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If you're a content creator, you're a tiny startup (you just don’t know it yet)

All of the following terms from Silicon Valley startup culture have direct analogues in the content-creation game. In the examples below, I’ll discuss a blogger or video producer who earns income via Patreon, but the principles generalize much more widely.

Product-Market Fit

Product-market fit is when it becomes clear that a few of your random blog posts get more traction than all the rest — and that these few have something in common. Or when a set of your Youtube videos start earning a lot of positive comments revolving around a particular theme — and this set of videos has that theme in common. In short, it’s when you learn from data where your own autonomous creative tendencies (all your “product features”) intersect (fit) what people want (market). As with startups, this is one of the most crucial turning points in the lifecycle of a creative/intellectual endeavor on the internet. It’s not where amateur dabbling necessarily turns pro, but it is where amateur dabbling has an opportunity to turn pro.

Cost of Acquisition

Cost of acquisition (CAC) is the amount of effort/time it takes you to get a new patron. Consider the following example.

You publish one Youtube video per week.

You spend about 5 hours recording, editing, and posting each video

You gain one new patron per month

The cost of acquiring one customer — your CAC — is 4 x 5 = 20 hours. What is the value of your time? Estimate the highest hourly wage you could currently obtain from an employer. If the most you could earn per hour is $20, then you are effectively spending 20 x 20 = $400 to obtain one customer. Is that good or bad? Depends on how much you earn from a customer, and how much you value money relative to the intrinsic rewards of doing your work.

Churn Rate

Churn is the rate at which your patrons cancel their pledges. Every content creator has some sense of how frequently they pick up new patrons, because picking up a patron is delightful (and Patreon sends you an email). But many content creators pay zero attention to how frequently patrons disappear. Losing patrons is sad, so we’d rather not pay too much attention (and Patreon does not send you an email). But if you are serious about succeeding as a content creator, you need to be as aware of your churn as you are currently aware of your rate of acquisition.

Simply put, if your churn is too high, you will never be able to go full time (at least not via Patreon). Churn rate is also a useful signal in the short-term because it tells you if your subscribed patrons are content with what you’re putting out and how you’re putting it out. If churn is uncomfortably high, that means it will be worth it to allocate time and effort to improving what you post exclusively for patrons, how often, etc. If churn is low, don’t waste time revamping Patreon and rather focus on public content that will acquire new patrons. There are surprisingly many ways to calculate churn. Here is the one that makes the most sense for content creators. To calculate your churn rate, take the total dollar value of all cancelled and decreased pledges in the previous calendar month, and divide it by the total value of all your pledges at the beginning of that month. For example, assume the following.

Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 30, two $10 patrons canceled and one $50 patron decreased their pledge to $25. That’s a total of $45 exiting your recurring revenue stream.

On September 1, you had $800 in pledges.

Your churn rate is 45 / 800 = 0.06. Multiply by 100 for a nice percentage figure: 6%.

You could do this for a few of the most recent months and average across them for a more robust sense of your churn.

Communications from Patreon staff suggest that the average churn rate is about 5%. (They say that’s a “healthy rate,” which I’m assuming means “average.”) You might therefore decide that a churn rate higher than 5% deserves your attention and effort, whereas a churn rate at 5% or lower does not warrant any increased effort on Patreon management.

If it’s not obvious, your growth rate has to be higher than your churn rate to succeed in the long-run.

Lifetime Value

The lifetime value (LTV) of a patron is the size of their pledge multiplied by the number of months they stay subscribed. If the average patron gives $5, and continues to give for 6 months, the average LTV is 5 x 6 = $30. This hypothetical content creator is not a promising startup.

However, this basic formula somewhat underestimates LTV if you plan to sell additional products or services outside of Patreon, such as books or courses. You might assume a 2-3% conversion rate, such that 2 or 3% of patrons will buy whatever additional products you sell later. If you make 3 courses for $500 each, and every patron has a 2-3% chance of buying, then you can add to each patron’s LTV 1500 x .025 = 38. In this example, your average LTV is really more like 68.

Communications from Patreon staff suggest the average amount of time a patron remains a patron is about three months.

The ultimate benefit of understanding and calculating these metrics is to gain an honest, objective picture of your project’s financial viability. Adding these numbers to your understanding might produce some somber insights about your project at first, but they all suggest viable solutions and even tell you how to prioritize and sequence your next steps: increase your planned products outside of Patreon, shift effort from retaining to acquiring patrons, etc.

Was this helpful? You should let me know because I’m not sure how many of my readers are interested in this stuff. If you are, I could say much more on this…

You can’t be smarter than you are

This might sound obvious, but it’s not: You are only as smart as you are. People get stuck because they aspire to be smarter than they are. People refuse to produce until they are as smart as they want to be, but the only way to become as smart as one wants to be, is to start producing work at one’s current stupidity level. If you feel that you are dumber than you wish to be, the only way to become smarter is to produce smarter work, but the only way to do that is to start now producing whatever you are currently capable of producing. The reason is that you have to become possessed by a real, living, breathing, passionate agenda. It’s a trajectory, a process, where one idea or question or puzzle is what propels you into the next.

