it could be you, but it’s incredibly unlikely

That’s of course the motto of the UK National Lottery, but it is increasingly the mantra of a lot of other ways capitalism is making use of the way we humans can’t get statistically small chances. I was reminded of this when I read a curious article on the Guardian about a chap trying to become a pro video gamer. To be fair to him, at least he got an article out of it and presumably the Guardian paid him, but in addition to the WTF factor, I am amazed that a reasonably intelligent fellow even entertained the idea.

a modern-day Mark of the Beast
a modern-day Mark of the Beast

The rules are different for people with good contacts or those with a net worth of more than about £10million, because you can then buy the government, or at least influence the rules. You can even convince yourself you’re not being evil when you pay corporation tax at 3% rather than 20%. For ordinary grunts ways to make a living come in several classes other than selling your time for money in traditional employment.

fifty ways to make a living

you can make a product or service, that is likely to provide an income of sorts if you can find buyers at the right price. That’s because you are changing the world in some way that others find of value, that for some reason they have neither the skill or inclination to do. Such honest toilers include builders, cleaners, doctors, gardeners, some ebay traders, people who work in the shop round the corner.

Not everything of value is of course tangible – artists create expressions of their view of the world which others of us can use as a framework to hang our hopes, dreams or fuzzy insights on, we pay them. Market makers of various sorts can sometimes add value – in the past wholesalers and distributors parcelled up small purchases into bigger ones. Music, childcare, dance classes are services. I passed Dial-a-Dog Wash a while back. I guess the product is a cleaner and less stinky hound.

Arbitrage works – skimming a bunch of other people because you have superior resources, knowledge or connectivity. The entire financial industry is a case in point. It doesn’t make anything, but it amplifies dreams. For instance it lets foolhardy house buyers overpay for houses. I managed to buy a house as a single man on a entry-level white collar salary nearly thirty years ago, that’s not really possible now. I’m not quite sure why that is considered success, but we all conspired to make it happen, with the benevolence of organisations able to create money out of thin air. But finance does do good stuff too. It lets us insure against low-likelihood but high impact risks. It puts money in the hands of people with talent but no capital. On the way it fleeces many of us shitless. This kind of way of earning a living on a freelance level depends on contacts and chutzpah, and it is lucrative.

There is, however, a Dark Star of enterprises, these are ones where we have a zero-sum game with a huge number of punters and an extremely low likelihood of getting fame and fortune.

Deep Throat was right. Follow the money

In the early 1970s, the Washington Post reporters trying to break the Watergate story were given a sage piece of advice by their informer, although the principle dates back to Roman times. Follow the moneycui bono in its classical form. It’s still a decent way of qualifying a financial opportunity someone sticks in front of your nose.The ermine has some simple rules about this:

  • If the opportunity comes to me of its own volition, it’s not something I want to pursue. Exeunt doorstep sellers, all advertising flyers, cold callers on the phone. It’s why I run ad-block plus. If I didn’t ask to know, I don’t want to know. End of. I am perfectly capable of getting novelty from the world myself – be curious, and aim to know more when you get to bed than when you got up. Even if in includes that pro video gamer is a thing.
  • If I can’t see what a financial opportunity produces or adds to the world, it’s likely a scam. Even if it isn’t a scam, I am not smart enough or too lazy to be able to tell it apart form a scam. I don’t want to know. You can get rich through things like this if and only if you get out at the right time… Madoff made people rich. Until he made them poor.
  • All sellers are liars and charlatans who promote their interests at my expense. Be careful out there. It isn’t universally true but it’s a good starting guess.
  • Very few things in a market economy are truly free. For example, you pay for coupons, Topcashback and Quidco with dedicating headspace to getting a little bit of the money you overpaid back. There’s an opportunity cost of time and attention. The more you think about shopping, the more you are likely to shop.
  • If somebody wants you to sign on the dotted line now without thinking it over, it’s a very bad deal. If it were a good deal, it would survive the scrutiny of sleeping on it. Walk away.

