Competition is fierce — Is it more important to be different than good?

Creative types, have you ever heard this before? “It’s more important to be different than good.” I first heard this quote when I was doing a lot of art shows in my twenties. I’ve actually been told this a couple of times and someone once explained it as millions of people are good at any one thing, so it is crucial that you stand out. 

At first, I would think this would work in my favor because I’m pretty damn weird. Maybe if I’m weird enough people will look past the fact that I’m not well-educated. 

I’ve been given a lot of opportunities as an artist and writer despite my lack of education, but of course, I’ve heard “no” way more than “yes” which is always discouraging. In those moments I always wonder if people with a degree have a leg up on me. 

What’s really interesting is when I was younger, other artists said I should consider myself an outsider artist because I was mentally ill and untrained. Some even suggested that I never seek any kind of training so I could always remain an outsider.

However, I went against their advice and took some classes and I am so glad I did. To my surprise, the training did not push me to conform in any way; they just gave me more tools to use in expressing myself and creating art. At times I complained in my drawing class – maybe I was a little frustrated or bored – but my instructor told me you have to learn the rules before you can break them. That seemed like much better advice than telling someone not to get any training.

This could apply to so many different fields and interests. So what do you think – educated/skilled vs. different/standing out? Is one more important than another? Of course, it would be best to have both, but if you had to pick one, what do you feel is more helpful? 


  1. StonedRanger says

    Um, I dont perceive you as someone who is uneducated. Quite the opposite actually. Just because you havent gone to this school or that, or gotten a degree here or there. Education and intelligence go hand in hand. You can still be smart and not be book smart. Your life has given you an education one way or another. I wish I had any kind of artistic skill, but I dont. Sometimes it takes one instructor to give you that piece of information youve not thought about before to allow you to go places you thought were out of your reach. I think if you do your best, whether you show your different side or your skilled side, it will stand out on its own. You dont have to be one or the other. Be yourself.

  2. brightmoon says

    Being creative with outsider talents and then learning trained techniques just gave me 2 ways to express my creativity . I used to believe that never the twain should meet when I was a teen but it really isn’t true.

  3. antaresrichard says

    What happens when you find yourself neither different enough or smart? That, closing on sixty nine, is the gorilla that rides my back and has all but killed my art.

  4. says

    my instructor told me you have to learn the rules before you can break them

    This is almost exactly what I was told when I broke grammatical rules in my poetry in high school. I wanted to argue that I did know the rules and I did know that I was breaking them, but the teacher was just as adamant that that’s all well and good, but I had to prove that I knew the rules TO HIM, not to myself.
    Following that was a great discussion about how my rule-breaking poetry would be perceived if my audience wasn’t sure whether I had done something on purpose. I agreed I didn’t want that. I wanted full credit for my rule breaking, so that it would have the impact I wanted.
    My HS teacher very wisely said, “Then you have to write enough work that obeys the rules that people notice how well you know them. Only after people are impressed at how well you know the rules will they be impressed at how well you break them.”
    So it wasn’t just about me breaking rules on purpose, it’s about my audience being able to trust that this was on purpose, which requires establishing a track record.
    It was a very thought provoking conversation. I’m not sure I had any conversations with my high school teachers more thought provoking than that one. (Though I did have another pretty great one with my HS physics teacher.)

  5. JM says

    Which is more important? Depends on what field you are talking about. In engineering it’s more important to know all the standards and safety regulations and such. In art, standing out is more important. Then there are the hybrid fields like architecture, where you need to know something about both.
    One further complication is it more important to know the rules and regulations or to know the principles behind those rules? In computer programming things change so fast that knowing why things are done a certain way is more important then knowing the details of the current rules. In plumbing the regulations change slowly but are slightly different in different places. Knowing the minute details and differences are a critical part of getting your work approved but knowing why rarely matters and may petty local politics anyways.

  6. flex says

    I think it’s a false dichotomy.

    Education and training gives you tools to use. How you use them, even if you reject them and create your own, is up to you.

    In certain professions, the tools are important because they may impact safety, or efficiency, or the ability for someone else to modify the work. And if you are selling your time to someone, like being hired in a business to perform a task, you generally have to use the tools they require. The fact that those tools are often taught in schools unrelated to the business doesn’t change the fact that businesses require them. I took typing courses in high school because I knew whichever business I was hired into would expect me to be able to at least do a little bit of typing.

    If you were hired as a graphic artist by a business who wanted to use your talents and skill, they would expect you to have some understanding of the tools they expect you to use. Being certified in using those tools is something an education might confer. It also may not. But the expectation from potential employers would be that the education provided those tools/skills.

    However, if you are simply making art, for your enjoyment or due to some other urge, you can use whatever tools you want. You can use tools from formal training, the tools you created yourself, or new tools for that specific project. The only thing I’d suggest is that the more tools available in your personal toolbox, the more options you have to express your art.

    The counter argument is that the formal tools teach you to think about art in terms of those tools. I suspect there may be a small, very small, grain of truth to that. As an absolutely horrific example, if a person is taught the rules of perspective, and is not taught the rules of cubism, they may not even consider using the ideas of cubism in their work. They might even disparage the ideas in cubism. It’s a horrible example because I don’t think anyone seeing modern day art hasn’t been exposed to some of the ideas in cubism. But the same applies to a lot of current art. A lot of artists are satisfied with the tools they have been taught, and work within those boundaries. They never build new tools, and you could say that the tools they have limit the work they can produce. It’s a version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for the art world. There may be some truth to it, but since artists have continually shown that they transcend the tools they were taught, if such a situation exists it can only be a minor influence on artists.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    educated/skilled vs. different/standing out? Is one more important than another? Of course, it would be best to have both, but if you had to pick one, what do you feel is more helpful?

    Important to whom? Helpful how? For people who crave attention, I suppose being different is more important. As StonedRanger says, be yourself. If you stand out, great. If not, so what?

  8. says

    My art was always music, and the idea of rules is very malleable. Are you trying to write 18th century counterpoint, late romantic period, or minimalism? Different rules for each. And then there’s serialism, which has strict rules, and which I regard as…an historical event.
    And then there’s performance, often an ensemble affair. There is little I ever found more frustrating than trying to make music with someone who resists learning any sort of common practice. I tried to work with a guy for years who had talent, but steadfastly refused to learn the “rules.” He thought he could just intuit everything, and bandmates were left to follow if they could. That was his “genius.” Thing was, his music was never anything groundbreaking conceptually, just regular old diatonic stuff sloppily executed. And his lack of any structural sense left him with no framework for understanding how a song was put together, which often resulted in forgetting parts and falling apart onstage.
    I spent four years in music school, and it definitely did not hurt my creativity; in fact, it enlarged my toolbox quite a bit while leaving plenty of room for intuition. To me, “good” means you can execute your ideas and communicate effectively, which does not rule out being “different.” Art, I think, does need rules, constraints, that’s kind of how you tie the whole thing together into something coherent, but a great artist can create his/her own rules, maybe even a new set for each work.

  9. John Morales says

    With the caveat that I don’t see myself as a “creative type”, I think it’s not either/or, but rather one, the other, both, or neither. All are possible.

    (Both would be best)

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