Riley Wilkinson - Trust Yourself

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I first met Riley as a surprise attendee at our Conferences years ago and since then (outside industry events), I've enjoyed some crazy times from hunting antiques in Florida with Riley and Lisa Guili to golfing with him, his partner Drew and Peggy Brown in a Learning Resources Illinois Golf Outing. About the latter, all I can say is that it was a lot of fun and did you know that if you come in last place, you are awarded just as many prizes as if you came in first? Riley goes deep in this interview.


What inspires you?

Energy from other people, solo time alone with my notebook/sketchbook on a plane, and light bulb moments with my therapist. In all seriousness (is that possible for us?) I’m inspired by the past and by the idea of unlocking the part of a person that keeps them from charging ahead. That applies to creativity, making, inventing, and communicating honestly. I’m completely inspired by breaking through.

What do you do in your head and in your surroundings to be your best possible and productive self (mentally and physically)?

Oh dear. I’m incredibly unproductive and like to really think through creative problems before attempting to solve them. And then sometimes that solution is simply a sentence or a left turn that makes up for all the thinking time.

I organize my surroundings. One succulent in a pot may move 3-4 times until I’m satisfied, or a vintage cheese box filled with felt pens may need to sit a certain way on my desk. Then I’m free and open to push through.

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I journal religiously, and have for the last 20+ years. Author Natalie Goldberg taught me this when I was 17. Get it all out quickly and in cheap notebooks. Last year I took a tall stack of notebooks and legal pads and doused them all with lighter fluid and held a bon voyage party to the pages and pages of brain clutter. Journaliing helps me solve my creative and life problems and is sometimes hundreds of dollars per hour cheaper than a therapist. I do not reread my journals, unless i”m working on a writing project. They’re simply receptacles for my ramblings.

Running used to also help my productivity, but laziness moved in and has overstayed its welcome.

Silence. I need silence to make good progress on something I’m working on. 

Do you have a creative influencer group?

    I don’t know what that is, but I’d like to join! Recently, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin from LA and have joined a maker space called Sector67. I have a desk amid engineers, woodworkers, fabricators, and tinkerers. There’s a welding area, electronics lab, 3D printing room, and then all sorts of other areas that are filled with tools I can’t even pronounce. Being part of this group pushes me to ask questions about how something is made and I’m finding that it’s really impacting the work I do now for Make: and Maker Media. If your city has a maker space, go visit it. What a renaissance!

How has technology affected your creativity?

I find that I hoard pins and screen captures via Pinterest and Skitch, and then store everything away with Evernote. So much input and so many tools sort of drives me nuts. So I periodically delete all social media apps from my phone so that I’m not distracted. And then of course I re-install them when I feel like I no longer know what’s going on in the world.

Technology is a tool. It does not replace content nor does it create talent. I always remind myself of that, and I struggle to go backwards to become analog again. The noise of emails and texts and tweets and tags can be too much sometimes. With that said, I find that I want to use social media more and more to share a creative effort and not how I’m feeling. 

How do you eliminate roadblocks to creative thinking? 

I get rid of fear. Fear kills creativity. Avoiding mistakes kills creativity. Being afraid someone won’t approve of an idea can also be a creativity killer. But my biggest roadblock remover is to not seek approval from anyone who will attempt to squash an early idea. This is really important. Sometimes we ask people close to us what they think of an invention or a sketch or a sentence we've written and often I find that for me, I know what’s right and need to continue to go with it. Trust yourself.

This can be hard in a group setting when naysayers don’t “get” your vision or your idea. That’s a tough situation. People can be roadblocks. I heard a nun give a commencement talk while I was getting my M.A. and she talked about villagers who couldn’t get to their food source because a huge chunk of mountain had tumbled down to block their path. She said the villagers decided to go around the rock. And then she turned to all of us and said that we, too, must go around the rock.

Sometimes that rock is us. Think about that for a second. Sometimes the one roadblock is the person holding the pen or the tool...the one who hesitates in fear of the invisible over-the-shoulder onlooker who will laugh or roll their eyes. That’s fiction. It’s not real. Go around it and articulate your ideas. It’s your right and your DUTY.

What was your best idea ever?

When I was 10, I decided the world needed a heated knife to cut through cold butter. But I never took action.

