Tara McMullin explores What Works with us on The Autonomous Creative

Are you exploiting yourself and your own creative labor? with Tara McMullin

with your host Jessica Abel

Subscribe to listen on the go!

Listen to the episode:

Labor exploitation is labor exploitation, whether it happens in the non-profit world or the for-profit world. Or in the home-work world, or the educational world. It’s all still labor exploitation.

And I believe very strongly that whether we’re talking about goal setting, or we’re talking about business models, or we’re talking about any of these things, that the most fundamental thing is that organizations, businesses, institutions, need to be set up in a way in which the people doing the labor are not exploited.

Systems in which the people doing the labor are taken care of.
That to me must be the starting point for any organization, for-profit, or non-profit.

Tara mcmullin

“Self-actualization is not more important
than feeding yourself.”

In this episode, Tara McMullin helps us understand why solving for your needs first is essential to running any creative business (with your humanity intact).

Tara is a writer, podcaster, and producer who used to be a business strategist (among many other things). But in late 2021, she pivoted to focus on her creative work. On this episode, we discuss Tara’s debut book, What Works: A Comprehensive Framework To Change The Way We Approach Goal Setting. Plus: how and why she left her successful coaching and membership business to be a writer.

What Works Podcast with Tara McMullin
What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal Setting - Tara McMullin

More from the episode

  • What’s the Passion Paradigm, and how does belief in passion-driven work contribute to labor exploitation?
  • How the starving artist myth functions more like religious belief than you might expect, and what effect that has.
  • How acknowledging your limitations is actually the key to feeling more capable than ever.
  • How did an adult diagnosis of autism, and the emotional labor required to support her clients, play into Tara’s pivot?
  • What leads to chronic under-commitment, and how can we become less tied to validation and achievement?

About Tara McMullin

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer. For over 13 years, she has studied small business owners—how they live, how they work, what influences them, and what they hope for the future. She’s the host of What Works, a podcast about navigating the 21st-century economy with your humanity intact.

What Works with Tara McMullin

Tara is also co-founder of YellowHouse.Media, a boutique podcast production company. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, The Startup, The Muse, and The Huffington Post. Her first book, What Works: A Comprehensive Framework To Change The Way We Approach Goal Setting, will be released in November.

Connect with Tara



Additional Links

Always On: The Hidden Labor We Do Every Day

Seven Simple Business Models


Click here to view the transcript!

Tara McMullin: Labor exploitation is labor exploitation, whether it happens in the nonprofit world or the for-profit world. Or in the home work world, or the educational world. It also applies in, in self-employment. It’s all still labor exploitation. And I believe very strongly that the most fundamental thing is that organizations, businesses, institutions, need to be set up in a way in which the people doing the labor are not exploited.

What does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?

There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place.

That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional creative.

I’m cartoonist and creative business coach Jessica Abel.

In my own life, those studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks, anxieties and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.

And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the Autonomous Creative.

Introducing Tara McMullin

I am so excited to welcome our guest today on the Autonomous Creative Tara McMullin. Tara is a writer, podcaster, and producer who explores what it takes to navigate the 21st century with your humanity intact. Which sounds like something we all need.

She has a new book out called what works, a comprehensive framework to change the way we approach goal-setting. Which is not actually about goal setting at all.

She’s also been sharing ideas that derive from her research for that book over the last year or so on her podcast, which is also called what works. And I got to say some of these ideas have totally cracked open new vistas for me and transformed how I’m working. And I think they might do so for you as well.

Tara and I have actually known each other since 2015 back when she was a business strategist and coach, and she was my first ever coach. And from then on her pragmatic and grounded coaching and her focus on strategy over flash has become part of my business’s DNA.

If you ever wonder how I got to be the kind of coach and thinker I am uh Tara is a big part of that story. So I’m super excited to get to dive into how Tara’s career evolved from retail to coaching to a membership and how her latest pivot to what is essentially a journalistic mode is going. And we’ll jump right into the deep end after this.

ad – Creative Engine

This episode of the Autonomous creative is brought to you by the Creative Engine. I talk to working creative people all the time, both on the show and in our membership, the Autonomous Creative Collective, and one of the biggest challenges they struggle with is procrastination.

To most people, it feels like it’s just a permanent character flaw. Like they were born that way and doomed to suffer, but that’s just absolutely untrue.

Art is hard. Yes. And we will all feel resistance to using that much cognitive energy on anything, but procrastination typically stems from specific root causes that are totally fixable.

If your creative work is essential to you and who you are and your life yet, you still struggle with procrastination. And it just feels like this is crazy.

I want to invite you to check out the free Creative Engine Masterclass. This class will help you overcome your resistance and put your priorities first before you’re derailed by everything else.

The Creative Engine is a complete, simple, straightforward, and powerful framework that will help you pinpoint where your creative process breaks down and highlight exactly how to fix it.

In it, you’ll master the four essential phases of the creative process you need to produce awesome work reliably. And you’re probably skipping at least one. Possibly two.

You’ll learn how to predict and avoid the pitfalls that derail you time and time again.

And you’ll overcome self-sabotage take back control and keep moving even when things get really challenging.

This class is totally free and you will get immediate, deep clarity into what makes your creative life tick.

So stop procrastinating and start finishing your most important creative projects by harnessing the power of your own creative engine @jessicaabel.com/engine. That’s J E S S I C a a B E l.com/engine.

Now let’s start the show.

interview begins

Jessica Abel: Tara, thanks for being here and welcome.

Tara McMullin: Well, thank you so much for having me, and thank you for that introduction. That made my heart very warm.

Jessica Abel: I’m glad. I’m glad. I’ve been so excited to have this chat with you and have a chance to really dig into these ideas because you’ve been throwing stuff at me all year and I haven’t had anyone to talk to about it. So this is gonna be great.

So let’s start because a lot of people here may not be familiar with you. I would just wanna start a little bit in your history, giving people a sense of your journey a little bit. One of the reasons I joined your program back in 2015 is that you were a band geek and a religion major in college, and you wore your Star Trek love on your sleeve. You were definitely my people, but here you were in the business world.

I mean, you’re so strategic and you are so smart. No manifesting, no energy magic, way more Spock than Kirk. So I figured if anybody is gonna be able to make this bizarro world comprehensible, it would be you. So how did you go from a liberal arts to business coaching?

How did you go from liberal arts to business coaching?

Tara McMullin: Such a great question. So yes, I was a religion major in college. I was a double major in music for quite a while as well, and just decided to focus on religion at the end. But I would say that probably since I was 11 or 12 years old, I was really driven by questions about why people do the things that they do, how our beliefs, our worldview, impact the way we interact with the world.

And at that time, I was thinking most about that in terms of religion and religion very broadly speaking. And so that was sort of what inspired me to pursue that academic line of study. And I loved it. I loved every single minute of it. In fact, my plan was to go on to grad school, get my PhD, go into academia.

