Hey Creator: Categories, Scattergories

All creative work starts with category

One of the first questions my crew and I question our first-time author clients is this: “What kind of book is it? ”

Rarely do they know the answer. They’ll say something like “a good one” or “one that will help everybody.”

But that doesn’t work. Readers don’t want to be one of many any more than writers do. We all want to be unique. We want to feel special. And we are. But all specialness begins with belonging: columnists must first step into a space, some category or genre to which we would like to belong.

The reassuring news for creators is that truly invigorating art doesn’t stay in whatever category it begins. To restate a quote attributed to Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” This is how you stand out, how you create a perennial vendor, how you launch a sincere blockbuster.

Why is this the case?

If you are competing with someone who already owns new ideas in the marketplace, trying to beat them won’t work. Al Ries calls this The Law of the First in his volume The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

The idea here is that if “youre ever” first in your category, you win. And if you can’t be first, you have to change the category. When a label is first to marketplace a product, it owns the category. For example, we call most facial tissue “Kleenex, ” even if it’s a box of Puffs. We do the same thing with Q-tips. These are not products; they are brand names. But because those brands were first to market, they now own the category.

This is true in your space as well. Who was first? They likely own the lion’s share of the attention, and it’s going to be very difficult to shift the focus from them onto you. Don’t try. It’s a squander of energy. Rather, find a new category in which you can be first.

For example, who was the second person to fly a nonstop transatlantic flight from the US to Europe? If you ask a group of people, a decent number of them will know it was Charles Lindbergh. But the second? No one ever remembers second place. Why would you?

We actually do know who the second person was, and here’s where things get interesting. It was Amelia Earhart, who is arguably more famous than Charles Lindbergh.

But Amelia Earhart is not known as the second largest person to fly across the Atlantic in an airplane without stopping. She’s known as the first woman.

That’s what changing the two categories is all about

You and I already own different categories called “our work” that nobody else can compete with. Last week, we called this your mixtape. The problem occurs when we fixate on other people’s categories, the regions in which other people or organizations have already arrived in the first-place spot. We are never going to beat them. What we need to do is find a brand-new category that we can dominate.

One way to do this is to take two categories that are quite different and blend them. Apple does this, creating well-engineered products that were also beautifully designed. You can do the same by finding two contributing brands or groups of people in your industry, asking yourself what single thing they do well, and then combining those two things into something new and useful.

Hamlet, but with lions

This is true in literature and artwork as well. The same tales preserve get reiterated over and over, just with new spins. Did you know that The Lion King nearly didn’t get greenlit for product because the executives were skeptical? No one got it, and it wasn’t approved until person in the session said, “Wait, this is like Hamlet, but with lions.”

Hamlet. As in that four-hundred-year-old play by Shakespeare that has proven its relevance over and over again to brand-new audiences. We know Hamlet projects. But to only do another Hamlet is not interesting. It’s expected. Adding lions to the mix stirs it unique, doesn’t it?

My challenge to you this week is to go forth and categorize yourself. Find out where you belong, get really clear on the boundaries of your space, and then get ready for next week…cause we’re about to blow the whole thing wide open. Scattergories, indeed.


Genre is disappearing. What happened next ?( The New Yorker)

7 of the very best journals in the meta genre of writing about writing.

Why have some of music’s greatest artists( Bob Marley, Diana Ross, Jimi Hendrix) never won a Grammy? They don’t fit into ANY of the (8 3 !) categories .

Use your Enneagram type to become a prolific creator .( This artist did it, and Sleeping At Last developed a whole album of Enneagram songs .)

I write about several different themes, ranging from finance to occasion the managers and personal blogging about “peoples lives”. But I likewise write fiction. I want to include all these interests( and more !), but I don’t know if that’s too much. Do I stick to one niche/ genre? I don’t definitely sounds like I belong to any specific group at all! Am I a good fit for a personal brand? — Sarah

No. But that’s because personal labels aren’t a good fit for anyone. Or instead, what that entails is shifting.

It used to be that if you had a blog and a pulsing, you could build a following around your online identity. We called this a personal brand, but often what it did was net “the authors ” in a very specific niche that didn’t leave much chamber for growth.

Instead of trying to fit into a personal brand, I recommend beginning with a worldview. What do you notice that’s wrong with the world that you want to fix? What unique view do you have that’s worth sharing? Start with a single topic–some area you want to start in that leaves room for growth.

Once you know where you’re starting, find a convention–some principle everyone follows in your industry–and break it. Challenge it. Downright contradict when appropriate. Pick a fight, and let everyone see you do it.

Maybe this looks like you contradicting a contributing voice in your realm. Maybe it necessitates combining two categories in a new way. People don’t talk about good hypothesis; they talk about interesting minds. Find a style to be interesting, which( as you remember from above) ever start with first fitting in.

Tl ;d r–start with a single topic, select a fight with something you think is BS, and challenge it in a way that represents your worldview. The formula I like to use is this 😛 TAGEND

Everyone supposes X, but what’s actually true-life is Y.

For example, let’s say you pick personal finance. You could say something like, “Everyone anticipates a fund is necessary, but what’s actually true-blue is funds reinforce a poverty mindset.” Don’t be afraid to be provoking; in fact, you often need to be provoking to get attention these days.

Keep me posted. — Jeff

Coming soon, the Hey, Creator! podcast. Every Tuesday, we’ll riff on this week’s newsletter and talk more about what it’s like to stimulate interesting arts and live an interesting life. Check out the trailer here.

“One wants to be a needle in a haystack , not the haystack.” — Don Draper

Chantel, who is a 9, and has thus previously tested as every other number depending on her mood and categorically insist that she can’t be categorized.

Sandy, who is a 1 and ever does things the right way. On time. No exceptions–including migrating our entire online community from Facebook to Circle this week. Come hang out with your fellow founders here !

Matt, who is a 3, which explains why his whisker( and this newsletter) always look so good.

Will, who is part 3 and portion 6, which means he is loyal to nothing except get this question out the door on time.

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