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Hear why he calls himself an artist and how channeling emotion into his work and lectures leaves you smiling.
You’ve probably seen one of his earnest Instagram posts at some point, and that’s because Brooklyn based artist, Adam J. Kurtz (aka adamjk), has a lot to say.
In this week’s episode, Chris talks with Adam about why he calls himself an artist and how channeling emotion into both his illustrative work and captivating lectures will leave you smiling and feeling empowered.
According to Chris, when you’re in the room with Adam, “you just go. It’s part self-deprecating humor, brutal honesty with a little dash of optimism.” If you follow Adam on Instagram, you’re probably nodding your head like, “Yep, that’s Adam."
As both an artist and an author, Adam is a wildly creative person. When he says artist, though, it’s not to be confused with the artists you see in a museum. Adam’s definition of an artist runs a little differently, making the notion that art is just a form of creative expression; the artist is the person who makes and does a lot of creative things.
Speaking of doing a lot of creative things, Adam’s found a new love for public speaking. He’s able to learn and grow through more public speaking engagements, and gain more insight from other speakers and conferences he’s attended, as well.
Despite Adam’s many talents and skills, he does not want to present himself as an expert in the industry. He says, “I don’t want to be too serious because I’m not a serious person. And JK (just kidding) is literally in my name.”
If there’s anything Adam wants to spill out into the world, it’s the desire to keep making, creating, and pushing the bar. The title of this episode is “Don’t be Afraid, Just Try” for a reason. Adam wants his audience to look to his experience not just for inspiration for their moodboards, but to push themselves creatively and not worry about the outcome. The reward’s in the journey.
For more from Adam, be sure to listen to the full episode.
Adam J. Kurtz: My name is Adam J. Kurtz and everyone calls me Adam JK and basically I'm a graphic designer who became an artist and author. I started with design and now I do a lot of other things that are in design.
Chris Do: Matthew, who attended one of your talks, he said that you said something on stage, which really connected with him, that you're okay with calling yourself and referring to yourself as an artist, and that used to give you an allergic reaction. Can you tell me what that was about?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I mean, I think the word artist is really scary for a lot of people because it is so broad and because we're sort of raised to think about artists as like Picasso or something. Art is like in a museum and so if you're not in a museum, you're not an artist. It's really up to all of us to define what art is. For me, I think it is really just sort of creative expression. It's making a feeling, an intangible feeling into something tangible. It's communicating a feeling that you had in some way. It's a response or a reflection to an experience. Really, art is so broad and almost everything is art, and once I understood that for myself, it became really liberating. An artist is just ... is the easiest word for someone who makes and does a lot of different things.
Chris Do: Do you define that in any way or connected or tie it to the idea that if you make art for someone else, that someone else is paying for it, then that moves you into commercial art or ... that's an old term but like what graphic designers do versus somebody who just has an idea, who wants to express something and puts it on to the world.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, I think it gets dangerous when we start assigning labels and then like breaking them down further and further because design is interesting or design is really sort of halfway between art and craft or art and craft and a trade. Then also, you said commercial art and even fine art is commercial, right, because people ... you might do one painting but it's still for sale and then there's sort of this whole like fine art complex economy, however you want to describe it, where prints are being sold or artists' monographs or the way work travels through museums and is used to bring ... like everything is commercial. We all have to exist in capitalism, so I find like it's often helpful to not get too hung up on the labels. Part of that was just accepting that artist is an okay label and not being hung up on it and not being scared of it.
Chris Do: When did you become comfortable with that term, to describe yourself as an artist?
Adam J. Kurtz: I don't know, I guess a couple of years ago maybe because other people called me an artist first and I was like, all right, that's fine.
Chris Do: Okay. You didn't punch him in the face when they said that?
Adam J. Kurtz: I have never punched anyone in the face.
Chris Do: Okay. I have to say for myself, I think maybe it's from my art school or my design school background and I think it was one of my professors who told me that, he said something like, design is when you solve somebody else's problem, and art is when you solve a problem of your own conception. That's how I kind of stayed in that box for a really long time and so it wasn't until I think almost two decades into my career in my life, if anybody had said, you're an artist, I would correct them. This is my version of punching them in the face. I'm like, "No, I'm a designer. I make things for other people. I get paid to do that." An artist is like you said, Picasso and all these other people. It's not so much the expression or even how much money they make selling the art, but the fact that they just go off on their own and they solve a problem. They want to communicate a feeling with the world that isn't other derived.
Chris Do: It's self-generated and I put that line pretty hard in the sand but all of that changed I guess a couple of years ago when I started making videos on the internet. I was like, this is my form of art now. You might not think of it as art, but this is how I express my feelings and communicate to the world.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah, I mean, I think that's sort of a case of a well-meaning educator saying something to you, which I don't disagree with, but then you really accepted that as hard fact for a long time and sometimes that happens with advice, right? We take advice at face value, maybe we don't understand the nuance or the context or the specific perspective and we let that rule us or we let that impact us maybe more than the person who said it in the first place intended. I don't totally disagree about client versus personal work. I think there's something there and that's maybe not how I would say it, but I don't disagree. When you tell me that for like two decades, you let that sort of like guide your understanding of yourself, that makes me kind of sad because you've got all the tools and you make stuff for yourself all the time. You're often your own client.
Adam J. Kurtz: That definition kind of stops working and I almost wonder like what else would you have made if you just started doing anything you wanted sooner?
Chris Do: Yeah. Okay. That's what I really love-
Adam J. Kurtz: You're also killing it, so like, you're good. No worries, you've arrived.
Chris Do: I wonder what would happen if I started my career that way. No, I mean, what I think is really wonderful about this message and I think you do it so well, that you weave this line of empowerment and vulnerability and just being real about stuff that I think makes you such a unique voice in the world, and if people don't know you, you got to go check out Adam's account on Instagram and of course the books that he's authored, but it's @adamjk go check him out on Instagram. What you're going to see is sometimes they kind of like ... sometimes it feels brooding, sometimes it feels optimistic but it's just very real and grounded. Tell me about how that process evolved or not the process, but how did that work evolve from being a graphic designer to being an artist?
Adam J. Kurtz: I think that there was like a really intentional moment when it occurred to me that I could just make things. As a designer, you learn the tools and skills and you learn about typography and hierarchy and layout and the most effective ways to communicate. Once you have those skills, you can communicate anything. When we're doing client work, we're using communication skills to help our clients say what they want to say, which is often to sell something or brand something. When you use those skills to communicate your own thing, I think that might be art. For me, I had this moment of like, okay, I'm doing a lot of creative projects, I'm doing a lot of marketing pieces or branding bits or event invites for friends or bands or as an undergrad for sort of campus organizations.
Adam J. Kurtz: Now it's time to make something for me. What do I have to say? Sometimes all I have to say is I'm scared and if you haven't seen my books or what I do on Instagram, you're maybe hearing this and you're like, what the fuck are you talking about? Actually sometimes my work is as simple as me, very bluntly communicating a sentiment. I'm afraid. Nothing matters. Mortality is real, genuine fears or conversely, genuine optimism. That takes the shape of social media posts or enamel pins or T-shirts or prints or pages from books. I am using my voice and applying it to as many different mediums as possible.
Chris Do: Well, as someone who is for me, doing this for a shorter amount of time than you in terms of expressing your genuine feelings and your fears and your optimism, I'm really curious as one creator to another, what's the spark, what compels you to get up and write something and post it? I'm curious about your process.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, I just feel a lot of things and I sometimes just need to get them out. Some of this is age, like maybe I'm just like younger and stupider and then some of it is maybe cultural ... listen, I mean maybe it's good that you took time because now you're smart. I've seen your piles of books on Instagram. Smart guy. I'm not that smart and also I think some of it is cultural, like I'm Jewish, I grew up Jewish and we culturally tend to be a little bit more vocal, a little louder, don't always ... I mean that's not to say I don't hold things in but at least in my family, like we are much more free about what we are feeling, and it was okay to just say something and say it loud. A lot of my work is kind of like that. It's just like this guttural need to express something even if it's stupid.
Chris Do: Well, I love that about your culture and if you're representative of your culture and if I'm a representative of my culture being Asian, Vietnamese, American, first generation immigrant, we were taught the opposite. You just bottled up your feelings and you put those things deep, deep inside that cave of yours. I always admire people who can so freely express themselves and just kind of like for me, you're like a unicorn. I noticed, also just to give some context, I won't get into the specifics, but when we're backstage and you're feeling uncomfortable about something, you'll just say it. For me, I go through a lot ... I go through a lot of processing and I'm like, what's the right way, what's their intention? I try to really think about it a lot and it may not come out of my mouth as true as the way you said it. I think that's just wonderful and I guess that's just differences, not to say one is better than the other, but I admire what you're able to do from where I'm standing.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, well, two things. First of all it's like I'm very real with you because I trust you, like we met and I was like, "Okay, I get it. I'm on board for this," when we met at the Graphika conference in Manila and then definitely when we were together in Australia this past year I was like, "Oh this is Chris." I can just say how it is. I'm not like that with every single person.
