don’t lose the snake: creativity, difference + the bold point of view
This is the transcript for a talk I just gave at The Instigator Experience held in Los Angeles. Note: I went onstage carrying a snake.
So you might be wondering who I’m wearing. [The snake’s] name is Felix…
I bought my first snake ring about ten years ago, at the jewelry department at Barney’s. Then when my divorce became final I bought myself a bling bling divorce ring, also in the shape of a snake curling up my finger. Last year I posed for a photo session with a yellow ball python, wearing black leather pants and little else. One of those photos is the cover photo in my blog.
I liked the snake rings because I thought they were cool, and maybe because they reminded me of Cleopatra, and Cleo was my girl. Except for the part where she killed off family members. I think killing off family members should be avoided generally, that kind of thing tends to ruin the holidays. When I was in college, my boyfriend at the time called me Eve, because he said I resembled her in some famous painting he could never remember the name of or the artist who painted it.
Not long ago I became interested in the history of the symbolism of the snake and its relationship with the feminine principle. That’s a whole other talk but to me, a woman with a snake suggests a story not of temptation but rebellion and defiance. That means a lot to me. The feminine badass.
Recently I was having dinner with my girlfriend Jackie and telling her about how a mutual friend of ours Jade – who is here in the audience, hi Jade — had styled me for a recent TEDX talk, and how she urged me to makeover my closet and wear a lot more color and a lot less black. Jackie looked at me direct and told me not to change my style too much. She then said, with this very serious expression, and I quote, “Don’t lose the snake.” Which made me realize that the snake has become part of my personal mythology and part of my quote unquote brand, at least among my friends.
Myths and symbols are powerful because they reach us on a deep level, representing truths that are kind of visceral and complicated and overcharged with meaning that our conscious minds can’t fully wrap themselves around. We use them – some of us more than others — as meanings to steer by as we navigate our lives. I was thinking about this because for all the talk we do in the business world about the importance of storytelling, we tend to approach it in a very left-brain, rational, linear kind of way. Very connect the dots and paint by numbers kind of way. I want to remind you that there’s an art to it, and so much of art is born beneath the surface of the mind: so much of creativity is intuitive and subterranean. In order to tell the kinds of stories that truly rule in the marketplace, we need to be willing to open ourselves up to our unconscious, our shadow selves, to feel ourselves guided by that inner voice that works beyond language: that comes to us in images, gut feelings, dreams, symbols, hunches.
And while it’s one thing to just be yourself, it’s another thing to project a strong sense of identity into the world, a compelling story about who you are and what you stand for. That, too, is a bit of an art.
I’m Justine Musk. My topic is how to create your artistic signature and stand out in a
crowded marketplace…so, no pressure there.
Srini invited me to be on his show when it was still Blogcast FM a little over a year ago and I was a) really pleased + delighted and b) insecure. I thought, I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m not like these other people I hear him interviewing. In fact, Srini told me I was the first fiction writer who had ever been on the show. And I remember thinking, what could I possibly say that would be relevant to this particular audience? But then we did the show and it wasn’t a total disaster and in fact Srini invited me to do a special podcast on charisma with Danielle Laporte and James Altucher and then asked me to be a speaker here. And I realized that the same thing that I was self-conscious about was what made me unique and interesting, at least to some. I have a point of view that sets me apart in this arena, because it’s different, because I’m different.
But this is the paradox of difference. We want to be noticed. We want clients and audiences and sales and visibility. And we are hardwired on a primal level to notice what’s different, because to our ancestors a break in the pattern signaled a possible threat or a mating opportunity. And we do want to be different…so long as we still get to be like everybody else. It reminds me of that Monty Python bit where a guru is telling the crowd You are all individuals and they are chanting we are all individuals and then a lone voice pipes up, I’m not.
We are trained from childhood to fit in, to get along, to be appropriate. And if we were the kind of kid who didn’t fit in for whatever reason, we were bullied or ostracized. So we grew up learning to conform and compete, and conformity and competition go hand in hand – because you’re competing to see who can do what everybody else can do, better than anybody else can do it.
The problem though is that creativity is all about difference, about designing your own category of one that lives beyond comparison, beyond competition. So as we learn to fit in, we also learn to think of ourselves as not creative. This is a massive untruth. As human beings we are innately creative, creativity is our birthright. But creativity is also a practice, and a lot of us just stop practicing it. I’m no good. I don’t have any talents. My stuff sucks. Waste of time. Won’t put food on the table, won’t get me laid. Okay, maybe it will get me laid…if only I had the energy.
