In high school, I was soooooo creative.
I wrote my first song at age 13. It was a forlorn prayer with a single four-chord progression, and everyone at church camp loved it. When my parents split up a few years later, I retreated into songwriting and came up with more material, each tune slightly less insipid than the last.
I was getting sooooo good. I was soooooo special.
I wanted to be the dream chaser, the starving artist, the tortured genius, the auteur. At 17 I thought I was all these things. Actually I was just a snob with a small catalog.
It was the same scene at every family gathering, every coffeeshop gig, every street corner serenade:
“Hey, you sound great! Do you know (popular song every kid with a guitar is supposed to know)?”
“Sorry, I only play originals.”
I was sooooo exacting. Sooooo creative. Sooooo not fun at parties. It doesn’t matter how good your songs are if it’s your job to get the people going and nobody in the room knows your material. Fans flock to the familiar. At the very least, I could have found some kind of balance between originals and covers. Nope. Every single show was the Look At All The Stuff I Came Up With All By Myself Variety Hour.
And don’t get me wrong, my navel looks frickin’ fantastic. But gazing at it never did much more than get me agonizing over perceived imperfections in my work. It’s really hard to enjoy something you have to keep perfecting, all the time.
I told myself I had more leeway for mistakes with my own material than I’d have with someone else’s. In reality, I ended up a slave to my own process, stuck with my own reasons for why my own work didn’t meet my own standards.
I was sooooo lonely.
There is some nobility in going it alone. I’ve watched enough Euchre games to know that. But no one can go it alone all the time without going a little crazy. And no one wants to play with someone who always wants to go it alone.
It’s taken over a decade and a lot of gigs to realize that I could have been a full-time professional musician for years now if I’d committed to learning one good cover a month since I was 17. Bar bands make decent money at the nicer places in my town, and I’m a versatile enough performer to keep things fresh from show to show. But here I am, with a headful of original material that no one can automatically relate to.
I play several more non-original songs now. I can do a pretty good House of the Rising Sun. My version of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy usually brings the house down. And I found a way to reinvent My Girl in 3/4 time, which always goes over well. I’ve always had it in me to iterate other artists’ work, but I spent my young adulthood favoring the rush of pure creation over the drudgery of artful imitation.
As I continue to mature past my old stubbornness, I’ve started seeing parallels in other professions. Today I got my first letter ever from someone interested in my Dev Bootcamp journey. He wondered if I might be open to applying for a front-end position at his firm after I graduated in the fall. I asked what I’d need to know in order to be a good applicant.
Amazingly, he does’t want a developer to craft symphonies from stardust. He doesn’t want someone who could forge new paths into the creative wilderness by virtue of their indefatigable awesomeness. No, he just needs someone who can turn a designer’s Adobe documents into clean pages that users can interact with.
He’s not asking for originals. He’s asking for really efficient covers.
In baseball, 99% of hitters swing with virtually the exact same form, because it’s what works well. In retail, almost no one’s trying to reinvent the “buy 100, get 10 extra” loyalty wheel. If your buffalo wings don’t taste like buffalo wings, you’re sending them back.
As my dad used to say, “Don’t get cute, execute.”
Which isn’t actually something he’d say, but it rhymes and it fits the premise of this post.
Society needs artists, trailblazers, innovators, disruptors. But society needs a lot more of the kind of people who improve on the work that pure artists do. People create for love, but the money’s in iteration. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Steve Jobs is probably the most famous iterator of my time. Like Edison before him, he found ways to take the creativity of others and flip it into something reliable and mass marketable. We don’t praise him for inventing the MP3 player or tablet, we praise him for making those things sleek and awesome.
This blog platform is another great example. People use WordPress in droves because it lets people choose iteration over creation. If you have something to say, you can take someone’s template and say it. You don’t need to reinvent the idea of a blog in order to be successful. In fact, blogs that look too unique can be harder to engage with, because people have come to expect certain visual conventions and breaking those conventions is disruptive in a bad way. If you want clicks, it’s best to play ball.
Of course, you might not be in it for the clicks, or the applause, or the cash. Maybe there’s something howling inside you to break free and express itself, convention be damned. You should absolutely try to let that something out. Humanity might need it.
But statistics show that it’s likely we won’t, and you’re just indulging yourself. Accept those slim odds if you want to be an artist. If you want to be a professional, don’t even worry about what the odds are. Just find someone who’s already won the bet and use their success as a jumping-off point for your iteration.
Of course, there are plenty of professional artists out there, people who break the mold and use effective patterns to scale their success. These types of people don’t stop at pattern matching and blind iteration; they use best practices in tandem with wild ideation to do new things well, and we love them for it. I’m thinking about Pixar and Kendrick Lamar and Marie Catrib’s here, outfits that reinvent their industries without reinventing the wheel.
It’s good to be able to create and iterate. But I guarantee you that the latter is more difficult. Creation can happen in a vaccuum, but iteration requires environmental awareness. Creation is the lone voice speaking her own truth. Iteration is making $75 per hour as a translator.
Or, if I may use a slightly more crass analogy…
Anyone can learn to please themselves, but pleasing a partner requires attention, empathy, and a listening ear. Pleasing multiple partners in a lifetime requires all that plus the patience to start fresh with a new person each time.
That’s iteration in a nutshell: the willingness to revisit things over and over, to master them through repetition, to gain deeper knowledge of the whole by experiencing each part multiple times.
If you can build those skills, it’s really easy to make a case for yourself in an interview. If you can’t, expect a lot of this:
“Hey, your portfolio is great! We’d like you to use our style guide to build an internal app for our staff based on this form we made two years ago.”
“Sorry, I only code originals.“
By all means, be really proud of how good you are at masturbating. Just don’t expect to satisfy anyone else with your skills.