I get emails like this fairly frequently these days. The sender, Alex, agreed to let me put his letter and my response in a blog, in case the conversation might prove useful.
I wonder about following my own passions, but I wonder how successful I would be at supporting myself and raising any kind of profile publicly, both to find sponsor ship for good causes and to help sustain myself.
What are your views on this?
Quitting work and everything I am presently involved in seems a huge leap, but I am ready to make it. I think of little else.
Hi Alex,Good to hear from you.You’ve asked me a pretty open-ended question. But simply, my views are that if you know what your passions are or at least have the will to explore them, if you keep doing what you love the money will come. It probably won’t come quickly, but the process of downsizing, decreasing your outgoings and experiencing a more simple life is a natural precursor to living a more sustainable, happier existence.Only you have the real answers for how determined you can be in search of a fulfilling career. Your last line hit the nail on the head. Stop thinking about it, and start acting. It won’t happen otherwise.It’s worth it, go go go!!!!CheersDave
There’s a catch 22 to perceived success and the transition from working person to ‘famous’ or ‘notorious’. Regardless of intentions or design, a meteoric rise to previously unthought levels of recognition will always bring critics. They may be jealous or bitter or even right, but receiving criticism is barely easy. It must be frustrating at best.
This essay by the writer Dave Eggers was written in response to a critic’s review of his book ‘Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ which at times became a blunt, personal attack on the author’s integrity, summed up with the words ‘Are you taking any steps to keep shit real?’
Cue Mr Eggers’ reply:
You actually asked me the question: “Are you taking any steps to keep shit real?” I want you always to look back on this time as being a time when those words came out of your mouth.
Now, there was a time when such a question – albeit probably without the colloquial spin – would have originated from my own brain. Since I was thirteen, sitting in my orange-carpeted bedroom in ostensibly cutting-edge Lake Forest, Illinois, subscribing to the Village Voice and reading the earliest issues of Spin, I thought I had my ear to the railroad tracks of avant garde America. (Laurie Anderson, for example, had grown up only miles away!) I was always monitoring, with the most sensitive and well-calibrated apparatus, the degree of selloutitude exemplified by any given artist – musical, visual, theatrical, whatever. I was vigilant and merciless and knew it was my job to be so.
I bought R.E.M.’s first EP, Chronic Town, when it came out and thought I had found God. I loved Murmur, Reckoning, but then watched, with greater and greater dismay, as this obscure little band’s audience grew, grew beyond obsessed people like myself, grew to encompass casual fans, people who had heard a song on the radio and picked up Green and listened for the hits. Old people liked them, and stupid people, and my moron neighbor who had sex with truck drivers. I wanted these phony R.E.M.-lovers dead.
But it was the band’s fault, too. They played on Letterman. They switched record labels. Even their album covers seemed progressively more commercial. And when everyone I knew began liking them, I stopped. Had they changed, had their commitment to making art with integrity changed? I didn’t care, because for me, any sort of popularity had an inverse relationship with what you term the keeping ‘real’ of ‘shit.’ When the Smiths became slightly popular they were sellouts. Bob Dylan appeared on MTV and of course was a sellout. Recently, just at dinner tonight, after a huge, sold-out reading by David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell (both sellouts), I was sitting next to an acquaintance, a very smart acquaintance married to the singer-songwriter of a very well-known band. I mentioned that I had seen the Flaming Lips the night before. She rolled her eyes. “Oh I really liked them on 90210,” she sneered, assuming that this would put me and the band in our respective places.
Was she aware that The Flaming Lips had composed an album requiring the simultaneous playing of four separate discs, on four separate CD players? Was she aware that the band had once, for a show at Lincoln Center, handed out to audience members something like 100 portable tape players, with 100 different tapes, and had them all played at the same time, creating a symphonic sort of effect, one which completely devastated everyone in attendance? I went on and on to her about the band’s accomplishments, their experiments. Was she convinced that they were more than their one appearance with Jason Priestly? She was.
Now, at that concert the night before, Wayne Coyne, the lead singer, had himself addressed this issue, and to great effect. After playing much of their new album, the band paused and he spoke to the audience. I will paraphrase what he said:
“Hi. Well, some people get all bitter when some song of theirs gets popular, and they refuse to play it. But we’re not like that. We’re happy that people like this song. So here it goes.”
