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Life & Business

Life & Business: Find Your Plot Twist + Become a Legend in Your Niche

by Sabrina Smelko

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It’s a saturated market out there for anyone who creates for a living, and cutting though the noise isn’t easy — a reality that Andy J. Miller (AKA Andy J. Pizza) was at first stunted by, but has since found motivating. A commercial visual artist whose work is hallmarked by a talent for making colorful, fun drawings come to life out of simple shapes, his portfolio is full of pieces that flaunt his personality for a variety of clients.

Despite being in an industry where countless people are all competing for attention and recognition, Andy managed to break through by breaking out. Last year, he put down his pencil and picked up a microphone, launching the podcast “Creative Pep Talk,” which explores striking the difficult balance between “making good money and making great art.” As a result, his brand gained traction and he has since worked with handfuls of dream clients.

Today, Andy is joining us to share some tips for how to carve out your own niche by diverting from the rule-book, and the magical things that can happen when you make connections between two seemingly unrelated things. –Sabrina

Most obvious newsflash in the world: It’s noisy out there.

You know this. You’re out there, trying to get noticed. I was, too, so I tried shouting louder — but so did everyone else.

When every square inch of your market has been explored, you have to go looking for inspiration off the beaten path.

The current marketplace is not unlike an unwieldy high school pep rally. My high school pep rallies were incredibly noisy events, but through the noise you could always hear my older brother making a racket. How? A unique strategy: while everyone else is shouting “WOOO!” and “YEAH!”, he would break out this very strange, high-pitched “EYE EYE EYE!” shrieking. It cut right through the noise.

Artist Jon Burgerman calls this the “if you can’t be good, be different” strategy. Sometimes, to find a breakthrough in your industry, you have to break out of it first.

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Image above: Andy J. Miller for Mental Floss Magazine

My Personal Subplot

I’m a commercial artist. I make pictures for a living. The current illustration and design marketplace is a cacophony of visual screams and squeals, everyone vying for the limited attention of the art buyers and art directors.

It’s an arms race. Who can draw better, who can draw edgier, who can draw funnier, who can draw weirder? Funny thing is, my most effective season has come from putting down my pencil and picking up a microphone.

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Image above: Andy J. Miller for Adweek

Last year I created the podcast “Creative Pep Talk,” and nothing to date has impacted my career in such an explosive way. “Creative Pep Talk” is about exploring the tightrope walk that is making good money and making great art. Each episode proposes a fresh idea on how to strike this elusive balance.

Behind the scenes of my art career, completely unintentionally, I was developing my pep-talk skills. While most people were bingeing on Netflix, I was going hog-wild on podcasts. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, but I have listened to every single episode of “Radiolab.”

Most of what I listened to was strategic advice podcasts. For years I was consuming this content like mad and relaying what I was learning to friends and family. The crazy part is that it was working for me, and for them.

Motivational, strategic pep talks are a dime a dozen in pretty much every podcast category: marketing, business and even spirituality, but in my niche, they were nearly nonexistent.

It seems so obvious in hindsight (a good plot twist always does!). Of course artists need pep talks! It’s very scary to make something, to put yourself out there. It’s even scarier to do so and ask for money in return!

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Image above: Andy J. Miller, Creative Pep Talk Podcast

The Power of the Twist

Has your market become a Goliath of noise, too? Remember this: David didn’t defeat Goliath by being a better soldier than everyone else, he did it by coming as a shepherd. He didn’t grab a bigger sword and stronger armor, he used what he had learned defending his flock.

They made David king. Shepherd turned king; what a story! What a twist! David’s life as a soldier and king was his true plotline, but his subplot as a shepherd is what gave him the edge against his foe.

In his brilliant TED talk, Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton says, “Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”

I’m a sucker for a plot twist. The closer the story toes the line between inevitable and surprising, the better the twist. It’s hard to pull off, but a good twist can transform a movie into a legend.

So how do you become a legend in your market?

Maybe there’s a lesson hidden in this idea of a plot twist: at the end, the main plotline connects with the subplot in an unexpected way that seems obvious after the fact.

For many, this hits what creativity is at its core, the ability to make unexpected but obvious connections between two seemingly unrelated things.

The late, great creative giant Steve Jobs fell into this school of thought, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

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Image above: Andy J. Miller, Personal Work 2015.

How to Find Your Subplot

Steve Jobs also said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

This humble commercial artist would like to push this idea further, if you’d allow me the audacity. I never like to leave things to chance. I’ve seen too many artists trust things will connect, only to find themselves in some back alley in Venezuela pushing cheap caricatures on unenthusiastic tourists. “Please, I’ll make you like Sandy and Danny from Grease! No? How about Bella and Jacob!? Oh you’re Edward fan… alright!”

So let’s get practical.

Connecting the dots in the present feels less like a kid doing a dot-to-dot and more like being an ant with a paintbrush strapped to its butt. Scouring the earth, day after day, randomly stumbling on the next giant plot point, the next dot in the sequence.

