A Jr. MacArthur Foundation and Colin Marshall

Colin
There needs to be a MacArthur Foundation that focuses on emerging talents. It should give no-strings-attached grants to emerging talents in the same way MacArthur does for established talents. The grants would be given regardless of type of talent, though it would emphasize those demonstrating extraordinary creative potential yet who do not have much money. (I support economic affirmative action at young levels; I do not support racial affirmative action.) The current MacArthur genius grants are terrific in that they're given to individuals instead of causes or projects, but oftentimes the people don't really need the money or recognition. This "Junior MacArthur" program would involve placing riskier bets on still unproven individuals who nevertheless display great potential and tremendous self-direction. Grantees would use the money however they see fit to make the world a better place.

The first grantee should be Colin Marshall. Colin is a talented artist. He is one of the clearest thinking writers on the web. He runs a successful radio interview program. He runs a site about podcasts. He writes columns. He writes essays. He writes blog posts. He makes films. He tweets prolifically. He's 25 years old.

But there's a problem: his work doesn't generate much money. It's always been hard to make a living as an artist or self-employed intellectual. Especially so when Colin, by his own admission, knows nothing about making money:

Kinda trippy that I've biologically persisted nearly to the age of 25 without any idea whatsoever of how to make enough money to buy a car, isn't it?…I react to the mechanics of moneymaking with the same befuddlement that many of these well-heeled vehicle owners do when they stare at the dark, occult forms under their hoods.

At present, Colin has to spend some portion of his day doing bullshit work:

…[W]hatever one could call my "creative daily routine" turns out to be highly variable, since I have to wedge it in around "regular work," that is to say, the stuff that pays me cash bucks but is not broadcasting/interviewing, writing/essayism, film/video or sound/music. (I'm not sure how much sense it makes to organize life this way at my age, but bear with me.)

He knows the bullshit work could, if he's not careful, become the real work:

I've seen more than a few people fall into this basic scenario: get some McJob or cultivate an unengaging "fallback" career to support whatever it is they "really" do; grow dependent on the entity providing said McJob/fallback; build up a lifestyle whose monthly expenditure requires said employment; gradually, imperceptibly forget about real endeavors in the name of shorter-term concerns; become some hideous institutional creature, like a blind fish that feeds whatever nutrients happen to float across the ocean floor.

In any event, some extra money would go a long way for him:

…I personally reside at the point on the curve where an extra few grand — or, say, a double sawbuck left in the ATM — can greatly widen the smile on my face. Maybe this is a bad sign for someone my age, but when I saw Sibilance link to a WSJ article about how a 22-year-old girl managed to make it in NYC on $30,000 a year, my reaction was not "Woah, how'd she swing that?" but a series of elaborate fantasies about all the things I could do with the impossible dream of $30,000. Hell, what couldn't I do? That's "thousand" with a T, people. (And yes, when I think about how Ira Glass famously made "only" $60,000 a year for a long time while working hard on the radio, my inner voice becomes Robin Leach's.)

Of course, Colin could (and should) learn more about how to monetize his talents. But beyond a basic increase in entrepreneurial savvy — which would not require selling out by the way — beyond that, it becomes difficult to do the kind of work that he does (esoteric film reviews, for example) without spending a huge amount of time trying to raise money or work dull side jobs.

If Colin could focus on his art and not worry about the cash bucks, the world would be a richer place. I realize there are a million other people who think of themselves as falling into this category. Many writers, for sure. I'm highlighting Colin because a) he's a friend, b) he's young, c) a small amount of money could go a long way for him.

Bottom Line: Someone should start a program that gives no-strings-attached grants to high potential individuals under 30 with extraordinary creative potential (yet little money), and a demonstrated ability to self-direct and self-manage. Person-driven philanthropy.

33 Responses to A Jr. MacArthur Foundation and Colin Marshall

  1. Justin Wehr says:

    I couldn’t agree more (both with the praise for Colin and the idea of Jr McArthur). I am convinced that Colin is one of the web’s best writers, interviewers, and thinkers in any age group and I am extremely disturbed by the lack of awareness that he even exists. This fact, more than any other, has persuaded me that “if you build it they will come” is completely, utterly false.

    Colin, if I ever make lots of money, I promise to fund your film endeavors. You could call it goodwill, but I selfishly want to see what you are capable of.

  2. DaveJ says:

    After seeing Paul Allen’s philanthropy announcement yesterday, I hoped that the billions of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Allen allocate at least some fraction toward the arts and non-economic research rather than throwing it all down the rathole of palliatives for the suffering caused by overpopulation and oppressive governments. This is one such idea.