Chris Do: Okay.
Adam J. Kurtz: Also, I do really understand the cultural differences because my husband is the type two where he was raised to sort of bottle emotions up and really sit and stew. I always have to drag stuff out of him where it's like, I know from his body language, like I know that he's mad at me, but I don't always know why. I'm like, "All right, I know you want to process for 24 hours, but like what if we just talk about it today?" I'm always really ... I have a lot of admiration for people who can be quiet and can think before they speak. I do a lot of my mental processing out loud, so I'm saying words and then as they're coming out I'm like, "Do I agree with that?" I don't know if that's the best approach, Chris. It's gotten me in trouble before.
Chris Do: Yeah. Okay. This is fascinating to me. Okay, so there's like mixed ethnicities here between you and your husband and his style. I mean some Asians are very loud and some Caucasians, some Jewish people are very quiet and reserved but here you guys are, you're doing your thing. Do you find it frustrating that he's not as communicative as you are and does he find it frustrating, like, "Hey Adam, could you just be quiet for a little bit so we can just chill?"
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean it's been ... It's been seven years now, so we figured a lot those things out. Definitely early on, it took a lot of time. When I met Mitchell, I was like, "Oh, this dude is so chill. He's got life figured out, he's so at peace. He meditates and he does yoga." It took me like six months to a year to figure out like, "Oh no, like he's freaking the fuck out but he keeps it inside," and because we're partners, because we're like doing life together, I can find ways to make it safe for him to just speak his mind, where he doesn't have to be guarded maybe at home or when we're together. The opposite is true too where Mitchell will be like, "Hey Adam, some people are careful with their words so that they don't hurt people's feelings or hey, Adam, maybe you should read this book Quiet by Susan Cain I want to say," which is a book about introversion.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, that's every relationship, right? Whether it's romantic or friendships or family members as you get older or business partners, it's ... every two people always have to figure out how to coexist in the most effective way.
Chris Do: I want to get back to the prompt idea. Do you feel compelled, because we're both essentially self-employed, we get to make what we want. Some days we have good days, some days we don't. Do you have a habit or something that you do to make sure, like you're kind of being creative or you just do what your body and your mind tells you to do?
Adam J. Kurtz: I think that there are different ... How am I try to answer this? I think it's different when you are your own boss because sometimes you're doing the pure creative stuff and it's a lot of fun and you get in that mindset and then other times you are doing business stuff and it's super boring, but maybe it fuels you too. You find ways to enjoy it. Some days like there's a lot to do, and I just have to do it. Other days, I can just like sit down with a sketchbook and a pencil and just like goof around and then six months later like some of that goofing around ends up in a book or ends up as merchandise. Those are the fun days, the fun days where you're just like being an idiot, what I might call like the more creative or more like art kind of days.
Adam J. Kurtz: That's always awesome, but then some days, you are spending an entire day of trying to like streamline your eCommerce platform to synergize something. That's part of it too, that's what we do. Yeah, being self-employed is not always the most fun.
Chris Do: Do you do this all yourself?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yes. I am learning to delegate and for me, 2019 has been a year of very intentional growth where I've learned to let go of certain things, so working with like an external fulfillment partner, so I'm not shipping all my own orders. Working with a manager who negotiates speaking and brand partnerships and working with an artist wholesale vendor that handles, selling my merchandise to smaller retailers. There's been a lot of learning to let go and it's been really hard for me, but it has immediately paid off in more free time and frankly more money.
Chris Do: That's the beauty of delegation. It really is. I mean, you can really scale your business.
Adam J. Kurtz: Spoken like a smart person, who has an experience in the industry.
Chris Do: Okay. A couple of other things here and I hope I'm not just splintering to 10,000 parts because I'm trying to just listen to what you're saying, but I'm also thinking about the many conversations that we've had, that I hope to like recreate in an organic way as possible for our audience because I think you have such a unique perspective. When you write, is it like this labor or is this, "Yeah, that came out of exactly what I wanted," and it's a gift and you have that or you grind at it?
Adam J. Kurtz: I think it's somewhere in between. I can't say that I just like, pencil and paper or hands on the keyboard, boom, here's an essay. I think a lot of creatives can relate to this. It's really easy to execute once you have an idea. You don't get ideas by sitting there with all 10 fingertips on the keyboard or you don't just get an idea when you hold a pencil or paper. I'm always thinking, I'm always kind of processing and I might write lists of ideas. For example, when I was working on my book, Things Are What You Make of Them, that's a series of essays and those essays ... I feel like the essays and Things Are What You Make of Them really did flow once I started writing them but that couldn't happen until I knew what I wanted to talk about. I think we're all always kind of ideating in the back of our heads.
Adam J. Kurtz: Then, you're writing your ideas down and maybe you execute six months later, maybe you find a sketchbook three years later and you're like, "Ah, this idea, let's do this." Yeah, it's a process and it's not the same every time.
Chris Do: Do you feel pressured to continue to create content for your social channel? You have at least two channels, right, or two Instagram accounts?
Adam J. Kurtz: I have like seven Instagram accounts, which is ...
Chris Do: My gosh.
Adam J. Kurtz: They're not all like updated all the time but I find that ... Each of my books has its own account and that's like five different things, and then I've got a personal account that's like more real life. Adam JK is a little bit more focused on digestible content where I'm sort of like a mini media platform but also trying to make that more human. I don't know. Yeah, sometimes it's work. Sometimes it's work and it sucks, and so you just don't post for a while. I'll just go like radio silent for five days and nobody notices because of the way that Instagram algorithm works and our feeds aren't chronological. There's actually just never any pressure to post anything ever if you don't want to.
Chris Do: That's very interesting. I didn't realize you had seven accounts. I knew of two, so I'm going to have to look up your other ones.
Adam J. Kurtz: You don't have to, it's-
Chris Do: I was just thinking ...
Adam J. Kurtz: It's okay. To me they're more like just to hold basic information, do you know what I mean? They're almost like a single page website or like a digital business card, where it's like, here's the book, here's some pages, here's a link to buy. It's not something that I have to like keep working on but if you're not present, like nobody can count you basically.
Chris Do: I like that. Okay, so I know that we both aspire to be good public speakers, maybe even great public speakers one day and to be paid for public speaking. How did that evolved for you and tell me about all your thoughts and feelings about public speaking. Do you like it? Do you hate it? Are you scared? Are you excited?
Adam J. Kurtz: I really enjoy public speaking now. It's definitely one of those things where the more you do it, the better you get. Also, a really cool sort of life hack about being a public speaker is that you get booked to speak at these conferences and then you get to go to the conference so you're paid or maybe you're not paid but you're invited but then you get to hear everyone else speak. You learn from people who have more experience than you or people who have different experiences than you. After the first few times, I was really gaining a lot of insight into what I think works, what maybe doesn't work, what seems to work, but I hate it and I never want to be like that, like all of these sort of personal insights that we gain. I sort of came to the conclusion that I want to be honest about my experience and genuine in the lessons I've learned along the way.
Adam J. Kurtz: I don't want to present myself as an expert in the industry despite being an international bestselling author of design and creativity books. I don't want to be too serious because I'm not a serious person and JK is literally in my name. I feel like I've been making good on all of that. I'm very honest. I'm more real in those spaces than I am anywhere else. I'm saying stuff on stage that I have never posted on social media before and it's been really fun. It's really rewarding to see people's faces, to make people laugh or to see that sense like you can see it come over someone's face when they look at your work and they're just sitting there like, "Oh my God, like I could fucking do that." It's like, "Yeah, you can. I would love for you to do your thing."
Adam J. Kurtz: Don't copy me exactly but please, if you get anything from this, it's go, do, make, don't be afraid. Just try. That's something that I really love about your lectures, Chris, is that they're super actionable because you go to conferences and you hear a lot of people who will share their work and it's award-winning work and like very smart, very clever and inspiring work. Then there's almost like not a specific takeaway and maybe the takeaway is like, be more cool like me or the takeaway is, "Ah, you should've gone to the school that I went to."
Chris Do: Right.
Adam J. Kurtz: That's not actionable, so I love that for me, I'm trying to just let people know things are what you make of them. Use what you have, do what you can. It's okay, anything is possible, and I love that, the times I've seen you speak, it's been very like, "Here's how to do this, here's the resources. I'm giving you everything I have. Here's the link, like I'll email you the file." You're so open about that and also really open about money and making money because that's important and we need it to live but a lot of speakers kind of gloss over it.
