How Our Obsession With Greatness Kills The Ability to Do Good Work

The pressure to be great — well, so great that it cripples us — injects us with expectations that are typically unrealistic.

We spin our wheels trying to write that epic post. But we have a tendency to measure ourselves up so inadequately to those we admire — so much so that, in the end, we don’t write anything.

It’s ok to focus on being great, but not at the expense of being good. You can’t reach the summit unless you start at the base of the mountain.

In this 27-minute episode Robert Bruce and I discuss:

  • Audio vérité and the Blair Witch Project
  • Keira Knightley in Begin Again and Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years
  • The age of the golden-throated radio announcer being over
  • When admiration becomes resentment
  • The abuse of the DIY ethic
  • Robert’s podcast Allegorical and why it might fail
  • Why it’s important to consider your audience

The Show Notes

How Our Obsession with Greatness Kills the Ability to Do Good Work

Robert Bruce: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at

Brian Gardner: There is sound advice from Robert Bruce.

Robert Bruce: And that’s the end of the podcast right there. We’re done.

Brian Gardner: The 30-second podcast.

No Sidebar the podcast is brought to you by an event called Authority Rainmaker. This is a carefully designed live educational experience that presents a complete and effective online marketing strategy to help you immediately accelerate your business. Get all the details right now at Rainmaker.FM/Event, and we look forward to seeing you in Denver, Colorado, this May.

Welcome back to No Sidebar. This is Brian Gardner, your host, and today is going to be a completely different day than any other in No Sidebar podcast history. For the first time ever, I am going to go completely unscripted, and I’m trying something new, partly because I’ve gained a little bit of confidence with my ability to speak elegantly, but also because I’ve gotten some feedback from the listeners that while the content of the show is great, at times it sounds and feels scripted. Trust me, I am the first one to admit that and to say, “Yes, you are right.”

So joining me today to help me cut my teeth is Robert Bruce, who — if you don’t know — is the golden voice of Copyblogger. He’s also the Vice President of Marketing for the Rainmaker Platform and the guy who’s completely in charge of Rainmaker.FM, the podcast network.

Audio Vérité and the Blair Witch Project

Robert Bruce: Good morning, Mr. Gardner. Good morning, No Sidebar listeners. I was thinking, you wanted to just start recording and start talking. In film, it’s cinema vérité, I think, where they just grab the camera and try to make a movie out of everyday occurrences. So this is a bit of audio vérité, I think.

Brian Gardner: You know, it’s funny. The Blair Witch Project, back in our day, was almost the first reality TV or reality something, even though it totally was scripted — but it totally wasn’t. It was so good and actually better than reality TV, because I’m an advocate of the fact that reality TV is anything but. But The Blair Witch Project, as I watched that and watch it again, even to this day, I’m like, “Was that real, or was it not?”

Robert Bruce: The great thing about Blair Witch is that it’s the ultimate demonstration of creating within constraints. They had no budget. I don’t know, maybe there’s some secret budget that they had, but the cameras they were using, the way they filmed it, absolutely. Anybody who thinks they can’t get anything done because of certain constraints, financial or otherwise, go watch Blair Witch.

To be fair, Brian, the scripting thing is an interesting idea because the idea of writing a script is that you want the thing to be good. You want it to be focused. You want it to be interesting. But it’s one of the hardest things to do naturally. You’ve done a very, very good job of it. It’s a difficult task, but this is interesting today.

Brian Gardner: I love the idea of a script, and it is a crutch. The problem is that in most cases, when things get overused, they’re perceived as being overused. Women and makeup are a perfect example of this. When people put on makeup, they use it to look beautiful, but sometimes they go so over the top and put on so much makeup, it becomes a turnoff.

We’re overproduced by nature. We build for consumption, which immediately sets ourselves up for people-pleasing tendencies, and that’s what I’ve done with the podcast. I’m trying to address that by being more natural. I think there’s a lot of beauty in natural. And podcasts I hear, when I hear people scripted, I’m the first one to say, “Huh, that’s scripted.” Then I’m like, “That’s calling the kettle black, because look in the mirror. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

So this is my opportunity to try something new, and I will admit that having you on the show to do it with me is bittersweet. Here’s the thing — and this is part of what I want to talk about — before we get started, I just want to set the tone and say that Robert and I are going to talk about being confidently creative.

That is the focus of today’s show because in our own ways, both he and I struggle. Ironically, it’s with each other’s skills, actually. I want to be a better podcaster, so I look at you as the golden voice of podcasting, which at times cripples me, but it also motivates me. I think, from a design perspective, it goes the other way. We’ve had conversations where you hate me for my ability to just hop on and design something very quickly.