Then they played the song. (You know the song.) “She Don’t Use Jelly” is the song, and it is a silly song, and it was their most popular song. But to highlight their enthusiasm for playing the song, the band released, from the stage and from the balconies, about 200 balloons. (Some of the balloons, it should be noted, were released by two grown men in bunny suits.) Then while playing the song, Wayne sang with a puppet on his hand, who also sang into the microphone. It was fun. It was good.
But was it a sellout? Probably. By some standards, yes. Can a good band play their hit song? Should we hate them for this? Probably, probably. First 90210, now they go playing the song every stupid night. Everyone knows that 90210 is not cutting edge, and that a cutting edge alternarock band should not appear on such a show. That rule is clearly stated in the obligatory engrained computer-chip sellout manual that we were all given when we hit adolescence.
But this sellout manual serves only the lazy and small. Those who bestow sellouthood upon their former heroes are driven to do so by, first and foremost, the unshakable need to reduce. The average one of us – a taker-in of various and constant media, is absolutely overwhelmed – as he or she should be – with the sheer volume of artistic output in every conceivable medium given to the world every day – it is simply too much to begin to process or comprehend – and so we are forced to try to sort, to reduce. We designate, we label, we diminish, we create hierarchies and categories.
Through largely received wisdom, we rule out Tom Waits’s new album because it’s the same old same old, and we save $15. U2 has lost it, Radiohead is too popular. Country music is bad, Puff Daddy is bad, the last Wallace book was bad because that one reviewer said so. We decide that TV is bad unless it’s the Sopranos. We liked Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem and Jeffrey Eugenides until they allowed their books to become movies. And on and on. The point is that we do this and to a certain extent we must do this. We must create categories, and to an extent, hierarchies.
But you know what is easiest of all? When we dismiss.
Oh how gloriously comforting, to be able to write someone off. Thus, in the overcrowded pantheon of alternarock bands, at a certain juncture, it became necessary for a certain brand of person to write off The Flaming Lips, despite the fact that everyone knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that their music was superb and groundbreaking and real. We could write them off because they shared a few minutes with Jason Priestley and that terrifying Tori Spelling person. Or we could write them off because too many magazines have talked about them. Or because it looked like the bassist was wearing too much gel in his hair.
One less thing to think about. Now, how to kill off the rest of our heroes, to better make room for new ones?
We liked Guided by Voices until they let Ric Ocasek produce their latest album, and everyone knows Ocasek is a sellout, having written those mushy Cars songs in the late 80s, and then – gasp! – produced Weezer’s album, and of course Weezer’s no good, because that Sweater song was on the radio, right, and dorky teenage girls were singing it and we cannot have that and so Weezer is bad and Ocasek is bad and Guided by Voices are bad, even if Spike Jonze did direct that one Weezer video, and we like Spike Jonze, don’t we?
Oh. No. We don’t. We don’t like him anymore because he’s married to Sofia Coppola, and she is not cool. Not cool. So bad in Godfather 3, such nepotism. So let’s check off Spike Jonze – leaving room in our brains for… who??
The only thing worse than this sort of activity is when people, students and teachers alike, run around college campuses calling each other racists and anti-Semites. It’s born of boredom, lassitude. Too cowardly to address problems of substance where such problems actually are, we claw at those close to us. We point to our neighbor, in the khakis and sweater, and cry foul. It’s ridiculous. We find enemies among our peers because we know them better, and their proximity and familiarity means we don’t have to get off the couch to dismantle them.
And now, I am also a sellout. Here are my sins, many of which you may know about already:
First, I was a sellout because Might magazine took ads.
Then I was a sellout because our pages were color, and not stapled together at the Kinko’s.
Then I was a sellout because I went to work for Esquire.
Now I’m a sellout because my book has sold many copies.
And because I have done many interviews.
And because I have let people take my picture.
And because my goddamn picture has been in just about every fucking magazine and newspaper printed in America.
And now, as far as McSweeney’s is concerned, The Advocate interviewer wants to know if we’re losing also our edge, if the magazine is selling out, hitting the mainstream, if we’re still committed to publishing unknowns, and pieces killed by other magazines.
