How to be more original and creative
I once watched a giant rubber duck sail away into the sunset. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.
In the fall of 2013, artist Florentijn Hofman plopped a 54-foot tall rubber duck into Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River. It sat there — or rather bobbed there — for over a month. Millions flocked to see it.
When the exhibit finished, they strapped the giant rubber duck to a tug boat and sailed it down the river. I watched the spectacle from my 31st-floor office. I’ll never forget that duck.
I won’t pretend to be an art connoisseur. I know Picasso is famous and the Mona Lisa is underwhelming. But a giant rubber duck floating in a river? How could Hofman take something so common and make something so original?
He found his rubber duck, literally and figuratively.
It’s Hard to Produce Original Work
This is especially true in the world of writing. Painters have a bit more leeway. A splash of paint here, a brushstroke there, and voila. A modern take on Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Writing is different. Finding fresh perspectives to contribute to the collective conversation is a daunting task. For young writers with little life experience, the difficulty is enough to make them give up. I know I wanted to quit in my early days.
Nevertheless, I still believe we all have something unique to say. It just takes a little effort to draw out our originality.
Trish Hall, the former Op-Ed editor of The New York Times, puts it a different way in her book Writing to Persuade:
“You have to think of something that’s not in the conversation, some wrinkle, some aspect.”
I like that idea of a wrinkle. A tiny fold in the fabric. A crinkle in the conversation. Something small and overlooked until you come along and ask, “I wonder what you’re hiding little wrinkle?”
Wrinkle, rubber duck, whatever you call it, the trick to being original is finding what’s weird enough to pique people’s curiosity, but familiar enough to guide them through your work.
But what does this look like in practice?
Unless your name is Florentijn Hofman, you’ll need to make a little effort to find your rubber duck. Luckily everyday life provides us with ample inspiration, as long as you’re paying attention.
1. Draw From Experience
Do you ever wonder if the colours you see are the same colours I see? Think about it for a second. When we look at a sunset, we both say we see a beautiful orange and red glow, but how do we know we see the same orange and red glow?
For all I know, you could be experiencing my version of neon purple and brown, but to you, it’s just as beautiful.
I remember being a kid and thinking there’s no way to test if we all see the world the same way. As it turns out, nobody really knows for sure if the color perception is consistent across our species.
But I’m getting off track…
The point I’m trying to make is that on a larger scale, we tend to believe we all view the world the same way. We assume our experiences aren’t unique enough. Like a rubber duck, our experiences feel common and ordinary.
However, this simply isn’t true.
The unique combination of your family, your upbringing, your friends, your social groups, influences you in subtle ways. Each thing lending its own color to your life’s canvas.
Yes, we may all see the same sunset, but how it makes you feel is unique to you alone.
2. Draw From Personal Interaction
My wife and I love watching Bon Appetit test kitchen videos on YouTube. They are borderline addicting.
Recently my wife and I got into a deep discussion about what makes BA test kitchen videos so good. We came up with our own theories why including:
- People subconsciously love “behind the scenes” content
- BA created their own Marvel-like “universe” where “heroes” (test kitchen cooks) star in their own shows or play supportive roles in others’
- The test kitchen crew didn’t initially sign up to be YouTube stars, thus giving them authentic relationships and personalities
The list goes on. Eventually, I’ll flesh out our theories into a full-blown article. However, this rubber duck of an idea never would have come about if the conversation went this way instead:
Wife: I love these BA videos. They’re so good.
The easiest way to find rubber ducks is to ask questions. Especially questions about things taken for granted.
Wife: I love these BA videos. They’re so good.
Me: Yeah. But what makes these videos so good?
Wife: It probably has to do with the fact…
One question led to a 15-minute discussion and a draft for a new article in my Bear notes app. Ask questions. Take notes.
3. Draw From Ordinary Things
What do cookies and pandemics have to do with each other? Nothing. Besides cookies being a way to cope with social distancing (baking and/or eating), cookies are never part of a greater pandemic discussion.
However, this rubber duck combo turned out to be one of my favourite things I’ve written about in recent memory.
Want to find rubber ducks? Combine seemingly ordinary things together and see what you get.
For me, I love to cook and bake. I also love to write. I noticed on Medium a lot of writers offering up their forms of advice around dealing with a pandemic: how to stay productive, how to work from home, how to… you get the idea.
What I didn’t see were cookie recipes. That was my wrinkle, I combined two ordinary things and created my own rubber duck.
4. Draw From Irreverence
I think humans put too many things on alters.
Finding what others worship and gently bringing them back down to your level is an excellent source of wrinkles. How gentle is up to you.
Here’s a popular one you see on Medium every once and a while: morning routines. People love them. We love to write about them, we love to read about them, we love to think they exist. Morning routines are quintessential gurugobbleschtook. Yes, I resorted to making up words to express my disdain.
Morning routines, hustle mentality, kombucha, astrology, I can keep going. These are all things society holds in high esteem that frankly, I find annoying. If you’re ever stuck looking for your rubber duck, think about what irks you the most.
Anthony Bourdain made a career out it if. He is the patron saint of irreverent rubber ducks:
“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans… are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”
Larry David is a close second.
5. Draw From Another Perspective
I’m sure a magic show would look a lot different from a birds-eye view. We’d probably catch the sleight of hand or see the secret trap door obscured to the normal sitting audience. Magicians use perspective to their advantage, why don’t you?
Take politics for example. No one “side” holds a monopoly on wisdom. It amazes me that a piece of legislation coaxes extremely opposite reactions from both sides of the political divide. One calls it detrimental, the other world-saving. What’s going on here?
What’s going on is people within political parties fail to take a peek at the other “side’s” perspective. They believe their “side” has all the answers. Want to be original? Steal some rubber ducks from the other “side.”
You’ll be surprised how one shift in perspective changes everything.
The Important Part is to Show Up
Most of us don’t want to be the person who stands up in a crowded room and speaks up. We’d rather blend into the crowd and stay quiet. The important part of being creative is shutting out the fear and showing up to create your work.
Yes, you will struggle to be original and will probably churn out masticated material from time to time, but this is required to develop your unique voice.
Being original takes practice and a bit of self-awareness. It’s realizing every moment, no matter how boring or normal it seems, is a chance for you to add to your arsenal of rubber ducks.
As Seth Godin put’s it, “Getting your ducks in a row is a fine thing to do. But deciding what you are going to do with that duck is a far more important issue.”
Go, find your rubber duck. Create something original.