  3. Z says:

    This reminds me vaguely of the thrust fund and other life investment models that have been floating around- investing in a person, rather than a business, and then receiving a set percentage of that individual’s future earnings with the investee having the option to buy out the investor’s stake down the line. Here’s the venture beat article: link to deals.venturebeat.com. That model tends to target high potential individuals going into business and other high-wage potential areas, of course, but there’s definitely a similar focus on enabling young, high potential people at critical moments in their careers. As a former theater kid watching many of my talented friends slog through jobs they hate so they can eventually pursue their passions, I find your model really appealing. Fascinating stuff.

  4. I think it’s fascinating that someone with the background you (Ben) have would see the solution as a foundation.

    Why shouldn’t Colin partner with a twenty-something who does know how to monetize and start a company and while Colin is doing his art, the partner works the business?

    It seems there are lots of people who think they are great at business and just need the idea, or the talent, or whatever. Apparently Colin doesn’t have too much to lose in finding someone he likes, trusts, and who may be able to help him. I’m sure you could help Colin filter the applicants, no?

    Maybe there could be a website that exists to match artists with business people for the purpose of creating companies. My understanding is that many artists don’t want to be bothered by learning about the business background. It’s a lot of work, and it isn’t their passion or skill set.

    Build your strengths, partner with a complementarian.

  5. Jose says:

    You know what I call uber-intellectual, non-sell-out, can’t fathom working a McJob/fallback career people? Bums. Pretentious bums at that.

    Great, he’s artistic, how’s that improve society in a tangible way? Why doesn’t he join the rest of the real world, get a job (Mike Rowe on work: link to youtube.com) and improve humanity a bit.

    He needs to get out of his head, get his hands dirty and provide for himself.

  6. Jen says:

    Your friend sounds like an extremely talented guy with a promising future, but I can’t help thinking his disdain for the McJob could harm him not only financially but also creatively.
    As an artist, isn’t it dangerous to become too far removed from the concerns of Everyman? To be so lofty and displaced from the concerns of regular life that your art no longer resonates with people? Surely he can find a way to (at least temporarily) integrate his work life and his artistic pursuits so they both fuel one another. How many famous successes have attributed their brilliant works to the struggle they went through to hone their craft and become recognized for it, while working a crappy job to get by? Most of us have wished to be bankrolled at one time or another (including me), but this is usually followed by self-loathing for feeling entitled to stuff. And then it’s time to get back to work. Hope your friend works it all out!

  7. Krishna says:

    Ben, the best you can do is to tear a page off your career building prowess and send it across to him… He seems to be truly creative and will grab it fast…!!!

  8. Bill says:

    I gotta concur in part with several of the comments above: isolating a guy like Marshall from the grubbier things could have some downsides.

    At the same time, they hardly seem like dealbreakers: what’s wrong with a patronage system for the 21st century? It’s not quite a “no-strings attached” system, but a patron who wants you to produce something creative can give you a lot of latitude. Does that sound like a reasonable (and feasible) compromise?

    Could this be a bigger, vaguer version of Kickstarter?

  9. A says:

    Maybe he should apply for a feature journalist in some leading dailies or magazines, for a limited stint, as a career-experiment –that preserves his artistic idiosyncrasies and pays relevant too. Maybe there’s a future Malcolm Gladwell into making; the New Yorker awaiting him.

    Maybe he should run for a job in reputed Ad agencies (trying with a short stint I mean). We are in dearth of sensible marketers in this world, who don’t just sell products, but also beautiful ideas to live by.

    Maybe he should write a book and get it published (fiction/non-fiction). A book is a tradable token of collective, cohesive, extended human thought, with an overwhelming, timeless physical presence and that sells well –dissimilar to the unindulgent web stuff.

    Just thoughts.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    For some types of art there is not a market that will financially support
    the work regardless of the savvy of a business partner.

  11. Katie W. says:

    I completely agree. I am one of those creative types who often “jokes” that if only I had a benefactor I could fully pursue my real life instead of wasting 40+ hours a week at a job that is somewhat prestigious and yet wholly underpaying and soul-sucking. My one adjustment to your call-for-grants is that the age limit be 35 and under, as those of us who have spent time cultivating a back-up career usually realize around the age of 29 that we need to make a major change in our lives if we are to live our dreams. At that point it is a terrifying thought to give up stability, meager though it may be, which includes health insurance and enough money to live alone (so as not to live with the parents in one’s childhood home) and in the place of one’s choosing. I am exactly 29 and for the last six months have decided to give up the job very soon, and to make a break from the traditional life by taking a leap of faith. I would benefit from a grant greatly, and you’re right, it wouldn’t need to be a huge amount. $30,000 is a lot of money when you are simply a person who wants to work hard and be free to live your own mission, instead of working for someone else’s mission and feeling totally fraudulent and unfulfilled. Thanks for this idea. I would apply immediately. Good luck to your friend.

