Build A Process That Works For You By Stealing From Others

Do you work from a process? I’m going to answer for you and tell you that you do. Everyone does whether they call it a process of not. If you go through any of the same steps across projects, you have a process.


Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio player above, Click here to listen. You can also subscribe in iTunes

Programming Note: I mentioned last week I ordered a new mic. This is the first show I recorded with it. Hopefully the audio will sound better, though it might take me a little time to get the settings on both the mic and the software just right.

I have a process for writing. I tweak the process a little depending on whether I’m writing a blog post, a guest article, a series of posts, or a book. They all get written with variations of the same basic process.

I also have processes for designing and developing websites. I have an idealized process when I’m my own client and I have a more flexible process when I’m working for real paying clients to account for the differences between them.

Not long ago I listened to an episode of the Self Publishing Podcast. It’s a podcast for independent writers and publishers. Sean Platt, one of the hosts, mentioned the idea of talking DNA strands from someone else’s process. I caught what he said in passing and don’t remember the exact quote, but the gist was taking parts from how someone else does something and incorporating it into your own way.

Hearing Sean led me to think about processes and for lack of a better word, mentors. I’m considering as mentors people you follow online and learn a lot from.

These aren’t true mentors in the sense of the definition, but these are people who’s ideas resonate with you and who you follow to both listen to what they say and observe what they do. I not only read the blogs of my online mentors, I sign up for their newsletters, follow their social accounts, and generally pay attention to most anything they do as a way to learn.

I may copy from them as a starting point or as a guide. Ultimately I learn from a handful of people and mix what I learn with what I think and believe. Everything gets incorporated into a process of my creation. I’ll listen to the advice of others, but in the end I get to make my own decisions.

That’s what I want to talk about today. How do you learn from others? How do you find your process? How do you figure out what steps will work for you?

This is My Process — Get Your Own

You have to find your own process. You and I aren’t exactly the same. You aren’t exactly the same as anyone else. Neither am I. We’re all different and we all work best with different processes or variations of a few general processes.

Everyone has to figure out the best way for them. When anyone shares how they do something, they share what works for them. You shouldn’t religiously follow what they do. Blind faith in anything is bad.

You have to do your own thinking. You have to find your own process for design, development, writing, creativity, or life in general.

Anything I share here about how to do something is really what I found to work for me. It may or may not work for you. Only you decide which are the parts that will work for you.

Much in our processes will probably overlap. If you design websites you no doubt create layouts, develop color schemes, and make typographic decisions. All of these are part of both our processes, but we may do each differently.

We probably do things with different levels of skill. Maybe your strength is working with color, while mine is working with layouts. We’ll both play to our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. I try to eliminate the latter where I can and I’ve found tricks here and there to help me when I can’t.

When I talk about anything here, it’s my way of doing things and not necessarily the right way or best way of doing them. It’s the way I’ve decided is right and best for me at that moment in time. I change what I think are best and right often.

If you’re trying to learn from me (or anyone) look at my process and take the parts of it you think will work for you and incorporate them into your own. Then find others and take a few things from them to incorporate as well.

Weave all the parts you take from different people with parts of your own. Mix everything in a way that reconciles it with what you think and believe. Add it all together and mix everything around and you’ll have a way to do things that’s unique to you.

That’s how the best artists steal. Good artists can copy others, but they don’t weave the different strands into a unique whole. They don’t add something of themselves to what they borrow from others. They just copy exactly as was done before.

When I share things I try to explain not only what I do and how I do it, but why I do it as well. I want you to understand my thought process for the decisions I make. Answering the why helps make something more understandable. It gives you more ability to decide if what I say makes sense.

I don’t want to encourage you to copy me. I want to encourage you to integrate the things you get from me into something of your own.

How to Find Your Process

If you don’t have something you think of as a process where do you start? What steps did you take to design and develop the last site you worked on? What steps did you take to write your last article? What steps did you take to convince your last client to hire you?

List out the steps. That’s your process or a starting point for one. Now work to improve it. Find the weak points and learn to do them better. Divide one step into two smaller steps or combine two steps into a single step.

I try new things all the time to tweak my process. I don’t look to change everything I do, but I do look to improve where I can. Sometimes it’s to help me be more productive. Sometimes it’s to bring more quality to my work.

I observe, review, and think about my process consistently in order to continue to improve it. Sometimes I like the change and incorporate it permanently. Sometimes I discard a tweak as soon as I’m done with the experiment.

Learn what you can from others. Ask yourself how does designer X present deliverables to clients? How does writer Y come up with new ideas? How does developer Z build the template for a web page. You don’t have to do exactly what they say or do, but think about how you might incorporate it into what you do.

The answer might be contained in a different part of their process. You might have to look at the whole of their process to understand how they deal with a specific step. If you like what I write it might not be the writing. It might come about through the way I collect ideas or organize my notes.

