In this industry, we share our most successful content pieces. The pieces which got hundreds (or even thousands) of links, and coverage on some of the highest authority sites in the world. We share them in the talks we give, in the articles we write, in our portfolio or case study sections, and on various social media channels.
We do this for a variety of reasons – firstly, of course, we do it to win new business (well, we all have to eat).
Sometimes I think we also share these successes purely because we’re just delighted and proud of what we’ve managed to achieve.
But there are consequences of sharing only our most successful pieces; negative consequences which I definitely did not intend, and neither (I believe) did anyone else.
But it’s those negative consequences that I’d like to talk about a little more today.
I think it’s important because, regardless of our intentions, whenever we share our successes we are inadvertently presenting a skewed version of reality.
The search industry, is not, of course, the only industry which has a tendency to skew reality in this way.
In recognition and reaction to a similar issue in the academic world, in 2016, Princeton assistant professor Johannes Haushofer decided to publish a “CV of his failures”. In the introduction to his CV, he neatly sums up the issue:
Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible.JOHANNES HAUSHOFER, CV OF FAILURES
We have exactly the same issue in our industry – our failures are largely invisible.
This particular issue is front of mind for me at the moment, because whenever I speak to people about their work, the same thing keeps on coming up:
People tell me that when they compare their own work to that of others, they feel like they’re coming up short. That others are better at this work than they are.
Some of you reading this, might perhaps put this down to imposter syndrome.
Maybe it is, in a sense at least.
But I would suggest that if you’re seeing nothing but success everywhere you look, it can make your own failures feel bigger. Plus of course, if you’re not seeing any evidence of anyone else’s failures it’s quite natural that you might begin to feel like you’re the only one out there who is failing.
For what it’s worth, I’ve experienced these feelings firsthand too. At Distilled, even when we were producing pieces which got over a thousand links, I and others on the creative team compared our own work to that of others. We worried that we were somehow “doing it wrong” or felt that others were much better at this sort of work than us.
I experienced exactly the same at Verve.
The feeling that others are doing better work than you is bad enough, but these feelings can become even more problematic when they are internalised.
Rather than thinking: “I created a piece that failed”
you might conclude: “I am a failure”
Rather than thinking: “I created a ‘bad’ piece”
you might conclude: “I’m ‘bad’ at creative content”
Again, for what it’s worth, I’ve felt both of those things too.
However, it’s important to remember that you are not comparing yourself or your work to reality.
You are comparing yourself and your work to a very skewed version of reality.
You are comparing your whole body of work (i.e. all the successes and failures) to only the most successful work of others.
Of course you feel like your work comes up short. But it’s important to remember that you’re not seeing the full picture. You’re not able to truly compare your work, like for like, with that of others.
So why don’t we talk more about failure?
I’d really love it if we did.
But it’s not always possible to openly share the specifics of our failures.
To do so would almost undoubtedly damage relationships with our clients – to create a piece that ultimately fails to deliver results is one thing: to be seen to be sharing that failure far and wide is quite another.
In the meantime, please know this:
The work you are doing is really difficult. Results are unpredictable.
When sharing successful content pieces in talks, in articles, or in various other contexts it was never my intention to give the impression that everything I do succeeds.
I wish it did, but it really doesn’t.
Those pieces I’ve shared are outliers. They probably represent less than 10% of the work I’ve done.
I’d caution you against comparing your own work to that of others, but if you just can’t help it, then at least do so with that 10% figure in mind. My hope is that this might give you a clearer view of the reality of creating pieces like this, and the results these pieces achieve.
In the course of writing this, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I could, and could not share publicly. I believe it’s important for us to talk more about this, and I’m open to suggestions as to how we might go about doing so. If you’ve any ideas please do leave a comment, message me on Twitter, or drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).