In general, follow the money. If this transaction goes ahead, who wins? If you were unaware of this outstanding lime-limited opportunity this morning, then the winner isn’t likely to be you.

The Seventies discourse on media  was surprisingly prescient about our times – Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame anticipated the vastly improved communications we have, breaking down the layers that graded performers’ access to the audience. On a small scale it costs me virtually nothing to reach you, dear reader, and I hope it costs you virtually nothing to read. Before the turn of the millennium that simply wasn’t possible.

This massive increase in communication and the reduction in costs makes us all potential performers now, the hierarchy of gatekeepers that qualified which subjects were worthy to be represented has been eliminated. They were only there to guard access to the expensive medium of communication, their function of grading out the dross was a secondary, not a primary function. You probably have more than 100 channels on Sky TV at home. They probably aren’t worth 30 times more of your time than when we had three TV channels in the 1970s.

A whole new range of products and services is selling dreams on the back of the desire for fame and fortune

You're like one of these. With a bigger head, but you still need to feel others of your kind are about
You’re like one of these. With a bigger head, but you still need to feel others of your kind are about

Part of the human condition is that we are a social species – in the same way as a house sparrow on it’s own is not at ease with the world until it has the rest of the colony near, so, it seems, with humans – Twitter riffs on the sparrow and reminds us of our common unease with disconnection.

The National Lottery is the first and foremost peddler of empty dreams – it’s true that it could be you, but you’re more likely to be struck by lightning. I don’t understand how you get excited about odds that are lower than an uncommon way of getting killed. How the hell do you avoid the lightning on the way to Camelot’s offices? Every office I’ve been in where there was a Lottery syndicate depressed me a little bit – nominally intelligent and numerate people were allocating mental clock cycles to multiplying their infinitesimal chances of winning by ten or twenty. Yes, they could afford it, but the time allocated to thinking about the lottery are minutes, seconds and hours they’ll never live again, plus externalising your hopes and fears steals headspace away from making changes to improve our lot in life. There’s a cost associated with externalising your locus of control, and I’ve heard too many people dreaming about what will happen when they win the lottery.

And yet there are subtler variants. Let’s take Alex’s idea of becoming a pro gamer. His opening paragraph recognised the problem in meatspace

It’s the lot of every sports fan to sit on the sofa watching their stars play and think “I could do that, if I tried” safe in the knowledge that no one is ever going to call them on that claim.

Team sports at school educated me very well that sports is character building, yes, but the sort of character it builds is that of the school bully and the narcissist that think they are great. You just have to look at the way top footballers carry on to see the sort of character this builds, and yet I do respect that these people do have a rare skill of kicking a bag full of air in arcane ways that is considered good. I have never understood why anybody watches other people play sport. However, I’ve observed a lot of people do, and Alex is quite right – there are a lot of armchair sportsmen. Presumably in the occasional moment of clarity they do realise they couldn’t do that, even if they were prepared to put the work in. 10,000 hours is necessary, rather than sufficient, to gain mastery of many subjects.

Pro video gaming is apparently about collecting an audience, and this is where the empty dream shows itself, because it’s a numbers game, and the numbers are tough. That audience has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is people like you. Let us assume there are X people out there interested in watching people play games. Let’s say they all pay 10 pounds a year to do it[ref]I have no idea if this is high or low. There’s a limit to what I am prepared to do in the name of research, and watching other people play video games is a derivative of consumerism too far for someone without the vicarious instincts needed to watch sport[/ref]. If there are 10 million such souls in the UK, the total amount of money floating about is £100 million. If you want to make £100k a year out of it, then at best you’re one in a thousand, and in practice frictional costs will probably eat up 90% of the income so other people get fat (the streaming networks, content aggregators, games platforms) so you have to be one in ten thousand. And you’ll get rickets from staying indoors all the time – the hours and toilet breaks sound worse than a call centre, because in the end this is a live performance running hours on end with a single actor on the stage.

