When we look at our work or our art, at some point we have to ask, “Would they miss me if I was gone?”
This isn’t a life or death hypothetical. “They” might be customers and the “I” might be a product. But whether you’re an entrepreneur, an artist, or any type of worker, you should know where you stand with your audience.
It’s not an easy question to ask:
“Is anyone looking forward to what I do next? Is what I am creating matter, or is it being tolerated?”
Because of all the metrics used to measure success — how much we matter is the one we should focus on the most.
What does it mean to matter?
At the end of 2017, the rock band, Brand New released their 5th studio LP, Science Fiction and sold 58,000 copies in its opening week, making it the number one album in the world that week.
While 58,000 copies isn’t groundbreaking, what’s impressive is that the album was released without any press, a single, or even a hint from the band that new music was on the way. In fact, fans had been begging for new music from the band for 8 years and, in return, received mostly silence and cryptic hints of a breakup.
The release of this album felt as though the band finally caved in and said “Fine, if you insist…Here it is.”
Think about the media machines needed to propel most releases to number one. There’re press tours, radio singles, music videos, strategic “song leaks” and planted stories. Yet, Brand New managed to top the charts with just one social media post.
That’s what it means to matter. When your audience not only waits but frantically begs for more.
Where Do You Stand?
You don’t need 50,000 die-hard fans in order to matter. And most creators have to be tolerated by the masses before they can ever hope to matter to a few. If you think about your favorite TV shows or podcasts, you’ll notice there are varying levels of those which matter — some of which you probably first only tolerated.
When I look at the newsletters I subscribe to I see three tiers:
- The ones I open only if nothing else is happening in my inbox
- The ones I’m happy to see and make time to read
- And then there are those which I actively anticipate. The ones where I’d feel a personal loss if they didn’t arrive on schedule.
How do we measure how much we matter? Most metrics won’t tell us the whole story. New followers and email subscribers are fun and exciting, but as Seth Godin — who’s spoken at length about what it means to matter — points out, being effective doesn’t mean you matter.
“Commercials are effective. Commercials sell beer, cars, and diamond rings, but they are something we tolerate. They don’t actually matter” -Seth Godin
One way to discover where we stand with our customers or audience is to simply stop producing. If you don’t write a new article, or put out a new video this week, is anyone knocking at your door asking for it?
This option is unrealistic for those of us who depend on our work for income and thrive through the act of creation. But if we remove our ego, we can at least objectively look at the type of feedback we get for hints.
Are people asking questions? Are they asking for more? Is the feedback mostly, “Nice job.” Or, “Love this!”
“The best art divides the audience.” -Rick Rubin
In order to matter you have to strike a deep chord. You’ll probably have to piss some people off. And you will certainly need to take bigger risks than what’s required for a few hundred, “well done,” pats on the back from your peers. The best art divides the audience because it forces them to think for themselves. Great art can make the audience uncomfortable in the feelings it generates. That means taking risks and having courage when you create. And when you end up dividing your audience because you took a risk, it means knowing that you did your job.
Overwhelm Your Audience
If by reading this you’ve come to the conclusion that, at this point, your work is mostly tolerated, don’t worry — you’re in good company. Would you miss 80% of what you engage with on social media if it just disappeared one day? Probably not.
And it’s not to say that work which is merely tolerated now won’t deeply matter to people someday. The road to creating things that mean that much to people is long and uncertain. It requires a strange alchemy of quality, timing, and luck.
However, the first step towards making work that matters is easy: Make it the goal.
When you sit down to create, don’t only focus on what headline will get the most SEO play or the most shares and clicks (sharing and engagement come later as a result of making work that matters). As creators, we need to have the courage to connect with our audience on a personal level, not create for the masses. And a great way to connect with your audience on a personal level is to first connect with yourself. Make the work that moves you.
"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." -Robert Frost.
Another thing you can do is to send out a survey to your customers, or an email to your audience asking for feedback. It might mean working backward to realign or reinvent your mission. It will almost certainly mean showing more than you’re comfortable with and potentially dividing your audience.
Making work that matters is about overwhelming people with immense quality or emotion. If you want to matter — create something that would throw your audience into a panic if it were to disappear.