouds and around tornados to get where I needed to be on time.

The month I graduated college and got my degree in Electronics Engineering I felt like I beat all odds. If I could survive that I could do anything! I finally had a 40k a year job, about to get health insurance, 7 years of work when I got the phone call from a friend to come work for his podcast network in L.A.

I put all my stuff in storage, flew to L.A with two carry on bags and the $2,500 my grandfather Fred left me when he died. I crashed for two weeks at my friends until I found an actors slum in the Franklin Village 50 steps from UCB theatre that was half of what I made in a month. I slept on a dirty pile of clothes until I could get an air mattress, went to 5 dollar shows every night, drank like it was prohibition and lived off the vending machine in my complex.

I was paid illegally at this new job, so after having to pay my own taxes I made less then minimum wage recording celebrities and millionaires all day. I went from bedroom producer to running a studio looking out over Sunset Blvd.

When I ran out of savings, I asked for a raise and was told to hand over my bank statements to “learn how to live cheaper” on the money I was given. I was fired because I used the illegality as leverage for a promotion. I paid my rent, had $112 bucks to my name, and sat in that apartment for a month and made FeralAudio.com. To this day I give everything I make away for free.

I paid my first month’s rent with the money the “Have A Summah” album made that my friend Howard Kremer generously gave me. It was the first time I paid my rent with something I had done creatively and independently. Then I met Shadi Petosky at PUNY who gave me a job and financed me for 6 months. Later, Dan Harmon would become a major benefactor and would pay me a years salary out of his own pocket to keep me alive. And when I drove that into the ground keeping Feral Audio going I was moving my belongings into my car trying to find a home for my cat, he arranged the best job I’ve ever had in my life at his production studio where I am now waiting for files to render.

I’m writing this from the most beautiful audio booth in Burbank, CA. I’m in massive debt from my twenties, punished by the state of California for being an independent contractor, driving a car thats breaking down with expired tags, I haven’t paid my taxes yet this year because I can’t afford them, I’ve gotten taken advantage of, lied to, hurt, used but fuck it, ALL WORTH IT. All worth it, all worth it. I’m finally fucking happy. Rent is killing me this month but I lived all my dreams by the time I was 29 and I’m finally happy.

Maybe I should be thanking the internet that raised me and led me here, but I made myself and came out of absolutely nothing. Wisconsin is a place not a lot of people escape from. It is a hard life where you work until you die on extremely low wages. California is PARADISE. If you grew up here, or are out here at 19 for whatever reason you are already WAY ahead of the curve. You are entitled and you need to be extremely grateful. It’s not easy out here, don’t get me wrong. Los Angeles is a giant high school with life or death consequences. What you say, what you do, what bed you end up in drastically affects your future. But how AWESOME is that??

This isn’t my sob story! It’s just the path I had to take to get where I am now. And I’m still struggling, nothing is secure or static. I could lose it all at any moment. I don’t care! I won. I fucking won. Money is just a means for me to continue having this experience. I don’t need to exploit people because I don’t need to make 100 grand a year. Californians think thats the fucking norm. Try coming from complete dirt and living here on nickels and dimes, it’s like winning the cultural lottery.

I would not like to live as a perpetual college student and would like to pay off all my massive debts… I’d also like to be able to buy my family Christmas presents for once… but I’m completely at peace. I’ve hung out with Radiohead TWICE…once in a CEMETERY. I walked home in the pouring rain past prostitutes from Santa Monica Blvd up Bronson laughing like I WROTE MY OWN LIFE IN A SHITTY LIVE JOURNAL ENTRY WHEN I WAS 16.

Thank Christ I wasn’t born in California; beautiful and clean, in a nice home, with loving parents and a good education and a trust fund… I’d take for granted everyday what fucking paradise this. This is not my life! I’m living in an alternate timeline. The American Dream is real here, I worked hard, hard, HARD to have a good life and I finally do. A very nice one. You can too.

There’s a lot wrong with this state but aesthetically, if you are in this beautiful wonderland filled with castles and vibrant cities and millions of intellectuals and beautiful people EVERYWHERE you’re in fucking paradise. Have you been to The OC??? Do you know what the suburbs are like here!? Ever drive up the coast!? What the fuck! You live in a cartoon! Have you been to Disneyland? Why are you bitching online all day everyday? Go outside and get some California sun, it’s like free prozac is raining down from heaven.