Keeping up with all the projects Jeffrey Yamaguchi’s doing could almost be a full-time project in and of itself. The Stockton, California native is the force behind the successful website 52projects.com, which encouraged people to start a project-any project-and provided suggestions for every week of the year. Now, 52 Projects has become a book, 52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity, highlighting not only said projects but also a philosophy of project making and its attendant benefits, and readers are encouraged to share their own craft success at Whatsyourproject.com.
Yet the community-minded spirit behind 52 Projects was nothing new for the 35-year-old writer, publisher and idea man. Prior to 52 Projects, he created a site about job angst at Workingfortheman.com, which spawned a self-published book of the same name, and Bookmouth.com, where he conducts interviews with authors. Here, he shares the meaning of "project," the connection between projects and jobs, and how to get past your procastination and get started.
Have you always been a project person?
This really all started in college, and if I had to pin it down, I would say that a less than ideal living situation that kept me wanting to be out of the apartment, combined with access to Macintosh computers, Pagemaker, a laser printer and a photocopy machine, as well as becoming friends with all these artistic types—designers, writers, and painters, really got me going on engaging in what I then termed "productions," because it was college and I was young and even though I was making, say, a 16-page zine full of bad poetry, I thought I was breaking new ground and going to become famous or something. But during that period I started engaging in making things outside of assignments or school work–just staying up late and trying new things, exploring and experimenting and tapping into the creative side of myself.
Please define the word "project" and what it means to you.
A "project" is wide-ranging term for me, but breaking it down, it simply means coming up with and setting to work on a creative endeavor. Writing a book is a project, but so is planning an elaborate surprise celebration, or mailing off an envelope that contains photos and other items of personal significance to a particular person. Making and seeing projects that way is very important to me. It's the platform in which I engage my creative side. I feel most alive when I'm creating something, and working through that process helps me make sense of what I want to accomplish with my life. It isn't an answer, it isn't one thing-it's a whole landscape and countless variables, but every once in a while it can came into focus, and with that clarity comes more ideas and more energy and more reason to keep pushing it and moving forward.
The projects listed in the book range from staying up all night, writing a one minute autobiography or taking the subway to the end of the line and photographing what you see, to collecting umbrellas after it rains, hosting a Friday the 13th dinner party, making the perfect margarita, and mailing someone $25, chopsticks, and a Chinese food menu. They're varied in time and effort. Is there something they have in common besides all being projects?
There are themes that run throughout–one is that not every project has to be as big as writing a novel or making a movie. Another is that there are project ideas all around, ripe for the picking, and that it's very easy to tap into the creative side of yourself. There's a strong emphasis on memory and sharing, and connecting with the important people in your life through shared history and stories, and how creativity is a wonderful way to reach out. That giving a creative project to someone else not only brings a smile to his or her face, but to yours as well. These projects push you to take a look at the things and people all around you, and with your own, unique vision, tap into your creativity and make something happen.
One of the themes in the book is how project-making can influence the rest of your day-to-day life. Can you elaborate on that connection and how projects help people even when they're not actually working on them in that moment?
It's about the energy and excitement one feels when working on and completing a project that is truly their own. That doesn't just shut down once you step away from it-it flows into the rest of the things you've got going on. It's like your senses are sharpened, your creative thinking is fired up, your attitude is better, you’re high on a sense of accomplishment, you're in a better mood and feeling empowered.
This doesn't mean if you make a project each morning you'll go to work everyday and love everything about your job. But there's something wonderful about working on your project, something that is challenging to you, something you have decided to do all on your own, that you get to control and shape and make the big decisions on. And if regularly engaging in creative project-making is a built-in part of your life, then the feelings that it instills will be a part of the foundation of how you go about the day to day–how you handle work, the never-ending errands, the managing of a household . . . the list goes on and on.
You mention in your introduction to 52 Projects that your various personal projects have ultimately led to you getting full-time jobs. Can you elaborate on that process, and is that something others should strive for–as in, you want to work at a magazine, so you start your own online zine? What's the connection between projects and full-time employment?
Well, the Working For The Man zine, book and website–things that some would see as anti-work, those helped me land full-time jobs and get me published in major magazines. The 52 Projects book and website probably helped me get the job I have now at HarperCollins. These things do not happen over night, but early on, I started to work on converging my true interests with how I paid the bills. I wish I could just work full-time on book and website projects, but I wouldn't make enough money to live if I did that. But that convergence is happening . . . I just have to keep plugging along.
