The Leader of Millions
Simple, unexpectedly good, concrete, credible and emotional stories, also known as moral parables, are the most viral form of transformational content
Let me cut to the chase and tell you why you’re reading this article.
You’re curious. I attracted you with a strong value proposition, namely how to establish yourself as the leader of a million followers. That’s impactful: power is valuable. You may be reading this because that’s exactly the problem you’re currently solving for yourself or your business’s marketing efforts; or you’re reading it passively as a tool in your arsenal for future survival. I’m fine with both. This article practices what it preaches in its title: by reading it, you are following me.
The trouble with most modern-day content is that it attracts you with a nice value proposition, but then doesn’t deliver the lesson or teaches some silly tactic du jour. I’m actually going to teach you how to establish yourself as a leader through serious thought and hard work. I’m not interested in self-serving empty ploys and ten step guides. I don’t write on trendy subjects to sell you a book. I write on timeless subjects, because they are my experimentations on the human psyche. I am actually striving to lead a million people. I write this for me.
My great moral dilemma, which brought me upon this subject, was one that many people face in their lifetimes: Do I leave my corporate job and the source of income and stability for my family, or do I choose the risky and unexplored path of freedom? Do I plan the rest of my life, or do I cut the cord? Should I learn to be content with carrying buckets of water, or should I leave the village looking for where to dig a stream? Do I aim for preserving my interests today, or growing the interests of the world tomorrow? Do I trust that my employer has plans for my growth, or do I believe that the only way to grow as a leader is taking matters in your own hands? Do I take the blue pill or the red pill? And so … I chose the red pill. I quit the corporate world without a backup plan.
When you go into business for yourself, you are gambling that you can control the heart and soul of an entire population. They will support your innovative way of system-thinking through their patronage, and you will personally survive as a part of that new system. If you’re starting a restaurant, you’ll survive as the chef or the manager. If you’re channeling water to a village, you’ll survive as its owning founder once villagers are lining up, cash in hand, to fill their bottles. The lesson I learned in the first year of my freedom was that in all likelihood, not a single person will care enough to follow you. Your first business is more like a stream from the lake to the village that requires villagers to go ten stories down to a dark and deep basement to get their water. They’ll just keep going to the lake instead of your spring, and you’ll spend more time maintaining your faith than their continued business.
You’ve spent a year without income doing something for others. You’re poor, hungry, demoralized and desperate.
Let me leave you there in the dark and deep basement of your new water delivery business for a moment. I’m not being insensitive. I’m not leaving you with an unfinished story. But for me, that’s exactly how it went in real life. Failure lurks on your soul in deep and dark places where you are alone with yourself and no witnesses. The leader of a million followers must first conquer his own fears in the wild and dangerous depths of absolute freedom. We never told you that outside the well-fed and green-painted cages of the corporate world, everything about freedom was going to be peaches and roses.
Won't ya come back to this world again
Suspended deep in a sea of black
I've got the light at the end
I've got the bones on the mast
Well I've gone sailin',
I've gone sailin'
I could leave so easily
While friends are calling back to me
I said they’re … they're leaving it all up to me
When all I needed was clarity
And someone to tell me
WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON
"Coma", Guns N’ Roses
Once you’re defeated and alone, you are the same man at the same fork on the road; you’re a year older, wiser and hungrier. The dilemma is the same: The red pill or the blue pill?
But it’s not that simple. The costs you’ve incurred take a daily toll on your soul. The time you’ve invested feels like heavy chains on your shoulders. The indifference that you’ve endured from the world for your unpaid sweat and tears feels like a chronic injury that you carry with you. And the visionary identity and character that you’ve brewed in secret in anticipation for leading change in the world is a wild beast that gnaws on your conscience when you think about going back into service for another. Even if the whole world wanted to employ you, thanks to self-inflicted enlightenment you are now unemployable.
Discussing how you’ll conquer your own fears and know yourself better is an undertaking that I’ll deal with in another article. But in short, freedom brings enlightenment. You will discover that there are four kinds of transformational work. But in service of someone else, you’ve only learned about one of these four transformations: Drawing contentment from family and personal time and trading it for boredom or stress at work.
