Tutorial: The 30-Hour Blockbuster Article
Announcement: After not sending out the Thursday post at 5:00am EST every week, I am finally admitting to myself that it’s not realistic for me. So, Thursday posts now will be Friday posts. The weekly schedule will be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday moving forward. Thanks for your patience as I figure things out.
Preview Of Today’s Post: Over the past 10 years, I have been obsessed with two things:
How to create high-quality content
How to teach others to do the same
What I now know is this…
Until you understand Content Quality Dilemma, you’ll likely fail at quality. Here’s the situation...
Everyone would rather read and create quality content.
Yet, few creators create it.
What the heck is going on?
In this article, I examine the dilemma. Then, I share my thesis on its root cause. This is important because a problem well-understood is a problem half solved.
Finally, I present my 30-Hour Blockbuster framework along with a 7-step action plan to help you create a blockbuster article in 30 hours. This last section is for paid subscribers only.
Everyone prefers quality content…
As readers, no one likes to see their newsfeed filled with other people’s “good enough” work. We don’t care about other people’s content calendars, which they have in order to stay “top of mind” with us, which they do in order to sell us something in the future.
As creators, no one wants to add to the noise of the Internet. No one wants to be a cog in a content mill rushing to produce mediocre content. No one enjoys putting out work they aren’t proud of.
Not only that…
The effectiveness of high-quality content is undisputed
Section Summary 1. The value of high-quality blockbuster content is proven in academic research 2. It is shown in case study after case study 3. The amount of content is growing exponentially while our attention remains the same
First, the value of high-quality blockbuster content is proven in academic research
Our research showed that success is concentrated in ever fewer best-selling titles at the head of the distribution curve.
—Anita Elberse, Harvard researcher
Second, it is shown in case study after case study
For example, Mr. Beast, the #1 creator in the world, built his whole business on top of constantly improving quality content. The top movies of all time have huge budgets and are designed to be blockbusters:
While streaming services like Netflix used to aim for having the largest catalog, they now aim for blockbusters.
Finally, the amount of content is growing exponentially while our attention remains the same
This dynamic puts constant pressure on newsfeed algorithms to highlight quality content and bury mediocre content. AI-generated content only exacerbates the situation.
To summarize the Content Quality Dilemma: no reader prefers mediocre content over high-quality content. No creator feels proud of mediocre work that is not their best. Quality content performs better than mediocre content. Yet few people actually try to create their best work every time.
Resource: For the full case on creating blockbuster content, read Blockbuster: The #1 Mental Model For Writers Who Want To Create High-Quality, Viral Content.
The Content Quality Dilemma begs a simple question…
If everyone wants high-quality content and it works so well, why aren’t more people creating it?
Over the past 10 years, I’ve been on a journey to answer this question in my own writing and in my thought leadership program…
Starting in 2013…
After I read Blockbusters by Harvard researcher Anita Elberse, I committed to creating high-quality content. So, when I started writing for Forbes, I spent 30 hours on each 1,500-word article.
Right away, I got traction. Each article had 10,000 views within a week (10x the average Forbes article at the time). Over time, each article got to 50,000 views as people went back to read my old articles. This was a huge deal for me because previously I wrote 250 blog posts and never got traction. Before Forbes, it felt like breaking through online was a black box I would never figure out.
Starting in 2015…
Seeing the results of high-quality content, I decided to become really serious about it. More specifically, I committed to the process of mastery. To this end, I have been identifying and learning all of the micro-skills of thought leadership since then.
There wasn’t a map of the sequenced micro-skills to learn, so I created my own. After spending hundreds of hours going through 30+ drafts, below is the first public version:
Furthermore, for each step in the map, I identified the relevant skills, workflows, mindsets, tools, benchmarks, decisions, costs, resources, etc. Then, I:
Looked for the top performers in each step
Analyzed their patterns
Tested them in my own work
Tested them with students
Iterated until I saw consistent results.