  12. I have long wondered what life would be like if a modern-day Medici swooped down and touched me with the golden wand of patronage.

    I have come to the conclusion that for me, it would have been a disaster, and while I can’t speak for every artist (using the term collectively, not just the fine/visual type), I think that a certain amount of rubbing up against difficulty on a daily basis is a good and important thing both for oneself and for the usefulness/urgency of one’s art.

    I think people’s hackles go on “raised” alert when the idea of patronage gets floated out there because all kinds of icky stuff like sloth, entitlement, and strings tend to attach themselves to ongoing forms of support. Time-delimited solutions, on the other hand, can be extraordinarily useful, especially if they come at the right time: a sponsored sabbatical at an artists’ colony like Yaddo or Esalen when you’re trying to finish a major work, for example, or a windfall that frees you up for six months to a year.

    A word to @A, re: “creatively fulfilling” corporate work: in my experience, that’s the deadliest of all. I wrote ads for 10 years and it was some of the most soul-sucking work ever. If you throw yourself into it, which more sensitive types will, you’re left with nothing at the end of the day to do your own work. I was far, far happier AND more creatively productive in my off-hours when I quit and took a Stupid Day Job™ as the world’s oldest gofer at big, boring company.

    The hardest thing about all of this is that because every artist’s temperament and tolerance levels are different, it’s hard to come up with prescriptives that will really help All Artists. In my experience, it comes down to a mixture of reducing costs, making hard decisions about lifestyle, a lot of trying/failing, and, yes, a certain amount of luck.

  13. An intriguing post indeed, good sir, and not just because I happen to be the subject of it. I’ve actually given some thought myself to how I would distribute money to creators my age and younger, if I had a MacArthur-style fund to manage. I’d like to run a Paul Graham Y Combinator-style operation, but for individuals rather than tech startups.

    While I certainly wouldn’t turn down this sort of grant myself, I also share the concerns of some of the commenters here. One of the reasons I avoid academia is precisely to avoid being insulated from the wider world; my whole deal is to connect with it, not to stand outside it. (I’d rather not become the type who’s always cranking out projects their next meal isn’t coming from.) But then, MacArthur Foundations and such are part of the real world too, aren’t they?

    It’s maybe slightly disingenuous for me to say that I don’t understand how to make money. I mean, I do understand how people who have made money made it, but at the same time, the part where I integrate that into my own life remains unclear. Yet I suspect that was also the case for quite a few moneymakers in their younger, less moneymaking days. Somewhat ironically, I suspect that the sort of unrelated-to-anything work I do for money is actually stunting my entrepreneurial development, since it puts out the fire that would be otherwise under me to sustain myself with the things I’m actually good (or very nearly almost getting good) at.

    But yes. Thanks indeed for the vote of confidence. Means a lot.

  14. I think that a certain amount of rubbing up against difficulty on a daily basis is a good and important thing both for oneself and for the usefulness/urgency of one’s art.

    I definitely agree with that. When I make stuff, it’s to engage with the world, not to escape from its demands. I whine endlessly about academics’ no-stakes projects for this very reason.

    I wonder if there’s some sort of secret way to accept grants like the ones Ben proposes without retreating into your own personal ivory tower? Maybe something like, “Okay, we’ll give you this money, but now you have to do your creating in one of the grubbier third-world nations.” Hell, I’d jump at that.

  15. I’m actually getting the same suite of feelings as you are, though at 25 rather than 29. Though how much of a difference does just the age make? I suppose it comes down to, as you say, the career element. I have long lived in terror of establishing a “real” fallback career and inadvertently building up a lifestyle to match. Then I’d be stuck, or at least I’d feel more stuck.

    Part of why I don’t have a car, house, wife, or kids is that I don’t have the scratch to support them. But the other, bigger part is that I know those things, as delightful as they might be, would draw too much life bandwidth to allow me to make the kind of things I need to make.

    And good luck to you.

