Are You a Sell-Out?

Via Jay Winston
on Nov 15, 2010
get elephant's newsletter

Rasta don’t work for no C.I.A.
Bob Marley, Rat Race

Somebody called me a sell-out…he may have been joking…anyway, if it’s true, I must have sold out pretty damn cheap…

Then, who’s the definitive sell-out? Judas Iscariot? Mick Jagger? Thirty pieces of silver, even adjusted for inflation, wouldn’t get you decent seats to see those heroes of the counterculture, the surviving members of the Stones or Grateful Dead, at your local hockey stadium.

Like lots of people, I tend to idolize Vincent Van Gogh—not so much for the psychosis & syphilis—or self-mutilation & suicide—but the absolute go-for-broke, follow-your-muse-no-matter-what type of spirit. (Not to mention that, y’know, he was really really good at what he did).

He had his brother, Theo, to support him, but still had to keep asking him for cash, and manage that cash so rent got paid, food and paint could be bought, and a little was left over for the absinthe and prostitutes; and, truth be told, he didn’t just paint for God or his own soul, either, but got incredibly frustrated that Theo, the big time Paris art dealer, couldn’t sell his paintings.

So, even passionate Vincent had some sense of balance between transcendent art and crass practicality. Which is not to say one has to compromise everything.

The normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes. It is also the dead stare in a million adults.
Peter Shaffer, Equus

Shortly after graduating college, feeling disillusioned with political activism, self-righteous hippies, and…well, just about everything…I was doing temp work—generally minimum wage crap clerical jobs for investment companies, the kinds of places where I was still far too idealistic to even think about getting a real job. Then, one day, I got sent to work in the mail room in the local office of yet another gigantic corporation, not realizing till I got there that this was in fact the company’s nuclear division.

Not long before, I’d worked for Greenpeace, demonstrated against nuclear power plants, got arrested in the desert protesting nuclear testing. And there I was, wrinkled suit borrowed from my Dad, wondering if I was really cynical enough to simply go with the radioactive flow. If that wasn’t bad enough, the supervisor liked me so much that, there on my first day, he fired somebody right in front of me, apparently for no reason except that he didn’t like her and figured she wouldn’t be needed with me around.

At the end of the day, I went to the temp agency office and exclaimed my moral issues with the gig. The woman in charge said it was too late to get somebody else, so I’d have to go back the next morning. I refused, which seemed like it knocked the wind out of her; “well then we can’t use you anymore,” she said. I said “okay” and walked out.

Later, her superior called me and said she shouldn’t have done that, given the circumstances, and I was reinstated. My guess is that it hadn’t even occurred to her that somebody might stand on principle to the point of getting canned, and so figured she could make the threat with no danger of having her bluff called. Of course, after that, they only called me when they were desperate—graveyard shift labor, breathing dust with skeezy co-workers who never failed to share racist jokes if they’d speak to me at all.

Two decades later, with a PhD, I try to scrape by as a freelance writer and editor, inveterate yogi, occasional teacher, and composer of cynical bon mots. It’s never too late to fuck up your life. Money is far from everything, but it sure is nice to have some lying around, ideally enough to serve as a cushion when you fall. And I sure could use some appliances that work properly.

Perhaps an alternative to that self-hating middle class/pretentious liberal-arts major “sell-out” crap would be to acknowledge the need to find a balance between art and commerce—or, more broadly, that which brings joy and meaning and possibly even some sweet taste of the sublime and that which pays the bills. For a lucky few, the two mingle comfortably—but even they have to worry about bookkeeping, taxes, and other kinds of practical shit that can’t be dealt with so easily in the throes of creative rapture.

At heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt. I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin. The narrow archway; the layers; the scroll of ancient lettuce. We worship the flaw, the belly, the belly, the mole on the belly of an exquisite whore. He spared the child and spoiled the rod. I have not sold myself to God.
Patti Smith, Babelogue

Was reading about a famous yoga teacher who implied you can’t do savasana properly without immersing yourself in a cocoon of holistic merchandise—as if the yogis in India for the past few thousand years had piles of expensive yoga props—though, legend has it, Patanjali himself made a bundle on yoga-themed schwag, even copyrighting the word “sutra,” so that his successive incarnations got royalties whenever anybody else came out with a sacred text. Seriously, it reminds me of books that say I should practice yoga or meditate “in a part of your house that you don’t use for anything else.” To which I say “how about that little gallery between my solarium and indoor tennis court? Or maybe get the servants to clean out one of the guest cottages?” My yoga practice begins with moving stuff out of the way. And, as long as that’s true, I doubt I’m too much of a sell-out….

