I came across the following video from a blog post by Derek Sivers:

 

Firstly, I’m not really sure that’s at all a “new” way to think about creativity.  Secondly, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that she makes.  Not just her, actually, but I think the audience is making it too.  In fact, I think most people in general make it because it’s a natural way of thinking.  That assumption is: a good product will be met with praise, fame, and acclaim, while a bad product will fail.  In other words, if you write a book, or a piece of music, or whatever, you yourself don’t know how “good” it is until it either succeeds (by becoming popular) or fails.  If it succeeds, congrats!  You done good!  If it fails, you failed.

But I disagree with that assumption.  I believe how “good” something is (well, in the world of art at least) is entirely subjective.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book may have been very popular, but to me that doesn’t imply that it’s any good.  I might think it’s terrible!  What does the success of her book mean?  Nothing!  And it really shouldn’t mean anything to anyone else either (except perhaps it means a good amount of money for her and the publisher).  And I believe there is a ton of brilliant work out there that’s not popular.  And I might love it if only I could find it.  I tend to find popular things the most because that’s what makes them easier to find.

In that way, popularity is an emergent property.  What makes something popular or not is a complex collection of millions of decisions by millions of people.  Should I read this?  Should I publish this?  Should I talk about this?  Should I invest in this?

I’ve heard that the first Harry Potter book was rejected by quite a few publishers before being accepted by one.  So now people say “wow, those publishers who rejected it sure must be sorry!”  Well, no.  Harry Potter’s eventual insane success was never a guarantee based entirely on the story.  If another publisher had published it, it might not have become a success.  If it was published a year later, it might not have become a success.  (For that matter, if one set of J. K. Rowling’s great great great great grandparents had not met, Harry Potter wouldn’t even exist.)

Movie producers are always making assumptions about why this or that movie succeeded or failed.  Shut up, you idiots!  You don’t know!  “Ah, this Disney animation film failed because people want computer animation now.”  “This film succeeded because Tom Hanks was in it.”  “This film failed because of the competing films that came out at the same time.”  “This film succeeded because it had a strong central hero character and a villain that represented the evils of our times very well.”  And blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever they can say to themselves to make their investments not seem so risky and more predictable.

And people apply this assumption to artists who have become insanely famous.  The Beatles are so famous because they were good.  Shakespeare was good.  Mozart was good.  But these aren’t objective facts just because they’ve happened to stand the test of time (at least, for now).  Their continued fame is still an emergent property based on millions of decisions by millions of people.  (Let’s stop forcing high-schoolers to read Shakespeare and see what happens to that market!)

“If it is popular, it is because it is really good!”  I completely reject the assumption.  When I experience or create a piece of art, I make up my own mind.

Not that I don’t care what other people think.  If I write a piece of music and someone on YouTube comments that they like it, I find it flattering and encouraging.  But it doesn’t change my initial thoughts about my own work.

In conclusion, what is “good” and what is popular are two completely different things.  You shouldn’t let what is popular influence your creative decisions too much, because you actually have no control over what becomes popular.  So stop thinking you do!

And read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, it’s a good book.


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