Chase Jarvis with Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton: Following Your Creative Calling

Transcript by Molly Benson

Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s arts and culture series. On September 23rd, 2019, two creative powerhouses, Chase Jarvis and Brandon Stanton, took our Great Hall stage to talk about Chase’s new book, Creative Calling. Together they explore the notion that creativity isn’t a skill, it’s a habit available to everyone, and gave us a practical process to unleash the creative forces inside and deliver vitality to everything we do. And now a conversation around Jarvis’s new book, Creative Calling: Establish a Daily Practice, Infuse Your World With Meaning, and Succeed in Work and Life.

Chase Jarvis: Can I start the evening off by saying, who wants to come up and draw me a photograph or draw me a picture? Who wants to come and draw a picture? Okay. Just as an experiment, there was about five or 10 hands. If this was a first grade classroom, how many hands would be up? Every single hand would be up. That’s why we’re here tonight.

Brandon Stanton: Chase and I have different styles. Well, even when we were backstage, you know, we’re getting ready. Chase is doing his jumping jacks. I’m sure if he had an ice pool here, he’d be in the ice pool. It’s like, I’m also energetic. I’m in the corner. Like, “Oh God, so many people out there. Oh God.” When we met earlier at the hotel I said, “Hey, just relax man. Just like, yeah, just, you know, we’ll do it like we’re just hanging out. Like we’re hanging out.” He’s like, “You want us to smoke weed on stage?” I was just kidding. He only eats edibles.

Oh, Chase and I are good friends, though. Jason, my good buddy, I think both of us were kind of promoting this event on our various social media platforms. So there might be some people who know a little bit more about Chase and some people who know a little bit more about me. I met Chase about eight years ago when Humans of New York was kind of just getting started, I flew out here to do his show, and we became very good friends. Chase, when I was starting Humans of New York, was one of the pioneers. He was the guy who had a community of photographers, and was using the internet, and kind of using this whole social media thing. And he was, you know, one of the first people— because, you know, back then the blog really wasn’t a thing and social media was just kinda getting started. And so there were very few people that had kinda blazed the trail, and you could look at as an example of somebody who is like, “Oh, you know, you can just kind of do this internet thing and just kind of do this art thing and make a living from it.” And so when I moved to New York, and I was just kinda looking for inspiration, he was one of the names that kept popping up. When we finally did meet, we became really good friends, and we really vibed. And he’s still the person that I always call when I need some advice. I think a lot tonight will be talking about artistic stuff, but I really personally rely a lot on his business knowledge. He’s got the entrepreneur Chase and then the artist Chase. He’s very good at creating stuff, and he’s very soft and sensitive guy, in a good way. I hope that’s not an insult.

CJ: I’ll take it.

BS: I’m a soft guy as well. But he’s also very tough when it comes to business, and he’s got a lot of real good advice there. So whenever I’m working on something, and I need to have his advice on the nuts and bolts and numbers of things, I’ll call him. I’ve always appreciated him being there for me, and I’m excited that Chase made a book. And so when he asked me if I would come and help him do this launch, I said I would be happy to. And I will do my best to bring out his vision and his thoughts and introduce you to the wisdom and the artistry and the knowledge base that I have been drawing on so deeply these last few years.

CJ: Thanks buddy.

BS: Yeah. And hopefully it’ll be just like we’re hanging out.

CJ: Okay, great. Well, I’m going to tell a little story. The first time that Brandon and I spent any time together was we’d spoke on the phone, and we were going to meet in New York; and I asked if I could tag along while he was doing his work. I was really familiar with the blog, and it was fascinating to watch him work. It’s really, really fascinating. And you watch someone approach a total stranger. I know we’re on the other coast here, but if you try and stop a stranger in New York, at first they think you’re trying to mug them, and everyone’s in a hurry, of course. And so to have someone—and Brandon’s not a small guy—walk up to you and completely disarm a total stranger and get them to tell you their most inner deepest secrets in like 90 seconds, it’s fascinating. And, I will say, as I was walking along the streets of New York with him for quite a long time. He does a lot of work. He talks about it like he just goes out and takes pictures, but he does an immense amount of work in order to get the work that we all consume of his every day. And then part way through, he stopped me, and he pushed me against the wall for a second. He stood back, and he took a picture.

BS: Sounds like assault. [laughs]

CJ: And then he started doing the Humans of New York thing on me. And I was rendered powerless instantly. Literally it was like I was in his laboratory and started sharing some really intimate—

BS: It was about not wanting to have kids.

CJ: Yeah.

BS: I’m always looking for the thing that really kind of jumps out as something that I’d be very interested to hear somebody thinking behind. And you know, we were talking about photography a lot, and then you just kind of happened to drop that you had made the decision to not have children; and I was just very interested in that.

CJ: I think it was really controversial one of your posts.

BS: Well, things with parenting and children are always really controversial. It’s amazing. That’s been a huge lesson that I’ve learned. The things that people get most triggered about: it’s politics, religion and parenting. And honestly, parenting might be even higher. It’s amazing. The comments section, it’s like people are unable to read a different philosophy or thought on how to raise a child without feeling like their way of raising a child is being directly attacked. And the comment sections are just insane on parenting posts. So yeah, when you didn’t even want to have kids, I mean you got everybody.

CJ: I didn’t know I was signing up for.

BS: Was it bad?

CJ: I’m very, very grateful for you coming all the way across the country to be here tonight. Can we give him a shout out?

BS: So I guess we will start just kind of at the beginning, instead of me saying what I got from the book and what I think it’s about. I was wondering if you could just tell us why you felt that it was necessary to write a book or what you felt needed to be said.

CJ: All right. First of all, writing a book sucks. Okay. Especially if you’re a photographer. So, sadly I didn’t choose the medium. I felt like the medium had to be a book. The ideas were reasonably complex enough, and it needs to be something that you sit with. And so as much as I wanted to make a bunch of internet videos and some short films about it, it wouldn’t be that. So, I embarked on a book, and the book had been brewing in me for a good 10 years. And I think it’s a reasonably simple shell, and it’s my hope that the more you read it, the more you realize is in it. The basic framework of the book, I’d say there’s three principles. The first principle is that every person is creative, every single person. I made a joke when I got on stage about a first grade classroom, but that’s actually how you know. You know in your heart, in a minute, when you ask a first grade classroom who wants to draw a picture, the challenge is you ask a sixth grade classroom and then 12th grade classroom, and what you understand is that creativity is something that’s trained out of us. So, let’s start at the top. The principle is that every person is creative. And the second principle is that creativity is a habit, not a skill. It’s a way of operating in the world. It’s a process, not a product. And, ultimately, I think of it like a muscle, and if you think about how a muscle works, the more you use it, the stronger it gets. And this is where a Maya Angelou quote is just fantastic. She says something like, “Creativity is an infinite resource. The more you use, the more you have.” And so if you believe, one, that there’s creativity inside of every person, if you believe, two, that you can strengthen creativity through use, then I think the big kicker of the book, maybe this is the Trojan horse, is that it’s in creating in small daily ways. Yes, making a meal for your family, baking a cake, building a business, writing code. It’s in those small daily creative ways that we actually realize, and we strengthen the same muscle that we create our life with. And so there’s creativity with the small c and then there’s creativity with the capital C. To me, when I have deconstructed the successes and failures of my own life, and the lives of those people who have been on my podcast. Some of the world’s top performers and some people who are very, very dear to me, when I started deconstructing their lives and asking them, it resonated that those people acknowledge that they are creative. And most importantly that creativity is the human superpower. It’s what separates us from every species on the planet. We can make tools, we can create a moment.We can bake a cake. We can build a fort. We can build a fire. Those things are all creative acts. And if you start to draw the circle around creativity, something much larger than art, you know that creativity isn’t pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks, right? That creativity is the solution to every problem we will ever know. That the wheel is mechanical engineering plus creativity. The light bulb is creativity plus electrical engineering. It’s the combination of these things. If you start to think of it like that, it’s really hard to argue that every single person is not creative. And this has been couched in a million things throughout time. I was trying to couch it in something that was so fundamental that would help people acknowledge that it is, literally, a muscle, and that by creating in small ways that you can create the life that you want.

