How To Play the Creator Game | #240
September 16th, 2023: Greetings From Taiwan. I wrote this while exploring the beautiful east coast of Taiwan. Here’s a picture from one of my favorite spots north of Taipei: Jiufen - supposedly an inspiration for the movie Spirited Away
+ This issue is sponsored by Write of Passage. If you’d like to join their upcoming cohort, I highly recommend it. You can “test drive” the course during their event on the 21st at 12 p.m. ET or enroll here directly.
Playing The Creator Game
The biggest challenge of making it as a creator is the existence of other people also trying to make it as a creator. This is because most people don’t know what they are doing and the temptation when you don’t know what you are doing is to pretend you know what you are doing. For someone starting out on an unknown path, it can be disorienting to see the seemingly endless proclamations from others about what’s most important.
Write publicly. Become a “multipreneur.” Be a solopreneur. Start a YouTube channel. Hire a team. Don’t hire a team. Hire contractors. Start a newsletter. Pay for subscribers. Do SEO. Grow fast. Grow more slowly. Like what you do. Do what makes money and outsource it. Create a side gig before quitting. Quit your job and go all in. Tweet threads. Make reels. Make TikToks. Move abroad to save money. Take out small business loans. Bootstrap. Get investors. Start an agency to fund your business. Start a podcast. Start a course. Do a cohort-based course though. Maybe not, do self-paced. Hire an operator. Obsess. Wander. Hire a ghostwriter. Write yourself. Self-publish. Get a publisher.
Depending on your own unique circumstances, the value of these “recipes” about how to approach your work and life can range from a worthless pile of slogans to a priceless insight that might change the direction of your life.
This is why it’s so hard to look away.
But You Can’t Look Away 👀
If you want to find a sustainable set of conditions on a creator path, you shouldn’t trust that doing what you did yesterday is a viable strategy. You need some level of paranoia of always being somewhat wrong about how you’ve set up your life.
This necessitates watching what others are doing, seeing what business models are working, listening to podcasts about other people’s journeys, seeing which tactics people are trying, experimenting with different social platforms, and seeing which kinds of people are succeeding. Venkatesh Rao shared a lively description of this indie stance toward the world in Art of Gig, one which many people (like me) happily embrace:
We go to meetups, we get coffee with each other. We scan the social streams for openings, seek out room to maneuver, ways to deploy high-leverage cheap assets, learn breakout skills, and dream up hacks and arbitrages. And we sneak one-at-a-time into the future, through gaps on the economic frontier, rather than marching rank-and-file in slogan-chanting cohorts. We flow like water, shaping the landscape even as we get around it, generally making the stuffy old class hierarchy of the industrial age leak like hell as we flow invisibly through the interstices.
The problem with this openness to the world is that you become so flooded with information that you don’t know what to do with it. You also leave yourself susceptible to influence from people skilled in the arts of persuasion. This is a problem in many domains but is acutely felt in the creator world where the sources of information are incentivized to be more confident about what they are doing than they may be in reality. Pair this with the visibility of metrics of success like followers and income data and it can be very easy to adopt someone else’s approach to something because you have mistaken some extrinsic measure of success for wisdom.
My Solution: Discount Everything Other People Say Or Recommend
I’ve been obsessed with people’s paths for years, interviewing over 150 people on my podcast and listening to many others on other people’s podcasts. I love hearing a long-form reflection of someone’s journey and seeing how all sorts of random life events led to where they are now. By hearing an in-depth depth story you eventually come to the obvious conclusion that almost everyone is more nuanced and complex than we can ever imagine.
The deeper into someone’s personal story the more valuable the information you can get because what’s actually valuable is understanding how someone else’s context and situation compare to your own. When someone says, “Everyone needs a newsletter” or “Short form is the new thing” your default impulse should not be to even think about the decision of whether to do it or not. It should be to put that information in perspective:
What do I know about this person’s context and how it applies to my situation at this exact moment in time?
And even as much as you can figure out about someone, you are always going to be missing something which is why I treat all claims the same way: assume that everyone else is wrong in ways that I don’t fully understand.
When I say wrong, I mean that there is no chance that someone else is optimizing for my own unique psychology, situation, financial circumstances, and desires.
