The Best Damn Creative Career Advice

The Best Damn Creative Career Advice

At 99U, we’re all about gleaning lessons from prolific artists and distilling them into meaningful bits of career wisdom. And when we’re itching for a shot of creative inspiration, there is one sage we always turn towards for guidance. Of course, we’re speaking of Kanye West.

Fortunately, West is willing to freely share what he’s learned about building a successful creative career. As he notes on Twitter, “I am of service to the world with my art and I just want to serve more.” But what really makes his voice compelling is that he understands the struggle of the artist, the plight of the striver who sacrifices to pursue their craft.

“Yes, I am personally rich and I can buy furs and houses for my family but I need access to more money in order to bring more beautiful ideas to the world,” he Tweets. Totally. 

So as you reflect on where you want to take your creative pursuits in 2017, here is some bajillion dollar advice from Mr. Yeezy himself to help you reach your goals and dreams.  

You’ve got to freely express yourself.




 You need to single-mindedly focus on making your art.


You need to take the initiative to find commissions.


Find others who are willing to invest in your work. And be persistent. 




Find someone who you trust to give you unfiltered feedback


Invite your followers into your artistic process.


Never compromise on your artistic vision.


Seriously, don’t compromise on your vision!


You need to stay ahead of the trends.


You need to own your voice and style.


 You need to believe in yourself.








*Fair Warning: This was all done in good fun for April Fool’s Day. Follow the above at your own risk. 

from 99U99U

Dave Snyder: Art is not Design

Dave Snyder: Art is not Design

Some designers wax poetic about how design is intrinsically inseparable from art and some even will go as far as calling themselves artists. Not Firstborn executive creative director Dave Snyder. Snyder has never believed that art is part of design. For him, the moment you bring in someone else’s interestslike a brand’s!it becomes design, not art. Maybe the sacrilegious sentiments stem from the fact that he studied marketing and advertising way back in school. “If I had gone to school for design, I don’t think it would have worked,” he says of his career. “I really needed to learn the business side of things first and then later on in my career discover true graphic design “gurus.””

The outspoken Snyder has built his career around the concept of design being a great business strategy. His current role is dedicated to pushing that process forward and helping brands like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and reposition themselves through good business solutions that are equally beautiful (as evidence by the boatload of awards Firstborn has won in recent years).

We sat down with Snyder to get his insight into the current state of digital design and the difficulties interactive designers face compared to print designers. 

Tell us about what Firstborn does and what principles it stands for.

Firstborn is about design and technologythat’s the one constant that’s always been. We have always been digital from the ground up.

The biggest change that happened in our industry was that agencies had to decide whether to go either into design and technology or just “own” social. A lot of people decided to focus on what I would say was the easy moneythe social media stuff. It was the: “We’ll go ahead and manage your Facebook and Twitter and come up with campaigns around that” mentality. We wanted to focus on being able to build out the capability to reshape businesses. We have never really embraced any kind of social media support, and we don’t want to create disposable content. We want to create stuff that is actually worth watching and consuming as opposed to being tricked into watching something. We are currently focused on the larger platform type of projects, such as how we can use digital to effect a larger business view or a repositioning. This has proved to be an important shift.

How do you believe digital is contributing to design today?

Design in the most classic sense is a potent business strategy. That’s not to say it’s only about business efficiency. Everything needs a high level of craft, but even that can’t put lipstick on a pig and make people believe the pig is not a pig. Ultimately, design can differentiate one business from another.

“Design in the most classic sense is a potent business strategy.”

It seems that digital agencies are shifting service offerings towards brand building. Is that a fair assessment? And why?

At Firstborn it’s branding, communications, and digital. More and more I don’t see the difference. Your brand is your digital product more than anything. It’s a very blurry type of world but what we do more of now is the actual brand repositioning of large brands and express that through some kind of digital platform or product. With some physical services you spend more time with the app or site than the service.

How is interactive design different from other disciplines in design?

I think it’s more complicated than many other disciplines, mostly because you have to deal with the reality of third party developers, user behaviors, marketers and the way it changes constantly when our devices change. I’m not down-playing paper design as there’s stress on both ends, but ultimately the complexity between the two is extremely different. You also have to deal with the real issue that someone has to code it, and it has to work with someone, so there are more variables and it’s more fluid.

Firstborn created a platform for Green Label Sound, Mountain Dew’s outpost in the world of youth culture.

Where does art live within the world of design now?

I have never believed that art is part of design. One is a commercial interest and one is a personal interest. The one thing a designer does most is deal with other people’s interests. When you have to compromise and deal with business realities, that’s being a designer. When you are solving a problem, that’s being a designer. I don’t like to conflate the two.

“When you have to compromise and deal with business realities, that’s being a designer. When you are solving a problem, that’s being a designer.”

What are the pros and cons of working on a longer term project?

