Can I make money from this?

Trying to understand the origin of my irritating default way of thinking about projects.

As the past week has gone, you know what I’ve come to realise? That in everything that I do in my free time, I seem to have a compulsive need to believe that at some point I’ll be able to make money from it.

This mentality eats into everything; I’d wake up early to write, only to sometimes spend half the time reflecting on how I’m going to make this newsletter into a business while simultaneously making myself feel bad about spending time reflecting because it doesn’t make money. It’s insane!

I’ve also noticed that many people’s hobbies have a trajectory that points directly at making money. A friend who was stitching for fun is now sourcing materials to make a batch for sale. Another who was drawing cute animal postcards for friends is now actively peddling them on social media.

I blogged for 7 years for fun (i.e. never for money), but am now writing this newsletter that has paid subscriptions turned on.

In my kitchen, I can’t bake oatmeal cookies without at least considering making them for sale at some point, especially if they are popular with my wife and friends.

As with problematic things, I think it’s time to put this compulsion under the microscope and examine what is going on.

Why do I think this way?

Why do I believe that every extra-employment endeavour, with sports as perhaps the only exception, should be at least in part about making money?

Here’s a list of potential reasons that I can think of:

  • I need more money now because I’m not earning enough through regular employment.
  • I need more money soon because I need to provide for my child and it doesn’t seem likely that I will be if I don’t make more money in the future.
  • I am not receiving praise or love or appreciation from people and therefore I am seeking replacements via money and the social status it accords.
  • I am reading too much, directly or indirectly, about business and hustle culture and it is affecting my ability to think outside of those terms.
  • I believe that making money is a strong indicator that I am providing value and making an impact in this world.
  • Reframing the previous point: I want to be useful, and to be useful in a world of capitalism, I believe I have to be doing something that people are willing to pay for.
  • I cannot think logically and instead am led purely by emotions, which are being manipulated by the myriad forces of advertising and media.
  • I just like the thought of having plenty of cash in the bank so I have the option to do whatever I want, whenever I want, even though I know every money-making device takes time to build and maintain, which would leave me time-poorer while becoming wealth-richer.
  • I am stuck in a job that I dislike and I want to secure a second stream of income that I have near full control over so that I have the option of leaving the job and going full-time into entrepreneurship.

Some of the reasons above are true, while others are clearly false. But even among those that are true, they are only true in the sense that it is representative of the way I think. They are not necessarily logically, irrefutably true.

For example, I do associate the usefulness of something with the money that it can generate. But an investment banker at Credit Suisse isn’t necessarily more useful to society than a nurse at the local hospital, even though the former gets paid truckloads more. So that’s faulty thinking and it needs to be corrected.

And what about aspiring towards be-my-own-boss entrepreneurship and freeing myself from the “shackles” of employment? That one is easy to refute — one just needs to talk to a friend who is running her own business to know how beholden they are to their customers and the social media algorithms, and how that might actually feel worse. Nat Eliason’s recent newsletter post lands the punch:

How to Get Insanely Rich in the Creator Economy
Congratulations! You’ve done it. By starting this article, you’ve taken the first step towards becoming a rich and successful member of the Creator Economy. Your life as a basic consumer is coming to an end. You’re going to make things. And thanks to the Internet, you can make a good living doing it too. Gone are the days of languishing away in borderli…

Reframing the “wanting to make money” problem

Money wasn’t the motivation for starting this newsletter. It began with me writing for fun for a couple of years and transitioning to something more serious later on. Similarly, stitching bags and drawing postcards were things my friends did for fun.

But at some point we all seemed to have stopped in our tracks and said to ourselves, “Well hang on a second. This is going nowhere if it remains just a leisurely hobby.”

Why does this seem to invariably happen? It occurred to me that making money might not be the point.

What if this isn’t about money making at all, but about a deeper, more spiritual need to share one’s creations? What if we’re selling our wares because what we want more than anything else is to let people have things that we made, be they postcards, bags, or essays?

It’s easy and satisfying to vilify the desire to make money and grab hold of the imp by its neck and yell at it, “get out of my head!” But perhaps that’s a distraction. The real reason I’m hoping that everything I do can potentially make money may be that my mind is short-circuiting “money equals goods exchanged equals value to people,” obscuring the important goods exchanged part.

This is an interesting way of framing the whole thing. It’s also one that is suspiciously similar to the framing that my current employer, Shopify, has of the world. Commerce as a whole is a force for good as it enables people from all around the world to become entrepreneurs and create communities of shared values, ethos, and appreciation for things. I feel some weird affinity with the person walking down the street who’s wearing a plain white Uniqlo tee and blue jeans. I sense we might share similarities in perspectives and get along relatively well.

(Of course, frivolous materialism is part of this equation. Topic for another day.)

Within this frame, I can think of my want to have paying subscribers for this newsletter as a way for me to amplify my ability to share more of my writing, rather than a way for me to make secondary income that may supersede and render unnecessary that from my employment.

I can also decouple how many paying subscribers I have from my self-worth and peg it instead to the number and quality of conversations that my posts generate among my readers and I, since being useful seems to be the thing that I care about.

Honestly, I prefer this frame. Earning money is one of several outcomes and may be correlated with value, but it is not the point. It just so happens to be the most straightforward path to getting valued things into the hands and minds of others in a capitalistic world. It gives us a well-understood proxy of a target.

The hard part is not getting distracted by the glitter and mistaking it for the point of all our extra-employment endeavours.

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