But I’ve found, that just as you often make out the picture way before you finish a dot-to-dot, you can often see the bigger themes of your life by taking a step back and reflecting on where you’ve been.

You’re probably familiar with your main plotline, the main work that you do, and what led you there. But what subplot has been brewing under the surface?

Take a look in your day-to-day, take look into your past. What seemingly unrelated events, hobbies, passions, callings and interests are just waiting to be tapped as your competitive edge?

We all have unique experiences. My bet is that life has been secretly training you for something underneath the story, and all you need to do is take notice and make the connection.

Easy, right? Yeah I know, it actually seems impossible. Most innovations do, before they seem obvious!

Connecting Your Subplot to Your Main Plotline

As you’re reading this, you probably already know some giant, unrelated sub-themes in your story that have nothing to do with your main plotline.

I don’t think the power is in uncovering your subplot, no, it’s in believing the crazy idea that these two seemingly unrelated things could be ONE.

Most people aren’t willing to innovate to be creative, because at first it’s ugly and uncomfortable. Sometimes it even seems impossible. This is why it looks like magic.

I spent the longest time certain that these strategic marketing and business talks could never apply to my industry. I was almost ashamed to listen to them because I knew how cheesy they were. I was convinced they could never be palatable to the tastes of my peers.

But when I started seeing these ideas from other industries directly impact my creative career, my passion to help others rose to an uncontainable level. So I forced the connection.

At first, every truly new creation feels like a mashup, a frankenstein. It’s ugly and awkward but what matters is that it has spark of life, that spark of new. This spark can cut through market commotion like a hot knife through butter.

Like a shepherd with a slingshot.

Like a visual artist with a microphone.

Like a twist in the plot.

I may not be a legend, but my twist has definitely made things much more interesting and I’m connecting the dots.

P.S. One contemporary example that I think illustrates the power of this principle: The band OK Go used their unique side story and experience to cut through the music scene by making crazy music videos. Hear the lead singer go into detail about that story here.

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Comments

    • Hey Emme! I think you’re probably asking Andy for his recommendations, but I’m bursting to share. :) I am loving the podcast Make It Happen. It’s about forming your own creative life, establishing a routine, evolving your business and more. I don’t have any affiliation to it; I’m just a fellow creative looker for strategic tips!

      http://www.kathryndlewis.com

  • Emme–
    After the Jump is a wonderful podcast created by Grace Bonney (the lady behind Design Sponge). I highly recommend!

    Katie–
    I love your suggestion as well– Jen Carrington is a genius.

  • Hi Andy,

    Your post really resonated with me, on several levels. I’ve spent the last four years or so rediscovering my loves–aspects of my life that were meaningful to me but, for some reason, were lost or put aside. Those loves have formed the “dots” that I’ve been tracing to create a more whole and authentic picture of myself in the market place. It’s been a long journey and one that is still developing.

    One part of this process that you allude to is the kind of courage it takes to step outside the norm in your industry. Because the dots may lead outside the box everyone else is living in, going to that territory can be very scary. I can’t tell you how long it took me to work up the courage to start using words like sexy and soul-full in connection with productivity!

    For readers who are ready, give yourself permission to feel awkward and know that the discomfort of letting people in on your sub-plot is totally normal. By doing so, you bring your unique gifts into visibility!

    With love and gratitude,
    Tara

  • Wonderful thoughts, Andy.
    I’ve given up on trying to be an illustrator, and settled into my now decade-long graphic design career, where I thought I wouldn’t be able to weave in my side plot which is “emotional healing, and revealing hidden, dark parts of consciousness”. I do it through my personal art, but using it as a marketable difference has so far been a challenge.

    However, once a client of mine has praised that very quality in my work and said she hired me because that’s what she wanted in her brand – a dash of dark quirkiness, something other designers wouldn’t be able to do.
    So my next challenge is to find more clients who want that thing too :)

  • I’m a scientist and so much of what artists, designers, illustrators, etc, talk about in terms of creative process applies *exactly* to my work as well. I appreciate that making money from that creative product is (usually) a wildly different process in the “creative” world compared to science, but much of the time I’m left thinking that it’s more like the difference between, say, visual art and interior design or creative writing, than the common perception of STEM as a separate category.

    In fact, I had a conversation with my project collaborator yesterday where I said I felt both stunned and sheepish that no one has “seen” our results before, even though one of the main points we’re making in this paper is based on data people started writing about more than 30 years ago — and we’re using the exact same data! We just added a splash of color in one specific spot, and wow, the whole world looks different.

  • You say “Last year I created the podcast “Creative Pep Talk,” and nothing to date has impacted my career in such an explosive way. ” My question I am left with Andy is did it explode with your art or your podcast? I am at a crossroads with my business. I have an ethical fashion & decor brand that works with original ethnic textiles. I love it but keep finding myself advising people on marketing, social media and ecommerce for free. This begs the question “should I follow that direction?” Did your podcast help your art sales?

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