SELF HELP 26

How To Get Attention

This newsletter is my process of writing a self-help book, tentatively titled How To Make Money: Financial Advice For Poets.

The purpose of this newsletter is always to be useful. Today’s letter is about the value of attention, and is exactly as authoritative as all other letters up to this point.


This is not actually about how to get attention, despite the title. A better title would be, How Much Is Attention Worth, though I don’t know the answer to that either, as it varies by person and changes over time. But I know this, attention is extremely valuable and it’s not monetary.

Of course you can monetize attention. There are many books already written on that subject (I presume) and people sound smart guest lecturing business school classes on the “attention economy.” But it misses the point, which is why people want attention, and why it’s worth so much.

People don’t seek attention in order to make money. After all, why add the extra step? It would be inefficient, even if wealth is sometimes a by-product.

We measure things in money because it makes things simple. A Southwest Airline Point is worth 1.6 cents. Bitcoin is worth $30,000, or $60,000, depending on Elon Musk’s bowel movement. But attention exists outside of banking. And some of the reasons the value of attention is so poorly understood1 is because not everyone wants it, so it’s worth less to some than others (power can be understood this way as well). The value of attention to someone who isn’t interested in attention can only be understood as a function of currency.

But that’s not how it works at all.

“Everybody needs money, that’s why they call it money.” – David Mamet

The problem with Mamet’s money quote, which I love, is that it’s not true, at least once you get past basic survival. It’s what my friend Nick calls an unstable declarative. Here are a couple more.

“Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” — Oscar Wilde

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” — Joan Didion

Unstable declaratives have power because they sound true. They’re helpful for framing an idea and provoking thought. But they’re not true in the literal sense. Thinking about sex as a function of power is interesting, until you believe it to the exclusion of all else. I could give you 100 examples of sex not being about power, but I think you can come up with your own.

To get the most from an unstable declarative you have to accept it as true and false at the same time. The joy comes from holding contrasting ideas simultaneously and moving forward through that slim doorway into deeper concepts. We do, in fact, tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Mark Maron once said that everyone he knew in college who was determined to become rich, became rich. He was talking about the people for whom money was the most important thing when they were 20 years old. And by rich he probably meant single-digit millionaires, though there were likely some well beyond that. It was a thing said in passing, when he was interviewing someone about something else, that has stayed with me for years.

When I was in college all I cared about was experience. The money thing, I was certain despite evidence to the contrary, would take care of itself. You could say it was because I was white and privileged but you’d be making assumptions. I don’t think any of the undergraduate history majors at the University of Illinois were truly obsessed with making money. I’d venture so far as to extend that generalization to theater majors.

An Uber driver said recently that anyone in America who wants to, can be rich. He had moved here from Egypt. His son was starting college. The money he made driving Uber and doing other work provided him with a lifestyle he considered lavish. Where he came from, he said, you couldn’t just work and make money. He sounded like the America I grew up in (which I’m not sure was a better version of itself). He said he’d voted for Donald Trump.

Malcolm Gladwell once told me, or said somewhere, or I’m just imagining this and he never said any such thing (our interview has been deleted so…), that young people want access and old people want power. I knew what he meant right away, and if I had been a little more thoughtful I would have immediately stopped writing. That’s a hard switch to make. One day all you care about is access and changing the world, the next day all you care about is the size of your house and providing for your children.

The joke is: When you’re in your 20s you worry about what people think about you. When you’re in your 30s you don’t care what people think about you. And when you’re in your 40s you realize that people weren’t thinking about you.

A joke can also be an unstable declarative. I think I made that joke up but I’m not certain.

In 2008 I was living with two other guys in a large one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. In other words, I was poor. I didn’t have money but if I wanted to I could interview Malcolm Gladwell. If I wanted to go to a show I could request a press pass. I sort of dated Margaret Cho, depending on your definitions, and we watched Kanye West from backstage at South By Southwest. We hung out on porn sets at Kink.com. I raised half a million dollars that year for Obama by organizing fundraisers in rich people’s houses, and I didn’t steal any of the money, though in retrospect I should have. Despite not having money I clearly had wealth.

I’ve long been aware that when the writing is going well, when I enter into a flow state and I am most happy, I don’t worry about money at all. There is something primal about money, attention, and power, that transcends baseline survival. Because when the writing is not going well I tend to care about money quite a bit, independent of whatever my financial situation is at the time.

It’s hard for people who want access to appreciate money, and vice versa. And attention is a form or access, or access is a result of attention. Attention is a vertical that includes fame, and things like that. The same way money is a vertical that includes bitcoin, real estate, etc. The third vertical is power. Of course it’s all just a theory, and all theories of human nature, if they’re complicated enough, are wrong.

