Brothers. Sisters. Fellow Creators, Artists, & Media Professionals. We are gathered here today, on this webpage, to discuss The Pattern. Once you see it, there is no unseeing it. But it is urgent that we open our eyes. Like a wildfire after years of drought, The Pattern is ripping through our digital commons, and seeping into the hearts and minds of humanity. The Pattern is stifling our creative potential. It is poisoning our culture. And it is standing in the way of our ability to live well and flourish.
In the chapters to come, I will share my understanding of what The Pattern is, along with the story of how I, Rob Hardy, became so intimately acquainted with it. I will also share how I believe we can win this battle, and restore the creative soul of the internet. Let us begin.
Part 1: The Pattern Emerges
I first noticed The Pattern in the summer of 2014. At the time, I was writing for one of the internet’s largest filmmaking blogs, and making a good living with it.
Like all blogs of that era, the site made most of its money from advertising. As contracted writers, generating pageviews was our mandate. Not only did the site depend on our ability to drive traffic, but so did our paycheck. We only got paid if we got results. And we did that through two primary tools—aggregation and clickbait.
Turns out, the workday of a professional blogger has little to do with researching and writing original content, but instead scouring the internet for other people’s work. When we found something with traffic-generating potential—perhaps a slick video editing tutorial, or the announcement of a new camera—we’d write a little summary, maybe sprinkle in some opinion, give it a clickbait headline, then fire it off to our hundreds of thousands of facebook followers. Lather, rinse, repeat, multiple times a day, for years on end. That formula was a money-printing machine.
It was easy work, and good money. And my first year in the trenches was genuinely exhilarating. It all felt so new, and for the first time ever, I was getting paid to write about a topic I loved. But the longer I stayed in it, the more I began to notice The Pattern, and the more hopeless and cynical I became about my own creative prospects, and the media ecosystem around me.
In the summer of 2014, I found myself grappling with an unshakeable sense of boredom. After writing “7 unexpected lighting hacks to make your videos more cinematic” or "This new 6K camera will revolutionize cinematography" for the six hundredth time, I felt an intuitive desire to write things that were a bit more thoughtful and interesting. I wanted to go deeper into the craft of cinematography, and into the psychology of creativity. So I tried a few times. But the lesson I learned, again and again, was that thoughtful, long-form content rarely drives traffic as well as lazily-aggregated clickbait.
There was one instance where I spent a month working on a long-form written interview with a Hollywood film editor. I poured 25-30 hours into this thing, and I was so freaking proud of it. But then it flopped, of course. No one read it, and it made less money than something I could have churned out in an hour. So, despite my dissatisfaction with the status quo, eventually I stopped trying so hard. I stopped caring. Part of me was yearning to do better work, but I knew better than to heed the call. I had student loans to pay off, after all, and I knew how the sausage was made. So I stayed in that gig, churning out mediocrity, for another 18 months.
That’s the first important thing you should know about The Pattern. If we're not vigilant in our defense against it, it gradually turns us into cynics and nihilists—ignoring the voice within that knows we're capable of more. When you're living out of alignment with your values, you can feel it. But in a world controlled by The Pattern, it's easy to rationalize away that sense of discontent. When the economic incentives are stacked up against you, it’s easy to convince yourself nothing matters. But even if you ignore that inner voice, it never goes away. It's always there, poking and prodding, reminding you that you're off track, and that you have so much more to give.
There's something else I learned that summer. The Pattern isn’t just a personal phenomenon. It also plays out on a much, much wider scale.
Part 2: The Cancer Spreads
Just as The Pattern wore me down as a creator, so too did I come to despise it as a consumer.
In those early years, filmmaking was my singular passion. Film is a rich tapestry woven from other great art forms—theater, music, photography, writing—and I had an insatiable curiosity to untangle and understand it. I wanted to learn everything I could about visual storytelling. I wanted deeper insight into the people behind my favorite works. And I wanted to explore all the technical, nerdy details of this complex craft.
In theory, my job as a curator and aggregator should have given me a front row seat to all of that. After all, my paycheck hinged on my ability to hover over this corner of the internet like a ravenous hawk desperate to find its next meal. Nothing interesting or newsworthy could happen in the world of filmmaking without us pouncing on it. And for the first year I was in that gig, I gorged myself, drinking deeply from the firehose of information.
