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March 27, 2009 9:28 AM   Subscribe

John Gruber of Daring Fireball:
"My friend Merlin Mann and I had a session at SXSW Interactive about two weeks ago. It certainly wasn’t a panel, and it wasn’t really a presentation. It was more like an hour-long duet rant, the main goal of which was to inspire anyone who wants to publish or write on the web to pursue their obsessions in a serious way. We got the audio recording of the session from SXSW a few days ago, recorded short intro and outro segments, and Merlin spliced it together and has published it on his 43 Folders podcast. I encourage you to go ahead and listen to it."
posted by Brandon Blatcher (26 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Breaking news: Bloggers Merlin Mann & John Gruber are reported slain. Police have released a composite sketch from eyewitnesses."
posted by Pronoiac at 10:33 AM on March 27, 2009


I love merlin mann, but I prefer to live my life in the laziest possible manner, doing creative shit only when I feel like it and planning nothing at all ever, while working too hard at something that isn't my dream job, but which allows me to go to restaurants for dinner and drink wine.

Sure, when the winter comes I'll be cold and shivery but I'd go stir crazy in them little ant-caves anyway. I'd write more about this but it is naptime and there is a river and mossy tree root with my name on it.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:46 AM on March 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


The Daring Fireball post about this has this great quote from Jonathan Coulton:

But somewhere along the way the bottom line started improving, and I became less obsessed with tracking every little thing. Now I sort of think of the whole engine as a special genetically engineered cow who eats music and poops money — I have no idea what’s going on in its gut, and I have the luxury of not really caring that much about the particulars. […]

The state of the industry makes a lot more sense when you think of it this way, all these new business models rising and falling, internet radio choking on insanely high performance royalties, Radiohead and NIN giving stuff away and making a killing. This is the thing about the new landscape that drives everyone crazy: you can’t see inside the cow; you can only build one, feed it music, and wait for it to poop.

posted by scottreynen at 10:57 AM on March 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sometimes Gruber can come across as insufferably smug:

You can obsess over your work, build an audience based on deep mutual respect, and eventually opportunities to earn money from it will present themselves. I don’t know how it works, I only know that it does.

It's The Secret, but for creatives! If you don't visualize riches, they will come!

The cynic in me suggests that there are thousands of aspiring writers and musicians with just as much Deep Earnest Integrity as Gruber professes for whom it is not working.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:07 AM on March 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


This is like a dissection of every internal creative conflict I grapple with. A lot of good content in what they talk about, but I can't decide if it's motivational or just depressing. There's a world of stuff that goes through my head when I start down this road.

"Obsession times voice" is an excellent description of the character of things I enjoy reading. I admire the hell out of people who can pick a thing and run with it well over the long term. I want, in an abstract way, to do that sort of thing myself, but I tend to be much more fitful in my execution, running with a whim until it peters out and then moving on to the next one. The great trail of creative corpses I've left spooling out behind me, languishing and abandoned, really gets me down.

Another thing that struck me:

"Who do you want to delight" is a question I don't really let take up a lot of my thinking when I get a dumb idea for a website (and man do I get a lot of dumb ideas for websites), and that's not really a problem per se because I mostly execute these things because they make me smile or laugh for their own sake.

But I have a problem with motivation on the long term with most projects. I end up neglecting them, and I ask myself a lot about why I do that and what's going on, and as much as anything it's just lack of either of a couple incentives that they guys touch on repeatedly in the talk:

1. I'm not obsessed. I really like the X-Files, I really liked writing silly songs about the news, I really liked riffing about shit that's been left on the table in my old apartment building, etc, but none of these are singular obsessions. None of them are abiding things that I need to do to feel like my week has been worth the effort. They're shiny fun ideas but then they get worn out.

Having a generalist mindset and being easily distracted is a problem for me, and I figure for a lot of people on this front. The idea of obsessing (not clinically, just in terms of focused attention) is a really good one for doing something well and right and frequently over the long term, and one of the things I struggle with is whether or not I can find a way to sort of manufacture that obsession if it isn't something that's naturally occurring in my character.

Like Potomoc Avenue says: I like to chill out and drink wine, I like to play video games and spend time with my wife.

2. I don't get high of the amount of visible delight I generate. I love that when I do some new project a few people usually really like it, but (and this goes back to point (1), I suppose) I don't necessarily have the drive or the sensibility to turn that few people into a lot of people. And it's not fair to expect a few people who really get what I'm doing with a given project to provide sufficient bouyancy through just their involvement and feedback to keep my creative high going.

