TARA: Unfortunately, again, that just turns around into creating things that are essentially contentless, essentially valueless, and instead selling it completely on the brand of the individual, which in and of itself is dehumanizing. But it’s also dehumanizing for the people who buy into it, and it’s also valueless for the people who buy into.
ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not. You’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now, with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
If you spend any time on the Internet, you have probably seen ads for how to make big money with digital products. This is part of a whole business strategy for online pros who are making courses and content that are supposed to help you succeed as a contentpreneur. The problem is that a lot of what these pros are producing doesn’t actually help you make money or even good content. What is interesting and what our guest today, Tara McMullin, points out, is, that one of the reasons these products fail is because they’re designed solely to make a profit rather than offering service or care to the people that they’re made for. So who is Tara McMullin? She is a podcaster, an author, and the mind behind the What Works Product series, the What Works podcast, the What Works Weekly newsletter, the What Works book where she thinks about how we make a living, how that’s changing, and what we might need to learn about how we’ll work in the future. She is well versed in the ways that people make a paycheck in this digital age, and she talks with us today about how doing the work without care negatively affects both the producer of that work and the consumer.
ALIDA: Hello, Tara. I’m so excited to welcome you to the Care Work podcast. So, I remember reading your article, “Why Care Work is Critical to the Value of Information” a few months ago, and I knew I wanted to talk to you about it, but I would love to just start with Tara, what do you do?
TARA: Yeah, so the vast majority of my activities during the week are either writing podcasting or producing. And so that takes the form of my podcast, the What Works podcast, my newsletter, What Works weekly, and then the production company that I have with my husband called Yellow House Media. We work with a variety of clients there who each host their own podcasts, and we help them with content and all of the production stuff and all of the like, strategy stuff. That’s the way I spend the majority of my time. But my work really centers around thinking about the ways that we make a living, how that’s changing, how it still needs to change, a lot, and, uh, what we might be able to learn about how we’ll work in the future and how we can better meet our needs and each other’s needs in the future as well.
ALIDA: That was something that really struck me when I was going through all of the many different kinds of information that you produce, is that you talk about the importance of navigating our modern capitalist economy with your humanity intact. And so I thought it might be helpful to start this conversation by asking, what does it mean to navigate an economy with your humanity intact?
TARA: Yeah, I mean, I think it starts from the basic acknowledgment that one of the functions of capitalism is dehumanizing us in one way or another. And Karl Marx talks about this as alienation, right? So we become alienated from the product of our labor. We become alienated from ourselves and our own personal identities. We become alienated from our species being. So we, in other words, lose touch with our drive to create, our drive to produce as creative beings, and we also become alienated from each other. And so I think that kind of construction of those four types of alienation is a good way of understanding how I think about navigating the 21st century economy. Is how can we alleviate that alienation as much as possible. As we make choices about how we earn a living, how we work on a day to day basis, what relationships we build, how we experience solidarity with others, and how we think about you know, the world’s problems and what our role in solving those problems might be. That’s really how I think about it. It’s always a give and take, right? Because we exist in this system that is working against us in many, many ways. And as much as our values may be completely unaligned with that system, we’re always going to be subject to its logic in different ways. And so it’s always identifying, okay, this is a place where I’m not feeling myself. This is a place where I’m not in touch with myself. This is a place where I’m not in touch with others. How can we make more intentional choices that recognize our values, recognize the relationships that are important to us, recognize who we are and what we want out of life and make moves in that direction as opposed to being pulled back into the capitalist system over and over again?
ALIDA: One of the threads I’m thinking of as you’re sharing is just that our current economic system shapes who we are, our behaviors. It’s not just this neutral, invisible force that underlies what we do. It actually shapes who we are. And so part of being someone who thinks about navigating the economy with humanity is being intentional, about understanding how the economy is working on us, on what we believe, on what we feel, on what we experience. And I feel like that could be a good segue to this question that gets us into the topic of today’s discussion, which is, how does the fact that our economy largely does not value care work and does not pay anyone to do care work, or at least many of the kinds of care work that exists today, shape our perceptions of care?