Robert Bruce: Yes.

Brian Gardner: As long as those things are kept in check, I think they’re positive.

Robert Bruce: Yeah, I do hate you for that, and at some point, you were going to give me 10 hours free training with Illustrator and Photoshop or something like that. Is that the deal?

Brian Gardner: Yes, we have Authority Rainmaker in May. I think we sit down in Denver at a coffee shop at 11 o’clock one night and close it down, and we will podcast and design on the fly and teach each other stuff.

Robert Bruce: All right, this is on the record. Real quick, on the natural thing, it’s an interesting point you bring up because this entire thing is wholly unnatural — hitting ‘record,’ talking into a microphone. Even though we’re having a relatively casual conversation here, it’s completely unnatural, and I think that’s something that people should keep in mind, even when they are trying to be ‘authentic’ or ‘natural.’

One of the best things I ever heard about this was when John Gruber over at Daring Fireball told a story about the early days of his site. I think he was testing out advertising. He was looking at how to start to make some revenue with the site early on. I don’t know if he came up with it or if he read it somewhere, but it was this idea of matching advertising with your audience’s interests, which is a very difficult thing to do if you’re going to try and do it. He said it’s kind of like a toupee as well. You brought up the makeup issue, but for men, a lot of men have hair troubles, you and I included, right?

Brian Gardner: Yes.

Robert Bruce: But he says a lot of guys will go full-bore with the plugs or the toupee or whatever, and I get it. You want to have what you once had, but he says the way to look at it is the Bruce Willis school of hair restoration. He says what Bruce Willis did was not try to recreate his original hairline, but just fill in the basics of what was there. He’s still balding. He’s still receding. But it’s a more natural approach to it. Totally unnatural, but somehow it works better, and you’d never know it.

Brian Gardner: That’s definitely interesting.

Robert Bruce: No Sidebar, the hair restoration podcast.

Brian Gardner: Yes, and the funny thing with toupees is that most people who wear toupees look like they’re wearing toupees. So in their mind, they think, “I have hair.” In our minds, it’s,”You’re wearing a toupee, and I can clearly see that.”

Here’s the thing, though. Yesterday I was having some internal conversations with myself and trying to identify where I’m at currently with what I’m doing, and I came up with this thought which really started to spell things out for me. The thought I had was that the more I focus on being great, the less I succeed at being good.

In our society, everybody wants to be the elite, and we all aim for the top. There really isn’t anything wrong with that. For example, I try to write the epic post, and because I can’t write the epic post, I don’t write at all. That’s kind of symptomatic of the good-versus-great thing, where we feel like if we can’t be the best, we shouldn’t do it at all. I think that is absolutely wrong. I think by working on being good, you become great.

Robert Bruce: I was told once by a coach years ago when I did sports stuff — it’s been a long time — about being nervous before a race or whatever. Coach says, “You know why you’re nervous?” He says, “Because you want to win.” In other words, “You want to be perfect. You want to be great,” to your point. He says, “If you approach it.”

I think being nervous about something is tough to get rid of altogether because you care about this thing. You care about this show and your listeners, and we all do, but the idea of somehow finding a way to approach it with the idea of being good, of mastering the fundamentals — which I think, if I’m not wrong, we’ll get into a little bit later — rather than, like you say, trying to be great.

Keira Knightley in Begin Again and Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years

Brian Gardner: Anybody who follows me knows that I talk about the things that I go through, the things that I think and listen and hear, read and watch. Lately I’ve been kind of on this Anna Kendrick and The Last Five Years spiel, which is piggybacking off a phase I went through with the movie Begin Again and Keira Knightley — which, both movies and both actresses and both characters in those movies, I fell completely in love with. Not because they’re pretty girls, but what I found was there was relatability in their characters because in both cases, they were presented as sort of normal people.

In Begin Again, Keira Knightley was the girlfriend of Adam Levine, who in the show was the movie star. And Anna Kendrick, sort of in the same fashion, was married to this guy Jamie, who was this bestselling book author. So in both cases, they were the shadow. In both cases, they were presented as kind of normal people, and in both cases, those actresses sang the songs that are in the movies. Neither of them sang them in Hollywood fashion, but that was the appealing part. I was like, “Wow, Keira Knightley actually has a good voice,” but I think it kind of — what’s the word I’m looking for?

Robert Bruce: She allowed herself to not be perfect, or highly trained, or some great Broadway singer in that moment.

Brian Gardner: Yeah, exactly. And especially in The Last Five Years, Anna Kendrick is very clumsy and awkward with the way she sings. I’m sure technically it’s not, you know, what Mariah Carey would do, but I think that’s what makes it so appealing, that “Hey, non-great people can do non-great things and have it be great actually,” as crazy as that sounds.