Chris Do: Yeah. I think within the creative community, there's still some apprehension about talking about money for a lot of different reasons. Fear of being judged, jealousy or just, am I my bragging what's happening? There seems to be a very small pocket where people actually feel comfortable about it and in a way, I'm glad because it gives me an opportunity to do something a little different and be very transparent. There's very little now that I won't tell somebody that if I think it's going to help them, I would just say it at the risk of anybody throwing judgment about me. I'm at that ... I'm beyond that stage. That's what you get with age, right?
Adam J. Kurtz: I don't even think it's just age. I think that's what you get with success where a lot of people hoard their resources because they are afraid of competition. At a certain point, you wake up and you're Chris and you're like, I'm okay and I'm not in danger of losing ... you've built these resources, you've built teams, you've got people that you work with. That's not going to disappear just because you tell someone like what typeface you used on a project.
Chris Do: Right.
Adam J. Kurtz: Especially because the answer is often Helvetica, so that's just a free answer.
Chris Do: That's one of two answers. Yes.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah, but I think for a lot of creatives it is scary to share the resources, super, super freely. Even for me, like I am pretty open, but like I do get emails that are like, tell me your exact printer. I'm just like, "I don't know you so probably not." I get emails that are like, how do I do exactly what you did? What is your editor's email at Penguin Random House? I want to email her and I'm just like, you didn't even Google first.
Chris Do: Yeah. Okay.
Adam J. Kurtz: There's different approaches but yeah, I love how transparent you are and it's polarizing at these conferences. I mean, because I'll be sitting in the audience and you hear people being like, who the fuck is this guy who made more than a million dollars? I'm sitting there and I'm like, I would like a million dollars. What's wrong with ... like I'm looking at people next to me, I'm like, what's wrong with you? Do you not need to pay rent? Are you not on this planet? Do you want to perish on capitalism? I'm trying to make it through this.
Chris Do: My God. Okay. I didn't know that. I know I'm polarizing and I can be, and especially around subjects of money, people feel like it's gross to talk about it. I'm just curious, like when people say like a million dollars, are they saying like you shouldn't charge that much or that's too much for what ... I don't deserve it, what is their thinking?
Adam J. Kurtz: No. I mean I'm not being specific. I'm sort of like paraphrasing and yeah, slapping together things that I feel like I ... what am I trying to say, like picked up on. No, I think it's just so different because even when you go and hear, like the biggest, most famous designers, they're never talking about money. It's almost like nobody does it. I think it's just shocking. I think people ... I think it's shocking because you go to the conference thinking like ... and not every conference, but often these conferences, they feel like inspiration day, like I'm coming to be inspired and no one is quite so real. Even when I talk about money, I'm not like, here's my annual income. It'll be specific to one goofy project or one fuck up or I'll talk about payment for social media posts and like influencer life. Yeah, I think it's just shocking because so much is status quo and I think you represent a bit of an outsider's perspective, like your way in. I think me too. I think that we are both outsiders in a way, but then from wildly different perspectives.
Chris Do: Yes. I'm going to take this moment to tell everybody that if you haven't seen Adam speak yet, I highly encourage you to go to his next event but also to checkout ... there must be some videos available online, like I saw one from 99 U.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: Check it out. I mean, you have this way and I hate you. I'm going to just be up front. I hate you because I like to shine and then I can't outshine you because you're onstage, you're doing your thing, you're being very vulnerable. You have everybody laughing from beginning to end. I'm like, "God, how do you talk to that guy?" You have your bits, you really perform on stage which I wish more creative people who endeavor to speak would try to treat it like that versus just like, look at your PowerPoint and just present. It's really boring.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. People forget that your talk is a project. The same way that you approach a creative project, you need to approach your talk, your slides, the structure. It's work and not everyone whose great at making art is going to be a great speaker and not everyone who speaks well is a talented artist. There are some people who speak way more than they make original work. That's okay too. You might be a really good speaker. Being a speaker that is a job. I think it's cute that you sort of said you hate me in a way because I feel like we definitely have frenemy energy, like big frenemy energy, BFD. I really like it. I wasn't like blowing smoke up your ass, more like I genuinely trust you like I did kind of right away. I am just like that. I think I make snap judgements of people and if I'm like, this is a good person, you're in, there's not like a series of checks and balances.
Adam J. Kurtz: It's not about like, over the years we've ... It's just, yeah, you're good. I think we really are so different and I like the way that we've been informed by each other's work because I've definitely seen stuff that you do and be like, "Oh this is fucking smart." When you, in Australia ... Chris, I don't know if Chris does this every time if you're listening, but Chris did a thing at his talk where at the end of the presentation he played all the slides really quick so you could take a video and pause at any time and read all those slides anytime you wanted. I saw that and I was like, this is insanely smart. This is the smart ... I feel like you innovated. I was like, do you know what I mean? It's like, there's only so many different ways to give a talk and that was the smartest thing I'd seen anyone do in a long time.
Adam J. Kurtz: Immediately I was like, "All right, I'm doing it." My slides are a lot less useful than yours because the slides themselves are very simple, but I still got people filming them every time and then it's just the best business card of all time.
Chris Do: That was ... it reminds me of the first time ...
Adam J. Kurtz: You were genius.
Chris Do: Thank you very much. That was the first time I had done that, really? I've only done it once after that and I was just like, "I need to keep thinking about this." I'm like you. When I'm in the audience, I'm looking at what people are doing to say like, "Oh, I like that. I think I'll borrow that, and they did that really well or that slide look really amazing. So maybe that can inform what it is that I'm doing." I think that's really cool. Then, there's things that people do that you're like, that's really boring. That's where they lost the audience and too much talking about yourself.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: I'll move on, right?
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, that's just how to grow is, it's research, that's normal.
Chris Do: I've seen you speak on stage, I think at least twice. First in Graphika Manila, and when you like laid out on the floor, I was like, "Oh my God, this guy, he's doing it. This is like full commitment." I was thinking maybe one day I'm going to be able to do that, but not yet. I just love that you bring the theatrics and I was like, "Wow, okay, we're all going to just ... we're going to be here." Then you did the Alanis Morissette bit on the couch and you used the room and the stage to your benefit. I was like, shoot, I wasn't thinking like that. Adam is killing it right there so okay, I have to think about the stage.
Adam J. Kurtz: This just really comes down to our core differences and I think for anyone listening too, it's like we all see cool work or techniques that we like, but not everything fits into the nature of what we do. I'll see some like really beautiful sort of type stuff, but I'm not really known for that anymore. I'm very illustrative, handwritten, that sort of thing, and if I came out and gave a really sort of slick, fast paced, informative talk in the way that you do, I think everyone would be like, really, like the pink memes guy is telling me. I think there's so many ways to be inspired by things, but then also kind of like not know your land but just have an understanding of self and what you're best suited to sort of convey or communicate in your own way. If you showed up there just like the Chris standup set, I do not know how that would go over. I would pay to see it, but that's because I'm an asshole.
Chris Do: Yeah. I don't know. We'll have to see, it's the evolution day.
Adam J. Kurtz: When are we going on tour?
Chris Do: I would love to. I would love to, I think-
Adam J. Kurtz: I heard that you're speaking at Design Thinkers in Vancouver.
Chris Do: Yes.
Adam J. Kurtz: I tried so hard to get booked. I was like, "Hey, I'll do this just ... I know it's late last minute. Just, I wanted ..." They were like, no, it's too late.
Chris Do: Why? What happened? It's too late.
Adam J. Kurtz: It's just too late. Yeah, because I just did their Toronto event. Literally, she said that you were speaking at it and I was like me, me put me on too. It's so fun.
Chris Do: Yeah, a bummer. We have to coordinate our speaking schedules.
Adam J. Kurtz: I think we got to start selling it as a package deal.
Chris Do: I would love it.
Adam J. Kurtz: You're going to get a smart guy and a dumb guy and you figure out who's who.
Chris Do: That's good. I like that.
Chris Do: Let me see, so it's like ... Okay, so here's another thing I want to point out. You like speaking and are you an extrovert or are you an introvert? I'm just curious.
Adam J. Kurtz: I'm a little bit of both.
Chris Do: Okay, like an ambivert?
Adam J. Kurtz: I guess. I mean, I think I can be extroverted, but like holy shit when I'm not, I'm really not. I'm like ... and it's hard when you're often extroverted and then you're not in the mood because everyone thinks that something's really wrong, and people come up to you. Can you imagine like for anyone listening who is introverted, imagine like you're just doing your thing and every single person at a party is like, "Hey man, you okay? You okay, man?" That probably happens to you once or twice but for every single person to be like genuinely worried, yeah, I'm really still learning about energy and emotional energy and how much I have and how much I can dedicate to any given thing. Because after I do a talk or after I do a talk and then like a book signing and all that stuff, I go back to the hotel room or I come back home and I am just wiped, like I just ran a marathon, which I've never ... Google a picture of me. I'm not someone who runs marathons, but it feels like what I imagine it feels like.
