Being Popular vs. Being Good

“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 I know 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.

32 Responses to “Being Popular vs. Being Good”

  1. Mike Ramm

    I think the best way is to make a compromise. First you work for popularity because popularity sells. But you must always know that you are making a compromise. Then, after you gain enough popularity (there can be some measurable threshold) you can start working on being good. When you are popular people will forgive you “the change in the course” if you are good enough.

    The biggest problem I see is that during the times of building your popularity you may start enjoying being popular and may forget your main goal – to be good.

    Reply
  2. Kai

    I’m trying to be creative with my (relative) popularity and to let the good work or good art speak for itself.

    It’s almost like crowd control of my “customers”. For example, I have candidly scaled back doing translations, even though I’m fairly good at it and there’s a demand. I won’t just blow people off, but explain to them that I’m moving into another direction. Most people who seek a working relationship with me, rather than just a service delivered, understand. Those who can use my new services will go along because they value my good work. But it takes some confidence that your new endeavours will be at least as good as the popular you’re leaving behind.

    I divide up the space and time for work vs. art, but it’s the same creative energy, channeled into different outlets: Structured writing of documentation at work, songs and stories for my art. In both cases, I value good efforts over popular results: Popularity is fickle, but bad efforts nag me continuously.

    Two books approach these issues from the artsy side, but they’re also helpful to understand creativity at work (pun intended):
    – Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit”
    – David Bayles’ and Ted Orland’s “Art and Fear”
    Both titles are good – and apparently popular…

    Thanks for a post that, for me, comes at the right time and gives me the oppoortunity to tie up loose ends I’ve been toying with.

    Reply
  3. Scott

    Thanks Mike.

    I think any way you slice this pie it’s a slippery slope… Slippery slope pie. There are compromises in every direction.

    The trap of course is how much your sense of “good” matches the group of people you are trying to sell to.

    There is a reason Tom Waits will never be as popular as Brittany Spears. Many reasons in fact. But one is I doubt Mr. Waits ever cared about being seen as “good” to as many people as Ms. Spears.

    Another dimension I didn’t get to in the post is about Time. Van Gogh was not seen as “good” in his lifetime, but is considered good by more people 100 years later than most of the contemporaries who were very popular, and very good, in his time.

    So is there a timeless kind of goodness? Is it worth striving for? I think that’s a question this inquiry eventually leads to.

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  4. Scott

    Kai: Art and Fear is an AMAZING book. Love that book. I read it once a year or so. Thanks for mentioning it. I should go and read it again soon :)

    Reply
  5. Kai

    Even though Van Gogh is considered good today, he may well be an “artiste who insists on telling you how stupid you are for not seeing how brilliant his work is”. One of the curses of popularity is being considered good for the right work, but the wrong reasons.

    Joni Mitchell is both an example and a witness to Van Gogh in “Turbulent Indigo”:

    Brash fields crude crows/In a scary sky
    In a golden frame/Roped off/Tourists guided by
    Tourists talking about the madhouse
    Talking about the ear
    The madman hangs in fancy homes
    They wouldn’t let him near!
    He’d piss in their fireplace!
    He’d drag them through Turbulent Indigo

    Reply
  6. Robert John Ed

    This is a really interesting topic in so many ways. Balancing the two is difficult, but it can be done. True visionaries can make the good popular, but in some instances it’s impossible.

    What I find interesting is that the “popular” are really a step behind. To be “good” you must be ahead of what is already happening, this applies to business, art of all kinds and more. This sounds like convoluted thinking and probably is, but to be good is to embrace change and advance. To be popular is to use what already works and play on tendencies of the crowds. The crowd rarely sees the value of something new, they almost always recognize reiterations of what was once good.

