The Obsession with Monetizing Joy

The pressure to make money off of our hobbies gets worse every time you share what you love.

One of my favorite things to do is learn new programming languages and write up little tutorials about them. If money wasn’t an issue and I lived in a world where I could do whatever I want all day and every day, I would still teach myself new programming languages and still write articles (and probably a few more books, too).

This is something I’ve been doing for a long time, and something that brings me great joy. I don’t have to worry about deadlines, outside pressures, or expectations; I can learn as fast or as slow as I want, I can teach others with tutorials or not, and I can jump around from project to project and just tinker and have fun.

Every once in a while, though, I’ll get an email from some acquisitions editor at a publishing house that wants me to turn all this creative energy into a book that they can package up and sell. I used to be all over these offers; the idea of making money from doing what I love is so appealing because it speaks to a fundamental quip that we creatives are constantly hearing echoed through the chasms of the back of our minds:

If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

It’s so tempting, right? We struggle to exist in this economy of hustle-and-grind, always-be-busy, and what-about-your-brand-itis goals that the idea of only having to thing about what we’re passionate about sounds like a dream come true. Imagine: the things keeping you together when the going gets tough—your joys and your passions—being the target of all your energy output.

But the truth is that doing what you love in a capitalist society means that you no longer get the psychological escapism and creative freedom you once had when your joyful hobby was just a joyful hobby. If you want to make money and pay your bills by doing what you love, then you’ll have to turn what you love into what you do—and in a sick world where we are valued not by our individuality but our labor contributions by industry, turning our joys into work is a sure-fire way of losing the one thing that was keeping you together in the first place.

The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies into Hustles by Molly Conway

When you’re naturally creative, people expect that you should be making money off of what makes you happy:

“Wow!” I said. “It’s gorgeous. Do you have an Etsy shop or…?” And suddenly, it was like all the light went out of the room. She looked down despairingly. “No,” she sighed. “Everyone keeps telling me I should, but I just wouldn’t know where to start.” I recognized the look of a woman suddenly overwhelmed by people’s expectations of her.

Molly also quotes Adam J. Kurtz, author of Things Are What You Make of Them, and his take on the bullshit notion of doing what you love and never having to work:

“Do what you love and you’ll work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally.”

Unfortunately, our reaction to the awful conditions that we are in and that most of us refuse to accept is to find a way to cope with it.

When so many of us are suffering economic hardship as we struggle to put our education and potential to use amid the five-alarm fires of climate change and political turmoil, it’s easier to keep going and glorify the struggle than it is to sit and risk feeling helpless. (Or risk feeling, if we’re being honest.) It’s easier to stomach needing three jobs to make ends meet if we rebrand ourselves as hustlers.

Read the full article here.

The Startup Industry’s Toxic “Side Hustle” Fixation by Kate Knibbs

The whole idea of a side-hustle that involves one of our passions is bad enough, but now we’re in a world where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year marketing to us how important it is to never stop working.

Kate Knibbs describes this by focusing on one of the largest offenders, Uber:

Companies like Uber want to spit-shine the concept of “side hustle” so it looks like a better alternative to steady, gainful employment. If people see gig-economy labor as a flexible stepping stone to a better life, they’re less likely to also see it as a force eroding a work culture with protections and benefits for employees in favor of a low-ball freelance marketplace… Uber is selling a fantasy of economic advancement through the corrosion of employment benefits and stability, pitching increased subjugation to the corporation as some sort of salvo.

The economic conditions that have given rise to gig-economy industries like Uber are the reason we creatives feel constant pressure to monetize our joys. But the sad fact of side-hustling and trying to survive in this gig economy is spelled out quite plainly when Kate turns to a more philosophical analysis of what’s going on:

People don’t get rich as Uber drivers. They evade poverty as Uber drivers.

And while many entrepreneurs toil at night and on weekends until they’re able to quit a day job, that situation illuminates the difficulty of changing careers and starting a business, and it is simply not feasible for many people responsible for childcare or already working several jobs in order to make enough money to live.

Performing whatever paid work is available is sometimes a necessary step to literally surviving, and working on a passion project in one’s free time can help launch a new career. Neither situation is aspirational. Both belie an economic system that is not designed to lift masses out of poverty, but rather one that both creates and maintains poverty. “We are proud that Airbnb has become an economic lifeline for the middle class,” an Airbnb report boasts, without acknowledging the dire subtext of the statement: that the middle class is grasping for lifelines.

The whole article warrants a read, so go read the full article here.

Why Are Young People Pretending To Love Work by Erin Griffith

Arguably, the technology industry started this culture of work zeal sometime around the turn of the millennium, when the likes of Google started to feed, massage and even play doctor to its employees. The perks were meant to help companies attract the best talent — and keep employees at their desks longer. It seemed enviable enough: Who wouldn’t want an employer that literally took care of your dirty laundry?

But today, as tech culture infiltrates every corner of the business world, its hymns to the virtues of relentless work remind me of nothing so much as Soviet-era propaganda, which promoted impossible-seeming feats of worker productivity to motivate the labor force. One obvious difference, of course, is that those Stakhanovite posters had an anticapitalist bent, criticizing the fat cats profiting from free enterprise. Today’s messages glorify personal profit, even if bosses and investors — not workers — are the ones capturing most of the gains. Wage growth has been essentially stagnant for years.

