Selling Out: It Can Happen to Anyone

Here's How to Prevent It

I'm going to try to be politically correct and selling out is something I've struggled with.  How far is going too far?  For me, I had to discover my voice as a writer and become comfortable in my own skin.  I know what my core principles are and what my mission is.  I have to be able to live with myself.  However, this is a game and the power dynamic is something people of color have to learn to navigate, but there is no way I will sacrifice or compromise my values just to get ahead.  I have no problem with artists playing the game, but when I see tweets or hear statements that disparage black women in particular, the same women who filled theaters when no one knew their name or bought their albums before they fixed themselves up, I have a real problem.  That is the definition of selling out and I have no patience for it. -- Torri R. Oats

Have I sold out? Have I totally gained so much that I let the purpose slip away? Have I become so preoccupied with earning a check that I managed to go back on all the idealistic vows I made to always be about the art? More importantly, if I have sold out - when did my betrayal begin? Was it when I started to enjoy the fame and easy recognition so much I became complacent and lazy, or when I noticed how quickly I got over the injustices that used to anger me so much? Selling out is something we accuse many people of because some people reek of it, but it’s something we often don’t smell on ourselves because we can’t handle admitting that we threw our principles away in favor of the trappings of success and fortune.

How many times have we said “money changed him/her” and now “he/she doesn’t care about his people or the message they started with”? Selling out is heavily judged and frowned upon but it’s more widespread than we think, because it doesn’t just rear its head when someone does something as big as jumping on a commercial project because the money’s so good.

Selling out can be seen in smaller acts like changing a tweet or a few lines in blog post because you don’t want to sound like an activist for fear of alienating an advertiser or sponsor. Selling out can be seen in laughing at your manager’s lame jokes because you want them to like you, and it can even be the motivation when someone rejects certain friends because they don’t fit in with the popular crowd or A-list image. You will find that it’s more common than you think, and that it usually starts with us giving an inch and this inch turning into miles of rope we can’t get back.

Authenticity is so important in creative spaces because that’s what makes you stand out and ultimately build a brand people are loyal to. Sometimes to speed up the process, we take on personas that conflict with our principles. In this process - we often have to fit into certain expectations, speak out less and basically water down certain aspects of our identity so that we’re more acceptable. It could stem from wanting to gain the approval of the people that butter the bread - who would think standing up for your principles makes you a loose cannon. It’s something we commonly notice in musicians or even actors who begin with a specific idea of what they want to achieve through their craft. Sometimes records labels and studios turn you into a stencil and package you for commercial gain. Soon the money starts rolling in, but one can’t help but feel like they are a phony because they abandoned the vision that made them get into the business in the first place. We can also observe this in politicians who start off with the vision to make a real change but soon sell out because they want endorsements, support and votes. It’s not uncommon to sell-out thinking that you’ve found a way to temporarily keep you going until you have the power to stand up for your ideals. It’s also not uncommon to just end up corrupted by the process as it turns hopeful idealists into disappointed cynics.

No one is immune selling out because ultimately it cuts too close to things most of us crave - success, material wealth, fame, recognition and adoration. Selling out becomes the path of least resistance to these things and we can all admit coming to a point where we could have everything but not on terms that sat well with us. What separates us is how we respond to the pressure to sell out - a) give in, gain the fame but lose our purpose or, b) strive harder to succeed on your own terms - possibly creating opportunities for ourselves. Many have given in, gaining the world in the process but losing themselves along the way The question is - is it worth it? Is everything you get from giving in enough to silence the voice reminding you that this isn’t what you wanted and that there’s so much more - and by more the voice means fulfillment, meaning, joy and purpose. From experience selling out is never worth it because you’re the one who has to sleep at night without being haunted by your conscience.

And then there’s the belief that selling out is inevitable; that choosing to hold onto certain ideals is a sign of youth, naivety and immaturity. People give weak reasons like priorities changing or seeing things clearer because they “understand how the world works now”. Sure, the inevitable game playing of the business affects us all, because it forces us to pick a side and stick with it - but making selling out an uncontrolled eventuality takes something key out of the equation - choice and the power you ultimately have over the forces that act on you.

I’m reminded of the movie Brown Sugar, starring Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan, a story built so brilliantly upon the analogy of hip-hop. After becoming a fancy record company executive, Dre becomes disillusioned with it all and asks his friend whether or not he sold out and left behind the dreams he had for a career that had a deeper purpose. Sidney tells him that he has sold out a little - but adds that it’s something everyone does at some point. My question is, when does it take place? When does one switch lanes and most importantly, do you even know it’s happening to you or do you just wake up one morning and realize that your priorities have shifted and what used to matter doesn’t anymore?

Selling out starts with us giving up on things that seem less important and compromising on positions that seem harmless to the whole cause. We become desensitized and therefore capable of giving up even more. The people we accuse of selling out didn’t just wake up and make giant shifts - they gave a little until it became a lot and by the time they noticed, they had dug themselves too deeply in the whole. In the case of our protagonist, Sandra, selling out came in the form of settling for what didn’t fulfill her, thinking it was temporary - only to realize that temporary had become permanent without her even noticing until it was too late and she was miserable. So what’s the answer then - how does one not sell out? The answer is knowing exactly what you want, standing up for it and refusing to compromise, even on the things that don’t seem as big or important as others. This way you’ll know who you are, you won’t get swayed and if you remain determined in your position - meaningful success will come on your own terms.