So as you execute your bold idea, find expression for it in the world, I want you to be aware that you’re probably inclined to imitate others – more specifically, the leaders in your field. Worked for them, so maybe it will work for us. Steve Jobs told us all to think different, so now we want to think like Steve. We are all individuals…I remember one blogger and brand strategist releasing a post in which she was practically begging female online entrepreneurs to stop talking and acting like Marie Forleo, because that job is taken.
This is the problem with best practices. Not to mention, things change so rapidly that what worked two years or one year or even six months ago might not work now, or at least not for you. We can and should learn from best practices, but ultimately we have to express our ideas in a way that is unique and authentic to us while still being compelling and relevant to others.
We have to own our shit.
One of the more intriguing lessons I’ve picked up in my life is how the source of our woundedness can also be the source of our strength. When we’re wounded in some way, we often need to develop a strategy to navigate it or work around it. Then as we grow older we naturally transfer that skill to other areas of life where we then excel.
Difference can be a source of woundedness because of how it sets us apart from other people, makes us feel vulnerable and alone. But it’s the story you create around your difference that can imbue it with meaning – not just for you, but for others. Story can be the bridge that connects you to other people. By allowing that difference to shape your point of view – to state your truth – you show who you are in a way that allows other people to recognize themselves in you: as they are now, or perhaps more importantly as they want to be.
That is the gift of a bold point of view. It can be like a beam of light flashing through the dark; other people can use it to help navigate or even co-create their own reality. By aligning themselves with your perspective, your story, they can claim it as their own and use it as a way of signaling their identity to others – especially online – as well as recognizing other members of their tribe. A bold point of view that recognizes something inside us, that shows us some new insight, or expresses something that we could not articulate for ourselves, can create emotional points of difference that make us feel more alive and less alone.
Here’s the thing. The most successful brands today – whether it’s Starbucks or Apple or Oprah or Lady Gaga – aren’t just different. They create difference. They don’t just reflect the culture or find ways to agree with the consumer, they actively shape the culture. They’re not afraid to challenge or provoke; hell, they maybe live for that stuff. They are cultural entrepreneurs. They take something familiar – coffee, a cell phone, daytime TV, pop music, – and find a way to reframe the experience around it that changes the way we look at and think about it, that transforms the way we make it a part of our lives. Through the intense projection of a bold and particular point of view, they rework the story, they create a new kind of cultural myth that draws us in until it becomes our myth too. They’re not necessarily making an innovative product so much as an innovative cultural viewpoint (that just happens to sell that particular product).
Getting back to myth again, what these brands do is put us through a kind of initiation. They uproot us from established beliefs and customs – like the idea that coffee shouldn’t cost more than a dollar a cup. They move us into a new world (where a coffee costs four dollars). Think of an Apple store, with its own unique layout and design and vocabulary (it doesn’t have a help desk, it has a genius bar). In this new world, the brand acts as mentor. It gives us a tool or a skill or an insight that helps us advance toward self-actualization. When we leave that world, and return to our ordinary world, we take that gift with us and apply it to changing our life in some small but notable way. Through word-of-mouth we share that boon with our community.
It might be worth asking yourself, what do you believe that nobody else believes? How can you express that belief through your product or service in a way that someone else might find relevant and even self-enhancing? Don’t just ask, who is your consumer – ask, who do you want your consumer to become? What kind of story can you tell around your product or service to help him become that? How can you build out the world of your story so that the consumer can find different ways of entering it and interacting with it — especially in this day and age of social media?
I don’t think in terms of platform anymore; your platform is your storyworld for the consumer to explore and get lost in.
Creativity builds on itself. You can only develop your purpose and clarity through active engagement with the world. We develop our point of view – and ourselves — through constant collisions and confrontations so that we’re forced to adapt and refine, refine, refine. You can’t get from A to Z without going through all the other letters in the alphabet, and you can’t do that just by sitting on your couch and analyzing your life. Sadly.
Think in terms of baby steps. Little bets. Experiments. One thing opens up into another into another in ways you can’t truly foresee until they happen, and each action generates a new field of possibilities. Things remain in flux. The important thing about a plan is that you go through the planning process, which is actually very important; but the plan itself often proves useless. And that’s ok, because the purpose of a Plan A is to provide the seeds for a better plan B.
I also want you to consider that as you are engaging with this process, this process is engaging with you. You are creating it, but it is also creating you. Through the nature of the creative act, we are constantly finding, creating, losing – and recreating – ourselves. We are what we make. You craft little experiments of identity, lean in to what works and discard what doesn’t. Over time this can take you in surprising directions. This is what it means to grow.
