Why It’s Better to Be Better Than Different

It has been suggested that each of us is the answer to some problem that exists in the world. And in solving this problem and reshaping the world in some personally meaningful way, we are most likely to find success and personal satisfaction.

Indeed, this is how a headhunter would coach you to present yourself in an interview. You are not there to find out if the employer likes you or not, or if they think you could do the job or not. You are there to describe the specific problem you see the company having, and offer to solve this particular problem with your unique vision and set of skills and abilities. A much more confidant stance, no?

So this raises an interesting question. What problems in the world are musicians uniquely qualified to solve?

The problem with too much of a good thing

Daniel Pink provides a compelling answer in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Pink makes the observation that never before have we lived in a society surrounded by such abundance. Yes, poverty still exists and there are a depressing number of children who are hungry and lacking the basic necessities that most take for granted, but basic survival is easier and we enjoy a higher standard of living than ever before. Not sure if you agree? That’s ok. He provides some numbers to illustrate his point. For instance:

Self-storage — a business devoted to providing people a place to house their extra stuff — has become a $17 billion annual industry in the United States, larger than the motion picture business. What’s more, the industry is growing at an even faster rate in other countries.

When we can’t store our many things, we just throw them away. As business writer Polly LaBarre notes, “The United States spends more on trash bags than ninety other countries spend on everything.  In other words, the receptacles of our waste cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world’s nations.”


As a result of this prosperity we enjoy, our expectations and standards have risen. How so? It’s no longer enough for a product to merely work. The marketplace is too crowded, and we have so many choices, that we now expect things to touch us on a deeper level. Products must not only work, but they must work in such a way that they are a pleasure to use, and be aesthetically pleasing to boot.

Think of the popularity of iPhones. There are plenty of other phones that allow you to make phone calls, check your email, and utilize GPS to find the cleanest public restrooms nearest you, but the overall experience of the iPhone, from its good looks to its slick interface, resonates with us on an emotional level.

What do we really want?

Pink quotes Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco who suggests, “The most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence.”

Transcendence? Egad.

That sounds like an awfully high bar to shoot for, but fortunately artists, musicians, and creative types are precisely the folks whose talents and training leave them uniquely qualified to quench society’s craving for transcendence. After all, if not us, then who?


So how do we create transcendent experiences?

Sorry to disappoint, but there’s no paint-by-numbers formula for this. I really wish there were, but then again, if someone could create a formula for transcendence, there wouldn’t be such a demand for it now would there? If it were really that easy to create iPads and iPhones and iDevices, everyone else would be out there doing it too.

I can give you a hint though. It has to do with the fact that many of us have been misled into utilizing an incomplete concept of what it means to be creative.

What creativity is not…or is…

The standard definition of creativity goes something like this: “The use of the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work.”

That’s fine and dandy, but this definition is a bit misleading to musicians and artists who wish to create something transcendent. Why? It implies that imagination and originality is the goal.

More recent definitions of creativity are beginning to incorporate the idea of value. For originality to be in service of creating not just novel, but useful products. Products that help to solve meaningful problems. Products that are not just different, but genuinely better. Products that quench modern society’s thirst for something that will transcend the day-to-day ordinary, and make them feel something.

After all, why do we go to the movies? To be swept away into an alternate reality, where we can vicariously experience emotions ranging from horror and fear to sadness to inspiration, joy, and I-can’t-control-myself-oh-crap-I-just-snorted-soda-up-my-nose belly laughs that we might otherwise not feel on a daily basis. If a movie fails to transport us to another reality, and fails to engender any emotions within us, we leave the theater rather bummed and disappointed, by the lack of a meaningful experience.

An example

I recently saw a video which stopped me in my tracks and made an impression (a nod to trombonist Will Timmons’ blog for calling it to my attention). Take a look below.

Write down the first few words that pop into your head. Don’t stress out about it or overthink, just write whatever naturally pops into your head.

Got your list? No? Hey! Seriously, take 10 seconds to write a few words down.

Ok, now take a look at your list. How many of these words tie to an emotion?

If you’re like most, I’m guessing that your reactions will skew more to emotion than to rationality, intellect, or logic. After all, how often do we gush or complain vehemently about things that are merely different or interesting? Hey, check out my new iPad2 — it’s soooo cool interesting! Hey, I just had the most amazingly yummy interesting cheesecake at lunch! Hey, don’t ever buy a PrinterPro EX-4984qr printer — I bought one and it was a total piece of crap and the most frustrating printer ever not interesting.

Here’s another example of something that made an impression (on me at least).

What popped into your head here? Here too, do the words describe something you felt, rather than something you thought?

