The Economics of Creation- part 1
Money and business are often scary, confusing things, that leave creatives, and people with powerful ideas feeling powerless.
To understand that world, you first need to understand your own place within it.
Ford had plenty of bad ideas in his time, but he was unusually good at long term, holistic economic thinking– a strategy that recognized that any business is part of a larger ecosystem.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled against Ford in that case and established the principle of shareholder primacy– the idea that among all the many people who contribute to make any business function; customers, managers, workers– the only ones that really matter are the people who put up the money.
It’s an idea most of us accept without question today– that investors need to be protected above all other concerns, which is a shame, because it’s an incredibly stupid theory, for everyone involved.
That balance between profit and other factors can work in many ways, but the one way it absolutely *never* works best is to take all your food now, and save nothing for seed, to work your workers til they drop today, and have no-one left tomorrow. What never works best is to prioritize profit above all other factors.
As humans, we don’t ultimately want or need profits.
We want human things, that are rare, and harder to find.
Profits are just a way for us to eventually get to those things.
In our modern economy, these kinds of ideas only “work” because we’ve split all enterprise into multiple parts, so it’s possible to just be the guy who takes the food and eats it, and figuring out how to re-plant next year is someone else’s problem. It’s possible to just be the guy who rests and enjoys the fruits of labor, finding the energy to work more tomorrow is someone else’s problem.
It’s possible in a world like that to just look at the guy taking profits, playing with hoarded resources, and refusing to deal with the problems of where those resources come from tomorrow, and think he must be pretty smart and powerful.
That would be wrong, he is in fact *lucky*, and only in some ways, and only in the short term, but it’s easy to think that way.
Money is not unique.
There are millions and millions of people with money out there, and none of them has money that is any better or worse than anyone else’s, except in their own mind. Money is a kind of power, but it’s like water. You need a source of it to survive. In a world like Ford was advocating for, a place like Michigan, water is everywhere, and always moving. In a poor, desert world like the Dodge’s and their successors today wanted, the world we got, water is horded by a few, and it’s possible for people to hold power over each other by having a cup of water, something that would be laughable in Michigan.
Money is a placeholder. No business person creates or destroys it. No business person is master of anything more than what they personally have in their hand, usually, not even in control of that much.
Money is a placeholder for things that people actually need and value, it is not valuable itself, and any person with money only has the ability to get other things that people value. Scarce things, special things, necessary things for survival. That’s it. That is their only power. They can not *make* food, or antiquities, or special, rare things. They can only ask other people to do it for them.
If one person with money doesn’t like you, you can always find others.
Here’s why this matters:
As a creative, as an entrepreneur, you have the power to make special, rare, valuable things out of thin air.
You are the rare thing. You are the valuable commodity. You are the thing of value that money is just an empty symbol for. You give meaning, both to the money itself, and to the *lives* of the people who hold it. You create meaning that they absolutely *can not* create or acquire without you. They need you. Not the other way around.
Act like it.
Be worthy of it.
Why it’s hard
In your struggle to keep fighting for your place in the world you want to see, whether you keep moving forward matters more than how you feel about it.
The preacher Chuck Swindoll once wrote “We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…”
I come from a working class family, with grandfathers on both side who worked their way out of poverty and hard labor in the 1930s and 40s into something better for themselves and their families. One worked his way off the factory floors of Detroit into an engineering degree, the other worked for a coastal DPW his whole life, plowing snow, digging canals, but rose through the ranks to eventually run the place. Like a lot of working class kids, from families like that, probably families like Chuck Swindoll’s, that idea– that you’re responsible for your own attitude, and your own fate, was rarely said out loud, but it was still the assumption that most of my view of the world was built on as a child.
Had a fight? –How could you have approached that situation better?
Didn’t get an A on an assignment? –How could you have worked harder to pass?
Got bullied and punched? — How is the bully seeing the situation, and how can you alter that?
It’s a very constructive way to look at the world, and empowering, in terms of facing facts and looking for do-it-yourself solutions. For any working-cass hero, with no options but to get through a hard shift, it’s often just a necessary way to look at your day.
I’ve spent years trying to escape this idea. It’s not enough.
On its own, it’s designed to make anyone who believes it fail.
That idea– that there’s a lot about the world you can’t change, and your on pleasure or suffering don’t matter so much as what you actually *do* in response, is just Stoicism, same as it was when old Zeno first talked about it in the 3rd century BC, same as Marcus Aurelius and his meditations, same as the Christians who read that book and carried the ideas down for the last 2000 years for Chuck Swindoll and my mom to teach me one day.
