The Financially Damaging Myth of No Effort



A few weeks ago now I went to something called XOXO, a festival for independent artists. There are lots of recaps of this conference on the internet so I won’t try to add to that pile. But I did want to tie together two things I heard that I think are intrinsically related, and that I have been thinking a lot about myself: the ways in which money and work and public persona all intersect. I don’t have a fancy name for this, but let me explain.

Let’s start with money. There were at least three talks at XOXO that were very explicitly about money, but I’m only going to talk about two, because as Heben Nigatu so perfectly said in her talk: “I only care about women.”

So, Gaby Dunn and Lucy Bellwood both talked about financial struggles, but in really different ways. Gaby made the case for asking for more, valuing yourself, and not letting big companies and publications take advantage of you. “We think we should be grateful for the chance—often given to us by straight, cis, white men—and when they underpay us or overwork us, we should be thrilled with our own exploitation,” she wrote in a piece for Fusion. She argued that creative independent people need to know their own worth, and ask for it. For the record, I absolutely agree. 

Lucy then talked about her own economic struggles: this year, she admitted on stage in front of 850 people, she got off food stamps. But she still struggles to balance a creative life that’s both financially fulfilling, and emotionally fulfilling.

Gaby and Lucy both shared a pile of stories about the juxtaposition of perceived success and financial success. Here’s another quote from Gaby’s Fusion piece (which you should just read in its entirety really):

Connor Manning, an LGBT vlogger with 70,000 subscribers, was recognized six times selling memberships at the Baltimore Aquarium. Rosianna Halse Rojas, who has her own books and lifestyle channel and is also YouTube king John Green’s producing partner, has had people freak out at her TopMan register. Rachel Whitehurst, whose beauty and sexuality vlog has 160,000 subscribers, was forced to quit her job at Starbucks because fans memorized her schedule.

Lucy had a similar story. Her comics are popular, she’s had book signings, her Kickstarter raised $43,625. And throughout all that she was barely making enough to eat.

I know what Gaby and Lucy are talking about pretty well. I make a podcast that some people listen to. I’ve been recognized at bars for it. And it makes me almost no money. Certainly not enough to cover the cost of making it. I cover my cost of living working as a freelance journalist, not doing the podcast. Which basically means I’m working two jobs and getting paid for one.

So that’s the first piece of this thing-I-am-trying-to-name. The second is something that John Roderick called “the myth of no effort” in his talk. (Clearly he is better at naming concepts than I am.) He told the story of Kurt Cobain, who, when asked about the lyrics to Nevermind said that he wrote them in a rush just before going in to record*. Hearing that at the time, as a musician, John felt so small. Here he was, spending weeks to try and come up with lyrics that he felt couldn’t compare. And Cobain just, pooped them out basically.

But Cobain was lying, John says. He worked incredibly hard on those lyrics. But the poster child for grunge, for not caring, wasn’t going to admit that.

It’s not “cool” to work hard. It’s not cool to admit that you were up all night for weeks slaving over something. Because if you admit that it was hard, that you worked really hard on it, then any critique hurts more. When it’s something you just, oh whatever, threw together, oh this? It’s nothing really, I just did it, whatever, it’s far easier to brush away any critique.

So thus is born the “myth of no effort,” the idea that true artists and creative people produce incredible work without breaking a sweat. And it’s a myth. A complete lie.

I think these two things, the struggle for independent artists to be paid a fair wage, and the myth of no effort, are inherently related. Because if we continue perpetuating the myth that this work is effortless, then why would anybody pay us for it? If these videos and podcasts and songs and comics are a breeze, if we just crap them out without much thought, then why should we expect to be paid more than a few bucks for them? 

It’s important to talk about how much people are really making. Both Gaby and Lucy talked about the need to be honest and transparent about finances. But I think it’s also crucial that we tell people how much work these things take to make. Because most people, including die-hard fans, have no idea how much time goes into the things they love.

It takes me between 30 and 40 hours to make an episode of Flash Forward. That’s a conservative estimate, because it doesn’t take into account all the logistics, trouble-shooting, emailing with fans, social media, etc etc etc. When I tell people that, even people who are my friends, who know me well, they are shocked. To me, that’s actually not enough time. I know the show could be much better, but I just can’t commit any more time to it because it doesn’t make me hardly any money.

Whenever I tell a fan how long I spend on the show, about half the time their reaction is “oh my god, I’ll go become a Patron.” I’m not here to argue that Patreon is a sustainable business model, but I say this to illustrate the fact that people really have no idea how much work goes into this stuff.

I would love to know from Gaby and Lucy how long a video or comic takes to make. And I would bet that their fans have no idea. And that’s not the fans fault, really. I have no idea how long it takes to make a dress or a car or a television. I have no idea how long Gaby and Lucy spend on their work either. I bet it’s a lot of time, I could guesstimate, but I don’t actually know. And our fans won’t know how hard we’re working, how much time this takes, unless we tell them.

So this is the thing I’ve been thinking a lot about now that XOXO is done. And if you have a pithy name for it, let me know. “The financially dangerous myth of no effort” isn’t so great.

