How to Protect Your Creative Fire in a Sea of Mediocrity

Hugh MacLeod comic

Two of my favo­rite artist heroes are Brian Eno and Frank Zappa, two musi­cians who first hit the big time about forty years ago. I was first tur­ned onto them in my late teens.

Both became tra­di­tio­nal rock stars around the same time, Eno pla­ying with Roxy Music, Zappa with The Mothers Of Invention.

They could have done what most rock stars do: Make a cou­ple of records, get a cou­ple of hits on the radio, spend the next X decades tou­ring, living on a tour bus, pla­ying the same songs night after night to ado­ring fans in towns in Cle­ve­land, Chi­cago, Des Moi­nes, Little Rock …

And yet they chose not to, after only a cou­ple of years in the lime­light. Both were highly inte­lli­gent, visio­nary peo­ple, and no matter how attrac­tive the sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll thing can be to young peo­ple, the typi­cal rock n’ roll lifestyle was boring and infan­tile to them.

So they evol­ved.

Their music star­ted get­ting more and more classical/avante-garde/out-there. And now, four deca­des later, they’re titans, res­pec­ted by the smar­test and most inte­res­ting dudes in the busi­ness. Poor ol’ Zappa died a few years ago, but Eno is still thri­ving, and still cons­tantly evol­ving, doing inte­res­ting work.

I guess their les­son taught me that, just because you’ve found the stan­dard win­ning for­mula, doesn’t mean your thing has to stay for­mu­laic; that allo­wing your­self to re-invent, evolve and push out your edges into unk­nown terri­tory is not just OK, it’s essential.

At least, it is if you want to keep things interesting.

The other thing they taught me? It’s OK to be weird, it’s OK to be smart, and it’s OK to shun com­mer­cia­lity, even if you’re a rock star. Just because all the idiots are doing it a cer­tain way, doesn’t mean you have to, as well.

And so I try to incor­po­rate that into my own work … and you can too, even if you’re not an artist or a rock star, even if you have a nor­mal job.

Sure beats doing the eternal long hair and span­dex cir­cuit in Cle­ve­land, Chi­cago, Des Moi­nes, Little Rock …

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Reader Comments (33)

  1. says

    Hi Hugh,

    Wonderful post and I totally agree with.

    Also relevant to the importance of testing….i.e. just because something is working does not mean it cannot “work” better.



  2. says

    You’re right! It’s essential to want to learn more, no matter how big you are.
    The thing in writing is that you’re becoming boring and hateful. Time to put everything down and take a short breath of air.

  3. says

    I absolutely agree with this post! Why ride the ways of the “usual” way when you can find something where you can stand out and possibly find better ways of doing things?

    I like it that you got inspiration from musicians you like. Thanks for the good read!

  4. says

    I enjoy a good Zappa reference. To me, it doesn’t matter how many times you listen to an album of his – it always blows you away. (And more often than not, gets me in a fit of laughter.) The guy is genius.

  5. says


    Spot on post! And thanks for shining a light on two amazing artists who thrived off the beaten path. The ones who blazed their own trail, where all the great cliches collide.

    Brian Eno is an amazing musician but his production work is what really turned me onto him. His work on U2’s The Joshua Tree is and Talking Heads Remain In Light was hugely inspirational. And those are just the tip of the iceberg

    Frank Zappa is one of the most under appreciated musicians / composers in American history. So many people focused on the weirdness part, which is fine but you only have to see how many incredible musicians passed through his ranks to know just how brilliant he was. Not to mention his intelligence. Saw him speak at my college during the PMRC hearings. Amazing!

    FZ is still my hero.

  6. Johanna says

    Love this. Every once in a while Copyblogger throws in an article like this, and it keeps me here.

  7. says

    Great piece, and I must say…I visited Hugh’s site and it is GREAT! Good content, some funny, some serious and some just kick’s your butt. =)

  8. says

    Ha! Ha! We Clevelanders do not wear spandex anymore. Okay, maybe some people who are still stuck in the 1980s do, but the majority of us don’t.