BS: So, helping people acknowledge— obviously, we’ve both lived creative lifestyles. And I sometimes will give a speech where I will talk about my path and my journey as an artist and the decisions that I made. And then there’ll be times when—you know, I’ll speak at colleges and I’ll think like, “Okay, this is very relevant. Everybody’s trying to figure out what they’re doing. So, this will probably resonate with a lot of people.” But sometimes I’ll speak at audiences, like I was at a landlords convention lately. I don’t know where these gigs come from, but they keep the lights on.

CJ: Same here.

BS: It was in Denver. And  these people were older and very established and farther along in their career. They had families to support, they had mortgages to pay. And then I asked myself—I’ll tell my story and tell about how following my creative passion helped me—but is this information about this journey that I embarked on when I was 26 years old and I didn’t have many responsibilities or anything holding me down and I was able to take this huge risk. “Is this something that’s very applicable to this crowd right now?” So, who is it that you’re trying to speak to? And what is your message for people who are set in their ways, and their families are depending upon their income. And maybe they don’t do something creative, but it pays the bills and it supports their family.

CJ: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I’m not asking anyone to wear a beret, to move to Paris, to get a new set of friends. This is not that kind of creativity. There’s no buying of oil paints. I mean, all those things would be lovely, of course, but that’s not a requirement. But I think, I’m going to go back to my second grade classroom. So I had just made my first film coming out of summer between first and second grade. It was called The Sons of Zorro. And there may be a film called The Son of Zorro, but ours is way different because there were several sons. So it’s called The Sons of Zorro. And we washed cars in the neighborhood, our friend had a super eight camera. We used the money from washing the cars to buy film, and we wrote the script and staged the film, shot it all in camera so it didn’t have to be edited. And then had the film developed and screened it. I think we put 15 bucks in and we got 30 bucks out. We sold candy was actually the big ticket item, more so than the film. But I’d just come off of that. And then I stepped into second grade and the second grade I had a magic routine. I had a standup comedy routine. Yeah, I told some dirty jokes that went over great in second grade. I didn’t think of myself as creative or not creative, but I knew that art was a part of what we were supposed to do. And then, it was the parent teacher conference, actually it was the ice cream and the parent teacher conference were paired together. And I heard my second grade teacher, Ms. Kelly, tell my mom that “Chase is so much better at sports than he is at art. And here’s the weird thing, I mean, the reaction that you all just shared with us, like the, “Oh,” you would think that the eight-year-old me would be crushed. The eight-year-old me did not care at all about not being good at something. The eight-year-old just needed to be acknowledged for something else. And so it was less about what I was not good at and more like, “Okay, great, then I’m just going to play sports.” And my second grade teacher, unknowingly, turned me to a life of okay, great. That’s my identity, immediately. And so I pursued that, and thanks to Ms. Kelly, it did well. I went to college on a soccer scholarship, played in the Olympic development team, and it wasn’t until my grandfather dropped dead of a heart attack with zero notice. He was not ill, just [snap] dead. And I was given his cameras just a week before my college graduation. Now he and my father, who had been photographing just our teams and our kids and our friends and the neighborhood, I was inspired enough by that to be curious about the camera. So what was ostensibly 15 years or something like that, I reconnected with my creativity. And what I realized is that that is a thing that we do to lots of kids, and we do it on the auspice of, oh, you have to be practical. You have to go to this school and get this kind of job and put this thing on the table. And here’s what I also realized: that all comes from a very good, caring, heartfelt place, but it does unseen damage because what you’re really doing is saying, ” Do something that looks like this.” You’re taking the window of possibility. Remember, this is creativity, you can literally create anything. And you’re asking your children to create things that are in this lane, and you do it out of love. You do it because you care for them, and you want them to be safe. And we’ve heard this toxic myth of the starving artist. That was just a made up story that some folks at Les Deux Magots, a cafe in Paris, made up because it made them feel cool. And now it’s a cultural narrative that we all share. So it’s a long way of getting at this. Who is this for? There will always be shoulds, there will always be should. “You should do this.” “You should look like this.” But just realize that every time you’re putting a should on anyone, that you’re constraining what’s possible for their life.

And to me, if you ask the question, so who is this for? I bet for everyone in this room, there is a gap in your life between where you are and where you would love to be. This is true for most people. There are a handful of people who the gap is zero. But if there is a gap, this book is for you because there is no way to cover that gap. There’s no way to cross that chasm than to create it for yourself. And if you can start to think about creativity in that sense, I think that answers who the book is for. If there’s a gap in your life, it’s for you. Now, there is a whole community that identifies as a creator, and my hope is that if you look at this book and you read you’re like, “Yes, my people.” And then there’s some people who are what I call creative curious. And to me this is the most powerful. Yeah. This is the most powerful opportunity because there’s so much opportunity. There’s so much creativity tied up in people who are wondering if they’re creative, they’re wondering if they have the right to pursue the thing, their big dream in life. And it doesn’t have to be a dream; it can be a moment. But there’s nothing else that’s going to get you that moment besides creating. So, that’s who it’s for.

BS: So, one story I hear very commonly when I’m interviewing people for Humans of New York is, “I want to do X.” Or, I guess, more commonly it’s, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

CJ: Yeah.

BS: “So I studied this because it seemed easy or it seemed practical. And then I got a job right out of college and I got a couple promotions. And now I’m 35, and I really don’t know if this is what I want to be doing with my life. I’m confused. I’m maybe working for the weekend, but I come home every single day and I’m tired. And I’ve only got two hours of free time, and maybe I have a child or I have two children. And I’m just so exhausted.”

CJ: I get it. You’re tired. Sorry.

BS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I guess I want to emphasize it. If I hadn’t heard it like a million times as the primary reason that people— I mean, it takes energy. It takes energy to build a new life, a lot of energy, and it takes time. So what do you tell the person, or what do you tell me if I’m that person about how do you stop? How do you stop the train, when there’s so much momentum behind it and so much direction behind it, and build a new life? Or is that the goal?

