This simple binary is at the heart of more than you know. In many ways, it’s the defining feature of not only our time but arguably human society as a whole.
What you may not realize is that you’ve heard variations on this theme, manifested in three different ways.
So I’m going to focus on three ways this dilemma presents itself in your everyday life, with thoughts on how this concept can help you and your life’s work if you understand it, and how it can get in your way if you don’t.
This piece is for creatives, artists, entrepreneurs, writers, and humans trying to make a decent living in our digital world.
Today’s talk on what you want to say vs. what people want to hear is brought to you by John’s Crap n’ Snak. Tired of getting gas from the Kum & Go? Well Kum & Go no more, with Fred’s Crap n’ Snak. Just off Arapahoe Road on Emporia Street, one half mile east of I-25.
But first, make sure you like, share, subscribe, and do all those things that obnoxious people keep yelling at you to do! I promise I’ll appreciate it!
So let’s jump in, here are the 3 different takes in this piece.
- What you want to make vs. what people want to buy (AKA, entrepreneurship)
- What you want to write vs. what people are searching for (AKA, SEO or Search Engine Optimization)
- What you want to say vs. what “works” (AKA, advertising or marketing)
I hope the wheels in the hamster cage are already spinning just hearing these, but in case they aren’t, let’s get rolling.
Part 1: What You Want to Make vs. What People Want to Buy
The iconic line from Field of Dreams is “If you build it, they will come.” And for some of my podcast guests, this has proven to be true! Sharon Rowe thought this as she built ECOBAGS, helping create the shift from single-use plastic bagging to more sustainable alternatives, dating back to 1989.
For some entrepreneurs, this method has worked out. But you won’t find it in any modern business book. Instead, if you listen to Silicon Valley types like LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman or Peter Thiel, you’ll much more frequently hear something along the lines of “If you’re happy with your product, you shipped it too late”. Or, put another way, you need to validate your idea before you waste time and resources creating what could be a bad product-market fit.
And another of my podcast guests, wunderkind Ben Stern of NOHBO and Shark Tank fame has wildly succeeded before the age of 20 by doing the exact opposite. He got an investment from billionaire Mark Cuban, and he sold his product before he ever created a single thing. He even patented his product before he even knew if it would work. Obviously, his way is generally considered the “right” way in start-up land—making sure there’s demand for your product or service before you start is clearly good business.
So today’s theme shows up any time you feel deeply that you should make a bakery because you like making cupcakes, even though your small town already has 4 bakeries right next to each other on Main Street. There can be tension between what you want to make and what people want to buy.
If you don’t validate your idea, you run two risks: one is that the target audience for what you’re doing is so small as to be insignificant (which is true in my case). The other is that the target audience is already oversaturated with many competitors, in what is called a “red ocean” from the famous business book “Blue Ocean Strategy”.
Now obviously, just as there are Michaels Jordan and Tigers Wood, there will always be a chosen few unicorns on this planet for whom what they wanted to do coincidentally lined up exactly with what the world wanted. These are your break-away successes, your young billionaires, your diamonds in the rough. But needless to say, this is rarer than a steak cooked on an engine at a tailgate party.
So let’s table this for a second as we dance into the next version of this dilemma.
Part 2: What You Want to Write vs. What People are Searching For
(AKA, SEO, Search Engine Optimization, or living in a world of algorithms)
If you knew the statistics on blogs in the world today, you’d never write a single word. Millions and millions of words are blasted onto the internet each day, without nearly enough readers. There’s no shortage of content of any kind. And that’s one of the reasons that if you’ve made it this far, you’re surely an anomaly. Did I mention you should subscribe? Because you should. You’re what we call an “engaged” consumer, so I need you in my life. Desperately. Please don’t leave me, I’ll tell you a joke!
Where’s the best place to bury a dead body? In the middle of a blog post!
That’s a shameful appropriation of an old SEO joke, so let’s move on.
The point is this: Google decides what you see and what you consume. When you search for something, they show you the top 10 results of either web articles or videos, and statistically, you click on one of the first 3 and ignore the rest. The 182,644,273 rest, to be exact.
Google, Facebook, and TikTok algorithms shape what you see or don’t see to an insane degree. But how can you give them what they want as a creator?
They want money, and they want to improve. So you can either pay for ads (their core business), or you can improve their platforms.
If there’s never been an article written on “how to cook a vegan steak on a radiator at a tailgate party” and you write that, Google will reward you with organic search rankings. You have improved their search results by filling in the gaps of their knowledge, so to speak.