That seemed like where my life was going and absolutely what I wanted to do. And it was what I wanted to do. And I got into grad school. I got into my top choice grad school and two weeks before I was supposed to leave, and move up to Syracuse, I was at the depth of a major depressive episode.

I was completely burnt out from college for all sorts of reasons that I did not understand at the time that I do now. And that all led to sort of a crisis of confidence around, what am I gonna do with a PhD in religious study? It’s like, am I ever going to be able to get an academic job? And those are some valid questions, right?

Like this was, this was not like, yeah, it was not irrational. And it led to the decision to quit grad school before I even started, which then led me to getting a full-time job at the retail store that I was working at at the time, which was a Borders Books and Music. May she rest in peace. Um, but Borders was a great place for me to end up, if I was gonna end up someplace other than academia at that time in my life, because I was still surrounded by people who loved ideas.

I was surrounded by people who loved art and words and music and film and coffee and it was just a great place to be. But the other great thing about Borders is that, especially in that early aughts time, they were really allowing a ton of leeway with local stores so that each store ran to a degree more like a local business than a national chain.

And so I learned actually a ton about management and merchandising, sales, profit and loss and payroll and HR and all of these things that had I been a manager at a different chain, I probably would’ve learned some of, but I wouldn’t have had that same agency and a sense of ownership like I did at the Borders.

And that’s really when I started to get interested in business because I’d never been interested in business before that. But I really enjoyed the work that I did there. You know, five years or so after I started that I was burnt out again. For many of the same reasons as I was burnt out after college.

I was just becoming a new mom and I decided that I needed to be done with that. I wanted to be done with it. And I had heard about people making money online and I thought, well if these moms can work from home and take care of their kids at the same time, well then I can do that too.

And so that’s when, that was 2008, that’s when I really started to move into the business world and sort of understanding what was happening in the market at the time, how people were making money online, how these kind of small digital first businesses were being built.

And I had already been a blogger. I actually started a blog in 2003, and if only I would’ve kept up with that. But that’s a different story. So I knew blogging, I knew that I loved doing it. I knew that I could do it in terms of like just keeping up with content. I loved to write. And so I went head first into blogging at that point in time.

But what I found was that as much as people liked my writing about the independent maker movement or about style or design, what they really loved was when I talked about business. Now I have a little bit of a different frame on that now here in 2022, but I felt like, okay, this is something that I can really understand.

This is something that I can share with people in hopefully a way that makes sense to them. And it’s something that I can really, I can dig into this. This is interesting to me. And what I discovered was that, that same question of why do people do the things that they do? Why do they make the decisions that they make? Why do they, how do their beliefs translate into action?

Those same questions are at the basis of business strategy and marketing and sales and all of that. And so I found myself scratching those same itches with business. Now, you know, here 14 plus years later, I have really started to dig back into those questions more explicitly.

And so I knew those questions were important to me and I knew those questions were driving my work in terms of business coaching and strategy and marketing. But I was ready to let those questions really come to front and center in my own work. Again, being burnt out for all the same reasons and wanting to make that shift in my work is really what has brought me to this place where I am, as you said, taking a more journalistic perspective.

So in so many ways, it looks like my last 20 years is this very weird journey of all sorts of different things, but for me there is a very distinct, very thick through line on the whole thing.

Jessica Abel: Definitely in terms of your interests and what you want to be helping people with, but just doing it in different modes cuz there’s been a bunch of different modes. So you were a coach when I met you and then you became more of a strategist and then you started running a membership and now you’re sharing your podcast to your articles and that kind of thing.

So you have this kind of, there’s different modes of doing it, but the content is the same. And, and I was thought it was really interesting that you, you were saying that you saw the same questions being asked, the same needs being dealt with in business that you did in religious studies, which I think, for my crowd, people who are here today that can feel really like, challenging to think that. But the idea of running a business, especially something that’s a solo business or a small business, that it’s really like, it’s existential in a way that religion is also existential.

It’s about what you, how you take care of yourself and how you live, literally. How you pay your bills. Like how you, but also like what do you do day to day and how, who do you identify with and who are you working with?

You know, over the last couple years, you’ve really opened my eyes to the whole concept that a creative business, any business, could and should be built to meet basic needs first, life needs, human needs first.

And some of those needs include creative expression, but creative expression can’t be the top of the pyr– it is, you know, not the thing that you’re, you need to be filtering for first. And typically for creatives, that is, it’s like, I wanna express this thing and therefore I have to do something. And it’s so hard to make that work, but instead working the other way around. So, this is a totally new concept for a lot of creatives.

How and when did this understanding dawn for you, this idea of kind of flipping things around that way?

Building a business around your needs/The Passion Paradigm

Tara McMullin: I think that it started to bubble up when I heard from folks that some of the things that I was talking about in terms of building a business seemed to be sort of too big, too grand, and that they just wanted to have quote unquote enough. And I felt very unsure about, well, what do you mean when you say enough?

And what I came to find out, not all the time, but most of the time, is that there was a lot of fear about pricing, fear about earning money, fear about selling, that led people to discount and diminish the needs that they actually had. And so when they were saying enough, enough wasn’t really true, right? It was a word that sounded good, that sounded like it fit into a different model of capitalism, for instance. But really it was masking this subordination of their real material needs in order to lift up self-expression, creative needs, just feeling good about showing up and saying you’re running a business every day without actually marketing or selling anything, right?

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. and And for for creatives too, I think there’s the whole piece of feeling like you aren’t allowed to foreground your needs because that would mean that somehow you love your work less. If you are insisting on being paid and putting that first, what does that mean about your love for your work? Does it make you, does it make you less than, as a creative?

Tara McMullin: Yeah, totally. Yeah, there’s so, there’s all the pervasive stories that are embedded into our brains. Like even if you say, Oh, I don’t buy into the starving artist myth, right? It’s still in there.

Going back to that like, religion piece of like, what are the stories, what are the beliefs that guide our actions? That’s a story that most of us have integrated into just the way we see the world.

And we can intellectually say, oh, that’s not true. You don’t need to starve and be an artist. The pull of that story is so much stronger than the pull of our intellectual knowledge that that’s not the case. And so it’s a constant practice of, of reworking those things.

Right. So that’s where I first started to notice people not really thinking about their material or financial needs ahead of sort of creative expression or self-actualization.

But more recently, and especially with the onset of the pandemic, what I started to notice was the messaging around just jobs in general, work in general, shifting to put that creative, that fun, that passion piece in front of pay, safety, benefits, time off, all of those things. And it made me realize, oh, this is a much bigger problem than I have realized in the past. And so when I started to research it, I found that luckily other people were researching it too, with way more research resources and knowledge than I have.

Um, and so a sociologist named Lindsay DePalma did a study of engineers, graphic designers, and nurses. Those were the three groups that she chose and she documented a phenomenon that she calls the Passion Paradigm. And I’m gonna get the exact numbers off, but just know that I’m very much in the ball …

Jessica Abel: 77%

Tara McMullin: Thank you. 77% . Good. That’s good. That is what I quoted someone the other day too, when I gave the same caveat. Thank you. 77% of the people that she talked to believed that being passionate about your work was more important than how much you got paid.

