What's Money For?
I recently asked a senior financial executive whether he's motivated primarily by money. The big suit hesitated a moment, then decided to answer on the corporate rather than the personal level. "No," he said, "it's not about the money, but money is how we keep score." I neglected to ask him the obvious next question: if money's not the real point, what is? Truthfully, big suit motivations aren't something I ponder much, but it did get me thinking later about IPs. Do IP attitudes towards money differ greatly from those of boardroom moguls or, for that matter, their wage slaves?
As it turns out, Aquent recently did a survey of hundreds of IPs, and one of the questions asked was about the importance of money in the IPs' value system. The typical response was that profit is how IPs measure their success (i.e. 'keep score' -- essentially the same answer as the big suit's), but that ultimately the freedom of the independent lifestyle is more important than the money.
My own attitudes towards money during my long career as an IP were only partially consistent with the "typical" survey result. I agreed with the second part (the freedom mattered more to me than the money) but not with the first part: profit wasn't how I measured my success. I suspect that my unusually disparaging attitude towards money stems from two sources: family and field. I was raised in a beatnik artist family, and even though I long ago substituted my own brand of weirdness for that of my parents, I still retain a slight residue of uneasy feelings about business in general and money in particular. Also, although I've worked in numerous fields as an IP (design and production for both print and Web; cartoon and realistic illustration; several kinds of writing; creative direction), they're all within the creative area. It's possible that an IP in a field where the subject of money itself is more directly connected to their projects -- such as a management, finance, or marketing IP -- would care more about money.
Score? What Score?
The big suit's remark got me wondering how I kept score during my fifteen-plus years of IP-hood. I realized that I hadn't. Oh, sometimes I felt especially good (or even euphoric) at moments of artistic success, validated by winning an award or by praise from a client or the public, but that was sporadic and unquantifiable; I didn't "track" it. Since I'm not a sports fan and dislike all games (I said I was weird), it's not surprising that sports metaphors like "keeping score" aren't significant to me; but scoring is connected to a deeper issue that is important to me: having goals.
Scorekeeping requires quantifiable, clearcut threshold events -- what we normally call goals -- but I didn't have definable goals, just vague desires or "hopes." I hoped to do more writing (like this!) that wasn't just marketing or tech oriented, hoped to sell more paintings, hoped to get more letters from fans of my minicomics, hoped to win more awards, hoped for all kinds of egocentric arty stuff -- but since these aren't clearcut goals, I didn't need and couldn't have used a scorekeeping mechanism. Perhaps that's the underlying point of both my emotional distance from money and my failure to set clear goals -- do I simply avoid any mechanisms that could test my success or failure?
It occurs to me that there's a third element missing from this equation, the middle step between clear goals and scorekeeping: I've never had a long-term career plan, a realistic way of achieving my desires. Goals, plan, score: such an obvious triad, yet how many IPs actually have these things in place?
Perhaps they're easy to avoid because, to tell the truth, it's possible to achieve a fair degree of success without them. I did, but the progress was slow. Really slow. Had there been no progress, I might have been better off, become desperate enough to start nailing things down. Instead I just climbed the ladder in slow motion by the common, inefficient, brute-force method: a lot of time, a little talent, and long years of hard work. I knew something about applying structure to the major projects I undertook for clients (try designing a large Web site without advanced structure and planning, and see what an unearthly mess you end up with) but I resisted applying that same kind of structure to my own career.
What's the money connection? (If you recall, this essay is supposedly about money.) Somehow my bank statements were part of that resistance to career planning; they stayed buried in some filing cabinet, un-analyzed except for one week each year (guess which one), and were almost forgotten thereafter. Most employees know exactly what their salary is, but when you're in business for yourself and don't even have an accountant, it's not so clear-cut. I knew I was making money, but I had no idea how much. I didn't want to know.
It's Gotta Be Good For Something
I don't mean to exaggerate my disdain for filthy lucre. I might as well confess that I do have this perverted desire to acquire more of the stuff, and I can, in fact, think of several things it's good for right off the top of my head. As an IP, the more money you have in the bank, the easier it is to pick and choose the clients you want to work for. As a wage slave, having money may help you to avoid developing the kind of pathetic ass-kissing personality that can result from excessive fear of losing your job. (Actually, having IP skills is an even better antidote for that fear than money is.) Money has numerous obvious uses, many of them summed up by the phrase "personal freedom"; but there may be something less obvious that money is also good for -- not more valuable than freedom, perhaps, but certainly more valuable than all the glittering beeping stuff you can buy. Money can help you do something that's exceptionally important and surprisingly difficult: it can help you to figure yourself out as a person and as an IP.
