J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Distillation — Figuring Out The One Thing That Matters

Distilling Japanese whisky (not what this post is about).

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the idea that in every field, art form, or “area of life,” there is ONE thing that matters above all else.  One thing, that if you get it right, success in that area is inevitable.

I’m naturally a detail oriented person, so it’s a constant challenge for me to zoom out and see the big picture.  I know from experience that focusing on the wrong details is just a waste of time.  I easily fall victim to the “all tactics, no strategy” trap.  I’ll make myself long lists of things to do to achieve my goals, without taking the time to deeply consider my overall strategy and approach.  I’ll endlessly try to fix things that should just be discarded.  I’ll make judgment calls based on details that I personally appreciate, instead of details that are truly important.

In order to hone my “big picture” skills, I’ve been conducting the following thought experiment: pick one field, art form, or “life area” and try to distill all my knowledge and experience of that area into a single simple idea, the one thing that matters more than anything else in terms of effectiveness, fulfillment, and success by any measure.

The experiment has yielded a number of “Aha!” moments.  I don’t expect you to agree with my results (or care about the same areas), but conducting the same experiment yourself might yield an epiphany or two.

Here are some of my questions and results, in areas that are relevant to my own life:

Q: What’s the one thing that matters about becoming wealthy?
A: Save money/pay yourself first.

An increased income will only make you wealthier if you keep some of it.  The idea is explained pretty well in The Richest Man in Babylon (wikipedia).

Country music songwriter Bobby Braddock.

Q: What’s the one thing that matters about making popular music?
A: It needs to strongly evoke a specific emotional state.

If the lyrics are gloomy and the melody is chipper, the song won’t resonate with large numbers of listeners.  Sometimes changing one note can make all the difference.  A great example is country music songwriter Bobby Braddock getting advice from fellow songwriter Curly Putnam on how to fix a melody.

Q: What’s the one thing that matters about making good dance music?
A: It needs to have an infectious groove (impelling you to dance).

As a dance music producer, I can attest to the fact that this is a really hard thing to do.  The bassline, drums, and melodic elements all need to work together perfectly to make this happen.  If you can get it right, DJ’s will hear it/feel it within a measure or two of listening to your track.

Unfortunately I’ve heard hundreds of demos of what is supposed to be dance music, where it’s obvious the producer wasn’t even thinking about this question.  It’s not enough for dance music to be “danceable.”  Instead, it should be “impossible to stand still to.”  Nothing else really matters.

J.K. Rowling wardrobe incident ... not the one thing that matters.

Q: What’s the one thing that matters about writing popular fiction?
A: The reader needs to care what happens to the characters.

If they don’t care, they won’t turn the page.  Your prose might be eloquent, your descriptive passages vivid, and your grammar flawless, but none of it matters if the reader doesn’t give a shit.

Q: What’s the one thing that matters about freelance work?
A: The client is happy.

Does this mean you should never work for people who are chronically unhappy and unsatisfied?  Yes — avoid them like the plague.  No matter how good your work, they’ll never be satisfied.

It’s important to do high quality work and deliver it in a timely manner, but it’s more important to choose reasonable people to work with, set realistic expectations, and stay attuned to their emotional state.

This doesn’t mean the client is always right.  You should choose reasonable, open-minded clients so you can push back without fear of repercussions.  It does mean you need to pay attention to the things the client thinks are important.  Otherwise they won’t perceive value in your work.

*     *     *     *     *

Of the above areas, I’ve only fully actualized/implemented the first and the last.  The realizations about music are more recent, even though I’ve been writing music and running a music label for years (with some success, but room for much more).  In terms of fiction writing, I’ve written two novels, but neither of them have adequately compelling character/plot combinations (I’m taking a different approach for my third).

In other areas, I really have no idea.  What’s the one thing that matters about marketing?  What’s the one thing that matters about photography/taking a great picture?  I’ve thought about these areas, but I haven’t yet been able to distill it down to “the one thing” that is important above all others.

Please use the comment area to share your own “one thing that matters” ideas, or to accuse me of oversimplification and formulaic thinking.


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  1. Ben

    In my experience, the one thing that matters about marketing is trust. Via message, method, or approach, the target must believe that the widget will do what it claims. Everything else is just getting the person’s attention.

  2. Thanks Ben. I also wonder (in terms of marketing) about the importance of metrics (measuring what works) and mindspace (owning a word or feeling in a prospects mind).

  3. Ben

    I think inhabiting mindspace can ultimately be measured in metrics, but it takes more care and far more time than most agencies and firms are willing to spend. It’s where philosophy, advertising, and psychology meet with realtime data collected over months and years. I don’t think many people have a great handle on that, let alone people working in high pressure fields.

  4. Agreed — measuring mindspace would be really difficult. But I meant to suggest those things as discrete topics; in terms of marketing is it metrics OR mindspace that is more important. I suppose it depends on exactly what question you’re asking. Maybe with advertising it’s metrics, and with marketing it’s mindspace.

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