Right? Like ah, and even wor- like that’s

Jessica Abel: Nurses! Nurses think this! What?

Tara McMullin: Yeah. So that’s bad enough, but it gets worse in that people believe that finding work you’re passionate about is available to everyone, and that it is our responsibility to find work that we’re passionate about, even if it doesn’t pay as well.

And so we, we know just from like an equity standpoint that not everyone has access to work that they’re passionate about.

And the way we define passion about our work is exclusive of a lot of work that society needs and that we need to pay people well for. And so when I, when I realized that this was a much larger trend, that was something that I felt, okay, we really need to call this out. We need to start looking at how this is manifesting among the people that I speak to and I write for.

And so it’s, for me, it’s been a lot of reckoning with what are the business models people think they should have? What are the marketing strategies they think they should have given what influencers tell them, given what seems to be the hot new trends that are out there, given what they see other people doing versus what are the business models that actually get their bills paid, that actually get their material needs met, that allow them to hire help at appropriate ,rates that allow them to take time off and buy health insurance?

Jessica Abel: Let me pause you right there

Tara McMullin: yeah. Yeah.

What’s a business model?

Jessica Abel: Because we need to define business models. Because for a lot of people who are here, they may not know what we mean by that, and I think it’s such an essential concept I want everybody to get. So can you just tell us super briefly, what’s a business model?

Tara McMullin: Your business model is essentially the system that you use to deliver, create, and exchange value. And so all that means is it is the underlying system of how you get paid in your business and how you create the work that people wanna pay for. And yeah, I could spend, well, I have spent many, many, many thousands of words going further into it, but that’s

Jessica Abel: I have too, but I just, yeah, the long and short is like, what do you make or do? Who do you do it for and how do you sell it to them and how do you deliver it to them? Like those, basically those pieces. And you can see how different choices about that would play out differently in terms of the way your life goes. You know, are you trying to deliver to lots and lots of people? Are you trying to deliver to a few people? That’s gonna have a big impact on what your life looks like day to day.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. And this, the system part of it is really important because a lot of times what happens, especially I think with really creative folks, is that they make decisions, we make decisions independent of the other decisions that we’ve made, right? So we choose a particular marketing strategy, we choose a particular offer, we choose a particular customer that we wanna serve, we choose a particular service or product that we’re going to offer.

And we sort of think, oh, well, if I just choose what works for me or choose what I like best or choose what everybody else is doing in each of those different categories, well, everything’s gonna work out. Or like, this is my best shot worse. But instead, each one of those decisions should be influencing the other decisions, right?

So building an audience on Instagram is awesome. And what is the product that’s gonna go along with that and make sense with that? Or vice versa. If you’re selling high end commission illustration having a portfolio on Instagram is probably a great move, but building an audience, would I spend my time there? No, I wouldn’t. I would spend my time doing other things.

And so all that to say again that those decisions are not independent of each other. That to make a, to have a business that takes care of your material needs, your financial needs, and allows you to do work that you do wanna do, that you are passionate about hopefully, those decisions all need to be made in conjunction with the others.

Jessica Abel: Yes. So much so. Thank you for that. Yeah, I mean, one of the things you said, you, you have an article called “Always On: The Hidden Labor We Do Every Day”. That’s essentially about the free labor we donate to giant social media titans.

Social media and free labor

Tara McMullin: Yes. It makes me so angry.

Jessica Abel: Made me wanna gag. Uh, so highly recommended. But that article you quote Adrian Daub talking about social media saying, and I just wonder if this just isn’t relevant to not just social media, maybe more problematic for social media, but it just in general.

” The problem isn’t that the act of providing content is ignored or uncompensated, but rather that it isn’t recognized as labor.”

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: And this, this was really helpful to me to sort of understand those weird shoulds around social media, but it also made me think of just artists and writers in general. And typically we’re told that we should be grateful to be able to do what we love and not expect to be paid because it’s not actually labor, right?

I mean, I had a, a live event the other day with, and a man was there who was saying, I was asking, how much time do you spend on your creative business? And he’s like, well, it’s X number of hours, but that’s not the actual writing part cuz that’s just a joy for me. And I was like, no, no, no. That goes in. You have to put that in. So, yeah.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I could spend an hour talking about that Adrian Daub quote just on its face. But one of the other things that he talks about in that book, and it’s a great book. It’s called What Tech Calls Thinking. Um, and it’s sort of a philosophical exploration of, of a lot of the pervasive stories in Silicon Valley.

But one of the things he talks about around that sort of not recognized as labor piece is that there is a masculine version of labor that is lionized in Silicon Valley, and then there’s a feminine, or a feminine coded version of labor, right. That is completely just, well, this is just what people do, right? So if you think of a site like Yelp, Yelp doesn’t exist without people reviewing things. Right? Well, something like 90% of the people who leave reviews on Yelp are women.

Jessica Abel: Wow.

Tara McMullin: Right? Yeah, I know. And I could have that wrong, but it is predominantly women leaving reviews on Yelp. And so the men who own Yelp, again, predominantly, are benefiting from that free labor. Now and you might think, oh, okay, well reviews, that’s, that’s not really labor. It is. And when we think about putting our work on something like Instagram or Facebook or YouTube or any of the places that we’re putting work that others are benefiting from, and by others I mean the companies, the platforms themselves, we’re putting creative labor onto these platforms.

And I’m not against doing that, right? I do it on a regular basis. But we’re putting this creative work on these platforms for free. And what it is essentially doing is making their algorithms better. And the better their algorithms get the more we put on there to create ad inventory for them, the more money they make. And how much money do we actually make from that?

There are people who make good money with the content that they put on Instagram, in one way or another, but the vast majority of people are not being properly compensated for that time. It’s just something that they, they feel as you said, that they should be doing, that they’re supposed to be doing. So they do it and it almost counts not as part of their workday.

And they might do it watching TV in the evening or early in the morning while they’re still in bed. Right. Again, guilty as charged. Like, I’m not saying anything I’m, I’m not complicit in. But I think it is important to recognize that when we are saying, okay, I’m gonna go build an audience on Instagram, that we are putting actual labor hours that need to be compensated into a platform that will be making profit from that time whether we actually make anything from it or not.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Their motives are completely not aligned with ours. Their motives are, make more stuff, make more stuff that’s sticky, make more stuff that keeps people on the app, not go to the person’s site and buy the thing, not take this conversation offline and buy a painting or whatever it is.

It’s funny because you talk about this idea of each decision being made independently and this was one, reading that article was one of those moments where I was able to sort of like put a whole bunch of threads together that had made sense, like I understood these different things but they didn’t kind of mesh, that literally Instagram doesn’t exist unless we make free stuff.

Tara McMullin: Yes.

Jessica Abel: Literally doesn’t exist.

Tara McMullin: We make the product that

Jessica Abel: We are the product. Yes.