A little earlier, I suggested a triad -- goals, plan, score -- and now I'm going to suggest another one:
Sounds obvious, huh? The big things often do, once you write them down. What does this have to do with money? Well, you've probably heard of the Rorshach test -- you know, the random inkblots that a shrink shows you, so you can tell her what they remind you of, so she can help you figure yourself out. What makes this possible is that the inkblots don't mean anything until you assign them meaning.
Now hold that thought while I tell you why money is really, really weird stuff.
The Universal Generic Substance
Money is one of the strangest things in our lives, but we're not aware of that because it's so common. Usually, the more common something is, the more standard its purpose is. Cars are everywhere, and we all know they're for getting from one place to another. Air is everywhere, and we all agree it's for breathing. Money is everywhere, and we agree on... nothing. Money is the universal generic substance. It can be a way of buying stuff, or acquiring freedom, or attaining power (that is, reducing the freedom of others). It can be how you keep score, or lord it over your neighbors, or make yourself envious of people you've never met. Spending it can make you happy or miserable; so can hoarding it. It can be a security blanket to calm your fears, or an abstract object of desperate desire for no apparent reason at all. Freud said that playing with money is just the adult form of a baby playing with its own feces -- an attempt to hold on to every part of oneself. Ah, money. If you're economically minded, it can be a theoretical subject worthy of the deepest cogitations; if you're financially neurotic (like me), it's a nerve-racking, and ultimately boring, thing to think about or manipulate.
Currency is deceptive: the slips of paper are covered with printing, but they're really blank, like checks. When you spend them (or fail to) it's like filling in the checks; that's when you find out what their purpose is -- and, perhaps (if you bother to analyze it) what your purposes are. Best of all, using money as a Rorschach test won't even cost you anything: you can put the cash back in your pocket after you're done pondering and fondling it.
Imagine an IP -- we'll call him Fred. We ask Fred about money, and he gives us what he thinks is a sincere answer: "Money is a practical commodity; it's useless if left lying in the bank. It should be invested in equipment or marketing or training or anything else to improve one's business." Unfortunately, if Fred sat down with a calculator and analyzed his true spending patterns compared to those of other, more financially successful IPs, he might discover that, in spite of his theories, he's actually investing very little in his business. We all lie to ourselves sometimes. The advantage of using money as a reality check is that it's quantifiable, which makes it a powerful tool for cutting through our self-deceptions. If Fred were to face the truth coldly -- "I say I believe in self-investment, but in fact I'm hoarding my cash and investing nothing" -- if he could face that, the obvious next step would be for him to ask himself why. "Why aren't I... ahem... putting my money where my mouth is?" Maybe he has fears he's not confronting -- about his competitiveness, or future market conditions, or -- even deeper -- maybe he doesn't really want to be in his particular line of work at all, but is afraid to admit it to himself. (This particular self-deception is very common; most people are terrified of change and often rationalize that fear as something else.)
My point isn't the specifics of this hypothetical case; my point is that money is one of the few indicators that's ubiquitous and quantifiable enough to allow Fred to look at his own behavior objectively, if he dares. If he does, he may discover something about himself that's more valuable than the money itself is.
Or think about Sue. She's long thought about hiring an assistant to help with the administrative tasks that are eating up half her time, but she never does because (it seems) it's never quite the right time; she just needs to wait until she gets one more contract in the bag, a little more money in the bank. But if she set up a specific monetary goal, and met it, and still was reluctant to hire an assistant -- then perhaps Sue would finally realize that the monetary issue was just a pseudo-issue that was really masking something else. Perhaps she's afraid of inadvertently evolving into a larger business, and desires to remain a pure solo professional. There's nothing wrong with wanting to stay solo -- I actually think it's the best choice for many of us -- but there is something wrong with her lying to herself about her own motivations.
Overall, my point is simple, although it may also sound a wee bit sappy: The same attributes of money that make it useful for scorekeeping also make it useful for soul-searching.
All this philosophizing about capital has exhausted me. I can feel my inner beatnik artist child screaming from deep within: "San, look what you've become in your middle age: a writer about money. You business turd! What's next, a move to suburbia?" Not to fear, kid, suburbia's out, I can't even drive. But, Dear Reader, why am I lecturing you about money anyway? What am I, an economist? I can't even use a spreadsheet. I never memorized the multiplication tables and I'm still traumatized by it. I know nothing about this stuff, nothing! From now on I'm only going to write about innocuous, lighthearted subjects that I actually know something about, such as half-baked art and raw sex.
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
We'd love to hear your feedback about this column.