I recently read an excellent book called Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon which talks a lot about the creative process. At the very beginning of the book, he says something potentially revolutionary for any creative type that the more I think about the more I completely agree with:
Nothing is original.
Jonathan Lethem says that when people call something original, 9 out of 10 times they just don’t recognize the original references. William Ralph Inge has said that originality is undetected plagiarism.
Creating is a process that requires outside influence. If you are your only influencer, your work will never beas good as it could be. You are the sum total of your experiences, and what you create is the result of what you’ve allowed to influence you.
Your influences are the seeds of your inspiration.
Inspiration is the “a-ha!” moment happens when the piceces (your influences) fit together and everything just clicks. Inspiration lines things up and connects the dots, but YOU have to collect the dots before they can be connected. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly. Artists, songwriters, designers, developers, inventors, etc. are merely people who connect the dots in a way that no one has before.
As someone who creates, I can tell you that embracing this philosophy is extremely liberating.
The pressure to “create” can be suffocating. People’s expectations for you to produce something “original” can be paralyzing. But when you realize that art is a process and the journey produces the result, you are free to enjoy the ride and accept the results for what they are. You don’t have to judge your work, because what was created was simply to summation of the influences throughout the process.
What you need to realize is that it may take 1000 hours before you connect the dots in a way that works and you actually “create” something great or useful, but the 999 hours before the breakthrough comes are still part of the process. You don’t have to feel bad about just listening, just taking things in. It’s ok to be a sponge. Those moments are investments in the final product, whether it’s a song, painting, photograph, or novel. Surround yourself with the right influences and eventually something great will materialize – even if you’re the only one who thinks so!
Harold Ramis (Egor from the movie “Ghostbusters”) once said “Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.” I really like this, and I’ve adopted this strategy in my own way (digitally). I’m just a guy with a brand new blog trying to “leave my dent in the universe”, but through RSS, podcasts, and Twitter I’m able to “surround” myself with people who are at the level I want to get to – people like David Sparks, Federico Viticci, Shawn Blanc, Mike Vardy, and Brett Terpstra. I call these people my “internet heros”. And if you’re wondering how you can possibly “help” people like this, money is good.
Austin Kleon says in his book that “if you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” The great part about the internet is that it instantly connects you with people who are MUCH more talented than you are! The trick is to seek out those people who can influence you to do greater work. They are out there, but you have put yourself in a position where you can receive. My pastor said recently that “not being teachable is the kiss of death for a Christian”. Really, it’s the kiss of death for anything in your life – if you refuse to be taught, you will never progress. You will never get better, you will never improve, and your world will stay small.
You are in complete control of your destiny. You can’t fix the past, but you can change the future. Karen Lamb said “a year from now you’ll wish you had started today”. Make a decision, start today, and then keep at it.
Never stop learning. Never stop improving. Never stop creating.
From the book Manage your Day-to-Day by 99U ↩
My wife thinks I’m crazy – whenever I use this term, she smiles her sad smile of sympathy and usually calls me a nerd. ↩