For example, if you are ever seeing me do something and thinking that you should also do it like writing a newsletter or creating courses you need to know more about my unique circumstances and advantages. At my core, I’m someone who seems to have a skill for synthesizing ideas, and this is something I’m hyper-aware of. If I can’t use that skill, I usually don’t do it. It’s something that has always come naturally and that I got to hone in consulting for nearly ten years. It’s also something I enjoy doing which is perhaps the most interesting thing. If you say “I want to write an essay about a topic like Paul” you need to adjust your own expectations based on your own unique abilities.
And that’s not all. If you are ever drawing conclusions about what I’m doing and assuming you should do it too, you need to know the full story: my upbringing, natural talents, some level of intelligence, fears of becoming a workaholic, financial resources, spousal support, ability, and confidence to work as a freelancer, my labor rights in a robust and growing US digital economy, my lack of desire for expensive things like houses and cars, and friends and connections who support me.
The great thing about the creator world is that people can follow their curiosity for a long time and remain interested in something far longer than ever seems to happen in traditional work environments. This enables people to become world-class in a narrow set of skills that they can then apply to many different things. But when we see other people expressing these skills, often the result of many years of dedicated work, it appears easy. The internet exposes us to far more people than pre-internet times and also exposes us to far more outliers than we realize. Even I forget that I’m not seeing a random dude’s musings, I’m seeing the creations of people who fall into one of the following buckets:
Top 1% work ethic and drive to success
Top 1% desire for money, power, status
Top 1% at synthesizing and packaging ideas
People with more financial resources or connections
People who are great at not quitting
Working as a creator means that you are rejecting the default path of doing the work other people want you to do. But being a creator means decisions about what to work on are dizzyingly unbounded. The temptation is to follow the current formulas of what already successful people are doing. But this is almost always a mistake, as your specific journey demands its own pace and connection to what you are uniquely suited to do. If you are trying to write a book like Seth Godin, you should know that he published 120 books over 13 years as a book packager before even writing his own.
Some other traps I’ve seen people be susceptible to:
Giving too much credit to ideas from people they like or envy
Discounting ideas from people you don’t like
Not understanding the unfair advantages that people have because of elite skills, work ethic, financial resources, or connections
Not understanding how much enjoyment other people get out of certain tasks
The creator game is the ultimate act of humility, constantly realizing that you don’t know what you are doing while at the same time paying attention to what other people are doing and then trying stuff out to see if it works for you. After many false starts on my own journey, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only viable way to build a life for me is to find things that only I can uniquely do over a long period of time.
But You Still Shouldn’t Follow What I Say
In the past year, I’ve been saying “More people should write books earlier in their journey.” This is something believe, learning from my own experience. However, if you hear this and like me enough to see my opinions as good, you shouldn’t just adopt this stance too. You should have an extremely high bar for my words influencing your actions and commitments in the world. For starters, you need to know what influenced me to think that:
I save aggressively to always have extensive runway to work on projects like a book, it’s one of my most important goals for my life.
I was living in Mexico and Taiwan while writing the book where costs were low and distractions were minimal
I wasn’t working on much else besides writing this newsletter while writing the book
I love writing and have been doing it in various blogs, sites, and other forms for more than 10+ years
I have the business sense to understand the economics of self-publishing and also manage creative projects
The success of my book financially which I may not ever be able to fully understand or explain
Then you should think about your own life and ask questions like:
Do I have proof that I can sustain a writing habit?
Do I actually like writing?
Has anyone asked me to write a book?
Do I know how to do it?
Do I have the time to do it? And if not, what can I stop doing?
Do the people in my life support me in doing this?
Is there any way I can test my commitment for three months?
How much will it cost and what are the opportunity costs?
I am not sure if this is surprising or not: the amount of time I spend thinking about these things.
But I think this is important. If you really do want to make it work on an unconventional path, you have to spend exponentially more time thinking about the meta-game of what you’re participating in and what you’re trying to do. This isn’t the default path for a reason.
The Only Goal Is To Not Quit
When I started creating, I didn’t have a lot of people at similar stages of the journey to compare myself to and I believe this was a huge advantage. I followed people like Tyler Cowen, Seth Godin, Tyler Cowen, Derek Sivers, Ezra Klein, and Barry Ritholz, but I put them on a pedestal. I could never do what they were doing.
