Unquestionably, there are outliers among us, but there is also a fairly identifiable path that many of the most resonant artists, writers, and even leaders have walked on their journey to greatness. While we often believe that mastery and success are singular events, they typically arrive in layers. These layers often take the form of four phases that we pass through as we develop a unique, resonant voice.
Your voice is how you’re recognized by others. It’s the tone your collective body of work takes, and it speaks to your values and the unique perspective and skill you bring to the work. However, this individual perspective is often forged over time as you follow the inspiration of your influences, engage in intentional practice, and commit to leaps of intuition. As Virginia Woolf noted, “Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.” Your voice is the confluence of inspiration, dedicated practice, and strategic risk.
The phases you pass through on this journey of developing your voice are not discrete, and there are always exceptions, but these are tendencies that we can find in the lives of many artists, and can also leverage in order to help on our own journey of growth.
1. Discovery Phase
In a now widely-circulated interview with Public Radio International, This American Life host Ira Glass remarked “What nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish someone had told this to me—is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.”
Glass continued, “But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.”
That initial moment of intrigue, when a seed is planted in your mind about what is possible, is what I call Discovery Phase. It’s when you suddenly become fascinated with an idea or a new direction for your work, but you don’t yet have a clear path forward. In this phase, it’s important to identify the small, obtainable skills that could become the building blocks of growth.
A few questions that you might ask during Discovery Phase:
- What new ideas or skills are obsessing me right now?
- Where is my curiosity leading me next?
- Who are the handful “best in class” practitioners of this particular skill or craft, and what can I learn from them?
2. Emulation Phase
Of course, it’s not enough to identify potential areas of growth. No one wishes their way to mastery. If you want to develop a unique, resonant voice, you must, of course, do the work to hone your skills of expression. Many artists have honed their unique voice through a strategic regimen of emulation. By mimicking the work of their influences, they were able to build a basic platform of skills necessary to eventually branch out and explore new territory.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “Imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.” Famed songwriter Steve Earle once quipped, “All we do as songwriters is rewrite the songs that have impressed us till we find our own voice. It’s part of learning the craft.” As beginners, each of these remarkable, unique voices utilized emulation as a means of developing their taste and refining their skills. However, as Ursula K. Le Guin cautioned, “When imitating it’s necessary to remember the work, however successful, is practice, not an end in itself, but a mean towards the end of writing with skill and freedom in one’s own voice.”
A few questions that are common in Emulation Phase include:
- Which “mentor works” of my heroes should I immerse myself in, and emulate, in order to build my skills?
- Which daily, repeatable practices should I engage in as I continue to close the gap between my taste and my skills? Maybe this is a daily writing regimen, creating spec work, or practicing a skill in front of a mirror.
3. Divergence Phase
At some point, Emulation becomes ineffective and unbearable. Once you’ve achieved a sufficient level of mastery over the basic skills of your craft, you must choose to take those building blocks and make something uniquely yours. You may suddenly feel suffocated by the work of your heroes, or begin to resent that you see their influence in your own work. You may see an opportunity that you feel a little ill-equipped for, but feel compelled to rise to the challenge anyway. You begin taking risks as you sail out into uncharted waters. You diverge from the prescribed path, and create uniquely identifiable work as you begin to take more intuitive risks and leaps with your work.
Steve Martin, the famed comedian/writer/actor/bluegrass artist, described his own early growth in this way: “I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against the doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps.” Those intuitive leaps occur during Divergence Phase, which is when you begin to take everything you’ve learned, and bend and break the rules you learned during emulation.
Some common questions during Divergence Phase include:
- Where am I stuck emulating, and how can I take a strategic risk with my work?
- How do I need to push myself out of the comfort zone so I can add unique value?
- What new opportunities do I see, and need to uniquely pursue with my work?
4. Crisis Phase
Once you become known for something, it’s tempting to begin to protect the thing you’re known for. It’s easy to get stuck and fail to pay attention to your intuition, or to no longer seek new inspiration. Perhaps everyone around you is perfectly fine with your performance, but deep down you know that you’re no longer striving to sharpen your craft, and you’ve grown stagnant. Things that once felt risky are commonplace, and what used to vex you is now second nature. In short, you’re a little bored and stuck. The key to moving beyond this phase is to re-cycle through the phases of growth, and seek new inspiration to emulate and incorporate into your work.
For many of us, the perception of incompetence is the worst sin, at least psychologically. We would rather live with the perception of invulnerability than test our limits and discover that we actually have some.
You must be willing to embrace a season of incompetence in order to move to the next level and continue developing your voice. Composer Phillip Glass once said in an interview, “…the real issue, I’ve always said to younger composers, it’s not how do you find your voice but how to get rid of it.”
Some questions you might ask during Crisis Phase include:
- What is the next frontier of growth for me, in order to continue pursuing mastery of my craft?
- Where am I protecting my reputation, when I should be striving for growth?
- What is inspiring me right now, and how might I begin to incorporate it into my work through emulation?
We will cycle through these general phases many times over the course of our lives and careers, but for the greatest artists the process of growth never ends. In an interview with Rolling Stone, legendary drummer Neil Peart shared one of his keys to his remaining at the top of his craft. Upon being asked about his notoriously rigorous practice regimen, the famed Rush drummer said, “What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.”
Refuse to settle for good enough, and don’t let the gap cause you to lose heart. Be brave, hone your skills, and develop your unique voice.