Chris Do: Yeah. Okay. Well, here's the thing, when I'm in the audience and other speakers are speaking and if I'm coming up that day, like I can't sit there like I'm too ... I was just, I'm all messed up-
Adam J. Kurtz: I've seen you at breakfast, dude.
Chris Do: Dude, I can't eat. I mean, it's messed up like seriously and I'm just barely figuring this thing out. If there was a couple of days in between, like you opened up ... I think you opened for Graphika, right?
Adam J. Kurtz: I open a lot because I think people know I'm going to be like the ... like let's wake up, let's do this.
Chris Do: Just explode, yeah, so that's cool.
Adam J. Kurtz: I love it because I want to be anxious too.
Chris Do: Yeah, right, then you could enjoy the rest of it, right? You can walk around, "Hey, how's it going? I love your talk."
Adam J. Kurtz: Totally.
Chris Do: For me, it's like I would love to be last but like a couple of days so that I can acclimate this plant in a room. I just need to kind of figure out what's going on. I do like seeing speakers and if I could be like you where I'm opening and then I could just chill, then I would learn a lot more. Sometimes I can't even be there cause I'm still preparing. I'm still tweaking. I'm still adding to it.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, listen, it's not your fault, but you're a big deal, like you're a headliner so you're never going to get to open, like sorry, you're literally too good. They have to put you last to get the return on their investment. That's your cross to bear.
Chris Do: I know what it is. We're going to do a package deal where book ends.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah, I mean-
Chris Do: You explode with energy and then I would just tie it up.
Adam J. Kurtz: That's already happened, I feel like-
Chris Do: Wouldn't that be cool?
Adam J. Kurtz: I feel like it happened twice.
Chris Do: It happened accidentally.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: Yeah. I think that's the way it's got to be.
Adam J. Kurtz: I think it just makes sense. I know I said this like 20 minutes ago, but like we really do represent two very different perspectives into the same message. The same message of like you have the power, you have access to tools, you can learn, you can teach yourself, it's okay that you didn't have the same ... that you weren't born into the same privilege or the same whatever environment that other people were. We really are coming at that from opposite ends. To me, it really makes a lot of sense that we book in conferences sometimes. It's because like we're both bringing this actionable, very realistic approach. Maybe I'm a little bit more like emotional and personal and you are very sort of like skill folk and professionally focused like you're going to build and you need that.
Chris Do: I like that. I mean I liked that A, it could be a mix and our energies are similar but different enough, that you get two very different flavors but a similar kind of like, "Hey, we're here to help." I think that's really what we're trying to do, right?
Adam J. Kurtz: I think so. I was just thinking ... I hope this podcast doesn't sound like a 45 minute pitch for booking a set of ... I'm a little bit concerned for anyone listening.
Chris Do: Okay. All right.
Adam J. Kurtz: I'm not surprised that we're ... I mean I think, I feel like we have a lot of respect for each other and what each of ... what we do based on our interactions and there is something very like high school seniors, like graduation trip about the way that we've hung out because it's always been in literally other continents. There's this sense of like, it's us against everyone, we don't know anything so we bond together and maybe that's also it, is that, that's a really interesting way to get to know someone like away from home sort of on equal footing with like the same hotel set up, the same like hard boiled eggs at breakfast. I don't know what I'm saying anymore.
Chris Do: Okay. Well, I have another question for you.
Adam J. Kurtz: Okay.
Chris Do: Now, I know that there is some sensitivity, like if you want to make a go at this public speaking thing and have that be a part of your career and how you define yourself, it becomes problematic when you have to write a new talk for every conference you go to. If you do half a dozen or a dozen a year, that's a lot of talks to write. When people record and distribute your talk, that creates this kind of uneasiness, at least for me, like "Dude, I want to do the same talk again or make some refinements or tailor it a little bit." I always feel very self-conscious that it's the same talk. What are your feelings on that?
Adam J. Kurtz: Nobody cares. This is like a very Adam JK advice here but literally like nothing matters and no one cares, so I have a couple talks. Right now, I have like a 25 minute talk about perfection. I have a 45 minute talk about like sort of creative empowerment. Those are the two talks that I do and they're always a little different just because I'm kind of unhinged but that 25 minute talk, the 99 U talk, you can watch it online and people have. Then I do it in real life and they're like, "Oh that was even better or oh, I knew what that was going to be and it was still good." It's not actually your job to reinvent every time and I think that's part of why speaking is work is because you actually ... you need to practice and you refine and you can't do that.
Adam J. Kurtz: It's like open mic. It's like comedians need to test out their jokes and so the first time I give a talk is so different than the 10th time because at that point, I have sped up thing, like punchlines that needed to come sooner or a case study that nobody liked or put the ... restate the thesis halfway through because people forgot like that's just how you grow. The truth is nobody cares, like people are not paying so much attention to you that they're like, "Oh Chris gave the same talk in April and June, that dude." Just nobody thinks that but I will say for people who are listening to this podcast and are really interested in public speaking as a part of their business and for brand building, really consider if that's what you want and why you want it.
Adam J. Kurtz: I think that public speaking often seems more glamorous than it might be. It seems like you are getting paid when very often you're not, or you're getting an honorarium or you're getting a free trip to a place, which is cool, but then you don't do any client work for a week and a half because you get on the flight home. I would really caution people ... people ask me like, "Hey, I want to get into speaking, it seems awesome" and obviously it's working for you." There's just so many pieces to it where more likely than not, if you just stayed home and worked on what you already do, like you'd make more money and have more free time and be less stressed. Yeah, I think that's everything but really sort of questioning your motivation. Try it out, give a talk if possible in your hometown or in your city and see how it goes and see how it makes you feel.
Chris Do: I talked to Aaron Draplin about this and he says, "People just want the hits, man." He's like, "I want to change it but they don't want me to change it. When you go and do your talk, they want you to do the bits." Here's the thing that I think about, because he's got great delivery. You have even better delivery and now I know why. It's because you've done it, you've polished and you've tweaked and you've removed things that don't work and you've added things and you keep doing it so it's so refined. Whereas oftentimes, the time you see me do a talk, it's kind of the first time I've done that talk. Now I may use reused components, but it's really like, that's why I'm on the edge all the time. I'm like, "Ah, what's going to happen here?" I remember this distinctly, I watched Simon Sinek do his talk and I think it starts with why on the Ted talk platform.
Chris Do: Then I see him do it somewhere else and he was literally beat for beat, awkward pause for awkward pause, literally a carbon copy from beginning to end, just as good but it made me rethink like, "Oh my God, this thing that I thought was spontaneous, that was very informal in its delivery was actually something that has been rehearsed, refined and perfected." I just felt a little funny inside. So, you said nobody thinks that, like I'm the one weirdo in the crowd that's like, "Oh, it is literally the same talk."
Adam J. Kurtz: Well, I think there's layers. I give the same talk, but just by nature of how I'm spit-balling or ad-libbing or whatever, it's always a little different. With Ted, and I've heard ... I don't know TEDx because I think that varies based on the organization but I know that when you give a Ted talk, a friend of mine gave one, you work with a Ted coach and you basically memorize exactly what you're going to say and cannot deviate. You memorize it and then you sort of like unlearn it to make it natural but at the point that you've gone through that and you've rehearsed it so many times, of course you're going to do it again, beat for beat because it's probably ingrained in your brain forever.
Adam J. Kurtz: To me, that makes sense because Ted is a very specific platform with a specific brief, specific deliverables and that's absolutely like a very clear example of how your talk is a product. In the case of Ted, your talk is sort of like client work that is personal in nature but is client work. I think that especially for someone who might be more introverted and also someone who brings like a very professional energy and wants to fine tune and has that designer mindset, you should be giving the same talk multiple times and it's not cheating. It's actually you're doing a better job. You're providing a better service to your audience. I almost feel like it's a disservice to completely rewrite the talk every time because you're a little bit less certain and you can't just give like the best version of yourself that you know, you could give.
Chris Do: Right?
Adam J. Kurtz: I don't think there's any shame in that.
Chris Do: Yeah, I realized that professional speakers do this and then I have to get over it myself and it's like one of these self-imposed rules that it's going to mess me up because it's very stressful for me.
Adam J. Kurtz: Bands play the same songs and stand up comics, they play the same jokes and so, public speaking is also a version of that. It's like how do you give the most effective ... I mean, even sermons are rehearsed. Your priest or pastor has more often than not like written out at least the core of what they're trying to say. To me, it's not super different.
Chris Do: Yeah. Okay. Talking about 2020, what is the one talk that you're most excited about it? If you've been booked that far out and I'm sure you have for some things, what are you most excited about? Anything?
