We all create different types of value. Some of us create art. Some of us digital products. Some of us create other types of value, in business, education, or religion. No matter what we create, I imagine excellence is a value on some level. If it's not, than you have some other things to work out before you read this. So what is excellence anyway? A matter of perception? It can be. But research shows that excellence is not only a matter of perception, but a matter of social influence. More simply put, we like what other people like.
More simply put, we like what other people like.
The are two intriguing forces working in our world today that, when combined, create a powerful social effect. First, people's brains are wired for pattern and connection. We rely heavily on our ability to connect the dots in our wold. You don't read every letter on this screen, you read words. More specifically, you read patterns and assumptions. You can remove letters and your mind still perceives them the same, as words. We all understand things best within context. So, why is that Hollywood will spend millions upon millions for Blockbuster movie sequels? Because we'll go see it. In our minds, it's a proven commodity and a positive context. We are compelled to understand it, appreciate it, and are drawn to it. We like proven commodities (even if we say we don't, the numbers don't lie).
The second intriguing force is the incredibly connected and social nature of our culture. We jump on Facebook and see what our friends are doing. Where are they going to dinner? What music are they listening to? What movies are they seeing right now? Our culture is constantly in tune to what our peers are appreciating. Those who don't identify with the first force of context, will definitely identify with this force. We like what our friends like. "Indie music" may not be generally popular, but it catches on when it hits a powerful niche, tribe, or subculture. The power of community, relationships, or identity, is that it drives what we perceive as excellent. There may be certain foods that other cultures find amazing that my culture would find terrible. It's not the quality of the food, but our culture and relationships, that define the level of excellence.
So this sets the stage for an intriguing reality. Are you ready for this? What society considers to be excellent is defined mostly by our ability to compare it to a known commodity and get feedback from our friends. Not so great for the little guy trying to "do something different". Not so great for diversity of ideas either. Nor is great for the guy trying to sell me on something "revolutionary".
What society considers to be excellent is defined mostly by our ability to compare it to a known commodity and get feedback from our friends.
Recent studies by a Harvard professor show these forces to be very active. In light of these things, I see two significant takeaways:
1. We have to create things that are unique enough to differentiate ourselves, but not so different that people can't grasp what we're doing. We must be intentional with our "mental hooks". For example, most movie scripts get pitched to executives as versions of another hit. Script writers might say, "it's like Jaws on plane", or possibly, "it's like Star Wars under water". Help people understand your work by leveraging their acceptance of success and excellence in other pieces. Know what your target audience already values and start there.
2. We must utilize our social culture. The reality is, once our work has hit a certain threshold of excellence, social takes over. You could create the best piece of music in the world, but few will care until people start listening to it and endorsing it. There is a reason why companies still spend millions on celebrity endorsements, resumes still ask for references, and LinkedIn is built around endorsing your connections. This is an ancient part of our social fabric, amplified by new media. Focus on great work, yes, but also focus on adoption. If you want you're work to be recognized, it must be social.
Be excellent. Be Social. Be contextual.