The Art of Being Unmistakable
I have spent the last 10 years using the internet to make things, to connect people, to share ideas, and to tell stories, primarily through this project that is now known as The Unmistakable Creative, where I seek out people that I find insanely interesting. People who I'm morbidly curious about and people who above all things, stand out in a really distinctive way, like this guy.
I wanted to make money and I was very angry. And I decided I wanted to go do crime because I could make money that way. And so it started off small, thieving. Sense of entitlement. I didn't want to work. I just wanted to take it. I wanted people to give me things. They weren't giving me it fast enough so I started taking things. I started petty robbery, bounced checks, stealing a car eventually. Over time I was wanted in five counties, so I left to Mexico. I thought I was a little badass 23 year old, doing little crime, 24. But I got robbed in Mexico, 30 something thousand dollars, and had 800 bucks to my n...
ame. I was like, damn man, I need to make more money. That's when I decided that I would rob banks. The next day I came back to the United States and I robbed my first bank, in January 1988. I was 26 years old. I went on a 14 month bank robbery spree in which I robbed 30 banks.
(laughing) Joe Loya has since gone on to become a talking hat on the subject of the criminal justice system. He wrote a book called Confessions of a Bank Robber, The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, and was one of the most fascinating people I've ever had the chance to talk to on the Unmistakable Creative, or this woman.
When I was 20 in college, and his name was Baxter, and we're still friends, that was like a recognition of, wow, this relationship has an infinity to it. And that was the first time I felt that. And we were in college. We were hanging out. I think I caught his eyes and he caught mine. He was smoking a cigarette. It was like at an art party, and we started talking, I don't even remember if we were talking very much. It was pretty nonverbal. It was pretty much an instant recognition of you're mine and I'm yours. And now we're clicking in. We're clicking into something that's bigger than us. And it was really creative from the start, full of creative energy. In fact, when I read Just Kids and I read about Patty Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe I thought, ah that was me and Baxter. That was us. Making drawings together, making music together, having a sense of this other person that constantly surprised you where your imagination was constantly being mobilized. Where you were kind of this entity, this third that was not you and not him. But this thing that you made together that was your energy together, that was your relationship.
Megan Poe was somebody who was introduced to me. She was a medical doctor and she teaches a class on the art and science of love at NYU. And also happens to be a writer and works on a whole bunch of really interesting projects. What I want to finish the day talking about is how we make things, how we connect people, and how we share our ideas and tell stories, not only in a way that stands out, but in a way that is so distinctive that it eventually makes the entire concept of competition completely irrelevant. But in order to get there, we have to start by talking about a rampant mimicry epidemic that has perpetuated the way that we attempt to stand out. So chances are that almost all of you are familiar with this project called Humans of New York created by a guy named Brandon Stanton who walks around New York City and takes pictures of strangers and puts up those pictures on the internet. Anyone of us sitting here could get on Amazon or go down to Costco, buy ourselves a really nice camera, walk around our cities, take pictures of strangers, and put up those pictures on the internet. But the real art of what Brandon does is not in taking pictures. The part that makes him unmistakable is not taking pictures. It's in creating the connection that he does with the people that he photographs. It's in getting a complete stranger to open up in this very raw and vulnerable way and share something that they may not want to share with their closest friends, while at the same time knowing that thousands, if not millions of people are going to not only see their photograph, but learn one of their most intimate secrets. What you might not know is that if you go to Facebook or to Google and you do a search for humans of, you'll find a humans of project for just about every other city in the world. But not a single one of them has had anywhere near the same degree of success that Brandon has had with Humans of New York. In the earliest days of blogging there was a humor writer named Christian Lander who started a website called Stuff White People Like. Just in case you're wondering, according to Christian Lander, these are a few of the things that white people like. Having grown up in an Indian family and having suggested things like camping and hiking to my parents as potential vacation ideas or recreational activities, and having my parents constantly tell me no, perhaps Christian Lander is on to something. But I digress. Much like the people who tried to imitate Humans of New York, Christian spawned dozens of copycats. Stuff Brown People Like, Stuff Indians Like, Stuff Asians like, just take an adjective