It’s very easy to look at the bubble you’ve immersed yourself in and feel like it’s the whole world when you're pursuing a passion. You start seeing what feels like so many people doing the same thing you’re trying to do, and quite often doing it bigger and/or better than you. The market can start to feel very saturated. Saturation means that nothing more can be absorbed into the fabric of your craft, it’s so sopping that there’s a puddle of superfluous material gathering on the floor. No one wants to be in that puddle. That thought is frightening and paralyzing.
When you start feeling like there are too many people doing X or simply too much X in the world already, that it’s all been done before, you’ve found one of the most perfect strategies to keep yourself immobilized. It’s really an exquisite excuse to not do your work. Believe it or not, most people really can’t push too far past this blockage of insecurity and feelings of worthlessness into the scary world of adding themselves to the mix. We all want to be able to bring something to the table. The people who do are actually few. Your bubble is small.
Striving and Insincerity
If the thought of the whole world being your competition doesn’t stop you in your tracks and sink you like a stone, you’re not homefree. There are other unfortunate emotional fallouts that can affect your work. One is striving to stand out. Scraping to find a unique voice can put you in some nasty positions. It can override producing work that you simply love to produce, and when you’re producing work that you don’t necessarily love to produce but thats sole purpose is to “set you apart,” it typically shows. Innovative and unique doesn’t automatically mean good or important, and it’s not sustainable because anything you don’t love will not last as a practice in your life, nor last as something desireable to your audience. In fact, you can hardly call an audience following this type of work “your” audience if the voice you’re speaking from isn’t coming from the heart. The only true fixtures in your life will stem from love, and those are the only things that will ever really sing to others in a lasting way. You’ll only do well what you love.
Copying and Classics
It’s also important to realize that all of us start out by copying. You learn to speak by mimicking the adults around you; and you can learn a lot by literally tracing images, or trying to recreate an existing masterpiece precisely. To learn any given skill you typically benefit by learning the tried-and-true techniques as well as seeing what others found in their innovative approaches by trying those out too. These aren’t things you share with the world or post on instagram, but they fill the sketchbooks and canvases on your shelves and eventually equip you with a very effective tool belt when you start to come into your own (organically and over a long period of time and hard work.) Any seemingly unique voice tends to be rather a unique conglomeration of things admired, copied, picked apart, glued together, and otherwise adopted over a long period of time. Things made just for novelty, shock, or deviation purposes can draw interest, sure, but they lack the pulse of the living collective human story. This can only come from you, the full feeling loving human, not the thinking discerning efforting brain isolated from the rest. When you deny doing what you love for the sake of what you think others will take interest in, you deny what has called you to art in the first place and you will fall one way or another.
Worthiness and Your Story
When Picasso began to paint there were already many great masters in the world. When Beethoven wrote his first symphony the case was the same. Not only are there not actually that many producers in the world (on tumblr only about 10% of users contribute to the field of unique content, and if you look at what percentage of that content is good, relevant, or in competition with you in any way...you start to understand the reality of what seemed like saturation), but even if there were, there is a basic concept of worthiness that needs to be grasped here: your voice is worthy of being heard, even if it’s saying something that many others have said before. Maybe the way you word something or the timing in which you say it will land hard on someone’s ears and change a life. Maybe saying it out loud will simply help you become a more well-rounded person or help you to understand it fully (it will.)
Something that has been rendered by your hand that has otherwise been depicted a thousand times really can have something special. Recently I have been struck by Rich Cali’s work in this way. What I mean is, look at this image of a snake that he created. Sure, his techniques are well developed and unique at this point because he’s been at it so long, but do you have any idea how many snakes have been depicted by artists since the dawn of art? Even snakes with a patterned body rather than scaled has been done countless times. And yet, Rich Cali is one of my most admired and loved artists and I am struck by his serpents. Something about the way he presents this content really resonates with me deeply. Don’t underestimate the capacity of an audience to tune into idiosyncracies and the subtlest of nuances in your work.
Beyond unique voice and subtle nuances in delivery, as well as timing and proximity, probably the main factor that will create an audience for you will be sharing of yourself and your process and your story, in tandem with your heartfelt work. When people know you they are more likely to love you. When they love you they’re more likely see the value in your unique take on things. When they see the value in your work they’re going to invest in you. When your story resonates with others, they’ll buy your work over comparable work from someone they don’t relate to personally.
Try to get some perspective by going places and talking to people where your line of work is absolutely not the focus. If you’re a painter, go to an astronomy meet-up and just talk to people. If you’re a writer, spend some time at soccer games. This can be a very good way to help yourself realize that not everyone is following what you follow, and not everyone knows what you know and can bring what you can to the world.
And please remember this, one of my favorite pieces of wisdom I have ever found, from author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."