“Plenty of what’s popular isn’t good, and plenty of what’s good isn’t popular”
One of the grand confusions of modern life is the confusion between what is good and what is popular. Most of the time people confuse being popular with being good, which isn’t necessarily true.
I knew a guy in high school. He was very popular. But I don’t think anyone would say he was good at anything. Not really.
I also knew another guy in high school. He was pretty good at lots of things. But for some reason, he wasn’t very popular.
I suspect if these two guys ever met the universe would have exploded. Good thing that didn’t happen.
The temptation many creative people have is to strive for popularity. To make, do, and say things that other people like in the hopes of pleasing them. This motivation is nice. And sometimes the end result is good. But often what happens in trying so hard to please other people, especially many other people, the result is mediocre. Their internal goodness detector is disappointed with what they make. And worse, sometimes the results are awful. Popularity often comes at a price: going for bland, crass, predictable and meaningless, instead of interesting, delicate, complex and meaningful.
And then there are the artistes. People who develop their own sense of what they think is good and insist on striving for it, no matter what anyone else says. Provided they don’t expect anyone else to care, these people are quite interesting. Although there is nothing worse than an artiste who insists on telling you how stupid you are for not seeing how brilliant their work is.
Digging through history I’ve found it interesting how characters like Van Gogh, Michelangelo, and Bukowski balanced the popular vs. good challenge. Most famous artists took commissions, and in some cases those commissions resulted in their most famous work (For example, Da Vinci and Michelangelo had clients and lived mostly on commission income. If you wonder why much of what’s in museums are portraits of old wealthy people, it’s because they’re the only ones who could afford to pay for paintings). In other cases, like Bukowski, Henry Miller, Van Gogh, they never really compromised. Sometimes to their own detriment.
But what most creative people want, all the ones I know, is to be both good and popular. They want to achieve their own sense of goodness, while at the same time pleasing other people. It’s a tightrope. Especially once you’ve been popular here or there, people tend to want more of the same. And that rarely fits in with a creative person’s sense of goodness. So a few big popular victories early on can put handcuffs on how good, from the creators standpoint, they can ever be while still being popular. My first book was on project management, and I suspect for some people, no matter how many books I write on other things, I’ll always be the project management guy. And that’s ok.
How do you balance your own sense of good vs. your sense of popular? Do you find clear places where they are in conflict (say your client’s sense of good vs. your own?) How to you balance this out and stay sane? Do you divide your creative energy into “work creative” and “personal creative”, giving yourself a safe place to be an artiste? Or is this more than you’ve ever thought about what is, perhaps, a silly and pretentious line of thinking?
Whatever your opinion, I’d like to hear it.