In a previous article, we spoke about rock supergroup Linkin Park, and the notion of ‘disproportionate excellence where we don’t typically expect to find it.’ Let’s now continue that idea, as we explore the notion of formulaic approaches to an industry. 

A formula is a useful thing. It sets basic standards of competence, and, if followed faithfully, it may provide us with a reasonable and predictable level of results. For experts, though, the formula idea has a different use. Primarily, it is useful insofar as it shows us how to go further. It is the foil against which we can measure 'average' contribution in our field, and against which we can intentionally develop additional novelty.

If we can transcend the accepted formula, we are by definition beyond average. We have started creating art. 

I find that among children’s authors, the most famous, breakaway success stories play on this idea. The moderately successful ones tend to ‘do the formula’ that everyone expects. But the JK Rowlings, the Roald Dahls and the Orson Scott Cards of this world are the individuals who are not condescending to their markets, but rather, take their particular genre or idea to a whole new level, with the greatest care and artistry imaginable. 

Roald Dahl is an undisputed icon of children’s literature. And yet his novels are comparatively terrifying. One is forced to wonder whether an author writing kids’ books today might ever get such storylines past an editorial board. Based on his levels of success, though, it was clearly a good thing that he did. Dahl’s books are full of witches pulling off their faces, bone-crunching giants, and disturbingly violent bullies in positions of authority. And they work because they are so original, so great a departure from the formula. Far from writing to expectations, Dahl through all expectations out the window. 

I continue to think of Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, as one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read (regardless of the fact that it’s a kid’s book and a fairly small one at that). Card’s writing is so complex, so deep and so brilliant, in spite of being aimed at a younger audience, that I devoured his entire ‘Enderverse’ series as though I were starving, and his books were the only possible nourishment. They are excellent. 

And of interest to us here, they are disproportionately clever relative to the surrounding genre. This is not a man who has copped out and turned to the commercially-viable act of writing for children, simplifying ideas and speaking as if to a child. Rather, this is a genius and an artist, who believes in his work, and pours the utmost excellence of which he is capable onto each page. He also just happens to be in the youth market. 

There is a big difference between those two identities. The former essentially has a job and is using a formula. The latter feels a personal calling and is creating something deeply meaningful. These icons are clearly driven by a constant challenge to outdo themselves, and to outstretch the limits of the form. 

As Card himself observed: 

“The novelty and freshness you'll bring to the field won't come from the new ideas you think up. Truly new ideas are rare, and usually turn out to be variations on old themes anyway. No, your freshness will come from the way you think, from the person you are; it will inevitably show up in your writing, provided you don't mask it with heavy-handed formulas or clichés.” 
― Orson Scott Card,
 How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy

And his take on freshness and spontaneity (as found in experimentation and mistakes):

“I believe, when it comes to storytelling ... that mistakes are often the beginning of the best ideas. After all, a mistake wasn't planned. It can't be a cliché. All you have to do is think of a reason why the mistake isn't a mistake at all, and you might have something fresh and wonderful, something to stimulate a story you never thought of quite that way before.” 

This sort of thinking echoes a great deal of the way Linkin Park expressed their own creative process, talking about experimentation, a desire to stay fresh, and the drive not to do the predictable. 

When we first enter an industry, it is immensely tempting to try to look and sound like everyone else. And doing so is certainly one way to learn the basics. But beyond the level of essential competence, you must start breaking away from the norms. You must begin to explore ways in which you can be unpredictable, and uniquely you. 

It all begins when you stop copying others, and start making the argument from your own love of the thing… 



Douglas Kruger is a professional speaker and Penguin business author. He has won the Toastmasters national championships for public speaking five separate times, and was inducted into the Speakers Hall of Fame by the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa. He writes and speaks on disruptive innovation and expert-positioning. See him in action, or sign up for his free newsletter, 'From Amateur to Expert', at  


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