My word of the year for 2018 was MARGIN.
In some ways it might be my word of the decade, my word of the future…
Why am I so enthusiastic about this rather opaque word?
Margin is powerful.
I see it work in other people’s lives, and recognize the profound shift in their relationship with their creative life. And twice in my own life, out of total desperation, I’ve engineered vast margins.
And it worked. More on that in a bit.
I have a problem with productivity. I’m too productive.
I make too many things. And when I finish one thing, I move onto the next thing without truly investing my time and attention in the thing that I finished.
That’s not uncommon for creative people. Even if you have a lot more trouble finishing things than I do, it’s most likely that once you do eventually finish, you’ll move on to the next project without fully playing out the endgame of thing one.
If you’re an amateur, well to the left side of the Creativity-Communication Matrix, that doesn’t have to pose a problem. As long as you avoid feeling that you “should” be making more work than you are (not a simple ask, but possible), you can take straightforward pleasure in creation, and there will be few larger consequences in your life if you simply keep creating.
But as soon as you have any ambitions for your creative work to find a larger audience, never mind make you money, if you dive straight into the next project when you’re done with something, or, worse, if you try to juggle many projects and never pause, you’re doing it wrong.
Want to achieve more? Do less.
There are a lot of reasons we work this way.
First, it’s comfortable. It’s known.
Second, it’s satisfying to make the work for its own sake.
But importantly, anxiety drives us.
We—OK, I—make things and just keep on making because NOT making things challenges my self-image. Not-making leads me to feel lazy, like a slacker.
And that’s not just about self-image: slackers can’t pay their bills. Slackers can’t take care of their kids. Slackers starve. That’s my fear.
Anxiety is fear of the future.
Fear of the future is about scarcity.
It’s fear that you won’t have enough money or time or love or health. When you’re not working, even for an hour, that anxiety can grab hold, twist you into a knot, and ruin your peace of mind and ability to focus.
That’s the scarcity trap: Anxiety leads to filling your time with busyness, which leads to not taking a step back and making smart choices about what is the most effective, or even pleasant, way to use your time.
As someone who’s made a series of rather financially-challenging career decisions (English major > cartoonist > author > teacher) and who also wants to maintain a solid, middle-class life, scarcity haunts me.
Let’s get real: scarcity haunts almost all of us.
When you’re in the scarcity trap, you make bad choices.
Here’s how the scarcity trap plays out: You fear you don’t, or won’t in the future, have enough (money, time, love, etc.). This may be true or it may not be. But what it does to you is keep you running scared.
Scared is not how you make smart choices. Scared is how you fill your time with whatever you can think of to ensure against that feared future.
I’m not trying to shame anyone for not having money or anything else they need. There are times when that fear of not having enough is based on stark reality, and bad choices are all you have available.
This is the kind of thing you hear economists talk about all the time.
For example, a person working at the edge of economic stability can be totally derailed by an unexpected car repair. The person ends up having to take an usurious payday loan to pay for the repair in order to get to work, then misses a payment, takes on more debt, and things go from bad to worse. That’s the literal, desperate version of having zero margin.
But even if you live close to the edge of that scarcity scenario (and I feel for you if you do), if you’re not actually in it yet, you have a choice: create a tiny bit of margin now, in whatever way you can, or live in that scarcity trap, tempting fate, long term.
I have built my career around the dream of freedom, and I have a lot more of it than most.
I decide what to do, when.
I work on things I care about.
But freedom for me is also about time: time that’s mine, that I can use in whatever way I want to.
And time = money.
Not in the sense that my time is worth money (though it is), but that money can buy time. If you make more money in a shorter time, you are able to work less. (Theoretically—you still have to decide to work less, and then actually work less.)
And this is where my search for freedom has completely gone off the rails: In the effort to make enough money to buy myself more time (giving up the family-and-property goodies I value), I’ve optimized out all the blank space and work constantly.
Productivity + scarcity = cram more in, always.
I know intellectually that time spent making good decisions about where to devote my time, time spent strategically planning my next moves, time spent doing things right rather than fast, that’s time well spent. That is how one takes a career from nonexistent to good, good to great.
(That’s also how you figure out ways to make more money in less time.)
But time spent that way still feels like time wasted—or it sets me spinning off into anxious pondering (one of the more poisonous styles of procrastination), so I’m fighting myself when I try to create that space.
Scarcity trap case in point: 2017.
In January 2017, I had been in “crunch mode” for years. Basically since I started working. I was determined to do things differently.
I had at last created a reasonably-final iteration of a course, the Creative Focus Workshop, that I’d been working on for a year.
I knew it was solid and delivered results, and students were happy with it. And I knew something about how to sell it, and looked forward to a year of getting better and better results for students, and making better and better sales.
I also, not incidentally, already had a very full back catalog of projects that I could have decided to focus on:
Out on the Wire, my book about the secrets of storytelling, as epitomized by the great radio/podcast producers.
Life Sucks, my out-of-print graphic novel about young vampires in love.
La Perdida, my graphic novel about cultural misunderstandings that lead to disaster (now, unfortunately, newly relevant).
