I want to tell you about a paradox involving creative work that, because it's hidden, often holds us back without us realizing. I also need to tell you the story of a seemingly mundane hotel experience that reveals this paradox. But first, I need to tell you about my family's favorite running joke right now.
So, my three-year-old daughter loves to talk. Constantly. She starts talking the moment she wakes up and doesn't stop until she goes to bed. (Even then, I've heard a few tiny mumbles wriggle free.)
She talks to her mother. She talks to me. She talks to her baby brother. She talks to total strangers we meet on the street. She talks to her toys and to herself while she's drawing or playing or going to the bathroom or doing literally any activity that does not physically prevent her from speaking words. (I think the list is: sneezing. That's it.)
As a result, I like to say, "With Aria, there's no inner monologue. There's just monologue."
Gee, I wonder where she gets that.
(Says the professional speaker ... while writing an essay ... about communication ... which references his podcast.)
So yeah, Aria loves to talk, and damn if I don't too. Sharing my ideas and stories with others is the single greatest way I know to change this world for the better. Speaking, whether in written or verbal form, is my calling. It's my craft. It's my everything.
So it's fitting that my actual everything would constantly speak, no matter what she's doing.
But given how much I share (and forgive me when I say this), sometimes I feel like I have nothing new to say to you.
Sometimes, I feel like you've grown tired of my words, even if I have no proof to back up that feeling.
Sometimes, I feel much more like a cover artist than an original. I'm just doing a cheap imitation of someone else, and that someone else is Past Me. Perhaps a version I consider More Successful Me. More Brilliant Me. More Original Me. I'm simply doing an impression, trying to echo a version of myself that, somehow, some way, shaped and shipped something original into the world.
But not THIS me.
THIS me faces endless amounts of friction from stagnation and concerns about being redundant. THIS me has exhausted all the smart words he could possibly share in ways that are insightful and entertaining, as I try to fit my ideas in some coherent way under one umbrella of "my brand." THIS me ... feels stuck.
Alright! Thanks for coming out tonight! We're Resonance Over Reach, and we're gonna play you some hits from your favorite writer and ours...
It took me awhile to figure out why I feel this way, but (and forgive me when I say this), I finally know who to blame.
There's a hotel in Boston that’s pretty nondescript (so naturally, I'm going to try and describe a part of it to you now).
This hotel is part of a big chain you’d expect find in any major city, and like lots of those places, this one offers valet parking. You pull up, leave the keys, and the attendant gives you a small yellow ticket.
On the ticket is a number unique to your car, and just below the number are the following words:
"Thanks for using our valet service! Call us with the number above, and your car will be ready in 30 minutes."
And so, later that morning, if you call the front desk, you expect them to say, thanks, the car will be ready in a half hour. But then a man at the valet desk answers.
"Okay. #34891? Got it. Car will be up in 10 minutes."
You were thinking 30, and they said 10. And if you rush down to the lobby, you'll find your car waiting there ... just five minutes after you called them.
This would happen that evening too, if you wanted to take your car out again. The ticket of course still reads "30 minutes." The man on the phone will once again say 10. And if you hurry down, you'll find the car ready and waiting just five minutes later.
The next morning, yup, sure enough, it happens again.
This is AWESOME, right?
Yeah I mean, at first.
Because a funny thing happens the more you experience this awesomeness. It starts to feel less awesome.
...and on and on this experience comes crashing back down from exceeding your expectations towards simply being the norm. What was once delightful just becomes the thing you expect.
This is the paradox of exceeding expectations.
The moment we do, we’ve subtly changed their expectations. And if we keep doing the same things the same ways every single time, that initial, positive emotion we inspire in others will disappear. What used to resonate falls flat. At best, it becomes predictable and comfortable, but at worst, it becomes forgettable -- even though it started as delightful.
I think about this paradox all the time.
On the one hand, I want to exceed your expectations. I want to impress you every time out. I want to hear from you, too, to know that I did. In fact, I need to hear from you. You saying nice things about my work is the fuel I most rely on to continue my journey. So on one hand, I desperately want to exceed your expectations, but on the other hand, I recognize that this foolish. Because even if I exceed your expectations this time ... then what?
