The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex

As editor of 99U, my inbox is (thankfully) filled with pitches of all kinds. Mainly, writers who’d like to contribute to this site and speakers who’d like to throw their hat in the ring for our yearly 99U Conference.

And most times, when we dig deeper into a specific person’s pitch, his or her purported authority is more of a facade to make them appear authoritative — and any ideas are actually a mosaic of people also trying to appear authoritative in a disconcerting house of cards.

They are what philosopher Harry Frankfurt would call “bullshitters.” Those that are giving advice for the sake of giving advice, without any regard as to how it is actually implemented, if it can even be implemented at all. “It’s not important to [the bullshitter] what the world really is like,” he says in a short video documentary about the phenomenon (below). “What is important is how he’d like to represent himself.”

BULLSHIT! (H/T Oliver Burkeman).

In these pitches there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.

The bullshit industrial complex is a pyramid of groups that goes something like this:

Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.

Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.

[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]

Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.

Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.

Groups 5+: And downward….

The Complex eventually becomes a full fledged self-sufficient ecosystem when people in group 4 are reviewing books by people in group 3 who are only tweeting people in group 2 who are appearing on the podcasts started by people in group 3.

This Bullshit Industrial Complex has always existed. But thanks to the precarious economics and job prospects of the creative person, it is often in a creative’s financial interest to climb the bullshit pyramid. In the short term, it’s creating a class of (often young) creatives deluded into thinking they are doing something meaningful by sharing “advice.” Long term, it’s robbing us of a creative talent.


Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Being quiet and slowly building mastery and expertise doesn’t pay off much at first. So many creatives must make a calculation: Do I want the short term, could-go-viral-at-any-second thrill of being a vocal expert in my field? Or am I more content playing the long game? More people are incentivized to choose the former — and it’s getting crowded in here.

It’s not our fault. We are set up to reward those proclaiming to have the answers. Sometimes the rewards are higher than those for actually doing the creating, as creatives are getting squeezed. Technology can rob you of your mastery. Automation can rob you of your value. Fickle clients can rob you of a paycheck. But once you’re perceived as an expert on the core premises of creativity? You’re in! Mostly.

There are TEDx events spreading from city to city, websites (like this one!) always seeking out voices to share their views and content to stock newsletters and make the social media rounds. Many sites like Medium are, yes, rich with intelligent essays, but also rich with people giving generic advice in the hopes of selling the next ebook containing aggregated advice from other advice givers. And as more of us are tasked with appearing as experts, we’re incentivized to look the other way. For all of the cynicism around something as innocent as a goddamn logo redesign, the creative world sure looks the other way when someone tells us that the key to creativity is just “shipping.”

As someone who edits a website, there are red flags. The person will claim that they’ve written for site x and site y and have z twitter followers. This is coded language for “take me seriously, because other people have!” Sites like Forbes, Huffington Post, and Entrepreneur Magazine have “open contributor” policies where almost anyone can get published with little or no editorial oversight. And the reason they have those policies? Because more content equals more advertising dollars. The incentive structure for both sides makes this credibility hopscotch arrangement appealing. It’s the Complex at work.

Book publishers, the ultimate authority vehicle, are the capstone of the Complex but are just as victim to changing economics as any blog. Responses to book pitches often do not involve a thorough deconstruction of your idea and its substance. Instead, they will ask “How can you market this book?” Which really means “How big is your mailing list?” No one has the time or incentive to make sure their ideas advance the conversation. Or are even realistic. I know because every day a book arrives at the 99U offices with ideas as recursive as a rushed Medium blog post.


Above: Advice in an actual published (and popular!) book.

Creative people often despise those that criticize work without having work of their own. Something Teddy Roosevelt referred to as “being in the arena.” We respect opinions from those that are in the trenches with us, doing the hard things that we try to do. But this creative expert class is worse than any critic, offering other people creative salvation in an attempt to find their own. We despise critics with no skin in the game but we’ve handed them the keys to our kingdom and the space on our library bookshelf.

Make Room at the Top

The cynic in you may wonder, “Who cares? The more bullshitters out there, the more the non-bullshitters like me will be valued.” But what is frightening is those among us who consider success as bullshitter as actual success.

Let’s be clear here: Those who write books, speak at conferences, or write essays are not all bullshitters. Many (if not most!) are offering advice that takes its audience into consideration. This is not bullshit. This is good.

What I’m referring to are those that believe being “industry famous” in the creative world is success in of itself. Especially those that start out with that goal in mind. This is where the Complex can poison talent. Being industry famous should be the result of some contribution to the world that the industry respects and wishes to learn from. Or insights unique and useful that it genuinely makes people’s lives better.

Increasingly “creative coaches” and people with “keynote speaker” in their Twitter bios are making their quest to earn authority a higher priority than the very reason they got into this in the first place. Fueling the Complex is alluring catnip that feels like you’re advancing your career the same way answering a bunch of emails just feels productive.

If someone cares more about what their industry peers think of them than the problems they are solving, they’re a bullshitter. If the idea of being “known” is barometer of their success above user (or reader) success stories, they’re a bullshitter. They are the internet’s equivalent of a reality TV star, taking advantage of the attention economy by catering to our worst instincts in lieu of substance.

The “first principle” of why people willingly join the Complex is a matter of external versus internal motivation. If you’re fueled primarily by external validation, the best way to get it is by surrounding yourself with people like you and writing as an “expert” for that group. Voila, here come a thundering stampede of people ready to tell you to follow your passion. And when you make choices based on what others will think about you, you lose yourself along the way, and the world loses another creative mind that would otherwise share something original. And then, we’re stuck with the same voices at the top of the Complex. We all deserve better.

from 99U