The Italian cyclist Daniele Nardello won the Tour de France twice. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t. I’ve never seen anyone wearing his fluorescent charity-branded rubber wristband. I’ve never heard about him dating Ashley Olsen when she was half his age, either. In fact, despite twice dominating a sporting event watched by over 3 billion viewers, Nardello has yet to date any of the Olsen siblings.
(Just kidding. As John Oliver has aptly pointed out, there is only one Olsen “twin.” She just moves back and forth really, really fast.)
The reason you don’t know of Nardello is that he placed 7th in the 1999 Tour de France and 10th the following year. Which, in pop culture terms, means he might as well have stayed home for all anyone cares.
As it turns out, however, everyone who placed above him in each race cheated. Nardello won both races, fair and square. Nobody knew it, though—except for the guys ahead of him, and they weren’t going to tell. You can see how Nardello might have felt down on himself at the time. Like a loser.
Our economy is a Tour de France. The winners are not winning for the reasons they’d like us to believe—we’re doing far better than the numbers (i.e. asset distribution) suggest. The rest of us, particularly those who make a habit of voting against our own economic interests, assume our values are shared by those above. Poisonous as it is, it’s a fundamentally generous philosophy: if the people on top insist they won the game fair and square, we should believe them just as we’d like to be believed were we in their place—which is something they will never let happen.
College is a Tour de France. A depressing percentage of students at every top school are there because somebody told them how to ace the test, someone handed them the impressive internships and travel experiences that padded their application, someone even wrote their essay. Yes, really, cheating, cheating everywhere, cheating all the time, so much cheating.
Books are a Tour de France. The popular ones are not popular for the reasons their authors and publishers would like you to believe. Worse, many of them aren’t even actually popular in the sense that (1) people bought them to read them and then (2) actually do and (3) are glad for having done so.
There’s no accounting for taste with books and newsletters and social media because it’s possible, even likely, to be counted as a “consumer” without actually having consumed anything. You buy or click or share and that person’s stock rises. Whether you read something, let alone like it or benefit from it in any way, isn’t relevant to who is accounted the winner.
Not so in other arenas. Take a viral phenomenon like LaCroix. Here’s a flavored seltzer product that surges out of nowhere to achieve market dominance. Sure, it’s made of roach poison and the CEO is a bit odd, but when I noticed all those pastel boxes stacking up at the grocery store, I wasn’t left with an existential puzzle to untangle. I didn’t take a sip of an ice-cold Key Lime LaCroix and wonder, “What is this crap? How did it achieve double Perrier’s market share? Are people crazy? If everyone else likes this and I don’t, is there something weird or different about me? Who am I?”
Strategy and execution play a role, but if you drink a can of LaCroix, you can understand its success. It arrived at a moment when people were looking to avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners. LaCroix isn’t sweet, but otherwise it’s as close as you can get to the chilled, bubbly refreshment of a can of soda. Why did it beat other, established competitors like Seagram’s—the unusual flavors? The packaging? Some other aspect of its marketing strategy?
It doesn’t really matter. People like the stuff. You drink seltzer and then it’s gone. You don’t leave unopened cans around your apartment to impress visitors. Nobody’s spouse is bugging them to install built-in seltzer-shelves. If people weren’t enjoying LaCroix, it wouldn’t be around anymore. People are going back for more. Same goes for Halo Top ice cream—it ain’t Häagen-Dazs, but you can understand why it delights people on low-carb diets.
None of this is true with books. The most popular books usually leave me baffled, not only because they aren’t very good in terms of, you know, words, but also because I’m aware of substantially, inarguably better books addressing the same topic that continue to languish.
I’m not here to tell you that the world isn’t fair. You know that. I’m here to tell you that fairness is irrelevant. Stop seeking it.
What does “languish” mean in the context of a book? Self-help book A sells 10,000 copies over two years and changes 10,000 lives. The buyers read it because they bought it to fill a need, not because of Instagram or a newsletter drip campaign.
Self-help book B sells 500,000 copies in 6 months. Maybe it changes 10,000 lives. Maybe it doesn’t. Which of these enthusiastic buyers actually reads it? Which of these readers actually likes it? How could they? I mean, really. Look at some of these books.
Selling 10,000 copies of a book to 10,000 people who genuinely want to read it is an astonishing feat. Someone being glad they read 50,000 of your words is an order of magnitude more impressive. Yet in comparison with these engineered Armstrong-esque book-shaped fallacies, the talented and hard-working Daniele Nardellos of the writing world are treated like failures. They even think of themselves that way.
The world will never be fair. Sociopaths make up 4 percent of the population. When you understand what it takes on an emotional level to dominate—as a politician, a TV talking head, a CEO, a thought leader, a social media influencer, or an author—and you realize there are 13,000,000 American sociopaths out for the brass ring, well, 2016 and after make more sense.
Sure, rank yourself against others. Just shave off the very top contenders before you do any comparative assessment. The cream rises, but the crud rises higher.