Other People's Complaints

One big mistake I used to make was taking other people's complaints too seriously. The logic goes: many things are bad in the world; people's complaints point them out; so it's good to work on what people are complaining about. I don't know whether this strategy has ever worked, but I can tell you it does not work now. The reasons why are diverse, but we can start by explaining how it affects creativity.

A creative approach I have seen people take is to compile a big list of do's and don'ts. Simply follow every rule on the list, and your output will be perfect. Instructors love these lists, but it's bad pedagogy, because the approach doesn't work.

Instructors in all fields take this approach, from poetry to baseball. The peewee attempts his first at-bat. "Keep your elbow up. Feet shoulder-width apart. Eyes front. Barrel above the shoulder. Head down. Choke up. Square up. Look at the ball. Front foot at the corner of the plate. Step into the swing. etc. etc." By the time the instructions have finished the pupil is so overwhelmed there's no possible way he could hit the ball. A much better approach is for the kid to try to hit the ball in his natural way. Then, if necessary, he can work on one improvement at a time, starting with the most important.

That insight gets to the core of what's wrong with following complaints: the most important ingredient is a natural, whole-package approach. It's not possible to take a list of rules and combine them into this kind of approach. So you might as well do your thing, and then—maybe—work on what's wrong with it. This kind of rule-flouting behavior is a hallmark of great artists, and we're getting to a better idea of why.

There is a corresponding principle that appears in the technology business. If you look at a given piece of entrenched software, Windows for instance, people will have all manner of complaints. One classic one was that Windows produced too many modal dialog boxes that forced you to click, when the system ought to either decide those questions for itself, or use a less intrusive notifications system like operating systems do now. If you tried to build an OS organized around being unobtrusive, you would fail utterly, because the natural approach that Windows has taken is to build a monopoly using network effects, and your approach does none of that. Windows can do whatever it likes because it has a captive audience, and so in this case, the complaints about Windows were there because, wrap your head around this, no one could do anything about them. In technology we want to believe complaints are calls to action, but more commonly we should consider them as warnings.

Usually what all this means is that if you want to create something popular, you can't make a patched-up version of something else. I have a lot of complaints about Westworld, but patching the problems with Westworld's plot and premiering a robotic theme-park show would result in a flop, because the result would be too similar to the existing show. The complaint-suppression strategy fails here. What you need is something more in line with a novelty-seeking strategy. This is a phenomenon people have identified under various names. In the startup world it appears in the observation that, for a product to succeed, it has to be a watershed advance. It cannot merely be an incremental improvement, which is what you'd get if you followed complaints.

We can infer that reducing complaints is a pretty bad strategy for creation. Once we do that, we can infer a lot of other things as well. A major one is that, if you're doing something well, you're going to hear a lot of complaints. The reverse of that is, if you aren't hearing any complaints, you should be suspicious that you might be doing something wrong. This observation holds especially well on the internet, where people will complain about exactly everything you do, and so complaints are a proxy for popularity. I'm pretty sure everything I've put online has been attacked. There's no way it was all bad, nobody is that consistent.

Here's an experiment. The next time you see someone complaining online, even if it has nothing to do with you, try to get them to pay you to work on the problem. I can already tell you what's going to happen. They'll dodge you. The reasons for this are deep. But it's enough to note that it happens. People complain for reasons that have very little to do with constructive activity.

At a basic level, it is a constructive process to respond to complaints. If someone complains that your music is too loud, and it is, you should think about turning it down. Past certain courtesies, however, what people complain about are the things that do not benefit them. It takes special conditions for those complaints to be relevant to other entities. So responding to complaints from the crowd can be a bad idea for you.

Crowds really are good at doing things like guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, or setting market prices. Outside of the applications that benefit, though, the crowd is simply average. And so it can be better in these cases to model the crowd as an average person. On questions of morality, while I think that the crowd is somewhat better in aggregate, I think that the result is still modeled accurately enough by an average person serving as a stand-in. This person may mean well, and he may get many things right, but he will also get many important questions wrong. What separates the stand-in for the crowd from a real person, is that he exerts tremendous pressure to respond, even when his complaints are no more likely to be valid.