So in short, algorithms never reward what you want to say. Or what comes from your heart. Or what you really feel. They only reward what benefits them.
So if you want to write about cooking and there are 10 billion other cooking blogs out there doing the same thing, good luck. Not impossible to win, but a hearty good luck to you indeed.
Again, if what you want to make just happens to be a gap in what TikTok is missing, then you will succeed wildly without any extra thought. Far more likely is that you will need to study how these algorithms work if you ever want someone to see your content.
For my clients, this is what I do. When I wear my marketing hat, I look at the data. This is how I grow my clients’ business. But I haven’t done it yet personally, because I believe in personal expression. I still admire great thinkers like stoic philosophers and Mark Twain—I still love creating for creating’s sake, even knowing that it won’t be rewarded by the algorithms. This piece? Hardly something that any algorithm will reward, but I find it interesting to think about, so I wrote about it. We can make that choice in our own lives and art, but we must understand that this is the choice we are making. If you want to be *seen* above all, and you don’t care how it happens, then focus all of your energy on search engine optimization or defeating the YouTube algorithm with “10 ShOcKINg F4ctS THaT WilL MaKE U BrEAK up With YOuR GiRLfriend RIGHT NOw!!!”
You can do it, but it might feel a lil’ dirty depending on who you are…
Which brings us to…
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Part 3: What You Want to Say vs. What “Works”
(AKA, advertising or marketing)
Ever since advertisers and marketers started trying to sell you stuff, they’ve been focused on what works. Don’t call it a Tax Committee, call it the Ways and Means Committee! As George Carlin noted (who by the way railed against euphemisms his whole career), we don’t call it “toilet paper” anymore, we call it bathroom tissue.
Dr. Frank Luntz has built a career as a pollster and author telling corporations and politicians which words to say and which words not to say. In his book Words that Work, he talks about how he single-handedly changed the “estate tax” to the “death tax”, immediately changing public perception. Thanks to his data and research, he realized that while Americans didn’t want to “deny” illegal immigrants emergency health treatment, they were largely in favor of “not giving” them treatment. He spent his whole career building the kind of euphemisms and subtle twists of language that comics like Carlin hated so much.
When you follow Instagram influencers, they will often give you strategies for selling. Or when you buy an advertising/copywriting book from the 60s, you’ll see formulas like “PPPP” Picture, Promise, Prove, Push—proven strategies that work to sell your audiences products or services.
For many of us, the thought process stops at what “works”. If more people buy my product, it’s a success. Full stop. We don’t ask questions like “am I proud of this?” “Will my grandchildren be proud of this?” “Am I making the world a better place?”
So again, we have tension. Between what you might want to create, say poetry or comedy or musings, and what “works”, as in what manipulat—I mean what motivates your audience to take a specific action that benefits you.
And I believe, like everything else in life, there are three levels here: Level one is ignorance. You don’t know how to convince people of anything. Level two is you learn what “works”. But level three is a conscious choice to either use or not use what works for the sake of a higher ideal. Call it philosophy, morals, ethics, or whatever else you want to call it. But you can’t argue that many people selling you stuff on social media got off the bus at level two and never so much as considered level three.
So have we reached the point where we can draw a conclusion? Survey says… “Banana Split? What the hell is wrong with you people!?
Alright now just initial here and confirm your allotment of the funds from your bank account to mine. Fantastic.
Three concepts. Three manifestations of the same dichotomy.
In all cases, it’s about what comes from within vs. what the world needs or wants. But it doesn’t have to be ugly. Serving others is a noble pursuit. Considering others is a beautiful thing. Philosophers wrote texts in the hopes that it would benefit others. I wrote this with the hope that it would help you express yourself in a smarter way. Serving others is arguably THE greatest thing any person can do. We are social creatures. So I’m not saying by any means that you should say whatever you want to say and completely ignoring what might benefit the world. Far from it.
Instead, I’m saying that if you are unaware of the second part of all three of these choices, you are more than likely doomed to fail before you ever began.
You need to be aware of what people want to buy, what people are searching for, and what works.
And if you haven’t considered these three things in your life, your creative pursuits, and in your business, it’s really time you should. These could be the keys to unlocking growth and to getting out of the stagnancy you’ve been experiencing.
However, once you’ve mastered the concepts of a product-market fit, algorithmic content creation, and persuasive language, you can move on to step 3: a conscious choice to either use or not use these tools based on your morality and ethics.
You could pull out all the stops to sell that 90-year-old war widow a used car at 25% above Blue Book value, or you could set that language aside and be a decent human being.
Ultimately, the choice is yours.