There are other things like this. Betting, for instance, for most punters is a guaranteed loss in the long run. You can do better than that using matched betting. The reason matched betting works is because you are trying to play fiendishly complicated rules against each other. Theoretically that can work, but you’re only one screw-up away from getting kicked from the winning side to the losing side, big time. Arbitrage is a tough mistress 😉

Some of our ideas about fame and fortune are defined by the roster of successful acts that made it big and were blessed to reach their peak at a time when competition was limited by the bandwidth and effort of shifting physical products about. These limits as so much less significant now. The recorded music industry would never have retained their old model of selling the mechanical rights to fixed recordings whatever they had done, though their demise was faster because of their flat-footed response. Music is effectively free now. People haven’t stopped making it, but they sure aren’t paying much for it. Sometimes I come across a CD in my collection from the 1980s, there are some for £12 or so. That’s the equivalent of £32 now. I still do buy some CDs, but far, far fewer now, almost invariably secondhand, and I’m loath to spend more than £4 😉

The search for fame and fortune has always burned young people out, but at least it used to weed out the weaklings fast rather than give them false hope. Now the cost of carrying the hopes is virtually free. I was tickled by the story of Essena O’Neill, a fashion blogger

So Essena takes the money to promote consumer goods to her impressionable audience, and then some still small voice inside here tells ther this is not living a good life
So Essena takes the money to promote consumer goods to her impressionable audience, and then some still small voice inside her tells her this is not living a good life. Good for her. You will be able to read more about it in her book soon…

Cynical bastard that I am I suspect the renouncement of her earlier ways is presumably because revenue was starting to tick down – I always have admiration for people who can get out on a high rather than dragging a moribund career into the endgame[ref]yes, I know, BTDT[/ref] and it is no doubt purely coincidental that Essena is writing a book. She also has a good ghostwriter on her website who she has hired to make her look intellectual, though they have a penchant for hokey self-help platitudes. It reminds me of that Gladwell fellow

“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”

And yet for every Essena who was a success in her own way, there are thousands of shattered dreams ground into the roadsides. Many of these people will have been her readers living the brand consumerism dream.

We are all born naked and alone into the world, and that gives an existential angst at the heart of the human condition. It is tragic that one has to reach adulthood to have a chance of the simple realisation that the vast majority of the time, other people don’t give a shit about you and your [insert characteristic that is worrying you]. They are far more bothered about what other people think about them and their [insert characteristic that is worrying them]. Essena had one thing totally right. WTF is the point of curating a Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest feed if you aren’t being paid for it? I wasn’t an active FB user for a lot of time, but the level of discourse on Facebook is dire. It’s basically a look at me machine, with a messaging and real-time chat function bolted on. As such it doesn’t do any harm, but Essena is right, there’s no real connection there.

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is so hopelessly untrue, though in the early 2000s it seemed that it might have been the case. But it wasn’t. It’s a rat race. It’s not that the long tail doesn’t exist. It’s just that there’s no money in it at the producer end, though Amazon does okay as intermediary 😉 As editor of Wired Anderson should have known – information wants to be free was an epithet of technology activists for years, coined by Stewart Brand in the hippy era of the 1960s. He probably meant free as in speech, but we all took it as in beer.

The tech industry took that and made it work. Its brilliant masterstroke was realising that there was no need to charge for the information payload where transmission was almost free. They could use the information as a carrier wave for their advertising on the one hand, and for their surveillance in the back-channel, to be able to know more and more about you to increase the efficiency of their business models. Free information was the Trojan Horse, because the Internet was the first non-broadcast mass medium. Thus they could watch us watching them, and there’s no way back from the original sin of the Internet. It changed how we value information. In general I don’t pay for what I can’t touch – not for ebooks, or MP3s. I only buy CDs secondhand, never new, and I’d never pay £30 in real terms like I used to. There’s far more information about, but it’s become far less valuable, roughly about the time that it became content. Attention, rather than information, has become the currency of the postmillennial Web.