Read the full article here.

Joy should not be optimized, monetized, or organized—unless you want to.

Your hobbies don’t have to make money—unless you want them to.

Give yourself permission to have something that you like to do that exists outside the confines of the dire economic conditions that we are trying to raise happy, healthy children in.

And as a closing thought, here’s my personal take on that dumb quip about doing what you love and never having to work:

Don’t let your work affect your joys, and don’t let your joys become work.


Housekeeping

  • This newsletter is a passion of mine, so I’m not looking to make money on it. Ever.

  • I’ll probably stick to this short-essay-then-three-articles format in the future.

  • Since this is a passion project, I don’t want to operate on a set schedule.

Have a great week, okay?

-JL

Dealing with criticism.

Dealing with criticism is exponentially easier the longer you are a creator, but it's still tough to sit with sometimes.

Being a creator means learning how to cope with self-doubt, and for someone who hasn't developed a thick skin for it, criticism is going to exacerbate those feelings—like gasoline on a fire.

Criticism is something that everyone does, even if they might not mean to, and something everyone experiences, even if they might not want to.

It's safe to say that we creators are especially sensitive to criticism. I know for me one of my most vulnerable states in life is waiting for someone, most often my wife, to finish reading something I wrote. Even though I should be reminding myself that, from experience, she'll likely enjoy it, there's still that looming shadow behind me, that question in the back of my mind, that keeps saying, "What am I doing… Is she going to hate this… Is she going to think I am an awful writer now… Why are you doing this... You're not a good writer..." And so on, and so on.

I guess you could say that even with the people closest to us—including ourselves—we can still feel this impulse toward self-doubt. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because of the responses we are expecting to get; I think it's because most people never learn how to offer constructive feedback.

When offering criticism, people talk about what they like and don't like. That's largely to be expected, especially if you're creating entertainment—which by its nature is designed to entertain, and if it doesn't, people will react negatively to it. This is sometimes painful because no one wants to hear that the thing they've spent so much time and energy on is garbage—and that's a lot of pressure we're putting on whoever close to us we've shared our work with, even if they are creators themselves.

But it's not just creators who are sensitive to negative criticism—everyone is. That's because there is a human component to all this: we are biologically designed to react to negative situations with anxiety.

Before we explore that, though, let's step back and talk about what's going on behind the scenes when someone offers criticism.

Deconstructing criticism.

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

—Normal Vincent Peale

Criticism is a form of feedback that itself tries to deconstruct the why and how of what you’re doing. In a way, any form of feedback on your work is some type of valuation of its contribution to the culture of a society.

However, feedback from one person will usually be highly individual. Sometimes feedback will have societal implications, sure, but unless your reviewer is an academic, ninety-nine percent of feedback will be grounded in the individual tastes of that one person.

Recall that the value of our work can only be set by other people; you can’t provide a valuation of a social artifact that you created—but remember, all valuations are highly individualistic—and since these valuations are highly individual, it would be appropriate to assume that the general reception of your work will be evenly distributed at the very least.

Of course, when you’re first starting out it can feel like you’re only getting one end of that spectrum. Where are the reviews? Where are the people speaking fondly of your work? They’re out there, don’t worry. You just have to be patient. This is the age of the internet; as long as you are putting your work out there, someone somewhere will find it. (You could always work on marketing your work to a larger audience, too. Capitalism instills impatience in us when it comes to our art, and we have to consciously keep the impulse to move faster and faster at bay).

This isn't always the case in the beginning when we're starting out. Some people get lucky and run into the half of the world who loves their work before they get bombarded with the people who don't.

That's definitely not me. I have always had a slew of negativity in the beginnings of my projects. It's to the point now where I just expect that the initial feedback I’ll get on a project will be negative. At this point, I am so used to rude comments and downvotes and baseless criticism that when it doesn't happen, I get suspicious. It's almost like if I don't encounter a bunch of roadblocks and people who are overly critical of my work, I think I'm doing something wrong.

One could argue that this has helped me along the way. I have an easy signpost to follow when I am unsure about myself or my work, even if those signposts are, ironically, people telling or implying to me that my work is garbage.

The important thing to remember here is that everyone's experience will be different. I always hear that luck is a factor; I guess I am just an unlucky person.

So a good way to look at it, at least for me, is that all of the years and years of people not liking my work for whatever reason has given me years and years of learning how to let the really bad comments roll off me and how to pick apart the other ones so that I at least have a takeaway or two. And remember that some criticism won't teach you anything about you or your work, but it will teach you about the person doing the criticizing.

Another way to look at this is through the lens of video game design. In a video game, how do you know you’re going in the right direction? You encounter obstacles, and more importantly, you interact with people who don’t want you to continue.

In games we might call them enemies, but in the reality of your world as a creator, the people who want to see you fail are not so concerned with what or that you’re creating, they’re concerned with the fact that they just encountered someone who is one level ahead of them in the arcade of life.

You are the creator—you are creating something from nothing—and, well, they resent you for doing that.