Adam J. Kurtz: Okay, so I feel a little guilty that we're speaking so much about the public speaking, but I am very excited about off conference in Barcelona. It's a very cool conference and I was booked there in 2017 and it was one of the first talks I ever gave. It's very big. There's like 2,500 people come and it's very cool at a cool museum with like a beer garden and everyone looks like they're going to work tour. It's very cool. I got there and discovered that I was booked on the main stage, which I did not expect. I thought that I was going to be in like the emerging artists tent, which is like a 200 person audience. I spoke to 1700 people and I was coming directly from a two week vacation in Japan so I was like just super jet lagged.
Adam J. Kurtz: I was basically a wreck and I had a panic attack and I had to sit in a corner ... I sat in a corner facing the wall and just like did deep breathing for 20 minutes. I listened to Michelle Branch's The Spirit Room, that's my album that like saves my life and I gave my talk and I had a tech issue and the slides were displaying like two at a time so it spoiled all my punchlines and people seem to like the talk, but it was embarrassing and it wasn't as good as it should have been, and that was like my first introduction to this audience of people and nobody knew who I was. Do you know what I mean? I don't think that I was like a highly anticipated speaker. I think they just put me there because it was like ... Again, it was like the first talk of the first day.
Adam J. Kurtz: I'm going back this year, I'm bringing all my own chargers and all my own cables and adapters and remote and like no tech issues and I feel like it's my redemption story. I'm ready. I'm ready to just like be victorious and then hang out in the beer garden.
Chris Do: Nice. I love that. So, two years later, three years later, you've now done so many talks in between and it's your chance to like do the talk that you were meant to do. I love that.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I feel like I'm just ... I'm going to give it everything I got.
Chris Do: Yeah. Barcelona is a beautiful city too, so there's not anything to hate.
Adam J. Kurtz: I know, I'm excited to stick around and hang out. It was such a quick trip because sometimes you go places and you don't have that much actual time to explore. This time I'm like, I'm booking out extra time to hang out.
Chris Do: You've been very smart about that and you kind of scheduling your travel so that you can do that. I need to take a page from your book on that because I'm in, I'm out and like I basically saw my hotel room in a conference room or the hall and that was about it.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah, it's hard. Sometimes I don't have that experience like I have absolutely like showed up and then left right away. That can be a little bit sad but definitely when we were in Australia, that was a three week trip for me. I went to six cities, I toured like the whole country with AGDA, which is their design ... like professional design organization. It was a dream come true. Yeah, I think it's important to try to make it fun for you as well because otherwise all it is, is like a lot of travel time and you're risking your physical health for not a huge payout.
Chris Do: Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: Other than, obviously the ego stroking, which can really help. For some people, that is payment but I found ... Especially this year, I found that it's just not sustainable longterm.
Chris Do: How does that make you feel, because at TDC in Brisbane, we were sitting there and I saw you with your fans, mostly women around you in a circle and you did some wonderful things. You're like, "Hey, you all need to connect with each other and get to know one another because this relationship can move on." How does it feel to kind of have that attention?
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, I think it's ... I don't know, a lot of the attention that I receive or a lot of the things that people like for me are sort of like my most basic like quote, shit work. A lot of things that people love for me is just me stating like a very common or obvious piece of advice, just in my own voice, I'm sharing it. People love my books, but two of the books are our journals and so they don't become powerful until you fill them out. People will come up to me and they'll be like, "Your book changed my life." What they really mean is, "Hey, I started journaling and I changed my life." Sometimes it's like they falsely attribute it to me and even if they mean it super sincerely and they haven't like dissected that feeling that much, I know in my heart that it's not actually really about me. I feel like I have this sort of sense of separation where I'm like, we're all just doing our thing and if you're at the design conference it's because you're good enough to be there.
Adam J. Kurtz: Whether you are able to afford a ticket or you work for a company that decided to send you. It's like, you're good and I'm not better than you. Most of the time I'm worse because I don't even know what the cool fonts for 2020 are, I have no idea. I don't know what the trend is now. I feel like I have a healthy sense of separation about it and just like a real understanding that what these events are at their core is an opportunity to meet other people who just get what you're about so that you don't have to start the conversation by explaining your profession. You can just dive right into like the friendship part. I want everyone to have that experience of just being in a room full of people who understand what you do so that, that doesn't have to be the thing that defines you.
Chris Do: Well, I think you're very gracious in the way you answer that questions. I'm going to share a story that you're not going to probably hear anywhere else, is that Adam and I, we were at Graphika Manila, and part of their thing is there are truly fans who show up, and so they set up an autograph line for people who want to get stuff autographed and they don't have a lot so they're like, here's my program just ... or sign my name badge, whatever it is. There was a moment here, because I'm sitting right next to you. There's a woman, she comes up to you and you guys had a full lockdown moment. You looked at each other and she just started balling and what she said, and why don't I just queue you up for it. Do you remember this moment?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I definitely do. I mean I don't-
Chris Do: See, so it's like you're changing lives for real. It's not just like, because you gave him a diary or journal to write in.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean I think ... Yeah, I don't want to be specific. We're like Twitter friends now.
Chris Do: Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: In that particular moment ... and this is something that I speak to, I think, in my talks and in my work. I think for a lot of creatives there's this pressure to adopt a sort of safe persona that we think is going to like help us appeal to clients but not alienate anyone to make us more palatable. You get a lot of people who are like, yeah, I love like the pen tool and whiskey, and like late nights on the computer. The second you start to get real, you have an opportunity to genuinely connect with someone. I remember when I was in Manila, I didn't know that in the Philippines ... I didn't know that homophobia was quite as strong as it is.
Adam J. Kurtz: I didn't know how religious or how the religious elements there manifest. I'm not saying that all religion hates queer people, but at least in popular culture there, there is a sense that like being gay is not okay. I didn't know to be afraid so I just was being really open and just like being myself and so that woman came over and we talked about what that feels like, what it feels like when you know who you are, but you're not allowed to be who you are, not because you're worried about alienating clients, but because your family can't accept it, because your community can't accept it. That's one of those things of like, I didn't know that I was being a role model. I was just being myself but when we see people who are living their truth and there's a facet of them that we see in ourselves, that can be really impactful. Yeah, when she cried, I just started crying and then I was just sobbing and you took that secret picture of me crying, which sounds creepy, but I'm actually really happy to have a photo of that moment.
Chris Do: Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I'm happy, she and I have connected on Twitter like in the year since and I learned a lot.
Chris Do: I know for everybody ... Everybody listening is like, it does on super creepy but sometimes like when there's like a real genuine moment happening, just like kind of cinema verite, I just wanted to grab that and give it to you and just respect privacy and all that stuff but if you ... just because, the things that you do, just owning your own truth can actually set people free. If somebody feels alone in the world and you say something to make them feel a little less alone or you give them hope or ... I mean, people have dark days, man and we're very privileged to live where we live and to do what we do and have people pay us money to say and writes silly things. That is a privilege. When you touch people like that, I think those people who surround you and talk to you, they're just sharing some of the energy that they've gotten from you back at you.
Chris Do: I just wanted to get your perspective on it, and I think you're being very, very humble in the way you paint that picture. I've seen it. I watched, I'm looking at people. I'm like, "Wow, he's really touching people and I love that."
Adam J. Kurtz: I think people are just people. Yeah, people just want to connect. Everyone is like a little bit terrified and different people are open in different ways and because of the nature of what my work is like and this sort of creative context that I've built in my body of work, in my books and products and social media output for literally a decade, like I've built myself a really safe space that now I get to live in. It wasn't always 100% intentional but looking back like, it is not surprising, that I created the things in my life that I needed, that I needed to have. I needed to feel safe and supported. I needed reminders that it's okay to be not feeling your best because mental health is an ongoing challenge for me, because you know, I am a queer person who comes from a religious background.
Adam J. Kurtz: I made the things that I needed with what I had and very often that was just pencil and paper. To me, that's what things are what you make of them means. That's why I called the book that, is like, even if you don't read the book, like please take this mantra and hold onto it. Use the tools that you have to save yourself, whatever that means. Whether that's by creating a job when you didn't have one, whether it's literal like that, you just need money or making something that just makes you feel a little bit more okay because life is hard. That's true but it's not all bad.
Chris Do: Can we take a minute here to talk a little bit about the business of Adam Kurtz, Adam JK?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: How do you sustain yourself? Do you do client work? Is it in book royalties? Is it in speaking fees? How do you sustain yourself?
Adam J. Kurtz: It's a little bit of everything and I think this is like a very sort of 2019, 2020 ... I think a lot of people can relate to this, right, having these multiple income streams. For me, originally it was salary. I was working in-house as a designer in different places while also having my online shop where I was making seams or pins or my annual calendars. I do this planner called unsolicited advice every year and that led to a book deal. I still had a day job in advertising, but then I made this book one page at a time and I got an advance of 15 grand, which was like the most money I had ever had in my entire life like I could not believe it.