The thing I am most concerned about is how it affects my team. The more things you can get in your book the better as a young designer, and when people get stuck on a project for a year, that sucks for that person and their portfolio. A lot of times when you are in these bigger projects, the realities of business can really squash creativity and lead to something a little more conservative, so you need a balance of something fun as well.

Longer term projects are a different kind of challenge, but it’s definitely where the financial stability is. It’s also interesting from the perspective of how you can affect the business of a company that is much more substantial than yours. When you work on longer business transformation projects from the ground up it allows you to act like an entrepreneur without taking the risks of being an entrepreneur and it gives you a blank canvas.

As a partner, how do you balance innovation and risk for your clients?

That is honestly just a frank conversation from all parties and involves really understanding what the business goals are. I have learned a lot more about that as I’ve got older. I need to understand what drives their business and how we can play within that and craft a solution. You have to understand that somebody’s job is on the line if your idea doesn’t work. It comes down to understanding what risk really feels like and how that might affect you personally.

What steps does an agency have to do to earn the trust of a client?

It’s something I wrestle with. When you are younger you think you have it all figured out and you’re not really taking into account all these other factors market conditions, someone’s boss, etc. A lot of it has nothing to do with the consumer. A couple of things I’ve learned over the years are learn where your clients’ bonus comes from and you’ll have a better opportunity to position your ideas in a way that will earn them more money. And consider time and experience and the perspective it gives someone. It’s all about finding a balance. 

“Learn where your clients’ bonus comes from and you’ll have a better opportunity to position your ideas in a way that will earn them more money.”

Besides trust, what skills does a partner need to gain the most value from their agency or team?

Brutal honesty and a very candid relationship. Clients need to understand our business like we need to understand theirs. Most agencies are there to genuinely make better work for clients. The pitch process is where a ton of this could be worked out. Understanding the dollar amount they have directly affects the solution we pick so being honest about that is really important.

In a recent campaign for Mountain Dew, Firstborn drew a connection between DEW fans and action sports.

Once a product has launched, there’s a lot of data. How do you choose what to focus on and where to iterate?

I think what we and the industry as a whole needs to do is convince clients to put some of the money aside for iterations. Do we do that at Firstborn all the time? No. But it is something we are trying to move towards this year as I think it is a fundamental flaw in the way business works and I feel that 50% of a budget should go towards tracking and improving. I don’t feel big businesses are ready for that though.

from 99U99U

Nobody’s Better Than You

Nobody’s Better Than You

Many years ago, when I was young and things didn’t go my way, my mother used to look at me with a fierce and piteous expression and tell me: “Nobody’s better than you.”

My mother is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. By the time she was born, her people (and my dad’s) were well established throughout the American south. Though early to the great waves of immigration, which began in the late 1800s and continued through the end of World War II, my ancestors were no less stigmatized, seen by their neighbors as part of the influx of unwashed Jews, Poles, Irish, and Italians debarking en mass from ships.

Living in small towns in Virginia, without the community of others of their kind, the Rosenbergs and the Sagers kept their observances confined to the indoors; like cinema’s classic Miss Daisy, in public they practiced fervent assimilation. Their efforts weren’t always successful. Among the few stories of his childhood my father ever told was one about being chased by other boys in his town, who threw rocks and called him a “kike” and “bagel eater.” Later, his entrance into medical school at the University of Virginia was delayed a year because the quota for Jews in the class had already been filled.

My mother remembers being a brunette in a sea of blondes, excluded from the in-crowd, a perpetual outsider in her own milieu, which happened to be a town that saw a lot of action during the Civil War. Everyone in school knew whose parents owned the “Jew store.” And everyone in school shopped there; my mom could sometimes be found working after school, sitting on a low stool, fitting shoes. When she didn’t win the vote for yearbook editor, the teacher appointed her co-editor. Same with the newspaper. The teacher knew my mother would get things done, even if the popular kids wouldn’t vote for her.

And so it was, when I didn’t win the election for middle school vice president, or make the J.V. basketball team, or secure the attentions of the cute and popular girl for whom I was vying—when my achievement was lacking, my performance was underwhelming, my results didn’t match my expectations—my mother would try to let me know I should keep on trying, that I shouldn’t let myself feel undeserving. That I should stand up and demand whatever I felt was rightfully mine.

Nobody’s better than you.

I think what she was meaning to say was, You’re just as good as everyone else. Just as deserving. Just as equal. Just as entitled by God above and the U.S. Constitution to as much opportunity as the next guy, no matter who I was or where I came from.

But of course she was blinded by motherhood. And I was a kid.

Nobody’s better than you.

Those were her exact words. And I believed her.

Despite every indication otherwise.


It took me the balance of my grade school years to figure out that maybe I wasn’t as great as my mother had led me to believe. (I should have gotten a hint when some jokester unplugged my amp during my big guitar solo at a school talent show). With an underachiever’s 2.6 GPA, I barely found my way into college; only two schools would have me. By the end of my senior year of high school, I was starting to get the idea that simply feeling entitled and deserving was not quite enough.