But in the summer of 2014, just as I was getting bored of my own creative work, I also found myself fed up with the space as a whole. Turns out, it wasn’t just our site playing cynical aggregation games—it was all of us. Once I saw The Pattern on our blog, I saw it everywhere. The entire ecosystem of filmmaking blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels was recycling news and churning out half-baked content at a remarkable pace. From my perch atop the ecosystem, I could watch a story break, then spread from one aggregator to the next, eventually blanketing our entire corner of the internet in a thick smog of mediocrity. It was truly something to behold.
Increasingly I found myself craving well-crafted, nourishing informational meals. But instead, all I could find was an abundance of mass-produced, nutritionally-void food-substance, fresh off a soulless assembly line. This is how I came to be totally disillusioned. Within the span of six months, The Pattern destroyed my own creative outlook, along with a corner of the internet I wanted so badly to love.
It's not just the filmmaking space, either. Perhaps you've noticed The Pattern play out in your favorite corners of the internet? I’m willing to bet you have. Like I said, once you see it, you can never unsee it.
I noticed it next in the world of indie film. Not with content about filmmaking, mind you. But in the films themselves. Turns out, after you've seen a couple dozen indie films, they all start blending together. They hew to the same genre conventions, use the same story structures, rely on the same aesthetic choices, and often feature the exact same actors in eerily similar roles. Even the trailers and posters—tools designed to differentiate a project and get people excited—blend together after awhile.
Seeing The Pattern play out in this arena broke my heart. The draw of indie filmmaking, in theory, is to be able to take risks and tell stories that Hollywood never could. This is where creativity and originality and resourcefulness are supposed to shine. And while that does occasionally happen, mostly it does not. Just like every other limb of the media corpus, the creative decisions in the indie film world are driven by a set of economic incentives, along with a culture of mimicry, status seeking, and insecurity. Mix these toxic ingredients up, and you're left with a predictable stew of conformist mediocrity.
And don't even get me started on YouTube. Over the last decade, I've lived through a number of phases, in which I’d hone in on a topic, then consume as much information as I could about it. There was a personal development phase. A marketing and online business phase. There were also phases for minimalism, jazz guitar, hockey, psychology, productivity, and politics (this is where The Pattern is at its most ugly and destructive, by the way). I've spent ungodly amounts of time watching videos on all the topics above, with YouTube’s Almighty Algorithm supposedly serving up the best of the best.
But with each new YouTube rabbit hole, after the initial novelty wore off, I’d start to notice all of the videos blending together. Patterns would emerge. Every YouTube Bro™ would start off enthusiastically telling me to “smash that like button and hit subscribe” before launching into something eerily indistinguishable from everything surrounding it. It began to feel like YouTubers were but puppets, reading from the same boring script handed down to them from on high. And in each instance, once I noticed The Pattern playing out again, I gave up on trying to find new information.
One of the places I tried to seek refuge was in books. But it turns out, much like the blogging industry, indie films, and YouTube, once you’ve read a handful of books on any given subject, you’ve read them all. Most every new non-fiction book is filled with the same cheap anecdotes and platitudes. They’re 20 pages of recycled generic advice, padded out by 200 pages of filler. And I've heard from friends in the fiction and literary worlds that The Pattern is just as prevalent in those books too.
I don’t know which corners of the internet I’ll be drawn to next. But I know The Pattern will be there waiting for me. And it fills me with dread. Can you also feel it? That nagging sense that there’s a cancer spreading through the internet? That sense that humanity’s greatest invention has been captured by mediocrity and bad incentives and cowardice? Can you feel the vastness of the potential being squandered?
Part 3: The Tyranny of Freedom
I've never been much of a new year's resolutions guy. But as the clock struck midnight and 2014 came to an end, I knew I needed an exit plan from the filmmaking blog. The money was great, but thanks to The Pattern, I was dead inside. So I resolved to escape.
Over the first few months of 2015, I started laying groundwork. I took a few courses on copywriting. I learned the nuts of bolts of freelancing. And most importantly, I started my own online business aimed at indie filmmakers. My plan was to use freelancing income to give me the time and space required to build something real, meaningful, and good. I was intent on breaking The Pattern, and finally doing work I could be proud of.
And just like that, I was on the path towards freedom. Or so I thought.
