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Solo-preneurs’ Dangerous Misreading of the DIY Story

pattismithNote: This is a op-ed blended with personal narrative. It’s unapologetically 3200 words. I welcome your views and comments to further the conversation.

1. Are You a Punk or Outlaw? 

The DIY movement has its roots in home improvement – decades before Home Depot made it vogue and cheap. But its more current currency has rougher roots. For over thirty years, DIY has come to mean

  • doing something without the need of professionals or experts
  • doing something outside and without the need of institutional support or validation

DIYbio is a good example of how people are learning biology and how to conduct biology experiments of their own without university or government support.

DIY Rocketeers are another example of people who aim to reach outer space without NASA.

DIY at its best has the spirit to empower people who feel on the fringes and disenfranchised. Imagine a young Patti Smith amping up in London, 1976. Unbridled, rough, raucous, she belted out spontaneously to the “mob of hapless kids” questions like, “Do you feel frustrated? Do you feel like a loser?”(1) What became tagged as punk rock – and later alternative rock like it – had at its core the drive to buck the music industry machine – not unlike, for country and western fans, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson starting their “outlaw country” movement several years before Patti Smith’s London performance.

Punks and outlaws form the original spirit of the contemporary DIY movement.

Most creatives and entrepreneurs reading this piece might or might not think of themselves as punks or outlaws. Yet they might, quietly, feel frustrated and cast on the outside of this digital world abuzz with promises of glory, hardwired happiness, and badass creativity. If anything roils their middle-aged heads, it’s this peculiar online and cultural conversation that is the latest iteration of the DIY Story.

At its best, this latest act of the DIY Story has empowerment at heart. To empower people to educate themselves, hone their own skills, and create for themselves without necessarily having to rely upon paying experts, attaining a formal education, or thriving by receiving a field’s institutional approval.

No more hoop-jumping. No more gate-keeper passing. Assume the Nike ethos, and Just Do It Yourself.

Want to make art? JDIY.

Want to write, design, and publish a book? JDIY.

Want a website? JDIY.

Want to start a business? JDIY.

But taken the wrong way, this version of the DIY Story actually can turn out to be ironically expensive, frustrating, and self-limiting. 

2. “I’m not supported in my creative work.”

That’s the story a client told me he wanted to do away with in our work together. He’s an accomplished artist, author, and consultant who’s partnered with an even more accomplished – or at least visible – artist. He’d been “on his own” with a modicum of success for too long. He was ready to shift things.

Of his many projects to advance, he especially wanted to create the new story and angle for his corporate workshop. We collaborated to shape that story, I encouraged him to solicit guided input from a few key trusted colleagues in his Wild Pack, and he started to feel supported.

But then it came time to design his brochure, logo, and collateral. I suggested he have a pro bono talk with our exceptional designer.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” he said. “I think I can do this myself.” He worked in book design 20 years ago.

“Okay,” I said, “but if in two weeks you don’t have a product you want, talk to our designer. No obligation.”

Two weeks and several frustrating hours of futile DIY efforts, he came back, ready to talk. For a fraction of what he expected to pay and in record time, he received a brochure, logo, plus a bonus PDF one-pager. He was blown away by the results and the experience of working with people who “get” his work.

Compute how much the client’s time is worth. Balance that figure against the hours he might spend trying to figure out skills that are not part of his genius strengths. Then balance that figure against not only the minimal rate he paid but also against the handsome return he receives now in part as a result of the highly professional and thus persuasive design work. When you do simple math, foregoing this version of DIY is a no-brainer.

Here’s the contradiction we live in: We want to feel supported in our work, but when we receive it, we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t trust it. Or we think we’re still supposed to be figuring out everything ourselves and doing everything on the cheap.

This client’s temporary iteration of the DIY Story was not to buck a system. I and Tracking Wonder and our designer are hardly “part of the system” – although we know how to navigate the publishing and business industries. Instead, this artist was trapped, momentarily, by another self-limiting version of the DIY Story.