Tara McMullin: Right. And the more we make, the more ad inventory they have, because they can only put so many ads in a feed that only has so much content, right? So like let’s say you get an ad every three posts. Well, if you get an ad every three posts, it’s in Instagram’s best interest to incentivize you to post as much as possible.

They’re not doing that for your benefit, they’re doing that for their benefit. And they might say, “Oh, this is how creators get paid and this is, this is what’s good for creators. And look at all these tools we’re making for creators.” No, all they care about. And, and I always try so hard not to sound just completely jaded and cynical, but seriously, their business case is just getting you to create more content.

And so yeah, they’re gonna pull every lever they have to get you to write more words into the machine to get you to post more images that they can index, to get you to get more followers onto their platform. That’s what’s in their best interest. And if that’s not in your best interest or if you are not receiving commensurate reward for that why, why, why spend so much time there?

Jessica Abel: Absolutely. And there’s so much lack of… people just don’t question it, you know? They just, and I understand why, cuz it is literally everywhere, the message that this is what you need to do presumably comes from Instagram originally, but then people are like, “Hey, this worked for me.” And then they’re, you know, it just becomes this self-repeating. Anyway, we could talk about this

the So let me shift gears a little bit.

Tara McMullin: Okay.

Career pivots, and being diagnosed with autism

Jessica Abel: So you have gone, as I, as I referred to earlier, you’ve made a number of shifts in how you’re working over the years. Notably when you stopped, mostly stopped coaching, and shifted to a membership for small businesses, which was really a wonderful experience to sort of meet all these other people. And then you wound that down too and shifted into this new mode to sort of journalistic researcher mode.

You talk about how like it’s all these different things you’ve been doing, but it really, it’s full circle. In fact, Lou was helping me do some research, my assistant Lou, and they found a tweet about a PhD program.

Tara McMullin: Oh yeah, I haven’t made any decisions yet, but I am considering going back to school next year.

Jessica Abel: So interesting. So I wanna hear a little bit about how you made this huge decision, and I would really love it if you would speak a little bit to how being diagnosed with autism fed into that. There’s so many people who are neurodivergent in creative communities and it’s just really, I think, I find it really helpful for people to talk about how they’ve come, how they’ve negotiated that.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, so the autism diagnosis is, was a huge catalyst, not just for recognizing that the decision needed to be made, but for illuminating so many decisions that were made in my life. So I mentioned, you know, after college I was burnt out and I didn’t know why, but I do know now. After Borders, I was burnt out. After this, that, and the other thing. As a business owner, I was burnt out.

And it’s, it is a very common pattern with autistic people and specifically autistic women where we will go through these cycles of putting our whole selves into whatever it is that we’re trying at that time. So whether it’s school, or whether it’s a career, a job, family. And because we don’t… one of, one of the hallmarks of autism is sort of a, um, what they call monotropism, which is sort of a single mindedness.

And so it is really hard for me to do anything other than the thing that is right in front of me and is the thing that I want to be doing. And of course, this drives people nuts in our, in relationships, right? Like my husband would really prefer me to be able to do things that are not directly in front of me. Um, but all of that leads to this wholesale outpouring of energy that drains and drains and drains and drains because at the same time, we’re involved, or I’m involved, although I’ve, I’ve heard this pattern, it’s just so many times now.

We’re involved in activities that are also draining by virtue of what we’re putting our energy into. So whether that’s managing people or dealing with close social connections. In college, that was a huge piece for me. It wasn’t the schoolwork that burnt me out. It was being surrounded by people all the time and I can remember in my last year of, of college, I realized that if I could just go to the library and just sit and be by myself.

Whether it was just to dink around on my laptop or to read a book or to do some schoolwork, like just being alone for a couple of hours was a revelation. Anyhow.

So yeah, so these different cycles of burnout, I realized in the process of, of learning that I was autistic, make complete sense in that, you know, if we, if we’re looking through that lens, and there’s actually a researcher named, Katherine Tan, who coined the term biographical illumination for this process, which I love.

And so definitely, and it still happens to me now, it’s like, oh, that’s an autistic thing, that’s an autistic trait, and that explains this and this and this and this and this in my personal history. So anyhow, all of that to say that being diagnosed as autistic helped me put into context a lot of different things that I was feeling, a lot of different things that I was going through.

A lot of the physical, physiological problems that I was having as I was getting more and more burnt out. And so, I kind of lost my train of thought there, but eventually it led to realizing that while I had set myself up in a business that values-wise was a hundred percent aligned to me and philosophically was a hundred percent aligned to me, it was 0% aligned to my personality and my neurology and the way that I work. And it was slowly killing me. And I, I don’t say that lightly.

I say that because that could have been where things ended up. And so it was less a strategic decision to step away from that and more of a, this is a personal necessity for me. And so again, like to kind of tie back to what we were talking about with material needs, it was a material need for me to say, I cannot work like this anymore.

It doesn’t matter how much I believe in it. It doesn’t matter how great the people are. I can’t do this anymore because this is, this work is making me sick. So that was the end of 2021. And you are completely right that I’ve been, I have come a hundred percent full circle. I am back to essentially being a blogger again. Only we call it different things now cuz no one wants to be called a, a blogger. So it’s like newsletter writer or just writer,

Jessica Abel: I was gonna say, is there a name for it then? If it’s not

Tara McMullin: It’s just writing. It’s just writing.

Jessica Abel: You’re an author.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. An author. Yes. That’s a new one for me, officially anyway. Yeah, and then podcasting, but bringing a very different perspective than what a lot of folks who focus on blogging for business, newsletter writing for business, podcasting for business, bring.

And it’s the only perspective that I feel comfortable in, which is, let’s ask questions. Let’s do some research. Let’s talk to people about their own experiences and their own expertise, and like, let’s get to the bottom of this. And what else is going on here? What are the beliefs that are creating this or that trend? What’s the worldview that’s creating challenges for people? And so it’s, it’s absolutely the work that I was doing in college. It was the work that I started doing when I became a blogger. And it is the work that I absolutely love to do. So, I don’t know if I answered your question.

Jessica Abel: Oh, no, you totally did. I mean, absolutely. Deeply. But I’m also curious at a more technical and strategic level. You talked about this idea of designing a business model starting with your needs. And this, as I said, again, was like a huge influence on me and the program that I’m running now, the Incubator, and how I designed that.

So that idea, starting with your needs, your neurological need, for working in a certain way was something you weren’t fully aware of. You knew about it. I mean, I remember you talking about it years ago, but you didn’t have the right sort of framework for it in order to be able to kind of insist on it in a sense. And I just wonder what did your actual process of deciding what you were going to do look like? Did you use a, you know, one of your little equations?

What did your actual process of designing a business based on your needs look like?

Tara McMullin: No. I didn’t. In short. It was… basically, it was such an emergency for me to stop what I was doing that there was no forethought into how I was going to leap into something new, other than I had finished a book proposal and was in the process of selling a book.

