Srinivas Rao acts as our guide to the creative life, and helps us understand that it's the ride of a lifetime.
Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best by Srinivas Rao, Portfolio, 224 pages, $25.00, Hardcover, August 2016, ISBN 9781101981702
Srinivas Rao had a conventional map of success in mind when he set out in life, and he followed it to a T: he went to Berkeley, got an MBA from Pepperdine, and looked for a stable, cushy job in Silicon Valley. It didn’t work out. At thirty years old, he found himself unemployed and uninspired… which is when he abandoned the map and picked up a surfboard. That surfboard acted as a compass, pointing to the next wave in the ocean, and the next chapter in his life’s work:
I didn’t realize it while it was happening, but the insane amount of time I was spending in the water was an incredibly deep voyage of self-discovery, forcing me to examine my life and do everything in my power to ensure that I never again worked at an unfulfilling job.
It led him, eventually, to create the Unmistakable Creative podcast, for which he’s now interviewed over six hundred people. And those interviews have turned out to be the best education of his life. He draws on all the stories, all the life and work lessons he’s learned in them, from artists, authors, thought leaders, and creative entrepreneurs, to populate his new book, Unmistakable.
Those stories and lessons, along with his own, are what he hangs upon the underlying framework of the book. Most books are built around a core idea, years of research, or a series of studies. Rao uses surfing, which inspired him to live a creative life, as an analogy for everything he touches on in the book, because:
From standing onshore to paddling out, from riding the perfect wave to wiping out, surfing parallels any artistic, entrepreneurial, or ambitious endeavor.
He believes living a creative life is like catching a wave, and the book’s chapters—The Paddle Out, The Lineup, The Drop, The Ride, The Impact Zone, and The Stoke—are all stages in that process. And just like surfing, the creative life is anything but easy. You’ll likely experience a lot of exhilarating moments, but you’ll also eat a lot of shhh… uh, wipe out quite a bit. Rao acts as our guide, showing us how to stand up for the first time, and how to get back up when we fall off.
Looking at the “insidious nature of validation,” which is ever more present and persistent in our lives as we’re able to track the number of likes and followers we get online, Rao reminds us that:
If we follow these seeming tokens of validation, we let the voices of our validators dictate the choices we make, even though they aren’t the ones who will live with the outcomes of our decisions. … Our work becomes safe and manufactured—and a lot less unmistakable.
And yet we all need some validation and support. The best piece of advice he ever received on the matter, Rao tells us, is from his business partner Brian Koehn, who told him to “treat support as one of the environments you live in.” So, instead of searching for validation from everyone at every turn, Rao suggests we pick just a few people to be our cheerleaders and lean on them for the validation we need. He himself keeps a file of good iTunes reviews, positive tweets and emails, and when he’s having a hard time quelling his inner critic, he opens up that file instead of Google Analytics. He reminds us that when we seek fulfillment from our work rather than validation—from our parents, bosses, or society itself—we’re more likely to make something that stands out, that offers something unique and really benefits others, and that we (and they) can be really proud of.
He also defines the clear and present, sometimes unseen and yet overwhelming dangers of the internet echo chamber. When you spend so much time perusing others’ tweets and status updates, linked-to articles and success stories, it can lead to mimicry rather than a discovery of what only you have to offer:
And when we don’t take this into consideration we deny the very essence of what makes each of us unmistakable: the fact that there has never been and never will be somebody with our exact genetic makeup, our unique talent, our experiences and perspective. To leave this out is to leave out the soul of our work.
Part of finding your way to the soul of your own work is uncovering exactly what it is you do with your time everyday, which may surprise you. Rao makes the argument that you may have to schedule every minute of your day, including when you’ll waste time. If nothing else, you’ll need to track exactly how you spend your time for at least a week to really grasp how much more time you could be giving to your long-term goals and projects, and to begin to form new habits that support them:
Once you become aware of how you’re spending your time, you’ll be amazed at how much of it you actually have at your disposal to develop better habits. And habits are the foundation of mastering just about every skill. Variety might be the spice of life when it comes to experience, but it’s the kiss of death when it comes to creative habits.
It all comes back to commitment and vision and hard work. Long-term projects don’t really happen over the long-term; they happen bit by bit every single day. It is this blend of inspiration and discipline in Unmistakable, the encouragement to look toward the horizon alongside the admonishment to put your nose to the grindstone, that makes it so valuable.
But he also goes beyond the rah-rah, go-get-‘em advice of so many books like this. He forewarns us of the psychological hurdles we’ll face along the way, and takes us through some of his own. He helps us with the gritty details of the creative life, from how we manage our time and form productive creative habits, to the importance of finding coaches, mentors, co-conspirators, and friends on your journey, and the difficulties of pushing through the dark and down periods.
Part of what makes the book so effective and real is that Rao doesn’t pretend it’s easy. He exposes his own vulnerabilities and dark times to make that clear. He tells us how his business was on the verge of collapse just two years ago, and how he, “the founder of a brand known for inspiring people to live better lives,” was, at that point, “suicidal,” which leads to an open assessment of both his own, and our culture’s, stigma toward mental health, and how he has been able to overcome it.
It will take time to become unmistakable (Rao believes it took him four years of podcasting to become unmistakable.), and it is because it is as much “a process of self-discovery” as it is of putting in the work. Both require time, commitment, and longevity, but it is worth it:
When you’re truly unmistakable, the competition becomes completely irrelevant. You’re not the best option, you’re the only option.
You have to understand that whatever you set off to do might not work. But, ask yourself “what if it does work?” instead of “what if it doesn’t?” And you also have to keep in mind that, even if it doesn’t succeed critically or financially, it may still be enriching for you personally, that in the end, “Creation is its own reward.”
It all comes down to whether you want to follow orders and follow others’ rules, or if you want to follow your intuition and your dreams. If you’re relatively satisfied, comfortable, and happy with where you are right now, do not get this book. It’s going to rile you up in ways you may not be prepared for. But if you’re already gearing for a change, and ready to stand up and step out, Unmistakable is the book is for you.