[Note: This is an excerpt from chapter 2 of my new book, Creative Freedom: How To Own Your Dreams Without Selling Your Soul, now available on Amazon, Kindle, and coming soon to booksellers around the world. Order your signed copy at CreativeFreedomBook.com]
A few years ago, a well-respected colleague of mine shared a rather vulnerable post on his social media profile. He confessed that despite being flown around the world to mentor business owners, taking trips to exotic locations, driving fast fast cars, and the visible trappings of his success, he was broke:
By nearly all outward appearances, my life has appeared one of numerous accomplishments. I wrote a book... It became a best-seller. I started a publishing company and published 10+ best-selling books... My financial life leaves little to be desired. At 34 I have a negative net worth and have relied on my father for financial support more times than I care to admit.
He was playing the “fake it ‘til you make it” game in the worst possible way, trying to exude an image built mostly on what I call “The 6-Figure Illusion”.
It might be dating myself to say that I cut my teeth on the World Wide Web, having built one of the first e-commerce websites back in the days when online video was a far of fantasy. Heck, pictures were still a relatively new-fangled introduction to the Internet back in the 1990s! Nonetheless, being on the Interwebs for more than two decades gives me an insider’s perspective on the realities of the so-called “laptop lifestyle” espoused by so many today.
The idea is an attractive, albeit dangerous one. You can build a business working from anywhere with “nothing more than a laptop and a dream” according to one online business trainer who has grown a multi-million dollar business and amassed millions of fans and followers - with her virtual support team in tow.
These online entrepreneurs espouse that if they can do it, you can too. A noble idea, but there’s a problem. You can’t possibly do what they do, because you’re not seeing the whole picture! Without seeing the whole picture of anyone’s situation, accurately reverse engineering their success is
It's airbrushed reality
What you’re witnessing is basically an airbrushing of someone’s life - someone you admire and aspire to be like. The danger? It sets an impossibly high standard for you to attempt to attain. And it’s gotten worse thanks to social media.
Here’s an example:
You see a picture of someone’s shiny new car that they paid for in cash, thanks to their awesome business. They tell the story of how they built a nearly seven-figure business in less than a year - and if they did it, you can, too.
Sounds sexy, right?
So you plunk down two grand to be in their training program to learn how they built their empire - only to discover the “secret” to their success is that they maxed their $20,000 credit card limit on social media ads to grow their business, and they had a relative who is exceptionally good at creating and targeting social media ads.
You don’t have a credit card with $20k available. You don’t have a buddy who knows how to create and target ads.
You can’t duplicate their success.
When I started in the online world, you only saw these kinds of flashy photos on sales pages - the web page where a person sold their wares. They were usually accompanied by a lot of text highlighted in yellow with bullet points outlining the benefits of buying their thing. You’d see a picture of a guy leaning up against a flashy Italian sports car, holding a wad of cash (I kid you not), telling you how his product would change your life.
In today’s evolution, you see social media feeds full of images of people’s toes, with a view of the ocean just beyond, or a group of people at a conference after-party, with drinks raised high in solidarity like old chums, when they’d only met a few days before. These images, taken out of context, give the perception that a person’s life is significantly better than it really is - as if they never have a fat tire or dirty dishes in their sink.
It’s an impossible standard for anyone, but especially a creative who thinks something must be wrong with them if they’ve been working hard for years without the same kind of “credentials” to offer to their audience.
When my friend, Rachael Kay Albers (RKA as I like to call her), relocated to Mexico, she got some light-hearted flak from her family about living as a location independent entrepreneur. She also realized how she might have inadvertently been contributing to this whitewashed illusion.
I can understand why my family scoffed when I relocated... I can also understand why they might have resented me. If it really were true that I traded hard work for hardly working – that I somehow gamed the system to luxuriate in the sun “making pesos in my sleep” then what the heck is wrong with everyone else?! Just quit your job and live your dream, man!
RKA is one of the hardest-working women I know. She runs a six-figure design and branding firm. Rachael’s a social activist and creative entrepreneur to the core. But it didn’t stop her from falling prey to the Six-Figure Illusion:
It felt good to claim the life other people thought I was living. I felt cool. I might have had -$50 in the bank but dammit, if I wasn’t the envy of every 9 to 5-er with a desk job and seasonal depression. So, I kept finding my way to beaches.
The lure of the Six-Figure Illusion is obvious
No training or technical know-how required! Travel the world! Work on your own terms as much or as little as you’d like! The danger is that, for most people, this is simply not a viable reality. Someone’s got to wear the hats you can’t or won’t wear, which means you’ve got to hire it out, and if you’re currently a starving artist, that means you’re broke, which means you don’t qualify for this life of laptop luxury. Too bad, so sad!
On one level, this is a harmless way to share our enthusiasm for what we’re up to in life and work. But if your ego starts angling like RKA’s did, then this is your wakeup call.
Anyone that’s posted a photo from that awesome “work vacation”, or that selfie with their “internet famous friend” at a conference - without showing the other realities of their life - has been complicit in perpetuating the unattainable Illusion. But then, as RKA points out, we have to live with the consequences of our “truth”:
I didn’t make money on the beach. I spent money trying to look like I was making money. Once I got back home to my concrete room in the mountains, I’d have to make up for the hard work I didn’t do at my “beach-side office.” But Instagram didn’t need to know that.
That sexy pseudo-reality is true for a hot second, which is what makes us keep doing it - like that elusive gambling win. In that moment we are living the dream, so what’s the harm in posting one more photo?
But reality is always there, quietly reminding us that there’s work to be done and, hopefully, clients ready to pay us to do that work.
Order your copy of the book and read the rest of the story!