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November 14th, 2020
Get fired from a job, and suddenly the profiles change, the Instagram photos are suddenly misaligned, anachronistic - the posts and replies, the DM’s may become dreaded - all because a sense of identity is thrown out of balance. Personal identity is linked up to what we do and how we feel about it. But dig a little deeper and personal identity is -ironically- more about how others feel about what we do. The core of it is best incapsulated by the queen of passive aggressive cocktail party questions: what do you do?
In the setting of small talk, chit chat, and meeting new people, asking what someone does is the fastest way to size a person up by tapping into an entire network of pre-compiled assumptions and ultimately to quickly judge someone. This is the credential game, the socio-economic version of settling sediment layering itself in liquid. In all situations we eagerly sniff out the hierarchy, always conscious that one exists, anxious to find out where in the pecking order we land. An underwhelming answer provides a sense of superiority, an impressive one ushers forth questions, kindness and other subtle hooks to feel out a way a way to perhaps climb another rung.
All of this is a function of the movement of money. How much of it is going where and why? And it’s important to dive into the purpose of money in order to keep this discussion of identity, work and money from devolving into a crass and brutal portrait of cold capitalism. Far from being obvious nor widely discussed, money is a response to a problem that arises in large groups of people that far exceed Dunbar’s number - a number which defines the limit of people which a single person can reliably “know”. That number is somewhere between 100 and 250. This is the number of people we can reliably vet and keep track of. The key aspect of Dunbar’s number is trust. We are bound by a family of constraints that limit the number of people we can reliably vet for trust. Close friends have been fully vetted for trust and that’s why they are close friends. Acquaintances less so, and quickly we arrive at total strangers, of which modern civilization is replete. So a tricky problem arises: how do you trust a stranger? The human answer to that question is money, which functions as a fungible unit of trust. This is the general, high-level function of money. We welcome the plumber, who is a stranger, into our home to do a job because that plumber has placed trust in the exchange of money just as we have. Paying someone for a service rendered is much the equivalent of saying: you have proved trustworthy and in exchange I grant you some trust which will motivate someone else to trust you when you need something. Of course, our system of money -like any system- is not airtight, and it is gamed in all sorts of ways, but on the whole, for most people, this is the function of money, and it elegantly explains why small sums of money between friends often aren’t an issue. I got this round, don’t worry about it, my pleasure. The reason why good friends are often lax to keep track of a tally between each other is because to do so is to cheapen the authenticity of real trust with a hollow synthetic trust which money represents. Money is also fungible, whereas real trust between close friends is not. If the product turns out to be broken, we can return it for a full refund or get a new one, or we can spend the money on a competitive model. If a best friend dies, it’s an enormous loss that cannot be recouped or exchanged in anyway. This is the tradeoff between fungibility and authenticity. Fungibility is a highly useful quality, but the flip side is that it can make authenticity rare occurrence - at least where the fungibility is present.
All this returns to the pecking order of the cocktail party. We ask that infernally droll question: what do you do? In order to get an instant society-decided score about how trustworthy such a person is. A doctor seems imminently trustworthy, society trusts such people with extremely serious matters and usually such people are rewarded handsomely for it. CEO’s and captains of industry ratchet this score up - at least at the cocktail party. ( This is perhaps different when viewed through the public sphere, but of course the proximity afforded by a cocktail party offers far riper opportunities for another person who is present whereas the distance represented by the public sphere offers any other individual practically no opportunity. )
Now, the pain of losing a job, especially if it’s because of getting fired makes a tremendous amount of sense: it casts a person’s trustworthiness into question on a societal level. No wonder it can cause a person so much stress, which -if that stress becomes chronic - only damages their intrinsic abilities to get back up on their feet. No one likes to be called a liar, not even liars, not even liars who are honest about being dishonest - which is a truly mind boggling form of gaslighting.
The enormous link between one’s work and one’s trustworthiness now properly frames the issue for a tricky aspect of life: art. And it’s framed well with a question:
How does a society of strangers value art that it does not pay for?
This is the monster of anxiety for artists, and the reason why artists will often raise their nose at the mention of money, regarding it as cheap and inauthentic. Thing is, they’re right, but they’re wrong to think it resolves the question in a beneficial way. You can hate money all you want but without a fantastic array of hunter-gatherer skills, it’s a requirement to be a part of the movement of money. But notice how much understandable anxiety this causes for the iconic starving artist, a lack of money throws identity into a nerve-wracking corner because one’s trustworthiness is implicitly thrown into question because the art doesn’t fetch any value in the money system.
