The next time you worry that everything you want to do creatively has already been done by someone else, or feel anxious about the amount of time it will take for you to become as good at your creative work as you’d like to be, tell yourself that you’re on a bus. In Helsinki, Finland. And the most important thing you can do for your career is not get off the bus too soon.
There are two dozen platforms [at the Helsinki Bus Station], Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops.
These bus lines are roughly analogous to creative careers, in the sense that anyone beginning to pursue a creative path will often find themselves arriving at “stations” that other creative artists have reached before them. Early creative work is often derivative, whether or not we intend it to be, and some people may get frustrated by the idea that everything they want to do creatively has already been done by someone else.
Not only is the bus stopping at well-frequented stations, but it’s also still pretty full. With all that competition for seats and nowhere to go but places other artists have already been, why stay on the bus?
Because if you ride the creative bus long enough—as the metaphor goes—it takes you somewhere unique.
A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.
There are a couple of other ways we could look at this metaphor, of course—some people might argue that you can only stay on the creative bus if you have enough money for the bus fare, for example. Or if you don’t have other responsibilities that require you to be home by a certain time each day.
So let me add a similar piece of creative advice, which asks us to imagine ourselves driving a race car and setting our own pace. It’s from author Maggie Stiefvater’s blog post Eyes Up, Writers:
A writing career is like that. Use your peripheral vision to look at the things that are coming at you day to day, but never forget that every decision should contribute that farthest-away-point you want to get to. Never forget that every tiny success and failure is just a steer or counter steer toward the real point of the thing.
And here’s the other thing they tell you about keeping your eyes up: don’t fixate on the person in front of you. If there’s another driver just in front of you, the tendency is to stare at their bumper and then take the turn just like they do. But guess what? Then the absolute best scenario is that you will take the turn just like they do. So if they’re taking it wrong, you’ll take it wrong too. If there’s a better way, a faster way, a cooler way, a way that involves painting a giant knife on the side of your car and listening to Finnish rap very loudly, you’ll never know.
If two pieces of creative advice reference both roads and Finland, they have to be on the right track—or, shall we say, on the right bus line.
I’ll end with a third piece of advice, this time from my own experience. Minkkinen argues that one of the worst things a creative artist can do is get off their current bus, go back to the Helsinki Bus Station, and get on another bus out of town—because that means spending even more time travelling past all of those stops that other artists have visited before you. I disagree. I’ve ridden a few different bus lines in my day—the “MFA in Theatre” bus line, the “singer-songwriter in Los Angeles” bus line—and knowing when it was time to get off those buses was a crucial part of both my creative development and my career development.
Plus, every time you get on a new bus or start driving down a new highway, you get to take what you’ve learned with you. Think of it like starting a New Game Plus, if you want to throw yet another metaphor into it. You’re starting the game over, but you get to keep all of your experience—which means that not only can you breeze through the entry levels of the game, but you also get access to previously locked content. In my case, keeping a blog about how much money I was earning as a singer-songwriter got me my first personal finance writing gigs.
So, to sum everything up: if your creative career feels too much like everyone else’s, stay on the bus until it starts hitting stops you haven’t seen before. Get off the bus if it isn’t going to take you where you want to go—and if the bus route doesn’t work with your life, find a car and start driving at a speed that works for you.
Metaphorically, of course. But you can’t live a creative life without learning how to employ a few good metaphors.