One of my favorite things in the world is to create playlists. In my mind, there is no greater gift to another person. Back in the day, we used to call these “mixtapes,” as they were made of actual tape.
They could signify anything. A curation of acoustic ballads might say “I like you, do you like me?” while a pop-punk medley of breakup songs could be a reminder to delete this person’s number from your phone.
A good mixtape, in my mind, always has a theme. It builds towards an ultimate climax, then resolves. Every lyric must mean something, though rarely what the original artist intended. It is not just a curation but an interpretation.
The mixtape is personal, telling you as much about the one who made it as the one it’s made for. And it is eclectic, mixing in different styles that somehow fit together.
I love mixtapes because they are the perfect metaphor for creative work. With a mixtape, I have to use other people’s words, ideas, and stories to communicate my message. I am not dealing with my own source material, which is true for all of us.
We are always using someone else’s stuff, playing with what came before and rearranging it to say something new.
Take Jim Henson, for example. Throughout his career, he took special care to credit his childhood idol Burr Tillstrom for doing more to put puppets on television than the maker of the Muppets ever did. That’s coming from the man who invented Sesame Street and Yoda, mind you.
If Henson, who was affected significantly by the live puppet shows he saw as a traveling college student in Europe, cannot escape the influence of others, maybe we’d do well to notice the inspiration around us, too.
We are all borrowing from others
No artist works entirely in isolation. Even Vincent van Gogh, the iconic lone genius, was surrounded by others who inspired and influenced him. We all stand on the shoulders of giants* in hopes of honoring what we inherited and making it better.
Let’s not forget that Michelangelo’s very first commission was an actual forgery, a statue he pawned off on a cardinal who eventually discovered the deceit and was so impressed that he hired the young artist. Stealing is an innate and necessary part of the job, but the difference between the artist and the amateur is the former knows how to do it well.
With all due and deserved respect to Austin Kleon, it is not a creative thing to simply steal. Borrowing from others is inevitable; what makes a person an artist is what they choose to take and how. There are, after all, a lot of copycats out there, making noise without really saying anything. You don’t want to do that.
We don’t need more thieves; we need better thinkers
Take a minute to watch a handful of clips from Kukla, Fran, and Ollie on YouTube, and you’ll see that the work of Henson is much more sophisticated than that of his predecessor. And yet, without the work of the former, we would never have the latter. We all start out stealing, but the best artists don’t stay there.
An editor once told me when I wanted to include every obscure reference behind my book idea, “No one is paying to read that crap.” More precisely, they are paying to not read that crap. He told me to bury my esoteric ego-scratching in my endnotes, and only if absolutely necessary. But I’d be better off just deleting them altogether.
Curation is not the inclusion of every possible thing you could add; it is the exclusion of anything that doesn’t clearly convey your message. A good artist is recognized not in what she includes but in what she leaves out.
How to be an “original”
To be an “original,” you must first internalize your influences, then blend those voices in a way that we’ve never quite heard before. As the historian Will Durant said, “Nothing is new except arrangement. Give credit where credit is due, yes, but also find your way of expressing what others have shared before”.
The best creation is curation. It is a mix of styles and approaches. Your portfolio of work is your mixtape: a blend of old and new, a combination of what we expect and what we could never imagine.
It’s the work of any good student: a throwback, an homage, a portfolio. It is Jack White confessing all he ever did for rock music is try to play the blues, and Quentin Tarantino admitting to stealing the greatest tropes from cinema to make his own films.
Success in the Creator Economy is not so much about making something new as it is about sifting through what is already available and deciding which pieces get to come through. When we think of our work like this, it becomes less of a struggle to invent something unprecedented and instead a challenge in what to pay attention to.
So, what are you reading? Which influences are you allowing into your field of awareness, and what are you willing to let go? What’s distracting you, and what is that telling you about your work? What will you actually contribute to the conversation?
* This quote is often attributed to Sir Isaac Newton but was first said by Blaise Pascal. Then again, maybe it was Diego de Estella. Or was it Bernard of Chartres? Anyway, there are a lot of rules 😉