What a difference a week makes!
Last week, I despaired of seeing actual pavement again. Everything was buried under inches of snow, and there was more in the forecast. My daughter was going to drive home on Friday for her spring break and had to postpone for a day since the mountain passes were quite dicey. Even just going to the grocery store required a herculean effort to dig my car out for the half-mile trip.
Monday morning, it was a balmy 36 degrees when I got up. For the first time in almost a month, I was able to get out for a jog along the river, and I only ran into two semi-icy spots (that really weren’t very icy). As I write this, I’m staring out at rain, glorious rain, and hoping that it will melt more of the snow in the yard and on the street (but not too fast, because basement flooding is a thing here).
Maybe spring is finally showing up? Finally?
I promised some thoughts on “guru culture” this week, and I’m going to try hard to not let this turn ranty, but my basic thesis is going to make that tough.
Here’s the thesis:
Nobody knows anything.
What I Mean by “Nobody Knows Anything”
If you Google “nobody knows anything,” you will quickly discover that the phrase is attributed to the great screenwriter William Goldman. Goldman didn’t necessarily intend to indicate that no one in Hollywood had any idea how to make movies or write stories; in this clarifying quote from 2018, he reveals that he basically mean that no one in Hollywood could accurately predict what would be a success and what would tank. (This great video from FAST Screenplay picks apart what’s good and bad about the philosophy of “nobody knows anything.”)
I largely agree with Goldman’s sentiment that no one can accurately predict what will be a hit. There are many, many books, movies, songs, ads, marketing campaigns, politicians, organizations, etc., etc. whose popularity defies explanation (at least to me).
The problem is… there is a culture out there that seeks to pinpoint the reason for the success of these things and replicate it.
I get it. When one thing is successful, it’s normal to dissect that success and look for keys to recreate it with our own stuff. And listen–much of my commercial writing is based on trying to figure out why people click, download, contact, or buy the things my clients sell so that I can write copy that resonates with those people and gets them to click, download, contact, and buy.
But marketing is one thing. Saying that you’ve found The Key to Success as a Creative is…
Well, it’s a lie.
The Making of the Gurus
What I started to notice many years ago–right around the time of the initial e-book/Kindle revolution–was that a lot of writers were making money by telling other writers how to make money and not so much with their own writing. There were suddenly tons of books, programs, conferences, and the like with titles like “Sell A Million E-books in Two Months.” These were often by authors I’d never heard of before, and very frequently, those authors were making money mostly from selling a system on how to sell books. When I looked at writing samples of these authors, I was largely unimpressed.
The guru culture is pretty rampant elsewhere, too. There are fitness gurus, weight loss gurus, political gurus, parenting gurus, financial gurus, marketing gurus…. Everyone has an opinion, a system, a program…. Everyone claims to have some level of secret knowledge or a previously unknown ingredient that will instantly propel you to success.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently unethical about selling a program, nor do I think all of these programs or books or courses are worthless. As someone who is on far more mailing lists than I really need to be on, I admit that I read a lot of offers and course descriptions that sound pretty appealing. I have even used some of them to varying degrees of success. I have friends who are coaches, and I work with and for coaches, and I’ve hired a coach myself. There is a lot of value in seeking advice and help from people who have more knowledge or a different perspective.
So what’s my problem?
The Making of the Gurus
Here’s what I think: the democratization of media has led to this weird guru culture where if you say something early enough, often enough, and loud enough, you differentiate yourself as an “expert.” Your ideas, programs, and systems don’t even have to be original; they just have to be out there at the right time, right place, and catch enough interest to elevate your voice.
When Amanda Hocking made a bunch of money by self-publishing several books back in the early days of the Kindle revolution, everyone thought they could do the same thing, and every aspiring author jumped in with every poorly edited draft novel sitting on every hard drive and expected the same result–myself included!
But here’s the truth: Amanda Hocking was successful in large part because 1) she was a very early adopter of this new platform, and she had little competition; 2) she uploaded several things at once at low prices, so people could download many books for not much money; and 3) her work was in a genre that was arguably at its peak in 2010-2011. I’m not going to judge whether she’s a great writer or not–I’ve never read her stuff–but my guess is that she continues to be successful because she captured an audience very early in the new world of media and she is incredibly prolific.
To my knowledge, Hocking has never put herself out there as a self-publishing guru. She’s talked about her success when asked, but she’s mostly just enjoyed her good fortune and continued to pump out new stuff.
But I think a lot of people who had some level of success making money creating content of some kind over the past couple of decades have tried to turn that success into a program or system that they could sell. I don’t begrudge them that, and I’m sure some of their customers had some level of success following their programs or systems.
However, what those systems often fail to account for is timing, volume, and just plain luck.
Be Your Own Guru
When my kids were little, I read a lot of parenting books. I was of an age where all of my friends were having babies at the same time, and we swapped books and took reading recommendations in the hopes of finding the key to being perfect mothers with perfect children and happy husbands and clean houses and fulfilling careers… or something. I tried a lot of different things to get babies to sleep, potty train toddlers, and instill habits in preschoolers. Some things worked; some things didn’t. And some things worked with some kids and not with others, largely due to pesky human nature.
In the midst of those crazy years, the BFF said something very wise. She told me that she figured if she could get just one good piece of advice or one solid parenting technique from each book she read, then the book was worth it. She didn’t feel like she had to take 100% of every guru’s advice–just use what worked and discard the rest.
That was very freeing for me, especially since so many gurus contradicted each other. And I think it applies to what I’m doing now, too. I don’t have to take every piece of advice, no matter how authoritative the advisor is. I don’t have to do every dumbass little thing to build my platform or brand or whatever.
What it all comes down to is this:
There’s nothing new under the sun. People will buy what they buy, and there’s no way to predict what will resonate with audiences. Do the best work you’re capable of doing, with or without an advisor or editor, and then put it out there. Hope for a little luck, some rabid fans, and the right algorithm at the right time, and leave the rest.
And then do it all again.
Because ultimately, done is better than perfect, and nobody knows anything.