Adam J. Kurtz: That book came out and then sold and continued to sell and was like, just kind of a surprise hit and it sold like a half million copies worldwide now. Very often you get a book advance and like you don't sell out that advance for a long time. I sold out at events super fast and that book has made quite a bit of money over the last five years. I have book royalties and I have my online shop, which continues to grow as I get better at what I do. When I got fired from my job, I had more time to invest in building my brand, in developing new products and that sort of thing. I do also make money from public speaking now, but that wasn't real money until literally this year because I did a lot of speaking in exchange for the trip or a lot of speaking for people that told me like, "Oh it's good exposure."
Adam J. Kurtz: Which quick sidebar, I feel as creatives, we're really ... we understand we got to value our work right? Then when it comes to creatives, doing public speaking, we lose our brain and we're like, "Oh, it's an honor so it's free." I understand that impulse because I felt it too but then I have this moment of like, "Oh, if this was a normal client telling me they love my work and they wanted me to work for free, I wouldn't say yes most of the time so why am I saying yes?" It wasn't until this year that that started becoming like a decent amount of money where I felt like it's worth all the travel and not doing client work and whatever. I do still do client work, which I think people might be surprised.
Chris Do: Yeah, I'm surprised, all right. Okay.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean for me ... and maybe this is like a next question too, but for me, client work takes on multiple forms where sometimes a client wants me to do something for them and so I'm not necessarily sharing it or attached to it, but more often than not now when a client comes to me, it's because they want a public facing collaboration with Adam J. Kurtz or the Adam JK brand. It'll be like Adam JK for Doc Martins or Adam JK X collab with Chronicle Books. As a result, like I have more creative control, but then I do also have like an advance or a royalty structure or like a flat rate upfront as opposed to me releasing my own products. Then there is this sort of social media influencer side of things where sometimes they're hiring me to do original creative but then also post it as a paid partnership or a paid ad on Instagram because they want to tap into my creative voice, but also my audience of people who trust me or believe in what I have to say or just are following me already.
Adam J. Kurtz: That's sort of like creative plus and all of this combines into a sustainable amount of money where I'm able to live but then also save for the future because I think the bottom is going to fall out of this probably in the next five years. Also, trying to just have a nice life.
Chris Do: Do you really believe that?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris Do: Really?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I think it's totally naive, it would be totally naive for me to be like, yeah, I'll get free money. What feels like free money to speak about myself or free money to like post on Instagram, like a thing I made for a credit card company. I don't know, I don't always know if I'll make another book. I guess the secret is that I just sold a new book, so I'll be writing that for the next year and a half.
Chris Do: Same publisher?
Adam J. Kurtz: Same publisher. Yeah, but they've been waiting for a new pitch for two and a half years and I literally have this moment of like, maybe I've said what I need to say and I'm done saying it in this format. There was a very real feeling of like I've made two journals, I did an essay collection, I do stationary, but like maybe I'm done with long form writing, I don't know. I don't know what's to come but definitely I'm doing a lot of different pieces so that hopefully there will always be at least one path open. I think we can all kind of relate to that. If all of this ends, like I'll just, I think probably go back to advertising. I love-
Chris Do: Do you think that's a possibility that it's all going to end?
Adam J. Kurtz: I don't think it would all end, but I think I would reach a time when I was like, "Okay, I could really continue to push and fight to keep doing the thing that I do or I could go and use my skillset and creative thinking, problem solving and ability to facilitate collaboration, blah, blah, blah. I could use all those skills to work on something bigger than myself." Imagine you have all these skills and you've been your own boss for a long time, but then you have the opportunity to like go work on the political campaign of a presidential candidate or go work for an amazing nonprofit that you believe in or go work for an ad agency that represents like one of the biggest brands in the world. Suddenly you've got like multimillion dollar budgets to work with and you're hiring like your favorite rock star as like the campaign talent. There's so many cool things that we can do with our skill set.
Adam J. Kurtz: Right now it is very like, I'm using what I've got, which is pencil, paper, simpler tools but it would be pretty fucking awesome to have access to like being part of a team of 300 people with like ... I mean, can you imagine like being the lead creative on like a Superbowl halftime show and that's your art? That's crazy and that's not my specific dream but for someone, that's a dream and that's a year or more of planning.
Chris Do: Right.
Adam J. Kurtz: There's just so many things I think that are possible that any of us can do and it's really exciting to be open to the possibility and to not feel like ... I mean, I'm 31 years old, I don't want to feel like I've got it figured out because that's too soon to have it figured out. Do you know what I mean? I've got to be alive for, I don't know, at least another 30 years, probably more. I sound bummed out about that but that's because it seems exhausting.
Chris Do: Well, I'm glad. I'm glad you don't have it all figured out at the ripe old age of 31 because I got 16 years on you, so I was like, okay, I'm not throwing myself at-
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. You look so young. It's those jeans.
Chris Do: Well thank you. Hey, so I asked Aaron Draplin this exact same question and his answer-
Adam J. Kurtz: Who's Aaron Draplin, I keep hearing that name around, Aaron Draplin.
Chris Do: The big guy with a beard.
Adam J. Kurtz: No. I'm kidding. Sorry, I'm being stupid.
Chris Do: The big guy with a beard. I asked him like if you had to break it down percentage wise, where's the biggest source of your income? Is it coming from the merch, the books, social, public speaking, I've wrote some other things down here.
Adam J. Kurtz: Probably from my ... so in addition to everything that I do, I have a side hustle, this brand called Field Notes and we produce these sort of flee by five notebooks that are really popular.
Chris Do: That's you. Well, okay.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah, I'm a fill notes guy.
Chris Do: I see.
Adam J. Kurtz: That's been a real income generator.
Chris Do: That's genius. Good job.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I also created the shoe brand called Nike. A Lot of people call it Nike. That's wrong. No, I don't know. I think if I had to break it down it's probably like 20% royalties because those have been dropping off the books, the one piece, it has been out for five years.
Chris Do: Okay.
Adam J. Kurtz: Probably like 20% royalties, 30% online shop and then I don't know, 20% collaborations, 15% public speaking, 15% like paid social media advertising.
Chris Do: Client work?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I guess client work, I'm lumping into collaborations and social because ...
Chris Do: I see. I see.
Adam J. Kurtz: Each one of those structures is different but very often like you get a strategy brief and then you're like concepting on that.
Chris Do: Yeah. Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: Please like nobody do a pie chart on that because I'm not even sure if that adds up to a hundred.
Chris Do: I'm not. I'm not, so don't worry about it. I'm just trying to figure it out. Most of it comes from merch then.
Adam J. Kurtz: A lot of it comes from my own shop where I'm selling pins for like eight to $10. I'm selling my own planners and that can be really scary because it's small amounts of money at a time and then you have to mail it out and stuff gets ... like it's actually a lot of work. I could definitely be smarter and make more money while working less hard. I love being able to make a real tangible thing in physical space and send it to someone. For me, I don't want to say this, it's so definitive, but I feel like I will never, never make a Patreon or I will never ask people to just give me money because they like what I do without getting something in return. Something like really tactile in some way. I guess as I'm saying this, I'm like, no, there's so many structures where that makes sense for digital content, for online learning. I literally have a sculpture course. I'm just realizing that.
Adam J. Kurtz: See, I told you at the beginning of this, sometimes I think out loud in conversation. No, I just really like having the shop and being able to make a $10 pin that you can afford and you can wear it every day and it just makes you happy. I think that's it, is I'm very obsessed with like why people give gifts and like why do I have a key chain that my grandma gave me when I was 11? Why do I still have that? I'll never get rid of it, and it probably costs $10 but to me it's priceless. I'm really interested in that and I try to make these items, these simple souvenirs that can take on this emotional value through gifting. I really like doing it and I think that people also know that when they shop for my website, shop.adamjk.com, they know that they're supporting me like one real person in the world who makes a lot of stuff and it feels personal. I think people get that.
Chris Do: Yeah. I think people enjoy your thoughts, your musings, the design, your humor, sometimes your darkness and they want to give back. I think that's just the law of reciprocity at play. For some people they need to get something back for their money, so if they contribute to a Patreon or something like that, they might feel like everybody gets this stuff for free, so why should I pay? If you give them a pin, it's like the pin doesn't have all ton of meaning to them except for the fact that they're supporting you and it feels like, yeah, now they put their, like things are what you make of them. They put the meaning into that pin to say, I am able to support. Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: To be completely honest. I don't think people are like buying things just to give me money. I feel like there's definitely a sense of, if I bought this on Amazon it would be cheaper but I'd rather buy it from him. There are smaller ways where the shopping habits are maybe motivated by that. I also, I think that I'm making things that people connect with for the same reason that they're connecting with the digital content that's on Instagram. Some of the pins in my shop, like they were Instagram posts first, and if you get 10 comments that say make this a pin, you got to do it. That's what they want. Sometimes I'm just like, "No, I don't, I don't want to or like this is it." This was a moment in time, but I don't feel like that every day. I made a little heart that says nothing matters and so many people saw that post and they were like, make this a pin and now you can get that as a pin, as a patch. You can get it as an embroidered hoodie.
