You’re such a hack

A few days ago Naomi Dunford from IttyBiz got me all riled up with a quote from Stephen Pressfield’s “War of Art.”

Says Pressfield:


I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for.

The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he’s superior to them. The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He’s afraid it won’t sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.

He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for?

The hack is like the politician who consults the polls before he takes a position. He’s a demagogue. He panders.

It can pay off, being a hack. Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.


Now I have a ton of respect for Stephen Pressfield. And if you’re a writer or do creative work, “War of Art” is a must-read.

But I take serious issue with what he’s saying here, because he’s pretty much writing off every successful business person who ever lived as a “hack.”

Constantly asking yourself, “What is my market really looking for?” isn’t looking down on your audience, or condescending to them.

Far from it.

It’s the height of arrogance to look at your customer and say, “I don’t care what you want. You’re getting what I want to give you.”

And in 99% of cases, businesses that take this stance die a slow and bitter death.

(Occasionally you’ll see someone who seems to defy this—Steve Jobs comes to mind. But if you look closer, you’ll find that these people were so deeply in tune with their market’s unrealized desires and fantasies that they instinctively knew what the market wanted—and that’s what they created.)

Here’s the truth:

When you’re selling a product or a service, your customers are entrusting themselves to your care.

Looking to meet their needs and fulfill their desires isn’t “running scared,” or “pandering.”

It’s honoring the trust they’ve placed in you. It’s treating them with respect and looking out for their best interests, rather than your own.

Does that make you a “hack”?

I don’t think so.

Pressfield is right about one thing, though:

If you’re always asking yourself, “What is my market really looking for?” you really can make millions.