Empathy Over Originality
One ever-present creative question is this: how can I come up with an original idea that takes off?
How do you get inspired to create something that is so good that people can’t help but tell their friends? How do you make a video that people want to share all over social media because they’re moved by it? How do you write a song that people want played at their weddings? How do you stand out amidst all that’s out there?
It’s not easy to do. There are so many things competing for people’s attention. But, if we can just make something beautiful that’s never been done before, we’ll cut through the noise. Right?
It’s easy to look at other people who’ve had creative success, and envy the way their work feels so new and inventive. Almost every creative at some point experiences the feeling of wishing they got to a really good idea first. And that only increases our appetite to do something original.
Here’s the catch though, there really is no such thing as an original idea.
Ironically, the harder we try for originality, the more we realize how unattainable it is.
Almost all songs are built off the same patterns of chord progressions. It’s been said that there are only two plots of stories: tragedies and comedies. Trying to do something that hasn’t been done before often leads nowhere.
Maybe this is why Picasso said “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Unless he was stealing from TS Eliot who said “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Then again, Igor Stravinsky has already said “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.” And I stole this observation from Lion King producer Don Hahn at a conference.
Rather than chasing the unattainable benchmark of originality, make empathy the goal instead.
The times that people really resonate with a work of art isn’t when it’s extremely original or informative. It’s when they can see their story and their experiences overlap with the story you’re telling.
This is counterintuitive. Especially if you’ve been in the habit of chasing originality. Originality makes you look for things that set you apart. Empathy makes you ask what you have in common with others.
This is where the gimmicks get separated from the greats. Gimmicks are novel concepts delivered without heart. Great works are shared from the heart. If Hamilton were just a play about American History with a bunch of hip hop, it could’ve been easily dismissed as a gimmick. But deeper stories about ambition, hustle, immigration, success and failure turned it into a story that resonated with people at a heart level.
The best creative works simply help people feel less alone.
If whatever you make leaves people feeling like “I’ve been there, me too,” you’re connecting with people.
If you think about the books, stories, songs, or videos that have meant the most to you, it’s likely because they’ve given you that experience. It’s like somebody knew what you were feeling and put a soundtrack to it. Or finally used the right words to describe it. Or conjured up feelings that were buried deep.
There is so much power in knowing that you’re not alone.
It may be tempting to think that there’s no need to say what other people have said. But the way you’re able to say it in your own authentic voice will be original enough. After all, it’s not like breakup songs are in short supply, but every year, new ones make waves. The same goes for songs about love, letdown, insecurity and many other themes.
When Bon Iver released his first album- three years before it helped him win a Grammy for Best New Artist- much ado was made over the way he wrote it. After a bad breakup, he holed up in a Wisconsin cabin with a lo-fi recorder and penned emotionally raw, sad and nostalgic songs. The album that came out of that was a big success and many people romanticized the story of its creation. But the cabin story wouldn’t have mattered if the album simply wasn’t good. What helped it catch on was the way it used his haunting voice, raw guitar strums, and forlorn lyrics to set a tune to things most people have felt after a loss.
The themes and feelings in Bon Iver’s album- and any other memorable album- weren’t that unique. What was unique was his ability to articulate it and his talent in translating them into music. Your talent and ability to articulate these things are the reason you’re in the role of being a maker.
So if you want to make something that connects with people, ask yourself this: what is something you’ve experienced that taught you a ton?
Don’t think of yourself as trying to make other people understand that unique experience, as if they’re completely foreign to it. Don’t think of yourself as a spectacle because the experience sets you apart.
Instead think of yourself as an ambassador of that part of the human experience. What can you put words to that other people would feel deeply?
What’s one way to communicate that in a way that feels familiar to people? Your creative medium, the type of thing you end up producing, and all the way it interacts with genre and norms are all just a vehicle for the heart of your message.
Take all the effort you were putting towards originality and send it towards empathy. You’ll go pretty far.