  16. All intelligent thoughts. After interviewing Seth Godin a couple months back, I became quite interested in how to approach marketing in a way that’s actually interesting, as he does. There’s a part of me — maybe a part of everybody — that wants to find the fascinating and the exciting in the supposedly un-fascinating and un-exciting.

    I’m not, for instance, the biggest Gladwell fan, but I’d be interested to take that form in a direction that aligns more with the sensibilities of people like me. Same goes for advertising. I’m not anti-advertising or anything; I just don’t feel anything about it either way. But then this raises a fascinating question to explore: what would it take to make me and others like me fired up by advertising?

    And as for books, I’ve recently started exploring a question that’s only now become relevant in the public mind: what substance works for the physical, printed book form that wouldn’t work for any other? The industry seems to be (literally) dying for an answer.

    So maybe the lesson one could draw from your thoughts is this: you just gotta find the interesting question and work like hell on answering it. But the first part is the hard one.

  17. It definitely could have downsides — more than some, I’d say. I am gripped by a mortal terror of isolating myself from the world, be it in academia (which I, with perhaps ironic studiousness, try to avoid) or in the realm of (effective) charity or elsewhere.

    Funny you mention Kickstarter; I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I might be able to make with it. I feel like you need a higher profile than mine to really mobilize a fan base to generate significant funding that way, though. Then again, the kinds of short films or radio pieces I do don’t cost much. (The main trick: figuring out what special bonuses to offer contributors as an incentive.)

    As I mentioned in another comment here, I’d really like to see or be involved in some sort of operation like Paul Graham’s Y Combinator, but for individuals doing interesting things rather than tech startups. As Ben pointed out, even small amounts can take their projects, in the parlance of the day, nxtlvl.

  18. I’ve definitely been learning from Ben, though I could stand to learn more. That’s one of the reasons I interviewed him on The Marketplace of Ideas back in 2007, which is how I first got to know him: I sought insights into the entrepreneurial mind. Through him, I’ve encountered a diversity of examples of it.

    (I’ve got to say, though, that Ben does seem to have a much wider range of interests than your average young entrepreneurial type. It makes me realize that’s the type of entrepreneurial culture that interests me: the one that thinks about all sorts of stuff beyond startups.)

  19. Agreed. I have less disdain for the McJob, though, than disdain for myself for not figuring out a way to avoid it sooner. If I have a strong artistic interest, it’s in making stuff that isn’t separated from the world at large but stuff that’s in it, of it, and for it.

    You’re absolutely right about the dangers of being bankrolled, but before Ben posited the idea it had never crossed my mind. I think that’s just because I’ve got enough self-loathing as it is!

  20. Pretty much. My main thing is to avoid detachment from the world, partial or total. If I’m making something, it’s got to be with full engagement in the world, or else it’s just an autistic pursuit.

    I do object to the adjective “artistic,” though. I’m not sure I qualify for that except in the broadest sense of making stuff, but then it applies to a meaninglessly large number of people.

  21. Indeed, I live in awe and fear of the power of collaboration. It’s sort of a market itself, isn’t it, the matching of one collaborator with others? Only it’s not a very well-organized one at present.

    I’m not sure how many people are specifically good simply at the thing known as “business” — if that thing truly exists — but I like your line of thinking. I take if you have a degree of complementarianism going on in your own endeavors?

  22. I find this line of thinking terribly interesting. As I mention a few times in comments below, I feel like there’s space for a Y Combinator-style venture that invests (relatively) small amounts of money in promising individuals, rather than promising tech startups. The precise mechanics of this escape me as yet, but as I’ve come to realize, the precise mechanics of every new venture escape people until they actually move forward with them.

  23. (And, while I find the “über-intellectual” designation equally unsuitable, I’ll go ahead and take that one.)

  24. “Here lies the once-living refutation to ‘If you build it, they will come'”: how I picture my tombstone.

    I do realize that marketing and promotion are essential to any effort, no matter how well you’re doing with the effort itself. Doing that without being a self-promoter type is trickier. But I have so far realized that collaboration and overdelivery are both, effectively, forms of promotion; surely other realizations are to come.

  25. All companies are simply areas where complementarianism is needed. Comparative advantage, after all.

    We are slowly adding complementary pieces to my company, and my clients, my partners, and my life are all better for it, even when it means less cash in the short term for me (always).

    It is dangerous to sit around waiting for the winning lottery ticket to float down into your lap like Forrest Gump’s feather. I don’t think Colin is doing that, but there seem to be a lot of artists here who have dreamed about it. Just like beginning business-people dreaming of VC millions.