Back in those days, my understanding of The Pattern was still fairly limited. I pinned the blame on certain business models. More specifically, I thought advertising poisoned everything it touched, and inevitably led to bad incentives, along with a flood of mediocre media. So in my first business, I opted to monetize through products and services. In my case, I started creating online courses for filmmakers. And later on, I started coaching. In theory, that should have created the proper incentives to do thoughtful, long-form writing.
And indeed, in my first year running that business, I published a few pieces that I am still proud of to this day. But beneath the surface, an even sneakier, more pernicious variation of The Pattern was taking root and sinking its claws into me. Because it turns out, The Pattern has little to do with business models, and everything to do with our collective inability to grapple with insecurity, ambiguity, uncertainty, and fear.
In my case, I quickly learned that freelancing isn’t an easy or glamorous way to make a living. Feast or famine is the norm, especially for new freelancers. There are periods where it’s going great, you’ve got enough clients, and your bank account is full. There are also periods of near-destitution, where new clients are nowhere to be found and old ones won’t return your emails. I vacillated between these two extremes throughout 2016 and 2017, and I was constantly in a state of financial scarcity.
During those periods of financial insecurity, I started putting increasing amounts of pressure on my online business. It was no longer acceptable to take my time and play the long game with it. I needed it to pay off big, and as quickly as possible. This desire for short-term results led me directly into the arms of the Online Marketing Industrial Complex, and into a reincarnated zombie version of The Pattern.
If you’ve spent any time exploring the worlds of online business and marketing, you know the space is overflowing with gurus and hucksters promising to teach you the secrets of building a successful business. “Just follow my simple five-step formula,” they’ll tell you, “and you’ll be making six figures and sipping daiquiris on a tropical beach 90 days from now.” Or, in more subtle forms, they’ll say things like “Your business is not successful yet because you're not using...” and then they’ll fill in the blank with some flavor-of-the-month marketing tactic. Guest blogging. Facebook ads. Chatbots. High ticket sales. Evergreen launches. Email automation. And on and on and on.
I consider myself a fairly savvy guy, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards scammy nonsense that seems too good to be true. My mama didn’t raise no fool. But here’s the thing. When I’m in a state of financial insecurity, it’s like my brain gets hijacked. I go into survival mode, and start looking for anything—even deeply irrational things—that’ll make me feel safe, and like I'm in control. So in those early years of my business, when I was in a constant state of "not enough," I whipped out my overtaxed credit card more times than I care to admit.
Wasting money on courses is one thing. But I took what I learned in those courses, and injected it straight into my fledgling business. I followed the Best Practices. I ran the playbooks. I trusted the Experts. I started creating lead magnets, building funnels, writing long, pressure-filled sales pages. The writing on my blog became more focused on driving traffic, growing my list, and demonstrating that I, too, was an Expert. None of it felt particularly aligned with how I wanted to show up in the world. In fact, a lot of it felt kind of scummy. But the clock was ticking. I had bills to pay. And I wanted to reach my desired state of financial freedom sooner rather than later.
None of these Best Practices worked half as well as promised, nor as quickly. But I'm stubborn as hell, and I kept at it. And after three years, I didn't need freelancing anymore. My little business covered all of my living expenses. I was ostensibly "free." But, much in the same way the luster of the filmmaking blog had worn off after the first year, so too was I disillusioned with the business I’d built. Sure, I was making an okay living, but I was fucking miserable. I’d gone all-in on the things I was supposed to do—adding value, building funnels, launching courses, the whole nine yards. And it all left me feeling empty, deflated, uninspired.
And I’m not the only one.
Over the last two years, I've met so many creators—including outwardly successful ones making a great living—who are unhappy, and who feel trapped. They joined the creator economy to pursue a life of freedom and creativity and connection. So they followed all the rules and Best Practices. They did everything right, yet still ended up constructing a prison for themselves, just as soul-crushing as any day job that preceded it.
Many of us try to escape The Pattern, only to end up right back in its grips.
Part 3.5: An Explanatory Interlude
So far, I’ve been coy about what The Pattern is. And frankly, that's because it's not just one thing. It's a complex emergent phenomenon, driven by the interplay of several ingredients. Here are a few of the big ones.
- An environment of irresistible short-term incentives that blind us to long term possibility. As humans, we're evolutionarily wired to prioritize short-term gain. Hunter gatherers had no use for five-year plans, and those instincts are still within us. Combine that with our current economic system, ad-driven business models, and algorithmic social media platforms, all of which visibly reward cynical short-term games, and you've got the perfect recipe to get lots of people prioritizing what's easy, quick, and shallow. There's so much opportunity waiting for the people who do deep, meaningful work, and who play long games. But our wiring and our current environment make it very difficult to see those possibilities, and trust them.
