Coni Rojas-Molina grew up drawing and identifying as an artist, but then discovered a love of mathematics. Which is great, but committing her focus to math and the stress of writing her thesis led to years of creative block in her drawing.
She threaded the PhD needle and landed a great post-doc position, but realized that in the process, she’d lost sight of her dream: to be a cartoonist and illustrator.
“I went from filling seven sketchbooks per year to taking seven years to fill half a sketchbook.”
After she finished her PhD in mathematics, Coni got back to drawing more, but her progress was fitful. She had many projects that she was committed to, that were all linked to her larger goal of using her comics in the service of science communication, but she wasn’t finishing anything.
She was miserable. “I felt very isolated and overwhelmed,” she says.
Math problem: how much time do you really have?
Coni came to the Creative Focus Workshop planning to spend her free time on an illustrated blog about math and science, submitting to a biannual comics anthology, creating standalone comics on a regular basis, and submitting to regular academic presentations…
…oh, and learning German.
Because she’s in Germany.
She felt like she should be making progress on all of these goals, that she should be able to hit her deadlines on five things at once.
This is on top of her job, mind you.
I pointed out that she was the mathematician and should start by simply adding up the hours available in her week.
Coni clarified that she worked in quantum mechanics, which pretty much explained the problem.
See, in quantum-land, Schrödinger’s cat is locked in a box with a radioactive atom that will either decay and emit radiation or won’t, and the cat will either die as a result or it won’t. The cat exists in a state of quantum superposition. The cat is both dead and alive until you open the box to observe the result.
Thus, in quantum-land, Coni’s comics and blog and presentations can all be completed simultaneously, in parallel universes.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that functions according to classical mechanics, and Coni has no more than eight hours free, in a good week.
(Coni claims that most mathematicians are bad at arithmetic. “We all joke about mathematicians who can’t count. Everybody gets out the calculators on their cellphones when we need to pay the bill. I can deal with abstraction, but if you ask me to teach math to your son at school, I’d be like, how do you explain this?”
Suuuuuure, Coni. ? )
On her own, Coni simply couldn’t identify what was wrong. Why was she unable to make more progress? “I had this intuition that something was wrong. Something was not working. You saw it immediately. You were like, come on, you don’t have this much time. And I realized my reference system was completely deformed.”
Spoken like a true scientist.
The power of focus on One Goal (and the secret to still getting away with having many goals…)
At my urging, Coni cut her projects down to one (at a time). Plus German.
It’s never easy to make the choice among your projects. Coni said,
I felt this resistance at the beginning. You kept telling me, you have too many things. But how can I narrow it down!? NO!
But then, the idea of alternating goals came up. I can pick one for a period of time, then I can switch to another one. That’s what finally worked with me.
One Goal is extreme and hard to do, but alternation, that works.
A goal per month or couple of months works well for me, but it also depends on my life rhythm at the time, and the idea is that the alternating goals are flexible and adapt to my needs.
I don’t get desperate. Finally, I can focus without stressing about other things.
Since committing to the painful reality of choosing (and the Euclidean time-space continuum), Coni has finished project after project. And it’s had real-world effects:
“At this [mathematics] conference in Paris, one of the organizers saw my blog, and he wanted me to do what I do with the participants in their conference. So I went to Paris, and I interviewed two people.” She’s at work on illustrating blog posts of these interviews.
Ask yourself: What could change in your creative practice if you were to just go ahead and embrace classical mathematics, and give up the fantasy that you can do it all at once?
How having a system improves outcomes across the board
Coni says she also applies the principle of One Goal and realistic grasp of her time commitments in her (math) work.
Doing mathematics is very similar to having a creative practice. You have to think a lot, you have to write. You have to be creative, and the schedule is completely flexible.
For example: I was invited to write some lecture notes from a mini-course that I gave last November. I said yes, but I need time. Then the organizers sent an email saying, send us your notes by the end of January.
I thought, oh god, I’m so screwed. I’m not going to make it, I have to make it. In January I had to give talks in London, I had to do a job interview, and I had to do some interviews for my blog.
Then I looked at my Bullet Journal and I realized that I had already asked for a deadline extension to the end of February, because I knew I needed time, and the organizers had granted the extra time.
I had forgotten.
I was so proud of myself. I usually hate Past-me. I think, Why did I do this? For once in my life, I did something that made sense. I was so happy. It was a huge relief.
The other piece of the puzzle: accountability
Even a perfect system, suited exactly to your needs, won’t do a thing for you if you don’t actually use it.
I need structure, because otherwise I feel lost. And when I feel lost I don’t progress. I feel bad, I feel guilty, I feel like a loser. That’s why I took the Creative Focus Workshop.
