A few years ago, I discovered a book which has since become a favorite. It’s called Category of One by Joe Calloway. To paraphrase, the theme is: don’t be the best one in your lane. Be the only one in your lane.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with video games. Every day after school, I rushed through my homework so I could dive back into Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. and Metroid. In between playing, I sat with a pencil and paper, imagining new heroes and villains, and placing them in new worlds that fit into each game’s ecosystem.
When I wasn’t drawing game characters, I was drawing album cover art. I borrowed albums from friends, and dubbed them onto new, blank cassettes. Each time I copied an album by the likes of Public Enemy, N.W.A, or Beastie Boys, I drew my own cover art on the packaging.
I didn’t know it then, but the DIY nature of the music to which I was listening empowered me. Any kid with a microphone and a sampler could make it. And I began growing increasingly restless about making my own things.
My mom had enrolled me in piano classes when I was about 4 years old. She said piano would look good on my college resume. But I disliked classical music. Listening to my hip-hop albums on my Walkman, I urged my instructor to teach me the songs that my favorite rap groups were sampling—Miles Davis, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin. While it would have been in her best interest to humor me, she thought deeply about it, and recommended I stop taking lessons. I was shocked.
She told me that hip-hop was really driven by a different range of instruments she wasn’t familiar with – samplers, keyboards, and turntables. But even more, it’s driven by hands-on experience and curiosity that piano lessons alone weren’t going to give me. So I quit piano, after about 10 years of classical training.
I bought my first keyboard and sampler, and began making songs. My appetite for music exploded. I discovered Led Zeppelin, Nine Inch Nails, Bjork, Metallica, The Jacksons, and Depeche Mode. I made hundreds of tracks, mashing up all the disparate flavors I was listening to, adding new melodies, and eventually rapping over the tracks. I taught myself guitar and bass, and started making songs with friends.
Meanwhile, I kept drawing album covers, and taking art classes. Eventually, I asked my art teacher, Mrs. Johnson, “Where’s the right place for a kid like me?” She told me about ArtCenter. Back in 1994, ArtCenter only admitted around 12 high school graduates a year. The vast majority of freshmen were in their mid-to-late 20s, with a professional resume and a bachelor’s degree.
Before I was admitted, I already knew ArtCenter was not for the faint of heart. I already knew I was going to be constantly surrounded by older people, from different disciplines, with different life experiences, and I wasn’t going to be “the best.” I would spend 40 hours on a project, just to put it up on the rail and have the whole class tell me what was wrong with it. But I learned to listen to criticism, take a deep breath, and assess what felt “true” and what didn’t. I realized that often, when I was the most bothered by a critique, it was because the criticism was right. So I learned to listen more thoughtfully, and be more thoughtful with my words when I offered a perspective.
Sometimes sensitivity and diplomacy wasn’t the solution. One of my most difficult classes was Drawing in Perspective with an instructor named Westercamp. We had to show a near-perfect attention to the smallest detail in the presentation, or fail the assignment. It wasn’t about opinion; projects were either right or wrong. The ardor of that semester taught me about craftsmanship and reputation.
When I wasn’t working on assignments for class, I was writing and rehearsing with my band. All the lessons I was learning at ArtCenter were already carrying over. “How do I combine the things I love in a unique and authentic way?” “When my collaborators disagree, how do I create a solution we all love?” As I finished my last term of classes, my band was just about to begin recording our first album, Hybrid Theory.
Looking back, Calloway’s advice to “be the only one in your lane” resonated with me later in my career because, while it seems over-the-top ambitious, I decided that it’s not. Sure, we all respect brand new, earth shattering ideas. But at the same time, each of us is a wild and unique combination of life experiences and perspectives. I think channeling those experiences and perspectives gives us a pretty good shot of carving our own lane.
BFA 98 Illustration
Musician, vocalist, songwriter, record producer, visual artist and founder of Linkin Park, Music For Relief and Machine Shop Ventures