that describes a group of people, put it between stuff and like, and you'll likely find a project attempting to replicate a success. And not a single one of them was anywhere as near as successful. Some of you heard me tell a little bit about this story last night, but in April 2009, I graduated from business school. We were in one of the most challenging job markets that we've ever been in, particularly for young people. If you have kids who graduated from college during that time, you remember this. Or you yourself got out of school during that time you might remember this because we went from, for decades, being in an economy that had rewarded people for fitting in, to overnight, being in one that rewarded people for standing out. And a young writer, blogger, and designer named Jamie Varon started one of the very first viral social media job search campaigns called Twitter should hire me. And Twitter should hire me led to tons of national media attention, dozens of job offers for Jamie, and eventually she ended up starting her own company because of that project. And of course, much like everybody who copied Humans of New York, and everybody who copied Stuff White People Like, Jamie spun dozens of copycats and I was one of them. As I told you about, I started this project called 100 Reasons You Should Hire Me. I published this project. I actually got a career website called brazencareers.com to feature my job search campaign. I got hate mail from strangers on the internet, classmates of mine who had never spoken to me in the two years I had been at Pepperdine went out of their way to email me and tell me what a stupid idea this was. And then, like I said last night, after three weeks I ran into the biggest hurdle of all, and that is that I couldn't come up with 100 reasons why anybody should hire me. I've thought a lot about why this is over the last 10 years. Why is it that we look at something that works, why is it that we look at something that some figure of authority has created and try to replicate that thing and duplicate their success as quickly as possible? And I think it comes down to instant applause. Every one of us has experienced instant applause. All you have to do is put a picture of yourself with a cute baby on Facebook and look at how many likes you get, and you'll see what I'm talking about. But if you really want to create things that stand out, if you really want to create work that has an impact on the people it's intended to have an impact on, then you have to prioritize the long-lasting connection that occurs between a creator and an audience over the instant applause that you can get from putting up cute pictures of babies on Facebook. I alluded to this earlier. One of the funniest things I'd ever seen in all the years that I've been creating work on the internet was this sketch about life coaching that John Steward and Dmitri Martin did together where Dmitri Martin goes and he films the entire experience of somebody going to a life coach. And he basically makes fun of the life coach. He asks the woman who's a life coach who does what she does, how do you become a life coach. She explains to him that there's an online university. And then she does this gesture with her hands and so he basically concludes that, so basically what you need to become a life coach is limited credentials and hands. So having a life coach is like having a really expensive friend with limited credentials and hands. And then finally, he asks the woman who goes to see the life coach, have you seen a difference in your life since going to a life coach? And she says, yeah, I'm now a life coach. And of course we laugh at that because it's hysterical. It's funny. But really, it's indicative of a much, much deeper cultural narrative that is the by-product of years of conditioning in which we've been taught to believe that if you do exactly as a person in a position of authority tells you, you'll get the result that they have promised, despite the fact that there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. If you followed your own parents' advice, we all know that to be true. But the reason people do this is that it absolves the of any responsibility. The funny thing is, it doesn't sound stupid the way it does with somebody going to a life coach to discover that their calling in life is to become a life coach. Instead we package it up and call it a best practice, which makes for wonderful case studies on big websites. It makes for great books. The thing is, that what people don't realize is best practices let you off the hook. If what you tried doesn't work, you can blame the author who wrote the book. You can blame the publishing company who published the case study or the thought leader who came up with the thought. But all this playing it safe comes at a really significant cost because at best we'll create a pale imitation of something that already exists, and at worst, we'll be completely ignored. And you see this over and over again in organizations. Particularly our educational institution. So if you look at something like Singularity University where they're tasking people to come to Singularity and to build non-profit initiatives, startup companies that will solve a problem that impacts a billion people within a decade, that to me is where we should be headed with education, but they can't get accredited as an actual university because they update