When I got to college I was petrified; I’d never done much homework in the past—I’d never even managed to memorize my multiplication tables. But I guess my fear awakened a slumbering work ethic. I became the guy who never missed a class. I highlighted the textbooks and outlined the highlights, re-copied my notes, even read the books teachers left for reference in the library. Along the way I began to discover that development is exponential. The farther you go, the more you know, the more you can handle. Eventually I branched out into extracurriculars…and found my life’s work—an instrument through which I could try to express all of the greatness my mother insisted I had inside.

By the time I left the small pond of my college—which, at the time, was way more famous for churning out med school students than great writers—I felt like a pretty big fish. Nobody was better than me. Nobody I knew, at least.


Through a convoluted series of events, I found myself, at the age of 21, working at the Washington Post, first as a copy boy, then as a staff writer.

Among my bosses—who themselves were employed by the iconic Post publisher Katharine Graham—were men depicted in movies; they’d helped to bring down a crooked president, inspired several generations of ambitious and idealistic kids like myself to join the Fourth Estate. Among my colleagues were the granddaughter of a president and the son of a poet laureate; the cream of the Ivy League’s writing and journalism programs; the best editing and reportorial talent that could be hired away from other newspapers around the country.

And then there was me: Mike from Baltimore.

In an acre-square newsroom housing 800 other writers, everybody was better than me.


I guess I was too naïve to be deterred.

I had, after all, lied to my parents about the law school’s promise to keep open a slot open for me in the next year’s class.

And maybe the seeds of entitlement planted by my mother were never entirely destroyed.

I may never have been to Cape Cod in summer like the some of the blue bloods in the newsroom, or studied with John McPhee, or palled around with JFK and Jackie. I may not have spoken French or dined regularly with ambassadors or sports heroes—or anyone at all during that first couple of years, when I worked the graveyard shift exclusively.

But I did have a few things going for me. A facility with words. A musical bent. An eye for detail. An empathetic ear. An interest in people who were different than me. A little dab of street wise I’d picked up in my early days as a rebellious junior hippy, and later as a day-tripper through seedier climes. And above all, the knowledge that this was what I had to be doing.

Over time, without thinking too hard about it, I did the best I could with what I had, drawing from my intangible assets to create a style of my own. Some people like it. Some do not. I’m not a household word. But I always try, with every piece that I make, to deliver something different and original, something entertaining that carries the weight of truth, something that people will pay me for—yes, that’s important too. Into everything goes my all.

Along the way I have learned that comparison and competition are enemies of the artist. How did he get that assignment? How could she win that award? How many books did she sell? What’s his hourly rate?

All that should matter is the piece of work that sits before you. There is you. There is your art. At the elemental level, nothing else matters.

Call it my Theory of Originals.

Don’t worry about the competition. Find what you do best. When the room is full or when the lines are long, form a line of your own. Be number one in a class of one.

Once you’re there, nobody will be better than you, either.

from 99U99U

True Grit: How to Build Up Your Resilience

True Grit: How to Build Up Your Resilience

Whether we’re talking about a great novelist like John Irving or an era-defining entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos, it’s natural to conclude that the mega-successful owe their achievements to an almost magical quality that you’re either born with or you’re not: talent.

But according to Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who’s made it her life’s goal to help children thrive, this is mistaken. Yes, the aptitude you bring is important, but few of us ever reach the limits of our natural abilities. Instead what holds us back is a lack of commitment or a lack of focus. “Enthusiasm is common,” Duckworth writes, “endurance is rare.”

Effort counts twice, she explains, because it translates your aptitude into skill. And then it combines with your skill to manifest as achievement. In other words, it takes effort to get good at something, and then it takes effort to apply that skill, to create.

If you look at John Irving’s life story, for instance, it isn’t one that begins with him displaying savant- like brilliance at an early age. Far from it, in fact he struggled at school with English. What distinguishes his lifelong approach to his art is his doggedness. “Rewriting is what I do best as a writer,” says Irving. “I spend more time revising a novel or screenplay than I take to write the first draft.”

But determination isn’t enough, you also need to apply yourself with focus. Rather than chasing a different dream each week or month or year, you need – at least eventually – to settle on a higher calling and never let go. When you have drive and determination combined with single-minded direction, this is what translates into meaningful accomplishment.

Crucially, Duckworth, who has written the book on grit, argues that grit isn’t fixed like your height. Rather it’s something that you can cultivate, more like learning a new language. Here are three steps from Duckworth’s book that you can take to make yourself grittier – and dramatically increase your ability to persevere.  

Find your calling

Most high achievers have “an ultimate concern” or what Duckworth calls their “compass” (because it provides a sense of direction) and nothing will stop them in pursuit of this higher goal. How can you find yours if you don’t have one already? The first thing to realize is that you’re not going to find it through introspection. You need to get out there and try things. A relevant misconception is that passions instantly grab us in one magical eureka moment. In reality, the first time you encounter your would-be passion, you likely won’t even realize it. This means you need to expose yourself to as many different pursuits as possible and give any nascent spark a chance to catch.

