I once saw a quote attributed to the author Timothy Ferriss that said, "What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do." I think that quote kind of applies to this post. I've been thinking about a particular topic for a long time, and haven't written about it because, frankly, I didn't know how to approach it without pissing people off.
I know...that's never stopped me before, right?
Still, this one is a lot more personal than some of the other incendiary posts I've written. And this one applies to a lot of people whom I'd like to believe have good intentions. But when something in this industry is negatively impacting business owners, I think it's worth discussing. So here goes.
Everyone on the planet (at least those of us who use, and practically live and breathe, social media) has experienced "Instagram envy." You know, that bitter feeling of watching other people's perfect friendships, perfect fashions, perfect food, perfect life scroll past, while our own lives seem to pale in comparison. Sure, intellectually we know that this imagery isn't reality - but that doesn't stop us from feeling sorry for ourselves when others seem to have it so easy and to look great all the while.
Cute boots and picturesque lattes aren't the problem here, though.
The problem I'm talking about is one of people selling inspiration - through social media, blogs, conferences, and "movements" - as something that's going to sustain small businesses, and their owners, long term.The idea seems to be that if creative entrepreneurs just get "inspired" enough, they too can achieve a similar level of success as those who are doing the inspiring. It's like a pyramid scheme of pretty.
The reality, on the other hand, seems to be that those doing the "inspiring" stand to make a lot of money off their followers. Nothing wrong with that (hey, I'm a capitalist!)...IF those followers aren't being misled. And in my observation, many of those hawking inspiration aren't sharing the whole story.
Drawing a line between inspiring others and selling "inspiration" like snake oil is tricky. After all, there's a lot to be said for looking to others as an example of what we want to achieve ourselves. There's a lot of truth to the idea that we attract success (or failure) based on how we choose to invest our time and focus. And, frankly, there's nothing wrong with liking pretty things, or wanting to surround yourself with positive people who cheer you on and who model the kind of business, lifestyle and aesthetics you covet. Those are all valid examples of the purpose of inspiration.
But when perceived leaders in our industry (or any creative field) seem to be basing their entire shtick on things that have little to nothing to do with business acumen, strategy, planning and, well, reality? They're doing small business owners a tremendous disservice, and I think that's wrong. Very wrong.
Let's be real here: that "inspiring" Instagrammer's success probably came from a lot of things. In some cases, it's talent at their particular craft. A great personality. Maybe a real desire to do something great for their clients and their colleagues alike. Just as often, though, the most Instagram-famous folks, the "rock stars" in their respective fields, benefited from lots of other things, too: good genes and start-up money from Mom & Dad, a supportive spouse who can ensure the bills are paid, and limitless skill when it comes to styling and curating every aspect of life.
I may offend some people by saying this, but I feel pretty certain that some things definitely did not create the success that's documented on social media and blogs and touted at conferences. It wasn't that you were more devout than those who are struggling (call me crazy, but I don't think the man upstairs is really talking note of who raises their hand as #blessed). It wasn't that your morning coffee and inspirational reading materials and entire workspace were prettier than everyone else's. Matter of fact, it wasn't anything that took place on a styled shoot or could be captured in a hashtag,
If you're actually successful, I'm willing to bet it's because of some combination of legitimately grueling, decidedly NON-pretty work. Maybe with a side of supportive relationships, socioeconomic advantages and good old-fashioned luck. But it's the work that I find inspiring, and what I think would be a more meaningful example for those who are building their businesses.
If you are - or purport to be - a leader, then what you encourage your followers to focus on had better benefit them. If they're spending time trying to appropriately style photos of their desk supplies and their dogs to look like yours, if they're spreading your approved hashtags all over social media, if they're serving as unpaid ambassadors for a brand you created, if they're spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on your events...if they're essentially acolytes at your altar of inspiration, with full faith they'll be able to replicate your success, there had better be something behind it.
Because inspiration is great, but no amount of it will keep the lights on and the doors open when you're not making money. My heart hurts thinking of all the people - many of whom are women, struggling to support themselves and possibly their children - who may wind up with little more than a gorgeous Instagram account and a passport full of stamps, and certainly not a successful, sustainable business. Meanwhile, the people who "inspired" them will be richer and more successful than ever, and will have moved on to new visual mediums, new hashtags, new causes and new marks.
I'm realistic enough to know that pretty, privileged and personable people will always be able to inspire. My hope is that those in a position to have that inspirational effect will consider using it to present a more balanced picture of the reality of business ownership. Few of us will ever have that perfect, stars-aligned combination of talent and privilege enjoyed by the "rock stars," but we all deserve a chance to thrive. And to thrive in a way that's real.