Air

Air is common. So common that we don’t think about it most of the time. Typically only if we’re scaling a mountain and the chemical composition of what we’re breathing starts to change, or have just finished a marathon and are struggling to catch our breath.

But beyond nonstandard circumstances, air is valueless. It’s the most valuable thing in the world in that it allows us to exist, but it’s also valueless.

Air on Earth is made up of mostly nitrogen, about a fourth as much oxygen, and trace amounts of argon, carbon dioxide, and a few other gases. This is pretty much the same anywhere you go; it’s a predictable composition that allows us to ignore how dependent we are upon it.

Imagine that you’re drowning.

Suddenly, air is clearly the most valuable thing in the world. More valuable than water, which also sustains life, which you currently have too much of. More valuable than money, which won’t provide the chemical reactions your body needs to live beyond the next few minutes. More valuable even than love, or the fulfillment derived from creating work you care about, or the earnest respect of your peers, or dreams and the freedom to pursue them.

A sudden shift in circumstances has promoted something that’s less valuable than anything else on the planet to the rank of ‘most valuable thing in the universe.’ To you and me, air is nothing. To a drowning man, it’s everything.

I say this not to be morbid, but to point out how context matters in the assessment of value.

What I produce may be valuable to some, but not to others. My writing may roll off the back of those who don’t need it, or want it, or find novelty in it, while for others it may prove to be a lifeline. Exactly what they needed at that moment. This is true of many things, not just writing. Not just air.

The question, then, is for whom might your work be of incredible worth? For whom does the balance of value-arbitrage work in your favor, and theirs? Where does context conspire to make what you have to offer more valuable than it might be elsewhere, and how might you adjust how you work to provide more of it to the people who really, truly find value in it?

All too often, we try to sell air to people who have plenty, and then decide that we’re either producing something valueless or that the world doesn’t understand how vital our offerings might be.

Looking at things from a different angle and determining where our efforts might be better applied, and for whom, allows us to create, while also helping those who’re struggling to catch their breath.

Update: April 21, 2017

This cannot be overstated: your work isn’t equally valuable to everyone. You have the option of reshaping it to fit a particular audience, but you also have the option of instead changing audiences.