On having a 1-of-1 purpose
A unique purpose is something people will advise having in a theoretical way (I did it in this post last year), but the emotional reality of a singular vision is harder than it looks.
When you’re focused on something few others are thinking about, you find yourself constantly making the case to yourself and others that your vision is worth pursuing and worthy of other people’s attention. This ongoing need to justify your work creates a significant emotional overhead.
I speak to this emotional overhead from experience. Every project I’ve done — Kickstarter, The Creative Independent, Micd, Bentoism, This Could Be Our Future, Metalabel — was initially a 1-of-1. Not something a bunch of people thought was obvious and were looking to do, but something I and the others who were part of them were convinced would matter even as the how and why were unclear.
In each of these projects I regularly found myself trying to convince friends, family, and potential future participants on the merits of these ideas. It was an uphill search for the words, frames, themes, and execution that would help others see it the way I or we did.
There were times when this was invigorating and rewarding. But there were just as many times I felt foolish for even trying. In those lower confidence moments I felt an urge to give up and try to be “normal.” To stop going against the grain and go along with what others were doing.
Despite these fears, I did believe in these projects to the degree that I and others poured years of our lives into them even during extreme uncertainty. But there was a constant questioning of whether if it was worth it and if we were crazy.
Pursuing a 1-of-1 purpose
Let’s say that despite the doubt and uncertainty, you decide you won’t give up on your idea and you’re going for it. How do you do that?
In my experience, you must be able to live inside of your vision in such a way that you can communicate its emotional essence, its core truth, to the immediate world around you. You must immerse yourself in the concept car version of the universe where your 1-of-1 vision clicks in an everyday way, and then express how that vision credibly relates to people’s actual lives.
When trying to make the case for what’s now called crowdfunding in the years before Kickstarter launched, my cofounders and I constantly talked to artists and creative people who we hoped would one day use the service. In those conversations — some deeply inspiring and educational, others awkward and even painful — we learned more about our project based on what connected with others and what didn’t. It was a years-long process of trying, failing, and iterating to find the language and expressions that would make what felt clear to us obvious to others.
With Metalabel we’re doing this in public. This is part of the power of the release club/metalabel form: it’s not a recipe for a single product that either succeeds or fails — it’s a long process of winning over an audience with many different expressions of a vision.
We see each release as a chance to increase the surface area of our purpose. We’re trying to make our vision tangible by releasing zines, experiences, and products that express our ideas. Every release is a chance to find the people who connect with our ideas, and for us to better express the essence of what our project is about.
Stubbornness is also important. In the short term a 1-of-1 purpose will almost always fail. Every day is yet another moment that people didn’t follow your vision and the world failed to transform according to your ideas. The failures are literally limitless.
With a longer view, however, this process looks different. Eighty straight days of struggling in the darkness can produce one powerful insight that lights the way for months to come. What feels like foolish drudgery in real time looks like an epic hero’s journey when examined from the rearview mirror of an arc that turns out well.
Thriving with a 1-of-1 purpose
Having the vision and motivation to go for a 1-of-1 purpose are the most important elements. But what if we want to thrive in the pursuit of our goal? What does that look like?
First, and one of the hardest parts: you must give up your desire for approval from others. When pursuing a 1-of-1 vision, you aren’t going to be the most popular or celebrated person. You’re going to be an oddity that the most in-the-know people — who are especially aware of social status and trends — will dismiss. But even though these cultural influencers shape the opinions of others (you pay attention to them, after all), they are not a real path to fulfillment or success.
In a C.S. Lewis piece called “The Inner Ring,” he notes that many of us are trying to move up a social ladder to be in an “inner ring” with the people whose approval we most seek. But Lewis points out that for every step you make up the ladder into an inner ring, you discover there’s yet another, more inner ring further in.
This process literally never stops. Years ago I spent time with a famous tech CEO who confessed that he felt a lack of self-worth because he compared himself to Jeff Bezos, who he fell short of in his eyes. No matter how high or far you climb, these feelings stick around if you don’t consciously move beyond them.
C.S. Lewis writes about how to avoid this:
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public… But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.
Following your own ideas and instincts is how we create genuine confidence and craft in our work. True satisfaction is achieved by liberating ourselves from desiring the approval of others. While others might triumphantly social climb into various inner rings, it’s only from pursuing our own path that we find lasting fulfillment.
