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The Intolerable Misery of Producing a Constant Stream of Worthless Shit in Exchange for Money (Aka “Value”)

4 minutes read

There is no value in the chameleon, only in the unicorn.

Copying is at the very core of human behavior. Observational learning is our earliest method of progressing into consciousness, and we continue to grow from mimicry. And as we age, we increasingly imitate without reason. Memes, after all, are more than an image with text of a pithy saying stylized in Impact font: they are elements of culture passed along through imitation.

This is why you will inevitably end up with a completely horrible job at some point that reduces the entirety of your creative spirit to little more than a human meme generator, only without the lulz.

People can’t help it. We copy. Monkey see, monkey do, right? 🙈 So when everyone is doing something, anything, in marketing (or sales, or engineering, or whatever), it’s assumed you must do it, too.

I’ve fought this for a long time. For one, it’s not realistic. There are simply not enough resources to do everything every competitor is doing. Second, it’s stupid. You’re assuming that what you are copying had a lot of thought, effort, and money behind it, and by copying, you’re taking a shortcut (pro tip: shortcuts are not learning experiences) and saving yourself those resources your competitor used. Right? Nope. It’s only as I’ve firmly reached adulthood that I’ve seen enough to know everyone makes shit up. Everyone takes shortcuts. And everyone gets it wrong.

I will always take to heart this interview with John Sheehan, formerly of Twilio, when he talks about the downfalls of trying to copy a trailblazing company:

When you copy somebody you actually don't know what they regret. We would actually go to events or do certain types of blog post or whatever and then they would just fall flat and we wouldn't do it. Well, our competitors would copy it to the point where sometimes we actually felt like doing honey pots where we would do things to see if they would copy them because we knew they weren't going to be successful.

Sheehan’s tl;dr is the same tl;dr in every talk, book, blog, podcast, etc. on how to blaze your own path and become a legendary company: to be authentic, to be different, to be yourself. At the same time we’re told to embrace our special snowflakeness, we’re also a species plagued by The Chameleon Effect: a nonconscious tendency towards matching our current social environment.

But it is our uniqueness that defines our worth. Economies are based on what is rare, what is scarce, what is difficult to obtain or reproduce or... copy. There is no value in the chameleon, only in the unicorn.

Everyone loves to talk about Steve Jobs and how he did what he did — the implication being, of course, that they’re going to do it, too (👋 Elizabeth Holmes). While he is still one of the most imitated figures in recent history, he became that way precisely because he was perhaps one of the least conformist people (cue the legendary Apple 1984 commercial). He got to where he was by tirelessly and fiercely insisting on the merit and might of his own ideas, and by thinking differently.

But don’t try to tell that to your client. After all, you are not Steve Jobs. You are a human meme generator. And that is why you will inevitably be asked to produce an unending stream of shit.

What is this unending shit stream? It is generic content. It is what everyone else is doing. It is the Current Thing. It is an absence of thought. It is an impossible metric. It is everything that turns your job into a four letter word.

In practice, this looks a lot like spending hours creating emails with low open and click rates. Building social posts with barely any engagement. Writing blogs with no page views. Managing dozens of Google Ads with dismal ROAS (return on ad spend).

How do you fight against the Current Thing? The only strategy that may work is data. Data makes it difficult for the person bent on copying to continue to justify their approach when you can show it isn’t working. Data is objective, and its survival does not depend on it being part of a group.

Provide your client with the numbers behind your social / email / content / whatever strategy, what the industry benchmarks are, and where you’re falling short. Give them fresh ideas for tactics that you can measure. Try AB testing. Run experiments. Use other social networks, different blog channels. Explore. Have a personality. Don’t be afraid to stand out. Embrace your special snowflakeness.

At the end of the day, though, your client may be okay with conformity, and you’ll remain in the extremely odd position of receiving something of value (money) in exchange for continuing to pump surplus content commodities into the market. It’s not really how economics is supposed to work, but we’re in this late-stage capitalism model, and that seems to be how it’s going.

Our priorities are wrong. We are put in positions where we are told it is better to keep the engine churning even as the gears are grinding down, because this machine is foundational to our society, and we don’t know what to do without it. So it’s not just a fight against a client, or boss. It’s a fight against our very human nature that desperately wants to belong, while secretly idolizing the ones that thrive in exile. The irony is, of course, that it will take someone in the out-group to disrupt the failing systems the in-group desperately defends.

So, my tl;dr is that you might as well try to kill your inner chameleon and think differently. Somebody’s got to.

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