Can You Repeat It?

Starbucks has been selling you the same cappuccino since 1986. Every time you go there, you get the exact same thing and, contrary to our expectations, that’s why it’s valuable. Starbucks is a $100 billion company not despite selling the same old boring coffee, but because of it. The average Starbucks customer spends $14,000 there over the course of their life. $14,000, one $5 cup of coffee at a time.

When people walk into your store and say, “I’ll have the usual,” that’s when you win. The problem is it’s hard to keep handing out the usual — with coffee, yes, but especially in the arts. Big franchises have a high churn of employees towards the bottom of the ladder. Front-line workers get burned out. There are only so many venti caramel lattes you can make before you want to pour the hot milk into your own face.

Now transfer the necessity to sound like a broken record to a deliverable that requires brains, not beans, like essays, music, or a software tool, and you have the perfect recipe for irreconcilable tensions: Humans want to be creative, and, on the one hand, making something new is exactly what gets us noticed by the crowd. On the other hand, that crowd then demands more of the same, and if we give in to their impulse, we’ll accrue more rewards but lose the satisfaction we felt from that initial act of creation.

Some people are good at this. They churn out article after article, repeating a few messages that resonate again and again. It doesn’t matter that they still sound the way they sounded five years ago because, while a fraction of the old readership remains, new fans constantly enter their circle, and that’s how they grow. The price is the ability to reinvent themselves, and the longer they wait to take it back, the more painful the eventual rebirth will be — but at least they’ll have the financial comfort to endure it.

Others, like my friend Zulie and I, struggle so much to be Starbucks, we’ll commiserate about our “boring stuff burnout” in two-month intervals. “Alright, focus, focus, focus,” we’ll say, find little pockets of freedom to get our creative fix, and then get back to work on our websites.

The creator’s bane is jumping from project to project, always hoping to strike gold yet never digging deep enough anywhere to actually find it. “Alright, cool, this worked. Now let me go do something else.” No! Do more of the same! At least until you can comfortably afford all of the “something elses” you pursue — if you are honest with yourself — not because you need a new approach but because you are bored.

When someone pays you $5 for a coffee, you don’t ask: “Okay, how can I make $5 from something else?” Business is not a creativity game. It’s a money game. The metric on the scoreboard is dollars, not colors. The goal is to earn the dollars so you can play with the colors, and until you do, the question is: “Can you repeat it?” The answer is a matter of grit, discipline, and focus much more so than logistics, but each time you manage to say “Yes,” you’ll be one step closer to financial — and therefore creative — freedom.