Let’s just get straight to it: there’s no room for safe any more.
Safe is guaranteed boring. Safe is guaranteed mediocrity. Safe is a guaranteed ticket to nowhere exciting. Economy, of course.
The appeal with safe is that it’s easy. It’s easier not to take risks. It’s easier just to repeat the same old way of doing things ad infinitum.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with something being old. It’s that we get bored of old. What’s hot right now ends up looking like those dodgy 70s haircuts that make you wonder what the hell your parents were thinking.
The trouble with safe in 2016 is that safe is everywhere. It’s never been easier to saturate the daily fabric of life with safe: pictures of your cat, your Facebook status about your broken microwave, some comment about your grumpy boss. We’re one wafer thin mint away from exploding from overconsumption of safe. We’ve learnt to block most of it out because it’s the only way any of us can go about our lives.
Risky is harder because where there’s risk, there’s fear of failure. But taking that fear of failure too seriously comes at a price.
Let’s imagine for a moment that every song ever made could be given a single score from 1 to 10. 1 is the worst thing ever written. 10 is the best.
The trouble is that when most people write, they aim (intentionally or not) for the 4 to 6 range. They’re writing songs you might describe as nice, average or OK.
But here’s the crux: if you want to write a 7, you have to be prepared for it to come out a 3. If you want to write an 8, you have to be prepared for it to come out a 2. If you’re brave and stupid enough to want to shoot for a 10, you have to be prepared for the distinct possibility that who the eff knows what you’re going to get.
So lots of people rarely stray out of the 4 to 6 range. They’re afraid of making something that’s a 3 or a 2 or a 1.
That’s one of the reasons we’re oversaturated with safe. Most people are afraid to fail. Which essentially means they’re also afraid to succeed.
Three of the best-selling albums at the end of 2015 were Adele’s 25, Justin Bieber’s Purpose and the Cast Album to the Broadway musical Hamilton. Each one of them stands out – each one of them sits in that 8–10 range – precisely because they do something remarkable. They’re not safe.
Adele’s album begins with ‘Hello’, about one of the most open, vulnerable and daring things a person can say: ‘Oh hi there, ex lover. I know you’ve totally moved on and probably don’t care, but I wanted to ask if you want to meet to go over some things.’ How many of us would have the guts to do that, never mind do it in front of millions of people? Probably not many. We’re a bunch of pussies.
Purpose is new territory for Justin Bieber. Different sound. More meaningful material. A more mature vibe. The kind of move forward that might be a breakthrough, or might put existing fans off. The kind of move that comes with risk. But forward he went all the same.
Hamilton has created the biggest buzz around a theatre show since Rent. And while it’s easy to sit here and bask in its success, conclude that success was inevitable and dub its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda a genius, let’s resist the urge for a second. Imagine seven years ago someone told you about this new idea they’d had: ‘Oh yeah, it’s basically a show about this founding father no one really talks about. And it’s a rap musical set in the eighteenth century. They’re trying to decide what to do with the country so they do rap battles and stuff.’ I bet your reaction to the idea isn’t the same as your reaction to how the idea turned out.
It doesn’t take much to imagine how badly any one of these albums could have turned out. A song that portrayed Adele as a whiny, over-sensitive bitch isn’t a world away. An album that made Justin Beiber sound like a kid desperate to be invited to sit at the adult’s table probably wouldn’t be that different. A show about men in corsets making awkward and laughable rap references was not an impossibility. The line between brilliance and essence de WTF? is a fine one.
The point is that going after something individual, unique and with enormous potential for failure is the only way to create something truly distinctive. Persevering with something risky – finding a way to make your risky idea work – is the only way to create something truly remarkable.
Sometimes the worse an idea sounds in theory the more potential it has in practice to be life changing. And you won’t find out until you try it for real.
This is more important than ever in a world where safe just doesn’t cut it any more. With risky there’s every chance you’ll create something remarkable if you stick at it long enough. With safe you can guarantee you won’t. And that’s a risk you can’t afford to take.