The Hollywood Quote We All Got Wrong

There was no new installment of The Voice In My HED last week. And there might not be an episode next week. There’s a Hollywood director the gurus love to quote, with a line that would make you think the week off spells certain doom for my future. Except that people who quote the line, misinterpreted it.

Just a heads up – this week’s piece is only useful for people who create stuff. Whether you create a podcast or Reuben sandwiches, action movies or bentwood rockers, if you create something, this is for you.

Here’s an audio version of this piece for your dining and dancing pleasure.

Not long ago, we talked about the Podcasting Cool Kids Club, and how in my opinion they’ve been erecting false barriers to entry with the insistence of a number of self-appointed gurus that unless you spend X amount on your microphone, your podcast will be unlistenable and unworthy. And by the way, before I go further, let me put one final thought forward on that point. If the cure for cancer was going to be announced exclusively on the next episode of your show, but that the guest was going to make the exclusive announcement via a bullhorn that was a block away down the street, millions and millions of people would still want to listen. The further away you get from announcing the cure for cancer in terms of compelling content, the more important your audio quality becomes. In other words, your audio quality is critical if your content needs all the help it can get. And in the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

We also recently addressed an often misused quote from Wayne Gretzky, who said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Unfortunately, people interpreted that as an encouragement to use “Fire, Ready, Aim” as a strategy, forgetting that in business circles, the “V” in “MVP” stands for “VIABLE”. Your Minimum VIABLE Product needs to at least be VIABLE. So I think Gretzky’s line should be interpreted more along the lines of not letting perfection be the enemy of the good.

So this time around, I want to address another of the gurus’ favorite crutches, because there’s one out there that’s serving you even more poorly than obsessing over mostly inaudible yet potentially expensive incremental improvements in audio quality.

I was talking to a radio station General Manager last week – they’re short-staffed, and one of their areas of concern is in the Copy Department, where we’re taking on a number of their copywriting projects because there just aren’t enough minds to wrap around all the commercial writing work that needs to be done. But in addition, he’s short-staffed in the Sales Department. He said, “If I just give somebody an account list that’s full of annual accounts and all they do is maintenance, they’ll make 30-35K a year on auto-pilot. But someone who was willing to actually do the work would make 60 without breaking a sweat.”

And that got me thinking about the quote from the legendary Hollywood director who said, “80% of success is just showing up.” The name of the director is irrelevant because, quite frankly, I find him to be a repugnant and repulsive human being, but his line about success is important, even if most of its importance comes from the ways people are misusing it.

The reason there was no new stuff from The Voice In My HED last week is because even though I had five or six ideas in development, I couldn’t advance any of them to a stage where I’d be proud to put them out. They weren’t “ready for Broadway,” as the saying goes. If I use what the director said as my north star, that 80% of success is just showing up, I would have taken one of those lumps of coal and put it in your stocking without applying the pressure required to turn it into a diamond. And I would have convinced myself that a lump of coal was just as good as a diamond, because after all, I showed up.

This is most of the basis, by the way, for selling Artificial Intelligence engines that lie to you by saying they can write copy that’s just as good as the copy a human could write. And maybe I shouldn’t use the phrase, “lie to you”. I’m sure there are humans who are just as bad at writing as the AI engines are. It’s part of why we’re getting set to launch our new Copywriting 101 course, but that’s for a later conversation. But if the level of writing produced by an AI becomes the standard, then what will be absolutely true is that the whole standard has taken a massive dump, and the written word will become less and less valuable as it becomes less and less effective. But hey, at least the poorly-written AI copy will keep your name out there, right?

And that’s what I think was the genesis for the 80% quote.

There’s no delicate way to say this, and I don’t mean to offend, but the fact that you’re listening to me right now suggests that what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to you anyway: So many people are getting into creative pursuits with substandard skill sets that it seems all you need to make a living is… a pulse. Look, for example. at how many plugins there are for bloggers that will take someone else’s exceptional, original work and re-word it just enough to pass legal muster and present it as your own. Or look at how many music artists launch their careers with an album full of samples. Or the often murky world of fashion knock-offs, where the only skill you really need is to be able to steal ideas from someone else who has actual talent.

But once you’ve shown up, if you can do work that’s exceptional, then you’re on to something.

Music history is filled with examples of recording acts who signed seven-album deals with the record label, and ran out of gas after the fifth one, so put out garbage for the last record or two and completely tarnished their legacy. And any halfway serious Star Trek fan will tell you, people new to the franchise would do well to ignore the odd-numbered movies from the Shatner and Nimoy era. For example, skip Star Trek: The Motion Picture and start with The Wrath of Khan.

So let me take the line from that Hollywood director, and hopefully reframe the way you think about it.

80% of success is just showing up, because that’s what 80% of people do. They just show up. They get home from work and when someone asks how their day was, they don’t have anything exciting or interesting to talk about, because all they did that day was show up. Didn’t do anything noteworthy, and certainly didn’t do anything they were juiced about sharing when it was done.

To access that remaining 20% is to literally be exceptional. And before you infer some pressure-packed meaning from my use of the word, “exceptional”, I’m just talking about the literal use of the math. If 80% of people just show up, then the other 20% who go beyond showing up, are the exceptions. You didn’t need to win an Oscar, a Pulitzer or a Grammy to be exceptional. You just needed to do more than show up.

Be better.

And if you can’t BE better yet, GET better. There are hundreds of bona fide, qualified teachers out there who will help you address a specific skill set where you or your coach has identified a deficiency. Or, you could stick with the gurus who’ll suggest that creating something substandard – that lessens your brand or even worse, your legacy – is more important than doing work you can be proud of. I’m consistently amazed by the number of people who’ve elevated themselves to guru status by putting forward either workarounds or excuses for putting out into the world that’s less than exceptional. That with the right technological tricks, or the right marketing, you can obfuscate the flaws in a substandard product and still be successful.

There is no rule that says everyone who ever discovers you has to discover everything you’ve ever done. If you build a hundred chairs, and 99 of them are incredible but one of them is crap, there’s no rule that says my first experience with you won’t be with the crappy one. If your really lousy “contractual obligation” album is the first one I listen to, it’s probably going to be the only one I listen to and I’ll be done with you. If I discover your radio show ten minutes after your Mick Jagger interview aired, I don’t care that Mick Jagger was on. I care about what you’re doing now, and what you’re doing now will form the basis for my opinion about whether I’m sticking with you. If I’ve seen your last four movies and I loved them all, but the fifth one is a dud, I have the first four to fall back on and I’m likely still going to be a fan. But if the dud is my first exposure to you, then “dud” is the only personal experience I have to go by.

If I come to your restaurant and order the filet mignon that got rave reviews from the food critic in the newspaper and it arrives at my table overcooked and oversalted, I don’t leave the restaurant thinking I must have shown up on an off night, and I’ll come back and order it again tomorrow. I leave the restaurant. Period. And it probably also damages the credibility of the food critic in my eyes, too.

It sounds trite to say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” but it’s trite because it’s true. If 80% of success is just showing up, wouldn’t you rather have that first impression formed on the basis of one of your exceptional days?

Then the trick is to have more of those exceptional days. Maybe have them often enough that for you, the exception becomes the norm.

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