*developed from a much rougher post at Yoga for Cynics*


About Jay Winston

Jay S. Winston, founder and proprietor of Yoga for Cynics (, has a PhD in English, making him the kind of doctor who, in case of life-threatening emergency, can explain Faulkner while you die, is currently (semi-)(un-)employed as a freelance writer and editor, teaches creative writing to homeless men, tutors recovering addicts in reading, was recently certified as a Kripalu yoga teacher, gets around mostly by bicycle, is trying to find an agent for his novel, resides in the bucolic Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, State of Mildly Inebriated Samadhi, U.S.A. and, like most people who bike and practice yoga, used to live in Boulder.


14 Responses to “Are You a Sell-Out?”

  1. Martin says:

    What did they feel you sold out on?

  2. AngelaRaines says:

    Jay, loved this post! I was feeling a bit glum at work tonight, mopping the floors, and I grumbled something harsh to myself about ideals… this was a pleasure to come home to read. Thanks for taking the time!

  3. BenRiggs says:

    Jay I loved this article… It was great!

  4. Joseph Boquiren says:

    There are two quotes I keep close to my heart in case I feel the need to sell out:

    1. If you sell out it doesn't necessarily mean anyone is going to buy.

    2. If you sell out you will meet people who are far more enthusiastic ABOUT selling out than you are. And they will kick your ass every time!

  5. Thanks Jay,
    This is an issue some of my friends and I are grappling with now so your insights and perspective are VERY helpful.

    Blessings to you my friend,


  6. Brianna says:

    Thanks for this article. I think it was extremely timely for me :]

  7. helene_rose says:

    I could use a bed and a couch, or just one or the other. Cheers to not selling out.

    Helene Rose.

  8. Hilary Lindsay says:

    Funny, sort of, but I flipped on elephant to distract myself from the question at hand tonight which is to wonder why I didn't have the foresight to know I'd need a job with a steady paycheck and health insurance when I catapulted myself into a feckless life of pure joy at too young an age. Now it's a habit and not even so joyful at times when something else is required.It's hard to cut oneself slack these days. Thanks for the thoughtful camaraderie.

  9. For me the best part of this article is "My yoga practice begins with moving stuff out of the way. " Man, that is yoga in it's finest form.

    Thank you Jay.

  10. candicegarrett says:

    There are so many lines in this article that I simply adore, from "it's never too late to fuck up your life" to the bit about savasana, patanjali and needing space in your house to meditate. Reading this kind of well written piece is like candy for writers 🙂

  11. Brooks Hall says:

    These days, I don’t see anybody selling-out. Not that nobody does; I’m just not seeing it. I see parents working really hard—sometimes in jobs they don’t like—to support their families. I see people working hard. I see people working to fulfill dreams. I see people working at being good parents. Or just working. The concept of selling-out is like that old teddy that I forgot about for a while. It’s sweet.

    My personal resonances aside, I think this is a phenomenal post. Really enjoyed reading it.

    I wonder if “selling out” is only possible when you don’t know what you have. Life goes on and we make choices, and experience challenges. I think people are doing pretty good.

  12. Aigul says:


    I also enjoyed this article.

    It’s very thought-provoking and insightful and at times very true!

    Thanks for writing such wonderful article and giving life tips!

  13. ARCreated says:

    selling out means losing your soul…so IF you are doing what you love, you still love doing it and it has meaning and you make MONEY …that is not SELLING OUT. If you sell your song/art/words to advertise leather shoes and you are a vegan that is SELLING OUT. Having money is not a crime…money is merely one form of exchange for doing what you are good at…if you play music and you love your music and people buy it — that is NOT SELLING OUT!!
    If you work a "regular" job because you need/want insurance but still stay true to your principles you are still NOT A SELL OUT!!!
    If you sold your ART to eat — more power to you 🙂 This article is AWESOME!! give 'em hell harry and SELL if they are buying and I hope your appliances work (my dryer is working again with a little help from duct tape – I feel ya' brother 🙂 )

  14. Nothing wrong with being prosperous…even Buddha is all for that. You need to take care of yourself financially first, before you are able to help others (which, by the way, you do a fine job of through your volunteering). You're no sellout. The world needs more of you.