Writing an honest, unpretentious, and stupid blog post today at your current, actual stupidity level will give you something to beat with a slightly less stupid blog post the day after. Writing two stupid blog posts, two days in a row, will boost your internal sense of production potential enough that you’ll allow yourself to generate 5 new blog post ideas, whereas yesterday you never even allowed yourself to have new blog post ideas because you saw yourself as not-yet-smart-enough to even deserve your own blog post ideas! Of those 5 new ideas, 4 will be really stupid but 1 of them will turn out noticeably smarter than both of your first two blog posts. The 4 really dumb blog posts will be ignored and forgotten, but that strong post will get more reads and shares than all of the previous ones combined. And so on… Fast forward 6 months, and the “stupid” version of you who dared to be honestly stupid is now 3x smarter than the version of you who chose to postpone working until you’re finally smart enough.

The worst that can happen is nothing

If you’re genuinely seeking the truth and you put something crappy into the world, nothing happens. There is no punishment for crappy content. It’s one of the simplest and most profound facts of conducting creative intellectual work on the internet. If you make something good or important, there’s some probability above zero that good things will happen to you. If you make something genuinely stupid, useless, or “cringe” — people ignore it and then forget it.

The fear of some imaginary punishment for failure blocks many unique intellectual trajectories from ever taking off. In almost every case, the fear is completely within the person’s own mind: “If I make content and it’s crappy, people will think I am dumb.” But the truth is they won’t, because “people” will never see it. “People” don’t read or watch anything for more than 3 seconds if they judge it to be crappy. If it’s truly crappy, people won’t pay enough attention to formulate the thought, “this is crappy.” And they certainly won’t bother to share it with disapproval, because crappy content is not worth attacking! Ironically, if someone shares your work to tell others that it’s crappy, this almost certainly means there is at least something good and important hiding within it.

If you search for “Based Deleuze” on Twitter, the overwhelming majority of tweets are making fun of it in some way. Yet it has sold well for a modest fringe philosophy book; I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback privately; it’s on Libgen and Aaaaarg (pirate sites); and many of the people who find it so crappy seem to be actually reading it and sharing their takes with others. Do you know how few people actually read theory books, let alone meme about them? It turns out that people calling your content crappy starts to happen right when you're finally getting real traction.

Having your weaker content ignored and forgotten is not a punishment or cost of failure, it is literally the absence of punishments and costs. As soon as you realize there is no punishment for bad content, your list of content ideas will expand dramatically and suddenly. Your motivation for trying them will increase. Some will be good, most will be bad, but when you experience the results first-hand (instead of taking my word for it), then you’ll really be off to the races.

Abjection

If you would like to become a philosopher or any type of serious intellectual you must acquaint yourself with the concept of abjection. To be a philosopher one must be abject, and the reason a lot of people don't understand anything about this concept is because most contemporary philosophers want to be respected; they want to be in good standing in society. They want to be accepted. Whereas what we should try to be is abjected.

If you want to think what other people are unable or unwilling to think, and you want to express it in any way that has any impact at all, then you should expect to be mercilessly, brutally rejected — abjected — and pretty much thrown out of every possible social standing that is available to people. It's just part of the game, folks, it always has been. I think what we're seeing now with what is called political correctness or cancel culture is, in some sense, just the catching up of digital culture to this basic, essential reality, which has always obtained. If you want to say anything that's meaningfully and interestingly and importantly importantly true. You should expect to be rejected.

The great saints have always been abject; great criminals, for instance, have always been abject. the criminal and the saint essentially converge. The true intellectual and the artist and the true political militant, all of these figures tend to converge in a tendency towards abjection — a kind of complete, utter incommensurability, a kind of impossibility of being integrated into contemporary status quo institutions. And that sounds kind of sexy and impressive and cool, but in practice it's not. In practice, in any particular status quo environment and any particular epoch, to be a true intellectual or artist or saint or whatever... is to suffer, it's to be alone. It's to be isolated. It's for people to hate you, pretty much.

You become anti-fragile, one might even say. All of the ways in which people usually punish you and try to constrain your behavior... Not only are you robust to them, you're unaffected by them. They don't bother you, they motivate you. They make you feel even more energized and more emboldened because when someone is disgusted by you or is mean to you, if you can actually feel encouragement through that, if you hack your systems and your circuitry in a way that you actually feel positive affect because you realize in this longer term historical way that sort of abjection is positively correlated with radical truth-seeking... if you're able to experience that positive affect from it, then all of a sudden you enter into this new type of non-linear psychological-productive dynamic where the more people hate you the more able to produce, the more insights you're able to glean, the deeper you're able to go into your abject search for whatever form of truth you're after.