Oh, AND… I had one massive project still in progress, then already 10 years in the making: Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars.
What did I decide to do in 2017?
Double down on the CFW?
Create a marketing plan for DWWP?
Get Life Sucks back in print?
Finish Trish Trash, for god’s sake?
No. I wrote a new book.
I’m happy with Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. I’m pleased with how it came out and I have gotten a lot of great mail from people saying that they’ve benefited from it massively.
But to say I underestimated the impact it would have on my life would be to imply that I estimated the impact it would have on my life.
I simply didn’t think about it as a choice in that way. I didn’t really think about it at all, when I look back.
Yes, I had the notion that I should focus on CFW, but, well, Growing Gills is based on the CFW, and I’d already had the book on my to-do list for 9 or 10 months so…you know, doesn’t it make sense to do that next?
I didn’t think:
OK, Jessica. You will need to write and then design this thing…but you have some idea what that will take.
The problem, Jessica, my friend, is that this is really a whole new thread in your business. You’ll need to create a lot of materials to sell the book, you’ll need to continue to promote it long-term…and it’s not the same marketing as for the CFW. There aren’t a lot of efficiencies here. You can’t really double-dip. Let’s just have a check in. Are you sure you want to actually be a self-publisher? Nothing wrong with that, but it’s an entire business model. You sure?
I just didn’t have that thought.
So what do I mean by margin?
Margin is white space. It’s not empty time, it’s time you have decided to devote to allowing yourself to think, absorb, process. It might look like journaling, or walking, or staring out the window.
Scarcity leads us to view all of our time as capital. That time is not leftover. It’s on your calendar. It’s an appointment with yourself.
Margin is scary. Having margin allows/demands that you ask yourself WHY.
Why am I doing this thing?
Why am I not doing that thing?
Why is this important?
(That’s where pointless worrying and regret and anxiety have a field day with me.)
Despite all that anxiety, the times I have allowed myself margin are when I have had my greatest revelations about how I want to be in the world, and how to get there.
Margin is the path to solid, strategic decisions.
Margin is how you avoid what I heard Joey Korenman of the School of Motion, in an interview, call, “The Wrong Mountain Syndrome.”
You set a goal without clearly understanding the downstream consequences of that goal, you push through and finish, and arrive at the top…of the wrong mountain.
Instead of giving myself margin, in 2017 I actually took on three large projects, all of which had the unintended consequence of more work and less focus.
In addition to publishing Growing Gills, I designed another course (the Authentic Visibility Masterclass) that I intended to be a quick, easy project…that then ate 3 months (and that now languishes for lack of focus).
Behind the scenes, I changed over to a new, very complex, more expensive email provider and implemented a whole lot of automation (meaning, many tens of thousands of words written, many hours in the software, many dollars paid to a wonderful assistant to try to make it all work) that completely failed to meet my expectations…mostly because my expectations were totally out of line with what I was actually doing.
Three Wrong Mountains in one year.
That might be a record for me.
And it’s painful to cast these projects in that light, because in fact, I’m proud of the work I did on all three projects. And I know people will come back and say, “no, wait, Growing Gills was worth it! The Authentic Visibility Masterclass is so good!” Which, believe me, I appreciate. It’s wonderful to hear. I’m thrilled when I can help someone with my work.
But that’s the thing: I’m not helping as many people as I could help because I’m not telling them about what I’ve already made.
You, who’s reading this right now.
Did you know I wrote not one, but TWO really amazing books about how to make comics (with Matt Madden, my brilliant husband)? Do you want to make comics? Does someone you love want to make comics? If so, you should totally buy these books. Not joking, I’m completely serious. I absolutely guarantee you’ll get massive value out of them.
I have not done that enough. Really, I could almost never do that enough.
Only allowing myself the time to think and plan and execute could get me anywhere near my goals for how widely my work would be seen, used, valued…
…and not incidentally, paid for. There are only so many hours in my life. And I need to get serious about buying some of them back.
How to escape the scarcity trap and gain more margin
So now you know how very bad I am at creating margin in my life. (And this is not the first time I’ve talked about it, not by a long shot.)
And, on the surface, a lot of my writing about getting creative work done can seem to point in the opposite direction. Fill your time more efficiently. Stop procrastinating. Butt in chair.
So what does it mean, do less to do more? Stop working and stare out the window? Isn’t that exactly what so many people are trying to stop doing?
The idea of margin does encompass simply relaxing and allowing yourself space to think. But for me, it’s much more about aligning your plans and intentions with your reality.
I’m not a dummy. When I put 25 things on my to-do list for the day, I know there is no way I’m actually going to finish 25 things. I’m going to have to do triage, and postpone lots of them, and race like crazy to get the rest done.
The things that actually need doing, get done. But the crazed-ness, the fullness of the list causes the true problem:
If I even try to get all that stuff done, I won’t write a post like this one.
It won’t be possible to sit down and compose 3500 word articles. (I do love to ramble on.) I won’t be able to think through my complex feelings about doing and not-doing, planning and not-planning, and put it into some form you can use. (And I definitely won’t properly share this post and make sure it gets into the hands of people who need it.)
I have to have space in my day, on my calendar, to have any hope for this to work.