    Reply
  7. Karen McGrane

    I think this is a particularly timely essay, given the increased awareness of “popularity” that comes from social media, as measured by number of Twitter followers, etc. I have had numerous conversations with people in recent weeks about the career success/notoriety that can arise solely from putting energy into becoming “internet famous.” The visible rewards (my count went up!) of focusing on this may distract people from the internal sense of accomplishment that comes from doing “good” work. I know many talented designers who do not seek to be weblebrities, and I know other people who are famous for being famous, even though I couldn’t tell you anything about the quality of their work.

    Reply
  8. Scott

    Karen: rock on. There’s also the old addage that the speed at which something is aquired, the speed at which it will be lost.

    To rocket to popularity quickly means it’s unlikely to have been based on much substance, and it doesn’t hold for long or carry much weight.

    I think respect from respected peers is under-rated, and rarely measured in web traffic, facebook friends, or even twitter followers.

    Reply
  9. Buster McLeod

    The phrase I came up with many years ago which helps me find the right way to approach wanting to be good and popular, is, “Build reputation, avoid credit.” I think building reputation is a lot harder to game than building popularity, mostly because it has “goodness” built into it. The “avoid credit” part is really just to emphasize the fact that you shouldn’t try to build reputation by seeking credit, because that is an easy trap towards seeking results over actual substance.

    Reply
  10. Kevin Morrill

    Ditto to what Karen said! People are a bit obsessed with baseless popularity in social media.

    I am a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, and he is a case study in many extremes of being popular vs. being good. One of my favorite lines from his autobiography:

    “But whom are you goign to build homes for? If you go against their wishes and try to give them what you think right and not what they thing they want?”

    “That’s just where a wise creator comes in, Cecil. I won’t need but one man in ten thousand to work for–even one man in a hundred thousand would keep me more than busy all my life, because that man will need me as much as I need him and he will be looking for me.”

    Trust that being good will get you there, especially in an age where marketing to niches is easier.

    Reply
  11. Bob Balaban

    Interesting and valid distinction. I suspect that most of us live in the compromise world of “good enough”. Time and financial pressures force us to move on, perhaps before we really want to. Sometimes we want the sense of closure a major milestone can bring, even though we know the product could be better (which is not to say that we are not still proud of it).

    Sometimes we get the chance to declare something “good enough” and “done”, yet still revisit it for improvements later.

    Reply
  12. Chris Furniss

    This is something I feel like I’ve been struggling with my whole life. I was always frustrated in school, being an unpopular kid. I created art, participated in things and was of above-average intelligence, but it always seemed like people didn’t care about that kind of thing. Later on, I started creating more public art by doing a webcomic. That was one of the most ego-dwindling things an artist can do to themselves. No matter how great you think your stuff is, no one seems to want to see it. For me, it’s not something I feel I can consciously control, either. I want to make great things and become popular for it, but I think that want is a bit more subconscious than anything. I know that I need to enjoy what I am doing, and that enjoyment *should* be fulfilling in of itself, but something inside me is always making me feel inadequate for not having, say, as many twitter followers as someone who I feel doesn’t create as much as I do. In the past few years I’ve been able to reconcile this a bit, I run a fairly popular gaming podcast and blog, and have found satisfaction in the connections I’ve made with people, and the friends made along the way. But it’s still a struggle. When people don’t comment much on an article, or if a podcast that I feel is particularly great isn’t downloaded much, it kind of chips away at my want to continue.

    A difficult subject for artists. Thanks for putting it in perspective.

    Reply
  13. Fabio Mengue

    Talking about artists…I believe that many of them don’t have this choice (being popular or being good). They can’t really choose. They are one step close to “another world”, if you like it.

    I work at a University. Once the head of the Art Department said: “Almost all artists have to be out of their “comfort zone” to produce art. It’s really a challenge to lead a department in which half people are on the verve and the other half are depressed”.

    Oh, and Tom Waits is the best :)

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  14. Jason Crawford

    Scott–once again you cut right to the essentials. Very interesting post.

    I don’t see it as a “balance” between popular and good. I think both are important, but being good is *fundamental*. If you’re not good, then how can you really be popular for very long? (I mean, you can be a likable though incompetent guy, but that’s different.)

