Vaccination with the EMH

Part 1. Is “1,000 True Fans” reasonable?

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

The “1,000 True Fans” concept is that a content creator can make a living of $100,000 per year if they make a profit of $100 per true fan, and have 1,000 true fans.

I notice that the concept makes my brain think “that seems do-able!” And that makes me think it sounds like a get rich quick scheme. So I want to spend some time thinking about it carefully.

We should appreciate creative thinkers. Kevin Kelly, who appears to have written the original post on the idea, is giving us a free, possibly very helpful idea. This is going to be a work of criticism, but I hope that it will be constructive. Kelly seems to be a pretty successful writer, and his idea has plenty of high-profile proponents. So I don’t think I need to treat it with kid gloves.

Why does my brain think “sounds easy!” when it reads this idea? First of all, 1,000 is a much smaller number than millions and millions. I can imagine my family members and a few friends being true fans. That’s, like, 10 true fans already and I haven’t even started! Plus, $100 doesn’t seem like very much money to ask for. That’s like $8.50 per month.

Let’s get some perspective on these numbers. A Netflix subscription is $9/​month. So you need to be providing your true fans with the kind of value that Netflix provides to the average customer.

Although 1,000 true fans seems like a do-able number, we have to ask about the relationship between “true fans,” “regular fans,” and “occasional consumers.” Go to any concert, and true fans most likely are only a small fraction of the total audience. Likewise for books and blogs and Youtube channels. I think I’m pretty normal in reading the complete works of a very few authors, and one or two books by a much larger number.

At one point in his post, Kevin Kelly estimates that for every 1 true fan, you should expect to have 2-3 regular fans:

… for every single true fan, you might have two or three regular fans.

And later on, he estimates a 1:7 ratio:

Yet if even only one out of million people were interested, that’s potentially 7,000 people on the planet. That means that any 1-in-a-million appeal can find 1,000 true fans.

Is that a reasonable ratio? Based on my own music and book consumption habits, not at all. I almost always read 1-2 books from any given author; the number of authors who I’ve read their complete works is tiny. Likewise for music. And I virtually never buy music albums, band merch, or new books. I use Spotify and go to the library, the used book store, and borrow from friends.

Artists make a fraction of a penny per stream. I’ve listened to every album by the Tallest Man On Earth many times, but almost certainly not not more than 50. He’s got like 5 albums on Spotify, with around 10 songs each. Kristian Matsson’s probably made like $10 from my streaming his songs over the last 4-5 years, and he’s one of my favorite musicians. If money is the measure of a fan, I’d have to like him 50x more to qualify as a Tallest Man On Earth super fan.

Part of the problem is that most content creators are far from unique, and the internet means that they’re all competing against each other on a global scale. Kelly uses death metal bands as an example of a niche art form, but Wikipedia’s list of death metal bands is so long it had to be split into two parts.

Part of Kelly’s argument is that the advent of the internet makes it easier to search for and market to obscure interests. This seems obviously true to me. But that effect doesn’t just increase demand. It also increases supply. That argument by itself does not justify the claim that the internet has dramatically improved the ability of niche content creators to make a living.

Later on in his post, Kelly admits how much work it would take to cultivate 1,000 true fans:

Done well (and why not do it well?) it can become another full-time job. At best it will be a consuming and challenging part-time task that requires ongoing skills.

It is trivially true that, relative to stardom, gaining 1,000 true fans is “a much saner destiny to hope for. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.” But saner and more likely is not the same as sane and likely.

It’s not totally unreasonable that a smart, well-educated citizen of an industrialized nation could build a career in which they were making $100,000 per year. In the USA, they could spend a couple years earning academic prereqs, then go to P.A. school for 3 years. Some unreliable anecdotal evidence from a P.A. student forum suggests that students spend around 65 hours per week studying. When they graduated, they’d be earning roughly a $100,000 annual salary.

It’s seems reasonable that a smart person who dedicated themselves to producing content with the same level of devotion that a student puts into becoming a physician’s assistant could achieve the same income in 5 years or less.

But Kelly suggests that the range of effort required to achieve the same thing is far less: 20-40 hours a week, over the course of around 3 years. That’s around 20-35% of the effort it takes to become a P.A, without even considering debt.

Maybe we can modify Kelly’s advice to make it even more sane. Perhaps one in three people or one in five people who put in this level of effort are likely to make a good income, while the rest will not? But if this is what Kelly meant, he left this detail out. It makes all the differences.

Part 2. Why Did I Bother?

It wouldn’t be fair to accuse Kelly of authoring a get rich quick scheme. “1,000 True Fans” is merely a get wealthier faster scheme. It’s in that sweet spot between being so “likely and sane” that it’s unexciting, and so extravagant that it seems silly from the start.

I can question its claims. But why get into the details, when I could have glanced at it, thought to myself “this looks like it violates the efficient market hypothesis,” and ignored it?

I’m interested in investing in “thought capital,” that would allow me to look at an article like this, know it for what it is, and dismiss it out of hand.

Arithmetic is “thought capital.” That’s what allowed me to calculate out how Kelly’s assertions about the level of effort involved in getting 1,000 true fans compares the effort it takes to become a P.A.

Facts and knowledge about the world are another form of “thought capital.” They let me remember a ballpark amount that Spotify pays its artists, the rough annual income for a P.A., and the price of a Netflix subscription.