Facebook knows something about a fifth of the global population, and their average revenue per North American user is over $50. Which is impressive – if that is the ad spend and guessing ad spend is about 1% of a typical product that means Facebook is costing these users about $5000 by introducing them to consumer spending they don’t need 😉 Of course information wants to be free, at that sort of margin.

As for those promises of fame and fortune, or riches beyond your wildest dreams? It’s easier to make music, produce a movie, stream your video gaming or create and deliver all sorts of information. Dream on – at this sort of scale in a global and frictionless information space it’s a winner-takes-all game. Maybe the odds aren’t as bad as the National Lottery, but doing something useful and adding value to the world is probably an easier way to make a living than becoming a pro gaming celebrity. Or a leading market trader on eToro, or any of those other zero-sum-game options. I’ll leave the last word on empty dreams to Amy MacDonald’s with Footballer’s Wife

song is about those girls who go out of their way to get hooked up with a footballer just so they can become famous. It’s about obsession with celebrity and people who are famous for being famous, with no talent and getting press simply for who they are with.

She gamely took the ribbing when she er, got set on becoming a footballer’s wife herself 😉



36 thoughts on “it could be you, but it’s incredibly unlikely”

  1. Well in Canada at least it’s a bloodbath in the print and broadcast media. I suppose the TV stations and newspapers cannot deliver the ad response that Facebook and Twitter can, plus they have a bunch of professional content creators and blue collar production staff that costs them a bundle. Hundreds if not thousands are getting pink slips. A stuffy cerebral financial paper and a raunchy tabloid will now share content in Canada’s largest print market. Paywalls don’t work so the only answer seems to be slash and burn all the way to oblivion.
    And I can read a more thoughtful essay right here. Malcolm Gladwell is right.


    1. Sharing offices seems the way in print – the UK’s Independent shares with the Daily Mail. I wouldn’t class them as natural bedfellows 😉

      Gladwell’s observation gave me a double-take, but he has a point – the narrative matters. I don’t always agree with him, but the ride is often fun even if the destination doesn’t convince.


  2. It’s odd to think that producing absolutely nothing of value has netted me £880 so far this month, but there you have it 😉

    I must admit to watching a couple of pro gamers in the past but only for tips on how to improve my own performance. Other than that I’ve never seen the point in watching other people do sports.


    1. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings and you’ve got the proceeds in the bank and have ticked the ‘enough box’. BTDT with forex which has the same sorts of class of hazards and is similarly zero-sum. The trick to all those sorts of things is both not screwing up while you’re in the system and knowing when to get out and stay out.

      Interesting idea watching pro gamers to get better – I can see the attraction of that. It does kind of highlight that the difference in ability between watcher and watched is less in gaming that in,say football – nobody watches the footy to get better at 5 a side on the weekend.


  3. I sometimes wonder, as a fellow blogger, how I would feel if a newspaper called me up and offered to syndicate my blog for 100k? Obviously, ecstatic initially. This is something I do for free and now someone wants to pay me handsomely for it? Bring it on. But immediately writing my blog would become “work” and would become something totally different from what I do today. Much as I’d try to ignore the money, or look on it as just a lucky bonus like a lottery win, I know it would change everything. Therefore I keep my posts deliberately crap so that this will never happen.


    1. It would be an interesting lesson in what FI means to you. You have to ask yourself, would £100k enhance your quality of life more than losing some of your freedom of self-determination? I’ve turned down ‘opportunities’ in other fields that would have paid well. Because I have enough money, but not enough time… It’s a hugely different thing, doing things on your own schedule to doing it as a command performance.


  4. You leave out the aspect that online you are competing against the world, not just your immediate neighbours

    As early projects in this direction like Task Rabbit and Mechanical Turk shows, task for pennies in the Western World equal a living in the second/third world

    It could be you… but actually its more likely to be someone in India


      1. It’s a fascinating direction, though ghastly for the grunts. I confess my heart of darkness is wondering how to make this work for me. I have a project needing some assembler code written, but at the moment it would be harder to specify the job than to do it myself.