Roughly, work is safer than art. The tricky task is combining the two or figuring out how to make art work for you, and to do that it’s important to realize the difference between art and work.
Work, broadly, and for the purposes of this discussion is a predictable service that society values.
Art, on the other hand is the creation of something new.
Work has the expectation that it’ll, well… work. It’s almost always planned and designated by someone higher up, a boss. Whereas art is a novel production independent of the usual money making systems. There is no guarantee that a novel piece of art will, well, work.
There exist, of course, shades of nuance. These somewhat rigidly phrased differences are merely for the purpose of disentangling the two concepts for the purpose of seeing how they can be practically combined, and overlapped, and ideally totally melded together.
The intrinsic difference from a personal perspective is that work is unsurprising, like a chore, whereas art is the exploration of the unknown, it is a child of imagination and curiosity. The token phrase of being a cog in the machine has the defining characteristic of perfect and predictable repetition. Art is the shape-shifting puzzle piece. And when the two are juxtaposed in this way, it’s surprising that so many artists struggle with the question and problem of money. If art is a shape-shifting animal of the imagination, why do so many artists fail to see that one aspect of the artistic process can be to figure out how a new creation can find a place I the movement of money. The artist is at base a curious problem solver, tweaking and tinkering with expression through their medium to get it just right, and yet this tinkering curiosity turns off when many artists zoom out to try and see how the art can or could connect in a meaningful way with the larger world running on the movement of money. Is this not a juicy problem for a curious mind?
One important issue is that the process for making money through work and making money through art operate on completely different time scales while getting started. The hopscotch for work is straight forward. School builds credentials which are used to quickly gain the attention of interviewers and work is not far behind that. Art on the other hand follows a similar process of training, competence, using those to get attention and then figuring out how that attention is best monetized, but it’s far less obvious than with a job, and the time it takes almost always takes far longer. Attention is a fairly good metric to heed. If one’s art captures no one’s attention, then it’s likely an important sign one needs more training and practice to gain the sort of competence that does capture attention. That being said, the ability to capture attention does not necessarily imply that one’s art is all that good. Human attention on a mass scale is a fairly inauthentic beast that comes with some less than respectable hardwiring.
Great examples of the timescale issue of art abound in literature. Herman Melville died thinking he was a failure because the publication of Moby Dick was met with broad negativity. It took over a hundred years for the reading public to come around to the book. If only Herman Melville had lived long enough, he would have died happy. James Joyce is perhaps another example. He thought his book Ulysses would be a best seller - a fairly ridiculous idea for anyone who’s read the book, regardless of how good one thinks it is. Nonetheless, the book is taught in universities around the world and will be for a long time. If only Joyce had lived long enough to get the yearly pay check when the next load of copies is sold, not to mention any future success he might have had with other books had death not ended his writing career. This is much the case with many artists in the past, they simply don’t live long enough for people to notice what they’re doing. The industry of work has no time for such nonsense. That is until a piece of art if finally noticed by enough people and it hits an inflection point that allows it to enter the movement of money.
The issue of attention is entirely changed with modern technology. Today it’s easier than ever for a writer or an artist of any kind to get their art out in front of a great number of eyes. Today, the artist can iterate their skills at a phenomenal rate in order for that shape shifting gear of art to find a shape that meshes with the movement of money. That traditional timescale of art can now be compressed dramatically through the leverage of things like social media, email, and websites.
By now it shouldn’t be a surprise that getting fired* and putting out art that fails to get any attention feel eerily similar for good reason: they are a knock to one’s sense of identity, one’s sense of value and trustworthiness within a larger society of strangers. But they are not the same thing. Both are certainly best followed up with thoughtful reflection on one’s work and one’s approach, but art is a step forward into an unpredictable landscape that offers no guarantee. Getting fired is a lateral push into the unknown - but still within the system of work: getting fired does not implicitly require a person to invent a new job and completely bootstrap it in the way an artist does. Both are nervous occasions because they put us in direct engagement with an unpredictable and unknown tomorrow. But, if we can remember that nothing new is ever found without a good little wander in the unknown, then it’s possible to assuage those nerves, gather one’s wits and figure out the next best step forward.
*this discussion assumes that someone who gets fired is getting fired for just cause. Getting wrongfully fired certainly has some interesting implications regarding trust and our system of money, but they aren’t important for the topic at hand.