I found a community where everybody was struggling with the same things in one way or another, and everybody taking their stuff very seriously. That made me feel a) not afraid, b) supported, c) motivated.
She did the activities in the Workshop, she participated. But it’s just all too easy to let that tender new practice fall away. That’s why I was so excited to find out that Coni formed an accountability group (with Michi Mathias, Michael Wittmann, and Hanne Panne) in the Creative Focus Workshop, and has stuck with it since the program ended.
Seeing how this accountability supported their ongoing success inspired me to incorporate accountability groups into CFW.
After the workshop, we made a Facebook group. Every Monday we do a check-in,
We say, OK my One Goal is this. last week we did this, this week we want to do this. If we’re struggling with something, we ask advice.
The others are like yeah, go for it! Or, OK, you didn’t do that, but look, you did this. They’re always trying to be encouraging, and giving advice.
It helps me becoming more conscious. No, this week I’m too busy, so this thing will have to go.
I did #Inktober [a 31-day drawing challenge on Instagram] because Michi said, “I would like to do Inktober, but I don’t have the discipline to do it. If you are willing to do it together, I need this social pressure, that people I respect are expecting me to do this.”
Another time we did a “Finishing the unfinished” theme weekend. We posted progress all weekend. I think Michael made the most progress. ha ha! We prepared with months of anticipation.
Building your creative practice with a community and a cohort means getting support, feedback, and answers
I had this feeling that I was lost, really lost. I didn’t know what to do. But now, this organization, having this structure, and splitting things… now I’m going to do this, now I’m going to do that. this really has helped me not to panic with the work. I feel much more executive. I think I’ve improved.
When I don’t know what to do, I don’t do anything. but as long as I have some structure, there is progress, slowly but steady. I feel I know what I have to do and I can execute. I can go into action.
I asked Coni for an update on her accomplishments in the 18 months since finishing the Creative Focus Workshop:
- I established the Bullet Journal as my system for life: I put everything in it, work and art. I recently started two notebooks for art sketches and for maths, respectively. I number the pages in my maths notebook and keep an index, just like in a Bullet Journal.
- I set alternating goals, as you know, in order to split my time between different projects (thinking a lot of my priorities).
- I’m an active part of a CFW support group, doing check-ins weekly. I check in every week with my accountability group Michael, Michi ,and Hanne are a support-dream team and I feel incredible happy for having them. I always ask them questions and hear their advice.
- I’m not doing Inktober this year, I’ve commissions to work on!
- I’ve declined participating in the organization of some academic events, because I know I will have too much on my plate next year (my bullet journal says so).
- I write and illustrate articles for my blog, regularly.
- I put on an exhibition with the illustrations from the blog in a maths-communication conference (Berlin 2016).
- I contribute twice per year to the Franco-German zine Beton
- I did Inktober 2016 (every day!) and posted in Instagram and Facebook.
- I used some Inktober days to finish a little project I had abandoned for ages: Writing the notes of a course I took on medieval illumination. The result was a cute little handmade booklet.
- I went on holidays to Madrid and managed to create a travel diary, all drawn in a sketchnote style. For the first time in my life, I was able to comfortably draw in public spaces, which is a huge achievement for me.
- I finished my first paid job, doing a 2-page spread illustration for the magazine of a research institute, here in Germany. They liked my work, they had good feedback and they’ve asked me to work with them again for an article in the next issue of the magazine. ?
- I went to the meeting the community of Visual Practitioners in Europe (EuViz) in Brussels this year. It was inspiring, and another push in the right direction.
- I was part of the Blog Team at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (a conference that brings the mathematicians and computer scientists that have won the equivalent of the “Nobel” prize in their respective fields). I was there last year as a “young researcher” and I was impressed by what was taking place behind curtains in their press room. So it was really a dream come true when I asked them this year to be part of their press team and they accepted me. I got to spend one week interviewing people and drawing. Yes, drawing! doing live sketchnotes and doing graphic summaries. I was able to combine my knowledge in maths and science with my drawing skills in ONE job, and yes, it was a proper JOB. A dream, really!
Coni’s turnaround in her creative practice has opened up a whole new world for her professionally! She’s well on her way to becoming known as an expert in graphic visualization and illustration in mathematics
…combining the two things she’s most passionate about.
Do you want to start taking steps to get your creative practice back on track?
Check out the Creative Focus Workshop!
More about Coni:
Born in 1983 in Chile, Coni Rojas-Molina (a.k.a. E.A. Casanova) is a mathematician and illustrator currently based in Germany. Her interest for science is a recurrent theme in her work and is the main motive behind her current project, to use graphic narrative to do science communication. She’s responsible for the blog “The RAGE of the Blackboard”, where she interviews female scientists, and writes about life in academia. Her favorite activity is putting ink on paper.