For the first ten years of my career, I followed a script and played by the rules. I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. I collected bullet points on my résumé as I aimlessly wandered from one job to another until I had been fired from nearly every one. I applied to graduate school to collect yet another
societally approved badge of honor, my MBA, because I thought maybe this choice would lead to something great.
By the time I finished graduate school, the era in which competence, convention, and conformity guaranteed the path to a safe and secure existence was over. The jobs once reserved for freshly minted MBA graduates were gone and never coming back.
The consequences of being simply competent have turned the careers of many people into cautionary tales. When we're merely competent, the value of our work is diminished until it can eventually be outsourced to the lowest bidder, making us a dispensable commodity.
The future belongs to individuals and organizations who are unmistakable.
I define the unmistakable as art that doesn't require a signature. It's so infused with your heart and mind that no one else could have created it. It's immediately recognizable as something you made—nobody could have done it but you.
Now maybe you don't identify yourself as an artist, but I define art as any creation: a project, interaction, blog post, report, paper, book, song, performance, company, and so on. When we view our work and the world through the eyes of an artist, we can't help but see things differently.
An unmistakable person, whether a poet or a painter, a podcaster or a YouTube star, does what he or she does in a completely distinctive way. You couldn't write a job description for what the unmistakable person does. You might be able to describe the work, but the core value is impossible to replicate or mimic. No course, blog post, or how-to book can teach you how to become this person. The art of being unmistakable is difficult to achieve, yet it is one of the most effective traits of an artist, a business, or an individual.
So why does it matter if nobody could have created it but you?
When you're the only person who could have created a work of art, the competition and standard metrics by which things are measured become irrelevant because nothing can replace you. The factors that distinguish you are so personal that nobody can replicate them.
When Malala Yousafzai speaks, her message is unmistakable.
When Toni Morrison writes, her voice is unmistakable.
When Slash plays the guitar solo to the Guns N' Roses song "Sweet Child O' Mine," his timing and technique are unmistakable.
When Danny Meyer starts a restaurant, the service is unmistakable.
When Banksy paints, his style is unmistakable.
When Lindsey Stirling plays the violin, her virtuosity is unmistakable.
Unmistakable people make a dent in the hearts and minds of humanity. They create a ripple beyond any measure.
As I neared the end of my MBA at Pepperdine in 2009, I was faced with two choices. I could either continue on the tried and true path, which I knew would lead me only to a dead end, or I could gamble on an uncertain quest that could lead me to disaster—or discovery. I had taken the first path all through my twenties to end up at this unhappy destination of thirty.
As I started to examine the choices I had made over the past decade, I realized I had never been proactive. I'd always chosen from the options that were put in front of me. I'd settled over and over again. I settled for the first job offer I got. I settled for doing work that didn't mean much to me. I settled for the best I thought
my life could be as opposed to thinking about and going after what I really wanted.
If I wanted to end up in a drastically different place by the age of forty, I'd have to make drastically different choices in my thirties even if they might be questioned, frowned upon, and misunderstood.
When I started my career, I'd blindly signed the contract of society's life plan as if there were no other option, but now I was starting to realize that it was and always had been completely negotiable.