Do you know how I know this? Because no one who is a creator themselves would negatively criticize another creator’s work—unless, of course, they’re projecting their insecurities onto someone else (which is an entirely human thing to do).

Criticism, then, is not the type of negative scorn that you might have come to expect from years of experiencing it that way. Instead, it is honest feedback that you can learn something from. If you can’t learn anything from the feedback, then it’s not criticism—it’s just someone’s opinion. Simple as that.

You must teach yourself to differentiate between criticism—real, useful feedback—and someone projecting their own insecurities onto you—real, useless feedback. Projecting insecurities is something both creators and non-creators will do, and unfortunately, you’re going to encounter this a lot. Maybe you’re encountering it right now, today. It’s a function of being human and it’s especially prevalent among people who have never worked really hard on their emotional intelligence.

Learning from any criticism—the good and the bad.

“Be an encourager. The world has plenty of critics already.”

—Dave Willis

If you are receiving criticism or when you do (because you will, I promise) it can be frustrating how strongly it can affect your emotions and infect your thoughts. But while not being affected by criticism is impossible, we can learn to stop being so affected by it, and we can do this by encountering it head-on.

Get your work finished.

Get it out there.

Get it in front of people.

Get those negative experiences out of the way so you can make room for the positive ones.

Once we encounter criticism head-on we can start to focus on the human components of criticism—and master the art of dealing with it effectively.

Thanks to the way we have evolved, our minds have an increased capacity to recognize and be aware of harmful things due to a phenomenon called the negativity bias. We are hardwired to place greater emphasis on situations and conditions that resulted in negative feelings than ones that produced positive ones.

Our minds are hardwired for survival—and avoiding negative situations and conditions was essential to survival for our ancestors.

Remind yourself that of course we respond with anxiety and fear when someone is negative or mean or rude about our work—our brains are hard-wired to put a big red stamp on that experience so that we can more quickly classify future experiences as threatening or nonthreatening.

It’s just a tool—a primal response mechanism that we will never be able to change.

And since this visceral reaction is just a tool, we must begin to think about it as something we can learn to control and even use in our favor.

How can we do that?

The first step is to determine where the criticism is coming from. Is this a fellow creator? Or is this just a random person on the internet? Who is offering the criticism should greatly impact how much you care about it. If it's just a random person online, they might be one of the many people in this life who define their worth by their judgment and review of things that other people—like you—have the courage to create and share. On the contrary, if this is someone who also creates things, are they really trying to help you, or are they projecting insecurities about their own work?

Determining where the criticism is coming from will help with the next step, which is to determine what the criticism is for. Is someone criticizing something you made? Or are they criticizing you directly? If your first response is to feel hurt by what they said, it may be because they themselves are hurting inside, and they're projecting their insecurities about themselves, their own work, and their lives onto you and your work. If someone is criticizing you personally because of a creation that you shared with them, the only response they deserve is this: "I'm sorry you don't like yourself."

You may also have some room to grow if you feel like people are attacking you directly but they are actually only talking about your work. The tricky part about this is that there are two perpendicular forces that will sometimes clash with each other:

  • On the one hand, we have people who have never learned how to give good, constructive criticism without attacking someone personally or offending them

  • On the other hand, we have creators who are sensitive people by nature and who have yet to practice the art of separating criticism of one’s work from criticism of oneself

Since we can only control ourselves in this world, our only hope is to 1) practice recognizing when someone is projecting, and 2) focus on divorcing our sense of self from our creations.

It will take practice, but over time, this will become second nature to you. Once you can determine whether or not someone thrives on negativity in this life by defining their worth in this world by their reactions to other people’s creations, you can save a lot of time and energy by not engaging with them.

The final step in learning how to control our reaction to criticism is to constantly remind ourselves that there is more to you than your creations. You are an incredibly complex human being, and your work is only a small glimpse into a very thin sliver of who you are. I’ve said before that our work is our way of expressing ourselves—but that doesn't mean our creations can express all of ourselves. No, our creations are just little envelopes of self-expression, pieces of us that we have chosen to share with the world.

And so when it comes to people in life who constantly have to have an opinion about everything, who are constantly shooting down the hard work of others, now you can see just how sad those people are. The thing they choose to share about themselves with the world is their sad, lonely, and self-loathing perception of themselves, and that’s disappointing.

If you really want to emphasize this point, take a step back and look at how much more courage and strength you have shown by choosing to express yourself through your creations instead of negative comments about other people and their creations.

Be proud of yourself for transcending that simple worldview—that something is bad just because you don't like it.

Remember also that some people are just jealous that you have done this thing and they cannot. The price of success is to bear the criticism of envy. Remember that.

Ideally, you'll follow these steps and find someone who has been in your shoes that offers constructive criticism on something you made. That's what I would like to see happen but I can tell you, having been creating different things for many years, usually what I get is negative criticism and sometimes it's targeted directly at me.

And to be honest, sometimes people call out my work for having something that really is bad. Some of the reviews on my first fiction novel, Burrow, pointed out that there were some typos and grammatical mistakes in the first few pages. Imagine how I felt, here with a Master's in English and as someone who is trying to be proud of my developing skills as a writer, learning that I published a book with a bunch of typos. It's embarrassing. It’s hurtful.