Not making progress or losing motivation?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was recently hired on a monthly retainer to do some intellectual consulting. Basically, a very smart person just needed to some help getting a project off the ground — what they needed was a combination of substantive feedback, informal support, tactical guidance, and tips and tricks on the social and technological practicalities of undertaking long-term intellectual projects in today’s day and age. I’ve also been doing some advising and mentoring for a few different people by the hour, since I've opened up my calendar to anyone who wants to hire my time. I wrote a few weeks ago that I would condense some of my recurring insights/suggestions for posting here.

When people say they’re not making progress, or they’re losing motivation, these “symptoms” often point to a common problem. It’s also a common problem one observes in undergraduate and graduate students alike. The problem is that the goal/purpose or research question is too broad or ambitious. In fact, this is possibly the single most common problem people run into when trying to setup a research agenda of any kind.

So here is some advice I recently gave to a client, on this problem. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the audio from the relevant part of our conversation. I’m posting it here on the expectation that at least a few others might find it useful.

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Your aspirations are probably too large for whatever you are trying to do. It's great to have huge aspirations for the long-run, but it's terrible to have huge aspirations for particular projects. I think this might explain a few different features of your current blockages because on the one hand, one problem with having a goal that's too big and too far out... well, there are a bunch of problems with that. One is everything you do is going to feel painfully inadequate. That's one major problem because the goal is so big and far off that you're not actually going to get satisfaction from any of the little problems you may actually be able to solve in your lifetime. So that's one major problem. And then, because you're not getting satisfaction from what you can solve, you don't even feel like working on what you can solve because the motivational equation isn't there because it doesn't satisfy you because the way you're thinking about your goal.

That's one thing I think. So the first thing I said is the motivational problem (that you're not satisfied by any particular problem you solve) but then there's also the substantive problem that you're actually not able to make heads or tails of very much because you're throwing your net too wide in other words.

So you're like, “I want [insert crazy big goal, i.e. to solve nuclear fusion] right now,” so I better get ready to advance eight different fields at once and you actually might not be making progress — not only for the motivational problem, but also maybe because the knowledge or the insight just isn't there yet. And you're not going to be able to fast forward through force of will, you know, no matter how intelligent or willful you are. You're not going to be able to force multiple fields to advance at a rate that they're just not able to advance, and so you're going to be trying to connect all these dots but you run the risk of not actually connecting any dots because you're just trying to connect them too widely.

It seems like this might be happening to you and if you're getting demoralized about it, I think that's about as much proof as you need, to think that something like this is going wrong. Something about the basic coordinates of how you were conceiving the larger puzzle and your particular goal in it all.

My sense is that something about your basic view of the problem and your potential contribution needs to be recalibrated in a way that is more practical, more possible, so that it fills you with a sense of concrete, achievable possibility. You want to feel on a daily basis, or maybe not daily basis, but at least weekly basis, you want to feel like you're making tangible progress. It should feel exciting… It should be hard work and there should be days of struggle with no progress, that's fine. But maybe only days of that. Maybe if you're unlucky, a week or two of getting absolutely nowhere and just scratching your head. But on most weeks, and even most days, you want to feel like at the very least you are advancing one tiny step by tiny step, in a way that you can feel and that should feel gratifying and motivating. If you’re not, just reframe the problem more modestly, break off increasingly small ways of chipping away at your grand vision.

You might feel like smaller questions or goals are lame, but first of all they’re not, and second of all the lamest thing ever is doing nothing, which is what you’re currently doing (because your goals are too big.) Humility and modesty are virtues; practice them until you’re on a track of daily work that at least makes sense to you. If you can achieve that by being more humble, then you’ll be proud of your incremental progress and then — ironically — you’ll feel more in touch with your big aspirations than you do now.

So to summarize, I would say tinker with your perception of the problem and your goal and tinker with how you see yourself fitting into it and keep tinkering with it until you get to a certain level of abstraction in which you feel like you're making constant progress, even if it's minuscule and struggling progress. Keep recalibrating until you get that feeling, because without that feeling you're probably never going to get anywhere. As long as you keep recalibrating, there is nothing that can stop you from eventually iterating onto a framing of the problem that suits you — a framing that interests you personally and of which you capable. There certainly exists some such framing for anyone genuinely dedicated to working on some big topic, so the only thing that could prevent you from completing a meaningful project is if you fixated on one particular framing that overwhelms you. Humility has always been a secret weapon of the great.

If there's anything I can help you with, feel free to Perhaps I can tell you something useful in a post like this one, or a video like this. If you're working on your own project and would like direct support from me and others, you might consider joining my monthly seminar — it's exactly what you get from a graduate-school seminar, except that you can afford it, and you don't get a degree!

