Today I was listening to a provocative episode of The Anxious Achiever about professional envy. The specific context was consulting – how to differentiate one’s business coaching services and attract enough clients to make a living in an oversaturated market. The discussion delved into several aspects of professional envy, but the problem of markets is what I want to focus on here. Before interviewing her guest, Nihar Chhaya, host Mora Aarons-Mele invoked a metaphor that catapulted me right back to a 2015 writing conference:
There’s always more pie.
When I first heard this metaphor, I was eager for assurance that my amateur work had the potential to break through the glut of writing on the market(s). The presenter at the writing conference who insisted that “you can always make more pie” said this in good faith, as an encouraging reframe: Instead of worrying about the relative size of your slice, she reasoned, just make another pie!
I love pie. I swallowed it whole.
In the years since, I’ve grown suspicious of this metaphor. Roaming the tables at the AWP bookfair the very next year, I stopped at a friend’s booth and noted that everyone was trying to sell their writing to people who were trying to sell them their writing. The market seemed so insular. So delusional. “Look at me!” we all cried, most of us in vain. That is the nature of industry trade shows, I suppose, not to mention professional organizations. When we restrict ourselves to promoting within these markets, insularity is endemic. While not exactly fixed markets (as represented by people like myself, who were new to AWP) only the proverbial rock-stars stand out, make a living.
Sure, we can make more pie. But who is going to eat it?
The humble pie metaphor is an unintentional scam. Even if we succeed in venturing beyond our fields of practice, what becomes of our wares? Appetites are not infinite. While I’m all for adopting a worldview of abundance, we live within a capitalist system that thrives on the idea of scarcity. For writing, for services, for goods, there are limits on three key resources:
Let’s hone in on that last one. There is abundance, yes. But most of us cannot access it. Instead, the pies we make get smaller as we compete for more and more limited ingredients. So the question becomes: how do we unlock the abundance? Establishing a niche in an “untapped” market only gets you so far, since the resources within those markets are systematically being siphoned off and stored in the coffers of the ultra-rich.
It’s appropriate that in a world created by extractive capitalism, we must find ways to extract wealth from the hoarders who have benefitted from this economic system so the rest of us no longer have to struggle to survive in scarcity. Taxation, as a strategy for redistributing wealth and providing public services, has been effectively neutered in the United States, and philanthropy further consolidates power with those who are evading taxes, as they get to decide where their extracted (largely untaxed) wealth will be distributed. Thus the public ceases to exist, in that we are all overlapping categories of need, hands outstretched to benevolent philanthropists and underfunded government agencies, hoping that our needs will be sexy enough to attract whatever fraction of resources the wealthy deign to share.
The tension between scarcity and abundance will eventually break. Only then will there be enough people to eat all the pies we’ll be baking, if we can find ways to reap the ingredients.