- Mimetic desire and rivalry. This is yet another thing that's baked into human nature. Put simply, we want what we perceive others to want. We look around, find the people who appear to be successful and high status, then start playing the same games as them. Often, this happens intuitively, or even subconsciously. If you’ve ever wondered why so much of the creator economy looks like a pyramid scheme—with course creators who teach other creators how to sell courses to creators who eventually sell their own courses on course creation to other unsuspecting creators—mimesis is at the heart of the matter.
- Our innate psychological needs around safety, certainty, and control. Creative work and entrepreneurship are, by nature, uncertain. They're also intimately tied to our sense of self-worth, so the danger we perceive isn’t just financial, but existential. Beyond that, safety is a core need for all of us. We crave certainty, and love feeling like we're in control. So when crafty marketers offer those feelings to us on a silver platter, most of us, myself included, jump at the opportunity. It eases the tension building up in our head, and makes us feel like we've found a cheat code. But in reality, all we've really found is a fast track back into the arms of The Pattern.
Put more directly, The Pattern is partly about the systems we live in, partly about our innate drive to fit in, compete, and seek status, and partly about wanting to feel secure in an increasingly complex, chaotic world.
I’m not naive. The Pattern is extraordinarily fucking powerful. It follows us wherever we go because, in fact, it's a reflection of the human condition itself. In Jungian terms, The Pattern is an extension of our shadow—those darker parts of ourselves that we shove away and try to ignore. But we can't escape it because it's part of who we are. Beyond that, we can't change our economic systems overnight. We can't change our biological makeup. And we can't reorganize our psyche at the snap of a finger. Breaking The Pattern is an uphill battle, and perhaps even a quixotic one.
Despite all of that. I believe we can win. In fact, I believe we will win.
Part 4: How We Win
The Covid lockdowns were my wakeup call.
By that point, I was making a decent living with Filmmaker Freedom. In 2019, the business pulled in $55k, and had I kept going in 2020, it likely would have done more. Sure, I could sense I wasn’t happy or fulfilled, but when I was caught up in the day-to-day frenzy of running the business, it was easy to ignore those signals and rationalize them away. "I'll be happy when I'm finally making six-figures a year with my business," I told myself.
In retrospect, those first two months of lockdown turned out to be a precious gift. I was too shaken and anxious to work on my business, and I couldn't go anywhere. Given that space to step back and reflect, I came face to face with just how miserable I was. I saw clearly how I’d been living out of alignment with my values. I could no longer lie to myself. If I stayed on this path, it would keep eating away at my spirit, and I would end up on my deathbed, full of regrets.
That’s a test I’ve started using a lot in the last two years. When I encounter some new decision, or some fork in the road, I ask myself, “Will I regret having done this, or not having done this, as I’m laying on my deathbed?” It’s a bit morbid and uncomfortable, but damn is it clarifying. Because it always points me in the direction my soul yearns to go, and it undermines the stories my intellect has spun up for why I’m not allowed to travel there. For the last two years, every time I’ve run the deathbed test, it’s pointed me in the same direction. There's no denying it anymore. If I don’t do everything in my power to break The Pattern in my own work, and help others do the same, I will end up on my deathbed, overcome with regret. And I find that unacceptable.
So let's get to the heart of the matter.
If I've done my job correctly, you see The Pattern now. You’ve probably felt it for years. But now you see it. Like really see it. Chances are, you will never be able to unsee it, either. I certainly haven’t. And with this newfound sense of awareness, you get to make a choice. Will you flow with The Pattern, or will you attempt to break it? Please know there’s no shame in declaring “this is not my work,” then spending your days on something else. We all have but one life, and if you don’t feel called to fight this battle, I hope you find another one that lights you up.