The story I want to start to unravel here – and need your help in doing so – is the DIY story that many of us creatives and professionals grew up with. The story that we must do it all for ourselves, by ourselves. Artists, writers, designers often valorize the individuated self, and if we’ve been bruised in a personal relationship or either lost or left a job during the past few years, then we also grit our teeth, even more determined to rough it on our own.

We’re not talking about a punk movement or mission to reach Mars sans government aid. We’re talking, “Chin up, nose to the keyboard or canvas, keep your woes to yourself, and figure it out.”

I’m wondering if it’s a misleading story with a potentially imprisoning title – DIY.

When I look at how my creative and entrepreneurial Millennial friends and clients operate, they don’t seem encumbered by this tale. Where does this version come from? Is it generational?

I’ve been living these questions for a while and have examined my own story. I am one acquainted with the DIY Story.

2. From DIY Writer to DIY Business Leader

When my father told me at 17 he was proud of my high grades, I didn’t hesitate to say something in a teen-edgy way like, “I just want you to know, Dad, that I don’t earn my grades so you can brag. I earn them for myself.”

“Oh, okay,” he probably said, “I just wanted you to know that I’m proud.”

“Yeah,” I probably said, all shouldered up.

(I often sought a fight with the man who rarely gave me one, but that’s another story.)

At 13 my parents divorced amicably. Around a year later I chose to live with my father through my high school years. An affable, gregarious, and clever man, he earned his livelihood largely by entertaining his advertising clients 50 miles away in Dallas. At 16, I had most days, many nights, and several weekends to myself. I kept house, kept the yard, drove to school and work with a hardship license, and bought my own groceries and clothes with the signed checks Dad entrusted me with.

A latchkey kid, this tow-headed boy had learned to love aloneness, and my young adult years through college, grad school, teaching, and editing instilled in the gawky young man an edgy hard work ethic and an immovable DIY resolve. I savor my upbringing, by the way, but I had set myself up for a strident DIY way of writing, creating, and making a life.

“I earn them for myself” – that was my modus operandis for a long while.It only got me so far.

The work ethic will not fade anytime soon during the next 48 years. The impulse to create things and make a difference is too strong.

But the DIY mindset?

That 17-year-old-cum-writer once with a penchant for philosophical hermeneutics, Marxism, and solitude held a meeting recently for his business team of 8 (9 including the one in India). This longtime lone wolf has embraced being a leader of an astonishing Pack, however challenging that path might be. How does that happen? And what exactly drives him?

That’s what I was wondering a couple of weeks ago during a Tracking Wonder Team video meeting.

I shared my story with them, and as I shared that last part, my voice cracked. It cracked because Tracking Wonder has had unprecedented impact on people’s lives this past year. Because for much of this year I have been in teaching-speaking-consulting-writing bliss. And very little of that would have happened at the level it did without everyone on that call and our remarkable techie away in India doing it together.

DIY has become DIT – Do It Together.

Tracking Wonder is not a solo act, in business or in practice.

I tell you this story not to be self-indulgent (a morbid fear of this writer) but to illustrate that I do not “do it all alone.” I have a lot of help to create and produce as much as I do. I tell you this story also to wonder aloud with you where this story comes from in our own respective personal lives and to ask whether or not this version is or is not generational.

Or if it’s also in part cultural.

3. Help Yourself.

This version of the DIY story is a tried if not tired one especially in American culture.

This DIY story’s first act in the United States might extend well beyond home improvement. It might have started with Benjamin Franklin, America’s first self-help author (“God helps those who help themselves” – yes, ‘Poor Richard’ not the Bible is the source of that oft-misattributed adage), and continued with Thoreau’s Walden, a decided twist on Franklin’s autobiography in which the author-protagonist challenges and transcend society’s laws altogether by looking at natural laws. By the late-19th century, the American story regardless of political stripes, had been set. With will, wit, and merit, you can pull yourself up by your boot straps, however tattered. The social Darwinists would have their heyday.

