Confessions of a Content Creator: I Don’t Care About Data

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Gut: Hey Brain, want to write something that’ll almost certainly expose us to massive criticism?
Brain: Uhhh, no?
Gut: TOO LATE, DOIN’ IT, HERE WE GOOOO!!!!

As a content creator, I don’t really care about data.

There. I said it.

Don’t misunderstand: I know I’m supposed to care about data. I’m supposed to end that opening sentence by saying, “but I’m working hard to improve my analytical chops.”

But the truth is, I’m really not.

Instead, I’m working hard to improve my creative chops. It’s what I love. It’s what I was put on this earth to do. I aspire to create things that make you feel stuff and think stuff and want to spend more time with more of that stuff.

Now, I’m no fool. I know I’ll look far better if I claim that I’m data-driven. After all, I’ve worked for online startups and tech companies my entire career. We’re the crowd responsible for the data-first ways currently permeating even the most analytics-agnostic fields.

I know I’m supposed to say I care a ton about data. But, well … I just don’t.

Brain: Okay, that’s enough. You’ve had your fun. Can you stop? We have a career to worry about. Think of the children!
Gut: Nope, I’m far from done. Hold onto your butts! (Brains?)

Here’s the thing: I’m not alone in feeling this way about data. There are others like me, others who create content for a living — damn good content at that — and we don’t really think about data all that much. We’re walking among you right now, working on your teams, attending your meetings, nodding at our CMOs who shout of MQLs and monthly lead-gen metrics.

We pretend to care. But we don’t really care.

We really care about our craft. We really care about what our intuition is urging us to try. We really care about making things others like — nay, love. And as it just so happens, this is the skill that many businesses are starting to realize they need but can’t often find.

Not caring about data seems insane (dare I say, unthinkable), but it’s made us valuable to companies and clients and customers all the same. Because rather than get 1.2x the results through optimization, we strive for 10x the results through creation. We aim high. We’re comfortable doing the crazy. We’re major players in a game that consumers are winning because they have all the choice.

I’ll confess: the problem isn’t really “numbers.” The problem isn’t even in starting with the numbers. (Sometimes, it’s good to start with data. Sometimes, not.) Instead, the problem lies in how most organizations use those numbers: as sources of answers. The data says X, so let’s do X. Rather than find a deeper insight, ask questions, sit with customers, or unleash the creative firepower of the team … we default to the conventional wisdom or the past precedent.

So, no, we don’t care about data — not the way most companies interpret data. We care about insights, but unless we’re speaking plain English, we’re not talking about insights just yet. (Note: We’d be fine with interpretive dance, too, just … don’t do the worm.)

We don’t care so much about the numbers.

To us, this is about making something others are afraid to say out loud in the working world: art.

That’s a scary word in our space. Why?

This job is about making great art.

Great art persists. Great art experiments. Great art yields answers. Great art is remembered. It cuts through the noise, holds attention, and inspires action, loyalty, emotion, and trust.

Sounds a whole lot like the stuff we’re supposed to be making for work.

So what do we care about? People. Us. You. The audience. People hold the answer, always. Your technology is there to amplify your people. Your analytics is there to track other people. This is a game of unleashing the very best in your people, and finding solutions to the very worst in the people you wish to serve.

It’s never about the wand. It’s always the wizard that holds the true power.

And we, the creative people, aspire to unleash our full potential. We don’t do so by caring about data. We do so by caring about making great art. And our leading indicator of the art we should make is the overlap between what WE want to create (intuition) and what others react emotionally to consuming (qualitative feedback). That is the shift from “acting like a publisher” (hitting “publish” more often, more quickly) to aspiring to be The Washington Post of our niche … the ESPN of our space … or “The Daily Show” of our industry.

This creativity stuff isn’t easy, either.

This isn’t something you find on a listicle. This is a a ruthless battle to out-work someone else, generate the best ideas, hire the best talent, and produce the most creative and most beautiful and most resonant art.

So, care about data? No thank you.

Gasp and clutch your pearls all you want. “But, but you’re being too emotional here! But, but SEO is a great tool that can — and, and everyone on Medium is writing about — but we have monthly metrics to — and we have proof and processes and science…”

No, shhh-shhh, there-there. You’re not listening. See, I know all that. I know I should care.

But all I care about … is making you feel. Does your data get me there? Great, tell me how. Does my intuition get me there? 11 outta 10 times it does.

In a world where others barely spend time with anything, I’m here to acquire and retain minutes or hours, not seconds. I’m here to trigger emotional responses, not clicks. I’m here to avoid creating more down-the-fairway, blend-into-the-noise, just-do-that-thing-again junk … because “that’s the best practice.”

Brain: This is all sounding way too much like you, Gut. What’s your point?
Gut: I’m getting there, dude. Don’t get your medulla in a bunch.

Here’s my point: We’ve gotten so hot and bothered about “being data-driven” that we’ve now undervalued creative intuition. And when an asset is undervalued, what should you do?

Buy.

Brain: Damnit, even I have to agree with that.

BUY: Trust your intuition. Ship a lot of work. Tinker on side projects.

BUY: Hire people not because their resumes fit some kind of mold but precisely because their portfolios break it.

BUY: Question the experts and the best practice.

Look, I know everything in this article sounds utterly insane.

I know that. I do. I’m no dummy. My brain is fighting against my gut every day, urging me to spend more time in Google Analytics, and screaming at me to click that link shared by that expert. I could be missing THE best way to do my work!

But what if … my gut is right? What if I actually possessed this ability to arrive at the idea or the answer more quickly and with more confidence? What if that skill could be honed over time, getting more and more accurate as it also gets faster?

Because maybe the idea that art isn’t good business is actually the wrong idea. Maybe real artists ship more and better work than anyone else thinks possible, just because they don’t see what the artist sees — because maybe they don’t care about what the artist cares about.

Maybe.

I don’t know for sure. But something is telling me I’m right.

Gut: You’re welcome, homie…

In the information age, the dark side is Advice Overload.

Everyone has an answer for exactly how you should operate. But if we’re to be an exception from all that sameness out there — if we really aspire to be exceptional — perhaps it’s time to listen more to our gut. No matter how unthinkable that seems.

So I confess, with you as my witness: I don’t care too much about the numbers. But I’m utterly obsessed with producing the things that produce the numbers.

Listen to the podcast Unthinkable, stories of conventional thinking at work and the people who dare to question it:

JAY ACUNZO creates original series about work and is a professional keynote speaker. His podcast, Unthinkable, has been called the “This American Life” of the working world — and there was much freaking out and giggling by Jay. In the show, Jay finds examples of common work done in unthinkable ways, then explores how it happened and why more of us don’t think that way. Learn more and subscribe at unthinkable.fm