Obsession would make that less of an issue, and when I was doing e.g. The Aural Times I think it kept going at the solid pace it did (there was a good six month stretch, tremendous by my standards up to that point, where I was posting three times a week and putting a huge amount of work into the music and site) partly because at the time there was a bit of obsession going on.

But without either personal obsession or a self-sustaining crowd of fans/participants, keeping something quality up at a brisk pace is hard. It's very difficult to just do it if it starts to feel like work and it doesn't pay as well as actual work, and finding the incentive to do it anyway and soldier on toward some more organic incentive on the horizon is a big challenge. For me, personally; for a whole lot of people in general, I presume.
posted by cortex at 11:21 AM on March 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yeah, this Gruber guy can be counted on to be consistently wrong about most things. His blog is basically a place for him to jack off to apple products on the web and trash its competitors.
posted by euphorb at 11:21 AM on March 27, 2009


Is this the same Merlin Mann I used to go see play live music in Tallahassee, Florida circa 1994?
posted by NationalKato at 11:23 AM on March 27, 2009


It's The Secret, but for creatives! If you don't visualize riches, they will come!

Well, yeah, it's problematic when it starts to sound like guru talk. The last thing people need to do is to decide that instead of visualizing riches they should visualize the act of getting rich by not visualizing riches, because that's just blowing smoke up your own ass.

But there's truth to the idea that doing something for it's own sake, and doing it well and long and with some personal drive other than the belief that it will make you money, can lead in the long run to in fact making money because people have over time come to respect in greater numbers what you do and how well you do it.

It's a mistake to take that as anything other than a bit of practical philosophy, for sure. It's not a guarantee in any sense, and I think for all the sort of compressed nature of Merlin and John's back-and-forth they tried to acknowledge that this was more about a right way to approach doing a thing than it was about the magical secrets of moneymaking. But the basic idea is valid, for all that, I think.
posted by cortex at 11:27 AM on March 27, 2009


But there's truth to the idea that doing something for it's own sake, and doing it well and long and with some personal drive other than the belief that it will make you money, can lead in the long run to in fact making money because people have over time come to respect in greater numbers what you do and how well you do it.

Survivor bias. The people who tried this strategy and failed don't write blogs about it. It's a crap shoot and these two guys came out on top. But saying that won't garner many new readers will it?
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Survivor bias doesn't make it not valid, though. A strategy can be better without any guarantee of success on individual trials. That these guys came out ahead obviously isn't it a bulletproof endorsement of their personal philosophy on stuff, but it's certainly an indication that that philosophy applied can work.

To put it another way, there's crap shoots and then there's blackjack, and we may just disagree about which one of those this sort of "serious blogging" niche is better described as. There's a lot of chance, a lot of serendipity, in either case, but the degree to which effort and skill come into it varies an awful lot between the two.
posted by cortex at 11:40 AM on March 27, 2009


I don't know, GuyZero, if you've ever seen Merlin Man speak, his earnestness and intensity really do grab you right away, and he seems to work round the clock even with a family now, so maybe he really does have a stronger personal drive than others who try and give up. He certainly seems to sustain that drive longer than anyone else I've met, based on what he's done on the interwebs.

I tend to agree with Cortex on this one because though I strive for quality and integrity and want to keep that passion going with whatever I attempt, sometimes I'll go through stretches where I just can't maintain that drive, and I think most people are that way, and that's why we aren't hugely successful. I'd count #1 up there on my list of People I Admire For Staying With a Vision For So Long, btw.
posted by misha at 11:43 AM on March 27, 2009


NationalKato: Yep.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 11:51 AM on March 27, 2009


The Vice Magazine guys said that if you pick something you really really love doing and work your ass off at it for ten years straight, you get a million dollars. That's probably true but I'd love to see somebody try to test that theory with utterly untenable ventures like toothpick sculpture or podcasting.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:01 PM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


I grossed a million dollars in the last decade, but I sure didn't net a million dollars.
posted by GuyZero at 12:16 PM on March 27, 2009


From Sound of Young America, another chat, with Merlin Mann, the Homestar Runner makers, & the creative director of Adult Swim. (I'm midway through listening to this now.)