It’s like every single thing I create must be the absolute most impressive thing I have ever shared with you. Otherwise, it's a failure. If I do something impressive once, twice, twelve times ... well, then I guess you just expect that I can do that now. My previous best work, no matter how much it exceeded your expectations initially, is simply what you've grown to expect from me.
Once I exceed your expectations, I've changed them. Once I impress you, that same thing no longer will.
How in the world can I proceed knowing this is our reality as makers?
So, why do I blame YOU when I feel like a cover band? Why do I think YOU are the issue when I want so desperately to exceed expectations but then smash into that paradox? It has nothing to do with you, really. Instead, it's that I've become too focused on you.
Seeking the acclaim of an audience can put us on a dark path, where we begin to remove the self and in favor of "what works" in some generalized sense. All in the name of attention and approval. In moments when I'm trying to exceed your expectations, it's tempting and indeed very likely that I stop scratching my own creative itches. I stop doing the work for me. I stop creating the things I want to exist in this world, stop putting my own unique spin on things. Instead, I start to look externally at what I think you might love.
Extrapolate this out even further, and you get commodity content. Marketers focused on capturing demand from whatever people are searching on Google. Twitter users vomiting templated, overpromised threads. ("Everyone wants to succeed at work. But 99% of people do this wrong.")
It's copycat content. Trend-hopping at its worst. Dilutive ideas that remove all semblances of personal taste or unique insights or memorable personality.
The best case scenario for commodity content is that it's useful but ubiquitous. With commodities, the source doesn't much matter. You can get that same information everywhere, and so the creator must overcompensate for the fact that THEY don't matter, that THEY aren't memorable. So they start pressing harder. They obsess over ranking higher. They look for increasingly clever tactics to trick their ways into your life. They start singing louder.
But they aren't singing any original songs. They're cover artists. And cover artists are everywhere.
If I know you (and I suspect I do), I know you want to do something original in this world.
But seeking the acclaim of others is the road to madness. It causes us to slip further towards forgettable. So yes, cling to your desire to serve others ... but know that the work flows through YOU.
Find a way to put your fingerprints all over each project. Don't scrub them away in an attempt to mimic "what works." You’ll end up with something sterile.
Once I recognized the paradox inherent in this work, the question I started asking was no longer how to exceed your expectations but whether or not I should even try.
Because (and forgive me when I say this), I don't think I should. In fact, I think it's foolish to try.
So how can I proceed? How can you?
We can try to enjoy ourselves, more and more, every time.
We can try to improve our skills, little by little, every week.
In an era that celebrates people who do everything for public attention and acclaim, we can turn inward instead. There, in the quiet, we can recognize when we start feeling bored by the work. We can spot stagnation before it swallows us. We can sense what frustrates us and what delights us -- then do more of the latter.
Whether we add a fun gag or twist on top of something we've created a hundred times or we embark on an entirely new creative adventure is entirely up to us. But through it all, we simply can't lose sight of the fact that this work, though we ship it to others, is really for us.
This too is a paradox. Is our work for others, or is it for us? The answer is a resounding YES. We operate at the Venn diagram overlap between "Things For Us" and "Things For Them." Except the two circles of the diagram completely overlap, sitting squarely (circley?) on top of each other.
My work is for you. Yes.
But my work is for me. Yes, yes, YES.
I'm writing this piece today for me.
I'm crafting Unthinkable into what it is for me.
I'm doing everything I can to make what I want.
Because I want to give you what you need.
How do we proceed once we understand the paradox of exceeding expectations? We stop trying to delight others and start trying to delight ourselves. In doing so, a wonderful byproduct emerges: we routinely delight others. After all, if we don't consistently get better, how can the work? If we don't consistently love it, how can anyone else?
By simply focusing on our own momentum, abilities, and aspirations, then just maybe -- and quite happily -- we’ll serve others better too.
Yes, it seems the best way to solve the paradox of exceeding others' expectations is equally paradoxical: