The thing about “good advice”, is that you can always be sure that the opposite will also be “good advice” too.
Perhaps you’ve heard people say things like this:
• Be true to yourself
• Follow your heart
• Don’t listen to the critics
• Be authentic
All very good. But then you’ve probably also heard people say things like this:
• Do your research
• Listen to feedback
• Give people what they want
• Focus on the customer
In the game of creating something for public consumption – be it a business, be it content, be it art – you see this tension arise time and time again.
Should we do what pleases us?
Or should we give the market what it wants?
I myself have been known to give seemingly conflicting advice on this topic. On the one hand, I’m an advocate of looking inward to find your idiosyncrasies which may be the source of your competitive advantage. I don’t believe the public can really tell you what they want. And I think that it doesn’t matter how good an idea is “on paper” if it doesn’t light a fire in you – the person who’s gonna make it happen.
But at the same time I’ve also said that it doesn’t matter what you as the founder “want” – all that matters is what the market wants from you. That the only game you’re in is the game of giving value, and that means value in the eyes of the consumer. And that all of this, ultimately, is an act of service.
So, seemingly contradictory. And yet all true nevertheless.
What are we to take from all this then? What is the right path? What is the secret to creating something that is both authentic and loved?
The answer is negotiation.
The whole thing, the whole strategic act, is a process of constant negotiation. Between what you want, what you can give, and what the market wants, what it will accept.
Veer too much down one path or the other, and you’ll run into trouble.
If you only try to please yourself, and be too “authentic”, you’ll wind up in a state of pure self indulgence. Narcissistically marinating in your own “brilliance” while the world shrugs and looks the other way. The extreme example of this is that of the stoner; who finds their intoxicated insights endlessly fascinating, while to the outside observer they are incomprehensible or trite.
I myself have fallen into this “overly authentic” trap in the past – for example in this newsletter. I was writing things which I found interesting, and perhaps they were, but I wasn’t meeting the reader halfway. I wasn’t translating my thoughts into acts of service – and my sluggish growth stats proved it.
At the other extreme, if you only try to please the market, and allow none of your personal genius into the picture, you’ll produce either trash or commodity. It might be a “me too” product. Or something that’s had all of its interesting edges shaved off by endless rounds of research. Or lowest common denominator content; “you’ll never guess what happens next”; “check out this one weird trick”. People “like” all this stuff, the numbers don’t lie. And yet that doesn’t mean you can win at it – because it’s a game with no prize.
In the end what counts is only this:
The things that are unique to you, which also give value to the world.
You might have to suppress some things which are profound to you but mundane to everyone else. You might have to inflate some things which you think are kinda trivial but others love. You might have to dumb things down. You might have to fake it.
But the beauty is this:
Through this act of negotiation you won’t lose yourself.
You’ll find it.
The world will help you tease out your true genius, and your true gifts. It will mercilessly dismiss your pretensions and vanities, leaving you only with the pure sauce. The stuff you have which really matters.
Negotiation isn’t a process of compromise.
It’s a process of discovery.
Of coming into being.
On a personal level there is a whole psychological literature about this topic. That your true identity, far from being something you choose, is in fact something you negotiate with the outside world. Where your perception of yourself meets others’ perception of you.
There are of course people out there who reject that negotiation. Who believe that identity is a one way street. And you’ll find them babbling at the walls in insane asylums. (Or with no customers, no audience, no patrons – depending on the field).
The world is your teacher, not a tyrant. You aren’t “obeying” it, you are learning from it.
So be neither too romantic, nor too pragmatic.
Find the space where romance and pragmatism meet. Let them work their creative magic at that point. And it is here that you will find true strategy – and all the advantages that flow from it.