CJ: No, that’s the mistaken understanding of what I’m asking you to do. Because, again, I’m not asking you to move to Paris wear the beret. You don’t have to give up anything. You don’t have to give up your kids. You don’t have to give up your lifestyle. Either one. But the same million people I’ve had eye to eye when I’ve come off stages, and they’ve said the same things to me. And here’s what I ask them. I ask them, “Have you ever felt something effortless?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I say, “Have you ever put a lot of work into something that felt effortless and then it felt extra good?” I call it in the book “effortless hard work”. And they say, “Yeah, yeah.” I was like, “Well, tell me about that.” And he was like, “Oh, well, I was doing something I loved with a bunch of people that cared about me in a place that I felt connected to.” And I know that every single person in this room and every single person I’ve been eyeball to eyeball with, no one’s ever said that they didn’t have that place or that moment. And so the cool thing is that it’s there. And what we’ve done, systematically, and we have a handful of systems and machines in our culture that train this out of us, right? And it’s okay. There’s no evil genius going “He he he he.” It’s school and work. And it’s just what happens when we’re social animals living in a mass society, in a mass culture. This happens. It’s okay. But we have to start to understand that we can program against it. And when you ask someone if they have experienced that moment and they can look backwards to what they were doing with whom they were doing it, and you say, “What if you could do that more?” And then the first thing that comes out of their mouth, which is probably what you’re thinking right now, is all of the shoulds that you need to be doing and how impractical it would be and all that. And I just say, “Yeah, but what if he did it?” And for every person, I’ve never had someone say, “Yep, not for me.” Even if it was for a second. There’s just this moment, and I’m here to tell you that that’s actually possible. Now, it’s an important asterisk to say that I have basically made most of the mistakes you can make. I went $100,000 into student debt. I went 10 years off track, living everybody else’s life for me, “You should do this.” And I have the most loving, kind, supportive parents, but I was the first person in my household to graduate from college. “So if you’re smart and hardworking, you should be a doctor.” “Oh, you can be a pro athlete? Oh, you should definitely do that.” There’s all kinds of these shoulds. And then to not really identify or connect with all of those, go back to the person that I’m talking to and I say, “Do you remember what it feels like to do the thing that you love?” And everybody gets this specific look in their eye, and then 10 seconds later, they’re back to reality. And I’m not saying that that’s not hard to get out of that moment, but I’m saying is it’s possible.

BS: What’s the first step?

CJ: The first step is imagining what’s possible. And we have turned off our imagination and culture. The book is arranged— you might picture me this, but I’m a pretty linear, cogent thinker, and so the book is arranged in four parts. I D. E. A. It’s this IDEA framework. I basically deconstructed all my successes and failures and everything that ever worked had this framework and everything ever failed, it didn’t have this framework. And so it starts out with I, which is Imagine. You literally have to imagine what’s possible, and when you imagine what’s possible, you put things like the mortgage and the private school tuition and you put your boss and all the things that you’ve constructed as hurdles for yourself, you put those on the park bench. Just for a second. What’s possible? “If I could just write my own script right now instead of doing the script that everybody else wrote for me, what’s possible?” Next thing you have to do is design a framework for getting there, like a set of behaviors and experiences. And that what if you did these things that you could achieve this big thing you have to execute against that plan, that’s the idea part. And then A, Amplify, is a big part about community.

So, I don’t want to go too deep into that, but the punchline of your question, my answer is really is we’ve lost our capability of imagination because we’re told that creativity is whimsical, it’s playful, it’s impractical, it’s naive, it’s all these things. It is all we’ve got. Creativity and love is all we’ve got. Those are the foundational building blocks of anything. This is so foundational. Like right now, we’re co-creating this experience together. So if you can start to think about creativity in the sense of this big capital C, it’s the most practical thing you could possibly do. And yes, playing the piano is the same set of muscles that you’re going to use to get your second or third or fourth career, whatever you’re aspiring to be. And it’s in that small daily action of playing the piano and cooking a meal for your parents or with intention, that you actually are reminded that you have agency.

BS: So, you put it up there with love as something so pivotal. So, what is it about a life not lived creatively that you think is so dire or so important to fight and struggle against to get creativity back in your life? What are the consequences? What is the impact of not being creative every day? What does that do to a person that you think it’s so dire that you need to snap people out of it?

CJ: Well, a dear friend Brené Brown says it best and I’ll just paraphrase. She’s like, “It’s not neutral. It’s toxic when you’re actually using your creativity. And that creates disease.” It creates a distance between who you are and who you want to be. That creates isolation, loneliness.

BS: I think it’s how we [snaps fingers] it’s how we project our individuality.

CJ: Yeah.

BS: It’s in creativity is when we put something unique into the world. And if you’re not putting something unique into the world, you’re being put into a box and something that’s interchangeable. And so I think it’s maybe the act of, you know—

CJ: Commodification of the human spirit? [audience laughs] Too much? Too much?

BS: No, no, no, no. It’s, yeah, it’s—

CJ: But think about it, though, and this is the coolest thing. If you leave here with anything tonight, leave here with this. You have everything you need right in here. We all go looking for the answers out there. And it’s natural because everything is out there. The money is out there, other people is out there, the things you see on TV are out there. It’s all out there. But I have yet to really have a connection with someone if I’m coaching them or helping them trying to understand. I end up, because of CreativeLive and and just the way the internet works, I end up being a career counselor, and it’s very, very powerful when you start to realize that every person has the answer inside. You’ll have the answers right now. This gap that I’m talking about between where you are, where you want to be, it’s in there. All that stuff is and we just need to go looking for it and it’s very, very hard to find it. I don’t want to— it’s very important to me, also, that in the same way I’ve made all the mistakes that you can make and done everything everybody else wanted me to do for a really long time, 20 years that it’s recoverable and it’s recoverable in an instant. And there’s one thing that I like to think about when I personally find myself in this position, which is a lot. The gap between where I am and where I want to be. I’m like, “Oh God.” Here’s the thing. It might be 100 hours, 1,000 hours, $100,000, some distance. Let’s just put it in hours. You’ve heard the 10,000 hours. “I’m 10,000 hours away from where I want to be, but you know what? I’m one decision away.” And that’s a very powerful thing. You can be 1,000 hours but one decision to just decide that that’s the thing you’re going to do. And to me that’s— even in the darkest moments when you’re like, “I’m so far away,” because here’s the thing that you talked about just a second ago about “I’ve got the mortgage, I got this, I got that.” For that same person I’d say, “Do you know why you’re tired?” And I think that they know the answer before I even ask the question. It’s because are you doing the thing that you’re supposed to be doing in life? And I have very rarely come across someone who is as tired as most of us are and is doing the thing that they’re supposed to be doing in life. I will tell you, I will confess on this stage here, just so long as you don’t tell anybody, that writing the book was very hard for me. And it would not exist if it wasn’t for Kate. I don’t know where you are, Kate. It wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kate. It wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for a lot of time. And it was very, very hard. I kept coming back to this, it’s a trip to write a book about creativity. You see where I’m about to go, and then you go back 27 pages and read your own advice and you’re like, “Fu—” and you get back to work. But the point is that— well, I’ll leave it at that. You see where I’m going with that.

