Stop trying to beat everyone else. True success is creating work that no one else can replicate. Don’t aim to be the best—aim to be the only.
When you’re truly unmistakable, the competition becomes completely irrelevant. You’re not the best option, you’re the only option
– Srini Rao, Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best
Keith Jarrett doesn’t have any competition. If you want to hear Keith’s play live, there is no substitute for the man himself. Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Bill Frisell, Roy Hargrove, and Pat Metheny are have carved out their own categories. They are unmistakable.
Are these musicians objectively the “best” at what they do? It’s an irrelevant question. These renowned artists have stepped out of the world of measurement into a universe of possibility.
Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Minton’s Playhouse 1947, Photo by William Gottlieb, courtesy of Library of Congress
Not all unmistakable artists are famous or revolutionary. Some make a big impact in a small community. Unmistakable artists with a fan base can’t be undercut by generic musicians who are willing to play for free.
An unmistakable artist doesn’t ignore musical traditions of the past. Part of what makes an artist stand out is their unique set of influences. A jazz visionary from my generation is composer and saxophonist Steve Lehman. His remarkable music draws from Jackie McLean, French Spectralism, and Senegalese Rap, among many other influences. He didn’t reach critical acclaim and success by following a formula, he is drawing his own map and leading the rest of us into the future.
Being unmistakable and connecting with an audience sets you up for success in business and art. Instead of competing on your strengths, focus on what makes you stand out. Weave your own passions, influences, experience, personality, and culture into art that can’t be copied. Remember, you only need 1,000 true fans to earn a living.
Being proficient and generic won’t take you far. Creating unmistakable art that resonates will.
P.S. Check out Srini Rao’s brilliant interview podcast: Unmistakable Creative
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