Creative pitfall: You don’t need to innovate in every area

I think a massive creative pitfall beginners make is subconsciously assuming they need to innovate in many areas, at the same time.

For example, to get started making music, a budding musician might assume she needs to:

  • 1 – Write her own lyrics
  • 2 – Write her own vocal melody
  • 3 – Write her own chord progression
  • 4 – Write her own instrumental melody
  • 5 – Write her own song arrangement

…which sounds like a tremendous amount of work! (And it is!)

But that’s not accurate assessment of the effort needed to complete the goal (make a song). It’s actually an assessment of the upper bound of the effort.

In reality, you can (and should) “steal like an artist”:

  • 1 – Use your favorite song’s lyrics
  • 2 – Use your favorite song’s vocal melody
  • 3 – Use your favorite song’s chord progression
  • 4 – Use your favorite song’s instrumental melody
  • 5 – Use your favorite song’s arrangement

(You will probably also do this subconsciously anyway, as you draw from your influences.)

Of course, these vary in terms of how acceptable they are to “ship in production” without giving credit to the original. #1 should always be done with credit, and is usually considered “Doing a cover” song. On the other hand #3 is 100% fair game to use, and release with no credit. There are only so many chord progressions actually used in popular music.

However, provided you give credit where it’s due, as you mix and match these options, you can explore the creative space of tradeoffs between originality and effort.

The lower bound is “stealing” on every dimension possible, which produces the platonic ideal of a “Cover Song”. There is nothing wrong with this, and this is how virtually every artist in the world gets started. (e.g. Justin Bieber)

At this level of your journey, the absolute most important metric to optimize (lower) is the friction & effort of doing the craft. Only once you’ve built your creative muscle stronger, can you tolerate more strenuous artistic projects that explore different parts of the effort vs originality space.

This concept applies to any other creative practice, including starting a business or learning to code. In fact, the inspiration for this idea was this Indie Hackers interview with Michael Seibel of Y Combinator, where he advises startups to select where they innovate.

Any thoughts?