When you work on a project, you are doing it because you have an idea and you believe in it, and it's all yours, so you really pour your heart and soul into it. You probably aren't doing it for money–you are doing it because you love it. Those are key ingredients to doing something unique. And as you work through this, you are learning about yourself, about your true interests, what you want to truly do with your life. Your focus gets clearer and clearer.
And if you keep working at it, either you eventually get noticed, or, more likely, you're able to put what you are doing in front of someone who may have a job for you doing exactly what it is that you love to do (or at least in the same area). This does not happen quickly. It can take years of hard work and burning the midnight oil, holding down a lame job you don't really care about so you can focus on your online webzine or whatever it is. But I really encourage it–not just because it may help you land a more ideal job, but because it helps you zero in on what that ideal job actually is.
What are the biggest benefits this constant project-making has brought to your life?
For me, engaging in project-making has helped me through the process of figuring out what I want to do with my life – not necessarily in the sense of a job title or something like "get a book published," but just in terms of feeling like the dots were starting to connect and that I was moving in the right direction. I recently had a job where I looked back on it and realized I hadn't done one thing that I felt proud of. That is a really terrible thing to realize. But what really sort of saved me from going into a real funk during that period was that that job was not all that I had – I had been working on various projects, and those projects helped me stay the course and feel like yes, I am moving forward, I am getting something done.
Speaking of jobs, one of your other sites is Workingfortheman.com, where readers and yourself shared stories about work. What are some of the commonalities you've found amongst readers of the site?
That there are some terrible jobs and bosses out there, and we've all had one or more of them. But what I really like about the stories is that they are less about hate and anger, and more about finding the humor in those situations. I think that is so important. We all spend a great deal of time at our jobs, perhaps more than we spend anywhere else, and a bad job can really get you down, and start to impact all areas of your life in a negative way. Even dream jobs have their downsides. It's important to take a step back and look at these situations from a humorous perspective. Doing that is one of the keys to making it better, I think.
You're now doing online marketing at HarperCollins as your 9 to 5 job. How long have you been there, and what exactly are you working on? How does that job tie into your book and website activity, and your own personal projects?
I've been at HarperCollins for about five months now. I do online promotion for our books and authors. So this means everything from buying keywords to running online ads, creating features on the homepage, building author sites, working with authors to help them with their own online efforts – it’s really wide open. We've launched a few blogs – olivereader.com, publishinginsider.net, and cruelestmonth.com – that one is all about poetry, believe it or not. And also the Harper Perennial Podcast. I'm really enjoying the job, and it's especially fun to have the perspective as an author and a website publisher. I'm able to contribute things I've learned, and I can talk with authors, editors and the other marketing folks based on firsthand experience. And also, of course, it's great to learn from the people at HarperCollins and begin to see things from the perspective of a publishing house. Things are always changing in publishing, but with all the things happening on the web and digital content, things are REALLY changing now. My goal is to contribute to those changes, to be a part of what happens next.
You talk about the satisfaction of completing a project, as well as the creativity doing the project inspires. Does it matter if the project never gets finished?
I think it does, yes. Seeing something through to the end is very important–there's the sense of accomplishment, the fact that you took an idea and made something out of it. But realistically, some projects are not going to get done, for a variety of reasons–that you realize in your gut that it's no good, that you are now interested in something different, that it just isn't what you really wanted to do in the first place. But if you get in the habit of starting and then not finishing projects–I think it's less about the project at hand and more about you. If that's the case, I think it is VERY important to see something through all the way to the end no matter what. Once you get there, it will feel so good, and you can take that and run with it and get started on the next thing.
Both 52 Projects and your first, self-published book, Working for the Man, grew out of websites by the same name. What is the connection between online publishing and book publishing in these instances–what do the books offer that the sites don't, and vice versa?
Well, with the Working For the Man book, that really is just a collection of the best stories from the website. So the book does not offer more than what is on the site in terms of content. But for me personally–I learned how to self-publish a book, from designing the cover to editing the pages, to getting it sold on Amazon and Powells.com and more. I wanted to do the Working For the Man book to actually publish a book.
