How do you choose what to create?
As an actor and web developer I am constantly amazed at the similarities between the creative process behind creating an app and writing a script or creating a new project.
It’s so easy to think that everyone who has the success you dream about had it all figured out to begin with, and their rise to prominence was a clear shot from day one. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s not true.
You might not have a clue what to create, and you’d be in good company. Then it’s time to do some digging. Or you might have a bunch of ideas vying for the front position. But which one do you go with?
Either way, the same principle applies: create something for you.
“At the end of the day, all I know is my intentions, and no matter what you take out of context, no matter what pictures you post, I know what I am aligned with. I know what my truth is.”
- Issa Rae
Don’t chase money. There are much more reliable ways to get rich. Most Pulitzer Prize nominees work day jobs.
Don’t chase fame. There are plenty of excellent artists toiling in obscurity, and there are people famous for being hot, for scandals, or for losing weight by eating submarine sandwiches.
Peter Gabriel said “Success is a fickle mistress. If you go chasing her, she will ignore you. If you leave her alone and just go about your business, she might come looking for you.”
Tune in to your inner compass. What’s in you that wants to come out? If there was a formula for instant success, somebody would have bottled it and sold it by now. The journey is not without risk.
Most of the successful brands, stories and people we love were just creating something or doing something they loved. The rest of it was completely out of their hands.
Comic book writer Brian Bendis looks at graphic novels he’s bought, and compares them with the thing he’s making. If his name weren’t on it, he asks himself, would he buy it? If the answer is no, he puts it away until he figures out where he went wrong with it.
Improvisor Ian Boothby pointed out that improv companies often create shows themed on popular brands: Game of Thrones, The Daily Show, Shakespeare. This can get you an audience. He suggests an alternative: ask yourself what you love - what genre, playwright, period of history, obscure subject, etc you can’t stop talking about once you start. Make your show about that. It might be a hit, it might not, but it’ll be imbued with your passion for that subject, it’ll have the sense that you’re dying to share this thing with people. That’s what makes art. That’s what draws people to whatever you’re building.
Sometimes it sells, too.
TV execs told Issa Rae her web series about Black college students wouldn’t sell. She shrugged off the desire to make something to please the suits and made the series Awkward Black Girl, which got her a TV deal.
Canadian band ‘Rush’ was about to get dumped from their label in the mid-70s. For their last chance, instead of writing potential hits, they made a twenty minute dystopian rock opera that spanned an album side and couldn’t possibly get airplay: 2112. It sold three million copies and made them.
If you’re at the stage of your career where you work for hire, you have two options: hold your nose and take a paycheck, or add your taste to the equation. I recommend the latter. See if there’s a way to give the money people what they want and make something you’d be genuinely interested in too.
You can’t please everyone. Your favorite app, your favorite movie, your favorite book, your favorite comedy special - someone hates it. Probably someone you know.
So zero in on what lights you up. Whether your creation is successful or not, you’ll get to spend time with this thing that makes you feel alive, and so will we.
Kahlil Ashanti is an actor, web developer and entrepreneur who loves to code and perform. He was selected twice for Cirque du Soleil, performed magic in Japanese at Caesars Palace and is the founder and CEO of weshowup.io. There is no short cut. Special thanks to TJ Dawe for the collaboration.