Listen to what your “mentors” tell you they do and think about what parts of their process might help yours. Go beyond listening to what they say and observe what they do. What they do is more important, but you need to the context of what they say for the most benefit.

If you don’t agree with how someone does something don’t do that thing the way he or she suggests. You’re the one in charge of your process. You get to decide what’s in and what’s out. You decide how you do things. No one else’s process will work exactly for you. Pick and choose your process

There are some people who like to take shortcuts (good artists borrow). They look at how someone does something and apply it exactly to their own work. They never think beyond copying. They’re looking for the easy way, the recipe to follow.

At best this will work short term, but long term it won’t. It leaves you reliant on that other person’s method, without any idea how to adapt.

You can’t take another person’s way and apply it exactly. You have to do more. You can copy someone else as a starting point, but you should expect to continue to tweak and modify until it’s your own (great artists steal).

Iterate Your Process

You can’t stop when you have something in place. You have to iterate your process and continue to make it better.

Consistently review where you are, what’s working, and what isn’t. Be honest with yourself. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Only you can find what will work for you and only you can put in the effort to make your process better.

Analyze what works for you and what doesn’t work. For example the mic I had been using for recordings didn’t have a pop filter and it picked up noise from my surroundings. With the new mic I also purchased a wind screen and a pop filter. Hopefully both help.

I took something that wasn’t working and tweaked it. I bought new recording equipment to help my recording process. In this case it cost a little money and it will take a little time to get to know the new equipment and use it as best as I can.

Improve the parts of your process that don’t work. Improve parts that do work. Discard some things and try something different. Do this consistently. Think critically about your process and how to improve it. Then improve it.

It can take time to find your process, at least one you feel confident in. It probably won’t work quite how you want at first, but persistence pays off. Try, evaluate, learn, try again, but better.

Don’t worry that one recording isn’t so good. Improve your process to make them all better. It’ll take time to find what works for you. You have to fail and make a lot of mistakes along the way to success.

Don’t worry if a site or article doesn’t turn out like you want. The disappointment is good. It’s your taste expressing itself. It’s your gut communicating to you. Try to understand what your gut is saying. It’s telling you something isn’t quite right. Use that as motivation to get better.

What didn’t turn out like you wanted? Was it a poor color choice or the wrong typeface? Fix that part of your process next time around. Learn how to identify what you like and don’t like and then figure out why? Think critically. When you like a decision you made, defend it. Have reasons for the choices you make.

Identify what specifically is disappointing you. Learn how to do that thing better. Even a little improvement means you’ll disappoint yourself less. That you can express that you don’t like something in your work tells you you’re capable of getting better. The first step is being able to recognize good from bad.

Have confidence in your recognition and use that confidence to guide the direction of your learning. A good process can help you be more confident because you have a process you trust and can rely on when you need it.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve been saying process a lot throughout this post, but everything I said is true of anything you learn in life. It’s your process. It’s your design. It’s your article. It’s your life. It’s up to you to decide what each is.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
—George Bernard Shaw

I’ve been coming back to this quote the last few weeks. Life is creating yourself. It’s creating a process to live by.

It’s ok to start by copying those who came before you. Copy your parents, your friends, people you admire. Copying is a time honored tradition for learning. It’s ok as a starting point, but you can’t stop with the copying.

You copy as a way to integrate what someone else shared into your whole. When you can combine what you like of those who’s work you admire and mix it all together with something of yourself, you find your voice. You find what differentiates you from your competition. You find your process for creating and producing. You find your way to be unique.

No one can do things quite the same way as you because no one will pick and choose the exact same parts or combine them in the exact same way. And no one will be able to add the parts that are uniquely you.

This process of copying and integrating is what Vincent van Gogh meant by being a link in a chain. He took from those who came before, mixed with something of himself, and left something for next person to take from him.

The chain is the art, the painting. The links are the individuals who pushed art and painting forward by building on the work of those who came before.

It’s also what’s meant by the quote “good artists borrow and great artists steal” Van Gogh learned (stole) from those who came before and left his work for others to learn (steal) from him.

All artists whether painters, musicians, writers, or dancers copy their favorites and combine with other favorites and themselves to find their voice.

Follow the tradition. Develop your own process for designing a website, writing an article, or living your life. Take what you like from the process of others, but remember only you can create a process that works for you.

Again I hope the sound quality is better today. I’ll work to make it better and then I’ll continue to work and make it better.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

3 comments

  1. I think coping is not as that bad 😛 However, I really liked the way you express the idea of mentors and following them… However, I am already following a person as my mentor, but now I think I will have to follow you as well. Thanks for such a brief article.

    • I think it’s ok to copy as a way to learn, though I would never pass off someone else’s work as my own. That would be a bad way to copy.

      I remember a few years ago listening to someone complaining about how they can’t find a mentor and all I could think was how many people give away information for free online. There are so many people that serve as mentors without even knowing it.

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