Capture Y, or go & die
There’s nothing like a good meme when considering the next year as it lays before you. And while I don’t mean to come off fatalist or morbid when I say artists should ‘capture Y or go & die,’ the truth is that too many creative people never capture any percent (Y) of the value (X) that their artistry or novel idea generates for the world.
Tesla as analog
First, let me set the stage slightly so it’s abundantly clear what I’m driving at. It’s perhaps easiest to speak about Nikola Tesla, since his legacy is so clean-cut with regards to X & Y — he makes the case without the need to elaborate one bit.
The Serbian inventor, Nikola Tesla, is galvanized in history as one of the greats, and thanks to Elon Musk, the name ‘Tesla’ became popularized in modern times as America’s newest car brand. This ingenious 20th-century polymath came to America in 1884, and in an impressive burst of creativity, invented fluorescent light bulbs, AC current, X-ray & radio machines, remote controls & wireless communication, electric motors, and much more.
In one lifetime, he burgeoned whole sectors, and wouldn’t you know it, some of his brain-children came to him one century ‘before their time.’ While this incredible man was able to create X value for the world — not unlike many others like him in the sciences, arts & what have you — Tesla was unable to capture any percent (Y) of it.
Tesla died penniless in a rented Manhattan hotel room.
Synonymous to the greatness of Tesla, is Amadeus Mozart. A master keyboardist, composer, and a prodigy in his own class, Mozart spent a life of creating value for the world. Despite his genius, Mozart had a tough time capturing any percent of this value, and he, as well, died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Creative types aren’t allergic to money nor are they addicted to poverty — heck, letters from Amadeus to his father Leopold reveal much about the young composer’s frustrations with getting his patrons to pay on time, etc. Tesla was not aloof in this regard, either. However, there is one stubborn rule about value-creation that seems hidden to many: that value — X — is completely independent from Y — where Y is the percentage captured of X.
If Tesla captured 1% of the value he created for the world, he would have lived & died an incredibly rich man. If Mozart had captured 1% of the value he created for the world, he as well would have lived & died at 35 a life not perennially doused in poverty. So, what made it impossible for these two geniuses to do just that? Was enterprising too gauche an idea for both to explore?
But what of this idea of ‘enterprising’? What does this boil down to, for creative types?
In the simplest terms, an artist isn’t that different from a business brand when it comes to surviving. If one is to stay afloat, the usual business tactics apply: delivering value to customers; being a first mover in a significant area; maintaining market share. All these traits are common to both the successful artist and healthy businesses, alike.
To capture anything, one cannot play in a competitive space. Microeconomics tells us that profits are void for all players in such a landscape. One has to be, truly, one-of-a-kind — a quasi monopoly, if you will — which artists can certainly achieve so long as one doesn’t take the bait and merely try to copy those around them.
If you truly differentiate your brand, and the idea, art, etc. holds value for people, then the stage is set to capture some percent of the value you create. If, on the other hand, you’re just one among many, with no valuable offering and aren’t differentiated much, then the landscape is perfectly competitive, and competitive forces will drive your profits to zero.
Running all bases
When Tesla and Mozart created something new, the output was new, fresh, and valuable. We could be so lucky to be able to hit it out the park like they did. However, none had the fortitude to run all the bases. When it came time to capture some of the value, they let others walk all over them. The value was gobbled up voraciously, and compensation was never aptly given.
It seems that many creative people are under the spell that the value they create for the world comes with a karma that will bring them good fortune. Not known to them, maybe, is the prospect that after they unleash these values, it’s up to them to head out the front door and hunt down the beasts borne from their very beings. Perhaps they feel like they’ve done enough, that the hard work is over, that kickbacks are inevitable and warranted, and that sales are for lower lifeforms.
Whatever the reason, you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint a great mind who was able to capture anything. Whether it be in the arts or sciences, the greats frequently were blind to the fact that the task of capturing Y was up to them. Sales, in addition to inspiration, was the home run these great innovators were looking for; yet for many, a notion never exercised.