Start with you

People don’t buy what you think they want, they buy what you want.

When David Chang started Momofuku’s Noodle Bar, it nearly fell apart because he let himself get pulled in “every direction but the most important one.” The food. He held back on the direction of the food, trying to meet what the market wanted. 

Or so he thought. 

In reality, people didn’t actually have expectations of what they wanted. His perception of their expectations not only discouraged him, it wasn’t even accurate. 

For example, he thought people wanted to eat dumplings so he put them on the menu, but he didn’t like making them. 

As it turns out, his diners didn’t care about dumplings. 

They did see what the chefs made and ate for themselves after they were done service, and they wanted that

It’s true not just in the culinary arts, but also in all other sorts of creative work. We want to make something people love, of course, so we start to focus on them. 

It’s impossible to actually be them, so we focus on what we think they want, instead of what we know we want. 

Ash Huang writes, “How does an artist, especially a working artist, ride the line between some kind of creative career and staying true to their vision? Hopefully this mantra will soothe: Let other people determine what you sell, never what you make.

If you’re doing your art strictly as a hobby, and don’t plan or intend on making it a full-time job, then of course none of this matters. That’s part of the joy too. 

However if you do intend on connecting with people with your art, or are working as a content creator, or a creative independent, that’s the thin line that separates you from being just another commodity: your opinions, your taste, your insight. You. And the more work you do that’s like this, the more you connect with people who think like you, and the more opportunities will come your way.

The main problem with most so-called content strategy and marketing is that it’s too easy to let people determine what you make as well. When that happens, you’re making content and providing a service—and you are not making art.

It’s better to start with ourselves. Let the data give you insight into what’s popular of course, but don’t let what’s popular determine what you make.

“Let other people determine what you sell, never what you make.” It’s a mantra that has bounced around in my head more than a handful of times, which means it’s significant to write about. I appreciate it for its practicality, nuance, and clarity.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my upcoming book Creative Doing.

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