The Age of the Golden-Throated Radio Announcer Being Over

Robert Bruce: No, I really like this, and I think you could argue it’s the age of being. All these words are tossed around a lot — ‘authenticity,’ all these things like that. You and I’ve had that conversation. The age of the golden-throated radio announcer is over. They don’t want that polished, perfect production so much anymore. You see this in songwriting. I mean, it comes and goes. We should get somebody else on here to talk about music, because I’m not the one. That’s more your department.

But there are kind of rolling ideas of what is good and what is not. I think we’re in one of those periods where people want the raw and authentic as much as is possible to get there while talking behind a microphone.

Brian Gardner: Yeah, I realize that I am not Ryan Seacrest. I am never going to be Ryan Seacrest, or Robert Bruce for that matter, and what I need to do is be okay in my own body. When I’m okay in my own body, that is when, in a weird way, confidence comes back, and the audience can relate. When they think you’re trying to put yourself out of body and become someone you’re not, A) it comes across that way, and B) there’s just some degree of that “Ehhh, okay, poser,” type of mentality that people have.

When Admiration Becomes Resentment

Brian Gardner: I do it myself, as much as I hate to admit that. I judge others. It’s a fault of mine, but by nature, we try to build ourselves up by knocking others down. So even within our own network, I’ll hear a podcast, and I’ll be like, “Oh, that was awkward. I would have cut that out.” That’s a terrible way to look at it.

I’m also a believer that when we knock people down, it’s because we are envious of them. For example, whether it’s musicians or models or athletes, we all have these people that we look up to and admire, but there comes a point, especially if they’re in the field you’re in, where admiration becomes resentment. That’s a very dangerous spot to be in.

Robert Bruce: Yeah.

Brian Gardner: Look back to the ’80s or ’90s or whenever the whole Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan thing went down. They were teammates, and it got to a point where there was some jealousy and envy, and obviously it led to that whole fiasco. It reminds me of Shawne Merriman. I don’t know if you remember him, but he was a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers way back in the day. In an interview, I heard him say, when asked, “Shawne, why are you in the gym all the time?” He said, “If I’m not in the gym working out, my opponent might be.” I mean are you going to be in the gym 24 hours?

Robert Bruce: Yeah, right. There’s only so much you can do.

Brian Gardner: Speaking of being unfiltered and transparent, Robert’s microphone or something on his end just went out. So I wanted to take a second and say that there’s a bridge in between his audio in case you happen to notice that things are a little bit off moving forward. He still sounds great. He’s in his closet. Even if I had said nothing, you would have ever realized that there was a difference, but in the event that you do, there’s a reason for that. We’re just going to unedit this and let it go because that is, after all, part of podcasting.

Robert Bruce: Audio vérité, right?

Brian Gardner: Yes, this is our ugly, and hey, that’s cool. It’s all good.

Alright, so getting back to where we were. We talked a lot about us personally, me with my fandom of Keira Knightley and Anna Kendrick, and the reality of it is that in some fashion, this needs to get pulled back into business. At least for me, I spend so much time focusing on the personal that I sometimes forget to apply how this all goes down and what it does to me as a business guy. I wrote a post today on specifically calling myself out on being unfocused when it comes to work stuff. I’m unfocused anyway, but I have a responsibility as a partner of Copyblogger, as lead design overseer in the company, to make sure that things go down.

One of my responsibilities is, of course, running the No Sidebar podcast. I think from a business perspective, the things that I struggle with personally also carry over, and so I don’t think I’m expected to do everything great in the company. I think that is a setup for failure. But I need to be good, and by focusing on great, I’m sometimes not good.

This past week has been a good example of me not being good because I’ve been so focused on being great, and trying to record and edit and overproduce the perfect podcast episode, partly so that the company thinks I’m great, partly because the audience will think I’m great. In the process, I end up with egg on my face.

Robert Bruce: ‘Egg on your face’ I think may be a little too strong. But I think the sentiment is absolutely correct, because trying too hard doesn’t get you, rarely if ever, what you want.

The Abuse of the DIY Ethic

Brian Gardner: So on last week’s show, it was all about the No Sidebar Guide to DIY Podcasting. One of the things I’ve learned in the six weeks I’ve been doing this is that I spend so much time trying to make such a small difference, and it kills my productivity. I will spend three hours editing a show. That, in turn — as last week’s was, in my opinion — felt overproduced. I’m like, “Well, there was a waste of time.”