their curriculum in real time. Whereas our standard education system is based on a system that's hundreds of years old. It's based on the Industrial Revolution which ended 50 years ago. Basically what we end up doing is we follow best practices and at best all we can do is replicate something that already exists so we give into this temptation that we have to mimic what we've seen work, as opposed to model it and take what works for us and discard what doesn't. And that really gets to the heart of what this idea of creating work that's unmistakable is about, and that is creating art that doesn't require a signature. Art that is so distinctive that nobody else could have made it but you. It's immediately recognized as your work, so when Slash plays the opening guitar rift to the Guns and Roses song, Sweet Child of Mine, it's unmistakable. When Tony Morrison writes, her voice is unmistakable. And when Danny Meyer opens a restaurant, the service is unmistakable. But the most difficult thing about this is that there is no formula. There is no map. There is no set of steps you can follow to produce a particular result because the goal is not to replicate something that's already been done, but to create what's never been created before in only the way that you can create it. Basically, you begin a journey where you're making two choices between doing what's tried and true, and what's not been proven to work. When I started down this path of starting to create work that was unmistakable, I found myself at this really strange crossroad. I was trying to find a job and I would submit my portfolio as my way of getting my foot into the door to the job. And then I would go to the interview and they would say, this doesn't look like you need a job, it looks like you're gonna leave the second you don't need us. So I was stuck in this perpetual catch 22. So I finally said, you know what, I'm gonna cut off the possibility of ever going down that road. And I started to write in a way that I'd never written before. I started to tell my story raw, unfiltered. Not in a train wreck sort of way, but much more raw and transparent. The result of that was that my writing started to resonate with people like it never had before. My work started to resonate. After about six months of this honest insanity, which I jokingly have called committing career suicide one Facebook status update at a time, I ended up compiling all these status updates into a book that became called The Art of Being Unmistakable which Mars designed the cover for, which subsequently ended up in the hands of Glenn Beck and went on to sell thousands of copies and it's largely why I'm probably here talking to you today. The thing is, when nobody does what you do in the way that you do it. All of the standard metrics by which you typically are measured become completely irrelevant. Because people aren't price shopping. People don't compare you to somebody else. When we want something done by Mars, there's no question as to what the price is gonna be. We don't negotiate. All we do is we tell him what we need and he does it for us. I want to show you a sample of his work. Not my favorite piece of his work, but the thing is that every time you see his work, you know it's his. And because of that, when we need something done by him there is literally nobody else we can go to. He's made his competition completely irrelevant. Because he's the only one who can do what we need him to do, and for some strange reason, like I said, he's mastered how to give our own brand a distinct feel that literally makes it very clear that when something came from the Unmistakably Creative, you know it came from us. A couple years ago I met this guy named AJ Lyon who runs a design agency called Misfit Inc. Left a high profile investment banking job four days before his wedding. He has an amazing collection of essays called The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit, which you should all read and download and Jim, we'll make sure we get that included in the link. AJ in 2013 decided to have a conference. He did the kinds of things that would make anybody who plans events for a living, cringe, and make them think he was out of his mind. He didn't have the event in a big city like New York or Chicago or LA or San Francisco. He had it in Fargo. And people came. People came from around the world to Fargo. Chances are, most of us will never visit Fargo in this lifetime. Not only that, they came back year after year. When it came to attention to detail, his level of attention to detail bordered on insanity. Every single name tag at the event was custom illustrated. It's almost six years later, I still have this name tag on my desk. Never threw it away. And I'm willing to bet money, every single person didn't either. When it came to integrating advertisers, he didn't put up ads with banners and logos all over the place, he took every opportunity he had to integrate an advertiser into this event, and decided to create some artwork out of it. That doesn't look like a piece of advertising, it's a piece of art that does some advertising. A couple years ago I had the chance to talk to the author and pastor Rob Bell. And the very first thing I said to him was Rob, my issue with religion is that it's time consuming. Particularly because I'm Indian and all Indian religious traditions are incredibly time consuming. If you've all ever been to