Jesse Thorn, on backing yourself into a wall

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I posted an interview over on the O'Reilly digital media site with Jesse Thorn, the host of "The Sound of Young America" (an excellent radio show that's distributed by Public Radio International.)

Thorn's launching an intimate convention/vacation/education/entertainment extravaganza this summer called MaxFunCon. Most of the conversation was about that event -- where the idea came from, what the focus is, why it won't feature half-naked pictures of Dane Cook.

At the end, he shared a bit about how he gets stuff done that I thought would make a nice addition to the About Creativity interviews on this site:

MaxFunCon bills itself as, among other things, "a convocation of awesome people who seek to become more awesome." In your own life, is there anything you've found that helps you achieve more awesomeness?

When I was just out of college, I couldn't get a job. I was really depressed about it, and I had been trying to get a radio job. But I couldn't even get any job. It was really horrible. I was applying for retail jobs and not getting them.

I was really down, and I was thinking, "Why am I driving back and forth to Santa Cruz, an hour-and-a-half from San Francisco?" At the time, I didn't have a car, so I was driving back and forth in my mom's car. I thought to myself, "I should just quit doing this. There's no reason I'm doing this."

And I talked to my now wife/then girlfriend, Theresa. And she said, "Well, you don't do anything else," and I thought, "Yeah, that's true, I don't do anything else. Maybe I should keep doing this." [laughter] And it has been the regular demands of making sure that I'm doing something that has backed me into a corner in order to be creative and think of new things. The fact that I have to make a radio show every week. For many years I did it when I had a real, regular day-to-day job, and now it is my job. The fact that I have to think of new stuff to connect me with people. It's sort of boring, but it's that backed-into-a-wall state where I'm able to be creative.

I'm a very harshly self-critical person. To be honest, I'm a very harshly critical person in general. [laughter] Which I think is one of the reasons why I find improv so beneficial. I'm only able to really create when I have to. So I've set up my life so that I do have to.

And the things that I have to do are things that I love to do, so it works out.

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  • I dunno. Schroeder from Peanuts was only 5 or something and that kid was a frickin' genius.

    FWIW, I myself (wisened, aged) this very month have been experiencing a similar thing to what Jesse was talking about. (This is pretty meta but...) by making these (very) interviews part of my day-to-day job of late, I'm finally getting back to getting them done, after several months away.

    I think his point about backing yourself into a corner with your creative responsibilities is true and useful at any age, whether he figured that out relatively early by being Schroeder-like or just lucky.

    The interesting thing to me is trying back yourself into a corner on purpose. For example, making a promise to someone that you'll complete an ambitious collab. project, knowing that the guilt of coming through will be part of what pulls you upstream....
    -Cecil

  • Hi Cecil,

    Great interview, as always—love your skillz.

    Please chalk up to my just having turned 40 a little MaxUnfun cynicism about Jesse Thorn, all of 27 yet sure of the path to creative bliss. An unfun observer, even one alive to the pain of not being able to find a job straight out of college, might think there’s a dollop or two of dumb luck involved in being able to say “the things I have to do are the things I love to do” so young.

    Full disclosure: I’m allergic to the New Sincerity, even as a phrase (did I mention I just turned 40?) It’s the first sensibility change I can remember—wait, maybe indie rock to hip-hip—where I feel cut off from what the kids are up to. Pre-prog Malkmus, who sounded gleefully ironic even when he tuned, is my Evel Knievel, and I’m probably stuck this side of the Snake River Canyon for life. But is sincerity, new or otherwise, really The Sound of Young America? Or just what the PRI poobahs wish it were?

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