In time, what overarching passions or concerns have in common is that they have a greater purpose – yes, there is pleasure and fascination in them, but more than that, usually there is a deeper meaning or cause that involves helping other people in some way. In a 2014 study that she conducted with her colleagues Katherine Von Culina at Yale and Eli Tsukayama at The University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth found that people with high levels of grit are as motivated by the pursuit of pleasure as much as anyone else, but what marks them out is their greater interest in meaningful activities that serve a higher purpose.

Of course, we can’t fight every battle. Sometimes it makes sense to change course. If you’re struggling to recognize the difference between your overarching career aim and lesser, more disposable goals, consider visualizing your aims as a pyramid with those at the bottom feeding into your ultimate goal at the top. If they cause you problems, you shouldn’t be afraid to save energy by dispensing with lower-level goals. As you approach mid-level goals and beyond, you should become progressively more dogged. Reserve your never surrender attitude for your ultimate goal or life philosophy that guides all you do.

Practice smart

Once you know what your passion is, you need to hone your craft through unrelenting practice. Duckworth’s research–including a 2010 study into the winners of National Spelling Bee championships–has shown that gritty people devote more time to what psychologists call “deliberate practice” and that they enjoy it more.

This kind of practice involves more than simply putting in the hours. It’s an arduous process that requires pushing yourself to perform outside of your current ability levels (Duckworth recommends setting yourself “stretch goals” – specific areas of performance where you would like to make gains); getting meaningful feedback on how to improve; and then doing it all over again, implementing that feedback to achieve superior performance.

Duckworth quotes dancer Martha Graham’s description of what it feels like to do this kind of training: “Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths.

Be it sport, acting or art, when we watch superstars perform, their output often seems effortless, which only serves to fuel the illusion that they were born with a supernatural gift. In fact, the reason their performance is so fluid and graceful is because of all the hours and hours of intense, painstaking practice they’ve completed.

Think like an optimist

 In pursuit of your creative ambitions, it is inevitable that you will experience set backs. As shown in Duckworth’s research involving school teachers working in schools in poor districts, gritty people tend to respond to these setbacks with an optimistic mindset. Optimists see failure as a chance to learn. They consider the changeable aspects of a disappointment that can be addressed and adjusted to make failure less likely next time. Pessimists, by contrast, will tend to blame the failure on a fundamental cause that can’t be changed, such as the belief that they don’t have what it takes. A related concept you’ve probably heard of is whether or not you have a growth mindset. Gritty optimists tend to have a growth mindset, believing that traits like intelligence can be nurtured. Pessimists instead see such things as fixed.

There is a dynamic, interactive nature to these things. Duckworth’s research suggests that encountering adversity–as you surely will–and believing pessimistically that you have no power over events, will encourage you to give up without a fight. You condition yourself to be passive, and you lose your grit. In contrast, responding to challenges with optimism and determination and finding a way through (in Duckworth’s language, this is “adversity plus mastery”), you will nurture your grittiness. Next time you encounter difficulties, you will be even more determined to push on. “To be gritty,” Duckworth writes, “is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

If you’re a lifelong pessimist, you might be feeling skeptical at this point, but it’s worth noting that a study last year reviewed all the evidence into whether we can train ourselves to be more optimistic and the results were, well, rather upbeat: the researchers concluded that optimism is indeed something we can learn.


By finding your true calling, honing your craft through dedicated deliberate practice, and responding to setbacks with an optimistic, problem-solving approach, you will follow in the footsteps of the many outstanding achievers Duckworth has studied, all of whom are characterized by that mix of passion and perseverance.

To believe that only a lucky few are born with true talent, while the rest of us are not, is demoralizing. You might understandably wonder whether the focus on grit simply shifts this concern to a different trait: that perhaps a rare few are blessed with grit while us lesser mortals are destined to weaker will and an absence of purpose. In fact, twin studies suggest that the “heritability” of grit is between 20 to 40 percent, meaning that less than half the difference in grit between people can be traced to genetic causes. This leaves plenty of room for grit to be influenced by other factors such as life experiences and deliberate cultivation. “Like every aspect of your psychological character,” Duckworth writes, “grit is more plastic than you might think.”




from 99U99U

A Brief History of the Pencil, as told by a Pencil Aficionando

A Brief History of the Pencil, as told by a Pencil Aficionando

Caroline Weaver, the owner of CW Pencil Enterprise, a specialty pencil shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has managed to make the dream of obsessives come true: What if this thing I love, this strange small thing, could be my job? For Weaver, that strange small thing is the humble pencil, and it has provided not only a business—celebrating its two-year anniversary this March—but a book as well, a history of the pencil entitled The Pencil Perfect. We chatted with Weaver about her store, the birth of the pencil craze, why Japanese pencils are so good, and why people think pencils contain lead. Here are twelve of the most fascinating things we learned.

Pencils do not, and have never, contained lead of any sort.