*I tried to find this interview with Cobain to verify the story, and I couldn’t track it down. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, because there are plenty of other examples of this kind of nonchalance. But if you know if this is true about Cobain let me know. UPDATE: A Twitter person found this interview with Cobain that seems to substantiate the story. In it, Cobain says: “I don’t like to be considered the sole songwriter. But I do come up with the basics of it. I come up with the singing style and I write the lyrics, usually minutes before we record.”

Image by Tax Credits, Flickr. 

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21 thoughts on “The Financially Damaging Myth of No Effort

  1. Anything seems easy when you have been working, perfecting mastering and dealing with a talent for decades upon decades.
    People love overnight success stories. What they fail to see is the countless hours and years it took to get that 15 minute of fame.

  2. this is such a confusing topic for people because work times vary. sometimes it comes in a flash of inspiration like for einstein in the bathtub or coleridge’s kubla khan and sometimes its years of work. but the work shouldn’t be hard. that’s the lie. if you are not enjoying the work then you will probably fail. the amount of time you spend working is irrelevant and will vary for each artist according to their beliefs and preferences. some artists like to work quickly and some like to savour it over years or even a lifetime. in our culture most people think of hard work as not fun or unpleasant. if that is how you see hard work then avoid hard work to succeed. if you see hard work as difficult but still very enjoyable then get to work! its all about the energy you are putting into the project during the process. that’s what people are buying. lastly, the best advice is to follow your own instincts. don’t believe anyone else, figure out what works for you. everyone is different.

  3. Great reflection on XOXO. I really enjoyed discovering Flash Forward. My A/B decision cards are still sitting on my desk!

    I too had a similar question about Cobain. While probably not the exact source, you can see a little of the ‘myth of no effort’ vibe from Cobain in this 1993 interview (queued up to the pertinent question).

  4. Interesting piece, but I’m not sure I agree about the connection between the myth of no effort and the lack of remuneration in creative work (for the vast majority of those who do it). I think it mostly has to do with the ease of digital reproduction (previously the difficulty of distribution) and the great amount of supply because creatives just do it. People make art and do projects and share them for the enjoyment, and while financial constraints do lead some people to stop, there are tons of people still doing it and putting their stuff out there for nothing (myself included). When people do something for free, for themselves, first and foremost, they are hard to value monetarily.

    All that said, I think the myth of no effort is destructive on many levels, and I think artists should be compensated fairly, and not exploited/robbed/etc.

  5. My own blog has been on semi-hiatus because I realized I had to get up super early to work on it without disrupting my time with my spouse. Then I ended up with some major sleep issues and I just have not had time or energy. That’s just for a weekly blog that a few dozen people probably read a little of. Where I would get the time or energy to do a podcast or a vlog, I have no idea!

  6. I was at an art opening for Nikki McClure at Land in Portland awhile back and there was a talk and Q&A. She was asked why her pieces were so expensive. It was a shocking question for the room for the most part, I think. If memory serves me she very patiently answered with the time it takes, the slow precise process of paper-cutting, her materials, and even the time it takes to form the initial idea and perspective. So much time and she put a price on all those things for her and her art. So good.

  7. This “let’s ignore hours worked” phenomenon also factors into the gender wage gap. Men are surveyed as putting in considerably more hours at work than women do, yet this is routinely overlooked in any discussion of wages. Gender-wage-equality advocates frame the issue as people “being equally qualified,” NOT as “working equally as much” — as if there is zero impact to working more hours.

    Perhaps this is a good thing: women work fewer hours because they take a disproportionate share of family responsibilities, which is a great societal good. Perhaps a de-emphasis of working hours acts as a sort of Affirmative Action for already-overworked mothers. But whether good or bad, it’s definitely a thing.

  8. I have written creative stuff in literally the minutes it took to write it out. But before that could happen, there were days or weeks of building specifically towards doing that, and many false starts and discarded wasted efforts that necessarily had to be done to remove the clutter that did not belong in the ultimate achievement. In economics terms, all that time was part of the opportunity cost of the final creative surge – time that could not be spent doing something else remunerative, and must be counted towards time spent.

  9. It’s great to see this word getting out there, it’s a tonic.

    When people used to approach me about wanting to work independently, I was very generous with my mentoring time. A couple of years ago I cut way back.

    And after taking a break, I realized how much these conversations exhausted me. Largely because when I told people the truth — or my truth, at least — about what it takes to create a sustainable business/life as an independent, many of them disagreed with me. Some people even argued with me. Seemed to think that I was doing it wrong.

    Um, ok. Maybe it will be different for them. Today I almost never say “yes” to one of those meetings.

  10. The Youtube channel “How to cake it” runs a competition for viewers to guess how long each cake took to make – many take 12hrs+ to make, then on top of that is editing and marketing

  11. Many years ago now, I had the realization that I put huge amounts of effort into small things that gave people a few moments of joy but, were ultimately ephemeral in their attention. While these might be something edible (dark chocolate-dipped homemade marshmallows, anyone?), most of my artwork (pop up cards, prints, photographs) seemed similar to me.

    I started referring to my artwork as “confections” or “confectionery.” Many hours of work for the confectioner, a flash of joy for the audience.

    Not really the word or phrase you are looking for but, in the same domain.

    Thanks for the post!

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