BS: Yeah. I think that, for me, one big thing for me, I feel like there’s different points in your life where you just have to really parse out and really examine what your motives are for doing the work and doing the stuff that you do. You know, some might be responsibility, you might have a sick parent, you might have somebody absolutely depending on you, and that’s one thing that you have to do. And then there’s money, which is always obvious. One that I think is kind of along the lines of finding what it is that you’re meant to be doing, and what it is that will be most nourishing for you in the moment. That’s something I talk about a lot, too.

CJ: Nourishing. Yeah.

BS: It’s like what is it in the moment that you enjoy doing the most? Because time is the most valuable resource. An interesting thought experience for me is being, like, Jeff Bezos and being on my deathbed and being in tons of pain and having somebody come up to me— [audience laughs]. Well, okay, you can insert any tycoon there. I got nothing against Jeff Bezos. I don’t like to imagine Jeff Bezos being in a lot of pain. Being person X with $100 billion. Okay? But being on my deathbed and being in tons of pain, having no energy and just not even being really conscious enough to enjoy the companionship of the people around me that I love. And somebody came up to you and been like, “Okay, would you give me $60 billion, which you worked 40 years creating, for an extra week of feeling like you’re 30 years old again?” And I think you’d take it. You’d take it to have that much time just to talk with your wife and be with your kids and experience the world. And it really puts into perspective the value of time versus money. And how much more valuable it is than anything else on earth, but we always fill up our time trying to accumulate these other things. And money is one we talked about. The one that I think is the most subtle, which I warn in college kids about, is this sense of importance, feeling important in the eyes of other people. I think one mental calculus, when you’re finding out what it is that you were meant to be doing and what it is that you really want to do, that is your “creative calling” as your book is called, is to really ask yourself what about the efforts and expenditures I’m putting forth every day is so that I can feel successful or important in the eyes of other people.

CJ: That’s the number one regret of the dying, that they overemphasized the life that everybody else wanted them to live. And so, to me, I look at this journey that we’re on, and the reason I wrote the book, it’s a contract not to betray myself. It’s a contract not to betray the eight-year-old me who made The Sons of Zorro. It’s a contract with myself to never lose the zest and the joy that the first grader has when they clamored to get on their desk to raise their hand, to come to the front of the room and draw a picture.

BS: I have to do the same thing all the time, even with Humans of New York. I go and I’ll speak on stage and I’ll tell about the moment when I lost my job and I’d been thinking about nothing but money for like three years and I had this moment and I said, “Okay, I’m going to spend the next foreseeable point of my life trying to make just enough money to where I can control my time.” And at the time I loved photography, and I guess that was my first grade moment. It was that commitment to myself that I was just going to find a way to build my life to where I could have just enough money to where I could just do what I wanted to do all day long. And in my imagination, I couldn’t even imagine the bestselling books or things. I imagined maybe selling enough prints just to pay my rent and photograph all day long. You said you had to remind yourself what’s in your own book. It’s so true. I speak to college kids about this stuff, and then I’ll just get in situations because— okay, so you commit yourself to doing what you love every single day and then that gets some traction because you’re so passionate about it. It was effortless. I mean I did it all day every single day because it was just so easy and I loved it. And then it got big and then when it gets big, suddenly you have real big opportunities for money or real big opportunities to feel important. And the temptations get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and easier and easier to exercise. And so I constantly have to remind myself that the thing I love the most and the thing that nourishes me the most is going out and doing the work every single day, doing the creativity. I will make a series of perfectly logical decisions that everybody would say, “You’re stupid not to do,” that commit me to things where suddenly all day long I’m chasing opportunities that have arisen from Humans of New York; and I’m not on the street talking to people, interviewing people, doing what I love. And, yeah, you get pulled away from the thing that sent you on the journey in the first place.

CJ: There’s a real significant section of the book. It’s a book of a lot of stories of my own experiences and experience of my friends. And there’s a great story about Brandon in there, which is his losing his job as a bond trader and moving to New York in a small apartment with a mattress on the floor. And the idea of this value of time, and if you can control anything and this resource that we all have the same amount of, wouldn’t it be amazing? There’s a big emphasis in the book about the process. You don’t have to know all the answers, but you just have to do, just basically create something everyday in a small, not even significant way, just be creating every day. And it’s that moment of intention. Even if it’s just 10 lines in the journal in the morning or a photograph on your walk at lunch. And he is onstage tonight because he did that every day for five years. And then when you release a book and it goes straight to number one, all the effort and the understanding of what you’ve been doing becomes really clear to everybody else. But he knew it from day one. We’ll go back to Bezos; you have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time sometimes in order to truly live what you’re doing and—

BS: Oh, and it’s focusing on the activity of it that made it possible, especially now because everything’s got a metric. Everything’s gamified. Everything you’ve got an amount of followers, you have likes. So people, when they’re choosing what to do, even artistic, almost especially artistic people, they’re not truly making a decision that “I want to make this art because I love this activity. I love this moment. I love the act of creativity.” It’s “I want to engage in this creative act in order to get this many followers or because I think it will attract this much engagement and it will attract that many people.” And it’s not sustainable because it takes so long of doing something every single day before you— I call it the first true fan. It takes you so long of working every single day where you’re your only fan to get good enough and unique enough at something to where you cross this invisible threshold and you have somebody who loves your work, not because they’re your cousin, not because they’re your mom. But you’ll see, for the longest time, for so many months I had like 300 and something Facebook fans, and those were the 300 people I sent direct messages to, “Hey, I’m in New York, I’m trying to start something. I know you don’t like it. Just pretend like you like it. I just need some fans.” It’s so long until you get to that point and if it’s a business, if it’s an art, where you’ve put so much work onto it that a complete stranger will connect to it and seek it out. And that’s the moment you know that you made it because the world is such a big place that you know that there’s so many of those people out there. And the only way to get there is by loving the activity and doing it for the love of the activity. Because if I was doing it for numbers or engagement, I would have quit so early because it takes so long before that stuff shows up in a meaningful way. Unless you get some gimmicky viral idea and then you’re, boom, up into the air, and then you’re gone the next day.

CJ: I think what we all want in our culture—you can throw rocks if you think I get this wrong—but I think we all want a map, right? Go to this school, get these grades, get this job, have this income. You can drive this car, live in this neighborhood. That’s a map, right? It shows the dot where you are and then it shows this little dotted line that goes around and it shows the red X. You’ll end up here. So we’re sold this. Why? Because it’s convenient, because it makes us feel good, honestly. It’s over simplified. How many of your lives look like that? Zero. Right? There’s plenty of things on that dotted line between “you are here” and where you want to go. Such that where you want to go usually moves around, and that’s fine. But we’re sold a map in our culture and we’re sold a map of averages. Just have this much money. Don’t think too big. Think the right size. Live like this. And, again, there’s no evil genius. This is fine. This is a result of a mass deal. But what it creates is a bunch of averages, and you aren’t an average. In order to have an average, you have to have a data set. My friends, you’re a data set of one. There is no average if— one divided by one is one. So, if you can just suspend this for a second and say, “Okay, great, I’m willing to not have—” And by average life, I don’t mean simple and humble, I think those are all great attributes. I mean average in the sense of don’t think too big. Don’t think too small. Like this. Go here. You know what I’m talking about. This is the things that your career counselor and your parents—meaning well being, meaning very well—tell you, but I just think that we have the ability to do something that’s so much greater.

