Sell Out

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Updated November 3, 2022

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Some people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, just sell out and do pop music.’ So you !@#$ing do it, then! It’s not easy.Abel Tesfaye, The Weeknd*

When Will Smith decided he wanted to become the biggest movie star in the world, he worked with his business partner James Lassiter to examine a list of the ten top-grossing movies of all time. In his memoir Will, he writes, “It was crystal clear: Ten out of the top ten films of all time had special effects. Nine out of ten had special effects and creatures. Eight out of ten had special effects, creatures, and a romantic storyline. (We would ultimately discover that all of the top ten movies were about love, but we didn’t notice that back then.)”

When Smith was approached with a $10 million offer to star in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, the analysis made it clearer that Lassiter and Smith should say no. And when Smith was approached to appear in Six Degrees of Separation, he and Lassiter said yes to a much smaller offer of $300,000—and set the foundation for Smith’s career as a movie star.

In this prompt, take something popular, identify elements and patterns, and infuse them into your own work.

I’ve found the process of trying to make a hit—not always the end result—to be useful. If you’re making music, you can immerse yourself in the top charts. If you’re making visual art, you can see what work is going viral or is popular with collectors. If you’re making digital products, check out what’s resonating with charts like Product Hunt or the Apple App Store.

If you’re a writer like me you might immerse yourself in the news cycle, or go look into the Popular or Trending feed, and just look at the things people are engaging with. I’ll come up with 10 ideas myself, based on those ideas. Or, I’ll just look into my own data and analytics, and find an idea that a lot of people are reading. Most of the time, I don’t pick the ideas back up. But sometimes, I pick an idea and actually double down on it. I test it to see if a lot of people might actually like it.

If you experience a strong aversion to this prompt, know that it might involve the crummiest, hackiest, of all verbs: Pander. Copy. Steal. Make something kitschy. Make your worst piece of work—the one that the popular creatives, whom you don’t necessarily admire, do.

It’s not “selling out” unless you make money from it—you can go through this process and not release anything, especially if you feel it compromises your standard of quality. But the goal here is to meet people where they are, and to develop the makings of an understanding of what works.

At the end of it, once you’re done with your idea, if you feel like it’s a commodity or repetitive, that’s the way it should be. But if you’re happy with your idea, then you could consider finding a surface to display it on, or a person to show it to. After all, you may have met the world halfway and just come up with a breakthrough idea.

Or flip this prompt: Set a Mission

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