TARA: Yeah, such a good question and just a huge, absolutely huge topic. You know, I think, in my work, one of the ways that I’m really thinking about helping people recognize the way the economy acts on them, because I completely agree is making care and making the care that we need, the care that we do, visible, right? Capitalism and the cultural and social systems that we exist in thrive on putting that care work back in a closet, back in the corner. Like, get it as dark and out of the way as possible, right? And that’s how it gets away with not paying us for that kind of work. And it’s also how it gets away with putting that work disproportionately on women, people of color, immigrants, all manner of marginalized people, because those people’s work, our work is valued less in a patriarchal capitalist society, than white men’s labor. And so if the system can push it off on us, then they either can pay very little or pay nothing for that work, but still you know, use the benefit of that work. What’s happened right in our economy is that now women and you know, all people who have been doing care work as their main work, are also having to go out and earn an income. And so for me, so much of, you know, as I’m thinking, as I’m working with people, as I’m devising systems and ideas for helping people change the way they work, it’s saying, okay, let’s stop ignoring care work and start acknowledging the real value of it. And in acknowledging the value and making it more visible, we can actually say, how do we do this well? How do we not just squeeze it in? How do we not just take it on out of some unspoken obligation? But instead, how can we make it a visible, valuable part of how we do our work and in the process, make that care work more structural as well.
ALIDA: What strikes me about the way that you’re describing this is we don’t take into account the fact that unpaid labor done by people coming from underrepresented or marginalized groups is subsidizing our economy. It’s not counted in our GDP. It’s not counted in the resources that we need in order to go to the factory, in order to earn an income, in order to stimulate the economy with our consumerism. And what that also brings up for me is all of the folks who are taking that care that they’re receiving for free or for very low pay outward. And they’re using that to aggregate more wealth, more status, more power. So I think this is a place for us to talk about the parallel that you draw between care work and information and specifically the production of information and care work and essentially, who gets paid for that and who doesn’t.
TARA: Yeah. So we talk a lot about being in the information economy today and we can also think of it as the attention economy. But the idea is that we are producing content, producing media, producing these containers for information every day. Right? Like, I’ve spent the last 14 years working in this online space where the majority of people are actually merchants of information. They are selling advice. They’re selling how to, they’re selling ideas. They’re selling experiences that are organized around information. And so I’ve seen sort of firsthand what does it actually look like and feel like to take something out of your brain, put it on digital paper and you know, offer it for sale? And how does the value of that get experienced on the producer side and on the consumer side? And what I’ve noticed just time and time again is how much the information is not actually what creates value.
We talk about selling information. We talk about marketing information. We talk about packaging information. But it’s not the information itself that actually creates value for people or creates value with people. Instead, it is the care that is put into how that information is conveyed. And that care can be nonexistent. It can be mediocre. Um, or it can be really thoughtful and intentional. And I think we see again, time and time again, that when the care that goes into one of these products is intentional our consumers get more value from it. They’re more likely to make changes. They’re more likely to implement new ideas. They’re more likely to, uh, try new things and experiment with new things. And that’s really the value of an information product, right, is those results. It’s the ability. It’s the capability to make change. But just like with Stuart Brand and the Californian ideology and all of these places where we’ve seen sort of this countercultural, um, what appears to be resistance to capitalism. Capitalism has a beautiful way of appropriating whatever we do, uh, to try to resist it, to try to make it on our own, to try and go outside of the system.
And so, 14 years ago, when I started in this online space, it felt super countercultural to me. It felt like I am on the front lines of the future of work. I am on the front lines of people being able to get out of this crappy job market, out of this crappy economy, and really focus on doing their own thing. And I was so stoked about it. Like, so stoked about it. And then over time, I started to get more and more into the, quote, unquote, make money online space. And I saw my work being appropriated into this system through me, by me, right? I saw, and I saw plenty of others as well. So that it ceased to be an activity of resistance and started to become an activity for extracting massive amounts of profit and achieving a hyper individualized idea vision of success. So instead of being about bringing people together, instead of thinking about ways that we care for each other, it’s all about me. It’s all about the individual. It’s all about how do I get the most from this? How does meditation make me more productive? How does a retreat away from technology make me a better executive? How does growing my wealth allow me the experience of giving back? But to me, those two things are, as you said, completely parallel. We see this over and over again in the capitalist system, where things that start to look like resistance, things that start to feel outside the system, are quickly subsumed into the system. And with that, the identification of the value of care goes away. So instead of a bunch of creators and information marketers creating products with care built into them, that care gets stripped away in the name of profit, well.
