What Makes A Classic?

THE TEST OF TIME

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“Classic stay classics and become more so over time” 

Ryan Holiday

Have you ever wondered? Why were some books or movies not that much of a big success at release, but as time has gone on, they only grew to become more loved and fanaticized, and their sales only soar higher and higher every year? Whereas the ones that were initially big hits at the box office are eventually forgotten?

The former are perennial sellers, as Ryan Holiday calls them. Many of them are the greatest classics you and I have come to know. A perennial seller could, of course, be any product or service. But to keep our scope small, we’ll turn to music, books, and movies — Books, especially. They’re pretty good examples, after all.

Look at the movies out there. One of them would definitely be The Shawshank Redemption — A personal favorite of mine, a story about a man who was wrongly convicted of murder, and the friendship he forged with a prisonmate. What about the old Star Wars movies? Technologically, they’re far behind from what more modern movies have to offer. But there are still Star Wars marathons going on, there are still so many die-hard fans all over the world. And their merchandise sell like crazy.

What about music? Records by long deceased artists such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson are still selling. Bands that have been around for decades such as Metallica and Bon Jovi still have loyal and growing fan bases, still kicking on tour, delivering performances for their fans only.

And books. Homer is still being read. The collective works of Shakespeare are still endlessly being studied. Many of the greatest titles were either condemned, banned, or burned by society before they were hailed as “most influential” or “classic”. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was rejected so many times, and when it was finally published, it sold poorly. It was so unsuccessful that Fitzgerald died believing that he was a failure and that his work wasn’t worth anything.

Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath was burned. Steinbeck and his family even had to move out of their hometown since they were isolated by their friends and neighbors. Robert Greene’s 48 Laws Of Power was called a “psychopath’s bible”. Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me I’m Lying resulted in death threats and many angry reviewers in the media industry who were offended by his exposé of how the media actually works.

What makes their work so great (And perhaps controversial at first)? They were uncommon. They were bold, brash, and brave. There were sacred cows that they had to slay. They created something new that most people of their generation were not ready to accept. Most importantly, they created something timeless. Their works aren’t bounded by time. Their works passed the “test of time” — Since they are still around after a span of at least a decade, we can expect them to last for another decade, and after that, another.

 

IN SEARCH OF TIMELESSNESS

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“I’m tired of hearin’ ’bout who you checkin’ for now. Just give it time, we’ll see who’s still around a decade from now.”

Drake

Let’s go a little deeper on this subject. We will, however, only uncover what goes into the creative process, which is only the first step towards making a classic. Other steps are just as important — Positioning, Platform, and Marketing. Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller is a great place to start if you want to know more.

 

Focusing On Things That Don’t Change

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“The subject of dying and getting old never gets old.” 

Jon Favreau

To focus on things that don’t change — Human emotions, perennial problems of everyday life — is the hallmark of great products. A mediocre product, on the other hand, communicates only with itself, or even at its best, only with a limited number of people. There’s a quote by Toby Litt that sounds pretty funny, but is true nevertheless : “Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self.”

When choosing a topic to write about, or a product you want to create, you need to step out of your own head. It can’t be about something that only you care about. Edison invented light bulbs so that people didn’t have to go through the trouble of lighting fire on sticks, logs, and candles every night. WD-40 tackles the timeless problems of machinery — Things get rusty and stuck. So it helps grease them along and get them going again.

The same goes to why we still read Shakespeare despite the odd language. It’s the moral lessons and gems of human nature that are embedded in his writing — The keys to understanding ourselves.

Why don’t the old stories of Luke Skywalker and Rocky Balboa ever get “old”? Because there’s nothing more badass than an underdog-beats-goliath tale. There’s nothing cooler than to somewhat see yourself in the story.

This isn’t to say that contemporary stuff aren’t great. Some of them are. It’s just that most young artists and inventors have forgotten the basic elements. The great works of art that are still around today aren’t about waking up in a Bugatti, this character dating that character, or 7:00 pm dramas about how your husband is a pilot or an octopus.

To paraphrase William Faulkner, the human heart is the only thing worth writing about. As he advised young writers, “Until he (writes about the human heart), he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

 

Respecting The Process

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Hemingway himself wrote 47 different endings for his novel A Farewell To Arms until he found one that fit best.

“Crappy products don’t survive. If you phoned in the creative process, disrespected it, built a mediocre product, compromised, told yourself, ‘Hey, we’ll figure the rest out later’, then the project is likely doomed before it’s even finished.”

Ryan Holiday

Creating great work is hard. There are no corners to cut, no other way than to put the work above yourself, and to stick yourself to your seat until it’s finished. Because the thing is, you don’t know for sure when it’s going to be finished, when it’s finally ready to go out into the world. Another thing, you don’t know if it’s actually going to be great. The only way to do it is to give your best efforts.

Especially as youngsters, we are impatient, we want our product to be released as soon as possible, even when it’s not good enough. Great artists don’t do that, of course. They’re willing to be a big enough jerk and say, “I’m not going to publish this until it’s the best it can possibly be.”

When he was younger, like many others, Stefan Zweig also had the impatience of a first-time writer. His friend advised him, “Literature is a wonderful profession, because haste is no part of it. Whether a really good book is finished a year earlier or a year later makes no difference.”

It’s also good to remember how Jack Kerouac romanticized the image of a creative who gets drunk and suddenly all of his bestsellers pours out of his hands. That’s not true. He wrote On The Road in three weeks under the influence of drugs. He spent six years refining it until it was finally ready.