an Indian wedding you know this, and by the way, none of you are Indian so if you were there, that means the wedding was made shorter because of your presence there. And Rob said, I agree. How is that church, this place where we're supposed to be having the most meaningful conversations about life and spirituality and creativity is so mind numbingly boring. Having been in a band when he was younger, Rob decided to approach a sermon like gorilla theater. And in that process he ended up building a congregation of tens of thousands of people and eventually he found himself on tour with Opera. Another guy I spoke to was a guy named Erik Wahl. When I talked to Erik Wahl for the first time, he said, live music has engaged participants. Keynote speaking has passive consumers. There is room to be explored in how you bridge the gap between those two things. And so when my own team at Unmistakable Creative decided to plan an event, Eric's words became our compass. Rather than approach a conference as a conference, we approached it as a theatrical performance. We had signs that were custom illustrated. We take every speaker and we turn them into X-Men style super heroes, courtesy of Marsdorian. In every one of these cases, when you look at people like Mars, you look at people like Erik, you look at people like AJ, every single one of them completely ignored the so-called best practices of their industry and as a result, it not only made their work standout in the world, it made their competition completely irrelevant. It's possible you'll go home after hearing this message and attempt to start making changes to your life, to the way you live, to the way you work. But one of the greater possibilities and one of the greater challenges is that nothing will change, that the status quo will continue. Because what I've talked about here is too edgy, it's too risky, and it might not work. And I wanna talk about why that is, but more importantly, how to prevent it. And it really comes down to one very simple idea. What Steven Pressfield refers to as resistance and Seth Goden frequently refers to as the lizard brain. You see, when you attempt to do something that hasn't been proven to work, that means that you get all the credit when it works out in your favor, and all the blame when it doesn't. It's a decision and a commitment to seek out the very thing that amplifies your fear. And the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you might actually be wrong. In surfing there's a section of the water that is known as the impact zone. It's ideally where you never wanna end up if you can help it, and it's inevitably where you're gonna end up at some point or another. The only way not to end up in the impact zone is not to surf. This is a picture of the surf day that I found myself in in Nicaragua. I paddled out in conditions that were far beyond my skill level at the time, and I found myself in a situation where 13 foot waves just started rolling in. Typically when you're in a position like this, you can either duck dive the board and get out of the other side of the wave, but I couldn't do that given where I was at. I thought about letting the board go, but if I did that, the leash would snap and I would have to swim back to shore and there was more sets of waves coming right behind this. Somehow my survival instincts kicked in and I just covered my head. I got dragged under water almost 100 yards all the way to shore, coming up for air a handful of times in between. Got washed up on shore having literally lost my shirt. I walked over to my friend who was sitting at the bar on the beach, and said, get me a beer, I'm done for the day. But the very next day I was back in the water. And our most natural instinct when we're wrong, when we try something and it doesn't work, is not to do that thing ever again. And this fear that we have of being wrong is not natural, it's learned. And it goes all the way back to that moment. You're sitting in school, raising your hands when you had the right answer, keeping quiet when you had the wrong ones. God forbid you raise your hand thinking you had the right answer, only to discover that you had the wrong one, the whole class laughs. Your fear of being wrong gets reinforced and you stop speaking up. You stop taking chances. And that carries into our adult lives and completely inhibits our creativity. And the funny thing is that everybody throughout history who has created anything of significance experiences this. Just go to Amazon and look at five star reviews of some classic literature. A giant steaming pile of crap, The Catcher in the Rye. One of my favorite reviews of this book was the person who said, I wish I had missed my adolescence because of this book. The most meaningless book I've ever read. They're making a movie about this? The Great Gatsby. Hemingway must have bribed his publisher to get this book to print. The Old Man and The Sea. My favorite two star review of one of my books, and the only one that I can quote to you by memory is from the woman who said I hope this guy is a better surfer than he is a writer. 