In freedom, you will learn that your emotional state is a virtuous cycle. Certain activities take you from boredom to excitement. Others, from excitement to stress. Then, there are things that take away stress and make you content. And finally, service for another takes you from contentment to boredom. And the four neurological states of emotional transformation continuously grow your character as if climbing a spiral staircase wrapped between four supporting columns. 99.99% of the people in this world trap themselves in one of those states at work (generally stress or boredom) and never learn to disrupt their own life again. They are death on two legs, until a postponed retirement and a hasty catchup period before grave. The red pill disrupts stagnation. Take it sometime.
The feeling at the bottom of the basement of your abandoned business is called “stress”. The darkness of the mind comes from the neurological reactions to mistakes: the chemical Serotonin, responsible for mental contentment, stops being secreted. It’s a natural fight-or-flight reaction to a costly investment with zero rewards. When you approach the opposite sex and wear your heart on your sleeve and suddenly get shut down and rejected, you’re feeling exactly the same feeling: risking everything and gaining nothing.
I’ve experimented with many anti-depressants when I was an immigrant teen, trying to fit in a new culture. They are doctors’ way of cheating nature, by preventing body’s Re-uptake of Serotonin. They essentially force your mind to stay content by preventing your body’s natural anxious reaction or over-reaction to mistakes. I also was a good student in my Psychology, Statistics and Scientific Methods classes. One of the first things I learned was that you cannot control a phenomenon if you don’t understand its root cause. Lack of Serotonin is not the cause of fearful feelings. It’s the reality’s messenger to the brain: Fix this painful situation, or RUN. Doctors prefer to shoot the messenger.
The free individual learns to control himself through experimentation. I experimented with fifty “things to do before I die” activities that I had listed while I was still at the corporation. These included hiking, improvising on the piano, meeting friends, writing, socializing, and many others. I took them seriously. For example, I hiked every weekend for a year. I socialized with important people in Silicon Valley twice a week. I made a discipline of paying attention to the changes in my mood when I played music, read, or took care of someone else.
Unexpectedly, one of these fifty activities became a pivotal key in transitioning my emotional state from stress to contentment: Writing.
It was difficult to take up writing again after years of inactivity. I was in a country house in Wyoming on a Summer day, reading Gerald Weinberg’s “The Secrets of Consulting”. Not only was I impressed with his writing style, but also a certain sentence in that book resonated with me: “Influence or Affluence. Pick one.”
Influence is when you sit down with a single person and mentor them. It’s deep; and it changes the person’s behavior. Affluence is the opposite: when you write a lesson that a million people can learn from. It’s shallow, because in all likelihood, not a single one of them will actually change their behavior. But it brings affluence, because they start following you. And when they follow you, they bring their more valuable questions and friends.
If you think about it, writing is an inexpensive investment in an experiment that could have an unexpected 1,000,000x return. One of my first writings, my first polished resume, took a token investment in time, though it fed me for longer than ten years. That’s a slightly simplistic look, since it takes more skills than writing to establish a career. But once you’ve roamed the city after graduation looking for work for six months, you’ll appreciate the value of writing well.
I’m about to confer upon you two lessons: (1) how to write well as a leader, and (2) how I’m writing my way out of entrepreneurial defeat.
About ten people read my first essay. A hundred read the next one. A thousand people read my third article. Ten thousand people have read my fourth work. And two hundred thousand people read my fifth essay. I’m on my way, without expectation, to a million readers, and someday, a million followers.
I was baffled when I was read by two hundred thousand people in a single week. So much so that I had to retrospectively research the reasons for sudden success with writing; especially when I had failed catastrophically in my startup business.
I have come to unexpected but extremely interesting conclusions about mass transformation. And I’m not its pioneer by a long shot.
Jesus Christ. No, I’m not cursing. That’s the name of one of the first leaders who discovered the powerful lesson I’ve also learned. So did Shakespeare. The success of the movie The Matrix, the book Lord of The Rings and my article read by 200,000 people all are owed to this lesson. And the concrete lesson is the following:
Human-beings are naturally indifferent. They like to exploit what they’ve learned thus far, and avoid change — unless the change in behavior has a huge potential for unexpected rewards. This is a key principle for gathering followers.