And the fact is, I don’t give a fuck. When we did the last issue, this was my thought process: I saw a box. So I decided we’d do a box. We were given stories by some of our favorite writers – George Saunders, Rick Moody (who is uncool, uncool!), Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, others – and so we published them. Did I wonder if people would think we were selling out, that we were not fulfilling the mission they had assumed we had committed ourselves to?
No. I did not. Nor will I ever. We just don’t care. We care about doing what we want to do creatively. We want to be interested in it. We want it to challenge us. We want it to be difficult. We want to reinvent the stupid thing every time. Would I ever think, before I did something, of how those with sellout monitors would respond to this or that move? I would not. The second I sense a thought like that trickling into my brain, I will put my head under the tires of a bus.
You want to know how big a sellout I am?
A few months ago I wrote an article for Time magazine and was paid $12,000 for it I am about to write something, 1,000 words, 3 pages or so, for something called Forbes ASAP, and for that I will be paid $6,000 For two years, until five months ago, I was on the payroll of ESPN magazine, as a consultant and sometime contributor. I was paid handsomely for doing very little. Same with my stint at Esquire. One year I spent there, with little to no duties. I wore khakis every day. Another Might editor and I, for almost a year, contributed to Details magazine, under pseudonyms, and were paid $2000 each for what never amounted to more than 10 minutes work – honestly never more than that. People from Hollywood want to make my book into a movie, and I am probably going to let them do so, and they will likely pay me a great deal of money for the privilege.
Do I care about this money? I do. Will I keep this money? Very little of it. Within the year I will have given away almost a million dollars to about 100 charities and individuals, benefiting everything from hospice care to an artist who makes sculptures from Burger King bags. And the rest will be going into publishing books through McSweeney’s. Would I have been able to publish McSweeney’s if I had not worked at Esquire? Probably not. Where is the $6000 from Forbes going? To a guy named Joe Polevy, who wants to write a book about the effects of radiator noise on children in New England.
Now, what if I were keeping all the money? What if I were buying property in St. Kitt’s or blew it all on live-in prostitutes? What if, for example, I was, a few nights ago, sitting at a table in SoHo with a bunch of Hollywood slash celebrity acquaintances, one of whom I went to high school with, and one of whom was Puff Daddy? Would that make me a sellout? Would that mean I was a force of evil?
What if a few nights before that I was at the home of Julian Schnabel, at a party featuring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, and at which Schnabel said we should get together to talk about him possibly directing my movie? And what if I said sure, let’s?
Would all that make me a sellout? Would I be uncool? Would it have been more cool to not go to this party, or to not have written that book, or done that interview, or to have refused millions from Hollywood?
The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I’ll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no’s you’ve said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say.
No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.
There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive.
Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a shit who has kept shit ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of shit matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.
What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
I say yes, and Wayne Coyne says yes, and if that makes us the enemy, then good, good, good. We are evil people because we want to live and do things. We are on the wrong side because we should be home, calculating which move would be the least damaging to our downtown reputations. But I say yes because I am curious. I want to see things. I say yes when my high school friend tells me to come out because he’s hanging with Puffy. A real story, that. I say yes when Hollywood says they’ll give me enough money to publish a hundred different books, or send twenty kids through college. Saying no is so fucking boring.
And if anyone wants to hurt me for that, or dismiss me for that, for saying yes, I say Oh do it, do it you motherfuckers, finally, finally, finally.
Dave Eggers on ‘selling out’
Taken from an article in Harpers entitled Are You Taking Any Steps to Keep Shit Real
Ah, finally. For an entire week other annual reviews have been posted with scant regard to the potential of the final days of the year. It’s almost as though so much will be consumed at Christmas that physically moving, let alone creating outstanding memories, will be totally impossible.
Still, I thought it prudent to wait until the year turned, seeing as my Christmas dinner was a tasty yet flimsy beef taco on an African beach and learning to kitesurf carries a daily threat of either amusement or pain. So without further ado, I’m going to kick off 2014 with a look back at 2013.