But here’s what it requires. It doesn’t require a map. It requires a compass. Think of the difference between a map and a compass. A map, you unfurl it—or at least you did 10 years ago, now you look at your phone—and you can see where you’re supposed to go. It gives you step by step instructions. Here’s the deal about a compass, it just gives you a direction, and you have to just walk in that direction. It’s not about seeing the whole, you can’t see the whole staircase. You can see the first four or five stairs and you can see the ridge. And you walk to the top of the ridge, and then you’re expecting to keep walking and then you get there and there’s a lake. And then you either have to say, “Oh, I love to swim,” or “I have to go around the lake.” And that is scary for most of us. “Hey, just walk in this direction. No, no, no. Trust me, it’s going to be fine.” But you know what? That is infinitely more real than a map because a map sells you something that we know is not true. And a compass, if the compass that you’re following is your heart, it never lies.

That, to me, is sort of like when you realize that you might be 1,000 hours away from your dream job, dream life, relationship, you’re cultivating, whatever, but you’re only one decision. The same thing is true. It’s like, I don’t actually need a map and this is the thing about our calling. Creative Calling is a little bit of a— I almost didn’t name the book that, but I couldn’t think of anything better, so I just went with it. The creative part is because I think we’re just creating machines and everything’s creative. The calling part to me is that’s where the life part of the book comes in. Sure, we’re talking about art, but we’re also talking about it’s a whisper and starts that in here. And then it’s over there. It’s never really clear, but you know enough to walk at it. I have this experience with all the best things that have ever happened to me in my life. I didn’t have a plan. I just had a little bit of an instinct and was like, “Well, it’s kind of scary, but I’m going to start walking in that direction.” So if you can start to think of a compass rather than a map, and you’re willing to decide that you’re not gonna be that person on their deathbed that has this sort of mountain of regret. There’s all kinds of stuff that’s going to happen when you go over the hill and you follow your heart. Your heart’s going to get broken. All these things are going to happen, but it’s really the only way to live.

BS: I think the first actionable step is saying, “I’m going to figure out— I can structure my life in a way where I can choose my work every day.” It takes hard work. So it’s not, “I’m going to structure my life where I don’t have to work or I just get to—” you know, but that it is possible to structure my life to where I can choose my work every single day. And then it’s stepping forward in that direction and with that intention that once you’ve committed myself, “Okay, you know what? Things are really tough, but I think there is a path to that and I’m going to figure out what it is,” that you start having a lot of different experiences when you’re walking forward with that intention and that destination is there. A lot of different innovations. A lot of experimentations. I moved to New York City to photograph 10,000 people and plot their photos on a map. That’s why I moved to New York City because that was my idea of how I was going to somehow come up with an idea that was gonna allow me to photograph every single day. It’s nothing like Humans of New York became, like what became successful. I’d never been in New York City before, ever. Didn’t know anybody there, didn’t have any money. I slept on a mattress on a floor, no furniture in a room. I didn’t go to restaurants, didn’t go to bars, didn’t go to concerts, didn’t do anything. All I did was photograph every single day because that was the goal. I was just trying to figure out how to do that every single day because I absolutely loved it, and everything else came out of that. It wasn’t some big idea that I had that, “Oh, you know what’s going to get 20 million Facebook followers and be two number one New York Times bestselling books? If I choose random people on the street and develop an interview style where in a very short amount of time I can make them feel comfortable enough that they can tell me things and vulnerabilities and struggles and experiences they’ve gone through that they might not have told anybody else before. And so that I can ask for an hour-long interview, you know, through years of learning my editing skills and my interviewing skills, put this in a way that might be compelling to millions of other people.” No.

CJ: I’m exhausted.

BS: All of that came from hundreds and thousands of tiny evolutions that came from being out there doing the work I loved every day and trying to figure out how to do it better. And, still, a lot of these evolutions have just happened in the past few months, or in the past few days, even. You know, it’s still happening. And because the goal is always just doing it every day and loving to do it every single day. And if it was any sort of metrics or any sort of awards, I probably would have stopped already. And again, there are times where I feel so stressed, and I’ll be stressing out about “somethings so bad” or “I’m getting the bad end of this deal” or “this company’s taking advantage of me” or “Facebook’s algorithms are changing” or— [audience laughs]. Yeah, I mean, it’s a laugh line, but, oh my God, I’ve woken up so many nights sweating because it’s my— it’s a beautiful thing. Facebook, and Instagram now, has allowed me to connect with millions of people, but it’s also my lifeblood. It can be taken away from me. And so I will stress over so many of these external things and then, suddenly, I’ll just go out on the street, you know, and I’ll be doing my work and if I haven’t done it in weeks or months, because I’ll be working on something else, I can go back in and then like I’m just sitting at the feet of somebody doing, creating my art, making my work. It’s almost like this form of meditation and it’s kind of like this calming, and it’s this bubble where all of this other stuff doesn’t matter. The results of it doesn’t matter. What comes of it doesn’t matter. How many people like it doesn’t matter. If it makes it turns into a book that sells copies, that makes money, doesn’t matter. It’s, “Oh my gosh, this person is so interesting and they’re so funny and I’m learning their story and I’m going to tell it.” And it’s protecting that moment and building your life in a way to where you can protect that moment and recreate that moment of whatever it is that you enjoy doing for no other reason than the activity itself. And I think that is the compass, and that is the thing that you’ve got to trust is possible.

CJ: Mm. And this is where it gets hairy. I think everyone has this, and right now I’m guessing that there’s some people that are surveying themselves right now and saying, “Is the thing that I love to do,” fill in the blank, whatever it is, “creative?” I just couched everything in creativity. I think it’s so fundamental. The goal of the book is, honestly, to put creativity on the same level as nutrition and exercise and mindfulness because I really think it’s that foundational, it’s that important. But right now, there’s this debate in your mind—I can already hear it because I’ve talked to so many people—you’re like, “Well this thing that Brandon’s talking about, do I have that or is the thing that is that thing, is it creative to me?” So take the second question off the table. I’m just going to tell you it is. Do more of that. And then the second part of that same thing, the second side of the same coin is— Let’s actually, I’m just going to do a quick survey here. Show of hands. And be brave just for a moment. Everyone just look straight ahead. Don’t look at your neighbor. Put your hand up if you don’t know what that thing is. I’m going to put that at 30.

BS: And I would guess there’s a lot more people that didn’t raise their hand because I hear it. I just hear it so much.

CJ: Okay. Okay. Let’s just say it’s 40% just south of 50%. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay for you all, but here’s how you got to do it. What did you love as a kid? What are you curious about? There’s so much pressure on us to know the answer to every question about ourself. I can’t see that. I can’t.

BS: How much time do we have, Kate?

CJ: I love that you’re holding the clipboard to me, but I just can’t see it at all.

BS: What does it say?

CJ: It’s time for questions is what it says.

BS: It’s time for questions already?

CJ: When you work with your wife and she’s like— Thank you, babe.

