One Question All Creators Must Ask Themselves

It’s an important question, yet a difficult one to ask. When you look at your work, your art, or whatever value you’re adding to the world, at some point, you have to ask, “Would they miss me if was gone?”

This isn’t a life or death hypothetical. “They” might be customers and “me” might be a product. But whether you’re an entrepreneur, writer, or any type of worker, you should know where you stand with your audience. Is anyone looking forward to what you do next or is what you create being consumed simply because it’s there?

Put another way: Do you matter or are you being tolerated?

Because of all the metrics used to measure success — how much you matter is the one you should be most focused.

What does it mean to matter?

Long Island rock band, Brand New recently released their 5th studio LP, Science Fiction, selling 58,000 copies in its opening week, making it the number one album in the world.

What’s most impressive about this is that the album was released without any press, a single, or a hint from the band that new music was on the way. In fact, from the outside, it appeared that the band wanted to be forgotten. Fans had been begging for new music for 8 years (since their last album) and, in return, received mostly silence and cryptic hints of a breakup.

This release felt as though the band finally caved in and said “Fine if you insist…Here it is.”

Think about the media machines needed to propel most releases to number one. Press tours, radio singles, music videos, strategic “song leaks” and planted “stories.” Yet, Brand New managed to top the charts with just one social media post.

That’s what it means to matter. When your audience not only waits but frantically begs for more.

How many of us can say that about our work? More importantly, for how many of us is that the goal?

Where Do You Stand?

You certainly don’t need 50,000 die-hard fans in order to matter. And most creators have to be tolerated by the masses before they can ever hope to matter to a few. If you think about your favorite TV shows or podcasts, you’ll notice there are varying levels of those which matter — some of which you first only tolerated.

When I look at the newsletters I subscribe to I see three tiers:

  • The ones I open only if nothing else is happening in my inbox
  • The ones I’m happy to see and make time to read
  • And then there are those which I actively anticipate. The ones where I’d feel a personal loss if they didn’t arrive on schedule.

As someone who sends out a weekly newsletter of his own, I humbly aspire to one day reach that third tier.

So how do you measure how much you matter? While questioning work under this new lens is an important step, most metrics won’t tell you the whole story. New followers and email subscribers are fun and exciting and a sales spike looks great on a spreadsheet. But as Seth Godin — who’s spoken at length about what it means to matter — points out, being effective doesn’t mean you matter.

He reminds us that, “Commercials are effective.” Commercials sell beer, cars, and diamond rings, but they are something we tolerate. Something we actively avoid when possible.

The easiest way to discover where you stand with your customers or audience is to simply stop producing. If you don’t write a new article, or put out a new video this week, who’s knocking at your door asking for it?

This is, of course, unrealistic for those of us who depend on our work for income. But if we remove our ego, we can objectively look at the type of feedback we get for hints. Is anyone asking questions? Are they asking for more?

Is the feedback you receive mostly, “Nice job.” Or, “Love this!”

Rick Rubin famously said, “The best art divides the audience.” In order to matter you have to strike a deep chord. You’ll probably have to piss some people off. And you will certainly need to take bigger risks than what’s required for a few hundred, “well done,” pats on the back from your peers.

Overwhelm Your Audience

If by reading this you’ve come to the conclusion that, at this point, your work is mostly tolerated, don’t worry — you’re in good company. Much of what we consume on a daily basis doesn’t actually matter. Would you miss 80% of what you engage with on social media if it just disappeared one day? Probably not.

And it’s not to say that work which is merely tolerated now won’t deeply matter to people some day. The reason most work doesn’t matter is that the road to creating things which means that much to people is long and uncertain. It often requires a perfect storm of quality, timing, and luck.

However, the first step towards making work that matters is easy — make it the goal. When you sit down to create, don’t focus on what headline will get the most SEO play or the most shares and clicks (sharing and engagement come later as a result of making work that matters). As creators, we need to have the courage to connect with our audience on a personal level; not create for the masses.

That might mean sending out a survey to your customers, or an email to your audience asking for deeper feedback. It might mean working backward to realign or reinvent your mission. It will almost certainly mean showing a little more than you’re comfortable with and dividing your audience.

Making work that matters is about overwhelming people with immense quality or emotion. If you want to matter — create something that would throw your audience into a panic if it were to disappear.

Originally published at on September 14, 2017.

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