This one goes out to all the creatives who are working hard every day…
I just slipped back into a habit I have fought hard to avoid for weeks… months even. One that all sorts of creatives suffer occasionally.
Earlier today I had sent out a new round of email updates to subscribers and to my contacts list. Not ten minutes later I found myself staring with glazed eyes at a screen of statistics as I leaned ever closer to my monitor with obsessive interest. If this was an 80′s sci-fi movie it would have been the point where I toppled right through the screen into the comically terrifying netherworld of some hack screenwriter’s interpretation of the internet.
Of course there were zero results on that stats page! I had sent the email out only a few minutes earlier and the servers probably had not even had time to update the results. Normally I won’t even look at the stats from an email campaign for days after I send it out because I realize in the higher functioning parts of my brain that my clients and contacts are not sitting at their desks awaiting the very second that I send out a new promo or email update (and if they are, they are super cool and probably have amazing taste in music!). People have lives, get busy, and occasionally it takes them a while to sort through their email.
10 minutes passed.
I looked again.
Those parts of my brain capable of rational thought reminded me that there is nothing wrong with these stats this early in a campaign – that I should go to lunch and then take care of all the paperwork I had on my desk as well as a bunch of scheduling for shoots and pre-production that I was planning for May. It was at that moment that something in the lower parts of my brain snapped – that devious reptile part of me whose only concern is instinctual self-preservation through self-sabotage and the maintaining of the status quo.
I transformed from a generally hip, cool-glasses-wearing professional artist into a shaking and gaunt statistical junkie, sick with withdrawal from the instant gratification of quantifiable numbers. It set off an awful chain reaction in me as I became my own resistance-fueled Hyde.
I am not proud of what I did next.
For the next hour and a half I devoured every scrap of statistical data that I could about myself: blog stats, Google Analytics, Facebook likes, Twitter click-throughs and retweets, Klout, campaign statistics, and more. For ninety minutes I emotionally lived and died a hundred times as I reviewed graphs and charts of perceived victories and disappointments that in my panicked state of mind determined my sum worth. I started to tear through the stats from past campaigns, obsessed with finding some archaic universal formula that would unlock the secrets of the perfect email promo – I was after 101% click-through.
I had become a bad community theater re-enactment of the movie Pi.
There was a moment right at the end of my statistical rampage where, just for the briefest second, a particularly nasty thought popped into my head “What can I change about my work to get my stats up?” Having that thought must have caused some sort of internal defense mechanism to kick in, because my rational brain proceeded to punch my lizard brain in the face so hard that it was like a bully getting his comeuppance from the nerdy kid in a high school comedy.
Statistics are tools, nothing more.
We are so inundated with reports, statistics, and metrics that we are tempted to correlate them with every creative endeavor we undertake. Experts are always tossing off business advice linked to analytics, keywording, SEO, ROI, DMAIC, viral engagement, and other buzzwords that may work in the world of selling widgets but don’t translate well to the subjective realms of creative output. Our goal as creatives is not to create a generic product built to be the least offensive to our audience. Our goal is to create something that we genuinely believe in and care about and that is truly delightful to others or solves a problem they may have.
Changing one’s work to please the greatest number of people is like riding in the fast lane to creating something mediocre. It is as ridiculous as the mathematical formula to quantify the worth of a poem that so disgusts John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Create something because it is awesome, because you believe in it, and because if you don’t give that idea form it will rip itself out of your head in a much more visceral way. Leslie Burns wrote a great post at the beginning of the year that I have re-read almost every week since. Below is one of my favorite thoughts from it:
“Shoot/make art for yourself, as often as you can. Don’t shoot/draw/create for any other reason (like to specifically make something for your portfolio) but rather shoot for the love of shooting and for making the work that excites you. Don’t worry if it’s good or right or what you should be doing, just make some damn art (see 5.a. above). That is your job and you have to do it for your business just as much as you have to pay your web hosting bill.”
A few months later I found another blog post, this time by Promise Tangeman, about identifying your creative style and the fallacy of consciously trying to craft one based on what is popular or trendy at the time. It ended with this amazing quote:
“Your style is a bi-product of your creations, not your end goal. Don’t waste time looking for your style, because you won’t FIND it. The truth is…. you already have it. You just may need to create more in order to see it.”
Social media, statistical analysis, and quantitative feedback are valuable tools – tools that give us opportunities that earlier generations of creatives never had, but they cannot be the driving force behind your creative vision. Relying on them as your sole source of validation is a fool’s errand – correlation does not always equal causation and Facebook likes don’t put clothes on your back. You need to engage with yourself and the world around you to grow as a creative. You can’t hide behind a screen hoping that your audience amounts to nothing more than a series of bar graphs and numbers. Your audience is people, real people who matter and want to be engaged by what you love to create – so stop crowdsourcing your every creative decision to optimize statistical and social impact! We can all get sucked in by resistance from time to time like I did today, but we need to push past it and make sure that we are not crippled with insecurity when the numbers don’t add up.
Now go make something awesome.