300 five star reviews, and that's the only one that I remember. See, it doesn't matter if you're some sort of iconic creator or if you're a New York Times bestseller. Everybody experiences this. It's something that is universal. This is how this voice in your head works. Every single person, whether you're an intern who fetches coffee, whether you've written multiple New York Times bestsellers, whether you're an Oscar winning film director, everybody experiences this sense of resistance and this fear. It's invisible, which means you can't punch it in the face. You can't block it on social media. You can't refuse to answer when it calls. And you can't tell it to go to hell. And worst of all, it's always lying and completely full of it. Why is it that we listen to this debilitating voice in our heads? What you might have noticed is that it never shuts up. It keeps going and going and going everyday when you wake up, this voice in your head, this thing that Steven Pressfield calls resistance is speaking to you. Happens to me every day. Probably happened to you throughout the day today. But, if we keep doing our work and we keep showing up, eventually the voice becomes a little bit quieter. Eventually it starts to lose it's power over us. Eventually we're able to defeat it. That doesn't mean it won't be back tomorrow when you show up again. It just means you've learned how to work with it and defeat it. All of us wear masks. And it's something we start doing at a really early age when we're old enough to understand that we want other people to approve us. I remember the very first of my many masks. I was in the fifth grade and it was when I discovered that I like girls and there were popular kids and unpopular kids and I was one of the unpopular kids. I told my dad, we're having a fifth grade dance, I need you to get me a pair of sunglasses. When he asked why, I said, because with the sunglasses I'll look cool, and then I can walk up to the prettiest girl in class and I can ask her to dance. My dad never bought me the sunglasses, never became any cooler, never asked the girl to dance. Then I fast forward to the seventh grade. I went out for football thinking I would be a hero, only to realize that I lived in Texas and there are seventh graders the size of grown men. That was the end of football very quickly but I realized what I had done was, all the way up until college, even when I was choosing a major, even when I was choosing jobs, I was constantly making decisions about how I thought those choices would be approved of by other people. What we do is we keep putting on these masks over and over and over throughout our lives until we get to a point where we look in the mirror and what we've created is not a pale imitation of anything else. We've created the pale imitation of our most authentic self. We all have stories too. And our stories shape our perceptions of what we think is possible with our lives and with our work. One story is, I have enough. I have enough fans, I have enough followers, I have enough traffic, I have enough authority. Another story is, I don't have enough of any of those things that I just mentioned. But really built into those two stories of I have enough and I don't have enough are stories of I'm worthy and I'm not worthy. Sometime in 2015 I made a list of 100 insanely interesting people you should know. The reason I made this list was because every year when Fast Company published its list of the 100 most creative people in business. Or Forbes published its list of 30 under 30. I was kind of pissed off, a little envious, that I wasn't on the list. That these people had done something that I hadn't done, and they'd done something more worthwhile. I decided to make my own list. And the most ridiculous paradox of creating a list where the entire point of the list was to reject this idea that you had to be picked, was how everybody who was not on the list responded. Dozens of comments saying, I wish I was on the list, or I hope I'm on the list next time you make it. A list that was made up out of thin air and its authority manufactured. A complete illusion. And yet, that's how deep this cultural need we have to be validated, to be picked and to be approved of runs, yet it's only in letting go of that need that our most interesting innovative and unmistakable work truly starts to emerge. So we all have labels that we identify with. Our labels determine what we think we're capable of, what we think we can do. You guys have seen me in multiple capacities today. In one moment, I'm an author. If you listen to the Unmistakable Creative, I'm a podcaster. When I'm standing on a stage, I'm a speaker. And the most expansive label of all, of course, is being an artist. Because you're no longer defined by one thing that you do. There is so much more to every single one of us than can possibly be expressed through something as limiting as a job title or an occupation or bullet points in a job description. And when you see the world through the eyes of an artist you can't help but see the world differently. And as a result, that is what is reflected in everything that you do and how you show up in the world. I want to leave you with one final piece of advice. Something that has had a profound impact on me for the last 10 years and something that I hope will continue to inspire you and fuel your own creativity. It's very simple and something that I think will bring a great deal of joy to your life. And that's simply to make something every day. Doesn't matter what it is. Doesn't matter who it's for. Doesn't matter if it's for a million people. Doesn't even matter if it's only for an audience of one. Just make something every single day. Thank you all for being here.