“It took quite a long time for people to even figure out the chemical composition of graphite,” says Weaver. Graphite was discovered in England in the mid-1600s, and the possibilities of this new material were immediately obvious—but exactly what the stuff was made of, that was a little tricky. “When it was first discovered, people called it black lead, because it kind of resembled lead. And to this day, we still call it lead, and think there’s lead in pencils. But the truth is there was never lead in pencils,” she says.

The first pencils looked pretty weird.

“Graphite was originally used bare as an artist’s material with string wrapped around it, so you had something that wouldn’t get your hand really messy and would also keep the graphite from breaking,” says Weaver. Graphite is quite brittle, but it would take centuries before a process was discovered to mix powdered clay with powdered graphite to make stronger, cheaper pencils. “The Faber-Castell archive has what is believed to be the first pencil. It’s basically two small planks of wood with a piece of graphite stuck inside it, and only three of the four edges are covered. It looks like a super primitive carpenter pencil.


Caroline Weaver in her New York City shop, CW Pencil Enterprise.

In fact, the pencil was a luxury item for centuries.

“They were originally made mostly by cabinet makers, or anybody skilled in woodcraft. It’s not easy to enclose something that small in wood, and they were all made by hand,” says Weaver. The pencil was a huge step up from the then-modern pen, which was a quill, in that you didn’t have to carry around a bottle of ink, which made it ideal for the military as well as artists. But at the time, it was essentially an artisanal sculpture featuring a rare mineral—very expensive.

Legend has it that Napoleon is in large part responsible for the modern pencil.

Weaver was careful to say that this is a legend, and not necessarily completely accurate, but: “Legend has it that during the French Revolution, Napoleon asked Nicholas Conte, who was an engineer who worked mostly with hot air balloons, to make him a better, stronger pencil. All the good pencils were coming from Germany or Britain at the time, and he couldn’t import them because of the war.” Napoleon only had access to crappy graphite, but Conte figured out that even crappy graphite, when powdered, mixed with powdered clay, and fired in a kiln, makes not only a serviceable and inexpensive pencil. It makes a better pencil. Conte also created the mostly-modern method of enclosing the stick of graphite in two half-cylinders of wood, rather than filing out a hole through the middle of a solid stick. And he did this all, according to legend, in eight days.

The eraser came after the pencil—and you won’t believe what predated rubber.

“The erasability of graphite wasn’t a quality that people recognized at first, because erasers didn’t exist,” says Weaver. Rubber, native to the Americas, was both extremely expensive and, until the mid-1800s, perishable. In place of that, pencil-wielding writers used something you might not expect. “People used pieces of bread to erase, slightly stale bread,” she says. “Because it’s still a little absorbent but also a little scratchy, so you can kind of scratch off the graphite.”


The Japanese make some of the most prized modern pencils.

“In Japan, during the mid-20th century, there was almost a race between two pencil companies, Tombow and Mitsubishi, to make the world’s finest pencils. The result is a pencil called the Tombow Mono 100. The Mono 100 is a beautiful pencil. The detailing on its finish—it has this giant white stripe on the end, it has all this gold detailing, it’s so shiny, it’s gotta have at least 14 coats of paint on it, and it has 10 billion particles per cubic mm in its graphite core,” gushes Weaver. These pencils come in fancy plastic boxes with delicate paper sleeves inside. “The packaging is just unbeatable,” says Weaver. “I guess that’s a very Japanese quality, the excessive but beautiful packaging.”

There are still pencils made in the U.S., and they’re actually pretty good.

The U.S. once had a booming pencil industry, in part because the most common wood for casings is cedar, which the country has lots of. Today, there are only three significant manufacturers left in the U.S.—even Dixon’s iconic Ticonderoga is made elsewhere—but they’re not bad! “The General’s Semi-Hex is still manufactured in the U.S., made in its original factory in Jersey City, New Jersey. It’s the most local pencil to us in New York, which we’re very proud of,” says Weaver. “They make a number 2 that’s yellow, with the gold foil, very similar aesthetic to the Ticonderoga, very nostalgic. That, to me, seems to be like the most American pencil.”

What separates a lousy pencil from a great one? How different can they be?

“The first question you have to ask is, is it made out of good quality wood? You have to sharpen your pencil, so if it’s bad, that’s immediately an issue. The other thing that I don’t think people really pay much attention to, unless they know to look for it, is how well-centered the pencil is,” says Weaver. “You can tell that by looking at the unsharpened end of it. There’s so little room for error when it comes to making pencils that even if it’s a millimeter off-center, it gives you trouble when you’re sharpening it. If you sharpen it and find that it’s kind of slanted, that means the core is off-center. That can also lead to the wood splitting, which isn’t good.” Beyond that, things are mostly up to personal preference: Do you like a scratchy pencil or a smoother (but more likely to smudge) one? Do you like lightweight or heavy pencils? How do you like your pencil to look?

There is an online obsession with a particular, long discontinued sharpener.

