This note is about how everybody needing a #hustle makes being online (and alive) a total bummer-fest. I’ll do my best not to rag on capitalism in general.
What is a grift?
Wikipedia has a fun article on this but a grifter is just a synonym for a con-man. Which is itself short for ‘confidence man’. Con artists are people who trick people (their ‘marks’) for profit. Most of what I’m going to talk about on this note is not technically a con, but it feels like the people who buy into it are being swindled in some capacity.
Defining grifts is based on value
The difference between a grift and an ‘honest living’ is highly subjective, because it hinges on the question of “does this thing being offered create real value?” and that depends on a person-by-person judgment. (Your position on the hater matrix will likely have a lot to do with this.)
Warning: Hot Takes Incoming.
Elon Musk gets too much credit; he didn’t even start Tesla, he just bought it. The underground tunnel thing is a bad idea and actual public transport would be better.
There’s a space wherein actual fraud happens, Theranos-style, but I think there’s a much larger and more subtle space where things aren’t fraudulent but feel like a scam, Juicero-style. In both cases, the marks were big investors in silicon valley so hyped up on new and innovative that there isn’t any common-sense “is this valuable” question.
Many online courses are, at face value, a little absurd. I’m not talking about Udemy or Coursera or what have you. I mean the dudes (they’re usually male, aren’t they?) who are constantly serving you ads from their lambo, trying to convince you to buy their course on:
- NOT drop-shipping
- the stock market
- crypto currency
- reselling rare sneakers
To which I must always say to my phone
“If you got so crazy rich doing X, why do you need the extra money from teaching a course about X?”
The answer is: they’re lying (or at least bending the truth) about how much money their ‘main hustle’ brings in, and the real money is in being a guru. It’s pretty close to a pyramid scheme, in that it constantly requires new marks to enter the machine and pay for the courses in order for anyone in the scene to make much money.
One step up on the legitimacy scale is those that are, maybe, offering some advice that’s valuable or useful. Think “productivity hackers”, self-help books, or paid courses that claim they’ll improve your ‘ideation’ or ‘personal leverage’ or some other equally un-quantifiable skill.
On one hand, maybe these folks really do have something valuable to share. I’m not saying every single self-help book is useless. But the promises that these types of writers and coaches make can sound awfully similar to the gurus: rather than promise you that you’ll learn something (which may or may not be relevant to you in the immediate), these types of teachers tend to advertise that you’ll become something different. More successful. More productive. Richer. Smarter.
It’s this silver-bullet rhetoric that should make anybody wary, and prompt the question what am I actually going to get out of this?
Grifting is Liberation
Three things that seem to unite most grifters:
- Their contempt for Corporate Life™ and all its trappings
- Their desire to make good money
- Their love of their hustle
These are all super compelling selling points, with the slightly thorny parenthetical of: most grifts (the pyramidal ones) will create freedom and prosperity for the person pulling the grift, but none for you, their unsuspecting mark.
Admitting my cynicism
The thing about most of the grifts I’m referring to is that they aren’t actually scams in a definitional sense. They’re the equivalent of a dude aggressively selling you his mixtape on the street. Perfectly legal, but feels a little scummy and makes you seriously question whether there’s actually been any value added to your life, and by extension, the world.
Imagining a better future/how to have fewer grifts
It’s not impossible to be earnestly interested in innovating, building new things, learning and teaching people. However, grifts are often more motivated by money or clout than a sincere interest in something.
To the money point, if a greater number of people were involved in meaningful gift economies, it might be possible for them to meet their comfort/luxury goals without becoming significantly wealtheir.
To the clout point, if we build communities where personal fulfillment and wellness are prioritized over hustle, then having a lucrative (grifty) side-gig is less important than being a positive and well-rounded person.
Sources, resources, links
Shawn Wang has a great blog post about meta-creators that was a big inspiration for the section about teaching.
A great Reply All episode on drop-shipping
An excellent substack post about how food-tech is often not focused on solving real problems, but on making money.