We were in a place where I knew that the book deal was going to happen. It hadn’t been like signed yet, but everyone was moving forward. It was just negotiations that had to be, be done. And so I had that little bit of, you know, I guess, golden parachute kind of thing. I didn’t have a huge advance, but I had enough that I could say, “Alright, I can take at least three months off and write this book.”

And that’s… I, more than anything else, that’s what I need. Right now. That’s going to help me feel better. It’s gonna help me get healthier again. And I also wanna acknowledge that my husband and I have a podcast production agency as well. So not only do we produce my podcast, but we produce about a dozen other podcasts as well.

And so that business brings in very reliable revenue. It could grow much larger than it currently is, if we decide to do that. And so I had that, as sort of like– I didn’t have the… the stakes were not as high as they used to be. I used to be basically our only provider. That wasn’t the case anymore. So it was easier for me to make that leap, and I, I recognize all of the privilege in that for sure.

Jessica Abel: I wouldn’t call that privilege though. I just wanna say like, you built that business and I don’t, I know, I remember when you started it. Well, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it wasn’t like, I need a safety net, I’m gonna build another business cuz I need like a ba– you know, it was like, I’m excited about podcasting and I wanna do this thing.

Um, and you at that point I know did very carefully design your business model and very much started from your needs. You’ve written about how, for example, Sean needs naps, which is, I love. like designed around his need for naps, which is awesome. And like, you did that work there. It’s a business you started and run. Why is that privilege?

Tara McMullin: I mean, I think it’s privilege in that I don’t actually do a lot of work in that business, so I’m privileged to be in a partnership where he has a sizable income that we can rely on while I am still working things out. And I totally agree with you too, that there was, you know, I have done a lot of work in getting that business off the ground.

And I think one of the things… so you had said like, you probably didn’t think about it as starting a safety net, but I actually was thinking about it as starting a safety net. I did. I was not thinking about exiting my individual business at that time, but I was thinking about how do I, how do we create a line of revenue that is reliant on me, less dependent on marketing, less… just fewer ups and downs, fewer demands on my time.

And so in the process of setting up that business, we set it up so that our service offerings were designed to bring in predictable, steady, good revenue. And we designed it so that I could inject my intellectual property, essentially, into the business in terms of like, this is what makes a good podcast for a business. This is how, you know, you do interviews. This is how you do this, this is how you do that. And, and Sean’s taken those things and run with it now so that it’s way more him than it is me.

But I was able to sort of front load that investment into that company. You’re exactly right, as a way of kind of evening things out on the back end. So it wasn’t a safety net initially from an exit standpoint, but it was a safety net in terms of like, I needed the psychological safety net that this was there, and it wasn’t so much all on me any more. So yeah

Jessica Abel: Which maybe was part of like, what was going on a little bit for you.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Maybe you were setting up a safety net without knowing that you were. I I don’t mean just a financial one, but you didn’t wanna start a new business that would rely on you in the same way, and even if you weren’t looking for an exit, there must, must have been part of you that was like, this is the model that I need. This is the thing that I need.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, a hundred percent. It was, we designed that business so that I was not doing work on it on a regular basis, right? You know, I might meet with a few clients over the course of a month just for extra support. But other than that, and maybe some stuff on Canva, I don’t do anything in that business. Much to Sean’s chagrin sometimes.

But yeah, so that’s created the space then for me to explore this year. What does it look like to put a hundred percent of my focus into creating content, creating work that is, that stands on its own. One of the things I talked on a podcast recently about was sort of this move from creating content as a content marketer to creating just great content.

And there are still financial considerations, there’s still audience considerations with that, but it’s a very different thing to be writing every week, podcasting every week with the idea that this is leading to a sale, than it is to be creating something that I believe is impeccable, and trusting that I’m going to be able to create a revenue model from that, that’s a little less piecemeal than what I’ve had this year.

But it’s been a very freeing transition and this year has very much been, you know, it’s been nine months now since I stepped away from the old business, and it’s very much been sort of trying this, trying that, seeing what I like, seeing what I don’t like, and doing just enough to create the space to continue doing that until I, I land on something that I really wanna move forward with.

Jessica Abel: That makes so much sense. know, One of the things I talk with people in my audience about is that one of your choices in terms of being a big C creative, being a creative person as that’s what you’re doing, you’re making the work you wanna be making, which is what you’re talking about, it’s not so much.

Well, it is also marketing versus not marketing, but it’s also like self-generated for its own sake. You’re following your, your curiosity. It’s coming out of your, you know, the things you’re putting together.

And the choice, one of the choices is I’m not gonna try to make that make money. If I, I wanna make whatever I wanna make, it’s not that I would reject money if it came to me, but like, I’m not gonna pursue that as a goal because it does change the way that you need to engage with people around it. And the content itself has content marketing at that point, you know

Tara McMullin: Yeah. Oh, yes.

Jessica Abel: Layers and

Tara McMullin: Another hour conversation we

Jessica Abel: Exactly.

Tara McMullin: But yeah, I… I think that… I am making exactly the work that I wanna be making. And it is not unresponsive to my audience. I think that, and I, I’m not saying this is the only way to do it or the right way to do it, but for me, I know that I’m keeping sort of my irons in the fire in a way by staying in conversation with my audience.

So by still sending out newsletters, by still putting out the podcast, by still responding to comments on Instagram when I can, or emails when I can. Even just paying attention. What are the people in my space, the people who are subscribing to my work, what are they thinking about? What challenges do they have?

But instead of providing solutions now, because solutions is what sells. You’re always selling some sort of solution. I am providing different sort of frameworks for thinking. I’m providing different questions. I am providing curiosity. And I think that over the course of this year, as you’ve sort of alluded to, I’m offering that as a service, a free service to my clients, or not my clients, my subscribers.

And I, I truly believe that that’s going to pay dividends. But it has been an investment in sort of building up this body of work in a way that shows people there’s something different to offer here and it has its own value in its own way, if that makes sense.

Jessica Abel: Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely.


Jessica Abel: I know you’re deeply committed to your creative work and yet when it comes time to make the thing, it’s like you short circuit.

Your inner critic comes roaring out and shuts you down.

You find your attention dragged off by some other shiny new object.

You can’t stop feeling guilty and that you should be focusing on paid work. Your clients, your children, friends, boss, parents constantly demand your attention.

Here’s the thing. There is nothing wrong with you. There’s just a breakdown somewhere in your creative engine and you can repair it.

I want to invite you to join me for the free creative engine masterclass, where you’ll learn which tactics will backfire when you’re trying to get traction on self-generated creative projects and what to do instead.

The four essential phases of the creative process you must implement to produce awesome work reliably. And you’re probably skipping at least one.

The good news hidden in your long history of valley and efforts to make your creative life work.

How to diagnose what’s off track and keep moving on your work. Even when things get really challenging.

And the secret to how to predict and avoid the pitfalls that derail you time and time again.

This class is totally free and you will get immediate, deep clarity into what makes your creative life tick and the specific next step to take to harness the power of your own creative engine. So stop procrastinating and start finishing your most important creative projects when you join the creative engine masterclass@jessicaabel.com slash engine that’s J E S S I C a a B E l.com/engine.

