How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Is James Clear Just Doing Marketing?

Summing up the much-higher-than-normal responses I got to my post yesterday on James Clear’s shift in email POV — roughly sifted, they fall into two buckets:

  1. “I hate what Clear has done to his emails and it’s bad marketing.”
  2. “I don’t like/am agnostic about what Clear’s done, but it’s a good marketing move for him to attract larger audiences.”

Philip Morgan, a colleague and mentor, asked rhetorically in a Slack conversation which of two options — stopping all emails for a time, or moving from “full fat” to “skim milk” emails, as Clear seems to have done — would be better for a) his authority as an expert and b) his business:

“Are the two (authority and business building) the same thing?” asked Philip. “Or does one need to be sacrificed at the altar of the other?” Philip then later answered his own question in a private Slack conversation that I excerpt here with permission:

James is perhaps operating from what I recently heard called the 5 most dangerous words in business: “everybody else is doing it.” These “5 Bullet Friday” style emails are popular, and whatever they gain in terms of consumability definitely comes at a cost. I have largely tuned Tim Ferris out of my life, but when he was doing that style of email it was like those cigarette vending machines you used to see: sponsor puts in money, pulls the knob for Doral Lights, and out comes email that’s a native ad for the sponsored product.

Experts who use marketing tools designed to sell superfluous shit to bored people risk losing their authority. In fact, these experts risk everything.

Philip’s definition of “bored people” is, I believe, people who are just playing at transformation, not people who are eager for it and willing to take risks and make sacrifices to achieve it.

Transformation is key here. Because Clear’s value proposition — based on all his content leading up to and including the publication of “Atomic Habits” — has been transformation for those for whom living by goal-setting and maxim has proven less than satisfying, less than…transformational.

As his transformative solution, Clear posits a white-space process and system — the anti-goal method of achieving what you want to achieve. Put your system in place, he argues, feed and attend to it daily — this is the approach to achieve results, not setting goals and backfilling how you’ll get to them. Goals are demotivating. Daily process is the path.

We don’t know why Clear made his switch in email strategy. If Philip is correct, he won’t grow much new business off of it, because he’s abandoning what attracted people to him in the first place. Another way of putting this: people don’t need reminders of what Clear told them to do; they need more Clear showing them how it works. More Clear as authority. And Clear’s authority comes from his process.

Hypothesis: if you demand a transformative process in your audience, you must deliver a transformative process in your content — by which I mean the research- and anecdotal-driven narrative of how you reached your conclusions. When one adopts a new course, one falls off it, again and again. Adherence and inculcation to a new way of seeing or life require not just reminders, but fresh modeling. This is why Clear’s new emailing strategy — his new POV — feels so cognitively and emotionally dissonant to those of us whom he’s asked to undertake a process of transformation.

What does this have to do with researcher thought leadership?

First: Process in your content helps legitimize your conclusions. It takes your argument out of the realm of common sense and grounds it in the literature and evidence. Your stock-in-trade as a public researcher is how you use the literature, evidence and your application of it to the world (your expertise) to create insight.

Second: Clear has “dumbed down” his content in the emails in a way only researchers will fully understand and properly abhor. “Dumbing down” is an abandonment of complexity, nuance and insider language — stuff that often gets in the way of a non-specialist understanding what you’re trying to say.

But “dumbing down” is also an abandonment of process, the process critical to reaching the conclusion. The conclusion, in a fundamental way for research, doesn’t exist without an accounting of the process.

This tension between process and conclusion is one of the most important tensions to navigate when communicating with non-specialists. In communications, we almost always want to skip to the conclusion — for some excellent reasons. But conclusions without some kind of process don’t transform us. Sometimes, mechanistic explanatory power is our best weapon.