It’s a shot of energy for those negative thoughts about myself and my work that I have worked so hard to restrain.

But mistakes like that, even if they are shown to me through negative criticism, only give me opportunities to improve. I love when people tell me how I am doing something wrong—as long as I can ask them questions about what they think "doing it right" looks like. Obviously for typos and grammar mistakes, those are just things I had to go back, find, fix, and republish (it's a Kindle book, thankfully, and I have the only print copy).

And yes, that hard-copy is full of typos. And you know what? I make sure to keep it in a prominent spot on my desk at home to remind me that it's okay to be proud of something that is or was flawed to you at some point in time. Maybe it still is. Whatever. The important thing to remember is that it’s okay to be proud of your hard work—no matter what the outcome was.

The journey is always more important, especially when you’re still finding your voice and developing your craft.

In my case, the negative comments were basically a road-map for me to follow, a checklist of what I needed to do to get my creations from good to great. It is my hope that when you encounter criticism, you'll keep these things in mind so that the energy you spend on it is productive and healthy.

Keep creating. Keep going forward. You can cross the river even if the current feels overly strong, even if you have to spend a little time learning how to build a bridge first.

So to recap:

  • Negative criticism is to be expected. It means you're going in the right direction.

  • Is the person criticizing you or your work? If it's you, brush them off—they're trying to make you feel like they feel (which is insecure). If it's your work, ask questions and see if you can find something to put in your toolbox.

  • Remind yourself that you're strong and courageous for sharing pieces of yourself with the world through your creations.


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Relapse and control.

When relapse happens, what can we learn from it?

It’s snowing in Chico, CA, something that has never happened for as long as I have lived here.

Sometimes I think the universe is telling me things.

Relapse and control.

I have been working on my story for a while and for the whole month of January I had a good thing going. I have a notepad that I keep all my evolving ideas on; I have a nightly routine where I sit in one of the kids’ rooms at night while they’re falling asleep (after stories and tucking them in) and work on my story. Generally I was getting about 300-1500 words every night.

Then it happened.

I relapsed.

I’m not talking about alcohol; I haven’t had a drink in about 2 years. No, this is something much worse for me. This is the relapse of control, of something that has plagued me for all of my adult life.

Projecting hopping and hyperfocus.

I am not diagnosed with ADD nor am I diagnosed with ASD but my wife swears that I have both. The more I read about the symptoms of both together in my brain the more I find myself getting really upset with myself. Not in a bad way, just in a—I don’t know, disappointed way? Disappointed that I could be so susceptible to impulses out of my control?

Judith Kolberg wrote on additude.com that because the ADHD is “motivated by the search for optimal stimulation,” it’s common for those affected to oscillate from a project you’re working on right now into another one—sometimes without you even realizing you’re doing it until you’re too exhausted to go back.

Why?

Generating ideas and seeing the potential of things produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can keep you mentally engaged when you might otherwise be unmotivated.”

It is the hallmark of an idealist that we will obsess about the future and what could be, rather than focusing on the now and what is.

This must be why I am constantly drawn away from my writing and toward things that are new, that cause me to think about new things in a new way and are refreshingly un-thought about.

Knowing that this is caused by some chemical dependency in my brain is bittersweet. On the one had I am disappointed in myself because a) I am beholden to drives that I cannot control, and b) I relapsed after all the hard work I have done.

But on the other hand, I have all the puzzles pieces in front of me to start feeling proud of myself.

It’s not about me relapsing, it’s about the fact that I recognized what I was doing and stopped myself from continuing.

It’s not about switching projects or project hopping, it’s that before I got too hyperfocused on the new thing and disengaged from the old thing I managed to stop and break the cycle.

Pain is progress.

At the risk of regurgitating the old saying we had back in the Marines—that pain is weakness leaving the body—there is growth in this pain. I am disappointed that I relapsed but proud of myself that I have caught it.

There is a fundamental truth to this life that everything exists with its opposite. In other words, the yin and yang of all things coexists to create the human experience. Maybe I had to get to a point where I became disappointed in myself to show me that I am ready to be proud of myself.

In this relapse I have discovered a capacity to stay focused on my writing—something that I didn’t know I had, that I didn’t trust I was able to exercise until now. In a way, this relapse was a good thing for me.

I am learning to trust that the value I want others to put on my writing is a value that I have to have on it myself.

I have permission to be proud of myself.

Being proud of something I have created has always been something hard for me to do. My wife once told me that it might be natural since I don’t consciously set out to make something sub-par; when someone says, “Hey this is really good,” instead of smiling and feeling good about myself, I get suspicious of myself and think, “Of course it’s good—it’s not like I was trying to make garbage over here.”

My desire to pivot to other projects can be seen at the biological level as a constant yearning for dopamine. It’s an impulsivity that has taken hold of my conscious desires and meddled with how I want to spend my time creating. Taking a step back, it’s clear to me now that my relapse is a symptom of the real problems:

  • My brain has been wired to consider anything I do worthless

  • My feelings have been wired to consider writing a fun thing which means it can’t be hard work

That it took a relapse to come to terms with this is the bittersweet realization that I needed. I’m not sure what I am going to do with it yet; maybe I’m not supposed to know.

