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I’ve Been Tugging On My Internal Dial All Day and I Haven’t Gone Blind Yet
Joseph Beuys, George Saunders, and the parallels between making products and making art
When I first left the arts world for the startup world, there were a lot of things I missed, but there was one thing I found incredibly refreshing: in the startup world, it’s much harder to delude yourself about how you’re doing. Whether or not people want what you’re making is the only metric that matters.
Of course, any survivor of the nineties Mac-vs-PC wars can tell you that the most commercially successful products aren’t always the best. But those factors are at least much more closely correlated in business than in art. It’s theoretically possible to write the Great American Novel even if no one ever reads it, but you obviously didn’t build the Great American Product if no one ever bought it.
Because of this fundamental difference, I’ve always been irritated by product designers and entrepreneurs who style themselves too much as artists. It’s always struck me as coming from a place of insecurity: why would you need to try to make yourself out to be something you’re not, unless a part of you isn’t happy with who you actually are? Sure, you can go full Joseph Beuys, whose theory of social sculpture posited that all of society is one great artwork, and that we are all artists—or at least have the potential to be—merely for participating in it. (Beuys also made actual sculptures, out of, among other things, live coyotes, dead rabbits, and his own liposuctioned-out body fat.)
But the tech people who aspire to artistry aren’t saying everyone’s an artist, just that they are. Product design, engineering, entrepreneurship—these are creative professions, sure, but they’re nothing like art, and stable careers and good salaries are what the people who do them get in exchange for not being able to call themselves artists.
This year, I started building a product from scratch, and I returned to writing fiction seriously, both for the first time in almost a decade. And maybe I’m just Charlie from that Always Sunny meme, seeing imaginary connections everywhere, but I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, making products and making art aren’t as far apart as I thought.
Portrait of the Artist as a Mad Scientist
As if it weren’t enough forto be not only a stomach-churningly talented fiction writer, and, by all accounts, a genuinely lovely person, he’s also the best I’ve ever come across at dissecting the writing process itself. In his newsletter Story Club—a must-read for anyone at all interested in writing—he describes the assembling of a story as a process of iteration and experimentation. You start with the germ of an idea, and then you try stuff, over and over, and see if it works.
Of course, this isn’t top-down—it’s emergent:
As usual, when I write about my own process, this is all sounding much more rational and controlled and planned and logical than it actually was.
In a sense, all of this was happening at once. Ideas were hovering over the story that would find their way in weeks later. Things were in the story that I knew very well were going to come out. Old stories I’d written were hanging around the table, suggesting certain familiar moves.
The real day-to-day practice was: editing the story three or four times a sitting, reading from the beginning each time; trying to be open to where it was and wasn’t pleasing me; being willing to throw some paint around (move sections around, cut sections, transpose salient sentences from one scene to another, etc).
This method of experimentation and editing reminds me so much of what building a product is like in the early days. You have an initial insight that you think maybe might be something. You build a small, incomplete version of it and you see how it lands. And then you start trying stuff.
How do you know when a change you made to your product is working? A Product Manager at Google will monitor a thousand different metrics, but when you’re just starting out, you barely have any metrics. Of course, you start by talking to customers and seeing whether they like what you’re making. But if they don’t, it doesn’t always mean you’re building the wrong thing—you might just be talking to the wrong customers.
I recently watched Turn Every Page, a documentary about the relationship between two Roberts: The Power Broker author Robert Caro and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb. In the film, the latter Robert says that what makes a great editor is that they don’t just think about how to make a manuscript better in a general sense. Instead, they try to figure out how to make a book more like itself.
That’s exactly how you can tell whether or not you’re talking to the right customers. The wrong ones will suggest features that might be useful in another product, but aren’t what you’re trying to do. The right ones will suggest features that make your product more like itself.
And while metrics can help tell whether you’re on the right track, ultimately, the final decision has to come from your gut. Here’s how Saunders describes the feeling that he’s onto something:
For me, the indicators that I should carry on might include 1) the prominence of Good Bits, 2) a growing feeling that, yes, despite all the trouble I’m having, I am progressing toward something, and 3) a sense that the problems arising are getting increasingly harder and more “meaning-rich.” The story is essentially “cornering me”; the problems it poses, by way of those Good Bits, have become worthy problems.
