Writing and Speaking

Does the attention economy make life harder for creatives?


On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came from Daniel H. [23 votes]:

Does the attention economy lead to creative burnout? (And make life harder?)

Trying to make a living doing creative work has always been hard for two reasons:

  1. The work is more emotionally challenging than other kinds of work
  2. There is more competition for income for the kinds of work more people want to do

For these reasons alone it’s no surprise that many writers, designers or even programmers experience burnout in their careers. There’s only so long even the most disciplined and tough personality can persist in making things of their own invention without wearing themselves out. And as is the way with burnout, it’s only once you are past your limits that you discover where you limits are (or how long it will take to recover from crossing them).

It’s true that in today’s short attention span information overloaded age there are new challenges for makers. It’s easy to blame these cultural shifts, and to see how software uses our brains against us, as a problem (and for the future of civilization it’s scary indeed). For creators, the news and information cycle is so fast that to earn attention for your work suggests you have to keep up with it all. But the other side of that technological coin is that it’s easier than ever to make things and distribute them. Most people today have in their pocket everything they need to write a novel, or make a film, and at the click of a button, put it online and make it instantly available to the entire planet. They can even use wonderful tools like Kickstarter, as I have several times, to get their friends, family and fans to help make it happen (something artists have often had to do in the past, from Vincent Van Gogh to Richard Linklater).

Of course the entire planet does not care when yet more media is added to the world (3oo hours of video are posted to youtube every hour, so even if the world cared, they’d still have to prioritize). But even 50 years ago, before the internet, there were more films made each year than anyone could possibly see and more books published annually than anyone could read. For a very long time we’ve been living in a world where there is a surplus of creative works, which therefore means they compete for attention (Herbert Simon wrote about the attention economy as early as 1971).  The attention economy has certainly intensified, but it’s part of an old story of how as civilization progresses, the means of creation enter more people’s hands.

One major positive difference that comes along with this change is the number of gatekeepers is lower than ever. Thanks to the web no one can tell me, or you, or anyone, NO, which was true until these last few decades. Before the web there was often no way to get your work distributed unless you had permission.  Given the choice of a) depending on the approval of others to finish projects and share them with the world, but having fewer competitors vs. b) being able to put anything into the world, but I have to compete with everyone else for attention, I definitely choose b. At least I have a chance. At least I can compete, and use my skills at creation as an advantage.

Getting back to the attention economy and burnout, the wise answer is that if creativity is a primary resource in your work, you have to manage your emotional health carefully. This means understanding 4 things.

  1. What is a sustainable pace of work for you (that can last for a long career)? This is more about self-awareness than what’s happening on Facebook (or whatever eventually replaces it). How many blog posts or tweets can you write in a week? Or short films? What if you have to average that over a month or a year? Or a lifetime? How much downtime do you need to sustain that level of production? These are questions anyone serious about being a professional maker of things has to consider. You can’t live on all-nighters (and the recovery time from those bold efforts is often longer than people realize).
  2. What is a sustainable amount of income/attention?  Much of my income comes from speaking at events. Speaking pays very well and is a short commitment, a combination that gives me the time and funding to support writing projects (including this blog, which is free). Most creative people in history realized they needed multiple paths of income, and attention, to make their life work (or do their life’s work). Only when you sit down and do the math can you understand how best to prioritize your limited time and what kinds of attention to seek (See Should I Quit My Job?).
  3. Attention from fans matters more than the rest of the world. The most famous people in any media get most of the attention. But the fallacy is that you need to be in that top 1% or 5% to make a living. That’s not true. You simply need enough fans and attention to earn you enough money to make a living (an approach services like Patreon have validated). By most measures I am not a famous person, nor a particularly famous author. I’ve made it work over these 15 years because enough people have seen my work and liked it sufficiently to pay for it, recommend it to others and come back for more (and I’m very grateful to them). Maybe you only need attention from a handful of the right people (Patrons of the arts, a specific professional group, venture capitalists, who knows) to earn the balance of the income you need. Michelangelo and Da Vinci were likely unknown names more than a few hundred miles from where they lived. Once you start targeting the attention that helps you most, what the rest of the world is obsessing about doesn’t matter anymore.
  4. A creative life is not the safe and secure path. I wish that it was, but I know it isn’t. The more creative the life you choose, the more risk that will come with it. If you want a secure, predictable career, consider an office job where you work for someone else. You will likely get a salary, health benefits and predictable days of working just from 9am to 5pm, all things I do not get as I am self-employed, just like many writers, bloggers, Youtubers, musicians and filmmakers are. It’s a mistake to enter creative life, including starting your own business, while presuming  the outcome is clear. It can be wonderfully rewarding, but as I’ve pointed out in this post, you are choosing to compete to earn a living, and even if you do everything right odds are high you can still fail. I recommend doing it anyway, you will learn more about life and yourself by taking the challenging path, but you should do it with your eyes open.

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