ALIDA: It immediately comes to this example I’ve been using a lot, which is Dan Olsen Folding Ideas. Dan Olsen was specifically focusing on this idea of contrepreneurs content entrepreneurs who are also con artists. And he focuses specifically on the Mickelson twins, not because they’re so successful, because they embody this new kind of get rich quick through content ethos that is all over the Internet. And one of the things that he emphasizes throughout is we can’t fully understand the toxicity of what they are creating unless we go through it ourselves. So he makes himself a guinea pig. And some of the things that he does, he goes through their curriculum or parts of their curriculum because it’s exorbitantly expensive. And what he finds is that they pretend to be doing things live, but it’s pre-recorded and they’re saying you can get rich quick specifically through this system, very complex system, of outsourcing. So we, the Mickelson twins, have done this. And look at all of the titles. Look at the dozens of books we’ve done this with. And we are going to break this down for you in our course with our coaching, and you are going to be able to completely remove the shackles of working in the world. And you can just get paid passively. And a lot of what you’re describing, I think, is embodied in this example right? There’s no care in this service. It is the sort of McDonald’s of information coaching and support. So talk me through this trend in the world of the Internet that is happening now of people who are purveyors of get rich quick through content schemes.
TARA: Oh, my God. How long do you have? [LAUGHTER] Um, this is one of my favorite topics. So, yes. What is going on here? You use the word. Uh, I think you said McDonald’s vacation or McDonald’s, something like that. And I think that’s a really good way to look at the online business, make money online market, because it is all about this sort of MLM adjacent, franchising adjacent, outsourcing adjacent, type of scheme where there are people sort of at the top of these fields that have real value to offer and have real world experience and have thought, have thought about these strategies and have given intention to these strategies and care about what they’ve put out into the world. And they might be names that people know. They might not be names that people know. But what happens is that just under that group, there is often a level of provider, a level of creator that says, you know what? I can do that too, except I can do it with 100% motivation around profit. And I can take that motivation around profit. I can look for the most efficient way, the cheapest way, the most productive way to create this profit, and then I can sell it to other people. And then underneath that, someone comes along and says, well, now that I’ve learned it from so and so, now I can go teach it because I didn’t make any money doing what they did, but I can make money if I tell other people what they told me.
And at this point in this information economy, the space in the information economy, we are like 15-20 generations down the line of derivative information going out that is completely filtered through a profit motive. And there’s nothing wrong with making a profit on your intellectual property, on your ideas. However, there is, to my mind, something wrong about putting something out on the market, not because it’s valuable, not because you stand by it, not because you want to help people, but because profit is your number one goal. There is also, I think, a real, there’s a real quest for sort of a personal heroicism around success as well. And so people will do whatever it takes not only to make a profit, but to point attention back on them. To make themselves feel validated, to make them feel like they’re the ones at the top of a field, the top of an industry, the top of an idea. But unfortunately, again, that just turns around into creating things that are essentially contentless, essentially valueless, and instead selling it completely on the brand of the individual, which in and of itself is dehumanizing, but it’s also dehumanizing for the people who buy into it, and it’s also valueless for the people who buy into it. And then the last thing I’ll say about this is something else that I’ve really wanted to write about but haven’t sort of sat down and pulled together all the research yet, is the idea of digital extractivism. So extractivism being the way in which companies profit from extracting resources from the environment. And so you know, typically we’re talking about you know, precious metals, we’re talking about different kinds of natural materials, oil, obviously, water. These companies are essentially taking ownership of something that is a natural resource in every other way would be considered part of the commons and making a profit on it. And that’s the exact same thing I see happening in the make money online space as well, is all of this information that’s being sold is available for free. Like, it does not take a doctorate in Googling to get this information. It’s all out there. But then folks come along and they put a package around it and they say, okay, now this is my information. I took this and now you can pay me for it. And so they’re extracting that informational resource out of our information commons to make a profit from it.
And this is where I have the issue with not also adding care work to that. Because if you’re not thinking about how you are delivering care, then your package is completely worthless. Because I can go out and get that information and I can probably go out and get that information faster than it takes me to go through your course, especially if it’s a crappy course. Um, but if you have put care into how that information is related, if you’re there to ask questions, or if you’re just doing it in terms of structural care, so care that happens in the production process rather than the delivery process. If you’re taking the time to really think through, how are people going to use this? How can I make it as easy as possible to learn? How can I make it as accessible to people as possible? How can I consider the different life experiences that people are coming to this information with and make them feel included, make this work for everyone that I can make it work for? If you’re doing that, awesome! You are creating an immense amount of value on top of this natural resource that’s available to us all. But if you’re not, you’re just selling stuff that’s available for free. And that’s gross, in my opinion.
ALIDA: I want to start asking you about the hopeful side of this. What does it actually look like? If we take the lesson of care work being critical to the value of information, what do we end up doing in that situation?