    That isn’t the way it works. You have to 37signals it and scale your way up.

    Could Colin start with arranging some personal appearances to discuss topics, stated or otherwise? Would he be able to charge $5 for people to get together with him? Maybe, maybe not, but if folks like Ben think that Colin is that good, it seems like at some level he could do that.

    No doubt, finding the right partner will be tricky. Probably you’ll go through some that won’t work. But you can start with very specific skill sets around things you do want to monetize, whether the website, limited edition products (ex: Hugh McLeod), discussion meetings, webinars, etc.

    I’d recommend checking out Josh Kaufmann’s Personal MBA Crash Course if it is still open. Lots of great ideas about all the different types of businesses that might stir your mind around where you want to monetize, then you can search for a (perhaps temporary) person to help you do that.

    Hell, bring in the big guns. RAMIT!!

    I’m sure Colin has run across KK’s 1000 fans? Thoughts?

    Make this a one semester non-paid internship for someone to prove they do have these skills to others. Poach Godin’s private MBA grads.

    The theme of Ben’s book and blog? – Try Something

    (No disrespect Colin, I know you are and have. Enjoy the roller coaster we all ride on our way to success.)

    no man is an island. at least, not a large one!

  26. It’s bad enough that Colin Marshall in profile looks like me– high forehead, aquiline nose, jutting chin, and strong jawline– but he has to top it all off by stealing my swept-back hairstyle.

    This is an outrage I’m willing to overlook, but he might consider this:

    Maybe Colin wouldn’t be so intimidated by the dark, occult art of making money if he made a sea-change in his thinking.

    Here are the phrases in his comments that jump off the page:

    “the impossible dream”

    “how I picture my tombstone”

    “I live in awe and fear”

    “I have… disdain for myself”

    “I’ve got enough self-loathing as it is”

    “I am gripped by a mortal terror”

    “I have long lived in terror”

    “I whine endlessly”

    This is not the kind of thinking that will get him where he wants to be, unless it’s an early grave.

    If you want rich people to give you money, take a page from Andy Warhol’s life and go to where the rich people are.

    Consider how Warhol, when he wasn’t busy destroying painting, taking the artistry out of art, and changing it into postmodern kitsch, spent much of his time rounding up rich new patrons.

    If you don’t want to lie down on the whorish casting couch, follow Andy’s example and think of your art as a commodity and the artist as C.E.O.

    Then take his immortal words as your motto: “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”

    And remember, if art is your business, then publicity is your friend.;-)

  27. I actually have been thinking about that whole “1000 fans” concept of Kevin Kelly’s. The numbers tell me that my radio show alone commands more fans than that. I don’t know how many fans I’ve made with the other stuff. Converting that total number into any meaningful effect, though… I ‘unno.

    Bottom line: I probably need to read more Kevin Kelly.

  28. To be fair, those quoted phrases were mostly meant in jest. Well, at least half of ‘em. Probably.

    But you’re right, moneymaking is one of the least mysterious human activities. I just forget to think about it.

    Damn this aquiline nose!

  29. I think if you read KK article closely, it’s ‘1000 true fans’. Not 1000 free newsletter subscribers, not 1000 people who pop onto your webpage once a month. No, 1000 people who LOVE you! Who will travel to see you, pay to hear you, buy your stuff, tell their friends, and live your content!

    How many things would you fit into this definition of a ‘true fan?’

    I would pay money ($100/year? more?) For Bill Simmons content. Ben Casnocha, Scott Adams, Trent Hamm. Josh Kaufmann. I have bought their books, internet programs, etc. Are there others? Who are you a true fan of?

    The tradeoff is numbers vs revenue. Think Stock market newsletters. There are some really good ones (I guess) that people pay a lot of money for…but I don’t know what they are because I don’t pay for that info. But some people do, gladly, and the content creator is happy to mean something to a smaller circle of valued clients who value them and what they give.

    So how could you find out who your true fans are? Hint: start small.

  30. Aron says:

    Re: the Jr. MacArthur – there is something similar at the College of All Souls in the University of Oxford. The Prize Fellowship offers a salary and fellowship of the college for seven years, for young people to explore what ever they want. One has to sit an exam to win this very prestigious fellowship.

  31. Ryan Reynolds says:

    I’m not sure that it necessarily follows that by paying him money, he’ll produce more equally good work. He might only be able to produce so much good stuff – or perhaps even worse, his quality of work might decline outside his current state. For example: the Australian Film Industry. Great actors, good talent, lots of unconditional government support and terrible product.

  32. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!

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