Attention. Uhhumm. Attention everyone. Hey! Listen up! What’s wrong with you people? I’ve got something that you might just want to hear! Why is it so difficult to get anyone’s attention these days?
I have asked myself this question quite a bit, not only when trying to learn new ways to get attention for my clients, but in figuring out how to make the topics I love to write about more marketable in an over-saturated, over-worked, overly rushed marketplace. What does it take to stand out these days? And I’m not talking about having the next best-seller, platinum record, or prestigious show at the Metropolitan. I’m talking about garnering enough attention to make a living wage off what you love to do.
I haven’t figured it out yet, I’m still counting my pennies at the end of the month, but what I have done is begin to make peace with the effort. When a friend began raving about a 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called The Black Swan, I became intrigued by the psychology of, in relation to marketing the creative arts, something he writes in the beginning of Part 1:
“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.”
Ok, so not the best marketing slogan for someone wanting to sell books. And if you carry it a little farther, you could say “Heard music is far less valuable than unheard music” or “Seen art is far less valuable than unseen art.” But here’s Taleb’s point.
“We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order…we take what we know a little too seriously.”
Taleb goes on at length to explain the phenomenon of “black swan” occurrences, or highly improbable events with three basic characteristics: 1) they could not have been predicted 2) they had massive impact and 3) we try to explain (and, I might add, figure out how to repeat the financially lucrative events) afterwards. He cites 911 and the meteoric rise of Google as prominent black swans, but believes that black swan events are the norm rather than the exception. Taleb contends that being wired to believe that we can understand, explain and predict anything in the world is a basic human pathology that keeps us enslaved to what we know rather than open to the relevancy of what we don’t know. Hence, we don’t like to even acknowledge the existence of black swans. Accepting unpredictability doesn’t reinforce our ego’s delusion that we can figure out anything and everything if we just put our minds to the task. It’s damn near impossible for most of us to grasp that stepping into the uncertainty of our existence is the first step to truly being free.
Alright, so what does this have to do with marketing, particularly marketing creative material? My guess is that it’s critical in the increasingly massive information age where we now exist. We are going to have to change our thinking, to accept at a very deep level that there are more books than can possibly be read, more music than can ever be heard and more art than can ever be seen. Nothing that worked the first time will work again in the same way. No amount of hard work and perserverence will make a dent in the sheer volume of material available. There is too much to pay attention to, with very few useful ways to sort it out. What ends up rising to the top of the barrel is completely random.
I’m not saying that we should throw out everything we know about delivering books, music and art to the widest audience possible. We still have to do what we know how to do. What I am suggesting however, is that when we understand that nothing we do to predict success is valid, we give POSITIVE black swans more space to arise from our creativity. Once we let go of what we know about successful writers, musicians and artists–once we stop trying to explain the successes of popular creative icons–once we refuse to accept our brain’s propensity for rewarding what we already know with even more attention rather than encouraging a healthy curiosity about what we don’t know–we can begin to benefit from the “successful” black swans rather than try to emulate, envy or curse their luck. And how do we do that, you ask?
Always keep more books we haven’t read in the library than we’ve read. Don’t waste precious energy analyzing what’s already been done, why it worked and how to make it happen again. Let the inherent unpredictability of life free our creative spirit. And most of all, awaken to the black swans everywhere. They have a whole lot to teach us about what we don’t know. And maybe, just maybe, giving our full attention to what we love will get some attention in return.
But I’m not betting on it. I’m just doing it and seeing what happens.
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