But if you’ve made it this far down the page, I suspect you feel what I feel. Your intellect sees the ways the status quo is broken, and your heart, despite not having all the answers, knows a more beautiful world is possible. And most importantly, I’m willing to bet you have a sense that you are capable of so much more—in your creative work, your business, and everywhere else. If that’s the case for you, I’d like to invite you to fight alongside me. That starts with making the decision—right here, right now—to commit to the messy, uncertain, long-term work of breaking The Pattern.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t have all the answers for how we beat this thing. Like I said, it’s a complex phenomenon that always defies easy answers. But that’s why this place, Ungated, exists. My work here is to thoroughly explore the question of how we break The Pattern, do creative work we’re proud of, and live meaningful, flourishing lives in the brief flash of consciousness we’re gifted as we float along on this space rock. Ever since I founded Ungated in those first precious months after the pandemic, I’ve been in exploration mode. I’ve been running lots of random experiments in creativity and marketing. And though there’s still a great deal I don’t know, there are a few pieces of the puzzle that have fallen into place for me. It finally feels like I’m starting to break The Pattern in my own life, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
First things first. We need to accept that The Pattern originates within, then act accordingly. We can delude ourselves into thinking this is just about external factors like capitalistic systems, business models, and incentives. But I believe the real work of breaking The Pattern begins by understanding our inner world, then doing the messy work of healing the wounds we find there. My suspicion is that getting ourselves to a place of Deep Okayness is far and away the most important work in this fight. When we know, deep in our bones, that we are enough exactly as we are, and that we’ll be okay no matter what the world throws at us, we lay the strongest foundation possible for the journey ahead. The Pattern nourishes itself on our fears and insecurities. The Pattern runs on uncertainty and self-doubt. So let's strike at the root, and take away its primary fuel source.
From there, actively choose to subvert The Pattern in the external world, in ways both large and small. That means tossing aside the formulas and Best Practices, and striving to produce creative work no one else but you could. It means choosing to play long, infinite games with your marketing and business. It means making friends and building positive sum relationships. It means trusting your intuition, telling the truth, and trusting others. It means walking your own path, even when it's uncomfortable or unpopular. But most of all, it means doing whatever it takes to nourish that inner voice, and keep your creative spark alive. If there's one thing I know, it's that putting pressure on your creativity to pay the bills immediately is a surefire recipe for summoning The Pattern. Don't fall into that trap like I did. Get a day job if you have to. Just take your time, and keep the spark alive.
Third, we must find the others. This, I believe, is the most important step we can take for effecting change in the external world. Be courageous enough to shout your authentic creative work into the void, knowing that it won't connect with many people, but it will connect, and it will matter, to the right people. If there's anything that breaks The Pattern, it's finding your true fans, and knowing that your work actually matters to someone. The more you feel just how nourishing that is, the harder it gets to return to a life of pumping generic content into the belly of the algorithmic beast in hopes of getting a few likes or shares. Once you've tasted the real thing, there is no going back. It's the same for your fans as well. They're starving for meaningful creativity in a world full of junk, and they'll never be able to look at the cheap stuff the same way again once they've tasted of the real thing. Get enough creators working in diverse niches making sure their audiences are fed up with the cheap shit, and all the sudden the incentives of the entire internet will begin to shift, and producing good, original work will become a dominant cultural norm.
In addition to finding your true fans, we must also find and connect with other creators who are playing the same game. Fighting The Pattern alone is a recipe for burnout and disaffection. It’s too heavy a burden for one person to carry. As the old proverb goes, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. This is how we cultivate shared knowledge, encourage and lift each other up during hard times, and develop scenius—or communal genius. The Pattern is an unwieldy, multifaceted beast. But if you get hundreds, even thousands, of creators working together on becoming a smarter and more capable foe, it's only a matter of time before we defeat this fucking thing. This, by the way, is why the Ungated Collective exists.
Finally, we must keep going. Many of our efforts to combat The Pattern will fall short. We may even have entire seasons of life where The Pattern gets the best of us. In fact, we should probably expect that it will, and extend to ourselves grace, compassion, and patience. For as long as the inner spark stays lit, there is hope, and you will live to fight another day.
One of my deepest held beliefs is that creativity, in its many forms, is humanity’s greatest gift, and our most potent source of strength. We’re at our best both individually and as a species when we’re creatively and courageously confronting the world in front of us. The Pattern is the greatest threat to creativity in all its forms. And it's going to take every ounce of courage we can muster if we're to defeat it, and restore the soul of the internet.
As for how my story ends, I don’t know. Like yours, my story is still being written. All I know is that I’m choosing a life in opposition to The Pattern. I’m choosing to take the harder, more uncertain path. And I sincerely hope you’ll join me.
P.S. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk 😁