Find your creative voice by imitating your heroes

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

It’s hard to find “your own voice”, something that makes you unique in your creative scene. Many people experience Impostor Syndrome where they think they aren’t distinct enough to create something meaningful.

When you’re starting out, you still don’t have your own distinct voice, but you do have your own distinct taste.

Ira Glass on Storytelling

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. It has potential. But your taste – your taste 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. Our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you’re just getting started or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week, you will finish one project. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap and your work will be as good as your ambitions. It’s gonna take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

A good way to find you own voice it to copy and imitate your heroes; a collection of people whose work you admire. Your own distinct taste is what makes you pick these people in particular, and you will find your own voice doing this, because…

Where you fail to copy is where you find your voice

It’s impossible to copy your heroes perfectly. Whatever little mistakes or deviations you make will be “you”.

Lin-Manuel Miranda Hamilton interview with Leigh Sales

You know, when you start writing, you just chase your heroes. Like, my early musicals just sound like Jonathan Larson D-sides, because I love Jonathan Larson, and that was huge for me. His work was huge for me. And then you hopefully, in falling short of your hero, start to sound like yourself.

Your choice of inspirations is unique to you

You won’t copy one specific person; you’ll copy a collection of people who inspire you. That specific combination of personal heroes is unique to you. I personally copy CGP Grey quite a bit (e.g., with my Tool Report style, using the “set the opposite goal” in How to pick a starter project that’ll make someone quit, etc.), but I also copy a bit from George Carlin, Brandon Sanderson, Adam Ragusea, and I probably carry a lot of other more subconscious influences. That specific combination of people who I admire is unique to me, or at least, rare enough for it to matter.

Creativity is about connecting ideas together. if you do things that are inspired by a unique choice of heroes, the thing you did is connect these inspirations in a way that no one has done before.

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Thanks to Yonatan Nakar for reading drafts of this.