The Secret Ingredient Is Us

I heard two great minds independently say nearly the exact same thing this week. David Lindelof, while talking about his HBO series Watchmen, said: “you have to make the show you would want to see.” Charles Schwab, talking about the history of the firm he founded said he always asks, “what would I want if I were the customer?” Personally, this may feel nearsighted or even arrogant for little old us to do, but professionally, it’s a key to making our work truly great. 
When we start with an idea we would respect and value objectively, we know we are making work that matters. It’s true that at first we only really know it matters to us, but consider the opposite – why would we make something we ourselves wouldn’t actually want? Imagine the difference between a minimum-wage teenager at a fast-food restaurant making your meal and a highly-trained lifelong chef at a top-rated establishment. Which “preparer of food” is there to make something they actually care about and which one is just there to get paid? Which meal do you want to eat?
When we put ourselves into the work, we are putting our fingerprints on it (and don’t worry, we’re leaving the food analogy behind for this one). The more “us” that shows up in our products and services, the more inherently differentiated our work becomes. In the olden days of banking, people used to go to actual banks to deposit physical checks. Customers, over time, would develop “favorite” tellers and often choose to wait longer in lines just to have their preferred person deposit their check. Why, in a low-differentiation job like a bank teller, would customers develop preferences? Because the best tellers put themselves into processing those transactions. Authentic human to human connections create more perceived value than the value of the transaction alone.
These points raise one scary question: what if we’re the only one who ends up wanting this thing? What if only Lindelof likes his take on Watchmen? What if Schwab is the only one who wanted a discount brokerage? At some point, we’re going to have to test the idea. Starving artists go on starving. Artists who find the connection can go on thriving. If we make something we would truly want, odds are someone else will see the value too. Notably, not everyone else, but people like us. There is a subset of the population who will love the new Watchmen and many others who won’t. There is a subset of the population who love Schwab’s offerings, and yet not everyone is a client of theirs. This realization is critical. 
When we make our work something we would want, when we invest ourselves in our efforts, and when we make an authentic connection with like-minded people, something magical happens: we create true value. It starts with an arrogant question, but it can lead to the most generous results. Our most basic preferences are often not that far off from those of others. The not-so-secret ingredient isn’t a hidden insight or a magical concept, it’s simply us.

*check out the first episode of The Official Watchmen Podcast From HBO, and Schwab’s interview with Cal Fussman on the Big Questions Podcast, episode 95.