Okay. Back to the show.

How did you end up writing a book about goal setting?

Jessica Abel: So getting back to the new book What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal Setting. It fits like straight into all the stuff we’ve been talking about. Um, you know, clearly what you’ve been writing about and talking about over the last year has to do with the research and what you’ve been doing for the book.

Basically though it was interesting to see how much it’s, it’s about how do we continue to do big, meaningful things in our life without getting caught up in these toxic cycles of self-punishment, fed by societal norms, expectations, stories we tell and are told to us and are enforced. How did you end up writing a book kind of about goals when you’re like moving away from all that?

Tara McMullin: Well, uh,

Jessica Abel: I kind of know the answer I would like you to share everybody.

Tara McMullin: So the book is actually a really good, I think, example of kind of what I was just talking about with the difference between solutions and questions, or frameworks or curiosities, when you are selling something. And for me, it, the burden is less on selling it for me.

Other than doing interviews like this and more on my publisher, right? Or more on my agent. What kind of book are they going to want to bring to book sellers so that that book moves right? So that it gets on shelves and then it gets bought.

Goals is a thing that people buy books on every single year. It is woven into the fabric of our consumer capitalist society. Right? And that’s a lot of what actually the book is about. And, and how that is harmful.

And so the book is about goals, but it’s actually about cultural systems, history, worldviews, work patterns. All of those things that have become the way we think about goals as opposed to thinking about what we actually want for our lives, how we can construct that day by day little bit by little bit. It speaks to kind of acknowledging limitations and a lot of books about goal setting, a lot of talk about goal setting, doesn’t like to acknowledge limitations, right?

If you can dream it, you can do it. If you believe in it, anything is possible. If you believe in yourself, anything is possible. And I say, no, that is not true. I have dreamed all sorts of things that I know I am not capable of doing, that they are not for me to do, that they are past my limitations. However, by acknowledging my limitations, I can also acknowledge all the things that I can do that no one else can, or that very, very few people can.

And if I’m cognizant of that, if I’m careful about my capacity, what can I create for myself and for others? In order to, as you said, do big things without striving after what I’m supposed to do or what I should do.

Um, and so that’s really the, sort of the nut of the book is this push and pull that we experience just as a part of American society and largely a, a thing that we’ve exported to the rest of the world. And so kind of wrestling with that tension and finding a way to navigate through it so that we can still dream, have a vision, think about what we wanna do next, what we wanna experiment with without getting bogged down into details that aren’t really about us, but are instead about furthering systems of harm.

Jessica Abel: Yes, so much so. This really reminds me, I did an interview with Oliver Birkman about 4,000 Weeks a while back. And this is like the same, it’s the same stuff. I teach the same stuff. It’s like he just keeps coming back and back.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I avoided reading that book precisely because I was like, this is too close to what I’m thinking about. There’s a difference

Jessica Abel: Have you read it now? You should read it now.

Tara McMullin: I, I’m, I’m planning on It, one of those things that I just constantly forget about. And I think maybe even after my book is out into the world, then I will have, I will feel okay reading it.

Jessica Abel: Well, I think you’ll enjoy it when you do. Your thesis is that Big G goals, as you call them, distort our relationship with our work and lead to chronic under commitment. How does that work?

How do Big G goals distort our relationship with our work and lead to chronic under commmitment?

Tara McMullin: Yeah. Okay, so Big G goals are those things that we are, they’re kind of fed into shoulds and supposed to’s. Not always, but they’re the things that it’s like, by the end of this year I’m gonna accomplish X. By the end of this quarter, I will have done Z, right? Those are Big G goals. That’s opposed to little G goals, that are those, that are the things that just drive our behavior on a day-to-day basis.

Early goal setting theory talked about goals just as simply meeting needs, right? If you’re hungry, your goal is to not be hungry anymore. That’s a little g goal. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about big G goals.

Big G goals lead to chronic overcommitment and under commitment because they create a system in which we are going after those Big G goals as a source of validation. We all want to feel useful. We want to feel valuable. We want to feel worthy. We want that and we want kind of external, most of us want those sort of external markers of those things as well. And that’s, again, that’s the system that we operate in.

And so because of that, and because we associate these Big G goals with actually getting that validation, we tend to rack up as many of those kinds of projects as we can. Right? So all sorts of different responsibilities from big things, teeny little things like bringing chocolate chip cookies to the field hockey game, right? Like it can be anything like that. We say yes to those things over and over and over again out of a sense of wanting that validation that we’re useful.

Even if someone isn’t patting you on the back and saying, oh, you’re so useful. We still know like, oh, this is appreciated. This looks good for me. Right? I look like I am a good, valuable, useful, functioning member of society. But what happens is that as those yeses stack up, we spread our resources, which are limited, over all of those different yeses.

And so while we might have had enough resources, enough capacity, to follow through on say, three of those responsibilities, as we have 10 responsibilities that we’ve said yes to, our resources are spread so thin that we’re actually under committed to all of those things we’ve overcommitted to. We don’t have the resources to get the validation that was the reason we said yes in the first place, right?

And so either we start burning out or we just continue to function at this low level under committed to these things, which then jumpstarts our need for more validation, right? So if you’re not doing the things you said you were going to do, or you’re not doing them the to the level that you want to do them, then you’re going to go out and do more validation seeking activities.

And then you just get caught in this spiral, what I call the validation spiral. And so big G goals really play into that in sort of like a, almost like a meta way, right? So we think, well, I’m gonna, I’m going to build a six figure business. I’m gonna get to 10,000 followers on Instagram. I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that. And we kind of try to stack those things up and pursue as many of them as we can out of a sense of, well, this is going to, this is going to prove that this career is valid. This is going to prove that I am worthy of having a creative career, that I’m ha– worthy of calling myself a creative.

And then when it doesn’t happen or when we’ve spread ourselves too thin, we get caught again in that cycle of feeling low and going out and seeking additional validation.

And that I’ve seen with business owners over and over and over throughout the years. I can remember very distinctly, someone asked me, is it okay to set a new goal if I didn’t achieve the last one? She felt like, I have to do this thing before I can say I wanna do something different.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I, I talk about idea debt, this, I talk about know,

Tara McMullin: Yeah,

Jessica Abel: you

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: The projects you carry with you. And there’s two kinds of Idea Debt. One is basically perfectionism. It’s, you know, I’m not good enough to do this thing. But the other one I call nostalgia, which is like, this is something that I thought I wanted to do at some point in the past, didn’t finish it, but I can’t put it down because I told myself I would do it. I committed to it, but I don’t really wanna do it, or it doesn’t really align with what I want right now. But I’m not allowed to change my mind cuz that would mean I’m a slacker and I’m not good enough.

