Parlez-vous de l'argent?

I think one of the toughest challenges for passionate developers, designers, and writers is learning to speak business.

I don’t meant there’s an actual language barrier—although sometimes boardroom and managerial jargon can be daunting. What I mean is that most people who care about what they create spend a lot of time thinking about quality, craftsmanship, and The Right Way To Do Things™. It’s how we improve, it’s how we grow, and it’s a big part of the satisfaction in creating something.

The tough part comes when that care and dedication to craft collide with the cold reality of budgets, ROI, and opportunity cost. “It’s the right thing to do” and “this way is better” may be true, but when it comes time to cut the checks, few managers and clients are swayed by our high-minded artistic principles.

And so, we grow.

We figure out how to step back from the things that excite us and explain what those things mean for the people who have to pay for our time. We learn to communicate benefits rather than features, emphasize outcomes instead of processes, and practice tying it all to the bottom line. And it’s good.

Business, after all, is what keeps the bills paid. Figuring out how the things we make tie into its rules is an important growing-up moment, a critical part of navigating the modern world. It’s also an important part of empathy! When I ask someone else to pay for my work it’s important for me to see things through their eyes, to understand the pressures and constraints they’re working within, before pitching them on my Grand (expensive) Vision.

Of course, there’s a but.

The other night, I was talking to a close friend who’s been doggedly pursuing her dream of writing—and succeeding. She pitches and she produces and she edits and hones. She writes her fiction at night, covers pop culture news during the day, and she’s even learning how to make that tough business shift. She can weigh the ideas she’s developing by their commercial viability, their ability to generate traffic and drive the clicks and comments that editors know they need.

And it’s killing her.

“What if I can’t sell it?” she asks. “What if what I’m creating isn’t worth anything?”

The problem with the language of business and economics isn’t that it’s bad. The danger is that it’s so easy, once you’ve picked it up, to forget that there’s any other language at all. Once you learn to attach that hours-and-dollars cost to every activity and weigh it against the margins-and-profits payoff, well… the beauty and craftsmanship and the purpose and the hope that keeps us creating? It can look like pretty weak stuff indeed.

The matter-of-fact precision of economic language is even more compelling because it’s so pervasive in our culture. It’s hard to find an issue that isn’t decided (or at least justified) by an appeal to its apparent objectivity. But the worth of my friend’s work, the stuff she really cares about, isn’t measured in clickthroughs from Twitter or checks cut from a magazine’s razor-thin freelance budget. As compelling as they are, those numbers are not the why that makes what she does matter. They aren’t the why that makes your work matter.

Speak the language, learn the ropes, and don’t be afraid to sell the dollars-and-cents value of what you do. It’s how we pay the bills, and it’s a great skill to have. But don’t forget—don’t ever forget—that you’re only visiting that land of ledgers. Its language, its rules, its pressures and its values, are never the true measure of your worth and your work.

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