Before making an investment, people generally assess the expected return and then decide whether the investment is worthwhile. But if no return is visible, can the investment have value? Maybe so, though there is no guarantee that what you can't see will eventually manifest.
For instance, I am a strong believer in the effect that subtle mix elements have — some so subtle that they are almost subliminal. I like to double a hi-hat with a shaker that is mixed so low that it can hardly be heard. I think people feel more than they can consciously hear or see, and that subtleties do register, although perhaps at a subconscious level. In my example above, the return is the addition of a gentle shuffle to the hat part that gives the whole track a touch more motion. Will everyone get that feeling when they listen to it? I can never know, so I have to go with my instincts.
Networking (people, not computers) is another area in which investments can produce returns that are impossible to see at the time the investment is made. On several occasions, I attended Project BarBQ — an annual, intensive, weekend-long “think tank” retreat held in Texas. The retreat started out being centered on audio for video games, which was my job at the time. (Its scope has since broadened considerably.) The idea of the conference was to break the attendees into workgroups and bash around forward-looking ideas selected by the whole conference, with workgroups reporting their conclusions at the conference's end.
Some Project BarBQ discussion topics are philosophical, some speculate on pie-in-the-sky solutions to real-world challenges, some are as much whimsical as they are factual, and some are practical and specific. At times, something concrete emerges, such as the IXMF format, which was given shape at Project BarBQ. But often nothing immediately useful to an attendee's employer is brought back. So why should any company spend a few thousand dollars to send someone to such an event?
There are numerous reasons. For starters, the quality of the attendees is high: key technology architects from major companies in computers and entertainment are attracted by the opportunity to let their fancy flow. Second, most of those people bring knowledge of new advances and approaches. Third, attendees have the opportunity to learn what people in other sectors of the same industry think and need: for example, chip designers talk to platform manufacturers and content creators. Finally, the contacts that are made can result in new ventures or business relationships.
To those attending, the value is clear, so much so that I attended this year in spite of not having done full-time audio production for a couple of years now. Still, justifying it to The Powers That Be back at the job is tough.
Other examples of investing in unseen returns are charitable work and good turns done for individuals. This doesn't have to mean pro bono work or charity benefits; it could simply mean going out of your way to help someone. Perhaps you call a friend and recommend another friend for a job opening. Or you give someone the benefit of your experience when he or she is entering a situation you've been through. Those things sometimes come back around in wholly unexpected ways. You don't do such things with a return in mind, you do them because they're the right thing to do. But it is always possible to “do well by doing good.”
The invisible benefit can happen on a much smaller scale. The height of a high-pressure, tight-deadline situation can be the best time to take a day off. It seems crazy and often is not possible, but the relief of being out of the fire for a day can do more than offer an opportunity to catch up on sleep. It also can free the mind to work on an intractable problem in the background or allow you to take a step back and gain perspective. Whether one day is enough to return feeling refreshed, it can definitely be enough to bring back fresh inspiration.
It can be foolish to dive into something with no idea what it will get you. But it can also be brilliant. There are no guarantees; it's a risk. But when a return is obvious, there are also no guarantees that things will work out as planned.