Adam J. Kurtz: I did a stress ball version of that. Sometimes people tell you what they want and it forces you to look at your own work again with fresh eyes and you realize like, "Oh like I was in a bad mood but actually I tapped into something that feels really true." I mean that's the fun part about social media, is like yeah sometimes it is actually social and people are in there talking to you and being respectful enough but then also giving you feedback and critique. I've gotten a lot of critique. I've been maybe not called out like in the call out way but definitely I've been held accountable before in ways that I think are really valuable and important. I really appreciate the whole dialogue and I don't think that what I do would work nearly as well without the context that the internet has provided. I don't know that my thing can exist fully detached from me. If I wasn't here like I would just be whatever, something that you saw at Urban Outfitters.
Chris Do: I'm writing notes here. I'm trying to keep up with you here.
Adam J. Kurtz: Sorry, I'm just fucking a mile a minute over here.
Chris Do: No. I love it. Is that you ... and I'm trying to learn from you here, is that you really know how to tap into your feelings and express them and when you said like you made something and you touched a nerve and 100,000 other people felt the same way, that's kind of cool. That's really neat that you can put your finger on it and for yourself and just like look up and you're like, "Wait, there's a thousand, a hundred thousand and 10,000 people that feel the same way," and that is art, right? You have that feeling and you communicated that feeling through a thing and then people feel the same thing and you're really good at it. It surprised me when you said people called you out or held you accountable for some of the things and you thought that was good. Can you give us an example of what that was and how you interpret that?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I mean, this is like a very specific example, but as an author, Amazon has really affected the publishing industry, which that's ... I'm just stating a fact. I think everyone would understand. For me as an author, Penguin sells a lot of the books through Amazon and that's a really important sales venue for books and for everything else. On Amazon Prime Day of this year, I posted, Amazon did a discount for all books and I posted it and I was like, "Hey everyone, like now's a great opportunity to purchase my books at a discount if this makes it more accessible to you with the free shipping and $5 off." I got a lot of feedback that was like, "Hey Adam, people are doing this sort of digital protest of Amazon on prime day. We're boycotting Amazon Prime." On prime day, we're thinking about the warehouse employees and the last mile delivery folks and you posting about this is you're stepping over the picket line.
Adam J. Kurtz: They were right, do you know what I mean? People were literally right and I had this perspective of like, well, I'm not telling you, you have to do it. I'm just saying that you could. Then people were like, yeah, that's exactly what everyone in your position would say. I shop on Amazon and a lot of my items are available on Amazon and for many people that is an opportunity to get things at the most affordable, the most accessible. There are so many reasons why people get things delivered to their door because it helps them in their life, because they have limited mobility, because they don't have a car and they live in New York and they need 48 rolls of toilet paper based on a true story. On that day specifically, my core audience was like, "Adam, you are usually more thoughtful than this." It was enough people that I was like, you are right, and I edited the post and I took that info out. It definitely probably ... I mean, it costs me some sales. I'm sure. Those royalties do add up.
Adam J. Kurtz: At least on that day, I could avoid participating in something and that's a learning process. I'm always ... I think in 2019 like, there is no longer space for people to be apolitical. I think because of the nature of what I do, where I'm very vulnerable and very open and a lot of people call me authentic or put that label on me. Part of being someone who represents authenticity is being someone who's open to feedback and open to processing that feedback. That's not every time. There are definitely comments that I get where I got to ignore them. People who I feel are overstepping or expecting a lot of free emotional labor from me. That was a case where it was like, there was a lot there and I couldn't in good conscience disagree and so I had to respond. I appreciated that people were receptive to that and then patting me on the back for doing the right thing, which I shouldn't need, but it helped me feel confident that I had done the right thing.
Chris Do: Yeah, that was a great example by the way. It really was.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean part of me is like, do I want to talk about this, on a podcast that exists on the internet forever. That really happened and it was an important lesson for me. It doesn't mean that I control ... I mean, my stuff is still on Amazon. I'm an Amazon affiliate, I make money off of that but on that day, there are lots of small ways that we can make small changes. That's important I think.
Chris Do: I think that's the ... the thing that you bring to the table, that you're an artist, that you're a human being, that you're a writer and you're a creative person, but you got to make money to survive and finding the comfortable or the uncomfortable and just figuring out where you fit in the world, some people are in a position where they can take the high ground and not have to worry about money. For whatever reasons, they can do that.
Adam J. Kurtz: That's totally okay.
Chris Do: Some people go the other way.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: Yeah. That's okay too, right? Some people go the other way, which is like I can't eat, I have to take ... there's no high ground. I just have to eat.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: That's okay too, so there's a whole spectrum here and I just think that everybody is allowed to pick their lane, and I think what they were saying to you is from a consistency point of view, this is who we see you as, and then you either have to say, I agree with you or disagree, and sometimes you're going to disagree.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. That's a really good way to put it. It was absolutely about consistency and sort of the extended context of who I am. It wasn't like out of nowhere that people were just, without knowing anything about me putting that on me. It really was like, we have a sense of who you are and where you're at in life so we can say this.
Chris Do: Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: I agree that everyone in life has been dealt a different hand and we can't fault anyone for that in any direction. It's, you do get what you get and then it's up to you to make the most of what you've got.
Chris Do: Is it the title for your next book?
Adam J. Kurtz: No. That's just me paraphrasing the last title. I feel like ... No, I'm really hesitant to say anything about this new book because it is a scary one for me, and so maybe a year from now I'll be able to speak about it. I'm in the scary part of the process.
Chris Do: Okay. I see. Well, I want to ask you one more question before we go here. The question is this, it's like, okay, you're a public person, and so to a degree, you get to have the benefits and you also have some of the disadvantages, which is people taking ownership of who they think the Adam JK brand is, and you give us an example where upon reflection, you're right, I can be more thoughtful and there's some context and some sensitivity I need to be aware of, but where have they gotten it wrong, and you're like, no, I'm not going to listen to that. That's insane. Can you give me an example of that?
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, I don't know about it being insane but one example is that people are like, "Oh, Adam JK, he writes words, he hand writes the words. That's what an Adam JK is." I was working on a creative project that incorporated type and handwriting, and the feedback was, "Oh, that's not what you do. That doesn't look like you." I was just like, it's me. Those are my words. That's my voice. Of course it's me, and so I really feel like anything I make is an Adam JK, just like anything you make is a ... like you're the glue. I think that each of us, we're the glue that unites our body of work. It's been weird having people be like, well, you've done this for the last three years, so this is all you do. It's like, no, up until like 2015, none of my stuff looked like this. I've had so many different sort of like, not wildly different aesthetics but different enough. Yeah. That's the weirdest thing, is when someone tells you what your own work looks like.
Chris Do: Right.
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, people want to pitch it, but you know what, this applies to all creative disciplines like musicians, you want them to just play the first single over and over and actors and actresses get typecast. Yeah, I guess it just happens and it's a product of making something at scale, that people feel emotionally connected to. It's I guess something I'm grappling with and it's a great problem I have and like, I'm glad that people know anything about me and feel passionate about my work, but I definitely can't continue to just execute the same thing over and over for those people because that's not sustainable for the creative practice or professional practice, personal growth, any of it.
Chris Do: Yeah. The reason why I asked is because sometimes I don't take the high road and I should and I shouldn't respond and I shouldn't play into it but I'm a human being. I have emotions too, and there's this thing, like I put it out there like I'm trying to educate a billion people on earth, right? That's my mission. Anytime I say, I think it would be nice for conference organizers to pay me this dollar amount for speaking, people will just freak the F out. They're like, "How could you say, or what are you saying, I thought this goes against your mission." Dude, how could you tell me what my mission is? I know my mission and I know how to get there. I wouldn't put out one mission and then act inconsistently with that but my mission is help to teach creative people how to make money.
Chris Do: If I'm going to go and do a talk because they're either that business people or they undervalue the people that do the work, which are the speakers, then I'm going to fight for that. That's consistent with who I am, but then you're denying us the ability to see you. Well, you don't understand. See, that's the leverage that they're going to have and that's why you just said earlier, we kind of lose our minds when people ask us to do a public talk and we speak and we'll do it for free.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: What?
