In the interview Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, recently did on the Tim Ferriss Show, he talks about his aspirations. Money and fame are two goals he doesn’t deny reaching for, thankfully, and he’s been pretty successful at (see the three Oscar nominated movies based on his books). After having each, even admitting that he enjoys fame more than wealth, he’s clear that there’s a feeling he gets from quality writing that’s the most motivating part of the process. When Liar’s Poker was released, hitting bestseller lists and becoming a cult classic, he was dancing around his kitchen because he never expected it to be so successful. Now, there’s times when he’s not even sure if his books are on the NYT best sellers list. External validation obviously wanes. Knowing he’s produced quality, that’s a personal aspiration that never subsides. The people who spend money on his latest book aren’t the best judges of success. They’re swayed by his previous work, his place in popular culture, and the fact that Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, and Christian Bale have all taken up his characters. Seeing the impact the story has on individuals though, and his own judge of quality, that’s completely his. And that’s a perspective that doesn’t change, and doesn’t lie, nearly as much as the public’s.
“What is better: a medium amount of good pizza or all you can eat of pretty good pizza?”
Quality is now, and always has been, king. As a consumer, especially of things that require a lot of our time (like books), we owe it to ourselves to air for quality. Alice in Wonderland is under 150 pages, The Shawshank Redemption is under 2.5 hours, to name a few, but the stories impact and inspire in a way that 20 hours of Police Academy simply can’t. Spend a night at a decent jazz club with unknown performers and it’s hard to argue that at some point, the world does a bad job identifying and promoting quality artists. The world, our world, is run on capitalism, and that framework doesn’t optimize for the best experience.
The mind wants very satisfied consumers, even if it’s just a few, not a mass of apathetic followers. There’s a genuine interest in scaling one’s work. If it’s impactful, more people should experience it. But if it’s not delivering, who needs it? And as capitalism takes over every aspect of life, the search for quality becomes harder and harder. We live with a multitude of mediocre choices, from food to furniture, that work best for businesses and businessmen. Chipotle is good, but have you ever eaten good Mexican food? Ikea makes decent chairs, but what about a hand made, wooden chair that lasts thirty years? It’s not harder to deliver quality on a small scale than it was previously, go have another taste of your grandma’s lasagne for proof, but the need to scale sucks the life energy from the idea that delivering an amazing experience, even for only a single person, is worth the effort.
If we can create quality products, cook food and build furniture that lights up someone’s eyes, the possibility to scale will come. There are too many people looking to make money for nothing. It won’t guarantee it can be done, especially while maintaining a high standard, but the opportunities will be there. Certain businesses will thrive when given the opportunity to expand. Take Airbnb for example, a company that operated on such a small, user focused scale when it began that the founders would visit each hosts home and take photos themselves to ensure their quality. As smartphones grew in ubiquity, competition between hosts grew, and potential for revenues for soared, hosts took over, but not before the founders built a high quality product. When scale came, it was a tsunami allowing super rapid growth.
This potential is obviously different for other businesses, like the restaurants of David Chang, which started in 2004 with a single noodle bar in New York City but has grown to a portfolio of nearly thirty locations throughout the world. Ensuring quality doesn’t suffer when growing an scaling is a monstrous feat in the restaurant world, and especially when low margins mean any mistake can bring it all crashing down. But Chang’s hasn’t rushed the process, and it’s led to not only a few dozen amazing restaurants, but a revolution in the food world.
There is a place for lower quality, mass produced goods. Primark, a store in the UK similar to H&M or K-Mart, sells low quality clothing. For some, it’s the only place to get back to school clothes or birthday gifts. Chipotle’s made Mexican food accessible. For a large majority, though, we gorge on low quality junk because it’s so cheap and available.
Worst case when focusing on quality is delivering a lot of value to a small group. Teachers, local businesses, restaurants, they all focus on pleasing small numbers first and foremost. Sometimes it seems like people would sell junk to a million people than a treasure to a single person. And it all comes back to money. Consumers are choosing more cheap junk, and creators are choosing more, under-satisfied customers. They’re both losing.
Value, that’s the point, and we take aim at material items and personal accomplishments to show others how much value we’ve amassed and how much we can give. But these items and accomplishments get confused for the value itself. An amazing sweater, even if old and off brand, can bring far more value than the logo on the shirt. Writing a letter that changes a friend’s life is far more valuable than an Instagram post at a fancy beach that’s liked a million times. Materials and accomplishments can represent values and skill, but they’re a secondary representation. A job title doesn’t define one’s skill set and a social media statistic doesn’t define one’s relationships. A good writer doesn’t need to be read by the masses and being read by the masses doesn’t make a good writer.
Michael Lewis started by writing for magazines, first as himself then under a pseudonym because he pissed off a few big shots at the bank that employed him. He cared about putting high quality stories in front of readers. The way to do that was writing about finance. His articles were passed around on the trading floor with another name under the title, but the appreciation for the work was there. He managed to deliver his work to millions. But even now, with a guarantee that anything he puts out will be devoured by loyal followers, it’s his own judge of quality that matters. He knows the feeling of quality, and it’s not defined by others.