So I was able to build up some natural defenses against being influenced by other people before I stumbled into a more robust ecosystem of people online in 2018-2019. When I started to “find the others” on Twitter in 2018 and 2019 I was sort of shocked at how many other people were doing similar things. Wait, I’m not crazy?! But the flip side was that these people were no longer people I could dismiss as far more successful than me. They were at similar points in the journey and talking about what they saw as the important things to do all the time.
The trouble with this is that because I liked some of these people and admired many of them in specific ways, I felt tremendous pressure to follow their approaches. This, of course, is mimetic desire - to want what other people want. It’s easy to convince yourself that you actually do want to start a TikTok and work on it all the time because someone you like keeps talking about how big an opportunity it is (I tested it and realized it’s not for me). There is a subtle balance between kicking the tires on something new and becoming convinced that how someone else is making it “work” is the way that you should make it work.
The creator game is inherently a social game and there’s a tricky balance of connecting with some of these people as friends and not taking their proclamations of what is important as gospel. Often this can be a collective race to the bottom because the reason those other people are proclaiming that the thing is important and so aggressively saying it out loud is because they are actually insecure about holding such a stance. I’ve seen this happen multiple times over the years and I’m sure I’ve gotten caught up in the collective mania of many trends. Often it only ends when someone succeeding on the surface comes out and gives permission to everyone to quit by saying something like, “Actually this is too hard and not worth it.”
In the 8-9 years I’ve been actively hanging out online these have been THE COOL PLACES to share your ideas in written form:
Blogs and websites
In video form, these places have had their various “hot” moments:
Where to share your ideas and how to do it is far less important than actually just doing the work, which is something that people rarely talk about. Right now everyone is trying to make videos like Mr. Beast with dramatic cuts. I think all of these people are missing the point because “what works” is not always “what sustains.”
When I look at people like Tim Ferriss, Derek Sivers, and Seth Godin, they all have one thing in common: steady posting on their blogs for 10+ years.
So does this mean I should do the same??
The much much more important thing is that they didn’t quit. Credibility and status in the creator economy accumulate to people who don’t quit and are able to harness a unique mode of creation that is core to who they are. I would argue that while the blogs helped Tim, Derek, and Seth in important ways, what really enabled them to stand out is that they remained uncommonly interested in what they were doing and were able to reinvent themselves when they were in danger of losing interest in their own path.
How To Win
I’m using the term “creator” in this essay loosely, referring to the modern internet weirdos like myself, people creating something on the internet and also trying a little to make money from those creations. This covers a wide range of people: bloggers, course creators, YouTubers, podcasters, authors, coaches, Twitch, substackers, writer-freelancers, and many more.
These people are my people. They pay the “status tax” in the traditional world and trade that for the upsides of operating in the digital world, an “industry” that some people estimate is growing more than 20% per year. I think the creator game is worth playing and agree with Hunter Walk’s observation that “it might be harder than ever to earn $1 million/year as a creative but it’s never been easier to make $50,000.”
But to play (and win) this game, you have to wade into a challenging world of persuasion, tactics, mimetic desire, and competition. On the default path, doing what most successful people are doing is a winning strategy. But on a creator path, this can be a mistake. You left the default path because you wanted to write, create videos, share ideas, write a book, do art, build software, take photos, or teach cooking. The only way you will be able to actually do that is if you really engage with it and find your own unique relationship to that kind of work. Everything else is just details.
The hardest part about following a creator path in 2023 is that there are no long-term models of success. Without a clear mental model or script of how you are supposed to be spending your time or what goals are most important, people can be easily persuaded to follow strong opinions rather than goals that would be best for them.
In my essay, “don’t find a niche, find a mode”, I wrote:
…the most niche-y people often inhabit a territory with a maximum population size of one. In other words, they are just being who they are. They are combining their unique psychology, interests, motivators, and evolving curiosity and know-how to drop into a mode of being that enables them to keep going.
TL;DR: You can only win a game of one.
Thanks For Reading!
I am focused on building a life around exploring ideas, connecting and helping people, and writing. I’ve also recently launched a community called Find The Others. There are weekly writing sessions, monthly “find the others” (literally) virtual meetups, and general supportive vibes.
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