Skill and Business

There is a mystery in charging people to use your skill for them.

On the one hand you have the skill, the actual work you do. On the other hand you have the business, the way you make money with the skill. Two different things.

There are two parts that are mysterious to me:

  1. How to keep business and skill in balance (if “balance” is even the right way of thinking about it).
  2. Whether focusing on one pollutes the other.

Artists aren’t typically renown for business savvy, and the image that comes to mind of a great businessperson is typically nothing like an artist.

I don’t know what to do with the mystery, but it’s there.

Productive Distraction

Not everything that feels productive really is. 

For example, writing a system for how to handle a project better in the future while a current project sits unfinished. Or cleaning a drawer when you have a presentation to prepare.

This is the worst kind of procrastination because it’s where the illusion of productivity is strongest. If you surf YouTube aimlessly while there’s work to be done, you can feel the alarm sounding inside. There’s urgency. But if you start cleaning up your desktop and looking through old files, you can distract yourself thoroughly enough to not even notice.

These sorts of distractions are the daily bread of people who are going nowhere—employees trying to kill their time and punch the clock and leave the impression of being busy.  Some spend their whole careers like this.

If you’re a freelancer, well, it’s on you. These distractions hurt you primarily. The longer you take to get a thing done, the longer until you get paid, the less valuable the project is, the closer you are to giving up on self-employment altogether. The worst part is that your client suffers too as they wait for you to build that system.

I try to ask myself constantly, “Is this the most important thing right now, or am I hiding behind something that merely seems productive?”

How to Be Rich

1. Luck – Win the lottery or inherit money from your family. Easy, but rare.

2. Get a good job. – Most lucrative employment requires a college degree. Most degrees are expensive. Many college students are disengaged, going only because they were told it’s the right path, wasting a lot of time figuring out what they want to study. Few graduates use their degrees, except to show a potential employer that they’ve completed something worthwhile. If you earn a degree, secure a job that utilizes your degree, make a good living working that job, and then ultimately derive meaning from that job, you’ve had another stroke of luck. Some people get a high-paying job without a degree at all. These are usually people who either (a) don’t see the job as a job and are driven by love for what they do, (b) have a natural knack for their profession, (c) know the right people, or (d) all of the above. 

3. Develop a skill that people pay you to use. – Also called freelancing. You get good at doing something valuable—something people actually buy—connect with the right people, be pleasant to work with, and deliver more than you promised. Shorter: help other people make more money. As a freelancer, you drum up all the new business, you pay all the taxes, and you make sure projects get completed. But you also set your own schedule, potentially work on cool stuff, and multiply the earning capacity you would have at a job. Few people think they are cut out for freelancing, yet the most successful people think of themselves as self-employed even if they are working for someone else. Freelancers don’t have a boss, but they have a lot of short-term bosses. The key difference is they see themselves as the main agent, whereas employees usually defer to their boss. There’s no reason why you couldn’t view a 9-5 job as one of your long-term freelance projects. Your employer might as well be your client.

4. Create a product people buy. – Very few people can do this, but those that do it well make a lot of money. When you’re a freelancer, you trade your time for money, so there’s a built-in limit to what you can sell. When you create a product, you can scale it to immense proportions by building production systems and removing yourself from the process. You can make lemonade, tootsie rolls, pop-sockets, or soda. You can make Teslas, Airstreams, or Bentleys. You can make digital information products that require no production cost at all, which is one way the internet has changed the world.

5. Spend less. – If your ideal life only costs $75,000 a year, you would never need a million in annual income. If it only costs $50,000/year and you make $75,000/year, you’re rich. You’re able to do everything you want with an ever-increasing balance. Stop that habit which is one of the deepest and worst in middle-class America: buying things you don’t need.

6. Focus on meaning more than riches. – Because when ask how we can be rich, what we’re really asking is how we can be happier, and happiness doesn’t come through money alone. It comes through living with a sense of purpose and importance. No one is happy sitting on the beach all day every day with more money than they could ever spend. How has an idea like that become so widespread among people who have probably never had a single vacation that’s longer than 2 weeks? We spend all our time fantasizing about a life we’ve never even tested. I’ve had 5-day vacations that I was happy to see end so I could get back to routine and responsibility and reasonable expectations. We were made to do important stuff, things that help others, activities with a focus outside of ourselves. We should spend 10 times the effort considering what we’re doing with our time as we do wondering what being rich feels like.

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It’s Not About the Gumball

You know those gumball machines where you put in a quarter, turn the knob, and watch the ball roll down the spiral tray into the bottom? You can buy a bag of 680 of those gumballs online for $22.99, or $0.03 per gumball.

Why are we content with such a huge (833%) markup? For one thing, a quarter isn’t a lot of money. One coin for one gumball seems logical. For another, we’re usually buying it for a child and their joy in receiving a gumball is worth much more than a quarter.

But the real reason is we’re sold on the experience. First we’re drawn by the sight of it—a bright machine with a clear globe full of multicolor circles. Some even have lights. It looks like fun to turn the lever, hear the click, guess what color you will get, and most of all, watch the ball spin down the spiral tower and into the metal flap that hasn’t been cleaned since a decade before COVID.

They could just have a grey metal box with white stenciled letters at the top that said “GUMBALLS,” and a coin slot and an opening at the bottom. You drop in a quarter and instantly a white ball of gum clinks out. The end result is exactly the same, but they probably would sell 99% less.

Why will we grossly overpay for lousy gum that’s bad for our teeth and turns hard in 20 seconds?

  1. Pressure from the highly motivated 5-year-old buyer present.
  2. How we present things often makes all the difference, not just in business, but in communication, relationships, accomplishment—even food. Chefs arrange food on the plate intentionally. Even the most common cafe garnishes their plates.
  3. We aren’t always buying what we think we’re buying. It’s not the gum, it’s the 30 seconds of fun.