For me, margin is about embracing the cold, clear reality I live in, and not pretending that I have more time and attention available than I actually do.
And I know it works:
I’ve been teaching margin to my Creative Focus Workshop students for two years now, at first without any idea that’s what I was doing.
I started out thinking I was teaching project planning, but it turns out the core of everything is getting real with yourself.
…It makes it tough for marketing, because what am I going to say? “Amanda wanted to write a novel in 3 months, and then she realized that was completely impossible in the 5 hours a week she has available, so she decided to aim to get a solid outline finished in that time, and guess what, she finished it in only 4 months! Join the Creative Focus Workshop!”
Until you realize that Amanda hadn’t written more than a few scenes in three years up until she got concrete about what’s in her life and what was most important, and gave herself the margin to do the work.
When you want to do eight things, and then realize you can only do one, it can be a jolt.
But when you actually DO that one thing, and finish without feeling anxious, rather than noodling on all eight and not finishing and feeling terrible all the time, it’s a rush, it’s empowering, it feels amazing.
The work is better, you feel better, and you actually do more when you aim to do less.
Align your plans with reality rather than the other way around.
As Jen Louden puts it: “Choosing is the ticket price to the creative life.”
I also know margin works from evidence in my own life
Twice, I’ve gotten so desperate, so in over my head, that I’ve radically reengineered my life in order to create a huge margin, one so large that it took a couple years of intensive work to overfill it up again. (Not on purpose. I just haven’t been able to help myself).
The first time was in 1998. I was working a full-time job, while also making comics and having increasing success at illustration. (I also had a very full social life.) The amount of time I spent at my job was a steady state, there was no more flex there (I already worked on personal projects in any available gaps). And my creative work was taking more and more time. I wasn’t making enough money at illustration to quit my job, though, and comics paid me virtually nothing. I felt myself at a crossroads.
So I moved with Matt to Mexico City.
The low cost of living (when living on dollars) made it possible for me to quit and live as a freelance artist for the first time.
I wallowed in the free time, and that margin is why I was able to take on Radio: An Illustrated Guide with Ira Glass, the book that eventually led me to Out on the Wire, 12 or so years later, and really, one of the core threads of my career.
The second time was in 2012. I had 2 tiny kids, an adjunct teaching job, an editorial job, a comic to draw, I was finishing a textbook…and there was no real way out. I couldn’t afford to quit anything, and had zero margin to imagine a new way to make a living.
So Matt and I moved to France.
My calendar went from jammed from 7am to 10pm to virtually empty.
I often evoke the crazy period in which I actually drew the book, Out on the Wire, the time when I finished scripting and especially drawing, on an incredibly short schedule, as an example of what I don’t want to do with my life. Too much grinding, too much cramming.
That was 2014-2015. But when I look back to 2013, soon after I’d moved to Angoulême to become a resident at the Maison des Auteurs, I spent days on end just thinking, researching. I had whole weeks where maybe the only thing on the calendar was one phone meeting.
I gradually refilled the whole calendar, but living in Angoulême was why I was able to spend a year on research and a year on writing for Out on the Wire. It’s why I created a podcast about how to build stories. It’s why I was able to switch gears and find new ways to make a living.
And those things contributed to why I was hired as a professor and department head at PAFA, an art school here in Philadelphia, something I never expected and that came as a complete surprise left turn.
Moving abroad was valuable for so many reasons.
But here’s what shocks me, looking back: In both cases, I put myself in the position of living a marginal life in order to have margin. I physically took myself out of my middle-class life, weighted down with things and relationships and work, and put myself in cheap, small apartments where I perched for a few years.
In both cases, hulking in the wings: my middle class, property-owning American life.
In 2000, coming back from Mexico, the property wasn’t all that burdensome, but by 2012 I had a house in Brooklyn, tenants, rooms full of stored furniture, that I’d return to with a vengeance in 2016.
Then I’d add a new house that needed fitting up and renovation, a new full-time job, kids in new public schools, political and emotional chaos in the USA…
And so here I sit, in 2018, with a full-time job and my students, my kids, my house, and my back catalog of existing books and projects.
I can’t engineer a new Great Escape, not anytime in the foreseeable future. (I do fantasize about it, I must admit.) And I don’t really want to. I want to find a way to have more freedom WITH all the trappings of my complete life intact, instead of sitting in a storage place somewhere.
I’m faced with a stark choice: create margin for myself here, in the present, amid all the complications of my very adult life, or let myself continue to feel harried and trapped by all the wonderful, amazing things I’ve made and have and do.
Which, when you think about it, is not really a choice at all.
If I want to invent a new future, one where I can do more by doing less, where I can make smart choices that allow me to have more impact in the world, building in margin is the only way to get there.
Do yourself a favor and find an hour in the next week that you can block off and make available to only you. Call it “meeting with Margin.”
You’re gonna want to take that meeting.
This is first in a series of articles about carving out space in your life for the creative work that’s truly important to you. Next time: That mysterious land margin allows you to visit: Quadrant 2. Third: There is No Gatekeeper. The conclusion: What taking action looks like, and how to go about it.