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I recently read a book by Austin Kleon entitled “Steal Like An Artist.” One of Austin’s main thoughts was that each person is a combination of what they let into their lives: book, movies, music, people, friendships… all combining, influencing our thoughts and ideas to create the unique person that is you. As the book’s title would imply, he also suggests that no work-of-art is entirely original and that every artist’s work is, in a sense, “stolen” from the people they admire, their influences.
I think it’s likely that every artist goes through an identity crisis. Before you know who you are, you copy. You admire the greats, their work and strive to be like them. But, there’s a problem. Your work isn’t like theirs, because, well, fact is, you’re not them. Chalk it up to the way you think, your lack of experience or basic anatomy differences. Whatever the reason, you will never be a successful copy. At least, an exact copy.
At Story 2012, a creative conference in Chicago, I had the opportunity to hear Phil Vischer share his story. If you don’t know Phil, chances are, you know his work. Phil’s the creator of the beloved Children’s short-films, Veggie Tales, and the voice of Bob, The Tomato.
Phil said he always thought he’d be the next Walt Disney. He strived to succeed the way Walt had and even dreamed of someday owning a theme park. After Veggie Tales soared in popularity, Phil realized that although he’d achieved great success, he was still incredibly unhappy. In time, he realized something: “The reason I wanted to be Walt was because I didn’t know who Phil was.”
Part of the process in finding who we are is by first copying those we admire. If you were to create a diagram of the creatives you admire, you’d most likely find your style is a combination of them. Take it a level deeper and you may even find they’re a combination of each other. For fun, I did this for myself. As I post more of my music in the future, you’ll find I am definitely a product of my influences.
Do the pro’s really “steal” their ideas? Jason Mraz, in an interview with Contact Music said “Musically, he is influenced by almost any genre ‘I steal from everybody’ he laughs.” Christina Perri told Rock Torch, “My musical influences are all around me, mainly love + relationships + beauty + feelings + good songs + good melodies + good lyrics.”
So, if everyone’s just a mash-up of their influences, no one’s really original. Right? Not exactly.
We’re like kids walking around trying desperately to be like our parents. We learn their techniques and mimic their actions, but as years pass, we begin to “do it our way” until eventually, we’re a completely different person. When we study other people’s creations, copy and combine multiple ideas, it’s then that we become something different. Heavily influenced, but unique. The problem comes when we stop viewing our influences as influences and instead hold them as the standard for who we are to be.
Who do you admire? Maybe a famous painter? Musician? Photographer? If you haven’t figured it out yet, here’s where I break it to you… you’ll never be them. Even if you could somehow achieve the same level of success, chances are you won’t get there the same way. You’re story will be different.
Maybe you’ll do big things. Maybe you won’t. But part of finding you who are as a creative is learning to be ok with that.
Get your ideas from the world and people around you… study, mimic, copy. Then, go out and be yourself.
You admire Them? That’s nice… but who are you?