How Money Might Be Killing Your Creativity

I’ve spent the past month squirreling away on a project that’s hopefully going to play a very interesting role in an industry I love — but it’s also set up to make exactly $0, for now. In fact, I’m actually dumping a substantial amount of money into professional design work, branding, and domain negotiation. It’s a little labor of love and I’m really excited about where the process of creating it will lead.

When I mention my current undertaking to the Australian friends I’ve made here as an expat, they want to know more about the concept and what it’s going to do and how it's progressing. They sound excited for me. When I mention it to American friends back home, the first thing they ask about is the revenue model.

Such good little capitalists.

When I shrug and say there isn’t one for now, that I just want to create my idea and see what happens, they look horrified. Why would anyone spend time, money, and energy on something that might not earn a profit or become a full-time job, preferably as a CEO?

As someone who’s spent a lot of time away from the US and a lot of time creating things for fun, I’ve come to understand that there are many kinds of returns on investment — and money is just one of them.

When I started my blog, Life Before 30, I didn’t have a plan, no less a financial one. I started writing because I had something to say. Five years later, that return on investment comes in many diverse forms. One is monetary: I have a small coaching business that’s grown up organically and produces a modest supplemental income. One that’s more important (to me) is the ability to help and inspire people. Another has been the opportunity to realize my dream of writing for major media brands, and yet another has been connecting and building relationships with people I never would have gotten to know without becoming a blogger. And possibly the most important has been the process of self-development it’s helped me embark on. I've truly been led, guided, and instructed by the very act of creation itself over the past five years. 

I believe we’re all meant to create something. The ability to imagine things that don’t exist and set about bringing them into existence is what separates humans from all other animals. And sometimes the things we’re meant to do will align with the market and we’ll be paid for them and sometimes they aren’t and we won’t — because nature can’t possibly understand capitalism and we weren’t born exclusively to be productive and profitable.

Yet I worry deeply when we impose that on ourselves and suppress the things we’re meant to do or the things we might really enjoy doing simply because we can’t figure out a revenue model for those instincts.

I’m sure some of you reading this are getting annoyed with me, feeling a lot of resistance and thinking things like, “Well I have to earn a living. I can’t just go around and become a professional juggler simply because I like juggling.” But that’s exactly it. You don’t have to become a professional juggler. You just juggle, no matter what. You don’t stop doing something you want to do just because you can’t make it into a money-making pursuit.

Or you might be sitting there thinking, “Oh come on, I don’t base every decision on whether or not it makes money.” But I’d bet you haven’t thought about taking $500 and buying a load of paints and painting murals in empty community spaces. Or renting space and hosting a free exhibition of your photography. Or hiring a web designer and creating a beautiful blog because you think you have something to say. It’d be a waste of money to invest in something that isn’t going to generate more money, right?

Or perhaps you’re reading this and you agree entirely but don’t know what to do about it. Then please help me throw up a big finger to our capitalist-obsessed world by creating. By creating what’s in your heart and not worrying about whether or not it will make money. Or knowing that what you feel inspired to do won't make money but you do it anyway. Maybe even throwing up two middle fingers by taking a good sum of money and not spending it on a car or an iPhone 8 plus or a new dress, but investing it in an art project or producing a short film or starting a community library. Imagine what the world would look like if that’s how more people spent their money

Once you start unleashing your creativity on the world, you will be guided by it. I get frustrated by the people who want to see where something is going before they create it. Because most of the time, you won’t know where you’re going until you create it — and that’s the good part. That's how it's supposed to be. Money attempts to fill that void of uncertainty and provide some kind of guarantee that what you’re about to do is worthwhile.

But the sense of security it provides is false, and an over-reliance on it will block you from doing very worthwhile things simply because you can’t (immediately or ever) commercialize them. 

Of course you have to make a living, so please don’t go quit your job to paint murals or start a blog, but don’t NOT do these things because there’s a chance they won’t make money. They may very well make money (and that's great), but never resist the urge to do things simply because they seem impractical. The world needs more impractical people! It also needs more people who don't view money as the only worthwhile return on their investment out there. And it desperately needs more people who have come alive and are being actively guided by their creative instincts.

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