You Don't Need to Make It
"Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know The someone who could lift you off the ground Someone in the crowd could take you where you wanna go Someone in the crowd could make you Someone in the crowd could take you Flying off the ground If you're the someone ready to be found"
– La La Land (2016)
Damien Chazelle wrote La La Land as a tribute to those aspiring creatives who move to Los Angeles to chase their dreams. They struggle in obscurity, sometimes for years, while working odd jobs and wondering if they'll ever make it! Will they be a star? As Chazelle noted at a press conference for the film's premiere:
"There is something very poetic about the city I think, about a city that is built by people with these unrealistic dreams and people who kind of just put it all on the line for that."
Suppose you too want to make a living as an actor in Hollywood. Or, more generally, suppose you want to make a living in some highly creative and highly competitive industry. The prevailing narrative about these career paths, reinforced by films like La La Land, is that your only choice is to make it! You either win big or you fail. There is no middle ground.
We've all heard the statistics. For every New York Times bestseller, there are thousands of unread novels. For every Grammy nominee "stunting on a Jumbotron", there are thousands of unknown musicians gigging in small-town Irish pubs. And don't forget about entrepreneurs! Most of their startups fail, too.
The only solution, it seems, is to aim for super-stardom and hope to make it! Which is to say: the only solution is to work really really hard and then... get lucky. Hopefully some chance opportunity – a perfect audition, an interview that puts you on the map – catapults you "flying off the ground" to lasting success and many interviews with fawning podcast hosts.
Cue the choreographed dance.
The make it! narrative is poetic and compelling. Dream big. Shoot for the moon or land among the stars.
But is it true?
Do you really need to become a superstar to earn a living in these creative and intellectual fields? As a writer, musician, comedian, entrepreneur? No. In fact, it may be more sensible to try and not be a superstar.
In his essay "1,000 True Fans", former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly argues that creative workers can all build sustainable careers by just aiming for a thousand true fans to buy their work, instead of a million.
With a thousand true fans, you only need to earn $100 of profit from each of your fans every year to make $100,000. Sure, you won't be rolling up to 1 OAK in a matted-out Maybach. But you'll be making a living from what you love to do – creating – which is the end goal, right?
Aiming for a thousand true fans is a much more realistic strategy than aiming for a million. Most of us know close to a thousand people already. If you don't, thanks to the connectivity of the Internet, most of us can easily find a thousand people.
There are also countless platforms that let you build a business from these relationships. Patreon is the most notable example. It allows artists to earn a steady income from their most dedicated fans, who agree to pay a monthly subscription for exclusive content, products, art, music and more. If you prefer to wholly own these relationships, setting up your own website through Wix or Square and fitting it to securely accept payments from fans has never been easier.
One advantage of targeting only a thousand fans is that you can more feasibly find enough people who are extremely passionate about the weird, unique niche products, ideas, or artwork you're creating. Do you love playing math rock? Do you like drawing Japanese illustrations? You can realistically find a thousand fans who share any of these passions and are willing to commit, on average, less than $10 a month to support you.
If you create products or ideas or art aimed at too broad of an audience, you risk becoming clichéd and commercialized. Facebook was just supposed to be for Harvard students. Clif bars for road bikers in California. Bo Burlingham's Small Giants convincingly shows there are plenty of small, individually-owned businesses across America that consistently deliver sustainable value for its employees and owners without an endless addiction to growth. You don't need to be big.
There is a way to make a living in a creative, competitive, intellectually-driven field without hoping to make it! You focus on the quality of your supporters and not the quantity. You focus on authenticity instead of what is currently popular. Outsized success is almost entirely driven by luck, by chance encounters with "someone in the crowd" and opportunities you certainly can't control. You are better off focusing on what you can control: doing work that is genuine and has tremendous value to a small, yet enthusiastic, community of fans.
This community may eventually take off if a hot trend or opportunity sails your way. But if it doesn't, you're still making a comfortable living and staying true to your creative or intellectual ambitions.
You don't need to be a superstar; you don't need to make it!
(1) Small Giants by Bo Burlingham (2006)
(2) The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb (2007)