“When you do cool stuff, you end up making money.” – Tjan

29 November, 2011 at 12:00 pm

This morning when I got in the car, I noticed that my phone was dead. It had been on the charger all night, but something had obviously malfunctioned, and so I was stuck with a two-hour commute and no access to the audiobook I’m currently listening to, China Mieville’s Embassytown.

 

I was pretty annoyed. Then I remembered that I had a flash drive in my pocket, and on that flash drive was Cory Doctorow’s Makers, which I hadn’t quite finished before Thanksgiving, around which time my attention shifted to the mind-bending linguistic alien studies found in Embassytown. I hate to break a narrative, but I hate driving to work without a book even more, so I opted to go back and finish Makers. (By the by, Cory Doctorow is a big advocate of open publishing models, so if you want to get a copy of Makers for free, you can do that here.)

 

Makers is a novel. It’s a novel about the near future, and it’s a future in which large corporations are losing steam doing whatever craptastic things they’ve always done, so they begin to invest in microstartups. Predominately, they invest in people who make cool things out of abandoned older things. The two main characters – Perry and Lester – do things like build mechanical computers, robot toasters, or use a choreographed assortment of mechanical Elmo dolls that form a hive mind capable of driving a car. Easier, perhaps, to let the characters themselves explain it:

 

“I got the idea when I was teaching an Elmo to play Mario Brothers. I thought it’d get a decent diggdotting. I could get it to speedrun all of the first level using an old paddle I’d found and rehabilitated, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. The dead mall across the way is a drive-in theater, and I was out front watching the silent movies, and one of them showed all these cute little furry animated whatevers collectively driving a car. It’s a really old sight-gag, I mean, like racial memory old. I’d seen the Little Rascals do the same bit, with Alfalfa on the wheel and Buckwheat and Spanky on the brake and clutch and the doggy working the gearshift.

“And I thought, Shit, I could do that with Elmos. They don’t have any networking capability, but they can talk and they can parse spoken commands, so all I need is to designate one for left and one for right and one for fast and one for slow and one to be the eyes, barking orders and they should be able to do this. And it works! They even adjust their balance and centers of gravity when the car swerves to stay upright at their posts. Check it out.” He turned to the car. “Driving Elmos, ten-HUT!” They snapped upright and ticked salutes off their naked plastic noggins. “In circles, DRIVE,” he called. The Elmos scrambled into position and fired up the car and in short order they were doing donuts in the car’s little indoor pasture.

“Elmos, HALT” Perry shouted and the car stopped silently, rocking gently. “Stand DOWN.” The Elmos sat down with a series of tiny thumps.

Suzanne found herself applauding. “That was amazing,” she said. “Really impressive. So that’s what you’re going to do for Kodacell, make these things out of recycled toys?”

Lester chuckled. “Nope, not quite. That’s just for starters. The Elmos are all about the universal availability of cycles and apparatus. Everywhere you look, there’s devices for free that have everything you need to make anything do anything.

 

“The universal availability of cycles and apparatus.” Free stuff that you can use to make new stuff that’s even better. It’s a truly first-world opportunity, and a fascinating one. Our garbage has massive processing power, and it lies untapped and waiting for someone to repurpose it.

 

The book is fascinating for its premises and ideas, and I kept finding myself wondering how I was compelled to spend so much time in a story arc that lacked much of the kind of major conflict/resolution processes I’m used to in a novel. The thinking, though, is pretty revolutionary, and ultimately fairly believable. And underlying it is a theme that I can’t help identifying with. As spoken by Tjan, one of the book’s main characters, “when you do cool stuff, you end up making money.”

This is something I’ve always wanted to believe. “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” People say that all the time. I’ve never been able to fully buy that. Lots of people do things they love and are poor because of it. And some people can’t ever figure out how to monetize what they love, even if they’re really good at it. That line from the John Mayer song comes to mind: “All we need is love is a lie ’cause we had love and we still said goodbye…” Things don’t always work out for even the most talented. You’ve got to bridge the gap between what you love to do and the people who will pay you to keep doing it.