Men would rather crucify a heretic than to conform their world to what he preaches. Christianity is possibly the largest example of gathering millions of followers by proposing to them an out-of-whack dilemma: Do nothing and keep feeling like you deserve the hardships, or bring faith and be saved, to feel purity and moral superiority. Jesus navigated by example through a dilemma that most peasants in his time would not expect to be worth exploring: Is it better to live a hard life like others of my kind, or to die and expose the injustices of the Roman majority? His revelation was that the survival of a group is more important than that of an individual. In gene theory, this is called Altruism of the Selfish Gene. In religion, this is called believing in a God. For our purposes, this is called revealing the inconsistency of actual vs. expected rewards, in a dilemma, which is left unexplored by the common man.
Jesus himself understood the power of exploring dilemmas through parable. In Parables of Jesus found in common religious gospels, the moral teachings are passed on to followers as simple and concrete explorations of dilemma in highly credible and emotional stories.
In the marketing book “Made to Stick”, the authors have formulated the abbreviation “SUCCESs” to illustrate all these necessary ingredients. SUCCESs stands for Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Concrete, Emotional Story. Parables with such qualities tend to “stick” in the mind of the reader for a long time. They tend to be shared and “go viral” as marketing material more often. In the case of Christianity, the Bible represents the ultimate book that’s Made to Stick.
The Qur’an for muslims follows a similar trajectory in terms of sticky teachings. Almost every parable for muslims involves a scenario in which, facing a dilemma, the tribe in question chose the wrong path and received an actual punishment 1,000,000x times worse than expected; or they chose the righteous path and ended up with the types of rewards in heaven that would be immoral or unthinkable on earth. The very opening “Surah” of Qur’an ends by imposing a dilemma with asymmetrical rewards, when speaking to a higher power: “Guide us to the straight path. The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked your anger or of those who are astray.”
Religious parables are especially powerful because their asymmetrical rewards demand faith in the parable itself. Heaven exists, it’s a million times better than earth, and if you don’t believe in it you won’t ascend there. And if you choose to ignore it, you go to hell where it’s a million times worse than earth. Who wants that? Such parables are so sticky in the minds of their followers that if you attempt to unstick them, you’ll be chased off with actual sticks. That’s the power of the written word.
So on the one hand, you have a startup business that cannot inspire anyone to save its life. And on the other hand, you have words on stone written thousands of years ago that cut right through indifference.
In the dark basement of my failed business, I had to explore this meta-dilemma. So I started thinking about other leaders inspiring other followers in the millions.
In The Matrix, Neo had to choose to live in blissful ignorance or in painful awareness: The blue pill or the red pill. That dilemma sold almost $0.5B worth of tickets at the box office.
In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien puts Frodo Baggins in front of a dilemma at every single moment of the epic book: To wear the ring and escape the constraints of right choices, or to endure an impossible journey and destroy that ring. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are two of the four best-selling novels ever written in human history.
And looking back at my fifth article that was read by 200,000 people, it had all the qualities of a parable about a entrepreneurial founder who decides to leave the corporate world and explore a dilemma with risky asymmetrical rewards.
It turns out that unexplored dilemmas with unexpected outcomes are strong mental bottlenecks. So much so that when you do explore them in writing, you have the clogged-up and forceful interest of potentially millions of readers with you. A leader must risk exploring paths that despite their high potential rewards, are too costly to explore for the common man. And the duty of a leader to his followers is to lower the cost of exploration.
Pornography is an example of a means to explore sexual promiscuity in a world of commitments. It is prevalent and widely distributed, because it allows people to explore what it’s like to be in many extremely risky situations, without incurring the extra-marital and health costs. That’s why a pornographer has more followers than a married man who boasts about his random encounters at a bar to his friends. The former, despite his inherent occupational moral hazards, provides the society with a less costly way to explore forbidden rewards. The latter, the man with random bar encounters, might wake up someday drunk in a tub with a note on his chest reading “Don’t move. Call 911. Sorry, I took your kidney ."