        But it sounds a treat for outsourcing data entry and munging. I will investigate AMT, but from the other side 😉


  5. People interviewed in the media always seems to have more interesting jobs/lives than you, but that’s because
    1) Only those with interesting stories are chosen
    2) Only the successful ones are asked
    3) Only those prepared to sound enthusiastic accept
    4) It’s not hard to make you life exciting for 5 minutes

    All those academics enthusing about wildlife don’t mention the days with no sightings, the tedium of months in the office doing statistics and grant proposals, and their money worries.

    There ought to be a TV channel of programmes about failed small businesses where they’ve burned the equity in their houses, not because the idea was bad, but because they were unlucky. The Dragon’s Den losers, to cheer up the rest of us.


    1. Indeed – and one could argue he was a successful pro video gamer, because he was paid for his time – by the Guardian, rather than his viewers/winnings.

      The derivative consumerism of the concept of pro video gamer absolutely did my head in. I’m still not sure if it’s genius or bread and circuses. Is this a new wave of entertainment in the making – after all we have had reality TV, we apparently have programmes watching people watching TV, where will it all end 😉


      1. And we are talking about fame, and some sociologist could study us.

        FIRE is all about being financially independent, so we can do what we want, irrespective of a paying audience. So its a bit harsh to criticise those who do need to big themselves up to pay bills.

        Does it sound better to say you’ve given up work to write a book, or to do SFA? Do you care what you tell people?


  6. Some idiots even waste years trying to establish a financial blog, and barely make the minimum wage for most of that time! 😉

    (For the sake of readers not familiar with Monevator, I’m looking in the mirror here, not at Ermine. 🙂 )


  7. I write a personal blog to keep friends and family in the loop but I can scarcely imagine the desperation I would feel if I had to make a living that way. Not everyone can be Bill Bryson, let’s face it.
    I also do some IT work around the neighborhood, mostly to help out other seniors and I don’t care whether I get any money there either. I believe it adds value to people’s lives. and it keeps my mind sharp.
    I agree with John B. Having the ability to do what you want is the greatest wealth anyone can have.


  8. Draw a grid 3740 x 3740 on a piece of paper then colour one of the squares in red. Look at your creation. Thats a visual cue as to the chance you have of winning the lottery. I only just found out what the original mechanical turk was yesterday – fascinating stuff.

    Deep down I don’t think the world is as bad as ingesting the internet would have you believe. People improve massively when they are not presenting themselves through some online intermediary.

    @Early Retirement Guy – I have to admit, I struggle massively to understand how your business model survives. I don’t mean it personally but how can what you put out be of any quality. Its the nature of the production process that I am questioning, nothing to do with your individual talents. Maybe its so cheap it doesn’t have to be any good? A bit like buying a £5 pair of shoes then throwing them away after a months wear?

    I would really like Amazon to markup books produced in this way with some sort of icon so I can distinguish them from real books produced by experts with editors.


    1. @Rhino

      I expect the books are “manufactured” in a cheap country where people speak English and unemployment is high, e.g. India, South Africa, Phillipines, etc.

      The thing is I believe its only a decade until white collar jobs in the west are outsourced to these countries; already accounting and IT jobs are outsourced there or near-shored to eastern europe


      1. I thought you were being overly cynical 😉 Turn out that yes, other people are doing the writing. A little piece of me just died, but I also acknowledge that I was part of making this happen

        In general I don’t pay for what I can’t touch – not for ebooks, or MP3s.

