I read an awful and highly successful business book. Many things made it awful. Bad logic. Simplistic assertions. Dubious correlations between neuroscience and business practices. But my major gripe was that it used historical case studies without scholarship or depth. Historic “successes” were used to sell a simple message with supposed deep and profound meaning, but there was precious little evidence in its discussion of the Wright Brothers and JFK and Martin Luther King. Instead there were assertions that a singular quality made a massive difference to a complex problem, the kind of idiot thinking historians from Lautzi and Thucydides onward rallied against: the seduction of finding ONE dominant cause for events that explain success… a seduction that is most lucrative in business. It sells soap, as the advertisers used to say, just like books that are supposed to make you a BLOCKBUSTER or BESTSELLER or MILLIONAIRE. (If you like metrics, read the reviews of such books and count how many folks turned this snake oil into wine. Compare to the total reviews and sales and you’ll see what I mean.) So this author put a sheen of legitimacy on his ideas with weak historical case studies and has 1000 mostly-positive reviews.
What bit me hardest? This fellow is suckling millions into his bank account and doing less than a year’s worth of research and writing. I spent ten years becoming a historian and the past decade becoming a good one, with two major works, my latest, Mavericks of War, backed by a Pulitzer-Prize winner… and my career will likely never rival this other work’s influence or reach. The market’s lessons is clear: far more power rests in the hands of advertising experts with a background in cultural anthropology who use history poorly than we adjuncts who practice history like it’s a vocation.
Worse? Some part of me was not only mad but… surprised.
Surprised? How in the world is the author of FXXK WRITING surprised at the word of publishing being unfair?
This was a week of realizations. Some were powerful and enlightening and constructive. Others? Painful and ugly.
I started this column because in 2015 I was tired of writing advice for beginners, not for those of us who’ve been working for ten or twenty years and are not the 1% of publishing. You know, the majority. I had also won a fellowship that allowed me to return to writing history, which lead to working at Johns Hopkins as an adjunct and course developer. I created writing classes and taught for years at The Writing Salon before a student recommended me for a teaching job at Google for their employees. In that time, a friend realized I was good fit for a new project. That became The Brimstone Files.
For two years, I built up a life of creative projects. And it’s been amazing. It’s been rewarding. I have two books coming out this year. I have work at respected and prestigious places. It’s helped me prove I’m goddamn good at what I do. History. Fiction. Improv. Teaching. I rock it all.
But the harder truth? I made better money before this creative period. Back then I worked six days a week and long hours. I taught high school, grad school, adult learning, wrote book reviews, created curriculum, and more. That year of effort bought me enough financial legs to spend two years adding fiction and history back into the mix. In the process, I created even more workshops and clients, and things have been very good. But not “quit your ten day jobs” good. My income is worse than it used to be.
Yet because of all the creative stuff I’ve made, I also have more opportunities than I did in 2014. Probability for better things to happen are greater than at any other time in my life. But I live in Silicon Valley. So it’s time to face facts: I was seduced into thinking “this time” things were different:
This time, merit would be validated tenfold;
This time, hard work, perseverance, and creation in my fields would mean steady work would find me;
This time, I would be BIG TIME.
Which is a fancy way of saying my “Porn Dreams” of success got in the way of my rational thought. I was gifted two years of creative work that lead to great things. But they need to be supported with steady work so the seeds grow into whatever future they will have. It’s time to return to the ethos that fueled this column in the first place. Work, and create art.
Art supports me, but I am not a slave to it. My art is not my identity. And choosing a solely artistic existence can be selfish, foolhardy, and hurtful. I started this column because of the wisdom of not quitting your day job to prove you are an artist. But it’s amazing how a little success reignites Porn Dreams that will likely never happen.
It is good to generate opportunities. It’s amazing to turn them into greater ones than existed. And I want to make stuff and make as much money as I can from the stuff I make. But you can do that without being in poverty. You can work a job and create things out of nothing. You can make great art and have health insurance covered by an employer. And if I ever get to be the 1% by hook or crook, sweet.
But while my seeds grow and my successes mount and my failures are accounted for, I need to walk the talk and return to financial stability in case these seeds bloom small.
I cannot fucking believe I was hoodwinked by a daydream. Again.
Kill your porn dreams. Build strength and support, so you and your family can take another risk.