I think my generation grew up largely with a similar ethic. What we grew up honoring in the early-20th century were individual heroes in history, the arts, business. This story perpetuates another sub-story that creativity and creative ideas largely are the product of one person’s genius.

Now, during this Age of Disruption in the past six years, I’m witnessing books and programs and services on DIY Education, DIY Websites, DIY business consulting, and more.

Solo-preneurs – a tag that ubiquitously has spread in this same Age of Disruption and DIY Revival – often embrace this notion that they must pave their own path, brand their individual personality, and take off on the highway to freedom alone and ostensibly in a car of their own making run on fuel of their own making.

The results, predictably, are uneven.

Most DIY Storytellers have the same good intentions as the punks – to empower. The best of these DIY Storytellers view themselves as disruptors to a Story of Dependence that otherwise leaves individuals imperiled and impoverished.

It’s true that Home Depot empowers me not to rely on carpenters and contractors. That’s cool. The problem? I am about as handy with fix-it-up projects as a baker is at a bar. I can make something sweet, but it is not going to be what you need or want. And do I really want to invest my finite potential – limited time, energy, mental capacity, focus, and money – on skills that I might not want to hone and that, even if I did, might not translate to the end result I desire?

Contractors, sub-contractors, and many professionals are not part of a system to debunk. The good ones. The ones who have a strong work ethic and a DIT ethos.

For DIY to work at the personal level for creatives and solo-preneurs, we have to discern. We have to know our existing skill sets, our desired skill sets, and our desires.

Do you  want to learn how to build your own website just because you know your way around WordPress, sort of, and because doing so seems cheaper? Do you want to learn how to shoot your own professional videos just because you have iMovie on your computer and because doing so seems cheaper? Can you really design your own book cover because you bought Adobe Design and know what you like and doing so seems cheaper?

The problem with a desperate DIY mindset without sufficient strategy, skill, or mentorship is that the DIY promise we’re following often is self-defeating and/ or is a lie. Very few good books are entirely published from idea to execution to edit to design to production to promotion to publication by one person. DIY Publishing? Doubt it if by DIY it means “by one person.”

It is often self-defeating because a creative or entrepreneur might be tempted to expend finite energy, time, and money doing things that he or she either is sort of good at, competent at, or frustratingly not good at all at but thinks he or she should be since everyone else is singing the DIY song and, from all appearances, are succeeding at doing everything by themselves.

This latest act of the DIY Story is luring. Marvin’s cramped in his cubicle. Alison is shut off at home with her two kids and her scrappy freelance writing gigs she completes from home. Beth is an artist who works in her basement and is trying to figure out how to buck the gallery system and sell her work online. Frankie juggles teaching yoga, teaching design classes at a community college, and making a few videos and doing SEO work for clients who come to him through Craigslist.

What’s the way out? DIY + digital technology?

Digital technology is our saving grace, right? It has radically disrupted the known world from 7 years ago, but it’s going to make each of us self-reliant, rugged, and profit-making DIYers, right?

Unfortunately, DIY brings its own form of poverty and prison both for individuals and for human society at large.

It brings its own form of poverty because many of us expend our finite time, energy, resources, and money sometimes on cheap and seemingly inexpensive programs or solutions that we think we can use to figure out for ourselves only to be more frustrated, a little poorer, and convinced that we just have not figured out what we’re supposed to figure out about creating meaningful work, a meaningful life, and a right livelihood.

4. DIY Across the Universe?

You could call the late-18th century in Europe another Age of Disruption. Amidst radical revolutions and reformed ways of governing, European philosophers and politicians were trying to figure out how to form societies based on principles like liberty and individual rights. Immanuel Kant was one of them. The disciplined daily walker wanted to offer guidance to people who would act for themselves, according to their own reasoning – ostensibly without a king or queen to be telling them what to do or how (I’m simplifying.). He also, of course, was wondering how leaders might reasonably derive their decrees or laws to guide citizens’ actions.

