One of the biggest themes of my upcoming book, The Business Artist, is that we all face a huge danger in our creative work: imitating others. Since you’re reading this post, you probably resonate with this concern.
Like me, you probably want to do work that is original. You don’t want to be confined to a life of just being a cover band that plays someone else’s music. You want to create your own music.
The reason it’s so difficult to avoid this is simple. The most popular leaders, bands, or entertainers are those who keep doing the same things over and over again. The biggest legacy acts today—Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Journey, and a handful of others—make a great living not by forging new creative pathways, but by playing the same decades-old hits.
It’s strange, but true: success can be one of the worst things to happen to an artist’s creativity, especially in their younger years. Just ask the cast members of massively successful TV hits like Friends or Seinfeld. With the exception of Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (both of Seinfeld) and Jennifer Aniston (of Friends), they found it pretty difficult to find lasting success after their hit TV shows.
Why? Because they were forever tied to those characters. It was impossible for them to escape those personas, even though all of them are massively talented. Case in point: Jason Alexandar (who played George on Seinfeld) is a gifted dramatic actor who came from the world of theater when he auditioned for Seinfeld. But he will forever be tied to the role of George Costanza.
For many of the world’s greatest artists, no matter what their medium, their own greatest enemy is not a lack of opportunity, studios, record labels, or agents. Their greatest enemy is their own past success. It’s like fighting a shadow version of yourself.
It’s not just big-time music acts or sitcom stars who are prone to the dangers of the cover band syndrome. We all are.
In my previous sales consulting career, where my client needs changed quickly, I can think of at least two times when I sold something that was quick but missed the mark in terms of what they needed. I fell victim to imitating myself.
Since these were clients who knew me and my previous success with other clients, they were almost pressuring me to imitate myself and my past solution for them. Rather than challenging them, I went along with it.
Other times, I’d find myself making a quick sale that may have been easy (I can be a persuasive storyteller), but I missed the mark on what the customer really needed. The client said something that reminded me of another client project that I worked on. As a result, I assumed their needs were the same instead of taking the time to truly listen and ensure I was giving them the best solution.
In business, we spend a good amount of time paying attention to our competitors, wondering if we’re keeping up, or what they might have up their sleeves next. It’s important to keep a competitive advantage, to be sure. But the biggest enemy is not the one out there.
It’s the one staring back at you in the mirror.