Adam J. Kurtz: I mean, listen, you do it for free once or twice and then very quickly it becomes clear that that's not sustainable. I didn't think critically about this until I spoke at a conference with a number of various established speakers and it wasn't strictly like a design conference. After my talk, a woman came up to me, she was one of the other speakers and she said like, "This is the best talk from a white dude I've ever seen." I was like, "Okay, thank you." Inside I was like jumping for joy. Then she was like, "I think that you could really be doing this, let's connect." She emailed me her speaking deck and all her info and like how much money she makes per talk. It was like, for one talk, she was making like my first ... my starting salary when I was like an emerging designer and it really shook me up.
Chris Do: What?
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: How much was that?
Adam J. Kurtz: She was getting as much as 30K for one talk. I was like, shit, I didn't know that there's a world like that. A lot of it has to do with how established you are, the type of space you navigate. I think private gigs, especially in huge corporate space. There's a lot of nuance here but to have someone be like, you are that good, but here's what you could be getting paid for the same work, that really blew my mind. I do have a specific example though of like different feedback and I'm not sharing it because it's sort of crazy, but I did have someone send a very long email that was highly personal because I share so much. They have just a lot of opinions and a lot of feelings and they made a really like sort of compelling argument that I almost believed, except that I remembered that like they don't know me and I don't owe them anything. You know what I mean like it was so impassioned that I was almost like convinced.
Adam J. Kurtz: Then I had to be like, "Wait, full stop. It's not okay to ever email anyone an email like this," which tells me that everything that they have to say is on like shaky ground. Do you know what I mean? It really rattled me, so there are moments.
Chris Do: I'm missing some information here. I think you're skipping over the essential parts of the story like somebody sent you a very personal, like I really can't figure it out. I can't figure out the story.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah.
Chris Do: Yeah, can we get a little bit of it?
Adam J. Kurtz: It was more like a personal attack.
Chris Do: Something attacked you, okay.
Adam J. Kurtz: It's something about me and like the way I live my life and just like what they perceived as a very specific slight, where they thought that I was ... like, I guess I shouldn't say it if I'm not going to like really say it. I have this thing about me, it's very Libra where like I love gossip but then I also like will hold back all the identifying details and the key players because I like want to preserve privacy and respect.
Chris Do: Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: Keeping the balance over here but yeah.
Chris Do: Why don't you say it and we can edit it out if you don't like it.
Adam J. Kurtz: No. I can't even say it.
Chris Do: You can't even say it?
Adam J. Kurtz: I will just say that like this isn't a professional thing. This is a personal thing where when you share your personal self on the internet, there will be people who overstep and there will be people who feel like they really know you and as a result they feel comfortable saying to you that like only a close friend is allowed to say or a family member is allowed to say. Your mom is allowed to nag you about your haircut. That's allowed. A stranger is not allowed to email you and be like, cut your hair you hippie, which that's not what happened. Yeah, there's ... People overstep, that's a thing.
Chris Do: That's the message. People overstep. They take ownership of who they think you should be and for half a second that you listened to it, right, you're like, wait and then you're like no, no.
Adam J. Kurtz: Because we're still people. Words have power and then you have to remember like, "Oh okay, but like let me consider the source. Okay, I'm going to unlearn this." It's like I read like a really, really rough Amazon review of one of my books and it rattled me to my core. Someone just like rip me and knew it all. Someone hated my books so much and they were like, I want my money back, like this bad standup comic nonsense, like post-it note. It really fucked me up, and then I just replied and I was like, what's your Venmo like you want your $10 back? I had this moment of like shit, I don't work for ... like I can't refund you on Amazon, but like, I'll Venmo you $10 if you take the personal attacks out of this review. That person of course never replied because it's so easy to be a dick and it's really hard to actually respect someone.
Chris Do: Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: Anyway, the internet is overwhelmingly good but I do have ... sometimes I have a thin skin. I'm pretty insecure as a person and I'm hoping that I'll keep growing.
Chris Do: Well I'm glad you shared that. I mean, I'm bracing for impact myself. I mean, no, really I am. I'm bracing for impact because I just finished my first book and I think it's garbage and I just like ... people are like, well where's the book? I'm like, it'll be shipped to you this week.
Adam J. Kurtz: It doesn't matter if it's garbage.
Chris Do: Here comes the feedback. The feedback is coming.
Adam J. Kurtz: People just like books as objects. You know what? You could write a fucking ... just a steaming turd of a book. As long as the cover looks good on the table, in the Instagram of the morning coffee.
Chris Do: Yeah.
Adam J. Kurtz: Yeah. I mean let's not make bad work but you can also get away with it. That's pop culture. That's literally pop culture.
Chris Do: Right. Right.
Adam J. Kurtz: Nothing matters. That's the core takeaway.
Chris Do: Nothing matters. All right. This has been a really super fun conversation. I'm glad you indulged me and just like got ... like just got really super deep with you in terms of the whole public speaking.
Adam J. Kurtz: We didn't even talk about death or ... sometimes on these podcasts. I did a podcast where I like described a very specific fear of like how a barber was going to murder me and Grace Bonney from Design Sponge cut like 15 minutes out. It was just like me going on and on about dying, bleeding out. I love to get real. If I trust you like we're in and the fact that this is recorded, like, I'll never listen to this, so no sweat off my back.
Chris Do: That's a healthy attitude. [Crosstalk 01:31:52]. No.
Adam J. Kurtz: That's why I got to get a new job is because I'm going to cancel myself one of these days. You're great. Thanks for having me on this podcast. I have a lot of respect for what you do and I love that we can just be big frenemies forever, BFFs.
Chris Do: Yes. Yes, and I'm looking forward to the next time we accidentally, not accidentally run into each other at the next conference and I'll be paying very careful attention at what you're doing-
Adam J. Kurtz: I'll make sure to just paraphrase all of your Instagram carousels. I'm just going to show your Instagram. I'm going to write an entire talk around your Instagram. Just wait.
Chris Do: Okay. I want to say this. I want to say this before we go. A big heartfelt, just well-deserved congratulations to you. I know people don't know this probably, but you were voted as the crowd, the audience favorite choice-
Adam J. Kurtz: Chris, you're the only person who cares about this.
Chris Do: I care and you know what I have to say.
Adam J. Kurtz: I know.
Chris Do: I care a lot so I'm just going to say congrats, man.
Adam J. Kurtz: Honestly, on that thing, I was like, "Oh man, Chris shouldn't have this."
Chris Do: I wasn't even there but I think I'm really happy for you.
Adam J. Kurtz: I wasn't either. I was in the hotel. I wasn't even there, they give it to me later. It's a block of wood that says like best talk. No, that's not the real thing.
Chris Do: Beautiful. Good job, man. Good job. No, there were so many good speakers there-
Adam J. Kurtz: There were, it was really well-stacked.
Chris Do: Probably one of the ... Yes, it was. I'm not saying this just because the two of us were there but there were some really great speakers that really brought that performance game to their talk and anybody who would win that honor, I just like hats off man. Hats off, so congrats on that.
Adam J. Kurtz: The best speaker of that conference Theo Glo. Theo Glo From the Google Creative Lab-
Chris Do: She was awesome.
Adam J. Kurtz: She is.
Chris Do: Yes.
Adam J. Kurtz: I've seen her speak before and she is the real deal. Chris, compared to her, you and I are just assholes, we have nothing. She's really ... sometimes you're in the presence of someone who just like gets it on another level. Man. Well thanks for saying that. It does make me feel more ... somewhat more confident in my ability as a speaker, as a person.
Chris Do: I think you should just come on stage with that block like, yeah, I know, just throw that block up in there-
Adam J. Kurtz: What's up. I won an award at a conference that happens in Australia.
Chris Do: I just want to let you know.
Adam J. Kurtz: I feel like nobody in America-
Chris Do: You feel so compelled. Yeah, you feel so compelled, go ahead and blow it for me this time again, it could happen. I'm just letting you know what happened last time. It was all just on the precedent, just do it. Just wear that as a neck chain.
Adam J. Kurtz: Honestly, I would rather just have one million dollars. Let me have some stability in my life. I'm like, renting like a trash apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, like at any moment our landlord might just jump our rent and like upheave my entire life. It's so funny though, I mean, I know we're ending, but like it is really funny the way we each get to define success for ourselves and how everyone's definition is like so different, because I definitely had ... I remember a while ago, I was like, when I get a quarter million Instagram followers, that's it. I've made it and then I got it and I was like, "Ah, I'm still fucking depressed. My problems haven't gone away, and why did I think this mattered?" Same with like ... when I finally had a pitch for this brand new book, sold this book through and got the advance that I wanted, that I really pushed for and I got that news and then I was like, "Ah, okay."
Adam J. Kurtz: I think it just never ends in successes. It's just not a real single tangible goal and that's pretty cool but it is also stressful. My name is Adam J. Kurtz and you are listening to The Futur.