    I agree that allowing yourself to evolve is a good thing. Not only does re-inventing yourself work for artists like Madonna, it can work for you too. Sometimes, getting out of your comfort zone is a good thing as is pushing the envelope.

    “It’s OK to be weird, it’s OK to be smart, and it’s OK to shun com­mer­cia­lity.” I liked that you mentioned that it’s okay to be smart. Smarties rule! :)

  9. says

    The principle of re-inventing yourself and not staying in a certain degree of success is very important. Many reach a certain point and they just stay there (e.g. Apple), killing innovation and simply re-iterating and fixing the bugs. It’s good to always research and see what’s happening, what’s the new thing, how you can move on, what do people need and like, and then go ahead and re-invent yourself, constantly evolving!

  10. says

    I have always had a different way of living life, hopefully sometime in the next 40 years someone will see what I am writing and say, “Wow, I could do that even better.”

  11. says

    This was a great reminder to always be improving. Once we have something figured out, we need to NOT stay stuck there but to keep on keeping on. Loved the analogies with musicians too. They must have been very unusual for what they “didn’t” do.

  12. Denise Dougherty says

    You seem to have found a delightfully simple way to encourage your readers to maintain their self-confidence and continue to stay their course – no matter where it veers off the beaten path. Well done.

  13. says

    Totally agree with your choices. Your taste in music is flawless. Zappa is one of my eternal heroes who never quit and always pushed, musically and conceptually. Even when dealing with short-sighted people who he had to deal with while opening up new territories of artistic expression.

    Running into this in the area of branding, I opted to write and design “Why is it so hard to create a brand anybody gives a sh*t about” (on Slideshare) in the same spirit of, “Hey! Wake up! Lighten up! Do something!” It struck a chord since it got 60,000 views in a couple of weeks.

    Thanks Hugh for this post. Shine on.

  14. says

    This is exactly what I needed, Hugh. I realized in my own writing I knew what formula would do well, but I didn’t enjoy writing those sort of articles all the time. Although I’ve found those articles easily do much better than the more free ones, I still strike a balance and only use the formula when it fits well into the theme. It is much more freeing to write when the creative flow that made me start in the first place.

  15. says

    Great post Hugh. I shoulda realized it long ago, but didn’t and got into a traditional career-type thing. I decided to give it all up and “I’m goin’ to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon”. R.I.P. Frank.

  16. says

    Thank you for this post. So many times I wonder to myself if I am doing things right. Especially since I am at that beginning of possibility. The one where greatness seems to be just out of fingertip reach. That’s the point where doubts creep in and you wonder if you should be like everyone else.

  17. says

    Great post and perspective. Honestly, I can’t imagine how boring it would be to do the same thing year after year. There’s so much to do, so much evolving, both out there (in the world) and in here (in our hearts and minds). I went to a bloggers conference this past fall. And I realized I was about 20 years past the average age of the attendees. At first, that made me feel old. But then someone said to me, “Good for you!” And i realized, yes…it was good for me to be stretching ahead. I guess I could be considered weird as a 50+ in a sea of 30+.

  18. brett says

    This totally caught my eye with my two favorite people… I love Brian Eno’s brain…. Frank’s, too… I’m going to go do something weird, now…. only, without the roxy makeup.

  19. says

    I love Brian Eno. He is a creative mastermind. First heard of him when I was trying to figure out who wrote the Windows 95 bootup theme way back when.

  20. says

    Nice, Hugh! Thanks for the reminder that it’s ok to be smart, weird, and follow our own paths. People need to hear that sometimes. I need to hear it a lot. 😉

  21. JSS says

    Guess what? It’s okay to be ordinary, too. Being “weird,” whatever you really mean by that, does not guarantee that you’re creative. Beware of confusing weirdness with creativity.

  22. says

    As a musician and songwriter I grow tired of the over-produced, formulated music with a complete lack of creativity that floods our commercial market. I believe in trying new things and experimenting. I feel the same about blogging.

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