When it isn't possible to both make money and do something meaningful, I've always opted for the latter. This is my attempt to understand why.
In 2021, I went through several periods of self-questioning, not feeling positive or certain about the path I had chosen. Although I usually ended up affirming myself and staying the course, it still sometimes feels like an unanswered question. I recently drafted this text when having similar doubts about my upcoming podcast project: I once again ended up 'advocating for myself', but I clearly have a lot to say and would like to externalize it.
Growing up as an observer of Silicon Valley from afar, I was exposed early on to startups, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, motivational speakers, productivity gurus, self-improvement books, hustle culture, and other vogue exports from the region. I've gone in and out of touch with this over the years, but recently found myself adjacent again with the indie hacker and independent creator movements (of which I am a practitioner). I avoid paying too much attention to what everyone is doing, but try to keep it in the corner of my eye for the occasional nugget of useful information that can help my projects become more successful; keeping distance is important because it's ordinary for me to be influenced by my surroundings, and I often find myself applying other people's patterns to my own situations because it seems interesting or worth exploring: "So-and-so has a thank you page or YouTube channel or newsletter; hmm, maybe I could try that?".
One popular motif from these worlds that I've never taken to imitating is the celebration around 'making enviable amounts of money every month as an independent creator', or the rags-to-riches equivalent of audience building ('zero to thousands of subscribers in no time at all'). Although I am trying to make money with projects and increase awareness of my work, it's never been a rat race or the main motivation for what I do. My intention is not to judge people who are primarily pursuing that: many of them do so out of a sense of responsibility to care for and serve others, which I can respect. I want to explore why I have such a hard time with this for myself.
Why is it that when confronted with the choice between 'popular and profitable' or 'esoteric but meaningful', I always take the hippie route and just do what makes me happy(, man)? Why is my primary motivation generally creative expression or being original, despite coming at the cost of my financial comfort? Is it just my millennial urge to be a unique snowflake? Why do I avoid listicles? commercial pop music? technology selling user data or cultivating addiction? Why can't I just make a button that does what people want? These things are often lucrative, sometimes even without provoking ethical dilemmas, so what is it that stops me from getting into it? Do I consider myself better than everyone? Am I 'fighting the good fight'? Am I really even acting in my own interests?
In exchanges about making my initiatives sustainable, 'providing value' and 'doing what pays' tends to come up, and this is usually where I derail: it's hard for me to agree on what 'valuable' means as I typically derive most of my meaning from things that aren't considered as such by the mainstream. It's odd that my most memorable experiences have usually been around what doesn't conform to metrics of 'value' like having lots of followers or revenue or commercial appeal (for example, jazz concerts, communal eating spaces, travelling in poorer countries, meeting in parks), and that despite having a profound effect on me, they may not be considered 'valuable'; probably doesn't help that I am not super motivated by money, can get by with less, avoiding materialism, kind of detached from things… Part of my conflict might even come from a resistance when what's popular is what's perceived as desirable by other people—wanting what everybody wants because that's what everybody wants—this feels kind of degenerating to me, as it leads to the tail wagging the dog. Could it be highly profitable to make us more whole? or detached from money? or live healthier? or in balance with one another and the environment? If not, then what does it mean when we idealize profitability?
The other reason I diverge from considering 'supply and demand' no doubt relates to creating as a response to my own inclinations. It has been years since I've produced something specifically because another person asked, partially because I haven't come across deeply fulfilling ways to work at a company or sell my time or do what markets want, but also because I tend to respond to my own needs, desires, and ambitions. Although what I create is rarely for everyone, there's usually someone in mind, and I strive to make it available to more people after building for myself; this may not be completely 'in service of others' and must be interesting to me, which might be perceived as selfish. I feel it's like an artist mindset of imagining new things and throwing one's contribution into humanity's pool of ideas, and then observing how people react. Being able to address your own needs can generate concepts that turn out to be important in retrospect: it's hard to arrive at something like sonogrid, or Joybox by following 'what people want'—nobody asked for it, nobody will, and yet I think it's vital for these visions to exist to celebrate what is possible. Of course, they do resonate with certain people, and there is often a sense of "I never thought of that, but now that it's visible, hell yeah"; these dynamics are nicely articulated in the metaphor of explorers, miners, and bridge builders. Sometimes you use alternate materials when certain ideas are cut from a different cloth…
There's actually nothing wrong with pursuing the alternative route: we only question it because our surrounding environment values material success, on which our survival likely depends, but that really says more about the environment. I'm not exempt from having to think about 'material conditions for existence' and respond; I clearly don't do things that I know will only serve myself, generally preferring to put outward with a possibility of others resonating, or, augmenting themselves—I have no doubt that this will work out over the long-term. Being either purely esoteric or highly commercial is not interesting to me. If I was in a position of desperation, I would likely try to remedy my situation, but I've consistently been almost well-enough to graze by, and keep trying to see how far I can take it. My choice has been made, I'm okay: at peace again, I continue. I like what I like and don't have to justify it—I'm writing this for anyone who needs the extra push. If lots of people are trying to do what sells, and what sells doesn't feel conducive to a meaningful life, then perhaps it's worth examining what makes us feel that way. I support creating a healthy, restorative motion towards wanting what we really need, and really needing what we want.