The first step to managing a problem is being able to mention it. A counselor friend of mine once said, “If you can mention it, you can manage it.” Maybe this really is the first step on a new mountain of personal growth. I certainly hope so.

It makes sense to me that my constant project hopping is a function of my need for attention. Not attention like how one might see a social media personality living day and night by their follower and subscriber counts—nothing like that.

What I’m talking about is root psychological training that began in my childhood.

Rezzan Hussey wrote on artofwellbeing.com that when children are raised by narcissists there is a laundry list of things that will have to be unlearned.

She mentions three things that we have to teach ourselves how to do:

  • Grieving for the loss of the parent figure you never had

  • Developing and accepting your own identity

  • Asking for what you need and saying ‘no’ to what you don’t

  • Avoiding overcompensating

  • Selecting secure romantic partners

It’s okay for me to recognize that I never had the parents that other, happy kids grew up with.

It’s okay for me to give myself permission to be a writer—to let that be my identity, no matter what that means. (The important part is that I am honest with myself and how I see myself).

It’s okay for me to communicate openly with what I want. I am very good at this; I believe communication is the key to good relationships. Where I need to focus my energy is in learning to say ‘no.’ I have gotten a little better in my professional life, though I can still feel the urge to jump in and save everyone whenever their projects go awry. It is in my personal relationships that I have the hardest time pushing back.

It’s okay for me to not be good at something. I don’t know why I always have to be amazing at everything. I tell myself that it’s because the human experience is so rich and wonderful that it would behoove everyone to try every form of self-expression, but the truth is I don’t think I can stomach not being the most amazing person in a room. I don’t know why.

It’s okay for me to be happy and secure with someone, and I don’t need dramatic outbursts and unmanageable emotional turmoil in my personal relationships just to replicate the conditions of my childhood. I found that in my wife; she is everything I could have ever asked for in a friend and partner, and I make sure to tell her how much I appreciate her every day.

There are many ways that I can see growth in my life. Since I stopped drinking alcohol there has been a lot of cleaning out the proverbial closet. Today is a time where I finally got a chance to look back and see just how much of this closet I’ve cleaned out.

Just because my parents were never proud of me doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be proud of myself.

Embracing my relapse as proof of growth.

It sounds counter-intuitive without context, I know, but I think considering my relapse as a test is helpful. I almost slipped painfully back into my old cyclical behavior of hyperfocusing on a project, distracting myself from what I’m currently working on, and eventually dragging myself back to my writing after being so exhausted from a dopamine-fueled multi-week bender that I have to reconsider my life and all the choices I made up to the point where I lost focus.

I’m not like that anymore. That’s what I have learned with this relapse and subsequent retaking of control.

It is a sign that I am becoming comfortable admitting to myself that writing is hard work, that by being a writer I am a hard worker—and most importantly, I write well.

I have spent so much time trying to get other people to recognize this, and just now coming to terms with this fact for myself is a new feeling for me. I have to unlearn what I learned about myself in my childhood—that I’ll never be good enough, I’ll never do something that will make my parents proud, that I don’t even know what the concept of supportive and loving parents even means.

In other words, I am giving myself permission to finally admit that my writing is hard work, that my writing is good work, and that I and I alone have the capacity to be a writer full-time.

Closing on a series finale.

I want to end this by talking about a great series finale I watched last night. The show is called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a lighthearted comedy centered around a woman who was kidnapped and lived in a bunker for a long time, then has to rebuild herself in the world—whatever that “self” may be. Throughout the show she ends up writing a book and, during the series finale, her search for her sense of self culminates in the form of a boy who approaches her as she welcomes families onto a theme park ride based around her book. The kid says, “Your books make me feel safe,” and at that moment you can see in it ‘click’ for Kimmy.

That’s who she is. All this time it was right there. She is a writer, and writers can make a difference.

That’s who I am. All this time it has been right there. I am a writer, and writers can make a difference.

-Jesse

People and things I talked about.

Creating valuable things.

Can we make "worthless" things?

I can't think of a single thing I have ever worked on that did not at some point involve me abandoning it at least once because I knew that since I didn't like it, no one would like it.

Sometimes that involved me abandoning the project forever. Okay, a lot of the time that involves me abandoning the project forever. Speaking with a colleague today, a woman who herself is trying to finish one of a dozen stories she’s been working on over the years, it seems that abandonment of our ideas is a necessary ode to the spirit of what being a writer is.

Writer’s write, or so they say. I mean, we do, don’t we?

So then what causes us to abandon something we’re writing? Why do I throw up my hands and shake my head and slog myself away to my kitchen table, wondering solemnly why I just spent all of my free time for days, weeks, sometimes months, trying to shape and mold absolute garbage?

The terms of our agreement.

People who say they are writing a story are bound the terms of agreement of being a writer. The first clause is this:

Doubt. By becoming an author you hereby agree to doubt everything you say, think, and write.

What does doubt do to us?

I get a spark of an idea and then pour myself into it. I mean really pour myself in there. When it comes to hyperfocus, I am a grandmaster champion.

I’ll work hard on an idea for anywhere between three days to three months, and then once it starts to become work I do the thing I always do and I abandon it.

No more dopamine, apparently. Moving on. Next disappointing endeavor.