        I joined Kindle Unlimited for the free trial, and most of what’s available on KU is that sort of low-rent cruft, the equivalent of Upworthy clickbait. However, while I was on the trial there was one KU ebook I read. Lavee Natch’s Get Kindle Unlimited Books for Free without Kindle Unlimited Subscription. It introduced me to this link to all Amazon free books and this one to the top 100 free ebooks. I thought I’d share them with readers so that you can at least avoid being charged for your mass-produced ebooks 😉

        I read far too many bottom end ebooks on how to make money fast using ebooks in trying to get my head round how to author an ebook and get it on Amazon – I actually have one that I do want to write, for the old-fashioned reason that I have something to say on the niche topic rather than as a way to MMF. In those books I read about Amazon’s dynamic promotion methods that include regularly giving books away for free, even real publishers do that. Lavee Natch had a link to a site where you can monitor Amazon for these freebies and use their dynamic pricing to your advantage. So his book was well worth the £0 price of entry and the time in scanning it.


    1. Apologies; I should have been clearer. I was referring to my matched-betting as ‘producing nothing of value’ (except value to me of course).

      Funny you should mention that, Others have suggested I do so also and so it may well soon become a work in progress.


  9. I know absolutely SFA about computer gaming, although I did used to play the odd 20 cent game of Space Invaders in the crew-room when I was a young air force officer in the early 1980s. Is that the same thing?

    Not 100% true – about three years ago I was on one of my mindless wandering Flaneur holidays and somehow ended up in Busan, at the southern end of South Korea, which I believe is very in to competitive gaming (people go to stadiums to watch it like sport) on my way to get a ferry over to Japan. In a Starbucks while waiting for a coffee and sticky bun (I’d had enough kimchi) I started chatting to this English guy who was in town for a conference called “G Star”. It was a computer gaming conference and he told me how gaming was now a bigger industry than film. That helped to explain why I’d had such a hard time finding a hotel room.

    He was a tech guy working in LA and said it was a great industry because it really brought together the hard tech stuff and the creative stuff from the people who actually conceive of and write the stories that make the games. That interface between two very different skills, outlooks and perhaps even value systems made it a very stimulating field to work in. Made me think what a pity it was to take all that human energy and creativity and waste it on something so pointless.

    Later I went to the exhibition centre, bought a ticket, and spent an afternoon wandering around in utter amazement at the scale of the thing. It was “bigger than Dallas”. As an amateur anthropologist it was fascinating looking at the countenance of the mostly young, male clientele (many of whom appeared to be lacking in physical activity and sunlight exposure). Many of the games (“World of Tanks” was one I particularly remember because they had a couple of actual M60 battle tanks in the exhibition hall) used young, attractive female models to, er, attract attention. I found that also particularly fascinating! Such are the serendipities of a mindless Flaneur.

    The next day I got the ferry to Japan. That was my exposure to gaming.

    On a different note, I put my three months notice in last week. I’m done, age 52. Thanks for lots of inspiration along the way Ermine, and I look forward to many more of your reflection-inducing posts.


    1. I’ve never understood this tendency in the older generation to look down on things that are new – the “waste it on something so pointless” comment – seriously! I’m much more of the opinion, even in my mid 20’s, that life itself is essentially ‘pointless’…but on the scale of pointless pursuits, the coming-together of creatives & programmer-types to create something that is at worst, harmless/mindless entertainment and at best, an art-form above that of cinema and books. Twitch (google it if unsure) and ‘eSports’ will soon be watched in bigger numbers than your average Channels 1-5.

      I do hope once I reach FI in the not-too-distant future, that I don’t dismiss out of hand whatever is the next technological breakthrough on the horizon…for starters, it could well be a good speculative investment 😛


      1. Dave W – Of course you don’t because you’re not the older generation yet. Give it time young fella.. If any of this stuff is confusing to you then consider the following:

        There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.- Douglas Adams


      2. Ha, brilliant! Big fan of DA and I’m fairly confident that I’ll not be an exception to that rule. Take care


      3. Well Dave W I checked out Twitch and that is definitely against the natural order of things! (winking emoticon, because I don’t know how to do one on this machine)

        You also mentioned “Channels 1-5”. What does that mean? 😉


  10. Joining the office lottery syndicate may only multiply your chance of winning from infinitesimal to merely microscopic, but it is also cheap insurance against losing your job (or having to take on everyone else’s!) if the syndicate does win and you’re not in it.


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