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What your heroes say about you

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Idea Journal Weekly 3

June 19 · Issue #248 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.


Summary: The particular people you look up can act as mirrors. They illuminate your aspirations and values. The trick is continuing to be inspired by your heroes while not getting lost in their shadow.
This issue offers a few ideas to help you navigate that tension.
(~4 min read)

#1. Your obsessions can be revealing
Author and lecturer Susan Cain says in an interview that you can use an ugly emotion like envy as a guide to identify your genuine interests.
Cain tells the story of how envy helped to illuminate her own career path.
Before she wrote her book Quiet and became a well-known speaker, Cain worked as a corporate lawyer. When she met up with fellow lawyers, they would often talk about some colleague who just got to argue a brief before the Supreme Court, or had received some other legal accolade.
While the other lawyers were clearly envious of their successful colleague, Cain didn’t feel any envy – she was genuinely happy for the person.
At first, she congratulated herself for being so generous and not feeling envious, but she eventually realized that this wasn’t the right interpretation: “It’s just that I don’t want these things myself.”
It’s not that Cain was free of envy. At the time, the people she envied were those who were doing what she herself is doing now: writing and giving lectures about issues that are important to her.
As she puts it, “It’s the things you envy that point you in the direction of what you really want for yourself.”
There’s a useful corollary to the above lesson. When you find yourself obsessed with a person, that obsession is often coming from the same place: “I think you become obsessed with a person when that person has things that you wish to have in your life and you don’t have.”
#2. How are you *different* from your heroes?
Artist and author Austin Kleon writes in his book Steal Like an Artist that it’s important to study and imitate your heroes as you develop your own skills. 
But a convenient flaw of human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies: “Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives.”
For Kleon, a key part of identifying and developing your unique talents is imitating your heroes, examining where you fall short, then amplifying and transforming the difference into your own work.
He offers the following examples: 
Basketball player Kobe Bryant has acknowledged that all of his moves were stolen from watching tapes of his heroes. As Bryant puts it, “There isn’t a move that’s a new move.”
But when Bryant initially stole a lot of the moves, he realized he couldn’t replicate them exactly because he didn’t have the same body type. He had to adapt the moves and make them his own.
Conan O’Brien has acknowledged the same phenomenon among fellow comedians. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny, but ended up as Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson, but ended up as David Letterman. And O’Brien himself tried to emulate David Letterman, but ended up as a different and better version of Conan O’Brien.
As O'Brien observes, each case shares a common lesson: “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
#3. Don't let the weight of your hero's influence crush your inspiration
In his book The Accidental Creative, author Todd Henry writes that although it’s important to be willing to learn from your heroes, you should ensure that their influence doesn’t cause you to condemn your own abilities.
Henry calls this tendency “expectation escalation”: as our perceived expectations escalate, we can become paralyzed by the thought of not measuring up. If we don’t see our work stacking up to that of our heroes, we may be less inclined to spend the necessary time improving it.
But as Henry points out, this perspective “ignores the reality that all brilliant executions began as infant ideas and had to be tweaked and developed.”
He notes that expectation escalation is a particular problem in the design world. Many designers and creative directors feel constant pressure to match the work they see on the covers of industry magazines. Some companies will cut these pieces out and hang them on the walls as a form of inspiration, but these displays can sometimes have the effect of feeling like your parents asking you, Why can’t you be more like your older brother?
Henry cites the violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch: “It’s great to sit on the shoulders of giants, but don’t let the giants sit on your shoulders. There’s no room for their legs to dangle!”
Quote of the week
“There is nothing wrong with standing in someone’s shadow. It can be a great way to learn. But, if you continue to stand in the shadow of someone who’s pretty tall, it might be hard to imagine yourself in his or her shoes. You may need to step out of the shadow and into the light so that you can take your rightful place in the world. So I invite you to pay attention to the shadows you may be hiding in. Is it time for you to step into the light?”
- Author and coach Cheryl Richardson in her book Life Makeovers
Idea Journal
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