For over a decade I didn’t give even one shit about being known.
I was a web designer focused on a specific niche, and as long as the right people in that niche knew who I was, I was set. I had a one-page website with two sentences, a list of clients and a drawing of a llama standing in the woods (note: I’m not great at drawing, so it wasn’t very good). All I needed was a handful of clients a year to be more than okay financially.
I had no blog, no social media accounts, no forms of promotion.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I made about the same amount of money then as I do now that I have an audience.
(I’ll pause for the dust to settle from that little word explosion above).
A lot of times people confuse being known with being successful. In reality though, one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. There are lots of people who are killing it with what they do and nobody’s the wiser, except the clients they serve. They have full rosters, top billing and no industry recognition. These are the makers and not the megaphones.
Before I had an audience, 100% of my work was focused on making things (websites and strategy for my clients). I wasn’t writing articles, promoting products, getting interviewed, being on podcasts, doing events — it was just me and the work. Exactly zero working hours of the day were taken up by anything else.
I used to be able to do 4–5 projects for clients at the same time. I’d spend my days either talking one on one with clients or doing work for them. Now I can’t do more than one project at a time because my megaphone duties eat up most of my day. I’m not complaining — far from it — but building a brand requires a lot of hours. And it took quite a while to get my income to return to “Pre-audience Paul” levels.
One thing (success or being known) isn’t better than the other. Just like one isn’t required for the other. They’re just two aspects of work that have somehow become linked in our minds. Sometimes they overlap, but they don’t have to.
Even now, when my income depends on me being a bit of a megaphone, I’d rather be a maker most days. I love writing, designing and creating useful products much more than anything else. But I also know that promoting helps sell the things I make that require an audience to be profitable (selling 4–5 $10 books a month, for example, wouldn’t exactly cut it). I accept and enjoy doing those things as well, but would be lying if I didn’t also mention how much they stress me out sometimes.
I never want to be famous (or even Internet famous), influential or known. If it’s a byproduct of making things, then okay. But it’s never the goal.
It’s also worth mentioning that as soon as someone becomes more of a megaphone than a maker, their skills start to slip. They’re now removed from making because their time is spent talking about it instead of doing it. It’s much harder to keep up in the practical sense when you’re engaged in talking theory. So the people we pay the most attention to may not even be the most talented, and the longer they’re in the spotlight, the less connected to the craft they might be. That’s why some megaphones disappear for months at a time from the spotlight, so they can reconnect with making.
This scares me, the possible disconnection from my craft. Which is why I have a hard time giving up doing client work. And why I take several months a year away from interviews. Making nourishes my desire to be a megaphone for it, so if the maker tank of creating runs dry, I’m a megaphone for nothing. The only reason I talk to anyone about my work is because I love it and love being valuable to a larger audience.
The recognition you do or don’t receive is mostly out of your control, but the effort and care you put into what you make is entirely within your control. That’s where your focus should be.
You don’t need to be famous to succeed. You do need to be good at what you do though. Sometimes focusing entirely on that, on your craft and connecting to a tiny number of the right people, is all you need.
I know a great number of people (that you’ve obviously never heard of) that have made a fulfilling and lasting career out of being invisible makers.
This article first appeared on my weekly newsletter for freelancers & creative folks, The Sunday Dispatches.