Adam Kurtz: Things Are What You Make of Them


If you’ve been reading my blog for a few years, you may remember I interviewed Adam J, Kurtz back in 2015 as part of my People I Admire series. Adam is one of my favorite artists and writers at the moment. While his work is infused with enormous humor, it’s also earnestly intended to be helpful — to get us to take ourselves less seriously in some cases, and more seriously in others. For his relatively short time on the planet so far, Adam is incredibly wise and offers stellar advice for creatives in his brand new book Things Are What You Make of Them, out just this week. This coming Sunday is also the last day to  donate to Adam’s campaign to support the Tegan and Sara Foundation with each purchase. Just last week, I interviewed Adam about his latest book, which is a collection of life advice for creatives. Images from the book (aka some of his pieces of advice) are dispersed throughout the interview for your enjoyment! I present to you Adam J Kurtz in my Interviews with People I Admire series!

Lisa: Adam, I absolutely love your new book. Tell us how the book came to be.

Adam: The book started with a single guest post I did for Design*Sponge that talked about create work in my own way – optimistic, realistic, and some blunt humor. A few months later, Grace Bonney (the founder of Design*Sponge) asked me if I wanted to write a little bit more, and my sorta-regular-but-sorta-not column on her blog was born. I would write about new topics as they felt relevant to what I was dealing with either creatively, as a small business, or both. I had just ventured off onto my own, letting my hobby finally be my full-time job for the first time and a lot of new shit was being thrown my way.

Lisa: How do you describe your professional self?

Adam: Though I started out as a graphic designer, I now just run with “artist and author” because it best encapsulates what I do, which is a little bit of everything. Ultimately, I create illustrative work that tackles life itself with humor and a little bit of darkness. My work is kind of my therapy. It’s how I process the world, and then it’s also often about processing! My first two books are interactive journals, taking the lessons I learn, and opening them up as tools for others.


Lisa: When you were writing these pieces of advice for the book, what was the process for brainstorming and capturing them? What inspired them?

Adam: Sometimes it was something I was struggling with, like comparing myself to other people. Finally, I just had to fucking admit it! I was making myself miserable and instead of being happy for others, I would grow negativity and turn it inwards. Fucking gross. Other essays were motivated by the outside world. “How To Be Yourself” is about identifying our unique traits and human identity to make work that breaks through the monotony, but it’s also inspired by the journey that many people take in figuring out who they are. I wrote it during Pride month, thinking about how scary it can be to recognize who you are, and then feel confident enough to open yourself up to love. Though the book subtitle says it’s “for creatives,” it’s really for anyone who’s a caring, emotive person living in this world.

Lisa: I have a manifesto for my studio, and one of the items on it is “I BREAK FOR LUNCH”. In fact, I just got back from eating my lunch in my kitchen. Let’s talk about why stopping for lunch is so important.

Adam: When you’re your own boss, either on a specific project or, you know, full-time, every minute that you’re not working feels like a tiny failure. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be working, emailing, concepting, or whatever else that we often don’t treat ourselves the way we’d treat an employee! We forget to allow ourselves to be human beings. Human beings need to eat lunch. Happy human beings need to eat lunch not glued to their computer screen or work bend. We deserve to be happy human beings.

Lisa: Which bits of your advice are you the best at personally?

Adam: I feel like I am good at being happy, or at least setting the stage to be as content as I can be. I struggle with happiness. I struggle with my mental and emotional health. Thought I’m not a perfect, happy, shiny person (which btw doesn’t exist sorry) I am good at allowing myself time to just be alive. I can celebrate my small accomplishments. I set small goals and projects for myself to achieve. I treat myself in small ways. It’s a constant balance and I know I will never just “be” a happy person. It’s a constant climb. But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and it comes from a place of understanding myself and giving myself what I need. Also, therapy. I know I said earlier that my work is kind of my therapy, but Therapy is also my therapy.

Lisa: What piece(s) of advice in the book are working on right now because you want to get better at it?

Adam: I’ve been thinking a lot about using my power for good and how I can work to help others. There’s so much happening in the world and it is truly hard to know how to contribute, how to be useful, how to support as a true ally, how to lend my creative services in a meaningful way, etc. It’s a tricky balance to know when, where, and how to speak up. For the first time in my career I’m being open about being a queer person. Not because it’s ever been a secret, but because I’ve maybe taken it for granted. Now that it’s abundantly clear that some of the progress we thought we had made as a society isn’t… progressive enough… I just want to be a visible person who speaks up for who they are. One immediate way I’ve been doing that with this book is a donation campaign to support the Tegan and Sara Foundation with each purchase. I just need to be better at recognizing the privilege I have to speak aloud about who I am, and do more of that. I am trying to exist loudly to stick it in the face of everyone who’d prefer I not exist at all.

Lisa: Let’s talk about comparison via social media. It’s the curse of the creative community. Yet I think we all have so much to learn from this shared experience. What is your favorite advice for managing your own feelings when you find that you are comparing yourself to others?

Adam: We know that social media is just part of the story, because we know how we use it. But when you see, for example, an artist who is posting work every single day, it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. I’ve had so many conversations with other artists about the pressure to post, and how posting can distract from the actual work to be done. Do I still compare myself to other creatives sometimes? Yes, of course. I notice when good people are doing cool things! Sometimes I’m just like “ahhhh I wish I was part of that project too!” But then I’m just glad my friends are getting work. Now when I see a sponsored post from someone I follow my first thought is “YESSSS GET THAT MONEY!” I know how hard it is, so I feel joy and pride when others get cool opportunities.

Lisa: What is the one piece of advice in the book that has gotten the biggest reaction after you shared it?

Adam: There’s a page that says IT’S MAGICAL, NOT MAGIC that is all about how creativity isn’t a have vs. have not situation. We sometimes talk about or think of creativity as a magic power that only some people have and that’s just not true. What it comes down to is tapping into the energy we have, exercising it, practice, and growth. Creativity is a wonderful, intangible, magical thing. But it’s not a magic power for wizards only.

Lisa: How are you so wise? (I want to call you Grandpa Adam). Who taught you all this incredible wisdom? Who are your role models? How have you learned it all?

Adam: I’m just an idiot! Everything in this book is me figuring it out as I go and of course I forget half this common sense advice when I need it most. But I do come from a family of teachers and leaders, with a bunch of Rabbis going back several generations on my mom’s side. None of them were any good at Instagram though so I don’t know how relevant that is to what I do now.

I’m also really inspired by a wonderful group of creatives in tangential social circles that I feel like I’m a part of including the amazing, incredible, generous, and wise Kate Bingaman-Burt, an artist who has been inspiring me both from a distance and as a friend for several years now.

Lisa: Where can people find and follow you online?

Adam: I’m @adamjk on Instagram (recommended) and Twitter (not recommended unless you want to know what I think about pop music and bread). I do also have an email list which I update sort of sporadically with new work and rambling personal notes.