Doing the Thing vs. Selling the Thing

There’s something I’ve noticed about some people who make lots of money online—they derive the bulk of their income by selling other people on how to do something rather than doing that thing themselves. 

For example, consider the professional day trader who sells access to their “exclusive stock picks” rather than using those picks to get rich on their own. Or the Twitter accounts that advertise “how to make five figures a month on Twitter,” but are only able to do this by selling courses on “how to grow your Twitter following.”

In both cases, these individuals have realized that there’s far more money to be made in selling the thing than in doing the thing.

Compare this with someone who created a successful business, say selling t-shirts, and then sold a course on how to start an online apparel shop. That person had to spend time actually learning how to run a profitable t-shirt business. It was only after they were successful when they could sell their course. 

This is the playbook that Alex Hormozi followed to create his (now huge) content business. He went out and started an actual business (a gym) and developed expertise before he started creating content and monetizing it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how all content creators become successful. Instead some of them generate the bulk of their income not from the skill or knowledge they are selling, but from the act of selling itself. It reminds me of that McSweeney’s article Let Me Teach You How to Teach Other People How to Teach Other People How to Freelance.

There’s nothing wrong with teaching people sales, but don’t dress it up as something else. Don’t sell me your stock picks, when you should be showing me how to start an online trading community. Don’t tell me to do X while you’re getting rich doing Y.

At the end of the day, the problem with “selling the thing” isn’t the selling, it’s the intellectual dishonesty in what’s being sold. If you take this idea to its extreme, you get something like Jack Stratton’s How I Made $290,000 Selling Books:

While this is clearly a joke, it perfectly encapsulates the difference between doing the thing and selling the thing. In this instance, you’re buying the book in hopes of learning about the complex set of strategies and tactics that Mr. Stratton used to make $290,000 selling books. Unfortunately, you soon realize that he made that $290,000 by selling a single book—to you.

Jokes aside, this is basically how some financial content creators make their money. They’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing better than being a good stock picker is convincing others that you’re a good stock picker. There’s nothing wrong with this, I just wish these individuals were more honest about what they were actually selling.

I’m hypersensitive to this idea because I never want to be the person that became successful doing one thing while publicly suggesting another. This is why 97% of my net worth is in financial securities, why I still rent my apartment, and why I own very few physical objects. Just Keep Buying isn’t a catchphrase, it’s my financial life.

And while the book has sold quite well, it still represents less than 7% of my lifetime income. I’ve made more money from the stock market than from my book royalties. But, even if I had earned more from royalties, it would’ve been consistent with what I’ve been saying on this blog for nearly seven yearsincrease your income and invest in income-producing assets. That’s it. I’ve been saying it since 2017 and have been encouraging others to do the same.

I raise this point because it looks like we may have entered a new bull market. And with a new bull market comes new grifters and new scam artists alike. We are going to see “selling the thing” come back with renewed vigor.

Of course, this could all change tomorrow, but with the S&P 500 up 7 weeks in a row, I am a bit concerned that some of the bad financial actors of Christmas past will come back to swindle us yet again. They could come for our friends, our family, or our co-workers. They could come with a new pyramid scheme, a rare real estate opportunity, or a novel trading system.

Whatever they decide to do, they will be the ones who get rich off of their ploys, not anyone else. As Doug Boneparth wrote earlier this year in Gurus Gone Wild:

Bad financial advice takes on many forms. Sometimes it’s straight-up wrong. Other times, it’s wrong for the moment, circumstances, or person. The common theme is someone trying to persuade you into doing something that financially benefits them more than you.

In face of such blatant deception, we have to remain vigilant against those who don’t have our best financial interests in mind.

I say this as a reminder because I know how easy it is to fool yourself into thinking otherwise. In late 2021 I wrote about the obvious excesses I was seeing in technology stocks and the crypto market. Yet, less than two months later I put 1% of my net worth into some alt coins that declined by 70% over the next six weeks.

And while this decision won’t seriously impact my finances in the long run, it demonstrates how easy it is to trick yourself into thinking “this time is different.” It illustrates how quickly we can change our minds when so much money is being made so quickly.

So while the scars of 2022 are still relatively fresh now, every tick upward in the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ makes it easier to forget them. Every $1,000 Bitcoin climbs makes it more likely that you might do something disastrous with your money. Maybe it won’t happen to you, but it happened to me.

I wrote this blog post so that it doesn’t happen again. After all, I’m trying to do the thing, not sell it. Happy investing and thank you for reading.

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This is post 377. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering:

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