52 Projects is very different. The book includes the original 52 Projects, but it also features essays on project-making, as well as a resources section that I think goes well beyond the typical listing of books and websites. I tried to take the concept of project-making and turn as many elements of the book into projects as I could. To show and not just tell how project ideas and jumping off points are everywhere. There are projects based on the page numbers. There are variations on many of the 52 projects, to show how easy it is to not do just the project as written on the page. There is also a clue on page 52 to a website that features even more projects.
And while the 52projects.com site used to feature, in very bare bones fashion, just the original 52 projects, I am now trying to make it a hub for creative project-making. I interview project-makers, feature the WhatsYourProject.com projects contributed by others, post resources, highlight cool projects, and have lots of links to all kinds of project-oriented sites, from photo sites to crafting to scrapbooking.
It seems that with sites like 43folders.com, 43things.com, Lifehacker, the book Getting Things Done and 52 Projects, people are looking to others to guide them in becoming more organized and productive. How much direction do most people need in terms of their projects, and, more broadly, their lives?
I think it's important to seek out ideas and inspiration and information from others – that informs your own work, helps you see new angles and opens your eyes to new things, things you hadn't thought of before. All the sites you mentioned, including mine, that is probably the underlying goal there – to be used as a resource, a reference guide, a way to get inspired. I personally encourage people to not do the projects on the site and in the book exactly as written – because following things to the letter is never fun. I want the projects to be jumping off points. And in a way, that statement may just be stating the obvious – each person is unique, has their own vision, so whatever they end up doing, they own it.
How much direction do people need? Probably less and less as time goes on, as you get to know yourself better and how to best manage your own life. And yet, how often do we hear someone say, "I'm so busy right now," or "I'm so stressed out," or "I'm just so damn tired all the time." So there will be those periods where you need to seek out a point of reference, a guide to get you back on track. Even if you don't take the specific ideas you find on these sites, at the very least, you are sort of triggering a reminder to yourself that you need to make some adjustments, that you need to get back in the habit of this or that, or whatever it is that you know deep down will get you back on track.
All of the resources I listed in the previous question are websites, which have also been the lifeline of your own biggest projects, yet you also cite the Internet, as well as television, as two of the ways people avoid being creative. How can web surfers, especially those who spend their entire days and often much of their nights online, best utilize the Internet to fuel, rather than sap their creativity? Would you consider, say, starting a blog doing a "project?"
Well, for example, I often wake up on Saturday mornings with big plans to get some writing done, but instead, click on this blog, then that blog, then that Flickr site, over to the NYTimes.com, and oh, I haven't checked out so and so's site for a while, so I do that, find a reference to something intriguing, so I do a Google search, and on and on it goes and before I know it it's after noon and I'm sitting in my boxers with the day half gone and I haven't done jack shit. Terrible, terrible waste of time. Surfing the web is not something to be avoided completely, but just like TV, it needs to be approached with discipline. So I say (and should be saying it to myself very loudly every Saturday morning), check out the sites you like, surf around to look for cool things, get inspired, but establish a stop-time. That way, you know exactly when it's time to get to work on your project. And yes, starting a blog is a project. Part of blogging is knowing what's going on on the web and linking to it on your blog, but again, you should spend more time writing interesting things than just reading the interesting posts of others.
What's the biggest obstacle people face in terms of getting started making a project? You mention time and also the fears of not being an artist, not being good enough, not being able to complete it—how would you advise someone with creative impulses who's blocked in their project-ing?
To recognize that those issues are not valid, that they are based on excuses and fear, and that they are preventing you from simply doing what you want to do. Walk into a room and close the door. Visualize all that baggage. Allow yourself to freak out about it, and have a laugh as well. Then, walk through that door, and leave all the fears and doubts in the room. Turn on your favorite music (have it picked out and ready to go-don't get distracted by selecting just the right album, or get started on rearranging the CD rack), sit down and get to work. All it takes is sitting your ass down in that chair and getting to work. See my Not-To-Do List for more thoughts on this subject.
Aside from the book and site themselves, what's your favorite project that you've completed?
I am partial to the writing projects that involve photographs, putting the writing and photos together into either a booklet or a homemade box, and mailing it off to a friend. I like the way the photo inspires the writing, the memories it triggers, the feelings I get as I work though the creation of the project, and I just love dropping it in the mail, knowing that in a few days it will be opened by the person I am sending it to.