To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive map of what it takes to be a world-class thought leader that has ever been created.
As I improved my writing, I saw my traction increase dramatically. Rather than having content be viewed tens of thousands of times, hundreds of thousands of views became the norm. And a few times, one article reached more than a million people.
Starting in 2019…
I started teaching a year-long thought leadership course to help experts create blockbuster content. I personally teach every year-long cohort so I can iterate on the quality of the course by seeing where people get stuck and fixing the bottlenecks. We’re about to start our sixth cohort in September. You can still apply to participate.
Bottom line: I have unique perspective on what it really takes to create blockbuster articles…
The 2 big challenges to creating high-quality content
I’m a big believer in the following quote:
A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.
—Charles Kettering, former head of innovation at General Motors
At first, I was confused at why people didn’t create more quality content. It seemed so easy to grasp. All you have to do is spend your time differently. Instead of writing 15 articles in 2 hours, write one article in 30 hours.
But then I learned that there are classes of problems that are easy to understand, but hard to actually do. And quality content is one of those problems.
For example, Warren Buffett’s quote is apt:
Investing is simple, but not easy.
More specifically, I realized that there were two core problems that stop nearly everyone from creating quality content:
The Taste-Ability Gap
The Short-Term Reward Problem
Let’s dive into each…
Challenge #1. The Taste-Ability Gap: The gap between our taste and our ability destroys our confidence
In this 2-minute video, one of the top podcast hosts of all-time, Ira Glass, explains the Taste-Ability Gap beautifully:
Below is the transcript…
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.
And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
—Ira Glass, Host, This American Life
Bottom line: Creating blockbuster content doesn’t mean creating something that’s so good that it rivals Malcolm Gladwell. Rather, it means producing our best work we can and improving our capacity with every article.
Challenge #2. The Short-Term Reward Problem: We suck at working toward long-term outcomes
In a classic TED talk, the late and renowned Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen shares a story that perfectly captures how we’re wired to think short-term:
As Christensen tells it, when he graduated from Harvard Business School, all of his classmates had ambitious plans to make an impact and be successful. At their early class reunions, everything seemed like it was on track. People were sharing all of their successes.
However, as time passed by, he noticed something surprising. People’s lives got worse and worse on many levels:
They got divorced
They became estranged from their kids
Some even got in trouble for fraud
They suffered from poor health
Christensen explains why:
Everyone here is driven to achieve. And when you have an extra ounce of energy or an extra 30 minutes of time, instinctively and unconsciously you’ll allocate it to whatever activities in your life give you the most immediate evidence of achievement.
In other words, his classmates got stuck in short-term thinking.
Similarly, when we focus on quality content, we move the benefits of publishing into the future. Furthermore, we aren’t quite sure of what the returns of investing the extra time into quality will be.
Therefore, based on revealed preferences, most people would rather create daily mediocre content that fails to get traction, than produce just one article in a month that has a higher chance of succeeding big, but that might fail.
Bottom Line: Our mind is wired to do things with the following reward profile:
Conversely, we are really bad at doing things with long-term, abstract payoffs that aren’t guaranteed. Even if the expected result is 10x larger, we still go for the proverbial bird in the hand now rather than the two in the bush later.
As a result of short-termism, it is hard to invest dozens of hours into creating our best work. Three approaches have worked for me to conquer this:
Trick my mind into valuing the long-term by reminding myself of the amount and magnitude of the future reward and what it will mean in my life. This works because it makes the future rewards more tangible.
Structure my career around genius zone activities. When something is in your genius zone, you love it and are great at it. Therefore, when you’re in your genius zone and working for the long-term, it doesn’t feel like you’re sacrificing because the work is the reward.
Structure long-term activities to get lots of short-term rewards along the way. There are many paths to mastery. Once you understand the terrain, you can pick a path that will keep you motivated.