We’re not talking about survival here. This is about self-improvement and I’m assuming you already have survival pretty well figured out and what you’re thinking about is where to place your striving. And maybe you’re also thinking, What is striving? And you ask yourself, Why am I ambitious, or Why does art give life meaning? And when people tell you the answers to these questions you nod your head because you know they are lying. And then you ask, Why are there no good stories about loneliness? And you know it’s because loneliness is the absence of narrative, because we tell ourselves stories in order to live.

When you understand attention as an economy, cancel culture makes a lot more sense. Editors, directors, producers, are seen as people in positions of power. But, if you’re an editor at a small literary journal that pays $20 per essay, or nothing at all, why would you have any power? If value was only financial, no one would think of an editor as powerful. But we do think of editors as having power. And we do, at least recently, recognize a power imbalance between a writer and an editor. To make things simple we explain them in financial terms. For example, we say an editor is powerful because they can help, or hurt, a person as they move up their career ladder. But writing is almost never a career, at least not literary writing, or in the beginning when people start writing without even stopping to wonder why. Most literary writers end up teaching writing. In other words, they participate in the Ponzi scheme of aspirations. But why do so many people want to be writers? Why is there so much money to be made selling people their dreams back at a markup?

That’s the attention economy.

I can remember one particularly insipid person claiming they were abused while volunteering for a literary magazine (the claim was patently false, but that’s another story). They brought up their financial circumstances as a way of explaining why they had to volunteer (they were so poor that they had no choice but to volunteer for an online magazine). It made no sense, when thought of in financial terms, which was how it was presented. But if you imagined this person valuing attention over money everything slid easily into place.

“Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.” — Charlie Munger

Money can’t buy love, but fame can buy love easily, more than any normal person knows what to do with (some people will disagree, but only because they have a narrow definition of love, which I find misleading and counterproductive). It’s easier to make a living in real estate than it is to write a book, but you won’t get any attention for managing properties. The kind of money you would need to participate in the attention economy is staggering, but a couple of well received poetry collections should do the trick.

This is why the graduate students and employees worked so hard to remove the editor of The Believer Magazine not long ago. Nothing he did merited the utter destruction that was laid to his life (I’m not going to go into it in depth here, you can take my word for it or not). Not soon after he was seen walking around naked on a Zoom call he was fired from the University, removed from the masthead, and essays were written congratulating everyone on the hard work they had done to build the publication. It was as if the editor had never existed.

In reality, he brought the magazine to the University and gave it a second life (it was originally a McSweeney’s publication, but had been drifting into obscurity). He started a festival based around the publication that added to its cachet and stability. The magazine regained prominence among a certain set, though not economic prominence, obviously.

When The Believer was nominated for an award a few weeks later there was backslapping and congratulations all around. The editor was not even mentioned. But there was only one person whom the magazine, in its 2nd incarnation, could not have existed without, and that was the editor. Everyone rushing into the void to take credit had done comparatively little. The editor had become Trotsky, on the boat, next to Stalin. Erased from history.

The rights and wrongs of the editor’s cancellation are not what I’m talking about here, though I have opinions. But the lesson, I believe (I Believer), is the value of attention. How we undervalue attention when it is actually among the most precious things in the world. People will kill for it. They will destroy you and memory hole you and take over your little magazine which, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing at all. But also it means everything. They will despise you for having it. They will give you anything if you will help them get it. They will fight for that little magazine with knives and whatever else they can find. Once they’ve removed the editor, or the founder, or whoever they need to remove, they will claim ownership. I’ve seen the exact same thing happen over and again, at The Paris Review and The Rumpus to name a couple. I’ve seen people try to take over Facebook Groups, or The Women’s March. Why would people fight so hard for an online magazine that isn’t profitable? It costs nothing to start your own magazine. Or to start your own Facebook group. But while these tiny enterprises are poor in financial resources, they are rich in attention, and there are many many people for whom that is much more important than money.

You can, of course, monetize attention. And you certainly should. Think of it as diversifying your assets. Because one day you’ll likely decide that money is more important than attention, and by then it might be too late. Especially if you don’t realize the value of what you have.

Attention is similar to a stock option that way, losing value faster as the expiration date approaches. Having attention, and the ability to generate attention for others, is dangerous, whether you realize it or not. Like living in a house made out of gold.

stephen

p.s. You can follow me on twitter where I sometimes tweet ideas that become columns. Though usually I’m just liking pictures of dominatrixes.

p.s. 2 Thank you for reading. I’ve always known that the reader was doing the writer a favor. Writing this letter I think I finally understand why. Please like and comment :)

p.s. 3 The movie I directed, About Cherry, is available for free on Showtime.

p.s. 4 Oh! I keep forgetting to mention this. Speaking of money I’m available to speak at classes, meetings, conventions, corporate events, etc. Over Zoom or in person.

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1

I say the value of attention is poorly understood, but it’s very possible there are sociologists and psychologists writing on the subject who understand it very well. So maybe what I mean by poorly understood is by me.