What got you here won’t get you there

Tara McMullin: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. And I would even put another kind of category in there that’s maybe like, almost like an operational or logistical kind of debt too. So what I mean by that is this woman who asked me this question, she hadn’t met her last revenue goal. She wasn’t that far off of it, but she hadn’t met it. And so she was wondering if she could actually set the goal that I was suggesting for her. This is many years ago when I was still talking about goals in that way.

Um, and what was interesting about that is because the goal she had set didn’t provide her with the scaffolding she needed to make changes in her business, make changes in the way she worked. She was never actually going to make that goal because she needed a bigger goal. She needed something more to be able to say, oh, I need to change this in the business and this in the business, and this in the business, and then that’s going to be really possible.

Jessica Abel: That’s designing from your needs, right? That’s saying like, this is what I need. And so what does that mean about these other things? Because you told me that years ago, like, set a goal that’s off, you know, here in the distance and then figure out whatever. And I’m like, how do you do that? How do I imagine myself in this other place? Now I get it. The systems are all connected and you’re designing these different pieces to fit together in order, like that’s the kind of thing that will get you to this goal.

Tara McMullin: Yes. Yeah. And now I talk about it more in like, what’s your destination and what is the kind of map that you’re going to make for yourself to get there, knowing that there are so many different trails you can take to get to the top of the mountain. Right.

It’s not a, it’s not linear. It’s not, first I do this, then I do that. It is a process of learning and growing, and one of the things that we learn as we are setting our sights on a far off destination is that things need to shift that you wouldn’t have expected, right? It’s not just doing more. It’s logistically, this isn’t possible the way things are set up now. I need to make these concrete changes.

And, you know, I’m talking about that in a business context, but it absolutely can be in a personal context, in a work context, really in any context.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I wanted to actually connect that with, you know, my background as an author, very related to this, where if your goal is this book is going to, I don’t know, be a bestseller or something like that, if I get this book to this level of sales or whatever it is, then I’m gonna be able to take the time I need in order to write the next book to kind of relax and really like lean into it.

But you don’t meet those goals because they’re not actually under your control unless you change everything about the way you’re working. And even then it’s, there’s a lot of luck that goes into it. Right? But if you’re basing your, your life plan on meeting these goals that you aren’t actually set up to meet, you haven’t prepared to meet these goals, even if it were possible, without luck.

I see people all the time winning awards or getting, getting recognition for various things, getting a publishing deal, getting this and that. Like people in my community doing awesome stuff and not celebrating it because they’re, they’re already on the next thing. They’re already like, well, that’s fine, but that’s not the goal. The goal is over here.

Achievement orientation vs practice orientation for goal setting

Tara McMullin: Yeah. And this kind of brings me to one of the, the core concepts of the book, which is this difference between achievement orientation and practice orientation. I always hung my hat on being achievement oriented because I was, and still am in very many ways. Like, let’s just be real. Girl loves a trophy, a merit badge. Uh, you know, if, if you a badge on an app, oh man, the rings on my watch. I’m all over it.

And I recognize that that achievement orientation is often hijacking other things that I know about myself and my needs and my values. And so instead, what I try to do now and what I recommend in the book is this practice orientation.

What is it? What are the habits that I need to develop? What are the daily things that I need to do or that I want to do in order to become the person who is capable of fulfilling the vision that I have for myself? If I’m going to be a full-time author, what do I need to do on a daily basis right now? What do I want to do on a daily basis right now in order to become the person who is a full-time author?

That’s one of the big questions that I’ve been wrestling with this year and the kind of the moves that I’ve been experimenting with. And they all revolve around sort of base practice of writing, but there’s also the practice of pitching pieces to other outlets. There’s the practice of pitching interviews, there’s the practice of research. All of those things are practice. And if I can find, if I can find satisfaction in that practice, then I’m going to be less tied to the particular achievement I have in mind and more likely to actually achieve that thing. And hopefully more mindful of that achievement if and when it happens as well.

How do you get paid now?

Jessica Abel: That’s awesome. And a perfect place to pivot to a just a few questions we have from our live audience today. So one of them, I believe Emily asked about how you get paid now, which I think we kind of covered. You know, we talked basically at this point, you are taking a dividend from your other company and working part-time there. Is that correct?

Tara McMullin: Yeah. The, so that’s, that’s a perfect way to put that.

And I have the book advance that I’m still waiting on the second half of because that’s how these things work. I have recurring completely passive revenue from courses that I have made over the last decade with Creative Live. And then every so often one of those pitches that I send out gets picked up and I get a small amount of money for an article that is just, it’s, let’s not talk about that. And then, uh, speaking fees as well, so I can, I get paid to speak.

Jessica Abel: Great. Thank you. All right. Deirdre had a couple questions, and one of them is how do you feel work-life integration has affected Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Is there a need now to reconsider what’s important and how we align our personal life with our work slash business slash professional lives? Is it time to rewrite the hierarchy?

You’ve already been writing about the hierarchy, so I think you probably have ideas about this.

How do you feel work-life integration has affected Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

Tara McMullin: I have so many ideas. How long do you have? Um, so, oh my god. Okay. So, yes, I think a lot about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how that plays into our validation seeking and the Passion Paradigm and all of those things, and hidden labor and blah, blah, blah. Okay.

So I think that we are operating in a world in which Maslow’s Hierarchy has already been rewritten, where self-actualization is the starting point instead of the ending point. And that’s sort of what that Passion Paradigm research is all about, is recognizing that no people think it’s more important to have that sense of self-actualization than it is to pay their rent and eat food and basic needs. And so really my work comes at it from like, why don’t we kind of get that hierarchy of needs back in order?

I’m not saying it’s a hundred percent right, but like it’s a much better starting point if we take it at sur– at face value than if we try and flip the pyramid. And I genuinely think that for many of us, the story that we’re living in is that pyramid being completely flipped on its head. And we’re

Jessica Abel: Although I think that people are living in a sense of like a dual awareness, you know, because there’s also this intense feeling of like, I need to take care of my actual needs, my physical needs, and my family, and my relationships, just yelling at you all the time. But then this feeling that somehow, this is somehow more important, the passion piece.

Tara McMullin: Yes. Yeah. And yes, and I think that different people respond to that tension differently for sure. But that tension is there for I think just about all of us. So great to call that out.

Also, speaking of Maslow, I did not unfortunately, come across this in the research for my book. I came across it for research for the podcast months later.

But Maslow wrote a management book, I think in the sixties or seventies where he essentially makes the case that if employers focus on self-actualization, basically they can exploit their workers better. He made the case that if employers focused on self-actualization for their workers, then most workers wouldn’t need therapy because most workers wouldn’t, like the working class wouldn’t benefit from therapy either.

I’m just like, I’m reading this and it’s just terrifying. Right? But

Jessica Abel: Has actually happened. Like has actually

Tara McMullin: Yes.

Jessica Abel: Yeah.

Tara McMullin: Yes. Yes. It’s like, oh my God, this was kind of repulsive, not kind of, it’s repulsive! And this is the world we’re living in and I hate it. So, yeah, just like, let’s be real about that. Make sure your basic needs are taken care of. And I, I wish that we had better systems for that collectively. And it’s something that I’m trying to contribute to in my own way.