There are a few different ways of sharpening pencils, but the easiest is the electric sharpener. That said: “Electric sharpeners can be terrible. The best ones were made by Panasonic in the 1980s, but those can be hard to find these days. Believe it or not, there is a resale value for those Panasonic electric sharpeners, because people really love them,” says Weaver. There’s a thriving market on eBay for them; sharpeners in great condition can sell for upwards of $75.00.

But the hottest sharpener isn’t one for amateurs.

“Amongst people in the pencil community, the long-point sharpener is kind of the thing right now,” says Weaver. “It’s a two-step process; it looks like a normal hand-held sharpener, but it has two blades. Blade number one just sharpens the wood of the pencil, and then when you’re done you have to put the pencil into blade number two which very gently refines the blade of the graphite. So the result is a super long point, much longer than you get from any other kind of sharpener. People like it because you don’t have to sharpen your pencil as often. But it’s tricky, it’s kind of hard to use. You have to have a lot of patience.”

“Steinbeck stage” is a term any budding pencil-head might want to learn.

If you frequent pencil message boards—there are some revolving around the Erasable Podcast—you’ll see the term “Steinbeck stage.” “Apparently John Steinbeck discarded his pencils when the barrel of the pencil, the metal part on the end, got to the part of his hand that connected his index finger and his thumb,” says Weaver. So when a pencil gets to that point, it’s referred to as the “Steinbeck stage.” On the other hand, you don’t have to discard a pencil at that point. “I use a pencil extender. We sell so many pencil extenders; I think it’s something that a lot of people have no idea even existed. And you should use your pencils until the end! It feels like a big accomplishment,” says Weaver.

Weaver did, in fact, write her book about pencils with a pencil.

“I did write the book with a pencil,” she says. “I wrote it in a notebook and then transcribed it. I’ll be honest, I cheated a little bit; for a couple sections I just wrote the outline in pencil, not the whole thing, but I tried my best. I ended up using just under 40 pencils for the whole thing, and I saved all the stubs.” Not only that, she tried to match up the pencil she used with the topic at hand. “If I was writing about Faber-Castell, I used a Faber pencil. Or I used vintage pencils for some sections. I kept them all in a jar that had a label on it that said ‘How many pencils does it take to write a book about pencils, in pencil?’”

And that’s part of what Weaver loves so much about pencils. Unlike a pen or mechanical pencil, a classic wood-case pencil fades away with work. “I think that’s something that’s so amazing about this kind of object; it’s something that just disappears when you’re done with it. You’re left with a tiny stub that’s almost a souvenir of all the work you’ve done, and that’s kind of nice,” she says. Plus: Wood pencils smell good.

from 99U99U

Sarah Waiswa: Photographing a New African Identity

Sarah Waiswa: Photographing a New African Identity

Travel is often seen as a privilege afforded to few, but for some people, travel is a necessity. The latter is true for Ugandan photographer Sarah Waiswa who was born during dictator Idi Amin’s era, which forced her family to flee to Kenya shortly after her birth. Although she is Ugandan by blood, she is Kenyan by spirit. This early, formative experience led Waiswa to become a self-described nomad, and exploring one’s connection to place is a central theme in her work. Through Waiswa’s documentary and portrait photography, she also explores the New African Identity, which contrasts times when there was no room for self-expression versus today, where it’s easier to express oneself through art, fashion, film, and photography.

In 1999, Waiswa moved to the United States to obtain college and graduate degrees, and worked for a few years in higher education. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so when Waiswa returned to Kenya in 2010, she had a newfound appreciation for the county that she didn’t have as a child. By day, Waiswa worked in human resources, and she picked up photography as a way to visually reconnect with the continent.

With an unwavering curiosity to learn the craft and find courage to share her work, Waiswa ditched her corporate career in October 2015 to pursue photography full-time. The risk was worth it. Waiswa recently won the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award, which is given out at the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival in France to a photographer whose work has recently been discovered or deserves to be for her photography project: “Stranger in a Familiar Land.” The series illustrates the life of an albino who is forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society. Waiswa is also a Uganda Press Photo Award 2015 category winner, and she has worked with international NGOs and brands including Samsung, Airtel, an Indian global telecommunications company, and Travel Noire, a digital publishing platform produced by black travelers.

We spoke with the self-taught photographer about her inspiration behind personal project, “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” the moment she realized it was time to make the leap to become a full-time artist, and the importance of sharing your work. 

Florence Kisombe, the model in “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

What was your experience like moving to the United States, and what did you study?

I attended Berea College in Kentucky and received my undergraduate degree in sociology. This was my first time in the United States, so it was exciting and nice to have my independence. Then, I attended Eastern Kentucky University and received my master’s in industrial and organizational psychology. My first job out of graduate school was working in the equal opportunity office at my alma mater investigating discrimination claims from students and professors. After a few years, I moved to Chicago, and worked in a similar capacity at Northwestern University looking at their affirmative action plan and hiring practices.