Take action – aim for emotion, not novelty

Take a moment to think about the things that touch and inspire you, both in and out of the arts (and of course, some things will make an impression on you that don’t on others, just as the videos above, certain movies, paintings, books, sports, teams, pizzas, etc. might resonate with me, but not you). What is it about these things that make you want to talk about them to others, and post it on Facebook? What is it that makes you want others to share the same experience you had? Whether it’s art, consumer electronics, a sporting event, TV show, YouTube video, pet antic, food, a book, a joke, or idea, it probably made you feel something. What was it that you felt, and what key ingredients engendered this feeling within you?

The next step of course, is to consider how you might then take these elements and create something memorable of your own, something uniquely you, requiring the unique blend of talents, experiences, and perspectives that of the 6.93 billion or so people in the world, only you can bring to the table in quite that way — where transcendence, beauty, and emotion is the target, rather than novelty or originality per se. Something that you are proud of, tickled pink about, can’t wait to tell the entire world about – and not because it’s “perfect” per se, but because you think it’s just so darn cool and can’t imagine a world without it.

As a recent example, do you remember how extremely skeptical of the iPad most of the folks in the popular press were before it launched? On the other hand, Steve Jobs was super excited about it and would have been first in line to buy one himself had he needed to. What a difference a year makes, eh?

Bottom line, discover your own personal formula, and you’ll never go into an audition or performance obsessing quite so much about whether the panel will like you or not.

More action

1. Read A Whole New Mind. A must-read for creative types (and non-creative types too).

2. Read this excellent Newsweek article on the “creativity crisis”

One-sentence summary

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”  ~Charles Mingus (American jazz musician)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that if I just put in the time, the nerves would eventually go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more bad performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking the gap between practice and performance, because their practice looks fundamentally different. Specifically, their practice is not just about skill development – it’s about skill retrieval too.

This was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing more fun (and successful), but practicing a more satisfying and positive experience too.

If you’ve been wanting to become more “bulletproof” on stage and get more out of your daily practice too, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and how to start making every day a good practice day. 😁


17 Responses

  1. Being different for being different’s sake, I suppose, is a time when individuals can start thinking outside of the box; however, it should not be the goal. It’s all about the storytelling at a level where one accesses others’ hearts and spirits. You’ve captured that essence brilliantly, Dr. Kageyama. Thank you for your post!

    1. James,

      Absolutely – we start by experimenting with different, but don’t just want to stop there and call it a day unless we’ve truly hit our target. Thanks for the clarification!


  2. It has been suggested that each of us is the answer to some problem that exists in the world.
    I LOVE this. I used “unique” but this is SO MUCH BETTER! thank you!

  3. Hi

    Thanks for your article. It’s great that you are sharing the works of art that inspire you with us.

    I think that if you can simply put yourself 100% into the emotional state you want to express while you perform or write, that will come through in your work. It’s as simple as, if you want others to feel something, you have to feel it yourself but it has to be sincerely felt and honest.

    When music is endowed with this quality, whether it’s a live performance or recorded or written, a kind of magic does take place, a transcendence if you like, where that emotion is communicated.

    That’s what we can feel in the greatest works of music and art. Just like you point out.

    Thank you!


  4. This article helped me so much, thank you!!
    I’ve just found your site and I’m enjoying it greatly 🙂 good work! and thanks again 🙂

  5. I agree that our feelings drive us more than our rationale. This is intere… uh, awesome that you point out how we seek emotional “food” over rationale tidbits. Perhaps they are juicier inspiration.
    When performing, I think it’s important to make sure a personal context and some raw emotion are part of it; esp. instrumental works. This is EZ to do if we imagine this is the very first or very last time we are performing.

    1. Rick,

      Indeed, it’s interesting how influential a force emotions are, no? Most of the sales and advertising industry’s efforts, for instance, are aimed at influencing emotion, rather than appealing to logic. Maya Angelou was not talking about running shoes or iPads, but her quote is nevertheless fitting I think: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

    1. Bryan,

      I really like your post – I couldn’t agree more. It’s a fine line indeed between being genuinely unique or remarkable and aiming for originality on a superficial level. Are you familiar with marketing guru Seth Godin and his work? He’s got a lot of great ideas on this subject that I believe are completely relevant not just to those in business, but to those in the arts as well.

  6. It may be better to be different when young and without experience and better to be better when older, wiser and with much diverse experience.

  7. I truly enjoyed your article! I especially like that part about aiming for emotion, not novelty. It’s been a long time since I read anything on the Internet that really made me STOP and THINK. Pausing right now to reflect on what that “something” is that I can be proud of, tickled pink about, can’t wait to tell the entire world about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.