Really, it wasn’t, but in my own mind, when I sit down and think about it, once in a while I’m like, “I just wish I could just sit down like Brian and Robert probably do. Hit ‘record’ for 30 seconds. Put a bumper in, an intro and an outro, and be done,” rather than it take up the whole week. Because it takes me some time to write the script. It takes me some time to record it, and I re-record a hundred times to make sure it’s perfect. Then I go through and edit it. It’s a 12-hour production. That is completely No Sidebar.

Robert Bruce: Yeah, we had talked about –I don’t know when, a few days ago — the idea of overproduction, specifically as it relates to the script. You know, someone like Demian, who’s doing his daily show Rough Draft, he’s writing 500-, 600-, 700-word scripts for that show four days a week. Now, Demian can do that. It’s a number of factors, though. I think he is a perfectionist, but it’s kind of a different thing from maybe what you and struggle with. He is also extremely prolific. I think he probably has an ability to let go of those things more than you or I do. So he’s able to go through that process a lot more quickly and get things done and get them out into the world.

Brian Gardner: It’s funny. I mentioned earlier that I sort of, in my own head, judge and critique those even within our own network. When I hear Demian’s, there’s part of me that’s like, “Oh my gosh. That’s so weirdly, awkwardly unnatural for him to come across as he does,” but first of all, what I know that other’s don’t is that is Demian, first of all.

Robert Bruce: Right, right.

Brian Gardner: But also, there’s that part of me that when I think that in my brain, there’s total envy in the fact that he can just let go. Really, the perception for me at least, is he doesn’t really care. I mean he does, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t care that others perceive him as sounding drunk or some of the other things that people have been saying. I’m like, “There’s a guy whose hair is down. He’s recording, he’s having a good time. He’s conveying his thoughts, and who cares how it comes across?”

I think of it as unproduced. Others think of it as, “Wow, this is just brilliant.” I’m like, “It took him 20 minutes to record that and not 12 hours like me, so who’s the silly person here?” So whether it’s podcasting, whether it’s writing or design for that matter, I think you have to do some sort of quality control. You just can’t hit ‘record.’

Robert Bruce: No.

Brian Gardner: Some people just take advantage of the fact that they think people want that, so there has to be a degree of editing.

Robert Bruce: Yeah, the abuse of the DIY ethic.

Brian Gardner: Let’s talk about Allegorical. This is your new show on the network, which is funny. I’m such a non-writer, I actually had to go look up what ‘allegorical’ even meant. You take for granted that you know all of this stuff, and then there’s me. I’m like, “What does that even mean?”

Robert’s Podcast Allegorical and Why It Might Fail

Robert Bruce: Actually, there was a little bit of debate in my mind about it, because there’s several words that describe that kind of thing: allegory, fable, parable. So I was playing around with different things, but all of these forms, if we’re not familiar with the words, we’re familiar with the style. Like probably the most famous is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a lot of the work of C.S. Lewis, and then the Grimms’ fairy tales all the way down to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and even 1984.

It’s a very specific literary device in which you hope to teach and put forth some idea within the context of the story. I like it. I normally don’t like this. I don’t think the purpose of art is to teach. I really don’t. But this is a very particular form. It’s entire reason for being is to teach or to put forth an idea. So anyway, that was the idea: a very short, very quick little allegory/parable with a bit of business wisdom wrapped inside of it. Some will be a little more difficult to unwrap than others, I think, but they’ll be ended by a great quote by somebody that’s relevant to what I’m trying to say.

Brian Gardner: You mentioned at the beginning of the show how you hate me for my design ability. When I heard — I suspected this would have been the case — the first episode of Allegorical, I immediately crafted very harsh words for you and your ability to A) sound golden, B) use great bumper music, in and out, and C) have brilliant writing within it — all three of which, I feel like I’m inadequate. With you, because you’re such a great guy and we relate on so many levels, I don’t ever let it get to that, you know …

Robert Bruce: Actual hatred, murderous?

Brian Gardner: Yeah. We say that tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t ever really feel that way about you. In fact, I look up to you in many ways and want to learn from that. You said something to me — and I hope you don’t mind sharing this — about what you think will happen to that show in the context of the network. I think that it’s kind of important and relevant to what we’re talking about. If you don’t mind, would you share that?

Robert Bruce: Yeah. I think it will probably be the first show to be cancelled when we get around to thinking about those things.

Brian Gardner: So why do you think that is?

Robert Bruce: Like, Demian’s stuff — it’s so different, and so his personality and his character are so unique, as all of us are. But in his case, it just seems to be a little more pronounced. You think, “Wow, how could that possibly work?” But it does. Not only does it work, but surprisingly, people just love it. That’s always what happens. You can never predict a bestselling book. If you could, every book would be a bestseller, right?

