In the fall of 1990, the metal band Warrant was on the verge of releasing their new album “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” when Jani Lane, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter, got a call. It was a record executive at Sony who told Lane that the album needed a power ballad (i.e. a sentimental love song) in order to increase its chance of commercial success. At the time, releasing a power ballad was an easy way for a metal band to boost their sales and reach a wider audience, even if it didn’t fit their sound.
Lane knew this, and despite his reservations, agreed to play along. Over the course of a few hours he wrote the single “Cherry Pie” which became Warrant’s most popular song ever, eventually reaching number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Years later Lane recalled the experience of writing “Cherry Pie” in an interview for VH1:
I hate that song. I had no intention of writing that song. The record was done. The record was called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” And Donny Ienner [Sony executive] called up and said, ‘I don’t hear the single.’
So, that night I wrote “Cherry Pie.” Sent it to him. He looked at it over the weekend and all of a sudden the album’s called “Cherry Pie,” the record’s called “Cherry Pie,” I’m doing cherry pie eating contests … and my legacy is “Cherry Pie.” Everything about me is “Cherry Pie.” I’m “Cherry Pie” guy. I could shoot myself in the f***ing head for writing that song.
Lane would eventually drink himself to death in a hotel room.
The sad story of Jani Lane and “Cherry Pie” highlights the downsides of chasing commercial success at the expense of your beliefs and dignity. Unfortunately, with the rise of social media and algorithmically-controlled dopamine, this problem only seems to be getting worse.
One of the more extreme examples of this is the YouTuber Nicholas Perry, better known today as Nikocado Avocado. Perry saw little success as a YouTuber until he started uploading videos of himself eating in front of the camera. But what started as innocent videos of Perry sharing his meals online soon became vulgar spectacles of gluttonous excess. Perry gained millions of subscribers, but lost himself along the way.
The before and after photo of Perry (from this incredible Gurwinder article) is shocking to say the least:
But Perry isn’t a unique case. The YouTuber Shoenice22 got partially famous online for consuming outrageous things on camera including: hot peppers, raw meat, and an entire bottle of mayonnaise. And before there was ever a Nikocado Avocado or a Shoenice22, there was Epic Meal Time and LA Beast.
But the desperate quest for attention hasn’t been limited to YouTubers. I recently tweeted about how Twitter has become an endless stream of threads and I’ve seen others note this as well (see here, here, and here). The sad thing is that these cheap engagement tactics actually work to grow your Twitter audience.
But, at what cost? After all, would you rather be yourself and be known by thousands, or be someone else and be known by tens (or hundreds) of thousands? Do you want to copy what the masses are doing or do you want to blaze your own trail? Nat Eliason summarized this idea perfectly in this recent article:
Threads are all the rage on Twitter, maybe you should become a threadboi. Oh now people are talking about mental models. Everyone’s focused on SEO. Now Twitter. Now TikTok. Instead of sticking with your style and who you want to be you find someone with clout to copy.
This is the problem of our age. We’ve become obedient to algorithms.
But this goes beyond content creators on Twitter and YouTube. Following the algorithm pervades our society. It’s when you take a career in consulting or banking because your college classmates did so. It’s when you invest in a new cryptocurrency or tech stock because it’s popular. Ultimately, it’s when you let others shape your life instead of building your own.
Even the mainstream media has this problem. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz stated in Everybody Lies (emphasis mine):
Many people … have viewed American journalism as controlled by rich people or corporations with the goal of influencing the masses, perhaps to push people toward their political views. Gentzkow and Shapiro’s paper suggests, however, that this is not the predominant motivation of owners. The owners of the American press, instead, are primarily giving the masses what they want so that owners can become even richer.
Instead of publishing news based on principles, the mainstream media have resorted to click bait and supporting fringe beliefs in order to attract more eyeballs. The algorithms have consumed them like everyone else.
But you don’t have to blindly follow the algorithms to get ahead. Consider Paul Graham or Morgan Housel. Both have never spent any time engaging in “growth hacks” or “engagement bait,” yet they are some of the most successful writers on the internet.
What’s their secret? They focus relentlessly on the quality of their writing and ideas. Because quality never goes out of style. And when you focus on quality, you don’t have to play by the rules of the algorithm at all. You can reject the algorithm altogether and create success in your own way.
Many businesses have done this to great effect. Chipotle improved the quality of the fast food experience by making their food fresher and customizable. Vanguard improved the quality of the asset management experience by making it cheaper and easier. Netflix improved the quality of the movie rental experience by making it more convenient. All of these companies rejected the prevailing algorithms of their day and came out ahead.
I would give you the same advice as well—reject the algorithm. Because the algorithm will make you do things that you don’t really want to do. It will make you work a job that you hate or write “Cherry Pie” or consume 10,000 calories on camera. But is that who you really are? Is that who you want to be?
I know how hard it is to fight for attention. I’ve been doing it for over five years now. But I also know that you don’t have to sell your soul in the process. You can do things your own way, even if it takes a little longer.
This what I’ve been trying to do and I’m so thankful for it. I’m thankful that my readers let me write about what I want. I’m thankful that when I publish on non-financial topics like regrets, or love, or my struggles with alcohol, I get a positive response. I’m thankful that I am able to reject the algorithm. I can only hope that, one day, you join me.
Thank you for reading!
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This is post 306. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data