 

There’s also the bifurcation of work. In this world, I think you can distill the types of jobs people have into two main categories. There are makers and there are doers. Makers are the artists, engineers, writers, poets, architects and chefs of the world. They are homo faber, and they comprise a great number of professions. They invent, they build, they cook, they inspire. They are driven by beauty and the question of what isn’t, but could be. Doers are the salesmen, executives, PR people, lawyers, doctors, teachers, marketing folks, etc. These are the people who make commerce – and life itself – happen. They commoditize, they fix systems, they keep the wheels turning and the lights on and the folks breathing. The Makers, often as not, are too focused on the making and not enough on the Doing. And the Doers suffer from similar shortsightedness, and often focus all their attention on keeping things going instead of creating things that are worth going for.

 

This is perhaps overly simplistic or dualistic, and there’s certainly overlap between the two fields. Plenty of people are part Maker and part Doer, and they’re probably very successful insofar as they can achieve balance in this respect. Or at the very least, they’re more adaptable. In a way, I think I fall into this hybrid category myself. I am a Maker down to my bones, and yet I often find myself in jobs where I spend most of my time Doing, not Making. I jump at the chance to Make, and yet I continue to Do because that’s where I’ve found more success. I find very little appeal in the notion of starving artistry. Not when I have five kids and a mortgage. No thank you. (Ironically, my Twitter feed is open, and a quote just streamed past, “Responsibility to the art is the only reason to make art.” This is a dispute that will likely never end. Art for art’s sake vs. art for pay. That is the question!)

 

All of this is germane, though, in how we define ourselves. When people ask me what I do, I can choose to tell them my job title, or I can trot out my well-worn, “I’m a writer.” Recently, though, my wife sort of stunned me when she said to me, “Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe you’re just good at writing. If you were a writer, don’t you think you would finish something?”

 

I was troubled by this, but there’s something to it. She said this to me over a month ago, and I became more determined than ever that I was going to finish NaNoWriMo and prove to myself (and her) that I was in fact a writer and that I could finish something. Of course, we wound up moving to the new house during November, which ate up two of my long weekends, and then we had family and friends visiting around Thanksgiving for a week-and-a-half solid, and I realized that there was just no chance I was making it to 50,000 words by November 30th. In fact, I haven’t quite made it to even 5,000. Now, I can blame this on extenuating circumstances, and that’s probably even fair. But I can’t help feeling like it’s just another excuse.

 

This morning, we broached the topic again. I mentioned how with over a week of family visiting, I didn’t pull out my camera even once.

 

“What does that say about me?” I asked.

“It says that you’re normal.” She said. “And it’s about time.”

“But that doesn’t make me a very good photographer. Photographers always have their cameras ready to go.” I objected.

“You’re not a photographer.” She said. “You’re someone who is good at photography.”

“But what am I then?” I asked.

“You’re husband. And a father.”

 

She sounded like she was telling me the most obvious thing in the world. And in a way, she was. I am a husband and a father, and those things do come first. But I am something more than that. I’m restless unless I have a creative project to work on. If my work isn’t engaging me, I have something going on at home. A photobook. A story. A video. A design. Something. And maybe the problem is that I’m not necessarily a writer or a photographer or a designer but some combination of those things. The evolution of my self-perspective is that what I am is a storyteller, and that all these things I do are just tools that facilitate my way of being a Maker. They also facilitate my day job, which is also not how I would define myself. I am not just a manger or an association executive – I’m a person who builds relationships and facilitates communication among disparate parties. I build relationships by finding the narrative threads that bring cohesion to the whole picture, and I tie them together.

 

But how do you sell being a storyteller to people? How do you put that on your resume or write it in to your annual review? I’m OK with having an alter ego – the guy who creates things on his own for fun (and the potential chance of capitalizing on that, which is extremely validating no matter how much of an art purist you are) and goes to work and does other things for his career. But whenever possible, it’s fantastic if you can have a synthesis of all of it. If you can do cool stuff, and just end up making money.

 

It’s also possible that I’m barking up the wrong tree trying to define myself by what I do. But I can’t help seeing what I do (or make – here’s the blurring of being a Maker and being a Doer again) as an extension of who I am. What about you? Do you define yourself in similar ways? Or is work just something that happens – even if it’s work you do if nobody is paying you to do it?