When it comes to distinguishing yourself, your offer or your art, in any competitive situation, there is one thing for sure. Being different is always a better thing to do than simply being better. Originality makes you unique and you become the standard to which others are compared. Being “better” simply means that you’re going to have to be happy with being compared with somebody else, similar to you.
The good news is that if you are different (and we all are), then the quality bar for your output is nowhere near as high as it would be if you were trying to knock some other original person off their perch by doing their schtick better than they can do it. We all love novelty and innovation. We tend to despise copy cats. We think that being better is easier than being different, when in fact it might actually be the opposite way around.
If you want to be outstanding, you have to stand out. What’s so hard about being honestly and truthfully you? We’re born with diversity as a natural thing, because your genes, history and environment are unlike anybody else’s, so why not be true to yourself and put the real you out there? As Dr Seuss said, “there’s nobody youer than you”.
Think about every painter whose paintings you ever loved or every piece of music that made you stand up, take notice and which changed your life. They were all very different to what had gone before. There was the world before they came into your consciousness and the world thereafter, forever changed. Your art can be that point of inflection, too.
It seems strange that so many artists spend so much time trying to precisely emulate their favourite artists, reproducing their breakthrough, original art in pastiche, inferior copies. Waste of time. By all means, learn the techniques and approaches of your heroes, but whatever you do, don’t be a cheap, knock-off clone of them. Experiment. Mess around. Put different elements from different influences together in your own stew. Stir and leave to simmer. Challenge yourself. Dare.
It can feel uncomfortable being in a category of one, at first, because nobody quite knows how to pigeon hole you, but that’s the point! That’s winning! If you are difficult to categorise, at least at first, then you’re changing the game. You’re inventing a new genre, or at least warping an existing one extremely. The best strategy turns out to be almost like some previous category, but different enough to be undeniably unique.
Nevertheless, it can take extraordinary courage to put something completely different out there, for judgement. When you take that leap, nobody knows how to tell if it’s any good or not. You probably don’t have a way to judge its quality yourself. It’s only when people respond with their enthusiasm and love that you can tell if you did something new and worthwhile. It takes some time to get to that point. In the first instance, you have to put yourself in dire peril of rejection.
On the other hand, it could be that you feel you have no choice than to put what you do out there, as is, because you don’t have the ability to copy or emulate your heroes. That’s actually a lucky break. When there is no choice, other than to be completely different, then that’s what you become good at being and nobody can truly say if that is good enough or not. All they can tell is whether they like you and what you have made.
The more unique and original you are, the harder it will be to replace you. Careers are built around that. Everyone is bound to miss you when you’re gone and if you perfect being you, nobody will ever be able to do it better than you did. Even if they do, they’re second, not first. You still claim the rights to having invented what you do.
The only danger you really have to face is that you must continually reinvent yourself, or your subsequent efforts are simply judged against your first breakthrough efforts. You begin to be considered to be a copy of your former self. You don’t want that. You want to be continually and consistently creating new surprises, while maintaining your integrity and keeping some sort of continuity and consistency in your art. That’s a more difficult tightrope to walk. When your only real competition is your earlier amazing, ground-breaking work, it can be tough to come up with something sufficiently different, but familiarly the same, time and time again.
So if you have the time to perfect your story, your persona, your proposition or your art, spend the time looking for those elements that are distinctly your own. Spend less time trying to be better than what went before. Concentrate on being as new and original as you can. That means understanding who you truly are, what you love to do most and how to present that to people, so that they get it immediately. Use your own voice and say what you think. Nobody else will. Nobody else can.
Stake out your own piece of the universe.