Philosophers starting with Descartes were, in one sense, among the first DIY authors with an aim to empower people to think rationally for themselves.

Kant examined imperatives – any proposition that declares an action to be necessary:

  • “If I wish to stay clean, I must shower.”
  • “If I wish to publish a book these days, I must do it myself.”
  • “If I wish to start up and build a business, I must do it myself.”

That sort of thing.

So Kant offered this cool thought experiment: Make your action a universal law. Or, stated a tad more precisely, act only according to a principle that you could will as universal law.

Stay with me for a minute.

Is there a principle underlying this latest misreading of the DIY movement – that you can do everything yourself – that you would want to make universal?

Is this version of the DIY Story the story you want to perpetuate across your community and to your own pack or patch of the planet? Do you want to contribute to more atomized creators and enterprisers who feel isolated and as if they should be figuring it all out on their own, that they should be juggling a livelihood, a brand, creative projects, and – oh yeah – a relationship if not a family on their own (and if they’re incapable of doing so then they must be part of Patti Smith’s crowd of losers)? Is the story you’re buying into, perpetuating, and acting upon the one you want to be true for the society of which you are part and parcel?

That’s not the intention for using the DIY tag, of course. But it’s a nuanced effect. I work and talk every week with intelligent, accomplished people who suffer from a version of what I’m trying to unpack and shift here.

And we can shift the story. Let’s begin by discarding the DIY tag altogether unless we’re referring, perhaps paradoxically, to a collective movement to work outside of if not buck a limited system of power. Otherwise, we might contribute to limiting the very people we’re trying to liberate in a self-serfdom.

5. Where to Now, Buckaroo?

Here are three suggestions:

Learn to Delegate.
You’re an encaustics painter who also has a cool barn you’re renting out for events, but you’re overwhelmed with all the tasks to upkeep and promote the barn. Or you’re writing your first or fifth novel and cannot sculpt the time to research.

Learn how and when to delegate.

Figure out what you’re talented at, what you want to keep doing, and what you’re passionate about that also could earn you revenue (if that last part is relevant to your quest). Break down all the other stuff you have to do that’s related but that you’re not especially talented at and don’t especially love. At some point, buck up, suck it up, and delegate.

A trainable assistant might be just the way. Someone you know and trust whom you truly want to help might become a trainable apprentice to take over responsibilities. DIT.

Resource: Elizabeth Grace Sanders at 99%u offers smart advice about when and how to do just that in her article “Stop Doing It All Yourself.”

Learn to communicate.
If you don’t feel supported, own that feeling and check in with what you need and want. Articulate it to the right person or people. If you delegate, you have to learn how to communicate effectively. I have had a huge learning curve in this area with my time, but the curve and missteps have been worth it.

When you communicate generously, it’s not about you. It’s about DIT.

Resource: The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction.

Cultivate a collaborator’s mindset.
Say you’re a thought leader trying to shape your own identity apart from the corporation where you work or the university where you teach, but you cannot figure out how to take your presence to the next level beyond your immediate locale. 

It takes a village to make a book. Or a brand. Or a website. Find your village.

I have met several bitter writers. The publishing world turned their backs on them, they say, or never even opened up toward them. There’s good news, then. The ones with a collaborator’s mindset either get published or forge their own co-op presses. It’s not easy, but neither was the first route. Either way, DIT wins.

And sometimes, it pays to hire an experienced, generous collaborator or mentor who can shave off years of frustration and loneliness. DIT.

Resource: On the Leonard Lopate Show, Twyla Tharp discusses why collaboration is important to this longtime choreographer and her book The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together.

Add to the Conversation

I’m thinking aloud here and shaping these questions I’ve been living. Tell us your stories with DIY or DIT. Let me know where and why you think my angle or point of view is limited or off or a little on. Let’s DIT.

Thanks for running with me,


(1) Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. Will Hermes. Faber & Faber, Inc: New York, 2011 (180). (Note: Will’s a pal, and his book “rocks.” – bad pun)

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