Saturday, November 22, 2014

Grandeur Is Not A Goal

As I once wrote:
Billions of people yearn for greatness.

Millions of people do things they hope will make them great.

Thousands of people do great things with nary a thought about where it will leave them.

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful.

After CNET bought a failed upstart magazine brand called CHOW (over my strenuous objections) to graft onto Chowhound as a slick editorial front-end, I observed the accumulation of something quite alien to me: a whirlwind of empty self-feeding hype.

As hires were made and editorial mission statements concocted, I watched the shiny, new faces go on and on about how this instant-on titanic online brand - which didn't, at the time, even exist - would take cyberspace by storm. Their managers watched with glee, delighted by the momentum and team spirit they'd instilled within this not-yet team.

What struck me was the certainty - the absolute unwavering certainty that the result would be terrific and hugely popular. Really, there was no reason to think any such thing. These was just an unproven bunch of eager twenty-somethings. But CHOW, it was felt, would inevitably be huge, simply because it was an operation characterized by people phenomenally confident about its inevitable hugeness. The audacity of tautology!

There was never any "there" there. A short-lived bit of of fluffy fluff, it was quickly pruned down to a skeleton crew once the Chowhound community - and then the Internet at large - failed to catch the fever.

How could it have turned out otherwise? You can't create greatness by posing as someone creating greatness. Greatness isn't even a thing, it's a side effect...of talent, love, and very hard work. If you're working hard enough to create something of genuine value, you'll be the very last to notice. After all, the greatness isn't for you, it's for the folks out there - the customers, the audience, the users - to appreciate while you keep on absolutely killing yourself behind scenes.

But nobody understands this. They think it's about aiming for grandeur, as if that were an actual thing. This is why things mostly suck. As Banksy once said, working to get famous is like eating a great dinner to take a shit.

Here, by contrast, is Stewart Butterfield, CEO of a really terrific service called Slack, discussing how he sees things:
I try to instill this into the rest of the team but certainly I feel that what we have right now is just a giant piece of shit. Like, it’s just terrible and we should be humiliated that we offer this to the public. Not everyone finds that motivational, though.
Yup. Not everyone finds that motivational. People want to feel satisfied, not dissatisfied. But nothing great comes from satisfaction. It comes from aggravating the bejesus out yourself with the painful slog of transforming entropy into order (like an ant!); from grappling perpetually in the muck with an insanely pig-headed refusal to ever say "good enough", much less "great".

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