You've launched whatsyourproject.com, where readers can write in with their own projects. How do you go about choosing which ones make it onto the site? Do you have specific criteria or is it an "I know it when I see it" situation?
I try to put most of them on the site, and I don't edit them too much—I like to keep the original voice intact. I keep it very open in terms of the criteria, the more unique and offbeat and original the project, the better. But I do encourage people to add a bit of the personal–why the project is meaningful to them, why they did it, how they came up with the idea. I think that adds a bit of magic to the project, and for the readers, it triggers their own memories and ideas, and allows them to see the project in a way that is unique to their own lives.
What projects have you been working on lately?
I have been working on some writing projects–one involves running. I run in the park, and I've found that to be one of the major calming forces in my life, and so I'm writing about that, though I am worried it all sounds a little too clichéd and new-agey. I also take pictures of one particular tree in the park, and I'm going to do something with those–tied to the writing. And I have another website I'm going to launch. I didn't want to do another website for a while, but damnit, I like the idea and haven't been able to get it out of my mind. I've been holding off on it because I can't really devote too much time to it right now. Have to stay focused on the projects in process. Discipline. I am trying to practice what I preach.
I'm curious whether being single or partnered affects how one goes about the project-making process. Do you consider your projects solo affairs, or do you draw your wife into them?
I have to admit that when I was single, I made A LOT of projects for the women I was courting . . . I guess I was trying to show them how creative and interesting I was. Yeah, right. Oh the terrible poem collections I put together and left on doorsteps or pillows. I shudder to think of it now, but I mention this because I think at that time, a major inspiration to make projects came out of this-to impress a special someone. Of course the women who weren't impressed, those are the ones you fall in love with.
Being partnered in a relationship and working through the project-making process–of course issues come up: there are those arguments about not wanting the television on when you're trying to get some writing done. Or the arguments about who is going to make dinner/go to the store/pick up burritos, etc., because we both feel equally busy and exhausted and somehow we both did it the last time and the whole month before as well.
In terms of collaborating on projects, my wife and I don't do that, and for us, that works best. Every couple is different, but one of the things we both really like about our marriage is that we have our own very separate things going on. On the one hand, we're out of each other's hair, and on the other, we get to inspire each other and root for each other. My wife runs a legal project – the Sex Workers Project, and I can't tell you how inspiring it is for me to see her accomplish the things she does. But to say these are "solo affairs," that's not quite right. We definitely draw each other into the things we have going on, even if it's just to bitch and moan about this or that at the end of a long day. And I can't tell you how many times I have asked my wife to read something RIGHT THIS SECOND, and she will do it. So she is very much a part of the process for me. And yes, there are the arguments and maybe a little added stress due to close quarters, and all the usual relationship baggage, but overall, it's a support system like no other, and when you're working on things you really care about and mean something to you, it's a very big deal to know someone has your back, and even better when you finish something and get to pop open that bottle of champagne.
You also run Bookmouth.com, where you interview authors and link to various book websites. What made you start the site, and how was both the site and the online literary community grown since you started it?
I started that site because I love books, and wanted to engage in some way with writers and people involved with books, and it was also a way to document the things I was learning about writing and publishing, and working on the site served as an incentive to find out more, a place to put the things I was learning, whether that was a cool books website, or how a certain author was getting the word out about his book. The online literary community has grown tremendously since then. That's not a newsflash. But what is amazing to see is how authors are able to connect with and grow their audiences through their online efforts, the sense of community among not only literary bloggers, but literary journals, the fact that there are so many resources and FAQs and archived interviews and essays that can help a writer or author figure out ways to not only become a better writer, but how to promote, where to read, where to find readings and what they're favorite authors are doing, and also, the fact that books that don't make the morning shows or get reviewed in the major dailies can still get written up and reviewed and discussed in a meaningful, high impact way. It's a whole new medium to present the written word, and I'm so inspired by all the new things that are going on, and truly excited to see and hopefully be a part of what comes next.
Visit www.52projects.com, www.whatsyourproject.com, www.workingfortheman.com, and www.bookmouth.com for more information. 52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity is available in bookstores now.