October 19, 2013

Philosophy Applied: Designer Max Temkin at Chicago CreativeMornings #23

Photo by Nate Burgos. View More.

October 2013: This year’s tenth Chicago CreativeMornings gathering featured Max Temkin, who makes games—hilarious ones—notably Cards Against Humanity. He also co-created Podcast Thing. Temkin spoke at the pop-up workspace of GE Garages, as part of Chicago Ideas Week.

October 2013’s CreativeMornings global theme was Play.


Temkin’s talk started with a video of Steve Jobs expressing encouragement to “change things” (“transformation” being the PR term). Then Temkin followed this with a mention of Socrates. Afterwards, I couldn’t keep up with the insertion of philosophers and their philosophical statements. With my ignorance of philosophy, I feel conflicted about it: part of me aligns with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss’ claim that philosophers are “masters of nothing”. Another part of me embraces the romance of inquiry (whether in arm-chair fashion or not) that philosophy affords. Yet another part of me is philosophy-agnostic, in the manner of playwright William Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Though starting a morning with philosophical blasts is a rude awakening, Temkin provoked me to reflect, and feel enlightened, about a few of his beliefs:

One of the ragingly popular variations of “Do whatever makes you happy” is mythologist Joseph Campbell’s adage “Follow your bliss.” When I first encountered this word trio, I liked it. Short, sweet, sentimental. Nowadays, based on visceral rebuttals in the blogosphere (e.g., do an online search for “don’t follow your passion”), this loaded directive to pursue your bliss gets deconstructed into the ground.

I’m reminded of one my most favorite TED Talks by Mike Rowe, former host of reality-TV show Dirty Jobs. In his talk (which is charged with “Aristotelian” philosophy; perhaps Temkin and Rowe should collaborate), Rowe relates the connective string linking each episode, essentially: “self-discoveries lead to self-realizations” and these discoveries, once realized, can possibly lead to a sustainable version of personal happiness. Drawing from his work on the show, Rowe’s belief is that “follow your passion” is not merely bad advice, but the worst. He further validated this opinion with stories of people who deviated from likable choices in order to make a satisfying living. As John Davis(1) put it, “You all laugh at me because I’m different, I laugh at you because you’re all the same.”

Temkin’s co-creation of game Cards Against Humanity echoes the advice by Jake Nickell, co-founder of Threadless, who spoke at the fourth Chicago CreativeMornings: “Make with friends.” The wife-and-husband founders of Greater Good Studio spoke at the twenty-first Chicago CreativeMornings where they advised: “You should work with your partner.”

If camaraderie exists, take advantage of it, because when it comes to building something, more heads, hands, and hearts, are better than one. Sounds cliché, but there’s truth in cliché. The journey of building is more comfortable—more tolerable—with likeminded company. Speaking of building, Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, founder of Sugru (stemming from the Irish word for “play”), shared a realization in addressing the 99u Conference 2013: “Making stuff happen is really fucking difficult. … All the magic and all the beauty happens in the process, and not in the finished product, or whatever.”

Temkin’s emphasis on making things, adjacent to making values, meshes with the sincere awareness urged by dancer and choreographer Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” Being fluid is really fucking difficult too.


“Know thyself” and “act like water.”

(1) Not sure which John Davies to properly attribute the “you’re all the same” quote.

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Big thanks to: Chicago Ideas Weeks, General Electric, The Creative Group, for sponsoring Chicago CreativeMornings #23; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed of Knoed Creative, who spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7, and all of the Chicago CreativeMornings crew for their great work on making CreativeMornings happen in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

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Typeface of quotes is Walbaum designed by Justus Erich Walbaum.

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Read more Chicago CreativeMornings coverage.

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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.