Things started in unique fashion. I’d accepted the offer of accommodation in Newport Beach, California for Christmas and New Year, as well as the price of said shelter: looking after a loveable labradoodle named Max who was very fond of destroying entire rolls of toilet paper, and my underwear.
The next stop was Memphis, Tennessee, where I distributed the first batch of Say Yes More headwear amongst a group of people for whom I have great fondness.
We were brought together by a big river the previous year, and down that river was paddling another friend, Rod Wellington, who having kayaked the entire Missouri River was now moving slowly towards the Gulf, en route to becoming the second person and first North American to paddle the 3800 mile Mississippi Missouri waterway. We popped him back into the chilly river in Cape Giradeau, Missouri, and I caught a lift up to St Louis with Donn Ganim, who had looked after both Rod and I when we passed through on our journeys.
I’d been invited to give a short address to some students at the New City School, St Louis, an innovative hotbed of education that was also home to some of the tiniest people on the planet, if the furniture was to be believed. One of the teachers, Claire Reinbold, seemed to be at a crossroads, a desirous time where adventure is often the best medicine, I advised. A few months later she crossed the USA on a bicycle.
And then to the UK. January and February is Outdoor Show season and it was time to deliver some adventurous tales and officially launch Say Yes More as a brand in the UK. With the help of my adventurous head intern Oli Milroy, a satisfying clutch of patrons left the Adventure Travel Show in Kensington Olympia wearing a big fat YES!
I’ve never been so good at Winter in the cold sense, so a plan began hatching. I needed to write a book so I decided to go somewhere I couldn’t speak the language, I figured this would reduce the chance of distraction. On my first day in Malaga, Spain I found what I was looking for: a coffee shop with attitude.
El Ultimo Mono Coffee and Juice became my haunt. For 8 hours a day I tapped away, slowly completing my third book with the support of Victor and Sergio, Chief Monkeys Nos. 1 & 2, who sponsored me with a coffee and a muffin every day.
Not long before I left Malaga an email appeared in my inbox. ‘It’s ready,’ wrote Miguel Endara, who had been editing a short film about an expedition I’d completed in mid 2012. The resultant Swim1000 was 9 minutes of genius, a beautiful legacy to what was a pretty tough trip. If you get a chance to watch it please leave a comment and give Miguel some virtual applause.
In late April two things happened. The first was reported to me by my good friend Danny, who once drove behind me for five months when I was on a skateboard. ‘It’s Number One!’ he texted. My third book, Life in the Slow Lane, had been released on Amazon Kindle and before the day was out had climbed to Number 1 on the Adventure Chart.
A couple of days later, face still wide with smile, I began the 8th expedition of my Expedition1000 project. Everest Mountaineer Squash Falconer and I left Everton Football Club on ElliptiGO elliptical bicycles and made our way across Europe.
In Switzerland we went our separate ways after I ruptured a disc in my back carrying the ElliptiGO down some steps. A silly, innocuous incident that meant that my own expedition would be cut short. I battled on, slowly losing energy, and eventually succumbed to pain and common sense after 1970 miles. Liverpool to Nice by ElliptiGO, Journey No. 8.
Recovery began with the lady in my life in the glorious Swiss mountain village of Vals. During her days as an architecture student, Emily had always wanted to visit the famous Therme Vals baths, created by Peter Zumthor. Typically, the week we visited the Therme was shut for refurbishment but the view from our second-choice hotel wasn’t too shabby.
Later in the month my brother Andy would visit Zurich and complete his first Ironman Triathlon. I just love this picture, with my Mum in the background about to jump skywards. Such a proud moment.
It’s happened before. Children’s TV show wants the most bizarre of nautical contraptions to feature, and my phone rings. ‘Would you be able to come and ride an Aquaskipper for us?’ Of course, I answered in the positive and off we went to Hunstanton to film an episode of WILD with Tim Worwood, Naomi Wilkinson and Radzi Chinyanyanya.
A relatively chilled month in the UK was rounded off by a day on the Thames building a raft out of bamboo, with none other than the CEO of BAM Bamboo Clothing Dave Gordon. Although our final product wasn’t quite seaworthy, a long journey might have had its seed sown on that day.
