“Sharing is caring.” “Everybody gets a turn.” “All of our contributions are valuable.”
These and other cultural traps are well-meaning, especially for children who need to be taught compassion. But if taken to their extreme conclusions and universally applied, they can stifle individuality and lead to a passive, overly accommodating mindset.
You have a vision. You have something vital to tell the world.
Are you going to listen to everybody’s suggestion? Are you going to make every tweak somebody else thinks your vision needs?
I say no. I say, if you believe in what you’re doing, it’s better to be a tyrant.
I don’t mean you should imprison or execute everybody who stands in your way, as tempting as that sounds. I mean that you should pursue your vision with a ruthless determination and only ask a few trusted individuals for their unvarnished take on what it is you’re doing.
Yes-Men and No-Men
Nobody likes yes-men. What’s more, yes-men aren’t useful. Whether in your job, your art, politics, or in your family, yes-men feed into groupthink and are awful at helping you recognize blind spots. They’re really just buttering you up because they want something in return.
Logic would then seem to suggest it better to cultivate skepticism, contrarianism, and being argumentative. In short, to be–or to surround yourself with–no-men.
No-men are people who aren’t afraid to “speak truth to power,” as the cliché goes, reigning in bad ideas and pointing out the blind spots and other errors in a visionary’s plan.
But what about the visionary?
Focus-Grouped to Death
Alexander Cortes was tweeting recently about the importance of having a singular creative vision. He discussed not letting others influence what a creator knows in his heart to be the correct course of action, making sure not to let the end-product be diluted by meddling hands who think they know better.
Did Beethoven have a bunch of no-men surrounding him as he composed? Did Hemingway or Shakespeare bounce ideas off of their friends and family who just told them what they didn’t like, building a story-by-committee? Did Steve Jobs listen to everyone who told him his ideas couldn’t be done? Did Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg try to please everybody on set when bringing their stories to life?
The problem with focus-grouping things to appeal to everybody is that you end up with a bland, beige end-product. It will come off as inauthentic, which defeats the purpose of trying to share a part of yourself in what you’re doing.
I recently wrote a post called “Bowie, Zappa, and Prince: What We Can Learn From Music’s Wonderful Weirdos.” All three men were rather insular and, while they had collaborators, generally kept an iron grip on creative control:
“You are your own brand.” We hear this all he time today. But what does this mean?
Bowie, Prince, and Zappa provide great examples of this philosophy. People had a problem with their music, the famous example being a record exec’s statement that Zappa had “no commercial potential,” something he proudly used as a slogan, even emblazoning it on some album art.
And take a look at Prince. The guy could play every instrument, and often did, so that each part of his vision was just the way he heard it in his head.
Undaunted, each of them pursued their musical visions, trends (mostly) be damned. Bowie was fronting a hard rock band dressed as an androgynous alien, for crying out loud.
Control freaks? Probably. But they had the track record to back it up.
Lesson: Listen to others, but if you have a vision you believe in, and are willing to live with the downside if fails, don’t let anybody change your mind.
There’s nothing wrong with sounding boards, or having a trusted friend that can reign in your excesses. But at the end of the day if you have a vision, it’s best to pursue it and let the market dictate whether or not it’s a success.
If you believe in what you’re doing–and you should, or otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it, don’t be afraid to be a bit of a tyrant.
I’m with Alexander: You don’t need to listen to the input of 20 or 30 people, whether they’re telling you “yes” or “no.” They may be jealous, they may have conflicting egos, or they just might not know what they are talking about.
At the end of the day, what you are doing is yours. You have a story. Only you know what it’s like to be you. And believe it or not, everybody else wants to hear it.
Here are three principles that have worked for me in various projects, whether they be at work or in more creative realms:
- Limit your sounding boards both in number and to people with actual expertise. I’ve found three-to-five trusted confidants to be a good number. Anything beyond that gets unwieldy. And if you’re composing a symphony, say, other musicians or people with musical knowledge have the most useful input.
- Keep one no-man and one person with limited to no expertise on your panel. It’s good to know that one guy who tends to hate everything. It can be useful to run things by them, even if they’re not necessarily an expert in your field, and in some cases especially if they’re not. Why? Because like it or not, you do have blind-spots, and those who are keyed in to detecting them, or those who are approaching things from a completely different angle, might be able to pick up on things that you’ve missed. Just don’t rely exclusively on these people, or take everything they have to say into consideration.
- Be willing to accept the blame if things go belly up. This last one will help if you’re in a collaborative environment, but can also apply to individual efforts. Generally, you will have more credibility, and probably win most people who don’t have the stomach for risk over to your side, if you make it clear that you’ll be responsible for things if they go wrong. If you’re going to be the visionary, you need to be the one that takes the bad with the good. In other words, a leader. That said, you also shouldn’t be afraid of taking the credit when things turn out great.
So go out there and be a tyrant. Not everybody’s going to like it what you do, but at least it will be pure.
And spoiler alert: People are probably going to like it.