Resources: I explain the power of long-term thinking and how to do it in Bezos, Musk, & Buffett See The World Differently, Because They See Time Differently and If You Don’t Want To Regret Your Life 30 Years Later, Make This One Choice Right Now.
Now that we better understand why more people don’t create quality content, the question becomes…
What do we do about the Content Quality Dilemma?
I have a simple answer…
Introducing The 30-Hour Blockbuster Article Challenge
The idea of the 30-Hour Blockbuster Article is to add constraints and experimentation to the process of improving quality.
Be experimental. You don’t need to commit to an entirely new system forever before trying it. The goal of the experiment is to see what focusing on quality feels like and to notice the changes in reader responses you get. From there, you can decide whether you want to rinse and repeat or not. Either way, you’ll learn a lot and improve your thought leader skills.
Add constraints. Rather than trying to create the best article ever no matter how long it takes, the goal is to write one article in 30 hours over the course of 30 days (1 hour a day for a month).
Why It Works
Section Summary 1. Constraints create creativity 2. You only have one chance to make a first impression 3. Quality pushes you to improve incrementally 4. You will get 10x faster
Benefit #1: Constraints create creativity
When you have an open-ended goal to create amazing content, it’s easy to fall into perfectionism and never publish anything.
The 30-Hour Blockbuster puts the following constraints to help you create great work that actually gets published:
Daily Progress. Work on your article for an hour a day.
Daily Feedback. Get daily feedback from at least one person.
Deadline. Publish in a month
Word limit. Limit the article to 1,500 words
The goal with the 30-Hour Blockbuster is to help you fall into the green area below:
With the 30-hour challenge, you produce some of the best work that you’ve ever created because you’re doing your best, and you’re getting support from others. At the same time, you accept that what you create isn’t going to be close to the quality of Malcolm Gladwell or Elizabeth Gilbert and you publish anyway.
Benefit #2: You only have one chance to make a first impression
As I discussed in Quality-Quality-Quantity, you only have one chance to make a first impression. Based on that impression, you will teach readers and publications to either:
Ignore everything you write in the future
Eagerly await everything you write
Not only that, when you haven’t been publishing regularly, no one is waiting for your content. So there is no need to rush out your first post.
Benefit #3: Quality pushes you to improve incrementally
Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.
In the end, there are two fundamental keys to becoming world-class at anything:
Putting in the time
Getting better incrementally
If either of these conditions aren’t met, then you plateau. When you push yourself to do your best work in every article, you will always notice improvement opportunities you hadn’t seen before. As a result of taking advantage of those opportunities, you learn new skills that make you better.
Benefit #4: You will get 10x faster
The reason I’m able to create 3,000-word, research-based newsletter posts like this one four times per week is because of all the work I’ve done in the past to incrementally improve. More specifically:
My note system helps me reuse all the research I’ve done over the past 10 years.
Because I typically spend most of my writing time on research, I have built up a large reservoir of knowledge to create ideas from. While it takes a long time to learn and memorize knowledge, using it is incredibly fast.
I can exercise skills 10x faster than I could when I first learned them because of repetition.
Tutorial: The 30-Hour Blockbuster Recipe (for paid subscribers)
What follows is the 80/20 process for creating blockbuster articles. We teach the full process in our year-long Thought Leadership Course.
1 Hour: Pick a topic that makes you feel like a kid in the candy store
1 Hour: Decide on the article type
15 Hours: Do research in order to give yourself fodder for rare and valuable ideas
2 Hours: Brainstorm 10 ideas based on your research and personal experiences
2 Hours: Get feedback and iterate until you have one blockbuster idea
1 Hour: Focus on your title before you write, because it’s what readers see first
8 Hours: Follow the 15 Drafts Rule
Below is the rough time breakdown for each step to provide context on what I’d recommend with my style. Keep in mind that every person and every article will be different:
For the rest of this article, I provide step-by-step how to details that have been proven to work for me and students in our programs.