The New Meaning of Success

This is Part Three of my 7 Lessons From the Future of Content series. Check out Part One and Part Two.

In Part One, we identified a new paradigm of tools versus time. First one is cheaper than ever. Second one is still expensive. Then we redefined risk. In its centralized form (think movie studios) it’s the same old hierarchical, exclusive game as ever. In its distributed form, everything changes. Now it’s time to redefine success.

Lesson Three: We will continually redefine success.

In the last episode, we talked about Hit Record, Joe Gordon-Levitt’s new attempt to redefine collaborative creation. While financially profitable, the venture does not exactly have a massive margin. To wit…

If I wanted to maximize dollars, this is not what I’d be doing with my time.
—Joseph Gordon Levitt on “Hit Record”

Levitt’s goal is not to make enough money to own the Lakers. It is to create collaboratively. Massively collaboratively. Making money is simply a means to make it sustainable.

But why do some of us think this way? Whatever happened to make a lot of money by whatever means necessary? Or, become an artist in order to make a lot of money and become, like, super famous?

Well, for one thing, that used to be the only option. Starve or become part of the One Percent. The Screen Actors Guild has one of the highest unemployment rates of any union (over 50% in the fourth quarter of 2009) and some of the biggest pay disparities. You’re either George Clooney or you’re waiting tables. Very little in between because the business model (remember centralized risk) is based on big risk, big payoff.

But something else happened. 2008. The financial crisis. One of the curious outcomes was a boom in entrepreneurial activity. People decided it was worth taking their destiny into their own hands if the alternative was an equally risky attempt to get a job they might lose all over again if they could even get it in the first place.

In some quarters (Philly in particular) a certain mistrust grew around the profit motive itself. We stopped trusting the idea of just making money to make money. Our parents did that (or attempted to) and look what happened to them. Maybe we should try something different. Maybe we should try doing right. Doing things because they actually add value and help people. The money part becomes simply a way to make that activity sustainable.

Which brings us back to Hit Record. It was not constructed as a money-making venture. It was constructed as a creative one. Money simply keeps it afloat.

The goal of business no longer becomes profit, it becomes sustainability.

So if I’m not trying to own the Lakers, what am I trying to do? If you’re like most artists, you’re trying to make the next thing. You want to make enough money to create the next thing and support yourself and, if you have one, your family. Funny, that sounds familiar. Like something there’s less and less of…

Oh, right. The middle class.

What if the new goal was a creative middle class who got shit done and paid their kids way through college?

If that’s the goal then the amount of money we might be able to make in these new models might match the overall cost of creation. A cost that looks more and more like the cost of living (because production costs are increasingly sunk). This is how we pay for time, the one remaining expensive thing.

Problem is, what exactly are people paying for that’s making all this money for time? Because the same revolutions that make creating and distributing content cheap make experiencing it cheap as well (0r even free). That question leads us to our next lesson…