The 10 Steps of Originality

You want to master and create something original. You want to be a great public speaker, a great film maker, an amazing singer. I have had many interests that I have stopped and started over the year. Start-ups, Comedy, Music, Movies, Writing, Magic Tricks – anything that involves being creative and needing to find your own voice all follow the same pattern.

If you are about to take on a career or even a hobby, here are what I call the 10 STEPS TO ORIGINALITY. If you already have a dream and feel stuck, just know what step you are on and keep trying.

1. Observation
Soak in as much as you can with no expectation.
If you want to be a stand-up comedian, watch all the comedy you can. Watch good, critically acclaimed stand-up comedy. Watch bad, first time open mic comedy. Watch old, conservative comedy from the 50s that you don’t understand the references to. Watch odd foreign comedy from other cultures like Australia or Japan. Watch anything and everything. It doesn’t matter.

2. Favoritism
Decide what you like more than everything else.
This is not the hardest step, but it is the most important. You need to develop what your taste of what “good” is. Maybe what you consider good, isn’t considered good by anybody else. That is okay. You are fascinated by street magic with coins. You don’t find what David Blaine is doing to be too interesting. What is popular now could be considered tacky later. You need to form an opinion and have something to work towards. Let’s say you start to decide a few comedians you like. They make you laugh more than anyone else. Who inspires you? It’s okay if it changes over time.

Some people say most young people start to define themselves by what they don’t like. That’s a good starting point.

3. Copying
Copy your favorites without shame.
Perform your idols bits for your friends. Copy down your favorite movie script word for word. Pay attention to how they did something or where it came from. You may not completely understand what is going on. But by writing or performing it exactly, you will start to notice things you could not get from just being a passive watcher.

4. Flourishes
Continue to copy your favorites, but try to add little improvements to their work. Play their piece exactly but remove that bridge, it was a little boring. Change the lyrics of the Chorus, it’s way too repetitive. You realize their piece sounds better to you when you replace the bass with a trumpet.

5. Emulation
Do original impressions of your idols.
Try to sound like them with new material. Write a bunch of jokes in the style of Rodney Dangerfield as if he needed to write another 5 minutes. You should know his style and what inspires him. Think how he would do a self-deprecating joke if he was following you around today. It’s okay if comes out lame.

6. Articulation
Break down the skills and tools used to make your favorite work.
What was the arc of all the main characters. What attributes and motivations did they give each to make them all feel real and jump off the page of that book. Was their story inspired from their childhood? Their lovelife? How did they use flashbacks and multiple narratives to form the story? Realizing the nuts and bolts of your favorite work could cause you to enjoy it less. It could also make you appreciate it even more.

7. Creation
Create. create. create. As much as you can.
Start pumping things out like crazy. Most of your ideas will not feel like your own. They will be half stolen ideas from several of your idols mixed together. That’s okay, let your audience decide if they like it or not. Realize that finding your own voice is not binary, it is a spectrum. You defined your own taste with Step 2 – Favoritism. You will hate many things you think up but also think others show some promise.

8. Get Feedback
Bounce it off an audience.
You are creating and some % of it is crap. It could be 100%. Get feedback from your intended audience. Post your blog on the internet for all to see and post links to forums. Look at the traffic, look at comments, look at what your peers say. Is there is a trend over several posts of yours? Maybe simply found the wrong audience. Either way, you want to improve so you will have to change your work or the audience. If you can’t get a few fans, it is usually your work. Take note of what topics and voices seem to be working. It could be a long time before you strike something that works.

9. Obliteration
Throw out your worse ideas and focus on the ones with promise.
The one liner comedian Demetri Martin said he had to write and perform 20 jokes to find 1 good enough for his comedy specials. You will have to destroy lots of work you really liked. You might find you have 10 bits on pants that are all amazing, but your audience may only tolerate 3 before they get bored. You must kill the Buddha. You will create a constant loop of Creating, Getting Feedback, and Obliterating material. The faster you can go through this loop, the faster you will get better and more original.

10. Raise ambitions
Go beyond your ideas of what worked for your idols and yourself.
Push what you are doing to the limit. Create a work you are proud of and call it done. Now do something brand new. You said what you wanted to say and then said it. What can you do next? Penn and Teller mastered magic, so they started revealing how their tricks were done while doing them. Then they made movies, television shows, podcasts, hosted Saturday Night Live, and gave talks on Skepticism. George Carlin famously threw out all his jokes at the end of a year after he filmed his comedy special. After several cycles of throwing everything out, his voice just got more and more original.