Normally I would have expected something like this to be an outward reflection of an inward struggle with my own sense of my value in this world. In other words, if I considered myself to be value-less in this life, how could something I make be value-able?

You can see the underlying fallacy in all this, right?

Here’s how I interpreted it a few months ago:

It sure makes it easy to abandon the project, doesn't it?

See, I don't think we really think the world is or even would be sick of what we're making. I think when we are talking about whether our art is worthless the world, what we're really saying that that since we ourselves feel worthless to the world, how can what we create possibly have any value?

Whoa, whoa, Jesse. Worthless? Really? When I say that we're worthless, what I'm saying is that we, singular human beings, have no intrinsic worth to anyone. I am a sack of meat and bones and that's it. Just like you.

It is only when you combine this sack of meat and bones with conscious action that you begin to have something to ascribe value to: the result of my actions.

Doubt is such a tricky thing. You know that it’s there, you even train to not have it bother you, but then you realize all of your actions (and inactions) are because doubt was in your mind.

I do think there is something to be learned from my naive analysis of my situation—the situation being not able to ascribe value to my writing. I wanted to be proud of what I wrote; I want to step away from a page and say, “This is good stuff.”

I’m getting there. I really am. I can recognize how my past interpretation of my circumstances were more depressing than they are today. This is why it’s important to journal like this; this is why it’s imperative that we go back to what we said before and reflect on how we have grown since then.

Also, if you don’t have a way to blog and you would like a way to blog, please let me know. I will help get you setup with a free solution so that you can write and reflect. I want to help you. Let me help you.

At this point in my journey toward being proud of myself and what I write, I have lassoed doubt and have it under control. It still wiggles free every now and then, but for the most part I am able to regain control before too much damage is done.

The philosophy of worthless art.

How can something made through an avenue of self-expression be “worthless,” when there is no objective measurement of human experience?

If aliens from another dimension came into this reality to study humans, love and loss, happiness and sadness, pain and comfort would all be equal on the spectrum of experience—they would be on opposite poles, sure, but there is no good or bad or up or down, they just exist further from the center of the universe, where there is no feeling, no consciousness. Nothing.

There is a lot to be said about how we ascribe value to things, and whether or not we ourselves can ascribe value on something we create.

I have come to believe that my purpose in this life may not be the assign value to anything. Rather, I am here to create new things from nothing, to tell stories, to create social artifacts—to weave articulations of the human experience into entertainment for others to consume, for others to ascribe value to.

Value is personal. The consumption of art is personal. Value is created when art is consumed.

So why can we possess the feeling of our work having no value? How is it possible that we can come to believe that what we create is worthless?

Old me thought it had a lot to do with the society we live in. That’s where the rest of this picks up.

How our creations get value.

When I choose to do things, I generate something that others can derive value from. That value can be emotional or spiritual, or even tangible, monetary. But I don't get to define the value of my actions—that's us mistakenly trying to translate how a company evaluates the price of a product to how we ascribe value interpersonally. It's what capitalism teaches us to do when we have goods or services to sell; it's what we learned about in school: supply and demand are inversely proportional and we ought to price our products according to some sweet spot derived from a marketing analysis.

But if all that were true for our creations, then there wouldn't be so many people struggling with whether or not their work is worthless—and a lot less people would be worrying about whether they themselves are worthless or not.

If the only lens we have to inspect our creations is a capitalist lens, then of course our work is worthless and of course we are worthless because we don't have any tools other than demand to measure our value, and there won't be any demand before the project is done—there can't be, because there's no supply to demand!

Here's another way to think of it: we're trying to ascribe a measurement that is the product of an economic system on something that transcends economic systems. You can buy someone's art, but regardless of whether it's ephemeral or lasts until the end of humanity, you cannot purchase nor can you control how a creation influences its audience.

For that reason, you cannot tell me that your creations are worthless because you aren't the person who can make that valuation.

Here's the thing, though: I think deep down we already know this. I think we know full well that our work can't be bad until its done, and so we tell people, we tell ourselves, "Oh, I'm working in it," or "it's still just a draft," or "it's not ready."

What we're really doing is selling failure to ourselves—we give ourselves permission to quit—and do you know why?

Because what if we're right?

What if we do finish that project and what if we do put it out there for our friends and family to see and what if they all hate it?

What if our self-doubts and criticisms were right this whole time?

Isn't it funny how crippling that one question can be? What if we're right—about our work, about ourselves...

Ironically, this way of thinking is perfectly normal. In fact, if you didn't second-guess yourself constantly I would think something's wrong with you as a creator. But you know exactly what I'm talking about don't you? And you know where this is going:

If we never finish what we started, we never have to come to terms with the fact that anywhere between one and seven-and-a-half billion people will not find value in our work.

Seven and a half billion people are on this Earth, and new ones are being born each and every day. Why is this important?

Because if you honestly believe not a single person on this planet now or in the future will be moved by your work—will find value in your creations—then you're absolutely delusional.

It's a statistical improbability!

Statistically, it's more likely that you will be struck by lightning while being attacked by a bear who is also being struck by lightning and attacked by a bear than your art not have a positive impact on at least one person, somewhere, sometime.

