I had an important lesson to share with you this week, but then I started thinking about 90s cartoons and now everything’s all fucked up.
Let me…let me just work through this for a minute and hopefully it’ll come back to me.
When I was a kid, all my favorite tv shows revolved around teams of color-coordinated teenagers saving the world from robots with brain-squids for tummies and badly animated claymation pigs and stuff. Ninja Turtles, The Real Ghostbusters, Power Rangers, things like that. Those shows were to me what Sex and the City was to adult women in the 90s. I’d sit on the playground with my friends, drinking my Capri Sun out of a cosmo glass; “Oh, Marshal’s definitely a Tommy. He always wears green, he’s a born leader, and he’s the only one of us who wields the fabled dagger capable of summoning the mighty Dragonzord from the depths of the sea.”
Anyway, one of my favorite shows was Captain Planet and the Planeteers. It was about a bunch of kids with elementally-powered rings, and when they combined them, they summoned a muscly blue dude who’s shirt was somehow both a V-neck and a crop top.
There were five Planeteers, and most of them ruled. Linka was a Russian girl with the power to blast her foes with hot, Soviet wind. Gi controlled water, and wore a gold medal around her neck all the time, which was probably the award for “Most Off-Screen Drownings Committed by a Single Person.” Kwame could make literal earthquakes, but who gives a crap because he was voiced by LeVar Burton, and being able to move tectonic plates is weak sauce compared to having Geordi La Forge for a voice box. Wheeler could start stuff on fire, and his name was “Wheeler,” so you know he had a promising future as a lead in a high school sex-ed video later in life.
And then, there was Ma-Ti.
See, the thing about Ma-Ti is that Ma-Ti sucks shit. His power was “Heart,” which is A) Not an element, B) The name of a 70s rock band that’s a trillion times cooler than what his ring actually does, and C) The worst. He had the ability to talk to animals, which, for some reason, he almost exclusively used on rodents. How many squirrels did it take to clean up the BP oil spill again? Oh, that’s right, none, because squirrels don’t give a flying-squirrel fuck about the environment.
He could also use his ring to “instill empathy” in people, which is like…what. What is that. God, that sucks. That’s not a thing. Kwame just swallowed the villain’s base into the gaping, ragged maw of the earth, but it’s totally cool because this other bad guy over here is, like, totally feeling my vibe, you know?
In addition, he could kind of do mind control, and by “kind of,” I mean, not at all, ever. He could beg a rhinoceros for a ride into battle and it would still have the power to kick him in the head and peace-the-eff out. That rhinoceros had the courage to do what his friends could not.
Wait, oh my god you guys! I just remembered what the point of all this was! I’m Ma-Ti! And you can be too!
As creative people, it’s important to know how your work “fits in.” What your niche is. While a few people achieve success by being a jack-of-all-trades in their field, many, many more do it by figuring out what their “thing” is and doing the absolute hell out of it.
But! It’s not just enough to find a niche for your creativity. You have to like the one you find, and that’s a whole other thing altogether. You might be a game dev who’s amazing at making shmups, but if you hate shmups, then none of it matters, does it?
I’ll give you an example; it’s taken me years to figure it out, but my niche is that I’m a very melodic composer. That’s just how I write; some composers base their music on ambience or rhythm, but I like to figure out a catchy tune first and hang everything else on that. That’s my thing. It’s definitely not the only thing I can do, but it’s probably what I’m best at, musically.
Thing is, I used to not like that about myself. Maybe it was all the atonal stuff I studied in grad school, but I used to think it was simple or naive that all I really wanted out of music was to make melodies people got stuck in their heads. Shouldn’t I want more? Shouldn’t I want to push the boundaries of what music is?
It was only when I realized that a massive percentage of everyone’s favorite game music is just catchy melodies that things clicked for me. Super Mario, Pokemon, Zelda, they all have tunes that stick with us, that we want to hum and sing and make our own renditions of.
Realizing that was what caused me to accept my niche as a melodic composer, and when I did, my writing changed completely. I was more productive, more confident in what I was doing, and best of all, the stuff I was making was better received by both me and my audience.
That’s the thing about Ma-Ti. Some people (cough) might think his ability to talk to animals could be equally achieved by spending four minutes googling birdcalls, but he knows what his role on the team is and he goes for it. He’s the emotional core of the Planeteers, and when one of your teammates is an angry ginger who can start fires with his mind, that’s a good thing to have. While the rest of the squad are busy trying to fix pollution by leveling buildings and flooding people’s basements, he’s trying to change the hearts and minds of the bad guys so they won’t want to dump toxic waste in that fish hatchery in the first place. They literally can’t summon Captain Planet without him.
Ma-Ti knows his niche. He knows what he’s good at, he’s proud of it, and he (somehow) kicks ass because of it.
Does finding your creative niche mean you’re only limited to doing that one thing? That you can only write noir thrillers, or only bake mini cupcakes, or only make side scrolling shooters? Of course not. But there’s power in knowing what you’re best at, and accepting why it’s awesome carries a lot of weight. It can turn you from someone who’s good at a specific thing into the guy or girl people come to because of that thing. Even if that thing is a stupid heart ring that wouldn’t even help you get a job managing the robotic mice at Circus Pizza.
So, how about you? What’s your niche? In your creative realm, what are you best at? What’s your favorite 90s cartoon? Does anyone remember Swat Cats? How dope was that show? Let me hear from you!