Never Feed Salad to a Lion: What Great Creators Know That Others Forget
I used to think that the very best creators were the very best at identifying problems to solve. That’s what made them so special and so effective: They’d say, “This is broken, and it must be fixed!”
That seems like a reasonable assumption to make, right? You have to be adept at noticing problems others don’t always see — or even think possible to solve. That way, when you build your solution, the rest of us will see just how innovative or creative it is. (After three years in venture capital, for instance, I noticed that all great startup pitches start with an articulation of the problem a founder wants to solve.)
So then it follows: Great creators are better at identifying problems to solve than the rest of us.
But that’s not quite right. While it might be true that they notice problems, the real virtue of amazing creators is that they understand them. This takes a lot of really hard work, but it always starts with something rather simple: leaving the office.
Whenever we “jump in a room” to brainstorm or share our thinking with our colleagues, the best we can do is “close enough.” We can’t truly understand a problem. Instead, we lean back in a chair in some conference room somewhere and say with confidence that X is broken. This is like throwing darts after a few beers: You may not hit the bullseye, but you might get on the board. “Eh, close enough.”
Except we don’t think, “Eh, close enough.” We think we nailed it. Bullseye.
In reality? Bullshit.
And because we have this false sense of precision — this logic that sounds great to us in theory, not necessarily reality — we do something dangerous when we execute. We end up feeding salad to a lion.
Never feed salad to a lion.
Imagine visiting a friend at the zoo. He’s a zookeeper, so naturally, you like visiting him, because #freetix to see #animals. Dope. Now imagine that Larry has a home emergency and leaves you to feed the lions (Larry is the worst). The lions are hungry. They need food. Salad is food!
The logic feels so sound when we lack actual context. In our world, it’s not quite so obvious, either. It doesn’t feel like we’re doing something so clearly dumb as feeding salad to a lion. In our world, we promote new features our product teams developed because it just felt logical in theory. We launch a podcast because our boss hastily asked us to (and we wind up hosting them despite having no idea if we’re any good on a microphone — thanks, boss!). We jump on a new channel, buy some new technology, develop a new message, create more content…
We make assumptions in a room somewhere. Then we use those assumptions to inform our decisions. We identify problems, but we never truly understand them. So there we go again, feeding salad to our lions. Is it any wonder most of them sniff our work and promptly ignore it?
It sounds so ridiculous to say, doesn’t it? “Never feed salad to a lion.” But the way we typically make our decisions is just as ridiculous. We cling to conventional wisdom because it sounds so damn logical. We glom onto new tactics when others make their logical cases for them. But we shouldn’t make decisions based on whatever worked in the past or whatever works for others. We should make decisions based on whatever works for our situation. If only we’d take the time to truly understand it.
Compounding this problem is that the voice of the most politically powerful person in the room winds up replacing the voice of the customer. Executives make decisions based on their stellar track record — from the past. Colleagues brute-force agendas by claiming to know buyer personas built two years ago — a faulty and selfish way to think. So there we go, pelting our audience with more carrots and draping the world in our lettuce. Did they gobble it up? No? Must be a problem with our carrot-flinging tools.
We’re too proud to admit the truth: We don’t know the answers. So we have to go figure it out.
Because never, ever, ever feed a damn salad to a damn lion. Are you nuts?! (Side note: Never feed nuts to a lion either. Just … trust me.)
What kills me is just how easy it is to avoid this problem:
Grab a coffee. Have a chat online. Check the social feeds and dive in. Schedule a meeting at an event.
The gatekeepers between you and customers are gone. Kaput. Done-zo. The time it takes to connect to a customer who can transform your thinking is zero. Zip. Zilch. If the average 40-hour-per-week worker took just 20 minutes out of their month to talk to a customer, that would be roughly 0.2% of their time. Can you do that? Can you use 0.2% of your job this month to talk to a customer? Would you invest 0.2% of your time to help you do more exceptional work?
If you did that, you’d be stunned by how a simple, informal chat with a customer about their lives (not your work) can give you endless ideas and insights. With each conversation, you further remove assumptions. With each test you launch, you learn more and generate better results.
0.2% of your time to talk to customers. How will you spend it? If you need a few suggestions, here’s what’s worked for me personally:
1. Block dedicated time to meet with or call someone from your target audience every month. I do 5-6 video calls with listeners every month. I schedule one person per call for 30 minutes at a time, usually across two different Mondays per month. This way, I actually have a placeholder on my calendar to talk to my listeners. If it’s not on my calendar, it’s not a priority.
2. Shadow sales calls or pull previously recorded calls. At Google, I was trained to be an account manager by first manning their phone and chat support. The most profound lesson I learned was the value of reviewing “game tape.” Like an athlete watching footage of their latest game to get better, we would listen to our calls or read our chats with a coach to improve more rapidly. (There’s a reason all those support calls you place to cable providers or retailers start with, “This call may be recorded for quality assurance.” The quality is only assured when the individual reviews what they’ve done. If you never talk to a customer, simply grab the “tape” from those who do.) I’ve carried this idea over to my work as a content creator. I listen to every episode I launch, not to congratulate myself, not to take a victory lap, but to figure out where I can improve. It helps me empathize with the listener’s experience in a way that would be impossible to do in theory too.
3. Request the customer support or closed-lost sales data from others. Beyond reviewing one interaction at a time, you can also look at your company’s interactions with customers in aggregate. When I was head of content at HubSpot, my mind nearly exploded when I did this. It was so simple but so incredibly powerful. Every quarter, I had our VP of customer success share the logs of all interactions in which customers churned (canceled). Since customer service reps would mark tickets with various canned categories, I could easily understand the problems facing our customers. A superficial insight would be that X customers had churned. In my attempt to truly understand that problem, however, I could tell my team things like, “Customers are churning because blogging is hard for them.” Great! We could help educate them and make it easier through the tips, guides, and templates we created. Marketing and sales would win because small businesses that had yet to buy from us were also struggling to blog at that time, while customer support would win because these educated and empowered customers would be less likely to churn. It was magical.
4. Attend more customer events. Set a goal to attend a certain number per year. The face-to-face immersion is hard to replicate online.
5. Get to know ONE person in your target audience and use them as a “persona” instead of a vague idea of a person. That’s right — just ONE person can replace or at least supplement endless hours of research and persona creation. Yes, really! By addressing a person you actually know in your writing, podcasting, video creation, and more, you get better at nailing the “softer” stuff. This is a common approach among veteran journalists and one that I picked up from my time in sports media. Things like tone of voice, length of the project, analogies, even the synonyms you use — it’s all made far easier when you think about creating for an actual person.
So if — nay, when you start to talk more to customers, don’t ask them about you. Don’t ask what the company can do better or whether they like your stuff. Instead, ask about their lives and their work. What are their biggest challenges? What are they already trying to do to solve those challenges? What are their current goals? What do they read or listen to or watch for work? What about for fun? What are their aspirations and fears?
What would they actually love to eat, in the end?
Take 20 minutes of your month to talk to customers — 0.2% of our time for many of us, and even less for others. I promise you, you will walk away with dozens of new ideas. Your brain will be on fire. All of a sudden, things will seem far more obvious. You will slowly chip away at your assumptions and better understand the problem.
The difference between average and exceptional work doesn’t always require something big. In fact, it rarely does. So, ask yourself: What’s 0.2% of your time this month worth to you? Is it worth even more time spent answering emails? Is it worth attending yet another meandering meeting? Is it worth watching another funny YouTube video? Or could it be worth your entire livelihood?
Never feed salad to a lion.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
Get in touch anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org // Speaking inquiries: email@example.com