When did you develop an interest in the arts?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but being raised in an African home, there was pressure to succeed academically, and obtain a certain position. During my time in the States, I fulfilled this responsibility, and actively saved my money. When I returned to Mombasa, Kenya in 2010, there weren’t any positions in my field, so I began working in human resources. As I continued to set money aside in my savings, I took up photography as a hobby. I started observing everything with a cross between nostalgia and looking for familiar and new things to capture on my Nikon D5000.

How did you teach yourself photography?

First, I began shooting in auto, which is the mode where the camera chooses all the settings for you, and you just point and shoot. I was particularly interested in capturing people. I also studied other people’s work on Tumblr, Instagram, and at photography festivals. I was struck by how people expressed themselves on these platforms without limitations, and it encouraged me not to restrict myself. Africans tend to be more conservative, and express themselves and art in a safe, similar way.

By 2012, I started sharing my images on Tumblr, and received positive feedback. YouTube was another resource, and I’d ask people how to improve photo composition and lighting. I’m still learning, but I’m much better at expressing things visually because I have control of the camera, and can achieve things quicker.

When did you realize you were onto something?

Late 2012, a woman from the States contacted me via Tumblr and said, “I’m from Mombasa and I love how you photograph my city, Muslim culture, and express yourself. Can you photograph my wedding?” This caught me off guard, but I was familiar and deeply interested in this subject because my father was Muslim. I accepted the job, and in 2013, I shot the four-day wedding by myself. The experience was exciting, culturally-rich, and exactly what I envisioned. In retrospect—after editing thousands of photos—I should have charged more. But, it was the first time I realized I could make money in a different way doing what I loved.

I also joined Instagram, started connecting with the Kenyan photography community, and with artists at 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust. An Instagram competition was held to mark Kenya’s 50 years of independence, and I won the competition. It was awesome to receive recognition, especially since there weren’t many female, Kenya-based Instagrammers sharing their work. Then, in 2014, Instagram featured my work and my following surged!

I started receiving more requests for work and paid influencer opportunities via Tumblr and Instagram, but since l worked full-time, I could only accept jobs on weekends. For example, a South-African hotel chain based in Kenya provided me with a free, weekend stay, and in exchange, I was paid to Instagram my experience. I also love fashion and connected with local designers who hired me to cover their fashion shows. It was thrilling to field a wide range of requests from brands seeking my visual storytelling perspective. However, repeatedly turning down work made it clear that something had to give.

When you left your full-time job and made the leap to photographer, how did you make the financials work, especially at the beginning?

I had six months’ worth of savings and continued putting my work out there. I told myself, “If I can’t create a sustainable career as a photographer in six months, I have my master’s to fall back on, and will get another job.” Up to this point, the majority of my photography gigs were one-off projects, because that’s all I could handle with my schedule! Since I didn’t have clients lined up, I hit the ground running to build a website, print business cards, network and collaborate with other creatives to build my portfolio, and most importantly, shoot personal projects. There wasn’t a moment where I was sitting still. It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.

Additionally, as influencer requests continued to roll in via Instagram, I became savvier with pricing jobs because my stakes were higher. Your pricing mentality shifts when you move from doing photography as a hobby to doing photography as your full-time profession.

It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.

You live in an area where the dollar goes much further than a major U.S. city. What impact does living in a more affordable place have on your art?

Affordable is relative. But, having said that, people here are just now starting to value art and are willing to pay for it. Currently, there are so many people who consider themselves photographers and industry-set rates don’t exist. Africa is still a developing nation, so there are rules, and at the same time, rules are broken daily. For example, you can find photographers who charge $100 for a wedding, and others who charge $1,000 or more. Knowing your worth and producing quality work goes a long way towards building your brand, which results in repeat clients.

Although Kenya is my home base, the majority of my recurring and higher paying one-off jobs come from clients and brands who are based in different parts of the world, including South Africa, the United States, and Europe. This allows me to be selective with the local projects I take on, and also helps fund my personal projects.

So how do you set your fee when the range can be so wide?

It’s been critical for me to network with my local photography community and creatives who do influencer work with brands and NGOs. For example, I have a friend who is a talent manager and he has orchestrated influencer campaigns for telecom brands in the Kenyan market. He developed an algorithm for influencers to know how much to charge per post based on content generation, campaign length, and your number of followers. When Huawei, a Chinese global telecommunications company, introduced a new cell phone to the Kenyan market, they tapped me as an influencer for their campaign, and my friend’s algorithm allowed me to price this job more competitively. There are also influencer portal sites like, which help you gauge what to charge brands per Instagram post based on the reach and value of your following.

Finally, as I continue to develop my craft, build out my portfolio, and receive awards for my work, I increase my fees.

How have you built out your freelance photography business, and where do your main sources of income come from? Recurring jobs from certain clients? One-off jobs? Or some combination of both?  

