Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“This Might Not Work”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 24, 2013

The phrase above is one of Seth Godin’s trademarks. I love it because, like all of Seth’s stuff, it crams a ton of wisdom into very few words.

Seth

Does anyone lead from the front more than Seth?

What does Seth mean by “This might not work”?

Here’s what I think:

There’s a concept in marketing called “the Avatar.” Are you familiar with this? An avatar is the archetype of Your Customer.

The idea, if you’re a marketer, is to keep this avatar in the front of your mind, particularly when you’re developing a new product, writing a new book, organizing a new enterprise. You want to ask yourself questions like, “Am I serving my avatar properly? Am I giving her what she needs? Is there something more I can do for her?”

Apple, for example, knows its avatars down to the minutest detail. You can bet that BMW does too, as do McDonald’s, the NRA, and the Democratic and Republican parties.

Focus groups and customer surveys are tools used by marketers to communicate with their avatars and to learn from them. Questions can be asked. “Do you want cup holders in the backseat? Which is more important to you in a baby stroller—comfort for your child or ease of packing and unpacking? Should Catwoman return in The Dark Knight Takes a Vacation?”

The avatar concept makes a lot of sense. I see how it works. I would even implement it myself in certain cases.

But a writer can’t work like this. An artist can’t. If you do, you’re a hack.

Did Picasso ask his buyers if they were ready for Cubism? Did Quention Tarantino focus-group Reservoir Dogs?  Did Springsteen workshop Darkness at the Edge of Town?

Sometimes you gotta lead.

You gotta get out front.

George Lucas was working on Star Wars for five years before it hit the big screen. How long did Herman Melville toil over Moby Dick before the book was published in 1851? Did either of them have a clue, during those long lonely years, whether their babies would fly or crash?

The audience doesn’t know what it wants. It’s the artist’s job to tell them. Or more accurately show them.

The audience will know it when they see it.

Even in the world of tech/marketing, I don’t think the avatar concept works. How did Steve Jobs evolve the Macintosh or the iPhone or the iPad? He did them for himself. Because he thought they were cool.

Apple customers don’t know what the next cool Apple product will be. If you ask them, they can’t tell you.

They’re waiting to be surprised.

They’re waiting to be thrilled.

I don’t know what Steve Jobs was thinking throughout his years of great product development, but I’ll wager it was no more complicated than this:

“I’m betting that what I myself love, my customers will love too. So let me ask myself only, ‘What do I love?’”

Then there’s the Muse factor.

Our Muse is always ahead of us.

The audience is always behind.

I’ve said before, of my own projects that have been hits, that at the time I started them I thought I was out of my mind. I thought no one would be interested but me. But I was seized. I had to do them. I had no choice.

(Again, I’m not knocking the avatar concept in totality. In the proper context, it’s absolutely appropriate. Nothing works better. I have used it myself and I would use it again.)

But not for any enterprise that aspires to or touches upon art.

Which brings us back to Seth’s phrase, “This might not work.”

These four words are what every artist and entrepreneur should be saying as he or she launches their new novel/zombie flick/videogame/Andalusian restaurant.

It might not work. Really. It might bomb big-time.

That’s the chance you and I have to take, if we want to get ahead of the curve. Ahead of the curve is where hits happen.

Ahead of the curve is where the Muse lives.

If we call ourselves artists or entrepreneurs, that’s where you and I have to live too.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

29 Responses to ““This Might Not Work””

  1. July 24, 2013 at 4:26 am

    Another great Seth-ism is, “Fail early and often.”

  2. July 24, 2013 at 4:49 am

    Nailed it!

    Hence the Hollywood Paradox: The studios spend ever more because that demonstrates their power and pays everyone in the chain more money.

    But since they pay so much, they have no choice, they think, but to say, “This MUST work!”

    And as soon as you do that, you’ve guaranteed it won’t.

    • Aaron
      July 24, 2013 at 7:16 am

      The War of Art got me on my feet and named the enemy in 2010. Nothing has been the same since and now I read it twice a year. It’s like a handbook for life on the front lines. Seth’s work has been coaxing me out of my race to the top (which is actually the middle) mindset for years. Two of the most authentic and extraordinary creators posting in the same place… Simply awesome! Speaking of which, this post is speaking to something I have desperately needed to address. I’m writing stuff that I absolutely love, but it’s unusual and it scares me… Thanks for the reminder.

    • July 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

      I meant to post that as a main thread comment not as a reply to Seth. But thank you both for all you do. The world is a better place.

    • July 24, 2013 at 11:13 am

      I love paradox

  3. July 24, 2013 at 5:21 am

    Steve, i’m having a hard time reconciling what you’re saying today with what you’ve been saying in recent weeks about “going from unpublishable to publishable”.

    If we are working on our own, creating new forms, breaking rules, aren’t we courting “unpublishability”? Where do we draw the line between courting publishability and being a hack?

    Could you elaborate on this, please?

