The attention economy creates very strange phenomena. Consider the term “clickbait”. It is a real word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. First coined in 1999. Right around the time advertising became the prime monetization model for the internet.

Clickbait drew attention; attention drew money. I get it.

But I see the same clickbait headlines in places where people have very little monetary gain from garnering attention. Why write such headlines, especially with empty content underneath, when you’re not getting paid for it? What’s in it for you? I think it’s validation.

More people, more claps, more validation. And for this week’s focus on Robert Greene’s book Mastery, it brings us to an important trade-off everyone must reconcile if they want to be a true master of their craft. It is a trade-off I first learned from Seth Godin:

Improvement or validation. You can only pick one.

Here’s how Mr. Greene puts it:

Understand: the greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something, and make a splash.

There is nothing creative about clickbait. Not anymore. Someone created it long ago and the rest of us have aped the idea ever since, exploiting the concept to such a degree that we now have detailed analysis on how to write those attention-grabbing headlines with a level of reliability that only comes from deliberate engineering.

And again, I get it. This happens because everyone is in the same arms race for attention. If others weaponize clickbait titles, we must do the same.

But only if you seek validation first. Only if you seek to “make a splash” and try to hurry up the process of mastery. In the race for validation, we do what others do because that’s what works. In other words, we conform. It is practically inevitable when racing for attention.

If you seek improvement first, conformity is less a temptation. Producing great work is not the same as producing popular work. You inherently produce something different when going for improvement, whether it’s improvement on your own quality or the quality with the state of art. Sure, there is the occasional work that is both great and popular but that’s not the norm.

The natural inclination towards nonconformity runs deep with masters. Which is to say masters are weird. They are devoted to something outside validation. Think of Steve Jobs’ idiosyncrasies. Or Salvador Dali. Or the pivotal choice made by Norman Borlaug. You may not have heard of Borlaug but he is one of history’s most important contributors to global human progress—a Nobel Prize winner who fed hundreds of millions. He was also a master of agricultural science and, in 1944, he made a decision that was undoubtedly about improvement (i.e. nonconformity) and not about validation.

Norman Borlaug. Photo from Wikipedia

In July of that year, the DuPont corporation offered to double his salary to continue his research on wheat production. Borlaug declined the offer to instead work in Mexico City on a better research program, leaving behind his pregnant wife and 14-month-old daughter in the process.

Incredible, right? Who would leave a doubled rate of income and a new family to live in a foreign country and do research on wheat? That’s absurd. Perhaps even irresponsible. It’s not something we, as a society, would validate. Especially in 1944.

I’m reminded of two more lines from Greene’s book. These lines hit me like a punch in the stomach and I have reread them often. The first relates to the journey of mastery and how that journey begins, and ends, with your ability to channel your unique talents.

Your uniqueness, Greene argues, is a force that directs you to a path of mastery. As your uniqueness diminishes, so does your ability to pursue mastery in any form. But what causes you and your uniqueness to wane?

What weakens this force, what makes you not feel it or even doubt its existence, is the degree to which you have succumbed to another force in life—social pressures to conform.

And what compels you to conform? The same thing that compels clickbait titles  even in a non-monetary environment: validation. But Greene goes even further. He dives into the reason we desire validation in the form of money and comfort. As he writes,

If it is money and comfort that dominate our decision, we are most often acting out of anxiety and the need to please our parents.

This still hits me every time I read it.

Monday’s post introduced the concept of a price for mastery. The first price is the pursuit of improvement over validation. To seek mastery, you must choose the pursuit of creativity and unique talent first with money and comfort second. More to the point: money and comfort can be a by-product of mastery but, in true mastery, it is the exhaust of the engine, not the gasoline.

In closing, I’m trying hard to avoid certain tropes of the regular writer. I don’t want to write clickbait titles unless, like today, it’s to poke fun at them. There are other tropes I’ll avoid, too.  

Want to join my newsletter? You can’t. I won’t offer one.

Want to buy my information product? What the hell is an information product?

I won’t do those things because I don’t see, yet, how they’ll help me improve on my unrelenting goal. What’s that goal, you might ask? To provide the most useful thing you’ll read on any given day. With a target success rate of 51%. I don’t think this is about mastery yet but it certainly rhymes with the stuff both Greene and Godin share. And as we’ll consider in tomorrow’s post, it is an easy price to pay because the cost is relative to the person.

Feature image from Comfreak at Pixabay