Interlude: A nation of (Etsy) shopkeepers

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 27, 2017 - December 03, 2017.
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It never fails. The moment you make something and it is halfway decent, some wag suggests that you take your talent to the market and see what you can get for it. “Sell it on Etsy!” “Take orders for Christmas!” “Name your price!” Their justification is that if you had financial motivation, it would encourage you to make more of it, whatever it is — fruitcake, book lockets or journals with steampunk covers.

When I made the horrifyingly expensive Christmas Creole cakes (five types of liquor, among other things) and gave them away as presents, there it was, “that suggestion” — “Why don’t you sell them?”

I don’t know about you, but when someone says something like this, it tends to leave me feeling deflated. Mainly because it turns an act of love into something that reeks of commerce, which is not a bad thing (although Jane Austen and her ilk may beg to differ). Just not when it comes to Christmas cakes that were meant as gifts.

I remember reading a rather unusual Jan Karon novel (full disclosure: since it was a short book, I ensconced myself on a plushy sofa in the MPH bookstore in Mid Valley Megamall and read it from cover to cover), where a woman who gives out her famous marmalade cakes decides to figure out just how much each cake costs, taking into account not only her ingredients but also electricity costs and labour.

When she finally racks up the total, it puts her in a quandary. Should a retiree be giving out such an expensive present? Do her friends even deserve it? Her original dilemma, which was whether she should pretty up the presentation by using a paper doily on the cake board seems so beside the point. And suddenly, the season seems less joyful.

I have a friend who makes the best butter cakes as long as she is doing it for the love of baking. The moment you ask her to charge for it, she gets nervous and fretful and starts making mistakes. I wondered whether we were just weird (I mean, who would say no to more money, right?) or simply dumb.

Then I picked up a book aptly titled You Are Now Less Dumb, which explains why you choose to do the irrational things that you do. And there, the author — David McRaney — answered me. No, you are not dumb, he says. Just normal.

It turns out that if you pay a person for what they used to do for free, they are now less motivated to do it. Something about intrinsic motivation (for the love of it) versus extrinsic motivation (for filthy lucre).

Some scientists tested this out on a bunch of pre-schoolers, splitting them into three groups and rewarding them differently for creating art. The first group was told they would be rewarded for the art. The second group was not told but was rewarded anyway. The third group was neither told nor rewarded.

A few weeks later, they found that the first group, who had actually been the artistic ones in the class, had given up creating art. It turns out that doing something that used to be fun for a reward, even if you are only five years old, makes it less fun.

So, I will not be selling the cakes. Instead, I will be going all out to splurge on premium ingredients (since I do not have to count my cost and figure out what to charge), maybe insert paper doilies under the cakes and once they have been suitably aged, put on my rather battered Santa hat and make the accustomed deliveries.

Feliz navidad!