Where There's Muck, There's Brass

Originally published: 12/2007 by J Wynia

When I was growing up and working on a turkey farm, and we kids would complain that the barn smelled particularly ripe, my dad would take a deep breath of that foul air and exclaim, "Smells like money to me."  And, growing up in an extended family of farmers and in rural Minnesota, I actually heard that particular statement several times a week.

Then, this week, I read a great essay on the same principle by Joel Spolsky: Where There's Muck, There's Brass, which introduced me to that great phrase. Both point to a truth in life that often, the best money is to be made doing things that people really need or want to have done, but find the task distasteful in some way. If there's a nasty, dirty, boring job, there's probably some good money in it.

It's a principle that a lot of people don't seem to grasp, particularly in its mirror view. That's where people find it hard to understand why it's so hard to make a living doing things that everyone loves to do. When a task is the kind of thing that people will do on their own and desperately PAY someone to let them do it, making a living at that task is going to be very difficult.

There's a long line of people doing exactly that for things like: stand-up comedy (dragging their friends to 3-drink minimum shows for no pay), writers submitting collections of literary short stories to publishers, rooms full of aspiring actors paying agents to get them auditions along with hundreds of others for a commercial advertising herpes medication, etc.

That's also why, like Joel says, most of the stable, paying jobs in software development aren't building fluffy social applications. Rather, they're building down-n-dirty business applications. That's where I've focused my consulting.

Instead of chasing after startup promises and thrills, I am tackling tough, gritty, messy problems for businesses and enjoying solving them.

That doesn't mean I'm not messing with the other stuff in my "spare" time. I've got several perpetual projects that I'm working on software-wise as well as puttering a bit on a novel, a podcast that I really want to get back into doing, etc.

The thing is, that I focus my business and income earning on tackling the problems that the market is clearly looking to pay for as my "day job" and do the stuff like podcasting on my own funding and own time rather than trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

There's absolutely no likelihood that I would make anywhere close to my software developer salary as an author of fiction with anything other than the Next Great American Novel. The odds are pretty close to lottery odds, in fact.

Basically, if you're out to make a good living and enjoy doing it, find the kind of work that has a bit of muck in it that you don't consider muck and you'll find a nice shiny pile of brass.


beth on 12/10/2007
Smells like money to me.
That's what my college roommate who worked at the sewer department every summer used to tell me. He managed to save more money every summer than anyone else we went to school with working cushy internships or retail jobs. I took a route that was perhaps not as creative as I'd originally intended, but like you have tried to offset that by doing the fun stuff in my spare time, and it can be a difficult balance.
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