BS: They gave us two—

CJ: I’m serious, the book would not exist if it wasn’t for Kate Jarvis.

There’s so much anxiety in our culture about “you have to know all the answers”. And here’s what I want you to do if you don’t know the answers, just play. Just play. What brings you joy? What are you curious about? I think we’re up here being pretty darn serious because these activities are things that are thought exercises that we’ve gone so deep on, our livelihoods literally depend on it. It does not have to be. That is not what we’re advocating for. We’re advocating for play. We’re advocating to connecting to an innate part of you, the most fundamental human part of you, that is you have the ability to put two things together that used to not go together to make something new and useful. That is the human superpower. And if you don’t know what that thing is, it’s gonna be okay, but it’s only going to be okay if you go looking for it. Because, to go back to the Brené Brown quote, it’s toxic. It doesn’t just exist. It’s going to dig into you a little bit if you don’t start to pay attention to that. And what I hear right now is you saying, “Yeah, but it’s so hard. I got to do this and this and this.” I know it’s hard, but it’s worth it. What is it worth to not betray the eight-year-old you that knew what that thing was before the school system, before the job, before the factory, the farm, Microsoft trained it out of you. That’s a joke. That was just a small joke. I’m just trying to get all the tech companies. We got Facebook, we got Amazon, we got— okay, check. We checked ’em off. I just don’t want you to be worried. I want you to know and understand that you have these things inside of you. And it’s okay if you’ve been trained to ignore them, and you don’t have to do them in public, but you have to do them. And there’s so much joy to be had when you can decide to spend your time. And when do you get the time? When you’ve got this and this and this and this, it’s worth it to get up just a little bit early. It’s worth it to stay up just a little bit late. It’s worth it to invest just a little bit of time into yourself because if you don’t, who will?

I did what I think is a crazy thing. And I like to have a give back portion of all of the things that I do when I’m creating something that’s very— the last book I did was Seattle 100. We gave all of the money to arts organizations in Seattle, my advance. We raised a bunch of money, and that was an awesome thing. And then with this particular one, my wife, Kate, who I mentioned several times tonight because I love her dearly, I don’t know where she is now. She left with a clipboard. She’s pissed right now. She was a public school teacher for, I think, six years. I felt like 84 to me, but it was six. And I’ve never seen someone work so hard. I’ve never seen a harder working group of people than teachers. It was the most inspiring— and I’m around a lot of people who are world class performers, and they wear their work on their sleeve like a badge of honor, and the teachers that I know, they just go to work. And arts and creativity gets defunded in schools really quickly because there isn’t an understanding of the book that I’m trying to get out into our culture right now, which is aiming to rewrite all this narrative.

So I have an ambition to put a copy of Creative Calling into the hands of every single Seattle Public School teacher. There’s 3,192 of them. And I can do it alone. I do have all the logistics. I’m funding all the logistics, which is there’s 113 schools. I’m going to drop ship a box. I’m not asking anyone’s permission, certainly don’t want to get  into the administration part of this. I’m going to drop ship 113 boxes, one to every school with the right number of books per teacher, and I could use your help at some point. There’s some amazing young women wearing red. Stand up over here. If you feel like you would like to donate a book, I will get it into the Seattle Public Schools. Just see them. There’ll be cruising around in the book signing area or whatever. You can donate one or two or ten or a million, but I’ll make sure the logistics happen. We started this six or seven days ago, thanks, in part, to my little friends and family gathering and some kind folks on the internet, we’re a third of the way there already. I saw it firsthand, and it doesn’t take a leap to understand that our teachers are underpowered, undergunned with respect to creativity. This is the part that kills me, none of this is talked about in our schools, right? And it’s okay. The school is not being evil, but there’s just a lack of understanding that creativity used to be thought as a nice to have. And now we know that it’s anything but. So we should probably— and I would love your support and if tonight’s not convenient, you can figure it out. Just type in my name and “teachers” probably. I don’t know. But you’re the MC, so what are we doing now?

BS: Well you’ve got to tell them about our dinner afterwards, right? Or is that later?

CJ: It looks like a comedy routine. We’re like—

BS: Well, Chase and I are having dinner afterwards, right? So we just had this idea recently. And so if anybody wants to join us, if they buy 10 books for teachers, then you guys are welcome to join us for dinner. Where are we going?

CJ: I am not telling. So, Kate will be up here. Kate you want to stand up? Yeah. And if there’s a lot of people who buy 10 or more books, there’s not going to be enough room, so we’ll have to cut it off. But just come find Kate after. Maybe in parallel with the questions or whatever. She’ll be up here. We can’t accommodate everybody. But I would love to— one of my favorite— if I could flip the script here and not talk from the stage and just answer questions. To me, that’s my favorite thing in the world to do because a lot of us are stuck, and I don’t claim to be able to help. But I know that saying your question out loud is the first step to figuring it out. So if anyone has any questions, come up and ask a few questions. It would mean the world to me, and if we could be quiet while people were asking, these are vulnerable moments for a lot of folks.

Audience Member 1: Yeah. So, I want to know a little bit more about that kind of when you’re in the struggle, when you’re in your heart and pursuing your creativity and your heart’s calling, but you’re also in the struggle of it. And, Brandon, you talked a little bit about how the vision changed for you along the way. So I think one of the pitfalls to creativity is you have a vision and then you think you can’t shift it. So I guess I just want to understand a little bit more about when do you know you need to shift your vision or when do you stay on course with—

BS: The question I always asked myself is, “How can I make myself like my work more?” That was my guiding compass. I was always trying to change Humans of New York. I’m still trying to change Humans of New York to say, “How can I love my work more? How can I feel more proud of it? How do I think it’s more interesting?” And so all of the evolutions that happened along the way of being out there doing it every single day was me stumbling accidentally or creating intentionally a path through which I thought I could create work that I loved more.

CJ: I’ve got a simple litmus test. Do I love it? Is it working? If you love it and it’s working, can keep doing it. If you love it and it’s not working, keep doing it because you love it. If it’s not working and you don’t love it, quit. Got it? Okay. Awesome. Over here, let’s rapid fire these.

Audience Member 2: You talk about fear of failure and fear in general as kind of a barrier between living a wholehearted and creative life. Can you talk a little bit about a time that you struggled with fear or experienced failure and what was the difference maker for moving on?

CJ: Well, part of my job in life—I identify as a creator—so part of my job is to get good at being afraid. And I found out that all the best things in my life are on the other side of fear. I was terrified to write this book because I can do a lot of things fast. And that was 10 years in my brain, two years on the page. And I was scared dozens of times. That’s why I keep saying it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kate. It’s a little bit of a brutish answer, to go back to what I just said, but do I love it? Do I love it, and does it matter? Is it working? And if I can say it’s working and I know that I love it, then I’m willing to go through. And it just like creativity is a muscle, so is playing through fear. And you start to do it and it feels so terrible. That’s the thing you have to run at and do that thing. And then when you’re on the other side of that thing, you’re like, “That wasn’t so bad.” And then you forget and then you go back to being afraid again, and then you go through it and then it just, it’s just 1% less fear over and over and over again. What would you say, bud?

