Just doing it: my year of living creatively

From origami to photography, Londoner Sam Furness challenged himself to attempt a new skill for each month of 2016. Whether to broaden your horizons or simply disrupt routine, he believes everyone can benefit from a creative curiosity-boost

From origami to photography, Londoner Sam Furness challenged himself to attempt a new skill for each month of 2016. Whether to broaden your horizons or simply disrupt routine, he believes everyone can benefit from a creative curiosity-boost

In 2016 I set myself a year-long creative challenge that completely threw a spanner in the works of my spare time. The aim was to discover, be challenged by, and embrace more of the weird and wonderful things us humans do to express ourselves and understand the world we live in.

The rules of the challenge were simple: 1) choose a theme for each month of 2016. It had to be something I knew little or nothing about. January was origami. April was food. July was the EU. October was photography. 2) Spend the first three weeks of each month learning or doing or experiencing absolutely everything I could to do with that theme. 3) And then, in the final week of the month, do or create something authentic with my findings. I called the project 12×16.

January was origami. April was food. July was the EU. October was photography

Why rules? Creative chaos can be a beautiful thing, but it needs boundaries to be productive. So many of us start the new year with a renewed sense of energy and purpose but find ourselves burning out or losing direction after no time at all. I think a lot of people’s good intentions get lost on focusing too much on their end goal and not the process of getting there. It’s easy to forget what an enjoyable, enlightening and transformative experience that can be. The process turned into a kind of self-motivational game; can I learn more and be more productive than the month before?

Paper butterfly dreams in January 2016, ‘origami month’

We’re not conditioned to enjoy, as adults, the thought of being beginners. Over our lifetimes, we tick and cross the list of things we’re ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at, taking some things with us but leaving most behind for someone else to be good at. As children, we give everything a go because we’re curious about the world and don’t fear the consequences of failing to be instantly good at something. We focus on the process of learning and the end goal becomes clear to us as we learn. As adults we hesitate because we feel we should be instantly capable. The fear of feeling vulnerable or looking foolish can very often stop us in our tracks, despite how willing we may be for change.

Over the course of my project, I put myself in these vulnerable situations multiple times every month. I’ve found a lot of power and liberation in being a beginner as an adult.

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It’s incredibly grounding. Accepting that you have a lot to learn is a valuable lesson in the instant gratification culture in which we live. And it’s a fantastic way to connect with people. Those with experience recognise and respect the courage it’s taken to put yourself in that situation and are willing to impart their knowledge to you, the curious beginner. And the feeling of fulfilment you get from doing something new that you were initially cautious of, is extremely empowering. I found that the process of repeating this over and over again in different situations has made me a more confident and courageous person across the board. I learned that vulnerability is fertile ground for growth.

I learned that vulnerability is fertile ground for growth

Sometimes, drawing a theme to a close after just one month was quite difficult, but I took valuable lessons from each month. Origami (January) taught me the importance of patience and taking care. Drawing (March) taught me that anyone can draw: you just need learn the basics and have a good imagination. ‘Get physical’ in May taught me that fitness is so much more than treadmills and cross-trainers – it can be about getting outside, connecting with nature, meeting new people and being disciplined. Learning about all the EU member states (July) showed me a side to London I never knew existed. Storytelling (December) showed me the power that each one of us has to make a difference through telling our stories.

Kite flying from Sam’s art of flight month

I shared my experiences through Twitter and Instagram. The response to 12×16 has been humbling. It struck me that it was chiming with people’s feelings that they too could be experiencing more of life. It didn’t involve changing career or travelling around the world – it just involved a shift of focus, sticking to the rules, and being openly interested to things you wouldn’t normally consider relevant to you.

Look out into the world with inquisitive eyes, open the doors that seem closed to you and engage with those you normally wouldn’t. Use what time you have to experience and discover new things. 12 months is plenty to change the way you see the world.

10 tips for a year of creative challenges

1. Grab a notebook

Get something small, cheap and paper-backed that you can shove in your bag or coat pocket. My notebook contained everything: sketches, brainstorms, lists, ideas. It’s a place to throw the metaphorical paint at the wall and refer back to later.

2. Write a mission statement

What is your motivation for taking on 12 projects over 12 months, and what do you hope to get from it? It’s a good thing to come back to throughout the year.

3. Plan your challenges

This is the really fun bit. Write out as many possible things to potentially do and explore as possible. Let your mind go wild, these aren’t things you have to do. These are things you could do. And you can literally do anything!

4. Keep an open mind

Don’t try to map the year out too much. It’s fun to see where it takes you.

The view from Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons in Sam’s ‘get physical’ month

5. Choose your first project

I would advise beginning with something you have never done before. It’s a good way to get yourself in the mindset of jumping in at the deep end.

6. The association game

One you’ve chosen your first project theme; write a list of absolutely everything that comes to mind when you think of it. Then over the month use this as your bank of starting points. For photography, for example, I wrote things like: developing, polaroids, fashion, family photo albums, close-ups, nature, colour, light, memories, street photography. I found this was a great way to kick of each month.

Sam’s hand-developed 35mm contact sheet from his photography month

7. Get talking

Speak to friends, family or friends of friends who already know about the thing your want to discover more of. Let their passion show you the way. It’s amazing how willing people will be to impart their knowledge.

8. Use the internet

The internet will help you find things you never had any idea even existed. Don’t stick to the first page of search engine results either: be curious, keep pushing doors and see where the rabbit hole takes you.

Finished doodle project, which included submissions from 65 people, in Sam’s drawing month

9. Make a goal

This is the most important thing. Aim to do or create something unique at the end of the month – something that encapsulates what you’ve learned. This is what gives your discovering a purpose and will guide all the things you are learning into one thing or moment.

10. Share your experience

This isn’t about showing your highlights or ‘best bits’. It’s about showing where you started, where it led you, and what you’ve learned and created.

To find out more about Sam’s project, visit 12by16.tumblr.com

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