    My approach is to focus first on being good. Assuming I succeed at that, I try to show my best side to people, put my best foot forward, and generally communicate as clearly as possible and sell myself as well as I can. I trust that whatever popularity I can achieve will come from other people seeing and understanding the value I can provide/create.

    I’m curious, have you ever read The Fountainhead? It deals with this theme. Two of the main characters take opposite sides on this issue–one choosing to care only about popularity, one choosing to care only about the value of his work. The novel shows what happens to both of them–in the short term and the long term. Part of its theme is that value and innovation comes from the independent mind that focuses on what is true and right regardless of what others think.

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  15. Ashley

    I think it’s more important to strive for that “goodness” over popularity. The thing about popularity is that it’s fleeting and fickle. One day you could be on top and the next, something or someone else has taken your place. As long as popularity is your higher priority, then what you create will have to be just as fickle in order to maintain it’s high stature.

    On the other hand, goodness is driven more for an internal desire — for personal accomplishment based on the true expression of yourself. So it may not be popular, but it will gain a following of people who admire it and what’s more, people will respect it, even if begrudgingly.

    Van Gogh is not my favorite painter. Still, I can’t deny that his work is worth respecting due to it’s truely unique vision and master craftsmanship.

    I think respect is the great gap between popularity and “goodness”. You’re being admired for something of substance.

    Forget what Mike says about selling yourself for popularity first and then “goodness” second. Those people are called sellouts and disliked for a reason. Earn their respect the old-fahioned way (hard work, dedication, risk-taking, confidence, passion), accept criticism, and see the value in what you’ve done because even if they don’t like you, they think you’re still worth something.

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  16. Ashley

    An unrelated point I would like to add —

    One theory is that the 20 somethings and teenagers of today (the target market for social media) are so focused on popularity is because of increased divorce rates. If you can’t rely on your family for the love and support you need, you look to others. They think, ‘Celebrities seem to be loved and get a ton of attention, I want that too!’

    Then again, I’m only 21 so I can’t say if this is any different from generations past.

    Reply
  17. Nathan Bashaw

    You’re totally right – “There are compromises in every direction.”

    Art itself is a compromise. The artist always has the picture of the perfect thing in their mind, and they want to share it. The problems start to happen when you deal with finite things – words, images, sounds, shapes, whatever.

    Art is essentially social. Otherwise why bother translating your vision into reality through some medium? Why not let it remain that perfect thing in your head?

    The way I see it you’ve got two options as an artist:

    1) Delude yourself into thinking you’ve never got to compromise about anything, and suffer the mental consequences of being unable to admit that what you’ve made is a compromise from the start, and imperfect, or

    2) Embrace the compromise as a creative constraint. Pick your audience and don’t worry about anyone else. Always strive for the impossible goal of finite perfection, but understand that it’s impossible and be okay with always getting closer, but never getting to the destination.

    Reply
  18. Rolf Skyberg

    Somewhat tangential: reminds me of an anecdote regarding authors, and a particular distaste of marketing their own work. As if even knowing how to sell it (thus, making it popular), would taint their product.

    The anecdote goes that a marketing consultant brought into train the authors says, “so, you know they call it best SELLING author and not best WRITING author, right?”

    Reminds me that the “most popular” individuals within a given field can very frequently not be the “best” or most qualified, but have done the best job marketing what they’ve got.

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  19. JohnO

    I used to be obsessed with being popular. Call it a crisis of self-confidence. Now I just don’t care about that. I’ve found the things I care about. I do them. And I minimize my chances of doing anything I don’t care about. I’m much happier that way, and so is everyone else.

    As for balancing the good and popular, I’ve chosen not to. Balance is a weird thing that I never achieve. Luckily I don’t have to make business decisions for anyone else. That is the bosses job. But I tell them to make the good decision, not the popular one.