And for now, it’s kind of on us, so please think about it. And self-actualization is not more important than feeding yourself.

Jessica Abel: Yes, please remember this in the

Tara McMullin: Please.

Jessica Abel: Oh my gosh, yes. That’s terrifying.

Tara McMullin: It’s terrifying.

Jessica Abel: Yes. Okay, so Deirdre also asked in a totally different question here. How do you feel about the nonprofit industrial complex as a former executive director of a nonprofit, the dysfunctional version of business where labor is volunteers and low paid creative people? How does this fit into the business world or more in how does this fit into this framework?

How do you feel about the nonprofit industrial complex as a former executive director of a nonprofit?

Tara McMullin: Yeah. So I will say, just caveat, this is not something I have direct experience with, but I would say that I have experience with similar environments in the for-profit world. For instance, at Borders, right? We were often fed the line that we shouldn’t ask for a raise because we work in this really great environment.

We, the company has this great mission and aren’t we lucky to be employed by this company? And I think that plays a lot into the nonprofit world as well, which, aren’t you lucky to be working with an organization that’s doing this kind of work? Aren’t you lucky to be working toward this mission? And you shouldn’t ask for more. You shouldn’t expect your needs to be met.

Labor exploitation is labor exploitation, whether it happens in the nonprofit world or the for-profit world. Or in the home work world, or the educational world. It’s all still labor exploitation. And I believe very strongly that whether we’re talking about goal setting or we’re talking about business models, or we’re talking about any of these things, that the most fundamental thing is that organizations, businesses, institutions, need to be set up in a way in which the people doing the labor are not exploited. Systems in which the people doing the labor are taken care of. That to me must be the starting point for any organization, profit for-profit or nonprofit.

Jessica Abel: What if you’re working for yourself?

Tara McMullin: Well, same thing. It also applies in, in self-employment. I am very big on talking to people about self exploitation. So kind of going back to the Instagram or the content creation social media conversation that we had earlier. If you are forcing yourself to work all these hours producing content that you’re not being compensated for, even indirectly, that’s self exploitation. If you are constantly reinvesting in the business instead of paying yourself a living wage, that’s a form of self exploitation. And when business owners self exploit, they’re way more likely to exploit the people that work for them as well. And so it becomes a really, really vicious cycle.

Jessica Abel: Yes. Agreed. Thank you for making that clear. Yeah, I think the whole, that it’s not just, I’m lucky to work there, but this is a mission. How can you possibly? Kind of feeling around nonprofits. Like, that’s how you are, you’re so crass and there’s something so, so wrong with you for caring about this.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. That’s, and that’s a cultural story, right? That is a well-designed, like the system works as designed. The system is designed for us to not speak up for our own needs, even when it, in the nonprofit world. And I just, we need to change that.

Jessica Abel: And you are doing it. That’s what I

Tara McMullin: I’m trying.

Jessica Abel: Uh, last question from Kat. Do you have any tools or suggestions for neurodivergent business owners that are burned out and looking to pivot like you did, but are not sure what to do? Especially if they can’t completely stop coaching or working to take a break and recover from burnout without a huge financial risk?

Do you have any tools or suggestions for neurodivergent business owners that are burned out and looking to pivot like you did, but are not sure what to do?

Tara McMullin: Yes. So I wrote a post, an article last year, that simply “7 Simple Business Models” and what it does is take all the guesswork out of creating a business model that is aligned in the way that we were talking about today.

Where the different decisions that you have to make as a business owner are not independent, but are instead a system. I highly recommend… it’s not written specifically with neurodivergent people in mind, but it’s written by a neurodivergent person. And I would say even more importantly, it’s written from the perspective of someone who has seen a lot of stuff over the last 14 years.

And really, really, really my goal was to say, okay, these are seven buckets that your business might fit into, and you can choose the one that makes the most sense for you. They’re all good, right? All of them are good. All of them work, but not all of them work for you. And so I think we need, we start with actually looking at what is a business that meets my needs and my capacity and my limitations actually look like?

What are the choices that go into that from a whole business, whole career perspective? And so while that’s not necessarily going to guide you through the drawdown of one type of offer and the ramp up to another type of offer, it’ll at least I think, give you a place to think about where you’re headed and how that might change your behavior right now.

And then I have another article about solving for your personal needs as your primary, the, the variable that you’re solving for. And that’s another piece of sort of the business model thing, which is, I think of it as an equation. And so if you’re the kind of neurodivergent that I am, this will probably resonate with you.

If you’re not you may ha- hate this, but I think of it as an algebra equation so that your business model is A, B, C, D, E, F, X, Y, Z, right? Each one of those variables can be solved for first. However, if the question is, how do I make a business that works for me? My argument is that your personal need variable is the one that should be solved for first.

What do I need from this business? Financially, creatively, self-actualizationally, all of those things. What do I need from this business first? And then what does that mean for every other variable I might want to solve for? So those two articles– and they are long. They’re meaty. I’m not just sending you to some silly worksheet somewhere.

This is like, they’re like little Yeah. Those two pieces should help you think through like, how might I go about making a shift, and what am I shifting into?

Jessica Abel: Great. Awesome. Yeah, I actually used both those articles in designing my Incubator program. I used in thinking through like how to talk about business models, how to work through, I mean, we do it a little bit differently, but the process of solving for needs and so on. Super useful, highly recommended.

We don’t have the links right now, but we will pop them into the show notes.

Yeah and those are our questions. Thank you so much for coming and hanging out today, spending all this time with me and answering all of these questions I’ve been dying to talk about.

Tara McMullin: Well, thank you for asking them all and letting me nerd out about labor exploitation and autism and all sorts of random– passion paradigm, research. I love it. It’s, anytime, I, anytime you wanna talk

Jessica Abel: Y absolutely You are welcome back at So I have to recommend to everybody your podcast especially, which is called What Works. Where can people go to pre-order your new book? I mean, I assume everywhere, but I

Tara McMullin: Everywhere. Yeah. But, um, if you go to explorewhatworks.com/book, there will be links to your Barnes and Nobles and your Targets and your Amazons and your bookshops and your independent retailers nearby. So that’s a great place to go, um, just as jumping off point.

Jessica Abel: Okay. So explorewhatworks.com/book. Memorable.

Tara McMullin: As easy as it gets.

Jessica Abel: I know.

Thanks, Tara.

Tara McMullin: Thanks


Tara McMullin: Bye-bye.

Jessica Abel: Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.

Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.

You can find all our takeaways as well as any links and extras we mentioned today plus transcripts, in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.

If you enjoyed this episode, I hope you’ll subscribe. And it would help us immensely if you would take a second and pop over to apple podcasts and leave us a rating and review. It just takes a few seconds, but it’s actually a huge help to us and to our guests to get this podcast suggested to new listeners.

We appreciate your help so much. And we’ll see you next time on the Autonomous Creative.


Next Podcast Episodes