BS: Yeah, it’s one of the things I was going to say, just going real quick, when you’re talking about playing, being a superpower, failing was a big superpower for me. I flunked out of school. I embarrassed myself wildly. I was addicted to drugs at the time. By the time I created Humans of New York, I had publicly failed so many times that I was just immune to it. And it’s absolutely huge because if you can fail and keep going, it’s a complete superpower. Because then it just becomes a numbers game. I mean, you could be horrible at something and you’re still gonna succeed 5% of the time. And if you are great at failing, then you just fail 19 times and you’re going to hit it. You know what I mean? And it’s a skill. It’s a skill just like painting. Every time you fail and you realize, “Okay, people, they’re busy with their own lives and then they don’t really pay attention to you.” People are actually nicer to you when they fail. They hate you and you’re succeeding, and then you fail it’s like, “Oh yeah.” And so it’s like once you learn that and you do it over and over and over again, that’s the superpower. Because you can just keep trying things and you’re going to stumble across something. So, yeah, it’s a skill just like anything else. And I encourage people, especially when they’re young, put yourself in positions to fail. Do that show that nobody’s going to come to. Hang up flyers to all those concerts or your poetry reading that nobody’s going to come to, and, you know, go and do it. And there’s three people there, and it’s going to be a pretty fun night. It’s going to be special, and you’re gonna meet those people. You know what I mean? That’s big.

CJ: Awesome. We’re here.

Audience Member 3: So my question is around challenging yourself. A lot of what you’ve talked about tonight reminds me of flow and the concepts behind that. And I think one of the things that is important to that is finding challenges that aren’t impossible but really stretch you. And so I’m curious, how do you approach that? How do you find challenges that really stretch you and creative endeavors that really push you to be your best?

CJ: Most of the things that I’ve ever had success on, people told me it was impossible. I think that is the part also, the Bezos quote is again, “You have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time,” and there’s no gut check like that. When people thought that it was completely lunacy that I wanted to take pictures with my phone when I had a $100,000 Hasselblad in the closet. You know what I mean? Like I literally had death threats because I was so stupid that I was undermining photography and taking money out of the paychecks of high paying photographers and trying to get billions of people to use their phone to take pictures. I just had a hunch that it was going to work out. And that’s that part why that inside voice I think is so important. There’s a huge section of the book on mindset. I compare it a lot to meditation. When you get off track, what do you do with your mindset in a meditation situation? You just bring it back to the breath, and then your mind wanders and you just bring it back. And this is the same thing. When everyone’s dissenting, you just keep bringing it back. And to me, that willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time is such a powerful tool that it’s very much like being willing to fail publicly. And failing publicly is such a trite thing to say in our culture, but if you can really wrap your head around it in a sort of the metaphysical sense that we’re talking about it. Read a book called, what is it called?

BS: Humans of New York. 

CJ: Yes. That’s a great one.

The author’s name is Jia Jiang. Do you remember his name, Kate? Or the name of the book? Anyway, he talks himself into failing as many times he can. He goes into a Krispy Kreme— So he starts, he fails miserably at life and he’s so terrible. He has a big blow out at work. And then he says, “Great, I’m gonna just teach myself how to fail and be okay with it.” So he starts asking total strangers for things that are just crazy. He goes into a Krispy Kreme, it’s the Olympics, and he says, you know, I’m really craving some of the Olympic doughnuts that you make. And they’re like, “Uh, we don’t make Olympic donuts but,” and they’re like, “Oh no, can you make one for me with the five rings in different colors?” And they’re like, [frustrated sigh], and they make it for him. He asks the cop if he can drive the cop car and the cop says yes. Oh, it’s Rejection Therapy. So look up Jia Jiang, Rejection Therapy. It’s amazing. It will change your life. Okay? It’s a Ted Talk, too. Yeah. Jia Jiang. It’s great. Thank you for the question. Appreciate it.

Audience Member 4: Hi. You guys talked about everyone wanting to do something that’s fully unique to themselves. So what happens if your idea isn’t necessarily unique?

CJ: Mm, I’m so fired up on this one, but I got to give it to you. It’s killing me.

BS: I mean, you got to make it so. What idea is fully— I mean, you could describe Humans of New York in a way that makes it sound un-unique. Oh, it’s photos of people, un-unique. Oh, it’s stories of people, un-unique. Oh, it’s stories of people on social media. Like that’s completely un-unique, you know? It’s you that will eventually make it unique and that’s by doing it so much that you innovate these new little angles and these new nuances and these new textures of something. I think it’s impossible, if you’re using your creativity, to make something that doesn’t have any uniqueness at all.

Go ahead.

CJ: Uh, hmm. I think that we’re so worried about everything being unique. But if you just did you, there’s only one you. There’s only one person that has your DNA that has seen the Grand Canyon the way you saw it, that your mom cooked the bad food that had the thing that, like, you gotta lean into you. That’s where the best stuff is. And if you can be unapologetically you, you’ll start to uncover, you’ll start to pull these layers out. Because originally you want to like, “I want to lean into my trauma because that’s what we’re supposed to do for creativity. If we don’t have trauma or enough trauma, then we’re not creative.” And then, you know, we just get so in our head, if you just made so many things. This is the key to personal style as an artist, repetition. You literally have to make a thousand things. You have to imitate someone else until you’re so tired of imitating them that you start doing your own thing, and then you’ll find your style. It’s the weirdest thing, but volume matters. Make and make and make. You probably know this apocryphal story of the ceramics teacher, “The left half of the room, you get to make one thing this semester and has to be a beautiful pot. I don’t care what your stuff looks like. I’m judging you on volume.” And at the end of the semester, they made tons and tons and tons of beautiful things and this group made one very mediocre thing. And these people all developed their style in the process of making. And so if you can think of volume—it’s really downplayed in our culture—but if you ask any artist, they’re like, “I’m not sitting around waiting to get inspired. I get up and go to work.” I think that’s the key to understanding where your personal power and your uniqueness is. Because you’re not gonna find it at first. What you’re doing is you’re comparing yourself to Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is like creative muscles have creative muscles of their own. Okay, so don’t compare your work to Lady Gaga. She’s been doing it every day. She’s got, you know, 80,000 hours under her belt. You’ve got 8,000 or eight, so just keep going. Okay?

Audience Member 5: So I met your dad, Chase. He’s super proud of you.

CJ: ‘Sup, Dad.

AM5: Congratulations.

CJ: There’s my mom and dad right there. Can I get a shout out?

AM5: My question is, you both give so much of your energy away, and specifically to Brandon, how do you recover? How do you protect your energy? How do you recover from hearing the traumatic and disturbing things that the stories that you’re told?

