Ryan Holiday is a former director of marketing for American Apparel, leading media strategist, and author of six books, including his newest, Perennial Seller. Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of Hit Makers, which explores the secret histories of pop culture hits and the science of popularity. The two recently sat down to discuss popularity, genius, and why there can’t be a formula for creating either—but there are some interesting rules. In their conversation, Ryan and Derek devised a playbook for creating something truly great and getting it out into the world.
1. The car test theory of creation
Think like a consumer. Max Martin, the producer behind smash hits like Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” and Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” subjects all of his songs to what he calls the car test. He drives down Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down, playing the song and asks, “Is this music actually working? What does it actually feel like in the context that it’s going to be consumed?”
2. The best narratives have the power of simplicity.
Spend as much time as you can on creating something great. Something has to be good enough to be successful. It has to pass certain thresholds of simplicity, safety, excitement, and shareability. The problem is that there are so many things that are good enough. There’s only a few slots for a hit, for a perennial seller, and the difference above that threshold is often marketing or luck, or something exogenous to the product itself.
3. The hidden “double-marathon”
It is necessary to have a creativity marathon, but it is also necessary to have a marketing marathon. After you finish the first marathon, you must begin on the second. All creators want to do is make something great, often thinking that just the making of the thing is going to be sufficient. It’s necessary, but it’s not at all sufficient. There’s so much great work out there that’s completely undiscovered for that reason. Nothing or very, very little is automatically self-distributing.
4. Great players need great coaches.
Great plays are a marriage of great players and great coaches—no man is an island. Great writers have editors. Great basketball players have coaches. People tend to think that the people in the music and publishing industries know exactly what they’re doing—they don’t. In fact, they pay outside people—the musicians and writers—to actually make the work. If publishers knew how to make successful books, they wouldn’t give large advances to people who don’t work at the publishing house to make those books.
Only you know what you’re trying to create. That’s the thing that only the artist can do because you know your fans, you know what’s not in the market, you know what you feel like expressing. Once you have that, you need a team that can guide you and see the work a little more objectively.
5. There is no formula, but there are rules.
If there were a formula for making popular movies, books, or music then everybody would eventually learn it. They would all create based on the formula, and nothing would be exceptionally popular. A formula for hits would actually make the existence of hits impossible. By definition, there cannot possibly be a strict formula for outlier popularity or for hit status products.
But there are general rules of both creation and human behavior that can make any individual in all sorts of disciplines a much more successful creator.