Your Reputation Precedes You

I play guitar for an artist named Dylan Bloom. He’s one of the most popular independent country acts in the midwest. Almost every week he sends me text messages asking if I’m available to play gigs with him. In addition to playing with Dylan, I play guitar for my church, and on occasion, other churches and other artists ask me to play guitar for them as well. As a guitarist, I get asked to play a lot.

I’ve also got my own band called Kid Nebraska. It’s an outlet for my songwriting and long-held desire to be a singer, frontman and guitar hero. Considering I play guitar for Dylan, I thought it would be easy for me to get gigs with Kid Nebraska (this thinking was pre-Covid when gigs weren’t illegal). Turns out I was wrong. Venues didn’t want to book me. People rarely asked when my band was playing and few people actually listened to the music I released. Even fewer showed up when I performed. At first this frustrated me, but then I came to a realization…

There are a handful of things I frequently get asked to do. A lot of people ask me to play guitar for their live performances. A lot of people ask me to teach them Jiu Jitsu and self defense. A lot of people ask me for firearms training. These are my businesses. I’ve developed a pricing structure for them, and I generally get paid when I do them. 

There are also things I do that no one asks me to do. I write books, I write songs, I have my own band and I record my own music. These are my hobbies. I do them because they offer growth and enjoyment. I also do them because I hope to make money with them someday.

Keep in mind, all the things people currently ask and pay me to do started out as hobbies. 

It took ten years of playing guitar as a hobby before people started asking me to play guitar for money (I’ve been playing for over twenty-five years now). 

It took eight years of intense Jiu Jitsu training as a hobby before people started asking me to train them for money.

It took almost a lifetime of shooting as a hobby before anyone was willing to pay me to be a firearms instructor.

These were all big investments in time and money, but I kept doing them because they were hobbies that provided growth and enjoyment. Eventually I developed a reputation of quality in these fields. This reputation is the key to making money. If you’re not finding the success you would like, it’s because you haven’t fully developed your reputation of quality.

In your pursuit of a reputation of quality, keep a couple things in mind:

1. A reputation is like an alien baby that lives and grows in the minds of other people. At first your reputation doesn’t exist at all. Then slowly, as people come into contact with you and your work, you plant alien seeds in their brains. No matter how hard you try, some people will reject these alien seeds. That’s fine. Seek out the people who will accept them. Over time, if you keep nourishing your alien seeds with quality work, the host brains may allow your alien babies to grow.

2. Alien babies take time to grow. Some people look at others in their field and think, “I’m better than they are, why aren’t I making as much?” You may be good, but if you haven’t developed the reputation of being good, getting paid won’t come easily. Keep going. Your alien babies aren’t big enough yet. Reputations take time, and during that time, you’ll continue to get better.

3. You need to develop other skills to make your alien seeds more attractive and fertile. There are plenty of other guitarists who are better than me. I get the gigs because in addition to being a good guitarist, I can sing, I dress the part, I’m not difficult to work with and I’m reliable. 

4. “Asking” is an important method for planting seeds. Back in high school I had to ask my church to let me play guitar for them. I had to ask people to join my bands, and I had to ask to join other people’s bands. I had to ask venues if I could play on their stages and I had to ask people to come to my shows. If you aren’t asking and then delivering when someone says yes, you won’t build your reputation. Eventually you’ll reach a point where people ask you for your service. This is a sign your alien babies have grown to a mature size.

5. Your alien babies are fragile. Guard them with everything you have. One wrong move can destroy them and leave life-long scars in the brains of the hosts. As Warren Buffett said “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

6. The bigger and more abundant your alien babies, the more you’ll get paid. As a guitarist in the midwest, my alien babies are about the size of Baby Yoda. John Mayer’s alien babies are the Xenomorph Queen across the entire United States and beyond.

I can’t be frustrated that Kid Nebraska isn’t popular because it hasn’t developed a reputation of quality. It’s possible I’m not good enough yet, and that’s fine. I’ll keep working to get better. It’s also possible I am good enough, but I haven’t developed the reputation of being good enough. If I keep after it, keep improving, keep asking for what I want and do my best to deliver (or ideally over-deliver) when someone says yes, eventually my alien babies will multiply and grow.

None of this is a guarantee you’ll make money on your hobbies, but hopefully if you’re feeling frustrated and on the verge of giving up, it can help you rediscover the joy of your work and give you a clearer target at which to aim.

If nothing else, it’s fun to think about planting alien babies in other people’s brains.

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