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Learn To Say “It’s Not For You”

by | Process

This post originally appeared on

The work you do is a gift to the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

Last week I was privileged to take part in the 99u Conference in New York. While I’ve observed the conference from afar over the past several years, and have contributed both to and to their book project Managing Your Day To Day, I wasn’t prepared for how amazing it would be to gather with a thousand or so other like-minded people obsessed with making ideas happen. It was a little like drinking a double shot of espresso every hour on the hour for two straight days.

One of my favorite sessions – no surprise here – was the open Q&A with Seth Godin. (Every time I see Seth in a Q&A, he seems to pull an old, overlooked rock out of his pocket, rub it up a few times, and transform it into a diamond.) He said something in response to a question about making art that resonated deeply, and even set me off in a new direction with the book project I’m currently working on. I’d heard it before, but for some reason it really resonated this time:

“As soon as you’re willing to say ‘it’s not for you’, you’re freed up to make art.” – Seth Godin

Translation: not everything you make will be for everybody, nor should it be. Even more to the point, if you are trying to make something that’s for everybody, then you may be compromising your art, which means you are sacrificing possibility on the altar of pragmatism.

When you’re first sharing your work with the world, critique stings. You have very few data points by which to judge whether or not your work is reached and impacting its intended audience. However, as you share more broadly over long periods of time, you begin to see patterns emerging within groups of people who resonate with your work, those who don’t, and those who are indifferent. (As your voice becomes more refined, the indifferent crowd often grows smaller.) The key is to be willing to listen to critics and incorporate valuable feedback without allowing their comments to stall your progress and growth.

It’s easier to tear something down than to build something new. No one ever changed the conversation, a mind, an organization, or the world by lobbing critiques from the cheap seats. Tina Roth Eisenberg (SwissMiss) reminded us of a James Murphy quote at the conference:

“The best way to complain is to make things.” —James Murphy (via @SwissMiss)

In those areas where you  have discretion over the kind of value you create, have the courage to follow your instincts, to take risks, and to stand up for your work. If you want to see something change, then make something.

Most of all, when a critic arises have the courage to say “it’s not for you.”

Die EmptyOne of the best books of the year. Passionate, practical and powerful, Todd will help you do more and do it better, starting right now.”
Seth Godin, author of The Icarus Deception

Available now! – Barnes & Noble – IndieBound

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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1 Comment

  1. Jake Jorgovan

    This post has stuck with me now over the past few weeks since you sent it out. I have been narrowing the focus of my audience, and learning to accept that it isn’t for everyone is a hard thing.

    When I started writing, I wanted to make my content appeal to everyone, and I hated the idea of excluding people, especially those who were already a fan or subscriber of my writing.

    Yet I know if I want to truly create a message that resonates and change’s lives, then I can’t do that by trying to appeal to everyone, I have to learn to say ‘Its not for you’.

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