I know I've gotten less fond of forums & sites because instead of a conversational tone, it felt like the point became using readers as a focus group or just pimping wares.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:47 PM on March 27, 2009


The Vice Magazine guys said that if you pick something you really really love doing and work your ass off at it for ten years straight, you get a million dollars. That's probably true but I'd love to see somebody try to test that theory with utterly untenable ventures like toothpick sculpture or podcasting.

The Ricky Gervais podcast counts, I think, & BoingBoing TV is on Virgin flights in a way that might count.

About toothpicks: Stan Munro is doing that as his day job & Steven Backman seems to do all right.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:25 PM on March 27, 2009


I like Dave Gray's drawings.
posted by steef at 1:44 PM on March 27, 2009


It's The Secret, but for creatives! If you don't visualize riches, they will come!

I think you're ignoring something implicit in this talk, which is that this is what worked for them, but that doesn't mean it'll work for everyone. There are many paths to making a living off your passions and not every path fits every person

I want, in an abstract way, to do that sort of thing myself, but I tend to be much more fitful in my execution, running with a whim until it peters out and then moving on to the next one. The great trail of creative corpses I've left spooling out behind me, languishing and abandoned, really gets me down.

See above. Just note that I would definitely check a website called "Planet Cortex" just to see what you're up to.

I love that when I do some new project a few people usually really like it, but (and this goes back to point (1), I suppose) I don't necessarily have the drive or the sensibility to turn that few people into a lot of people.

Paraphrasing a Stephen King quote:
"You don't do for the money, though money is very nice. You do it because you can't not do it."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:50 PM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


So when the Creative creates work, is it consumed by the Consumptive?

I really dislike this nouning of adjectives. It's worse than verbing.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:56 PM on March 27, 2009


I was there for this presentation, and I have to say it was probably far more interesting to Merlin Mann and Jon Gruber than it was to me. It felt like a couple of the Really Cool Kids were having a random conversation about what works for them and the rest of us were just watching. I would have rather they actually prepared something to say.

But I think they're both amazing writers, and I have to say that my obsessions have turned out to make money better than my money-making plans. Except for being a musician, that never made me a cent...
posted by mmoncur at 3:35 PM on March 27, 2009


I'd love to see somebody try to test that theory with utterly untenable ventures like toothpick sculpture or podcasting.

I can't speak for the toothpick sculpture, but this couple's trying it with podcasting. I don't know how well they are doing though.

This whole thing sounds a lot like reading Steve Pavlina's blog. A lot of "do what you want because you love it, not because the goal is to wring money out of people." I'm starting to think that is a good idea, especially when you see examples like JoCo and his pooping cow out there.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:40 PM on March 27, 2009


Uh what if you don't like anything?
Or rather, you have a lot of interests but you're not really that spectacular or even really good at anything and you don't really have anything that you're really passionate about, and you feel all blocked up, like you have all of this pressure in the back of your head and no real way to release it, and your failure, or rather inability, to express anything of interest eats away at you from the inside and all of the promise and emotion you once felt curdles into bitterness and gall?

WHAT.
THEN.
posted by 235w103 at 8:53 PM on March 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


WHAT.
THEN.


Write anyway. I've felt the way you describe for the past decade or so, constantly stopping and starting in fits, shifting from one topic to another. I finally picked a certain topic and started writing and lo, PoliticalFilter was born (see my profile for link).

Having written something about a certain topic pretty much everyday for the past six months has been illuminating. I wouldn't claim that all that writing is great, but it feels like I'm writing towards a purpose now, like I've chipped away at a lot of gunk on the surface and I'm starting to realize there is some meat down there, somewhere. If I keep writing, keep trying, I'll reach it. It may not always be easy, but it is rewarding.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:20 PM on March 27, 2009


From Sound of Young America, another chat, with Merlin Mann

I listened to this yesterday. I like Merlin a lot though I've never met personally met him, but I have to disagree with his earnest assertions that just putting good stuff out there on the web will somehow end up with you being showered with recognition and win. As far as I can tell, for most net.names most of the time, him included, it's just as much about who you know personally, who you hang out with, who you call friend, who you go to conferences with, and who scratches your back after you've scratched theirs on the internet as it is in the rest of life.

So it goes; I'm not complaining or anything. But I think it's a bit disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:10 AM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Vice Magazine guys said that if you pick something you really really love doing and work your ass off at it for ten years straight, you get a million dollars.

The Vice Magazine guys are completely full of shit.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:17 AM on March 28, 2009


MeFi's own
posted by netbros at 8:52 PM on March 29, 2009


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