Whether it’s writing, painting, or opening a kebab stand, conventional wisdom says that you must “find your own voice.” But is that true? Maybe instead of driving yourself mad chasing after that invisible ghost known as “originality,” you should just lock yourself away for awhile and get busy copying the person you admire most.
That’s what Ray LaMontagne did. Before he was a world famous musician, he was just another schlub working a dead-end job in a Maine shoe factory, with no prospects other than surviving another shift. Until one morning he awoke to his clock radio playing Stephen Stills’ “Treetop Flyer.” For reasons known only to the gods, the clock radio and Ray, instead of reporting for work that day, he decided to become a singer-songwriter himself. But how the hell would he do this, with no training up to this point?
With what little money he had, he bought a bunch of old records by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Big O, Otis Redding, and began slavishly imitating them. He basically holed up in his apartment for a couple of years and let Redding’s voice be his guide. By being laser focused on transmitting The King of Soul through his own larynx, he developed his own skill set that eventually lead him to multi-platinum recording success.
Ray found his own voice by borrowing someone else’s. So if you want to make The New York Times bestseller list, quit your job, tell your friends you’ll be unreachable for awhile, and immerse yourself in the works of your favorite writer until you can type them all by memory. You want to be a professional squash champion, start by watching all the video of Mohamed Elshorbagy you can find while glueing a racquet to your hand. Whatever your pursuit, it won’t be long before your mind alters its circuitry based on the information you’re feeding into it. And yet, you will still be processing it through your own passageways, so what comes out on the other side will be considered “your voice” — unless your goal is to be an Elvis impersonator.
How long with it take for you to hit the big time? If you’re a fast learner, give it about five years. And then when you become a raging success,* be like Ray and admit your thieving ways without shame. There are no original voices. And isn’t that a relief!
*Notice we didn’t say “if.” This is SuperOptimism, after all.