So you don't get to say whether your art has value or not; you don't get to say whether something you're making is worthless or not, because art is about self-expression and despite what capitalism wants us to believe, you can't really monetize true expression of the self. And you can't ascribe worth to your own art because you are the one who created that social artifact, so it's no longer yours to control. It's a social artifact now, and its time for it to serve its purpose—to serve art's purpose.

We creators have an incessant need to create things. Why? I have no idea, but what I do know is that all the hours and frustration and pain and exhaustion all makes sense when you think about one person—just one person, somewhere out there, at some point in time—who haphazardly stumbles on your creation as they're on the precipice of a dark cliff that has been beckoning them for days, weeks, even years.

How powerful your creation has become that this person can forget about that dark cliff, those looming shadows that they've been trying to distract themselves from.

How powerful art is that it can walk us back from the edge, give purpose to our lives again, and allow us to reframe the world and our experiences in it through lenses we may have never thought to use before.

It can even be much simpler than that. Maybe someone read your story, or glanced at your drawing, or touched your sculpture, or played your game, or heard your music, and maybe the total time they spent with your creation was less than a minute. Does that mean your creation is worthless?

Well here's an exercise: think of something right now that someone did or said or made that passed through your life at some point in the past.

Now, let me ask you this: Do you remember it? Do you think about it, even though you don't know why? Has it affected you in some way, even minutely?

Why do these things stick to our minds?

Maybe no one knows, but I do know that your work is doing the same thing. It absolutely is, which is why it is paramount that you get your work finished, get it out there in the world—in any way you can.

The only thing worse than bad art is art that was never finished. Remember that. Anyone can start something and quit. But not you. You will finish. You have to—because it's what creators do. 

And you know what's amazing about all of this? We might never know who we make an impact on. The information age has made it possible for us to produce art and put it out there for the world to consume. Take this newsletter. I have no idea who is going to be reading this in the future, but I do know there is some impact that I am making, positive or negative, purely from the act of experiencing it.

By the time you are reading this, I am Past Jesse and you are my Future Reader. Isn’t that crazy? If Present Jesse were to talk with you now, it might not even be the same person—hence why I think it’s so important that I do this newsletter. You may not connect with Present Jesse in the way that you would with Past Jesse (the Jesse typing this right now).

There is always something going on when someone experiences someone else's creation, but chances are, I'll never meet you. I'll never know what kind of an impact I had on you, positive or negative, and you know what? That's okay with me, because I know that I have to have made some kind of impact on at least one other human being.

And if that doesn't drive us to continue to create, to push past our self-imposed obstacles, then what are we doing?

Our charge in this life is not to hunt for a valuation of our creations as means of extrinsic validation, it's to come to terms with the fact that our creations have no worth to us—they are not for us to consume. Our creations are for others; we create to add to the culture of our time and times that come after us, contributing in a way that makes the most sense to us—by creating new things.

Of course, speaking philosophically and waxing poetic is nice and all when you have the economic means to do so. For some of us, though, our art is our trade and it pays the bills; we can't be sitting around pontificating about the altruistic contributions we've made to future generations because we need to feed ourselves and our families now in this generation.

That being said, if you're trying to navigate artistic value in a commodities-based economy, you have to sacrifice some of your own desires for self-expression sometimes so that you are generating art to the specifications of paying customers. Alternatively you may have a day job like most of us, which means you are not bound to create things through the filters of those who pay you. Either way, it’s challenging but we cope with it. We get through it. We get our stuff made and out there for others.

Sometimes we need to just pay the bills. We all go through it. But this doesn't have to be a bad thing; giving yourself permission to work according to what someone else considers valuable is an easy way to start feeling comfortable with the art you're creating, and a streamlined way to get extrinsic validation for your effort.

But remember, the pursuit of extrinsic validation is fine when you're talking about earning money to live off of, but extrinsic motivation is a toxic and self-destructive force. Always, always, always make sure you're working for the right reasons—and for the love of everything in this universe, never stop creating.

Hating what you just wrote.

Everyone hates what they make. At some point, at least. The trick is to convince yourself that it's normal.

It doesn't matter if you're a writer, or a painter, or a sketch artist, or even a game designer. A fundamental truth about being a creative person is that at some point you will, 100% guaranteed, look at something you’re creating and hate it.

Does this ever sound like you?

To add to the misery, you might even share something that you know you should be proud of with a significant other or a friend—knowing, somewhat subconsciously, that they're not going to hate it, but then assuming they're lying to you when they actually tell you they like it or that they're excited to see where it goes.

And then, to add misery to the misery already added, you, like me, possess the common sense necessary to see how utterly ridiculous it is to think and feel this way.

The truth is, everyone hates what they make. At some point, at least. And anyone who says they don't absolutely hate what they are making at some point is either

  • lying to you,

  • lying to themselves, or

  • a little bit of both.

When I find myself hating what I just wrote, I start reflecting on my feelings and try to get my finger on what specifically is causing me to feel this way. For me, it has to do with making decisions about my story.

Reaching a “Pull Point”

I don’t start hating something until I get to what I call a pull point.

What I envision when I am writing are specific points in my script or draft where the characters are being pulled forward through the plot by their choices and actions. These are the decision points that characters are up against, the things that define who they are and, ultimately, what kind of story this is going to be.