BS: I mean, for me, it is actually hearing the story. That is how I recover. You know, it was kind of what I touched on earlier. I think the—just real short—I think people get compassion fatigue. I think another way of saying is like, how do you not get compassion fatigue from hearing these people’s stories? Especially so many of them are sad. I think compassion fatigue comes from having the sense that you are not able to do anything or you are unable to affect the situation. One, the act of listening is extremely powerful. A lot of these people have never really been truly listened to. They’ve been carrying things around with them they’ve wanted to talk about, and having somebody come and take a very intense interest in what they’re saying I think is very palliative to them. The other thing is something about taking somebody’s life events, a lot of which didn’t make sense, a lot of it which are traumatic, and arranging them into a story inherently gives meaning to a string of events that might not have had meaning before. And that is very powerful. Say that your nine-year-old son had brain cancer—this is a real story—and now all your life is spent in the hospital slowly watching your child die. I mean that is the most unexplainable, unjust thing that ever existed. And it just seems like nothing but punishment from God. And somebody comes and takes your story and takes how you feel about it and how you’re coping about it and how you feel about your son and turns it into a story. Gives it an arc and gives it a meaning. Gives it a structure and then shares it with millions of other people who are also going through painful experiences that take comfort, that take wisdom and take, you know, solace from what happened to you and how you’re recovering from it. That takes something that has no meaning and gives it meaning. And I think the process of that exchange is what actually, on the flip side, makes it more nourishing than it does draining.

CJ: It gives back.

Audience Member 6: So I’ve been so off of my meditation game because every morning it’s just like, “Well, not today cause I gotta do this, I gotta get right to it.” So I’d love to hear more about your meditation and mindfulness practices and how you stick to it, why that’s so important.

CJ: I’m in a terrible way with my meditation practice right now, and I say that just so you don’t feel like you’re alone. I think it’s really critical. It’s been probably the single most powerful vehicle for changing my day-to-day life, is just 10 to 20 minutes in the morning and 10 to 20 minutes in the evening. I’m off my game right now and I can feel it. I can tell. Yep. Kate would vow to that. Yeah. I wish it was better, but it’s not right now. And the thing is, the point I made earlier about just bringing it back. That’s all I do. Tomorrow I’m going to be on a flight to New York at six in the morning. Before I fall asleep, I’m going to meditate. And I’m just basically getting back up after I fall down every time.

BS: I haven’t started yet, but Chase is working on me. I mean, for me, the moments when I feel completely present are when I am sitting at somebody’s feet and completely listening to their story. That’s when I have no thoughts about myself for long periods of time. So, that is the closest thing I have right now. But all of the smart people in my life tell me I have to meditate, so I know I’m going to start one day. Haven’t done it yet. Yeah.

Audience Member 7: Hello. My question is about that moment when you’ve developed your passion, and you’re ready to put it out there to share with people. And maybe you’re ready to monetize it, and that takes hustle and vulnerability. And you began to receive feedback. And sometimes that feedback can kill the joy because maybe it’s not well received or people don’t understand what it is you’re doing. How do you work through that and begin to continue to create in that moment?

BS: I mean, that’s a fantastic—and it’s very difficult—question. I mean, there’s a lot of pain there, you know what I mean? We talk about ideas that seem impossible. Try telling all your family and your friends that you’re going to move to New York with no photography experience to stop random people on the street and take their pictures and put them on Facebook, which has nothing but pictures of other people. The idea of Humans of New York, which sounds absolutely like a silver bullet now, a sure thing. Oh, of course, telling intimate stories. I couldn’t get a single person to tell me it was a good idea for a very, very long time. To my face people were being lukewarm about it, and probably behind my back they were very much laughing about it. And my early work did suck. It really did suck, you know? But I just really loved it, you know, and I really loved it. And I don’t know how to communicate or teach that kind of love or that kind of passion for something. But I just really loved taking photos and telling stories and that was enough. The draw to it was enough to keep going through those pricks and keep going through those stings and arrows. And it still happens. I mean, the New Yorker wrote a take down of Humans of New York that was shared 60,000 times on Facebook. You know what I mean? The magnitude of it gets much larger, but, you know, it doesn’t hurt any less than the first comment or the second comment when you’re first starting. The feeling doesn’t change no matter how big it gets. It’s just as hard for you, hearing that first whisper from a friend talking about your art that they didn’t think that you were going to hear as it is to have 60,000 people laughing at you on Twitter, saying that you don’t know what you’re doing or that your work is overly sentimental or whatever that I’ve heard about Humans of New York over the years. So yeah, it’s something that’s really tough, but once you can handle it from one person and keep going, I promise you, you can handle it from a million people.

CJ: That’s it. This is the worst thing you’re going to hear tonight. You have to get used to it. And this undeniable belief that you are doing you becomes this little creative plutonium inside you. And you can stoke that fire by hanging out with people that give you energy and bring you joy. When Brandon was talking about people coming home and just being tired, if you did the thing you were supposed to be doing, you’d have 50% more energy. And if you did that and were around people who brought you energy, if you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, choose wisely. That is all.

Two more questions I think. Is that right? Two more?

Audience Member 8: Hi, I’m Haley. I guess this question is more directed towards Brandon. You probably get a lot, but is there one particular story that has stuck with you over the years?

BS: For me, I always say it’s different stories at different times. Like I’m a parent now, you know, the parenting stories, I would tell them as best as possible, but they didn’t really resonate as much with me as they do now. It’s always kind of contextual. I think Humans in New York, the staying power of it is that no matter how far from somebody’s experience a single story is, there’s always somebody that it just hits like a bullseye. It’s like, “Oh my God, like I’m reading exactly what’s happening to me.” And so that’s changed throughout my life. It’s seemingly unsexy undramatic stories that happened to be speaking to exactly the issue my wife and I are having in our relationship or exactly the thing I’m trying to figure out with my daughter. You know what I mean? Or exactly what my friend is going through. That tends to kind of stick with me at that moment. And I think it’s probably pretty similar for a lot of other people. It’s that if you listen to enough stories and tell enough stories, you’re going to hear the right one at the right time. And even me, as a story gatherer, kind of runs into that.

AM8: Thank you.

Audience Member 9: I’m a special education teacher, so your series on Special Olympics really hit close to home. And I was just curious how you choose where you travel when you do the travel stories and when you stay in New York and how you choose what you’re going to cover.

BS: Right now I’m working on an international book that’s coming out fall of 2020. Right in the midst of all the election crap. Chase and I were just talking that.

CJ: That’s bold.

BS: Yeah. So a lot of the international travel right now is within the structure of trying to finish that book. One thing that I really want to do once that book is finished— and even that, it’s like, no matter how beautiful the handcuffs are, there’s always going to be things that are constraining you from doing the things that you would be doing in any given moment. Like right now I’m traveling all over the world and telling stories. If it was up to me, I’d probably lay at home a little bit because it’s just so exhausting. But once my time frees up, I want to do more things like the Special Olympics. Really delve deep in a series. Somebody asked, how do you know when to pivot? I think my work can be better if I go deeper in the way that the series allow me to do that I’m not able to do until I finish my next book. So that’s kind of the next step for me.

House Manager: Thank you so much for being here with Chase and Brandon.

BS: Thank you, guys.

JP: Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle arts and culture series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle-based band, Hibou, and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. A special thanks to our audio engineer Dave Campbell. Check at our new season of Town Hall Seattle’s original podcast, In the Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews somebody coming to Town Hall. They get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind the scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality, and interests. If you like our arts and culture series, listen to our civics and science series as well. For more information, to check out our calendar of events or to support Town Hall, go to our website at

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