What Matters: Joey Cofone On Good Conversations and That Scene From ‘Armageddon’ That Makes Him Cry

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Joey Cofone is a multidisciplinary designer in New York City. He’s the founder of Baronfig, a company that creates tools for thinkers.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Having conversations. There’s nothing more enjoyable to me than hearing how others see the world or exploring an idea with people that have the same goal. At home, I could listen to my wife Ariana share her thoughts for hours. Whether it’s about the meaning of life or the last thing she watched on Netflix, I’m plugged in. At work, I love collaborating with our team to solve difficult problems. We lay out the state of things and the challenges and talk through every option. It’s a mesmerizing process.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

[The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book on creativity. Get notified when it’s officially announced.]

My first-grade teacher gave each of us an illustration to color and cut out for the bulletin board. Everyone got the same cartoon worm with big eyes and gangly limbs. The students, myself included, fervently jumped to work as soon as the paper hit the desk. We all wanted to be able to say, “Look at mine!” and have it be different from everyone else’s (dare I say better?). 

I hooked my arm around the worksheet, shielding prying eyes from my soon-to-be masterpiece. My box of sixty-four crayons, the second biggest in the class, sat at the edge of my desk, ready to be called on at a moment’s notice. And call on it I did, scrutinizing each color chosen in hopes to create something that everyone would absolutely gush over.

When I was done coloring Mr. Worm and cutting him out, I crept up to the bulletin board, holding him flat against my chest so no one would see my magnum opus until I was ready. As I reached the board and looked at the worms already posted, it dawned on me that they were all the same. Sure, everyone used different colors. Some kids even used horizontal lines or dots to color with, but as a collection, all together there, not one of them stood out.

“Joey, do you need help putting yours up?” the teacher asked.

A world of emotions hit me all at once. I couldn’t bear to add another worm in the sea of the same. “No, not yet,” I said and sulked back to my desk.

What was I going to do? I thought for sure mine would be different, but I ended up with the same outcome as everyone else, just remixed a bit. My eyes scanned the desk, moving from crayons to Mr. Worm and down to my hands, held open in grief. Then I noticed all the pieces of paper leftover from cutting, and a bright light ticked on.

Until this point, I played the same game as everyone else, competing with my classmates by trying to color as uniquely as possible—but still inside the same lines. After cutting out Mr. Worm, I had created an untapped resource right in front of me: the small pile of cut paper. I immediately started pulling shards and arranging them around my cutout. I drew accessories for—a microphone, boombox, and hat—and glued them on. My project became vastly different from everyone else’s, all just by looking at things a bit differently.

I walked back up to the board with infinite confidence. Now, no one’s worm was even close to mine. The way I walked up, all hurried and with a big smile, attracted the teacher’s attention. She came up behind me and watched as I pushed three thumbtacks into the brown backing. I turned around, still beaming, and looked at her.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.

What is your biggest regret?

Generally speaking, I don’t have many regrets. Every misstep is a lesson learned, and those lessons help me reach new heights. I can’t imagine being able to build Baronfig without first having gone through several “failed” starts with other projects. If I had to choose a regret, however, there is one—when I was 28 and single, I caught mono (the “kissing virus”). I was so fatigued daily that I would have to sit on the couch at work for a half-hour due to the energy it took to commute before I was even able to start working. Of course, I also stopped working out, which added to the lasting effects. It took two years for the fatigue to fade, and since then, I still haven’t felt 100% the same. 

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

When things are exceptionally difficult, I would put my emotions in a tiny box and store them in a far corner of my mind. It isn’t the healthy approach, but it worked. Nowadays, I let heartbreak hit me hard and flow through me deeply. It’s severe, but it generally ends quicker.  

What makes you cry?

The scene in Armageddon when Bruce Willis boots Ben Affleck back into the ship and tells him to take care of his daughter.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

One or two days, maybe. Then I’m on to the next thing. 

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I do not. Lights out.

What do you hate most about yourself?

That I’m skinny. I won’t go into the details, but I have a health condition that makes putting on weight, as my doctor once said, “Like trying to win a NASCAR race with the handbrake up—it just won’t happen.” I enjoy exercise, especially lifting weights, and it saddens me that I can never get the results that others do even though I put in the same (or more) work. 

What do you love most about yourself?

My curiosity and creativity. I can’t take credit for either—I consider myself lucky. The right conditions came together, and that’s how I developed.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Hands-down, without question, in no uncertain terms—Macaroni and Cheese. I am a kid on the inside, and I have a kid’s exquisite taste in the best meal on earth. It doesn’t have to be fancy M&C, either. I like the homemade stuff as much as I enjoy the powder from the box. I am an equal opportunity mac and cheese eater.