Creativity, for fun and profit

There’s a lot of material out there about creativity for profit, and creativity for fun, but less about how to actually combine both. It seems as though everything that makes creativity profitable makes it less fun—and vice versa. So I want to write about this, because making money can be very fun as well.

Part of the impetus here is the terms “creator,” and “creativity,” are being used by corporations for business goals (e.g., the creator economy). In an article for Marker, I called this narrative “the creator gold rush,” put forth by platforms that need a supply of people to make and upload content to their platforms.

Nadia Asparouhova writes at her blog, “I wonder whether the creator economy, as it matures, will resemble less of its original promise (a way for people to do the things they love), in favor of a ‘creator industrial complex.’ Part of the problem is that creativity comes in fits and starts, and can’t always be tamed into a predictable routine. If you’re obligated to create something every day, rather than when it feels right, you’ll start putting things out there that aren’t very interesting in order to fill the space.”

So, what does it take to actually express yourself, for fun and profit?

1. Ease up financial pressure

There’s a clear difference between financial pressure and financial incentive; it’s the same difference between hunger and appetite. If you’re doing your early work as an emerging artist or author or creator of some sort, and you’ve got financial commitments that you need to maintain, you’re best suited not going all into making your creativity make money until you’ve sorted out a very safe, clear, and repeatable business model. 

In other words, work at a job (or run a business) that pays the bills, and then express your creativity purely outside of that as a hobby. As your skill and creative direction starts developing, you can look for business opportunities that could pay on top of that. There’s a story about how author Isaac Asimov found academic freedom: “Outside income.” The inverse is also true for creative freedom: income, outside of your creative work.

The easiest way to get into a creative block is to put pressure on the results. Instead, forget your expectations, and focus on the creative process. Make stuff that you would make for free, promote it to people, and the money will find you. 

2. Find a harmony between structure and chaos

One important point Asparouhova makes in her post is the publish or perish mentality behind the creator economy. The idea is, on average, a creator will need to post a lot in order to acquire an audience, and to make a decent living from their creative work. She writes, “The ‘publish or perish’ model that nudges people to rack up more followers is not the pinnacle of creative freedom; it’s indentured spiritual servitude.”

I’m a huge believer in quantity leading to quality, but the pressure that comes from an unbearable demand for quantity is the worst environment to create in. Trying to make something acceptable, in an unrealistically compressed time period (e.g., daily, weekly, etc.) feels like a special type of hell. I experienced a version of this working briefly at Lifehacker, where each writer on staff was required to write three posts per day and two weekly longer posts. While intimidating, that would’ve been manageable, if it weren’t for the overlooked fact that throughout the years Lifehacker literally has covered almost every topic that’s possible to hack. I’d spend most of each day scouring the internet for a dozen ideas, only for the editors to approve three that were possible to write. 

There were some awful ideas that my editors saved me the embarrassment of posting, so I’m not putting the blame on them. I just want to illustrate the experience with an example. My work with Lifehacker ended a few months after I joined full-time—I couldn’t make it work. 

3. Own your marketing

By this, I mean you need to have the ability to price, promote, place your own products (those are the 4 P’s of marketing!). If you’re an author making a book, you need to be able to set your own price for it, build relationships or skillsets to promote it, place your products where it’s available and desirable through distributors or hosts, and to actually produce the work. 

When you own your marketing, you own your income

There’s more to it, of course, but generally I feel like those are the directions to go into. Not all money is earned equally, either, of course; money is fungible, but the way you earn the money is important. 

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