Manifesting a 1-of-1 purpose
Metalabel’s 1-of-1 purpose is to establish an organizational structure for groups of creative people to support one another and release work together. Our goal is to make release clubs easy to understand and a better path for releasing creative work that fulfills whatever goals we have in mind when making it.
After working on this together for the past year-plus amidst constant uncertainty, we’re learning how to manage our emotions and create work that expresses our vision. Especially important to our project:
Be the thing — Don’t just theorize about release clubs, actively be one every day. By doing things we want as a release club, we learn what others might want. This act of progressive productization, where we first do the thing for ourselves and then make it available to others, has repeatedly revealed valuable truths that have helped us bring this idea to others.
Increase the surface area of the idea — Each release is a chance to help more people see the world the way we see it. They’re opportunities to connect with people by showing them how our ideas can match their needs and fulfill their desires.
Have fun — There’s a version of this work that’s hyper-analytical where we try to Moneyball our way to success. There’s another version where we’re living it, enjoying it, and having fun with it. Our best work comes when we’re having fun and enjoying what we’re doing, not when we’re overly analytical. Analytical thinking creates fear and uncertainty. Acting based on what’s fun and what we want builds energy, clarity, and momentum.
These three keys are specific to Metalabel’s 1-of-1 purpose, but I suspect something like this is true for most projects. To power through pain and uncertainty, we must feed our psyches with action and energy.
In a blog post this sounds easy, and of course reality is different. When I talk to strangers about what we’re doing, I often hear things like “collaborating is hard” or “collectives never work.” Some of the points people raise are valid and have helped steer us onto firmer ground. But we also need to be careful not to obsess over skeptical reactions. In many cases those are people who we haven’t learned to communicate our ideas to yet, or who just aren’t ready to hear them. That’s okay! For other peoples’ 1-of-1 purposes, we’re those skeptics too.
What they don’t see, and what we continue to experience, is that while collaborating can be hard, it’s also a more rewarding, fruitful, and uplifting experience than doing things on our own. Yes, it’s true that groups of people collaborating will run into some well-known problems, but it’s also true that we see ways to make that experience better, and that the upsides of even trying are genuinely life-changing. Whenever we have doubt — and we will continue to have doubts! — all we have to do is look at our own emotional and creative experience to know that what we’re doing is true in a deep and profound way.
Having gone through this a few times, I’ve finally come to realize that we should feel lucky when the universe gifts us a 1-of-1 purpose. It’s not something to lament or fear. It’s something to relish and embrace. When you’re called by a vision few others can see, trust that if you do your part, one day others will too.
This piece was inspired after messaging with a friend about the challenges of working in an area no one else is working in. Here’s what I sent:
I’ve been finding it helpful to think about Metalabel as having a singular, 1-of-1 purpose: make joining and starting a release club so easy to understand and desirable that we inspire a new way to make creative work together.
This purpose is 1-of-1 because as far as I’m aware, no one else is working on this or sees it the way we do.
Focusing on that 1-of-1 purpose — rather than where we and other projects might have similar aims — has been transformational in clarifying who we need to be for this project to reach its potential.
I see a similar logic with Cabin. It’s possible for other projects to be sexier, more lucrative, and more attention getting, however their purposes are less unique than yours.
I appreciated Nvidia’s founder talking the other week about what it means to work in a zero billion dollar industry. It means really believing in something no one else can see, but trusting that if you do your part eventually others will.
After that exchange, I wrote a metablog for the Metalabel squad about the emotional and practical experiences of having a 1-of-1 purpose. Articulating this and talking about it as a group was an energizing framing for us. I’m posting a public version of that post to help others who are feeling alone in their projects, and to share ideas for how to manage what can be a very difficult — but also extremely fulfilling — experience pursuing a 1-of-1 purpose.
Metalabel recently dropped a new zine in a newspaper box we installed on Canal St in NYC near our office.
A New Creative Era is a call for a new spirit of collaboration and mutual support among creative people. The zine points to patterns, tools, and paths to get there. Read the zine online here, cosign the release to receive an invite to workshops we’re hosting in NYC and online, and purchase a physical copy of the zine shipped to you here.
Other recent Metalabel drops include a zine collecting some of the best writing about DAOs, a zine exploring multiplayer collaboration in novel ways, and the first-ever vinyl release on Metalabel, with a trippy concept album based on an obscure book about the concept of a “pluriverse.” As you can probably tell, we’re having a lot of fun. I hope you are too in whatever you’re working on.