The work needs to be enough: A creative manifesto

It’s well known that power laws apply to creative work. While the top earners can make an incredible amount of money, the rest of us in the very long tail do not. For every Ryan Kaji who makes tens of millions of dollars every year, there are thousands of kids who are talking to dwindling audiences, or even nobody

Platforms use the top earners to create the creator dream, drawing in people to make things on their platform. Creativity, in their interest, is a very well-crafted marketing mission to supply them with content that their users can consume. 

It’s not just the platforms that want to push this narrative forward; everyone is enamored with it. A part of every one of us wants to believe in this dream—to get paid a ton of money, to say the things we want to say, to tell our stories and have people listen to them—it might even be part of why we started pursuing creative work in the first place.

It’s now never been easier to actually do creative stuff, and to find a place to put the work.

It’s also never been more difficult to actually steadily put the work out there. It can feel like a psychological wrestling match, between you and some part of yourself—your perceptions of other people, your expectations of yourself, your experiences of fear and inadequacy. It’s not dissimilar to what I wrote about an abundance of comfort; we’ve got all of the physical realities to make creative work, now we’re working on the psychological reality.

In an interview, Alain de Botton says, “One of the most beautiful, but also dangerous, ideas—it’s an American idea—is the notion that anyone can achieve anything… It’s a beautiful message, but it’s a dangerous message, because if you really believe in a world where you can do anything and you’ve only done a bit, you’ve only done something, my goodness, how crushed you will feel. The possibilities for humiliation are so much greater now.”

This myth also applies to creative work. The internet makes it feel like the possibilities are positively infinite, and every day somebody else is going viral—taking the stepping stone, being pulled by gatekeepers through to traditional acceptance. The scene of social media virality is now also in fictional films—We Have a Ghost, Hustle, off the top of my head—appearing as a successful last ditch effort to break through to traditional gatekeepers

While the possibilities for self-promotion have never been greater, it must be met with a sense of reality. There’s a chance your work will put your income in the 1% of top earners; however there’s also a chance it’ll be in the 99%. Achieving your business objectives for your creative work can be slow, developing an emerging reputation can take years, and you must set yourself up for patience.

It’s also imperative to take it easy on yourself, to create a life outside of your creative work, and to tie your self worth with stuff outside of your creative dreams. Nobody deserves to fail; the power laws can just be very cruel. 

We’re living in an age where the top 1% of creators are more visible, powerful, and free than ever. Because the barriers are much lower, it’s never been easier to get started, and it’s also arguably more competitive than ever to maintain being a creator. Everything is competing with everything else for attention.

To compare our journeys with theirs is a recipe for disaster. We feel like it’s our fault we’re not as popular or successful yet, that not as many people care about us and our work yet.

Just as a statistical probability, it’s extremely possible—more likely than not, in fact!—that most of your creative journey will be spent emerging. You’ll experience a few pinnacles of success. 

We’d all be well-served learning to enjoy the journey and keep our health well, to accept our creative work regardless of the stats, clout, or income, and to focus on the work itself

See also build a good relationship with yourself.

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