    Reply
    • Jill

      Well done Johno. Doing things you care about is really the best way to maintain your own popularity with yourself. Which is really the most important kind of popularity!

      Reply
  20. Scott Berkun

    Rolf: Perhaps there are different kinds of popularity based on what’s motivating it. One author might be popular for the sophistication of his work (say, Salmon Rushdie), but also for something entirely PR related (being an author who was visibly threatened with death for one of his books).

    I think about the idea of fame. Many people want to be famous, whereas only some think about what it is they wish to be famous for. Anyone can be famous for doing awful, horrible, or media-grabbing things, but that doesn’t mean very much. Being famous for good reasons – for solving a problem, for being of use, for having a talent, for working hard, those are the noble reasons for being famous. But to get famous doing those things requires more work and more time and has perhaps few guarantees.

    Reply
  21. Allegra Searle-LeBel

    You’re right – it is a narrow tightrope. The way I balance this is by first identifying and then maintaining my baseline of what is “good” or perhaps even “excellent” quality work, or even the direction of my work. This gives me somewhere to go when audiences ask for something different, or when clients have specific requests for pieces. By establishing my own baseline and then comparing requests to it I can see if the work could align and create satisfaction for all parties involved. I know both that my artistic integrity will not be compromised in the pursuit of temporary popularity, and that the desires of the audience will be respected. Saying no is an important tool here: sometimes I may just not be the right fit, and am happy to pass the work on to others.

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  22. Naer

    Being popular or being good are subjectively we choose to face the world and others. Out of control, out of power since uniqueness existing.

    Objectively or selfish enough to care about ourselves, and think of Doing popular or Doing good. Is there an equation?

    We do good to ourselves and others, since we can’t market Good globally, nor domestically, doing good is not to goal the popularity. We do popular to raise good feelings for those, provide satisfaction, given guidance… to those. We achieve our own good, and popular in others.

    Am i making sense? :) Often not, and i am not a guru, nobody!

    Reply
  23. Jill

    I was doing a little soul searching and googled, ‘what good is it to be popular’, and found your post. You are right, about having a balance to create what is good, as opposed to making something with the goal of popularity, which is always short lived. In the long run, we all have to be a peace with who we are and truly like who we REALLY are. I felt better after reading your post. I was not looking at it from a business perspective, more on a personal integrity viewpoint. Thanks

    Reply
  24. Tynan Sylvester

    The Venn Diagram:

    One circle is good.
    One circle is popular.

    They overlap.

    Choose projects in the overlapping part. Good and popular don’t have to fight. They often do, sadly. But I think it’s avoidable if you choose your work carefully.

    Reply
  25. Liam

    You said it right, it’s a tightrope. There’s a point of intersection at which being your best most genuine and creative self meets characteristics that develops mass appeal, popularity. When you selfishly indulge in one over the other, you are fighting an up hill battle. You’re working less efficiently towards your goal of achievement AND compensation. Walking that rope is ideally where you want to be all of the time.

    This may mean that some of your most brilliant ideas won’t be heard by the world because they’re inherently not-popular; on the other hand, it may mean you won’t ever satisfy your core clientele or fans100% of the time. You must walk the line, keep your best work private for those who will benefit from it,and act cool even when you don’t feel like it.

    Overall though, how hard you hustle, market, and sell yourself makes all the difference. Even an artiste who is perceived as insane can sell themselves if they persist and reach many people rather than insisting on being a shut-in hermit.

    Reply
  26. Skeleton Man

    I am fine with taking commissions, especially if I need the money, but I must admit I hate doing it. I have my own stories to tell and my own works to create. Does that make me an “artiste”? I honestly don’t know. There comes a time, though, when I ask what’s the point of doing it if you can’t do what you want? There are easier ways to make money after all. Go work on Wall Street. Why be a writer, or artist or animator at all?

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. […] Being Popular vs. Being Good « Scott Berkun. …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… […]

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