What’s Your Professional Age?

The creator economy is growing up fast: Three years after the virus that shall not be named put our creativity on steroids while making our bodies sick, it has ballooned into an industry a third the size of commercial banking, some $250 billion dollars.

Despite the bling, the label is only a 12-year-old. Before Youtube started using the word “creator” in 2011 to get away from kids wanting to become “Youtube stars,” there really was nothing professional about it. In fact, anyone daring to start a blog, Youtube channel, or Facebook page before 2010 would mainly be considered a nerd, not someone trying to make a big career change. How quickly that has changed.

And yet, every 12-year-old has their antics, and so does the creator economy. One of the latest fads? Bragging about how quickly you’ve managed to ditch your 9-to-5 and go all in on influencership. It’s everywhere. “Built a newsletter to 30,000 readers in six months.” “Made enough to replace my full-time income within a year.” “Quit my job after 200 TikTok videos.”

This trend is as understandable as it is worrisome. Winners win, and they’d like the world to know they’re winning. Often, sharing timelines even comes with good intentions: “If I managed to get somewhere meaningful so quickly, maybe you can too!”

The problem is that, individually but especially en masse, these “testimonials” create something few makers even realize they’re making but that’s very hard to get rid of once you have it: expectations. When all you see are newbies on Medium cashing in four-figure checks, former doctors raking in millions on Youtube after barely finishing their training, and newsletter operators posting big payouts on Twitter within months, sometimes weeks, of starting, you begin to think those are normal timelines. I assure you, they are not.

It just so happens that we, too, like to hear about winners winning. That’s why the 0.1% case studies are popular, and the stories of folks toiling away in obscurity for a decade are not. Not nearly as much by comparison, anyway. But those stories, unlike the zipline-to-success ones, are not only more likely to be realistic — they’re also the ones you can replicate.

What the person with a 100,000-reader AI newsletter didn’t tell you is that, before starting it, they worked at Morning Brew for three years. They earned their chops elsewhere, and that’s what put their own business in a slingshot once they launched it. Of course, there are the lucky ones, the geniuses, and the exceptions, too. But neither of those traits is one you can copy, is it?

Moreover, just because that AI newsletter is a hot topic right now does not mean it will last. Just ask any popular crypto Youtuber from 2017. Most of them have stopped or pivoted, and only a handful managed to retire, if any. When you turn something into “an economy,” people will jump into opportunities where they see them. The supposed hallmark of “being a creator” — caring deeply and passionately about your craft — often gets lost not just along but even before they start walking the way.

I’ve seen many big writers come and go on Medium over the years. Few arrived for the writing — after all, most of the ones who did are still there. I’ve also had a newsletter since long before it was cool, and I’ll still have one long after it’s out of fashion again — because there’s one thing you can do with commitment that no amount of short-term excitement can ever compensate for: get better with time.

Just because something became popular quickly does not mean it’s good. When you’ve only written a handful of articles, how could you possibly be brilliant at it? Even a genius needs training, and a normie needs twice as much. For most people, that training never happens — all because their expectations have been bent out of shape. One time, a new Medium writer asked me how quickly he could replace his $80,000-salary just by publishing on the platform. After six years of daily writing, even I didn’t make that much — and that was in the fluke year of the pandemic, where everyone was online 24/7. Thankfully, I could convince him to keep his job.

The other day, I met someone who just started to feel the weight of those expectations. John has been writing consistently for two years, and that’s a big feat, but alas, “I had expected to achieve more by this stage,” he told me. Hearing about the ups and downs of my near-decade journey helped him put things into perspective, he said. And then he made a remarkable observation: “You’ve been writing for eight years. Even though we’re the same age, that makes you four times older than me in writing years.”

Quitting your job for your viral avocado toast recipe blog isn’t cool if that blog disappears and leaves you broke and in a cubicle three years later. You know what’s cool? Being a seasoned pro at a vocation you truly care about — and the only way to become seasoned is to put in more seasons.

But as the creator economy itself will have to deal with teenage problems for a few more years, so will we have to grow up anew every time we switch career tracks. Sure, we’ll bring some skills with us, but just because you have worked in a team for ten years does not mean you’ll automatically excel at running an online community. It’s the same mistake we make when we expect our friends and family to naturally grow wiser as they age: Time in the job market won’t linearly increase our job success — only time spent mastering a specific line of work and industry will. There’s your age, and then there’s your professional age.

Of course, it’s tougher to accept that you’ll likely have to put in five, maybe ten years of hard work to get somewhere when you’re 35, just bought an apartment, and have a kid on the way — but it’s better to accept than to deny it. One will allow you to focus on growing and maturing, the other will only lead to bitterness.

Compare your career to your professional age, not your personal one, and measure your rewards accordingly. Has a vlogger with one year of experience really earned a six-figure salary? And even if you know one who happens to make that much, how likely are they to know everything they’ll need to keep repeating that result? Will they even want to? Knowing both your place in the world of work and where you want to go within it is worth a lot more than dollars.

Don’t get distracted by short-term trends and jackpot winners. Take pride in playing the long game. Pick a creative outlet you’ll never want to let go of, and respect your professional age. You might be much older than the creator economy itself, but no matter your chosen field of art, to earn your creative freedom, first, you’ll still have to grow up.