As creative workers, we’ve been told again and again we need to “stand out” to “make it”, even though none of us knows what “it” would look like. Meanwhile, we simultaneously understand our work needs an audience. Without an audience, there’s no feedback loop; even when the feedback is negative. The audience is a part of the creative process.
In reality, there are more than 7 billion people in the world. Among them, roughly 65% of people age between 15 and 64. In other words, there are roughly 4 billion people with various different, mature tastes, all of which keep changing. Four billion. As individuals, we sometimes forget this fact. Since there are billions of different variations of tastes, it is unrealistic for us 1) to expect everyone to come across and like our work and 2) to believe our work can be one-hundred-percent unique.
Furthermore, the relationship between creators and consumers have been complicated by social media. Success is now measurable with actual numbers of people who like us and what we do, translating into popularity and if we’re skilled and lucky enough, financial success. For instance, Instagram audiences loved niche artists. Since there are a large number of artists on Instagram, people expect the same level of visual consistency from each account, a brand if you will. As a result, how and what artists create are influenced by trends, promotions, and how their following reacts. The relationship of taste is symbiotic.
On the other hand, we also have long-standing gatekeepers who can be considered “high-end buyers”. Those are the ones who work for big corporations, paying you the big bucks. For example, as a product designer, my audience is hiring managers, recruiters, and other designers. As a writer, your audience would-be publishers. Even our teachers are a type of gatekeeper. These high-end buyers’ tastes are influenced by trends, sales, and past experience. All types of the audience have one thing in common; they only pay you if they really, really, really like our stuff; meaning, the more our taste and our audience align, the more we sell.
It’s worth saying I personally don’t believe in the starving, miserable artist trope. Instead, to be creative is to be healthy, physically and mentally. And it is a lot harder to be creative when you don’t have a roof above your head or enough money to feed yourself. It is unsustainable for creators to keep creating without having their basic needs fulfilled.
Therefore, true creative success is only achieved by balancing our unique taste (no matter how weird) and the taste of our audience. Too little of originality leads to a lack of creativity and innovation. Eventually, creative growth plateaus. Too much of it, we become indulgent, and our work serves us and no one else (which is fine if you just want to do creative work as a hobby, but if you’re a professional working creative, read on).
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.
But there is this gap: for the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.
And if you are just starting or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
— Ira Glass
Anyone who does creative work starts with consuming creative work. These first creative inputs instilled in us a unique taste that belongs to only ourselves. Some of us then start creating our own stuff.
No one told us when we start, there will always be a creative gap between our taste and our skills. This gap is why it’s our instinct to dislike the work we do. The cure for this, according to Ira Glass, is to create consistently, for years. The more we create, the more the skill gap minimizes.
Conclusively, our work will only ever be as good as our taste. If we don’t continue to consume and curate, i.e. improve your inputs, our work — your outputs — will also suffer. In turn, better inputs prompt us to experiment, which is the second key thing to have a successful creative career, besides consistency.
Our audience’s taste.
When we try too hard to stand out, our taste is our own and may resonate with no one. There’s no benchmark for our “one-hundred-percent” unique work, which could be a good and a bad thing. Have you ever created something you think fantastic and yet you were unable to sell to anyone? This is obviously troublesome when you have bills to pay.
By having a reference point, or better, copying from multiple reference points (which is also how most creators learn at first; copying from our teachers, mentors, idols, etc.), your audience can compare and consume your work better. It’s okay not to re-invent the wheel all the time. It’s okay to take something that already existed and injected your experience and style to improve it. It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s who’s doing it.
The sweet spot.
The quality of our work and its financial success are, in fact, 2 different entities. Because we can’t control the reception of our audience, only to analyze and seek insights so we can change and improve next time we create, even if it means “mainstream” our work.
Did you know Medium’s curation changed again recently? Like how Medium as a platform changes continuously, so is everything else, especially something as fickle and hard to define as taste. Our financial success relies on the balance of taste, but since we can’t control others’ taste and opinions about us and our work, we need to find a way to balance it.
On the other hand, in The Balancing Act of Originality, the author mentioned the Rebellion Threshold, which is “the point where the judgment of the masses can no longer dictate [the] preferences [of a consumer]. This is when [the consumer says] that a popular song is played out, a buzzing film is overrated, and a highly-rated restaurant isn’t worth the wait.” The Rebellion Threshold is one of the factors that you don’t control. All you have control over is to create and to publish.
When you create enough work, you’ll eventually find a sweet spot. It is not an exact science, there’s no process fits all and it takes a lot of time experimenting and a little luck. Fortunately, there’s a framework that I’ve seen working over and over for creative types, from designers to YouTubers, artists, writers you name it.
If we don’t know ourselves, what our strengths and weaknesses are, we would just go in circles. The first step in our creative journey is to accept ourselves and accept the reality we’re living in. If you have a day job that is not related to your passion, that’s okay, for now. Continue to work on your creative journey while paying the bills. Not everyone has $300k from the bank of mum and pop to start a business. It can take writers 10 years to get a book published. It sucks, but there’s no way around it. Figure out a way so you can create consistently.
During this process, you’ll learn, and your taste will improve, resulting in your work’s consistent improvement. And finally, embrace the change in you and your work when it comes.
Find our audience.
Before starting the design process for a digital product, we need to figure out, who is our primary target audience, why we chose this segment, and what we can do to help. A design for everyone is not a design at all because then we try to cater to 4 billion variations of thinking.
If you’ve ever done visual design, you might have also found yourself showing your work to your clients, and they would say “This looks shit!” (hopefully not in those exact words), even though it’s super popular when you post it on Dribbble. We can’t force taste onto people, we can only educate ourselves and our audience, doing work consistently is one way to do that.
The same principle applies to all types of creative work, naming visual art, visual design, writing, music, sculpture, and so on. Since standards for taste are extremely objective, there’s also no point dwelling on the “failure” of a creative endeavor, especially if we sell the wrong thing to the wrong audience.
Instead, start with your friends and family. Test the overall taste, vibe, feeling, whatever you call it, of what you’re aiming for. Then expand when you understand where you’re going with it. And sometimes, we just have to let go and move on when our work doesn’t take off as we would have liked.
Sell our work.
When I was younger, I thought I wasn’t good enough, and no one cared about what I made, which affects how I sell my work. The truth is no one will sell your work for you. No one cares about our work unless we care about it first.
Moreover, most people are often not self-aware about their tastes. People don’t just want to like your thing, they want to have their tastes validated. Even though popularity doesn’t always mean good, it can indicate a certain level of ongoing quality.
So dress yourself the way you feel inside. Talk about your work. Gain genuine creative confidence, you’re good enough already. Spend 20% of your time selling the shit out of yourself and don’t be afraid to spend money marketing your work.
Remember why you’re doing this.
Creativity is a lifestyle. Those who do creative work professionally can’t seem to do anything else, we keep coming back to it.
Meanwhile, there are more than 7 billion people in the world, and 75% of them don’t live up to their creative potential. Being a professional creative is a road less traveled because it takes guts, it’s risky. Most people don’t have the guts, the privileges, and the endurance to be creative.
Creativity, true creativity requires empathy, routines, good habits, blood, tears, sweats, and a little bit of luck.
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