I love reading artists writing about other artists who influenced them. It's a pleasant, reassuring reminder that no great strides in business or culture happened in a vacuum. When we approach the great iconoclasts of our industries we often cower in their shadows, unsure of our own ability to follow in their seemingly distinctive, unrepeatable, entirely unique vision. They achieved this status--didn't they?--by creating something new, unheard of, by changing the way we live our lives. Our fear is that we ourselves lack the spark of genius, the fierce originality, the ethereal creative force that allowed these trailblazers to change the world. That spark is what makes them iconoclasts, right? That's what makes us want to be them.
While we may never stop being anxious about merely copying all the figures we admire, here are some ways to cope with the anxiety and truly form your own innovative path.
Remember the Ones Who Came Before You
As it turns out, the titans of industry, the tastemakers, the visionaries all probably suffered from the same anxiety of influence that we do. The poet C.K. Williams, a Pulitzer prize winning disrupter of the form, wrote that he often had to stop reading Walt Whitman "so as not to be overwhelmed, obliterated...because I feel my own limitations in relation to [Whitman]." Woody Allen, a filmmaker who established an inimitable genre all his own, has spent years trying to make a film as good as his hero Ingmar Bergman. Or how about Bob Dylan, the classic example of a singular figure who changed the direction of American music? He has never shied from admitting that he stood on the shoulders of Woody Guthrie. Moreover, he spent his entire lecture to the Nobel Committee speaking about all the music and literature which influenced him. The text of the lecture itself was accused of being ripped off. It brings to mind that apocryphal quote from one of the game changers of art, Pablo Picasso, who told us, "bad artists copy, great artists steal."
So never be afraid to be inspired by those who came before you. You stand on the shoulders of giants.
Keep in Mind: Innovation Comes from the Trickle, Not a Pour
Remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada (don't pretend you haven't seen it) where Meryll Streep's character Miranda puts Anne Hathaway in her place? Miranda points out that Andy's aloof, better-than-thou, bargain bin style was, in fact, created by the very people she thought were over-hyped hauteurs. The scene teaches an important lesson about the trickle down effect of innovation, whether it be in the realm of fashion, art or business. Before an idea permeates the broader culture, it begins as something radical and unforeseen. Innovation comes to us this way as well. It often requires years to matriculate, years to form into the one great idea. While it may seem to strike like lightning, that is very rarely how its born. And you may not have much control over how and why the innovative idea might strike you, but you can cultivate yourself to receive it when the time comes.
Find Inspiration Everywhere
If we grant that the truly innovative ideas don't just appear from the ether, then what is their source? Isn't innovation, by its very definition, something entirely new, the great idea no one's thought of yet? Sure. But I argue that it's simply a matter of changing the perspective. Think of how, during the renaissance, art and science together pushed the boundaries of each field. Da Vinci was as much an artist as he was a scientist; advancement in one area kindled growth in the other and vise versa. For a more recent example, fashion pioneer Coco Chanel let us in on what sparked her inspired designs when she said, "Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions." The greatest lesson learned here is that innovation often lies outside of the narrow focus of your field. When you find inspiration from an unlikely source, meld two seemingly unrelated ideas, principles or aesthetics, you begin to arrive at something entirely new.