My main sources of income come from a combination of recurring clients and one-off jobs from brands, NGOs, and individuals. For example, this year, I’ve been commissioned to shoot four-five group Travel Experiences to destinations in Africa for Travel Noire, and I’ll work on quarterly photography projects for a Finland-based NGO. Travel Noire was drawn to my travel photography aesthetic while the NGO said they were attracted to how I interact with the people I photograph, and convey their stories with dignity and honesty.

Additionally, I’m constantly fielding influencer opportunities and scheduling one-off jobs. I was recently contacted by a Portugal-based woman who is launching an African-inspired yoga clothing line. She will be traveling to Kenya in a few months, and would like me to shoot brand photos of her line. And, a US-based, global NGO reached out to me to discuss creating content for an upcoming Instagram campaign, so I’m starting to find my rhythm attracting work that aligns with my interests. Finally, I sell limited edition prints of select work, including “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”


Does it come naturally for you to put your work out there? And, what was your inspiration behind your photography project, “Stranger in a Familiar Land?”

It took me a while before I felt comfortable sharing my work, but I knew that people connect with something they can feel. When I’m passionate about issues I’m trying to explore, it’s easier to put my work out into the world. For example, in 2015, I came across an article about the atrocities albinos face in Tanzania and throughout Sub-Saharan African. People fear what they do not understand and, because of this fear, people with albinism continue to be at the receiving end of ridicule and persecution. I reached out to the Albinism Society of Kenya to learn more, and to shed light on this issue through photography. I was still working my full-time job, but would volunteer my time at the organization. After a few months, I developed the concept for “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” and asked the organization for an introduction to a woman with albinism.

It took me a while before I felt comfortable sharing my work, but I knew that people connect with something they can feel.

Do you feel like your sociology and psychology degrees influence your work?

Definitely. Through my photography, I’m always looking at how society treats and interacts with people based on their challenges and differences. By operating through this lens, I’ve found that multiple truths exist, and issues are never black or white.

Can you walk us through your process and concept for “Stranger in a Familiar Land?”

For starters, I always have conversations with the people I shoot to highlight their character. When the Albinism Society of Kenya introduced me to Florence Kisombe, I immediately felt her bold personality. She is very outgoing, wants to be a model, and I knew she would be perfect for the project.

The concept of “Stranger in a Familiar Land” groups together various portraits of an albino woman set against the backdrop of the Kibera slums, which are a metaphor for my turbulent vision of the outside world. The series also explores how the sense of non-belonging has led her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state. People notice Kisombe, but at the same time, they don’t.

Another scene from “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

How did you decide to enter “Stranger in a Familiar Land” into the Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award?

I was nominated for the award by Ethiopian photographer, contemporary artist and founder of Addis Foto Fest, Aida Muleneh. She was first introduced to my work as a judge for the Uganda Press Photo Awards 2015. I was unaware that she was also involved with the Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award, but when she asked me if I was working on any special projects, I shared “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

As background, five preeminent figures from the art world each nominate two artists for consideration of the Discovery Award, and the winner receives a €25,000 award during a ceremony at the ancient theatre in Arles, France. I was honored to be selected by Muleneh, and it shows that you never know what opportunities can come your way through grit and sharing your personal projects.

Were you surprised when you claimed the 2016 Discovery Award?

Absolutely—I had no idea that I had a chance of winning. I was up against photographers from Japan, the United States, Europe, and other countries, and was the underdog. No feeling can describe getting up, doing what you love, and being recognized. Before, I struggled with calling myself a photographer, and would always say, “I’m a photographer, but I have a master’s degree.” Today, I proudly call myself a photographer, and believe that regardless of one’s background or education, you can create meaningful work that inspires you and others. There are no limits to what you can achieve with hard work and talent. 

Have you received interesting feedback about the project? 

Yes! People contact me from all over the world about “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” and a mother in France recently shared that her daughter is doing a school report on the project. I believe that even if my work gets two to three people’s attention, it has served its purpose and can ignite change.

Additionally, Kisombe continues to be a spokesperson for albinism, and the photography project has given her another avenue to carry out her advocacy.

The recurring question I get about the project is whether Kisombe’s purple hair was a prop, but it wasn’t! That’s Kisombe’s sense of style, and it’s a great example of the New African Identity where she’s expressing herself no holds barred. Society would expect Kisombe to be soft-spoken and insecure because of her challenges, but she’s the exact opposite.

What’s on the horizon for you in 2017?

I’m looking forward to working on more personal projects around social issues I feel need to be addressed. This gives me life! I also want to give back more through trainings and workshops for youth and adults. Additionally, my friend Joel Lukhovi and I will continue working on our project, African Cityzens, where we travel by road throughout Africa exploring the barriers that arise in attempting to access different border points and navigation within the cities themselves. Our goal is to document as many cities as possible within a span of five to ten years in five legs representing regions of Africa; east, west, north, south and central. We’ve covered eight countries so far, and the plan is to head west this year. There truly is power in Africans telling our own stories and presenting Africa in a non-stereotypical way.

from 99U99U