/ @ade3
January 16, 2016

The Slow, Steady, Inevitable March Towards Oatmeal

Pushing back against the idea that you are doomed to become a commodity.

What’s stopping you from shipping good work? There are countless obstacles between you and your masterpiece, but today I want to pick on one in particular. Today’s zombie is a nasty mentality that sounds like this:

“All goods compete to deliver economic value in response to the desires of the consumer.”

Seems innocent enough. Dull, academic, foolproof. It reads like a truth scratched onto a blackboard from that class you slept through in college. Where’s the harm?

Here’s the danger…

It comes down to a belief in the inevitability of commoditization. According to this mentality, your job as a creator is to build things that satisfy the desires of the market. In this worldview, the creative process boils down to this:

1. Research the marketplace.
2. Identify areas where value is lacking.
3. Build something that satisfies the demand.

Not very inspiring, is it? The problem is this process doesn’t create innovation. It creates commodities.

Plain, vanilla, generic, watered-down, gag-inducing oatmeal.

But doesn’t it look exactly like the formula that is used by the company that you work for? Tell me it doesn’t. This is the framework in which you are asked to be innovative.

So, like a good employee, you follow this formula. You work hard to produce something that is 5–10% better than your competitor. That’s if you are ambitious. Most workers just try to build the same product more cheaply. Finally, if you are lucky, the market rewards you and the product is profitable.

Your bosses are happy. You get a raise, maybe even a promotion. Like Pavlov’s dog you think that the only way get more doggy biscuits is to repeat the zombie process.

Sure, if you squint nobody can tell the difference between your product and their’s, but you can rationalize this sin easily enough. Heck, it’s not a sin at all. This is the way markets work, you think. The market has spoken, right? You recall your economics class, the one you mostly slept through, and your mind settles on that one seemingly-innocent word: commodity. That’s what we all become some day. It seems inevitable, like a law of nature. Why fight it?

So I can show you a photo of 25 identical cars made by 25 different car companies and you will have one of two responses. You will either say,

“Of course. Every product sooner or later hits a wall and improvements become negligible for the users. Physics puts a final limit on things.”

Or you wake up and realize:

“Holy cow, he’s right. And it’s not just cars, it’s happening in my industry, too. What can I do to prevent us from continuing towards a future of oatmeal?

If you truly believe your creativity has finally hit the limits of science, that the laws of the universe themselves are what is preventing you from innovating, I feel sorry for you. For the rest of us, let’s keep fighting for our craft. Because if buying a car (or whatever you are selling) becomes the same as buying a gallon of milk, humanity has lost. Commoditization isn’t evolution, it’s an innovation-deprived death march towards a dystopia where the future is exactly like today, just with slightly rounder corners. That’s not the future I want. Please tell me you don’t either.

Thanks for reading. If this is the first time you have come across my crazy ideas, you might want to drill deeper into my skull. Here’s what I suggest:

1. Start with a chapter called The Zombie Mobile.

2. Then see if these Ingredients of Creativity resonate with you.

3. Then ask yourself if Art of the Living Dead is worth $7.99 and your full attention.

Stay tuned for my next story where I confess how I contributed to the commoditization dystopia and why I am going to hell for it. Stay creative.

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