How Do I Stand Out?
Let’s talk “standing out.” I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately along the lines of “how can I make my work stand out in this saturated market, when there are so many other people doing the exact same thing as me?”
It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about- after all, polymer clay jewelry is a very niche trend that has only exploded in popularity within the last year or two, and it’s been interesting to see so many new businesses pop up, from the perspective of a person who began this journey when contemporary polymer clay design was still relatively novel in the United States (ahhh, 2015: a time back before arch shaped earrings were trendy, how quaint).
I’m going to eschew the standard answers of “you were BORN to stand out, just be yourself!” And “You’re the only you, so nobody else can do it like you do!” I don’t think this advice is productive or particularly helpful. At best, these bumper sticker answers are feel-good but totally unsubstantial fluff, and at worst, they’re lazy and dangerous, invalidating the very real dilemma of trying to succeed in an oversaturated market while simultaneously neutralizing any desire to work towards developing a better self. The truth is, many other people CAN do it like you do, and a quick look around Etsy is proof of that: sometimes an average arch shaped earring is just an arch shaped earring, no matter who makes it.
And how’s this for an unpopular opinion: we weren’t all born to stand out, actually, the vast majority of us are very, very average at most things. But don’t take my word for it- here’s some wisdom from Mark Manson that is the polar opposite of fluffy: “It’s an accepted part of our culture today to believe that we are all destined to do something truly extraordinary. Celebrities say it. Business tycoons say it. Politicians say it. Even Oprah says it. Each and every one of us can be extraordinary. We all deserve greatness. The fact that this statement is inherently contradictory — after all, if everyone was extraordinary, then by definition, no one would be extraordinary — is missed by most people, and instead we eat the message up and ask for more.”
For more of this, I urge you to read the full article. The conclusion Mark reaches is along the lines of “once we free ourselves from the illusion that we’re all destined for some kind of greatness, and accept that being naturally mediocre at most things is not only statistically likely but truly okay, we are free to work hard to improve ourselves without the pressure to be better than everyone else.”
When I try to coalesce my thoughts about all of this into a simple answer to the “how to stand out” problem, it always comes back to two things: authenticity and quality.
I’ve talked a lot about how I believe many people place so much importance on originality that they forget to be authentic to themselves, and how originality and authenticity are not one in the same- but they’re also not mutually exclusive. The goal of “being original” seems to be getting thrown under the bus quite a bit lately, or simply discarded like it’s some archaic concept in today’s day and age- an impossibly hopeless dream for the year 2019, when everyone’s an artist or entrepreneur or #girlboss, and we’re consuming imagery from morning to night as if there’s a feeding tube shoved down our throats that’s hooked up to Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and whatever else happens to get thrown in there.
It’s as if originality is some very elusive, mythical animal that we’re all trying to catch. We may have seen others who have it, so we know it’s out there in the wild, but there are plenty of people claiming that it doesn’t exist just because they haven’t managed to capture it themselves- and it’s simply easier to stop believing, to deny its very existence, to shrug and hide behind “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and just do what someone else is doing instead.
The dull, pervasive “sameness” that has been spreading through the community is fueled by this trendy non-belief in originality. “Everything’s been done before” is locking us up in a prison of similarity disguised as liberation. Yes, it’s difficult to find your own version of originality: it’s about striking a balance and discovering that happy place between the extremes of paralyzing fear of producing anything even remotely similar to anyone else, and blindly imitating the work of others. It takes hard work and courage to find this place- but does that mean that, as a creator, you’re ever allowed to stop trying and take the lazy way out? If we give up and stop hunting for originality, what’s the point?
As for quality: even the most amazing, truly original design will fall on deaf ears if it’s poorly executed. Quality is non-negotiable, and I sincerely believe that high quality will always win out over anything else in the long run. People will pay for quality, people will be excited and come back to you for quality, and people will spread the word to others for quality. In a world where so many people are putting not-very-much work into so many different things and “side-hustles” are the new norm, be the one who takes the time and energy needed to really be an expert craftsperson: your customers will notice, and you will be proud of the integrity of your work. In practical terms, this means practicing technique, actually researching your materials, and maybe even waiting to sell your work until you’re confident enough in its quality to price it fairly (and avoid undercutting/pissing off all of your fellow makers!). If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, right?
This doesn’t mean you have to make yourself crazy trying to remove every single minuscule speck of dust from your white clay, for instance- there is a certain amount of inconsistency to be expected (and even valued) with handmade items- but so often I see quality problems persisting that could easily be fixed with even the SMALLEST amount of effort, practice, and research. With so much information so instantly available to us whenever we want it, what excuse is there for not being educated about what you’re doing? Another question I get asked frequently is “how do you get your pieces to look so perfect without any fingerprints or bubbles,” As if I have some magic, secret solution to offer. The answer? Practice, experience, and research. It’s not magic, it’s hard work- work which I have found to be well worth the effort, because like I said, high quality stands out.
In the end, I think the combination of authentic, original work and high quality execution is at the heart of every acclaimed maker’s success. Standing out doesn’t just happen- you’ve gotta do the work to see the rewards. And if you’re gonna make that pair of simple arch earrings, better make sure that they’re flawless, my friends.