There’s a truth to modern stoicism that’s hard to argue with– the world *is* unfair, and a lot of the time, we can’t expect to have much to show, beyond what we’re willing to fight and work for without complaint. At the same time, like Swindoll’s “one string” we’re left to play, stoicism assumes that we live in a world we have almost no control over. An ancient stoic story compares human life to being a dog tied to a cart, with no choice but to follow where the rope leads it, and make the best of the situation.
There’s a lot of hard, cold reality in those statements, and people willing to deal with hard, cold reality without whining are something we’re awfully short on these days.
The problem with this sort of stoicism is that it teaches us to not hate that rope, nor resist it, to not ever test it to see if it breaks. It leaves very little room for the human soul and its needs. It leaves very little room for unexpected things to happen. It will get you through a hard day at the factory. It might not get you to form a union and change the factory, or walk out and find something better. It teaches us to respect social order, and power, and neither of those things has ever deserved our untested respect. Yes, you need to be able to be hard, and face facts. Yes, you need to persist. You also need to rest sometimes. and sometimes, you need to fight.
I’ve been strong for a long time now. I’ve picked up stakes and moved all over the world trying to find a place to feel at home, and largely failed at that. I’ve built a working business for more than a decade as an independent artist, and built it from nothing, with no mentor, no great patron, largely based on my wits, and my nerve, and my willingness to keep walking forward, even when things look hopeless. Though I’ve largely succeeded there, any professional creative will tell you, it usually looks hopeless.
Wins or losses aside, I’m tired.
The thing about being an artist, or an entrepreneur, or anyone who makes things from nothing, is that there are no directions.
Which city to live in?
Which thing to make next?
What hours should you work today?
What’s the missing piece that’s preventing this piece or story or product from connecting with an audience?
Will going to the party tonight lead to you meeting someone who can help your career?
It’s all a random guess, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you or themselves. It’s damn hard. It’s exhausting. It’s impossible to communicate to anyone who lives in a world where they are told what to do every day. It will literally kill you, or drive away everyone and everything you love. Creating a successful enterprise, leaving behind a body of work, are incredibly difficult things to do. Those paths will lead you down many dead ends. They will lead you astray. They will fail even when you do everything right. You’re allowed to be angry about that. You’re allowed to hate it. You’re allowed to make mistakes, to resent your lot in life, to hate the cart that’s pulling you. You’re allowed to test that rope. You’re allowed to break the rope and knock the damn cart over. You don’t have to be positive or neutral about any of it.
You don’t know if any of that’s possible until you try. And even then, you don’t know if it’s possible next time. You are allowed to tell fate, and circumstance, and the ways things are, to go fuck themselves.
As an artist, as a creator, that is, in fact, your job.
You are here to see a better way, and show people that way.
While you’re doing that, it’s ok to hate the bully instead of understanding him, it’s ok to complain about a test that it’s impossible to win at, and complain loudly. it’s OK to simply win the fight, and walk away.
The problem is that who rises or falls in life is not decided by who complains or who maintains the high ground or who lays down in exhaustion, or who’s had enough and gives up on it all today.
It’s decided by who gets back up tomorrow.
Get up full of anger. Get up in hopelessness. Get up determined to ruin it all. Get up for your own reasons, and no-one else’s. Get up with the worst attitude on earth that day, and complain about it all, but get up, and fight your grumpy, unpleasant, hopeless fight.
You have the right to do that too.
The importance for Creatives in selling out, adapting, and actually doing things.
Actually, I am right.
Vonnegut wrote ads for G.E.
Wedding gigs for your band pay just as much as gigs at cool clubs. More, probably.
You get to spend your time honing your skills at either one.
People will try to convince you that it’s more respectable to have a spouse or parents who support you financially, or to starve, in order to remain “pure” in your art. I have always had more respect for creatives who live more like gunslingers, feet in the dirt, out in the world, with just their horse and gun, taking each new day and each new challenge as it comes. Because if you want to really be *in* the world, what else can you do? That’s the life.
Today, 4:25 am
Remember, when you read those stories about how people made fun of some great artist or entrepreneur or author, but 20 years later, the artist was hailed as a genius, and their company redefined an industry, and their ideas changed everything, that that’s only how it looks from the outside.
From the inside, if that’s you, it looks like having a crazy idea, or pouring a piece of your soul into something incredibly weird, and then having everybody laugh at you, or ignore you, or tear you down. And that’s it. There’s no indication another chapter is ever coming.
From the inside it looks like rent checks that bounce, and groceries left behind at the checkout, and long, lonely nights wondering if you were wrong, or wrong to even try. For 20 years. From whatever your current age is now, until that number plus 20. Maybe.
It’s a long game. And finding meaning in the destination is hard, and will make you question your sanity.
You have to find meaning in the work. In the day to day practice and grind. Not in the approval of others, but in your own satisfaction and need to create. If not there, then in the hope that the others exist, the ones who will understand, and this is how you find them. By being louder. By being brighter.