Can you do a PhD if you have ADHD?

I received this question recently from a reader. Here is how I replied. I also made this video if you’d prefer to hear my thoughts that way. This post and the video are not exactly the same.

First of all, I'm only slightly “on the spectrum,” if that’s even a thing in this context. I don’t pretend to know anything about clinical psychology. For instance, I’m not even sure if ADHD is maybe one of those made-up conditions that just medicalizes common difficulties, and then everyone seeks a diagnosis for it. I’m sure Scott Alexander has a post on it somewhere, but I haven’t looked because I’m too lazy and would not want to lose an opportunity to opine (how’s that for an epistemic status?). So if ADHD is just another one of these dubious fabrications of the DSM, then what follows will just be my answer to the question “Can you do a PhD if you are easily distracted and/or struggle to do what you’re told and/or procrastinate badly?” I have struggled with enough ADHD symptoms to know at least a thing or two about them — i.e., I follow the ADHD subreddit and frequently recognize myself in it — but I must admit they’ve never been a major debilitating problem for me… So if you have it bad, then I would not expect my input to help you necessarily. It should be obvious none of this is clinical advice. These are just some personal reflections based on my experience.

I think I've learned to hack my rhythms pretty well. Within a big hard goal (getting a PhD), if you find things that make you enthusiastic, you can trick yourself into being really productive by not doing the things you're supposed to, but doing what makes you enthusiastic instead. I have no idea if this makes sense clinically, but that's the best way I can summarize my method. So in grad school I was constantly slacking on my assignments and required readings, and instead I allowed myself to read and work on whatever I felt like — and the reason this worked (none of my profs would remember me as ever slacking on assignments or readings) was that, since I felt like I was fucking off on my responsibilities, it felt fun. Therefore, I could do like probably 5x more and/or better than what the other students could do by just obeying orders. The trick is cultivating interests and enthusiasms that are just proximate enough to what you’re supposed to be doing, that something within the 5x output of your boondoggles can be wrangled into an impressive completion of the assignment or comment on the assigned readings. (I went to a good but mid-tier public research university; at elite schools this hyperactivity quotient will not be as impressive, relatively, because the median student works way harder than at middle-tier universities; so my strategy might be uniquely effective at mid-tier schools, where there is a big gap between median student performance and what the Ivy-trained profs would like to see). If you can do this strategy, you also have a good chance of cultivating a particularly original trajectory, for obvious reasons. You also benefit from the informal social powers that come from being genuinely interested in your work; you seem more authentically engaged, you’ll speak more energetically, and seem more intense and sophisticated than the other students just obeying orders. Of course, it’s risky, because if you go too far out into orbit, you might just become a crank who all the profs and students roll their eyes at. Which one of these two types was I? Which one am I? The jury is still out on that one, but I was one of the only students in my cohort to get a permanent research-based academic appointment. So I did something right.

In short, you allow the ADHD tendencies to do whatever work they will let you do, and then just fake everything else. But as you go, you organize all your fragmented ADHD enthusiasms into a larger narrative that makes sense out of the work you have been doing. Given that the big challenge of a PhD is precisely this — crafting an original narrative about who you are and what you are working on, why it’s important and why someone should hire you, etc. — I actually think think this hacked ADHD strategy can be a strange advantage. Because you are forced to get good at spinning your absurd distractions into an impressive finished project, from the very beginning, whereas the more conscientious students don’t have to work that muscle until they get ready for the job market. Your very first term paper will already be an audacious feat of self-serving dissimulation, as you’ll be forced to furnish a display of coherent intelligence with nothing more at your disposal than a few months’ worth of chaotic digressions. By the time you’re done with the PhD, you’ll probably have way more practice than the other students.

Another thing I should mention is that my PhD was in the social sciences, and my strategic advice would presumably apply way less in the hard sciences. To be fair, I was trained in the harder wings of the social sciences, by hard social scientists. But still. A Phd in the social sciences or humanities is not rocket science. You have to read tons, or at least be able to talk about books you're supposed to have read, and you need to ultimately write a ~150-400 paged thing with a beginning, middle, and an end. But the truth is, it really doesn't have to be very good, and nobody will ever read it. Mind you, I have supervised PhD students as well. Of course, succeeding in academia is a whole different game than simply completing a PhD; getting an academic job is much, much harder, but doing a PhD in the social science is not very hard so long as you basically like to read anything and can force yourself to write anything in a semi-disciplined way for a few months in a row, a few separate times. This point is crucial for understanding the viability of my strategy. Nobody really cares what your dissertation is about, so long as you can produce a long document that makes decent sense and cites certain people. So as long as you can convert your distracted enthusiasms into text, there will exist some way for you to rearrange that text into a passable dissertation.

I suppose I have many more dubious bits of highly conditional advice on grad school and academia questions, if you want to try me.

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