As a professional product developer in adulthood, I really wanted to recreate part of my own childhood, so I created a squirrel out of clay and wrapped it around a pair of tongs. I wanted to BECOME the squirrel and harvest acorns through him, and for kids to also feel like they had become this tiny little critter. This sculpt, based on Japanese training chopsticks, became the little guy who launched The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game. And he was going to live in a tree-shaped box. This idea, massaged and tweaked by myself and my colleagues, ended up becoming a dream come true: an idea that came to be and helped kids express themselves through play.

Leonardo da Vinci as one of the greatest note takers of all time. He felt he had to lay out his ideas on paper to make sense of them. How do you capture your ideas?

Paper, paper, paper! I take notes and cross them out and draw arrows and ask questions of myself in my sketchbooks. I have stacks and stacks of them and believe da Vinci was on to that primal, eternal pencil and paper magic that brings thoughts into being.

What strategies would you recommend to others to unlock their creative potential?

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Avoid naysayers. Do not ask their permission to make or create.

Go to a coffeehouse with a notebook. Nobody will stare at you. Write out your ideas.

Listen to your stomach. Does it lurch? Follow that fear. You may throw a rock at me for suggesting this, but that fear is a voice. It’s telling you to suppress yourself. Tell it to shut up but you must listen to it.

Surround yourself with people who will apply an additive layer to your work. Not “yes, oh that’s the best idea ever” sort, but people who will help you build upon your idea.

Keep early ideas off of social media. The desire to receive likes and clicks might be a symptom of the need for approval. My question: what do YOU think of your idea? Can it go further?

Work on 5 things at once. Painters do this because it helps them create a theme across multiple projects and keeps them from getting bored. Falling into the dreaded state of boredom is poison, because new projects are exciting! Work on tons of projects all at once. The stars will rise before your eyes.

Tell us about working for Make Media?

I work on the commerce team and interface with all sorts of products and people in the Maker Movement. I’m seeing technologies and objects that I couldn't even pronounce six months ago.  It’s an exciting company to work for because everyone is a maker, or is at least interested in making something themselves. There are Maker Faires all around the country and the world, which are fun entry points into exploring your own curiosities.

Why do you think the Maker Movement is so hot now?

Personally, I think people are ready to try something they've always wanted to step into. Welding, 3D printing, sewing, woodworking, etc. But really, I think the Maker Movement makes a statement about every human: we all have the potential to be good at something, and the world needs each and every talent.

Kids are an incredibly important part of making. They always have been.

I sense that people have always like to connect over cooking and quilting, and fixing engines together, and now that tradition has a name. And with maker spaces popping up all over the place, people have a means of trying something new without feeling like they have to buy tools or lots of equipment. The maker space I work out of has laser cutters and letterpress machines and rooms of welding and metalwork gear. As someone afraid to load a staple gun incorrectly, knowing there’s a place where someone will help me step into a bold new hobby or skill set is quite interesting. And the Maker Movement is so incredibly supporting of that curiosity.

here do you see yourself in 10 years?

That’s quite a question. I see myself unlocking my own creative potential and putting that to use to help kids and grownups see that in themselves. I’d love to publish a children’s book based on story that’s been whirling around in my head.

I want to work out my life’s path, which is to help kids (and adults, too) see that the world of possibility is before them. I have an urgency in the pit of my stomach to do this. I think in 10 years, I will look back and see that my time in the toy and game industry helped me unlock that in myself and in others. I know that sounds sort of high falootin’ or elusive, but I’m starting to map it out. Early memories of toys and imagination will fuel this for me.

As a child of abuse who escaped with my sister what was basically a home situation that was akin to prison, I’m committed to being honest about obliterating that fear that still exists in dark corners. I wrote my Master's thesis about how imagination fueled me and saved me while I was a child, and this still holds true for all sorts of kids, even for kids from loving, happy homes. Imagination is key. And while I’m not going to become a social worker, I feel it’s my next step to search out ways to help kids express through imagination that which is suppressed. I don’t know how I’ll get there, but that’s why I have  a notebook: to brainstorm and map out a plan to activate it. I believe in the creative process and it’s going to tell me which way to turn.


Thanks, Riley, for a great interview!