What it takes to hew to you

car with stuffed animals glued to the outside of it Back in my adhole days, I worked on an unusual account, writing ads for a unique product.

Not pretty unique or really unique or any other slovenly, modern crimes against a once-useful word, but unique, period: there were no other products like it. It was "automobile" when the only other choices were "horses" or "feet"; it was upper-case Kleenex before the name became the generic term for "disposable facial tissue." It created a category and reigned as its sole entrant for a crazy number of years, considering its high margins and low barrier to entry.

I was brought on when this was changing. Not because I was some hotshot copywriter or had any affinity for the market (it was sports-centric, and I have always been, as The Chief Atheist liked to say, a non-athletic mug), but because I had a solid track record of making packaged goods sexy. Never met an incredibly dull product I couldn't coax the sizzle from: cereal, deodorant, moribund shelf-stable dessert brands.

Plus, and this was at least as important as any so-called talent I had, I was user-friendly. The kind of copywriter you could take home to meet your brand manager.

* * * * *

My first sign that there might be trouble ahead was the laundry list of non-negotiables that had to be shoehorned into every ad. A dubious animated "demo" and an accompanying list of superlative claims that still lived safely in parity land. A tagline that made me die inside a little every time I had to type it. A goofy, no, seriously goofy, jingle. And I liked jingles.

But okay, it was a start. We would maybe not solve this in a fell swoop, but we would inch along, steadily raising their tolerance for the new and outré. I would earn trust and cred by delivering slightly better iterations, by remaining accessible and amenable throughout the endless rounds rounds of meetings, testing and production, even by learning something about sports so that I could discuss it like a non-nimrod. And when the time came, I would be poised to deliver the work this formerly unique, still unusual product truly deserved, in spite of itself.

The time, however, never came. Not in four years of working my ass off on that product.

It almost came. For brief and shining moments here and there, within the commercials themselves, even, it looked like it came. But if it had been the 17-year-old male that we were positioning it towards, it would have been walking around with the worst case of blue balls in the history of jacking off and balls.1

Why? Because what the protectors of this brand really wanted was to be "kind of" unique. Which, as we've established above, is un-possible. They wanted to stick their necks out with a guarantee that heads would not roll. They wanted exciting, breakthrough work that was familiar enough to be comfortable with. Award-winning work that did not make them in the least bit nervous.

And you can't have those two things at once. Not in 1989. Not now. Not, period.

* * * * *

Believe it or not, this piece started out in my brain as a screed against modal windows.

You know, those things that pop up when you're on a site, exhorting you to do something or other, usually to subscribe to the site's feed, or to download something excellent and free NOW in exchange for an email address.

I hate modal windows.  I hate them almost as much as my friend Nathan does, and he really hates modal windows. We hate them because they are insulting, disruptive, and insistent, which is exactly why site owners use them. Well, they don't use them because they're insulting; they use them because of the disruptive/insistent part. It converts. I've talked to many of my fellow bloggers who use modal windows, and they all confirm that modal windows convert. (Interestingly, many will cop to disliking them as users in the same breath.)

So, could I increase my subscriber rate by adding a modal window? Most likely. Will I even try it? Unlikely. Not because I am right and all those people who are actually increasing their subscriber bases are wrong, but because I am me and I hate modal windows. Modal windows go against everything I believe in when it comes to good behavior online. They look like they are there to help the user, but really, they are there to help site owner. Me using modal windows makes me less me. For you? Maybe not. Maybe they make you more you. Maybe they are the Newest Sliced Bread you have been waiting for all of your Internet life, and to you I say "Mazel tov! Work the sh*t out of that modal window, my brother!"

But if I use them to get me somewhere faster, even if I get there, I lose. Even if I gain subscribers. Renown. Fleets of yachts and strings of polo ponies. Because a piece of me dies every time I vote against who I really am. I do not cease to be unique, but I trowel a layer of stucco over it.

And stucco, I think we can all agree, is not a thing you want to be troweled under.

* * * * *

For the past five or so years, possibly longer, my favorite quote has been this one from American opera singer Beverly Sills:

There is no shortcut to any place worth going.

It means there will always be distance, for which you may read "work" or "pain" or "doubt" or anything else you like, between you and what you really love. Will some pretty nice things fall in your lap? Of course. Or, well, we hope so. Treats are important! Nothing wrong with treats.

There is another quote that lodged in my brain fairly recently, though, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, and it's pretty much the perfect companion piece to old Beverly's:

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.

No fast lane. No lane, period, and no finish line, it's not a race. There's just me and the road I create day by day, choice by choice. I can choose a thing that feels right and scary. I can choose a thing that feels awkward but safe. (And hey, I'm not a masochist: if it feels truly right and also pleasant, I'm gonna roll with that, too.)

In the course of all this walking, I'm even likely to take quite a few steps that feel very "me" in the moment but that in hindsight look like embarrassing missteps. Have you looked at your '80s photos recently?

There's a difference, though, between trying things on for size and doing things that don't fit just because everyone else is. The first is life. The second, a slow, steady death.

If modal windows speak to you, for god's sake, use modal windows. But if they don't, and I confess, as a reasonably savvy user and longtime student of usability on the web, I truly hope they don't, for the love of your very own self, please don't.2

* * * * *

A final note, small but worth mentioning: hewing to yourself does not necessarily mean that the things you are hoping will happen will do so less quickly. On the contrary, they may happen faster.

Yes, the 10,000-hours rule holds (for anything with staying power), and yes, you do have to put yourself out there, but when someone really starts being herself, people tend to respond pretty quickly and word travels fast. It is intoxicating and alluring, what the lack of need can do. And really, when you are copy-catting around, that's just your need showing.

Even if it doesn't translate into the accelerated growth you're hoping for, hewing to yourself is infinitely more sustainable. Not easier, but simpler.

And from the reports that have come back to me, infinitely more rewarding, in the real sense of the word.

xxx c

1Actually, shortly after I left the business, I would argue that it finally came. It was not I that brought off this feat, but a wonderfully clever person who also happened to be a man, and one who did not particularly give a crap about solving problems within parameters, but just solving them. I wish I could have worked with him longer; he remains one of my favorite people I've ever met in advertising.

2I pause here to cede that there is a point at which an unwillingness to be obtrusive becomes just as hurtful to the user as the willingness to sock it to 'em and to hell with the cost. Like not clearly delineating where and how and for what one might be hired, for example, something I am taking pains to correct. I also confess that I've been woefully negligent about providing easy, front-page access to (1) my newsletter signup, (2) my resources for actors and (3) my articles on Crohn's disease and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. I defend #2 and 3 on the grounds that most people needing those pieces come straight to them via search. The newsletter thing I need to correct. I am officially on notice!

Image by Highway Patrol Images via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.