Steve Jobs wanted the insides of his products to look perfect, even though no one will open them up and see. Why? — Because that’s craftsmanship.

 

Driven By “Demons”

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As Faulkner once said,”If there’s a story in you, it must come out.”

“Writing a book is a horrible,exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would not undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

George Orwell

It’s common to hear from artists that they see their work as something that they must do. They treat it as something very serious, not as a mere hobby or a pastime. They see it as something greater than themselves and they have to carry it on their shoulders at all times.

When asked about how it’s like to be a writer, Ryan Holiday responded, “Being a writer takes everything you have. You should only be a writer, if you can’t not be a writer.” Your work is your responsibility. It should hurt if you just let your ideas sit in your head for a long time and not do anything.

One of John Steinbeck’s motivation to go through the pain of writing was that he felt that he carried a certain responsibility towards the characters in his stories. If he spent too much time not writing, he would feel like his characters were dying. His characters would then seem like characters, instead of people.

Another thing about great artists is that they never stop. You’d probably think, you have this one good work done now, so you deserve a long break. But as excruciating as it sounds, they never stop. After a work is done, they don’t care that much about the reviews. They get up early in the morning as they always do, and they’re already working on the next thing. After all, what good would Star Wars be without its saga, or the Godfather without the entire trilogy? Not as much.

 

Seeing Beyond Present Trends

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2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, Bon Jovi

“If you listen to the greatest music ever made, that would be a better way. To find your own voice to matter today than listening to what’s on the radio and thinking : ‘I want to compete with this’. It’s stepping back and looking at the big picture than what’s going on at the moment.” 

Rick Rubin

You’ve probably heard of the book The Blue Ocean Strategy, which basically tells us that in the market space, there are “red oceans” where all the nasty and bloody competitions are; and there are the “blue oceans” where there is no competition — You’re the one dominating that uncontested market space because you’re the only one doing what you’re doing.

Especially today, there are just too many people trying to better than one another. Food trucks are becoming increasingly common. And what else, hipster cafés, hipster books, hipster pomades, hipster outfits, hipster _____.

But what we really want, what we’re yearning for is something really passionate. Something deep from the heart. Something honest that isn’t done for the sake of being commercial.

Producer Rick Rubin has worked with many of the best musicians we know, namely Adele, Aerosmith, Metallica, Jay Z, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’d urge his clients to not let their medium become a straitjacket for them. They’d find better inspiration from the greatest museums rather than from the current Billboard charts.

Artists create blue oceans when they’re just being the best possible version of themselves, when they’re not chasing after what’s popular. They share what is true, and the audience can feel it.

Upon being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his band, Jon Bon Jovi said, “Timeless and classic was always the goal..What differentiates us from the rest of the peer group is we didn’t try to become a grunge band when grunge became popular. We didn’t try to be a boy band when that became popular. We stayed our course and went our own way, amen, and here we are.”

Always remember, you have experiences that are unique only to you, that have never happened before in history and will never be repeated in the future. Make something useful out of ideas that only you can have. Otherwise, you’re dealing with a commodity and not a classic.

 

The Best Art Divides The Audience

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“Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”

Scott Stratten

No matter how many Grammys, Oscars or Pulitzer prizes an artist gets, his work still isn’t for everyone. Not everyone likes what he makes. Some people just hate them to death. And so what? If half of your audience loves it, and another half absolutely hates it, then it’s a sign that you’ve created something bold and new. It’s pushing that boundary.

But you also have to decide who your audience is. The most basic question that almost no one asks is : Who is this thing for? It’s tempting to think that you want your product to be for everybody. But, to quote Ryan Holiday again, “Many creators want to be for everyone…And as a result end up being for no one.”

You’re better off having a target group of people you want to sell or write to, for example, business people. If your work reaches audiences of different groups, that’s great. You’re friends now. It’s better than selling to nobody.

In writing, particularly, it’s useful to aim to please just one person. Kurt Vonnegut joked, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

John Steinbeck was no stranger to this practice as well. He wrote to a friend, “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — A real person you know, or an imagined person — And write to that one.”

 

No Magic. Just Layers Of Revisitation

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“A movie must be better to see the second or third time than it is the first time. There must be more in it to see at once than any one person can grasp. It must be so ‘meaty’, so full of implications, that everyone will get something out of it.”

Orson Welles

The movies, books, and music I personally love most are the ones that no matter how many times I watch, read or listen to them, they’re still as thought-provoking and inspiring as the first time, if not better. The Shawshank Redemption, Steve Jobs (the one starring Michael Fassbender) and The Martian are some of those movies. When it comes to books, they are Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Of Mice and Men, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. And the songs — the Chili Peppers’s Snow (Hey Oh) and Under the Bridge, Smashing Pumpkins’s 1979, and Foo Fighters’s Best of You and Walk.

Sorry for being absorbed in my own head for a moment there.

Anyway, that’s the kind of thing that a creative would want to give to his audience. Something that can help them at different points of their life; even if they’ve read it a dozen times, they’ll find something new. There are a lot of movies out there with beautifully executed CGIs, and exciting cameos, but I wouldn’t care to watch a second time. They’re forgotten as soon as the credit scenes roll in because they didn’t touch a vulnerable part inside me.

As Jerry Jenkins said, “It’s not what a book is, but what a book does.” I couldn’t agree more. It has to make you want to change something in your life — The way you think, the way you treat another person of a different race, making a decision to go back to running a few times a week. Your audience can’t buy back the time and energy they spend using your product. It has to be good for something.

 


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