    • July 24, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      Susanna, tune in next week. I’m gonna address that exact point. Thanks for asking!

  4. Basilis
    July 24, 2013 at 5:31 am

    When I saw the title, I got the impression that there would follow an analysis of a guy (Seth)
    who would talk about
    a very certain situation using some important (and maybe even measurable)- factors to make his point, and, at the end,
    recognize that something perhaps will not turn well with the way he decided to walk a project/to deal with an
    important matter, e.t.c.

    (Something like:
    printing aspects, marketing aspects, strategy aspects
    about publishing houses, generally speaking, technical information where:
    You have an A plan that might not work, so also you must have
    a b plan. And you have a B plan that might not work so also you must have a C plan.
    An if nothing works, then the way you think and act has some faults, and you’ll
    have to reconsider some things, notions of yours, technical issues and information.)

    But it turned to be even better than what I speculate.

    Oh yes, when talking about concepts and ideas things are certainly not so clear and measurable.

    And what about when you believe that the audience is “behind” from your project?
    Will you have to move on to an other project and, later on, return to the previous?
    Or keep pushing forward the current one?

    The problem is how will you recognize the parameters of the situation you are facing.
    There is a thin line between the work of a genius and just a poor project that still needs work…

    From the other hand, if you try to measure such problems with an extremely precise-technical way, well,
    this might not work… ;-)

    Ahead of the curve lies a dream.

  5. Mike Schoenfeld
    July 24, 2013 at 5:31 am

    Brilliant article. as actors and teachers a lot of our training is thru critique. this leads to performing to satisfy the teacher and it can be very detrimental to the actor. Outward pleasing. While an improvisation based system like Chekhov or Spolin uses limited critique on whether the actor stayed on their choice of FOCUS, Ground or TOOL. If they plat the FOCUS 100% full out it may not work with in the confines of the Given Circumstances but it will always be interesting. Your work inspires me to get back to mine. Thanks for this site

  6. July 24, 2013 at 5:39 am

    As an artist, the formula remains simplistic.

    Words from Ray Bradbury:

    “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.”

    This is what we must do with our art. Without our fingers crossed. Without the need for money. Without the need for fame.

    The most important action we can take is to jump.

  7. Teddy Herzog
    July 24, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Very useful. Thanks again, Steven!

  8. July 24, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Brilliant. And it never gets easier. Every time you swing for the fences and don’t hit that home run, it makes the desire to swing for the fences next time that much more difficult. You start doubting yourself, second guessing, thinking, “Maybe I need to aim for the curve instead of ahead of it.” But that way, as we know, lies madness… Thanks again, Steve!

  9. July 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

    If the Avatar really worked, no Republican would become a Democrat, no Democrat would become a Republican (except maybe Reagan), and there would be no third parties or Independents. If the Avatar really worked, no one would go from McDonald’s to Burger King, the NRA would – never mind that one.

    If the Avatar really worked, businesses would spend less on advertising and more on marketing research, right? Test the buttons, then push.

    The familiar is comfortable, but familiarity can breed concept. (What the Dickens!)

    Besides, the Avatar itself is a result of the same trial and error that an artist must experience. If the customer says she wants a cup-holder on the stroller, when she sees it or uses it, she may realize she didn’t want it in back, but in front – or not at all.

    “This may not work” applies to the whole, the completed project. The flip is that “this may work” also applies. But to the work-in-progress, “part of this will not work” always applies – and going through the “does not work” process is the only way to get to the end or get results.

    Thanks, as always – and to Seth, as well.

  10. July 24, 2013 at 11:52 am

    This is amazing. This post can do no wrong!!

  11. July 24, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Oh,Steven, I do love how well you swing that golden hammer to hit the slippery nail on the head! Bravo!

  12. July 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    The thought of living this way scares me. It feels so risky. The idea of pouring myself into something for years with no guarantee that it will amount to anything makes me feel uneasy. Who has that kind of faith?

    Then I realize… I usually choose surety of something mediocre and unsatisfying over the risky possibility of something worthwhile. Is there even a choice? Why does it still take courage?

  13. July 24, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Steve,
    The next time you write on this topic, here’s a 1998 Seinfeld interview quote with citation that you might be able to use.
    Ben

    From the Seventh Way http://bit.ly/17E8nE5

    Seinfeld says that last December, when he was in the
    throes of deciding whether to continue, “It was suggested…by some executives, ‘What if we did a survey of the public and asked them their opinion?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s my job.’ If you’re the pilot of the plane, you don’t ask the passengers what you should do next. The audience wants to feel that someone’s in control.

    “The whole system [of television market research] is
    ridiculous,” he continues, pointing out that Seinfeld’s initial test audiences hated the show. “It’s retarded. You don’t ask people what they think. You tell them what to think. That’s your job. That’s what being a creative person is. And if they don’t like it, fine. But you don’t try and hedge your bet.” (Grove, 1998).
    –Grove, Lloyd. (April 20, 1998). “Yadda Yad…Adieu”, Washington Post, Page C5.