Investing in all these forms of knowledge allowed me to construct this blog post. The ideas just naturally came to me as I went along.

But the EMH brings it all together in a much bigger way. It says:

  1. Is this author suggesting that it’s much easier to do one job than another and make the same money?


Insert your own caveats to (1) about risk, “passion jobs,” etc.

We don’t have to be EMH fundamentalists to have it as an extremely strong prior. For my brain, apparently, it’s not. There’s a way to read “1,000 True Fans” not as a “get wealthier faster” scheme, but as a modest claim that content creators who are prepared to assume considerable risk and work very hard for years may eventually be able to make a tidy income.

I notice that my brain did not intuitively interpret it that way. I wonder whether Kelly would be shocked to hear that, or whether it’s the effect he intended to produce. If he wanted to ensure readers absorbed the modest, plausible claim, he could have started it that way. It took me a fair bit of thinking to realize that my brain was interpreting Kelly’s article as a “get wealthier faster” scheme, and to convince myself that this interpretation was implausible.

The reason I think this happened is that most of Kelly’s individual statements are correct, and that he doesn’t come right out and state his point in the most boring language possible up front. If he’d started with “It’s easier to be a modestly successful content creator than a star, though it still takes years of hard work with no guarantee of success,” I would have probably shrugged, maybe chuckled at the “only” in “you need only thousands of true fans,” and clicked away at the end of the article.

In general, the phenomenon I’m trying to avoid is something like this:

  1. Article makes an argument for a plausible claim.

  2. Brain interprets this as evidence for a related but implausible claim.

It’s definitely possible to de-confuse yourself by applying critical thinking to the specific claims of a particular misleading argument. That’s what I’ve tried to do here.

Is it possible to vaccinate yourself more broadly against misleading arguments in a certain category, with efficacy in perhaps the 30-95% range? I’m not talking about committing to ignore them out of epistemic learned helplessness. Instead, I’m talking about absorbing a good heuristic, like the EMH, on such a deep level that it activates your mental defenses even in the face of a viral meme that looks a little different from the varieties you’ve seen before.

Part 3. An attempt to vaccinate myself with the EMH

What does the efficient market hypothesis imply?

  • It’s possible for a smart adult to pretty reliably make a good living in any job as long as they’re willing to put in about 65 hours a week for about 5 years building their skills/​credentials/​business. Making more money in less time typically requires tradeoffs in terms of intrinsic talent/​assuming risk/​doing unpleasant work. The idea that the average person can do more with less is less plausible the more extreme the edge is supposed to be.

  • As a corollary, any time you think “It would be so cool to make $X doing Y,” ask yourself if it would be so cool to do Y for 65 hours a week for 5 years before you start making $X at it.

  • You can assume that articles about how to get an edge in the market are generally incorrect. Articles that seem plausible, easy to read, and free are that much worse.

  • Every job that makes good money is hard to get and/​or hard to do.

  • Articles about how to make a career in field X are more likely to be useful if they’re about the dry, technical details of the work involved. If they’re about convincing you about the money you can make, stay away.

  • Try to ignore rewards. Assume that all fields have roughly equal tradeoffs of money/​enjoyability/​barriers to entry. Pursue work that you believe is valuable for other people and in which you have good personal fit. When you have the goods in hand and are in a position to negotiate, then it’s time to think about money.

  • Wake up every day and tell yourself “try to do good work today, and trust that a fair reward will come.”

I think that the key insight here, for me, is the idea that we should train ourselves to ignore rewards. My brain is always looking for easy money lying on the ground. Easy ways to make a buck. Easy ways to be more popular. Easy ways to produce good writing. Easy ways to learn more quickly. This strikes me as one of those classic cognitive biases that originally attracted me to the study of rationality.

The better thing to do, I almost always find, is to focus on working 1% harder, 1% smarter, with 1% more focus and consistency.

Part 4. Mental vaccination and the Good Try Rule

What would it mean to give this project of mental vaccination with the EMH a good try?

A good try is more than the minimum effort. Writing a post about it is a good start. I could try to think about the EMH every day, and have a conversation about it with my girlfriend tonight over dinner. I could look up other writing in the corner of the blogosphere where Kevin Kelly writes and see if I can find more examples of such seductive posts, so that I’ll recognize them on sight.

A good try is disruptive. Vaccinating myself with the EMH would probably entail installing some new habit, maybe a five minute meditation on the virtue of not chasing rewards and of focusing on the value that my work can provide to others.

A good try is for its own sake. Whatever concrete steps I take to vaccinate myself with the EMH, I don’t want to assume I know exactly what the result will be, or the goal I’m after. “Vaccinate myself with the EMH” is a good phrase because it’s powerful enough to be motivating, but doesn’t actually say anything in particular about what outcome I’m looking for. It’s an open-ended experiment.

A good try is respectful. This goal is something I’m exploring like a new friendship; specifically, a new friendship with a wiser, more level-headed version of myself.

A good try is committed. That’s why I need to talk about the idea, develop some rituals to practice it, and put those rituals on a calendar.

I think it’s important to say here that at this point, I’ve only really done symbolic experimentation with the idea of “vaccinating myself with the EMH.” I have not yet given it a good try, I haven’t really tried it. That won’t be true unless my relationship with the idea continues in the form of concrete actions for at least a month or two.