Finally, the Life in the Slow Lane Paperback was released and, like its electronic sibling, went straight to Number 1 in the Amazon Adventure chart. In the scheme of things, as charts are largely based on recent sales, there was only so long we’d hold onto the top spot, but it was vindication of the decision to turn down offers from publishing houses and self publish again. One of the most satisfying moments of my life. YES!
With hindsight, I needed to give my back more than 7 weeks to recover but still, I gingerly partook in Game for a Future to help raise over £6000 for mosquito nets and educational facilities in East Africa. After 46 hours of non-stop football, we had a new world record!
'I want it to be a high brow afternoon,' my brother requested of his stag do. I duly forced him to dress up in a chimp costume and punt down the Cam. He later danced in front of a dustbin that contained a busker. Standard.
The Adventure Travel Film Festival in Dorset was a bit unlucky to have an entire day of rain, and although Ben Fogle’s opening speech was great and the general atmosphere of the event will have me returning year after year, the highlight was a storming introduction before my own lecture by the Show’s overall’d curator Austin Vince, who said, ‘If Dave had charged us what he’s worth he’d be sitting at home right now with a pot noodle.’
Off to Greece for a small family wedding in a villa with a swimming pool and a tennis court. Thank god my brother turned out to be marriage material. Beautiful day, beautiful week.
In thanks partly to a dodgy back and my brother’s wedding commitments meaning I couldn’t organise a big old expedition this Summer, a smaller project began to take shape. 50 Ways to Make £50 was all about showing that one person with an open mind can make money in a lot of different ways. Thanks to Kirsty Cavill and Donna Jordan, a few jobs started to flow, and my odd summer was summed up in mid September when I was a bootcamp instructor one day, and a zookeeper feeding bears jam sandwiches in Dartmoor Zoo the next.
Having been taking a photo of my face since the first day of January 2011, the 27th September 2013 was momentus, Day 1000, spent en route to a festival in the Peak District with my better half. The memory-creating project was complete, and although I decided to carry on the project for, well…forever, the video of the first 1000 days was a treat.
A long standing offer to go and visit our friends in Poland was finally accepted, and mainly involved a fortnight of being looked after very well, plus a bit of football with Nelly the dog.
My friend Sean Conway was swimming the length of Britain, along with the marvellous Emily Bell who had looked after me on my own swim the previous year. After 4 months of making their way up the coast they were closing in on their finish point in northern Scotland, and I decided to go and find them in the most remote spot possible. SO worth it! They finished a week later, incredible effort.
I continued my quest to find 50 Ways to Make £50 with a few more jobs, including cleaning an airport, making some bricks, tidying up a garden, being an accountant for a day, stand up paddle board instructing and possibly my favourite (and definitely most nerve-wracking) job of the month, Karate Sensei.
The Explore weekend at the Royal Geographical Society is always an inspiring get together, and to see Em’s art on display, and then up on stage nailing the opening lecture on the Friday night was probably my proudest moment of the year.
A week later I finally had the chance to speak at the Lost Lectures, a creative gathering for which the location is kept secret until the last minute. It was definitely a first for me, entertaining a crowd of 700 from a boxing ring!
The year has ended in wonderful, unique fashion. A good recharge was necessary and we found the perfect spot, Zanzibar. Staying at the effortlessly cool Red Monkey Lodge in Jambiani, we’ve been building up our sleep credit, polishing off old projects and starting new ones, enjoying being part of a barefoot community and all the while sharing the habitat with Red Colobus monkeys as they swing and jump above us. Sometimes, they even come into the office…
2014 has much in store. There doesn’t look like much resting time, and I’m particularly excited about some new expeditions. In April I’ll be taking on the Atacama desert in Chile by Whike…
…and then, assuming I make decent progress in my training these last weeks in Zanzibar, a couple of months in late 2014 will be spent kitesurfing at least 1000 miles along another South American coastline, in Brazil.
So, enough looking backwards, it’s now time to make another epic year count. Keep saying yes more, and if you have the time in between your own adventures you can follow mine on Facebook, Twitter, through my monthly email newsletter and on my website.
Have a brilliant 2014, start off as you mean to go on and if there’s anything I can do to help you set off on your own new adventure, just drop me a line.