On Picking Your Battles

I’m going to say this again for the creative people in the back: Make what you want to make, the way you want to make it. Then figure out how to market it to the people who will appreciate it. There are seven billion people on this planet, and not all of them blindly follow the herd. Somewhere, there is a special niche just for you. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is achievable.

Below is a portion of an email conversation I had yesterday. It’s redacted because the specifics aren’t necessary to make my point. This applies to novelists, comics creators, YouTubers, game designers, illustrators, and photographers. A gatekeeper was pontificating about how the way he does things is The Only True Path to Success. After all, that’s the way it was done when he was rising through the ranks, and it’s the way that pays his bills now, so it clearly is the only way. My friend wanted to engage him, in a public forum, surrounded by the gatekeeper’s adoring fans. I advised against it.

I don’t subscribe to the Nye/Ham paradigm. When Bill Nye agreed to debate Ken Ham about evolution, knowing that there was nothing that was going to change Ham’s mind. Nye says he did it for the person out there who might never have heard Nye’s side before. Which is noble and all and I get the logic of it.

But this is the internet. Ten years ago I’d say go for it, jump into the fray for the couple of people who might be turned to your point of view. Give [REDACTED] some exposure. Today, though, I’m too paranoid about getting doxxed, receiving death threats, and all sorts of unreasonable and highly escalated responses. 

Is this the best use of your [REDACTED] time? Or are you better served creating a kick-ass [REDACTED], and saving your voice for promoting how unspeakably cool it is? Save it for the defense of an actual [REDACTED], rather than the theoretical concept. 

I literally have this conversation with Katie every. single. day. Someone on Facebook utters some unspeakably ignorant opinion about education, and she feels this need to leap into the fray like she’s Daredevil in a hallway fight. She gets upset and in the end the other person doesn’t care, about the facts or about her. Huuuuge waste of time, when she could have been doing all sorts of other constructive things. 

As a creator, you never have to justify your creative choices to anyone, ever. There’s a reason why I make people scroll through Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech on the contact page before they can send me a message. If my accomplishments aren’t as great as yours, don’t come for me, because I still have the guts to be in it. And if you aren’t in it, don’t try to armchair quarterback me like you know better than someone who gets up every day, pays his dues, and fights for every inch of success he earns.

The audience for my friend’s creative work is not the same as the gatekeeper’s, in any but an abstract, high-level way. They both work in the same medium, and that’s it. You might as well be comparing Leonardo da Vinci to Jackson Pollack because they’re both painters. Or Shakespeare to Charles Dickens because they’re both writers. It’s not apples-to-apples. My friend’s creative work is still valid.

My friend doesn’t have the same goals as the gatekeeper. They’re each trying to achieve very different things, for completely separate reasons. That doesn’t mean that there’s no overlap, but the gatekeeper assumes that everyone is trying to accomplish what he’s accomplished. That’s some serious ego there. Creators have a wide array of motivations. My friend’s creative work is still valid.

The gatekeeper has resources that are beyond the reach of most creators. He’s got a company with an established customer base behind him. It’s the equivalent of Individual 1 inheriting his father’s real estate empire and having the audacity to say he built it himself. The gatekeeper was selected by the gatekeepers before him. My friend is doing it on his own. My friend’s creative work is still valid.

Make what you want to make, the way you want to make it. Ignore the haters. Focus on the people that get what you’re doing. Don’t try to please people that are aren’t interested in what you do. Don’t put faith in people who have no faith in you or your vision. Find your audience. Make your audience happy.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. The adage I now live by is “Never try to teach a pig to sing – it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig”. Making a futile gesture just on principle is just not worth it.

  2. I lean into the quote by union leader Nicholas Klein, frequently misattributed to Gandhi:

    “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

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