  14. July 24, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    What’s more is that most things don’t work. Not just in art or technology, but biology as well: This is what biodiversity is for, this is the stuff that powers evolution.
    This is what modern society cuts us from: risk.

    At an individual level, risk is, well… risky! However, at a species scale, it makes us robust, or as Taleb explains, ‘Antifragile”.

  15. July 24, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Now I know why it takes 4-6 years to sell my wood sculptures…it takes the buyer that long to understand how innovative the work is… repetitive presentation… just like McDonalds…

  16. MaCrae
    July 24, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Wow,

    The spearhead of my company’s marketing efforts publishes at noon.
    The thought hit me- “This might not work.” Like a brief warning from an old friend, It felt deeper than resistance.

    Hmmmmm….Yep, it might. It might NOT.

    My life is full right NOW. My focus is on creation, shipping. Repeat. IF I fail, its small. I win.

    Headed to town I saw a small house I might can flip. I called the agent before I got back home :-)

    Thanks.

  17. July 25, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Love this! An encouragement to artists everywhere. Thank you.

  18. Janis
    July 25, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    As if there is only ever one avatar. As if art isn’t about putting your own genuine stuff out there and letting it find its avatars on its own.

    Who the hell knows what the avatars are for anything? Who knows what kinds of goofballs will fall in love with a given kind of expression? The audience didn’t want cubism, not because it didn’t know what it wanted, but because there was no one audience.

    I’ve got news for everyone, some people still hate cubism.

    There is no avatar. It’s like saying there is one ultimate perfectly evolved animal. There isn’t. What’s perfect depends on the environment. Perfection in the savannah will die quickly in the ocean depths.

    “This may not work” isn’t correct, either. More like, “We’re not sure how this will work, or where, but it will probably turn someone’s crank.” Marketing’s job is to get it in front of that person. Not to envision the ideal avatar, but to just turn the shit loose and let it find its damn avatar.

  19. July 25, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Juxtaposition, paradox, ambivalence. These are daily circumstances for the artist/entrepreneur. Moving forward without clear signals is a sign of maturity.

    I’m an entrepreneur, so my stuff has to be commercially acceptable. I use “This might not work” as a saying to shoo away my ego as I sit down to work. That’s all.

  20. July 27, 2013 at 7:17 am

    Heya we’re for the key time frame in this article. I discovered that mother board so i still find it really useful & that forced me to be out and about a lot. I’m hoping to give something again plus guide people just like you served me.

  21. Tim
    July 29, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    The Avatar is a tool. Just like a computer is a tool. It can be used or abused. Tools can be misused or worse. the avatar in my opinion keeps you on message. It is not the be all end all. Steve, what is the purpose of your art? George Orwell taught me All Art is Propaganda. Is not Art a tool? Writing/Art is a vocation or avocation to you? I hope it can be both. Over lunch RGH Siu(RIP) told me that you need both vocation and avocation. He took his cue from the Mandarins. Half the day was work the other half art. Dr. Siu wrote a great deal. He said he wrote it for himself and if it sold that was OK. He really didn’t care! Can’t dancing like nobody is watching!

  22. July 29, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Didn’t Albert Ellis say, “Shit or get off the pot!”?

  23. July 30, 2013 at 5:33 am

    Steve: as a writer who, by virtue of the need to survive and pay bills, is always looking for ways to be more entrepreneurial in my work, I found this post to be INCREDIBLY USEFUL and timely.

    I recently completed Marie Forleo’s B-School (a hugely educational and worthwhile investment, by the way). In the program she urges us to uncover our ideal avatar and align our offerings/blog topics etc with the avatar. This is challenging for everyone, but I have struggled mightily.

    Your post helped illuminate why. While the avatar concept works brilliantly in many businesses, it has its limitations in artistic or highly creative work.

    When I follow the Muse and get out front, my work is fluid, my writing finds an audience, my novel unfolds and great paid work comes my way. When I try to shoehorn my ideas into something that I think my avatar will like, I seize up. Like you, I think the avatar has her place, but too much focus on her can kill a creative/entrepreneurial endeavor.

    Thanks so much for this freeing post.

  24. August 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Beautiful! Exactly. Spot On. And Aha! I started writing my book mindful of what I now realize as *the avatar* effect. Soon my book had morphed into the smarty pants leadership book I didn’t want to be about, write about, or speak about. (The Skip had clearly exited my writing SkippidyDooDa!) Started over, fresh, writing the book inside me – and found the magic flow – suddenly it’s fun again! And yes, true, it may not work. It may bomb. Big time. Game On. Thank you for the inspiration!

  25. September 17, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    This approach is why I did not fit into one of my last workplaces. The motto was “failure is not an option.” I always thought … wow, the only way to remove failure as an option is never to try anything even minimally ambitious. For me, no risk of failure = boring and probably pointless.