So in some sense, I could be wrong, and that’d be incredible. It’d be delightful to be wrong about my opinion about Allegorical. Like we talked in the beginning, the idea of swimming against the stream and — I’m not purposely trying to do this, this is a proven form of education and entertainment and enlightenment — this idea of the allegory, within the context of modern business, is a little bit rare. It may work. It may not work.

What I do know is that I love doing it, and it’s in line with what we’re trying to do with Rainmaker.FM, the network as a whole. It’s something that I’m probably better at doing than writing the 2000-word expositional article. It’s definitely an experiment. It’s an idea in trying to cram some storytelling into the marketing category of iTunes. I don’t know. Maybe it’s that simple, but we’ll see.

Why It’s Important to Consider Your Audience

Brian Gardner: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I relate in some fashion from the design side, where I’ll design something that I think is really interesting and really great and something that our audience, those who follow me, will eat up, and then they don’t. I’m like, “What? This is great. This is new. This is different.”

As a whole, audiences can have a certain expected behavior, whether it’s in the production of a podcast or in the presentation of a design. When something’s kind of offline, maybe it surprises them. Maybe they’re not ready for it. Maybe it’s “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and so you with Allegorical and me with my design, I think we love what we’ve done. It’s in the presentation and methodology of what we love to do that makes it so good in our eyes. But in other eyes, we have to keep in mind who our audience is.

That’s another point for people who are in business — those who write, those who design, those who do whatever — is that as much as you want to do it your way, you still need to make sure that there’s an audience that responds to it. Because ultimately, if you create something that nobody buys, well then you haven’t sold anything.

Robert Bruce: Actually, this is pretty much the point of my next episode of Allegorical. Sorry for the ceaseless promotion of my own show here.

Brian Gardner: I put you up to it, and I listened to it, by the way.

Robert Bruce: Thank you.

Brian Gardner: I listened to the draft. It’s not out yet, but it will be by the time you hear this.

Robert Bruce: If you want to create what you want to create and build what you want to build without any regard for markets or audiences, that’s fine. People do that all day long, as they should, as we all should to one degree or another. But if we’re talking about business, you’re absolutely right. The consideration of market, depending on what you’re doing — topical market audience — they have to be there because without the audience, we have nothing.

To your idea of this obsession with greatness, which then sacrifices or potentially sacrifices being good, one thing to keep in mind is that we really don’t have any control over greatness. I guess you could, if you were crazy, decide to get up one day and be like, “I am going to be great,” or “this work of mine is going to be great and hallowed through the ages.” You can’t really do that, right? That’s the job of the audience to bestow on the work. You don’t have control over whether something is great. Other people have that control.

The thing that you can do is show up, train ceaselessly, educate yourself, get better, and then do your job. The nitty-gritty is in the daily — I guess the secret if there is one, to any of this — boring, day-in, day-out hard work that all of us will either choose to do or not.

Brian Gardner: I agree. I think it’s also what we think is great versus what others think is great, or even others within the audience. Some think it’s great. Some think it’s not.

It reminds me of this girl Pia Toscano, who a few seasons ago on American Idol had this song. She sang it so epicly, and I thought, “Oh my gosh. This is the next American Idol. It’s the next Carrie Underwood. She may even outsell Carrie because she was so good, and her vocals were so spot-on.” She got voted out, and I was like, “What?” You know, because the audience of American Idol — and I’m a believer in this — wants characters rather than skill. I mean, I hate to say it, it comes off that way where you get some of these goofy people that win. I’m like, “Well that’s great, but they’re not going to sell any records.”

That speaks to the same point we were talking about, which is if you select something or put something in place that people don’t get, then you don’t sell anything. So I was like, “Well okay. So they screwed up again this season,” where a few people get voted out. I’m like, “You’re voting off the people who are going to put food on the table.”

Robert Bruce: Yeah, if you want to be the pioneer with the arrows in your back, slaving away for years and years to educate a certain group of people or a certain target market in something, go ahead. You’re absolutely welcome to that, but that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about in the context of this show.

Brian Gardner: Okay, so I’m going to cut us off here because this is a pretty good transition point. I didn’t expect that this was going to ultimately become two episodes, Robert, but I would love to have you back for next week’s show so we can take this all a little bit further.

If you like what you’re hearing on the No Sidebar podcast, the best way to support the show is to leave a rating and/or a comment over on iTunes. Want more? Check out, and sign up for our newsletter. Each week, we curate the very best and most interesting articles when it comes to designing a simple life at work, at home, and in the soul.

Until next week, this has been Brian Gardner and Robert Bruce. Peace out.