That’s how you make it through.
As an artist, if you’re doing well, both as a creative and as a human being, you will often look back at your old work and be absolutely mortified by it. That’s OK though, it should embarrass you on some level. Even if your technique doesn’t seem rough, and your mistakes obvious, it’s going to feel too raw, or express embarrassing ideas, or show sides of yourself that you’d rather were still hidden away.
Some people are able to expose their deepest desires and have no regrets, others struggle to be honest about what they want for lunch, and are mortifed if someone else knows they really want a BLT. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter that much where your boundaries are, as long as you’re living right on the edge of where the land ends, and letting a foot hang over into the dark water below.
It’s that boundary crossing, that sense of transgression that gives any creative act its power. That place where solid ground and unformed darkness meet is the only place where real things can be conceived. Where the edge is will move around for you, with time. The only important thing is that you’re working for yourself, where the edge is for you right now, trying to figure that place out.
You might not be in the same place a few years from now, and looking back on yourself there might be embarrassing, but that’s fine. That work is not for you anymore. It’s not really yours now. Like a map left behind on a journey, it belongs to people who are stuck in that place today, where you once sat, even if you aren’t there anymore. -j
Into the Kitchen
When I was a kid, and obsessed with reading, no-one was as magical as Maurice Sendak, with Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. I read other books more often, but reserved a sort of reverence for Sendak’s surreal stories of a childhood full of secret doors and ways into hidden worlds. The others were great stories, but Sendak was mythology. There were whispers there of deeper truths, mysteries and better worlds to be found.
In the Night Kitchen is the story of Mickey, who one night falls out of his clothes and into the night kitchen where giant bakers are making batter for the Morning Cake. For me, as a little kid, it was like getting a glimpse into the secret workings of the universe. The kitchen was a mysterious, loud place, that only adults had control over, but also where all the food came from. Recognizing that most children would see it that way, in a way no adult would, is Sendak’s genius of course, and what gives his stories their mythic weight.
Letting the art do its job
I’ve been watching the saga of the indie survival game “Rust” for the past few weeks now with some interest. Like a lot of indie games, it’s in “early access”, and has been for several years now. This just means that the developers have been selling it and letting people play while they continue to work on it and add features. Most recently, the developers decided to add black people and women to a game that had previously been populated entirely by identical bald white guys.
The rub being: you don’t get to decide which race or gender you are in the game. The game decides that for you randomly, and permanently. This has made a few people upset.
What you make and what you do
A side effect of making art is that it produces rare objects that are hard to copy well, much like a dollar bill. Thus, they make excellent currency. Like any currency though, they’re only valuable once their rarity and authenticity can be guaranteed. Rarity means you have to be able to guarantee the quantity available won’t change quickly and flood the market, so preferably, the artist should be dead, to make the best currency.
Even authenticity is mostly random. An authentic dollar is more valuable than an authentic monopoly dollar, even though they’re both the same thing, because it’s harder to reproduce, but mostly because we agree it is. A Renaissance painting of Zeus is worth more than a painting of Zeus from 1997, likewise, because we agree it is. There’s no real reason beyond that though. We like the story behind the older one, but that’s about it. Stories aren’t valuable. You can’t do much with them, but we like them, a lot. So we agree that they’re worth a lot.
The Blank Slate
I’m shopping for a new tablet to use with digital media today.
Technology has never made as many things as easy as they are right now. While it’s a popular idea to say that smart phones create social disconnection, or that porn creates sexual dysfunction, it’s a silly idea too. Disconnection and furtive sex have always been part of being human. The behaviors aren’t new at all, but the magnitude is. You could bury your face in a book at the dinner table 100 years ago, or secretly look at erotic etchings while your husband was away in town, but the book would eventually end, and there were only two etchings, and neither one was very good. Neither one was a crafted, never-ending flow of sex promising to show you (but never let you touch or possess) everything you want. Once, we chewed coca leaves for a little boost of energy. Now we’ve got pure chemical cocaine, which is tougher to turn away from, or get self-awareness on.
Still, as much as that disturbs me at times, I see it as each person’s individual choice to keep using or not… sort of.
Into the Wild
A friend once asked me to talk to his teenage son who wanted to lead a creative life, not go to college or get a job, but instead, go on an adventure, not to stay safe, but to really experience the hardness of life, and experience amazing, dangerous things.
The son told me his favorite book was Into The Wild, and that he wanted to emulate Chris McCandless. “That’s the book where the guy risks his life and goes into the Alaskan wilderness and lives off the land, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I want to do that. I want to do exactly that.”
“And then he starves to death in an abandoned bus.” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “but I just want to do the first part.” -j