Stanley Kubrick, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise explored this very type of moral dilemma in their movie Eyes Wide Shut: a married man who explored his own identity in a secret sexually deviant society. Kubrick is no pornographer, but his exploration of immorality grossed him near $162MM at the box office, the highest in his life as a director.
The rise to viral success lies in the leader’s ability to have the followers explore, from a safe distance, what it’s like to have walked in his footsteps. Whether you’re writing about yourself, your business or your product, and whether you’re exploring the heavenly rewards of a torturous path to success or the hellish consequences of a guilty pleasure, remember this lesson; it has been working since earlier than Shakespeare started writing viral theatrical plays:
You will meet millions of indecisive and common men stuck, waiting for your leadership, at the cross-roads of a well-balanced paradox.
I left you at my personal paradox: To continue being an entrepreneur after my first failure, or to go back to a corporate job.
I failed not because I made mistakes, but because I made expensive mistakes. When you believe too much in a plan, you invest on a composition of assumptions that might be individually incorrect. You dig a stream to a thirsty village whose people just don’t believe in paying for water. Or you discover half-way that the village is too elevated for the water to ever reach it. Or that someone else beat you to it by digging a well!
Expensive mistakes not only prevent you from exploring alternative and corrective experiments, but they also rob you of leadership lessons which you could impart on others. Familiarity with the territory around one single paradox does not a leader make. Leaders explore multiple paradoxes and have teachable lessons at every fork in the road. They say Edison failed 1000 times before inventing the lightbulb. But they never mention that he had to fail cheaply, or he would not survive to see the next day.
In the depth of the dark basement of failure, I reflected and learned to fail cheaply.
I fail cheaply through writing. Every written article is an entire startup concept on its own. It covers the Business Model Canvas . It has:
- A value proposition, namely its title
- A customer segment, namely its readers
- A distribution channel, namely my web site and social media
- A customer relationship funnel, namely how I get you to read from the title all the way to the end
- Key activities, namely drafting, authoring, editing and publishing
- Key resources, namely myself as an author and my books as references
- Key partners, namely friends who give me feedback and review my work
- Costs, namely the time I spend on writing an article
- Revenue Streams, namely the influx of new connections with followers, commenters and future customers that it opens up
Every single article is a one-day startup. Some live. Some linger. Some die.
These are experiments. But the constant is myself, their founder.
So how do you establish yourself as the leader of 1,000,000 followers? I’ve given simple, unexpected, concrete and emotional stories as examples here that are hopefully credible based on my own sheer determination and sacrifices. But I’ll summarize the lesson for you:
Live life as if every moment is a paradox between living it like everyone else or exploring the counter-intuitive. Every chance that you get, experiment with counter-intuitive and scary choices that require a moral compass and relentless resourcefulness . Explore the dilemma inherent in the less treaded path. Then share what you find with the thousands of people at the junction who chose not to make the sacrifice.
There are plenty of opportunities: To quit or to be loyal. To borrow for mortgaging a house or to rent forever. To go to public school or private school. To remain committed or to explore. To be young and excited or to be old and wise. To defend the middle-class or to nurture the powerful. To choose friendship or love. To live for the present or to die for the future. To be or not to be. You may find some of these to be trivially simple. But in whatever paradox that you personally pay the price of exploration, you'll find millions of followers staring through the gate, too afraid to make a choice.
And one day, sooner than you think, you might wake up to realize that a non-conformist can in fact transcend the expectations of an entire generation. Unexpected revelations are viral memes, reproducing themselves from one mind to another.
When you explore unconventional paths at the heavy cost of inner conflict, you unleash revelations that millions of others were too comfortable to explore. You pay the price, personally, to resolve moral dilemmas for yourself and others. And despite your best efforts to stay a non-conformist, you will become the mythical man who knew all along where to go.
You will sentence yourself to the cross. And millions will hang your cross upon their own mantlepieces in times of personal conflict.
You'll wake up as if just a day has gone by; but you'll discover through the eyes of others, that you are a leader.
So said the old man from the village, pointing to the retired and rusting bucket of water. And all his friends raised their water cups: "hear, hear".
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
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