Product development is just like that. There are always problems, but over time they become richer and more interesting, and that’s how you know you’re on the right track.
Everyone Is Lying to You, Especially You
Of course, the distinctions I drew at the start of this essay still hold. A great product is built largely in response to what users want. But if you make art that way, you’ll end up like James Patterson, pumping out an endless stream of formulaic novels that are mostly written by assistants. (No disrespect to Patterson, who’s an impressive entrepreneur in his own right—just not a great artist.)
Product people are mostly listening to the market. Artists are mostly listening to their own intuition. But in both cases, the hardest part is being honest with yourself: perceiving this feedback, whether from outside critics or from your own internal critic, without delusion. Only then can you act on it in a productive way.
When new founders seek feedback from users, they usually unintentionally do so in a way that doesn’t cultivate honesty. Getting direct, usable feedback is a skill that takes practice, because most people are naturally agreeable and don’t want to crush your dreams, even if deep down they think your dreams are idiotic. Only the most gleeful sociopaths will tell you outright that your idea is bad; most of the time, people will speak in code, which you have to learn to decipher.
For example, if someone tells you they’d “consider” using your product, they’ll definitely never use it. If they tell you it sounds too expensive, they’re really saying that it isn’t delivering enough value. And if they tell you they’d pay for it, they don’t really mean it unless they’re willing to put down a deposit right then and there.
Learning to interpret this code isn’t that intellectually difficult, but it is emotionally difficult. Even when I was just starting out, some part of me knew that a “that’s great!” didn’t always mean my idea was actually great. But getting feedback was scary, so it was always tempting to take the win, even if part of me suspected it was illusory, instead of continuing to push and push until I got to the juicy core of what someone really believed.
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And even when you do get real feedback, just because someone knows what’s wrong with your product doesn’t mean they know how to fix it. In the immortal words of Henry Ford, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. Also, an international Jewish conspiracy controls all world financial institutions and must be stopped at all costs.” (That’s a verbatim quote, look it up.)
So it goes with art, except the feedback-giver and the feedback-receiver are one and the same. Saunders describes every reader as having an internal dial that tilts a little to one side or the other, sentence by sentence, whenever they’re getting more or less engaged in a work. You have to learn to really listen to your own dial, to become sensitive to even its slightest fluctuations—which is really just another way of describing what it feels like to get better and better at being honest with yourself.
The Most Important Founder Skills: Recruiting, Sales, and Remembering That You’re Not Steve Jobs
Behind every great fortune is a great crime, and behind every Silicon Valley cargo cult is a story about Steve Jobs. Whether they realize it or not, the product people who call themselves artists are all aping him. Jobs famously pushed the original Macintosh team to think of themselves as artists, insisting that the machine’s internals be arranged in a visually-pleasing way even though almost no one would ever see them, and having everyone who worked on the computer sign the inside of the case.
At the time, when computers were utilitarian and design was an afterthought at best, this was a pretty solid move. But just because Steve Jobs could pull something off in the eighties doesn’t mean you can pull the same thing off today.
I maintain that the only product people who can legitimately call themselves artists are the Sandwich Artists® who assemble the delicious products at Subway. But learning from artists is for everyone. At its core, getting better at anything—writing stories, building products, or even making sandwiches—is really just about getting in deeper touch with yourself. Even if what your deeper self is telling you is to build a chair out of your own extracted fat.
Beuys also said, “even the act of peeling a potato can be an artistic act if it is consciously done.” If peeling a potato counts as art, so does clicking a button. Perform your artistic act for the day by clicking the little heart below if you liked this piece.
Counterintuitively, their feedback actually gets less honest the worse your idea is, because if your plans are truly unsalvageable, giving real feedback is pointless. That’s what computer scientist Alan Kay was alluding to when he called the original Mac “the first personal computer good enough to criticize.”