How To Beat “The System”: The Ultimate Scarcity of Good Stuff

March 19, 2014

It’s totally messed up if you think about it. There are millions of people out there dying to be writers. Yet when a good writer puts together a book proposal (that is, a potential book), publishers actually bid against each other for the privilege of publishing it.

And before you say “Oh, that’s only for established authors,” it isn’t. My first book started a bidding war. All sorts of first time authors experience this. Some guy you’ve never heard of just got $2 million for a 770-page historical novel. As desperate as people are to be writers, publishers are apparently as desperate for good writing.

Thought Catalog did a piece on young people who had their dream jobs. Considering the economy, there are undoubtedly a bunch of other struggling kids (and adults) out there dying for those jobs. At the same time, the sad irony is that those young kids with the dream jobs probably fend off job offers from other companies on a regularly basis (Note to the girl at Gawker: You should absolutely accept the next one that comes your way. Your life will get better.)

So what’s going on? Why do some people live the dream while others are grinding it out in obscurity, waiting for their shot?

Well, some people would say those lucky few at the top have some natural talent advantage. That’s probably part of it, but most of the smart analysis of mastery show us that those things are relatively minor factors when it comes to achieving greatness. Or they’ll say it’s a matter of “privilege” — but if that were so, how did any disadvantaged people make it through?

Which leaves us to the explanation that always seems to come up in people’s gripes: The System. We have a broken system that holds people back, we tell ourselves. It doesn’t care about me. It’s just luck. It doesn’t appreciate my work.

But that’s just bogus.

The system is not a person. It is not sentient. But as far as it is, we’ve got to realize that it wants only one thing: good stuff.

Do you think store owners are sitting around going, “We can’t possibly fit another hot product in our stores. We have no more room for things, even though they’ll sell”? I have to have the same discussion with my clients who are nervous or intimidated about marketing and publicity. I ask them, “Do you think reporters are sitting around complaining, ‘Man, there are just too many great stories to write about?’”

Of course not. It’s the opposite. There’s never enough.

They want you as much as you want it. Provided that you truly deliver the goods.

Here’s what you’ve got to realize: that is super rare. Good stuff is the ultimate scarcity. And the market for it is basically infinite. That is why the people who have it command insane, illogical compensation for it. But everyone is too focused on the wrong things and so the spoils go only to an elite few.

There is a story about George Clooney, who struggled early on in auditions as an actor. His problem was that he just wanted everyone to like him. Then he remembered that they were trying to hire someone. That was their job. And his job as an actor was to solve their problem.

No one is keeping you from your dream job. In fact, the people hiring for your dream job are sitting around wondering where the fuck they can find some good applicants. The same applies to basically everything else.

Writing a book isn’t about getting a good agent. Making something that sells isn’t about lining up the right investors. Getting press or attention isn’t complicated.

You have to do something that’s good. That means: drastically better than existing stuff, different than existing stuff, or easier to work with than existing stuff.

That’s the simple part. The hard part is that this takes a long time and a lot of work. You have to pay your dues. Read the books. Study the best — the ones who came before and the ones who are doing it now. Find a mentor. Don’t phone it in — find that thing that really, passionately compels youApply yourself at more than one thing and then roll it all together into something special and new.

When you do this, eventually you become the solution to a common problem across basically every section of the economy. They are all trying to separate the really excellent people/ideas/companies/things from the crap. Because there is so much crap. There is so much sameness. There is so much “looks good on paper but totally under delivers.”

You don’t have to be one of those people. One of those sad, resentful cases who doesn’t have what they want and think someone else is preventing them from having it. On the contrary, they need it! And they’ll pay you out the ass if you promise to keep up the supply.

This post originally ran on Comments can be seen there.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

7 responses to How To Beat “The System”: The Ultimate Scarcity of Good Stuff

  1. Great post Ryan.

    It’s very easy to let yourself get distracted with new projects too, but keeping this in mind always helps me get back on track. Quality wins, so make more of it.

    The people at Copyblogger wrote a post about this recently. Apparently people are getting worried there’s too much content and no one will be able to find your work. What these people don’t realize, is that the quality is generally getting worse, so great work tends to stand out more.

    Keep up the great work Ryan, we notice.

    – Armi

  2. Loved the George Clooney story. The company where I work is having a hard time hiring good programmers, and it’s funny to see how people approach us at career fairs and in interviews. I’ve seen good candidates who could have done the job well (according to their resumes and stated experience) who don’t get hired because they can’t understand *our* needs and how they could fill them.

    And if they can’t do that in a career fair meeting or in an interview, they sure as hell won’t be able to do it day after day on the job itself, and they’ll never be outstanding employees.

  3. “Good stuff is the ultimate scarcity.” I quite like this quote. Words to go by when you feel like a small fish in a big pond.

  4. Hi Ryan.

    You are awesome. And I hope you have an absolutely fantastic rest of your week.

    That is all for now.

  5. Your article gave me a lot of hope. It also slapped a lot of sense into me. I feel like it makes SO MUCH SENSE that companies and people are ALWAYS on the look out for quality. I guess it’s one of those things that are so obvious that it slips our minds.

    Now I feel like I have a better answer in terms of how I should go about conducting myself and the goals I need to set to SUCEEEEED ~

    Thank you for writing the article and clarifying it in the best way possible. Now it’s definitely drilled into my head and a more graspable concept in my mind. 🙂 ack! Sharing this with all my friends!

  6. “There’s never enough.”

    That´s so True.
    The ones who manage to deliver outstanding quality win.
    Always and Everywhere.
    But the key to this delivery of quality seems to be a burning fire within to do so, a passion that drives you to give the best that you have.

    Thanks Ryan,
    keep up the good work

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