TARA: Yeah, uhm, I find it difficult sometimes to get to the hopeful part of these conversations. So I appreciate you bringing it back to that. One of the things that came to mind is a question that my friend Kate Strathman, who’s often my interlocutor, on these types of topics, frequently asks is what are we creating together? What is this project that we are doing together? I think that answering that question requires a fundamental re-evaluation of why we are going independent, right? Why we are saying I don’t want a W2 job, I don’t want to work for somebody else, I want to do my own thing. That is fundamentally easier to reconcile with an individualist me, me, me, view. And it is more challenging to reconcile with the idea that we can create things with others. But that’s exactly what we need to be doing, is have that difficult reconciliation between the very understandable impetus to create your own livelihood, to create meaningful work in the world that brings value that maybe otherwise would not have been created into the world and our responsibility to others. And accepting that kind of responsibility, accepting that we are part of a society, right, as the like to say, um, and that our decisions impact others, whether we are recognizing that or not. And looking for the ways in which we are all operating under the same system that is seeking to separate us, to dehumanize us, to alienate us from each other. And asking you know, what can I do to resist that? What can I do to bring people together? What can I do to recognize the value that others bring to the table? And also to say that we don’t have to measure people by their productivity, by their revenue, by their income, by their consumption habits, by what they post on instagram, by all of these different metrics that become stand-in for how much value you bring to the table.
So there also has to be a questioning not only of what are we creating together? What is this project that we are doing together, but what is value, what is contribution to the project, what all does this project require to make it possible? And if we start thinking about what a project requires to make it possible, the number one thing we’re always going to come back to is care work. And so if we can recognize that care and support and intention and thoughtfulness is at the top of what we need to make this thing possible, then it becomes much harder to undervalue or devalue the work of other people.
The other thing that I think about a lot is people’s hesitancy to step into appropriate relationships with others when it comes to their work. And what I mean by that specifically coming from my world where you know, lots of people are hiring contractors but just cannot fathom hiring an employee, but you know, expecting their contractors to work like employees. I think we really need to come to terms with the fact that, first of all, there’s a policy problem here. And there’s also a responsibility that we have to not be part of that public policy problem to volunteer and say, I probably could get away with hiring this person as a contractor, but I’m not going to because my responsibility is to hire them as an employee. That’s one thing. But also, even outside of employee relationships, recognizing that the people that we work with, those relationships need to be durable relationships, they need to be mutually beneficial relationships and that I don’t deserve more than someone else when we are working together in a particular way. Just recently, like within the last week, came across the work of, um, a sociologist named Zeigment Bauman. And he wrote a book called “Liquid Love” where he talks about how in our modern consumer economy, we are predisposed to forming loose, temporary relationships because we are horribly afraid of getting into durable relationships where the other person may have needs that we are not willing or able to meet. Right? I mean, I resonate hard with that. I am very much in that camp of, yeah, loose, temporary cool. Like, I’ve got capacity for my husband and often not even that. Um, so I, I get it. And I can recognize that that is a product of our economic system. It’s a product of public policy. It’s a product of our attitudes towards others and our attitudes toward the common, the attitudes toward our communities. And that if we start to change those attitudes and we start to recognize that we do have responsibility to others, that we’re not an island unto ourselves, right? That’s the first thing that can help us change how we see these relationships that are so easily exploitable in our capitalist system and how we can start to kind of move the needle back to a much more humane way of being in relationship together as we are working together.
ALIDA: It reminds me of something that Loretta Ross says, which is “none of us are special, but all of us are needed” and thinking about the value of interconnection and also that we can’t just take things that have value and not expect to give something back in return. So I have to say, I’ve loved this conversation and I would love to just close out our interview today to ask you where can people find you? Is there something that you want them to do when they do find you?
TARA: Yeah, so the best place to find me is the WhatWorks podcast, which you can find wherever you’re listening to care work . And if you want to find it on the web, it’s explorewhatworks.com. Um, and that’s where you can find my book as well, which dovetails beautifully with this conversation. It’s all about deconstructing our models of success and achievement and striving, um, that are baked into everything we know about goal setting and rebuilding a structure that prioritizes the values that I think more of us hold. That’s the main thing. Then you can find me on Instagram. I’m at Tara underscore McMullin, and I’m also pretty active on LinkedIn, so if you search Tara McMullin, you’ll find me there, too.
ALIDA: Well, Tara, thank you so much for joining us.
TARA: Thank you. This was such fun.
[OUTRO MUSIC IN]
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.