I started out as a horror novelist, because when I was a kid I decided that that’s what I wanted to be, and I am very stubborn. I sold three novels to major publishers and was contracted to do a fourth, a sequel to a sequel. And – I could not. I literally could not. I ended up canceling the contract. At the time I just assumed that I had been beaten bloody by the demons of procrastination and anxiety, but now I realize that my intuition was simply telling me – in no uncertain terms — that I was in the wrong genre and I had to get out now before I followed this road all the way down to its inevitable …for me….dead end.
It can be very unsettling to follow your intuition – I think of it as your soul-voice. We may care about things like prestige and money and convenience and what will my friends think, but the soul-voice does not. The soul-voice has one goal only: to keep driving us toward wholeness, and if it has to take us through hell in order to get us there, it will do so. This can be very annoying. But to ignore it is to pay a much higher price.
My soul-voice pushed me – and it literally felt like I was being pushed, like there was a hand at the small of my back – online. Instead of getting another published novel under my belt – and being paid for it – I found myself compelled to learn about social media, platform building, blogging, branding and content marketing. I didn’t know what I was doing or where this was going, but I could not get enough of it, and I could not stop. Meanwhile, the publishing world went into total convulsions and the publishing landscape began to radically change. So do I regret not writing that fourth horror novel? Hell no.
Through my blogging, I discovered a richer, more authentic writing voice, and I developed a strong sense of connection to this really awesome group of people formerly known as the audience – which I had never experienced as a horror writer. I realize, now, that my soul-voice was not only pushing me to reinvent myself as a writer, but to redefine my sense of what it means to have a writing career in the 21st century.
And I developed an identity as a blogger. We may start out by copying others, but the trick is to notice where you can’t copy them, where you seem absolutely incapable of being like them at all – and then to lean in to those places. When I started blogging seriously, my role models were Danielle laporte and seth godin. I tried to be like both of them. I discovered that I am a much more personal, confessional writer than Danielle is – something drives me to open up my life and ‘go there’ in order to learn what I need to learn to make my emotional and intellectual argument. I also blog at much greater length than Seth Godin: depth and nuance turn out to be two of my defining characteristics.
You also need to pay attention to what others say about you. I read obsessively, and when I began blogging, I was constantly pulling in outside sources to borrow their authority as well as to back up my points. It’s the academic in me and I didn’t think anything of it; I just assumed everybody blogged like that. But that was not the case, people often remarked on it, and it became known as part of my style.
Notice also what people tell you that you are too much of. The source of weakness can also be a source of strength; take that intense quality of yours and find the upside. Find your edges, and live there. As a culture we don’t respect artists or entrepreneurs who go halfway, who always pull their punches.
Gather high-quality mental materials. Expose yourself to as much as possible. Ideas are made up of other ideas. Creativity is all about stealing borrowing and connecting things, and using metaphors to smash things together and transform them into something new. We mix and match and mash, and filter through our own deep personality. This is how we find our originality. So be curious. Be playful. Notice what draws you, what attracts you – let yourself be drawn. Make it a point to develop an aesthetic.
And – I can’t stress this enough — learn how to listen to your soul-voice. Understand that it’s your job to educate that voice as much as possible, through the knowledge that you feed it and the techniques and tools that you master — your chops –to allow you a much greater range and depth of self-expression. You’ll find that you become increasingly sensitive to how that soul voice, the voice of your own creative spirit, communicates with you. I’ve been doing this for years, and only recently I learned to pay closer attention to how that voice feels in my body. And what I mean by this is that I will actually feel an idea in my body – I will know when I’ve broken through a block and discovered a solution even when I don’t know what that solution is; it hasn’t yet travelled all the way to my conscious awareness. I’ve also learned to trust the feelings in my body when I’m working on a project – it’s like my body is a dog that will lose interest and wander off somewhere when I’m heading down a wrong direction. I will feel flat and suddenly uninterested in what I’m doing. I used to just push my way through that – or go watch Project Runway — but I’ve since learned to keep poking and experimenting and playing with the material until that rush of warmth and energy and keen, active interest returns to me. And then I will start moving forward again. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, and I wish that for you. I wish that for you on a very regular basis.
May you go forth and create difference in the world, even as you create and keep creating yourself. In the end, creativity is a journey of constant self-discovery, the ways we find and make meaning. The interesting thing is that creativity has a way of taking you all the way down through yourself to a point where you merge with other people, where you resonate together – and with the awe-inspiring, sacred shimmer of the human condition itself. I wish that for you also.
And please remember, no matter what happens or what anybody ever tells you –
lose the snake.