It is in these moments where I am having to make these massive, irreversible decisions about my story that the writing loses its romantic quality. It starts to feel like work, and instead of getting to enjoy the play, I’m mired in the details of set design that I take me out of that euphoric state of flow.

In other words, it starts to feel like work, and once it starts to feel like work, my brain wants nothing to do with it.

I think a lot of people are this way because we grew up fantasizing about becoming an author and writing for a living, and then anytime something like actually writing comes along and dispels the illusion that we've grown comfortable with, we avoid it.

We want to cling to the idea of what writing was to us as we imagined being a prolific writer—not the realities of how hard and exhausting good writing is.

Whether or not you are subconsciously holding on to some fantasy of what you think writing is, all writers, when they're starting out, fall into the trap of thinking writing should always be this beautifully magical activity where creativity pours in like sunlight after a light summer rain and you are writing away like madness in the corner of your house.

That does happen, but by and large, writing is one thing and one thing only: its work.

Writing is work. Writing is hard work. Writing is frustrating, challenging, depressing, and exhausting work—and yet, ironically, we still feel a need to do it.

We feel compelled to create, and although we cannot stop that incessant drive for creativity, what we can control is our expectations—both of our writing and of ourselves. 

What To Expect When You’re Expecting Garbage

It's a fairly common saying that the first draft of anything is garbage, so why don’t we believe it?

The whole “first drafts are shit” quip is easy to read and say, but not so easy to digest for those of us in the throes of a good flow. I used to have “first drafts are shit so just get it over with” printed out and taped to the wall next to where I do most of my writing, and yet a really exciting idea that has been brewing all morning that turns into pages and pages of “productive” output will, almost certainly, turn into me hating what I just wrote.

BUT THIS IS NORMAL. You are supposed to hate your first draft; that’s why it’s called a draft!

When you are just starting to chip away at a story, it's not whether the writing is good or bad that matters, it's whether your premise is believable or not.

Your story is like a statue that you are going to make out of a block of soapstone. At this phase of sculpting your story, you are only putting together big fat blocks of soapstone. You're not carving yet, so of course your big bunch of rocks is not going to look like a completed, polished statue.

When you look at your draft, it's not going to invoke the emotion that you are hoping it does once it's completed.

And do you know why?

Because it's not completed yet!

Even if you draw in great detail what you want the statue to eventually look like, you aren't going to be able to see and feel the end result until you spend an enormous amount of time chipping away at the thing, piece by piece, and then polish it like crazy.

Writing is hard work because we can't begin sculpting our story until we have the words to start sculpting, and we can't have the words to start sculpting until we write them.

We have to have words in order to sculpt a story!

No one cares what the sculptor's soapstone looks like before the statue is chiseled out, nor does anyone even think about how much stone was trimmed and shaped and from where. 

The only thing that matters is your vision of what your art is going to look like once it's done.

Until you’re able to start sculpting, you have to keep adding rock, and adding rock, and adding rock, making sure to have a lump in the general shape of what you envision it to become eventually.

If your first draft is getting all the stone together, then rewriting is the painfully beautiful act of chiseling out a statue.

We need to practice telling ourselves that it’s okay to like the premise and not the method; as long as we believe in the story we are telling, we can forget about how we are telling it until the whole thing is complete. Not liking what we're writing means we can both accept that the writing needed to be done and that the writing needs to be rewritten eventually.

Managing our expectations of our story while it’s still being written means being okay with garbage for a while. It’s going to be garbage forever, just long enough to get the whole story down. Sculpting cannot begin until the base rock is there.

This is a skill that non-creatives simply do not have, and is a huge factor in differentiating between art, craft, and the art of crafting when it comes to storytelling.

Someone who hates what they wrote is someone who has everything they need to write something good.

The difference between someone who has written something good and someone who has written something bad is that the person who wrote something good reworked and reworked and reworked and chiseled away and shaped and polished that thing until it resembled what they envisioned it to be.

I’ll bet you know people who always talk about the great statue they’re going to create but never grab that chisel and start sculpting. There are whole industries designed around self-help for people who like to pretend they will one day be a content creator. In writing communities specifically, there are A) people who want to have written a book, and B) people who want to write a book.

Be the latter. Commit yourself to the process of writing, and not the end result. Forget about what it will be like once your book is done, and instead focus on what it will be like being an actual writer: sitting down, every day, and focusing on your work. That’s the only difference between a creator an a non-creator: a creator creates.

You shouldn't like what you wrote at the beginning—that's normal—because the statue you're sculpting isn't supposed to look like a block of soapstone; it's supposed to look like a statue, and our first draft is just the words that make up that block of soapstone.

Community Support

Twitter can be a great place to find little nuggets of motivation, especially when you find other creators. The anxieties and insecurities of being a creator are not isolated feelings; we all feel these things. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like we’re not alone.

I really like what @SmokingHamlet says about praise feeling like feathers:

When it comes to the irony of our lives, @authormbdavis figured it out:

Finally, I’d like to share Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive:

Click here to buy this fantastic journey from depression to bestseller (hey, that sounds familiar!) today from Amazon.

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