Being successful vs. being known
For over a decade I didn’t give even one shit about being known.
I was a web designer focused on a specific niche, and as long as the right people in that niche knew who I was, I was set. I had a one-page website with two sentences, a list of clients and a drawing of a llama standing in the woods (note: I’m not great at drawing, so it wasn’t very good). All I needed was a handful of clients a year to be more than okay financially.
I had no blog, no social media accounts, no forms of promotion.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I made about the same amount of money then as I do now that I have an audience.
(I’ll pause for the dust to settle from that little word explosion above).
A lot of times people confuse being known with being successful. In reality though, one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. There are lots of people who are killing it with what they do and nobody’s the wiser, except the clients they serve. They have full rosters, top billing and no industry recognition. These are the makers and not the megaphones.
Before I had an audience, 100% of my work was focused on making things (websites and strategy for my clients). I wasn’t writing articles, promoting products, getting interviewed, being on podcasts, doing events — it was just me and the work. Exactly zero working hours of the day were taken up by anything else.
I used to be able to do 4–5 projects for clients at the same time. I’d spend my days either talking one on one with clients or doing work for them. Now I can’t do more than one project at a time because my megaphone duties eat up most of my day. I’m not complaining — far from it — but building a brand requires a lot of hours. And it took quite a while to get my income to return to “Pre-audience Paul” levels.
One thing (success or being known) isn’t better than the other. Just like one isn’t required for the other. They’re just two aspects of work that have somehow become linked in our minds. Sometimes they overlap, but they don’t have to.
Even now, when my income depends on me being a bit of a megaphone, I’d rather be a maker most days. I love writing, designing and creating useful products much more than anything else. But I also know that promoting helps sell the things I make that require an audience to be profitable (selling 4–5 $10 books a month, for example, wouldn’t exactly cut it). I accept and enjoy doing those things as well, but would be lying if I didn’t also mention how much they stress me out sometimes.
I never want to be famous (or even Internet famous), influential or known. If it’s a byproduct of making things, then okay. But it’s never the goal.
It’s also worth mentioning that as soon as someone becomes more of a megaphone than a maker, their skills start to slip. They’re now removed from making because their time is spent talking about it instead of doing it. It’s much harder to keep up in the practical sense when you’re engaged in talking theory. So the people we pay the most attention to may not even be the most talented, and the longer they’re in the spotlight, the less connected to the craft they might be. That’s why some megaphones disappear for months at a time from the spotlight, so they can reconnect with making.
This scares me, the possible disconnection from my craft. Which is why I have a hard time giving up doing client work. And why I take several months a year away from interviews. Making nourishes my desire to be a megaphone for it, so if the maker tank of creating runs dry, I’m a megaphone for nothing. The only reason I talk to anyone about my work is because I love it and love being valuable to a larger audience.
The recognition you do or don’t receive is mostly out of your control, but the effort and care you put into what you make is entirely within your control. That’s where your focus should be.
You don’t need to be famous to succeed. You do need to be good at what you do though. Sometimes focusing entirely on that, on your craft and connecting to a tiny number of the right people, is all you need.
I know a great number of people (that you’ve obviously never heard of) that have made a fulfilling and lasting career out of being invisible makers.
The one thing every aspiring freelancer, college student or person with access to a time machine should know.
It’s all a balancing act.
Perched on a tightrope, with high winds, and possibly some large, angry ravens pecking and cawing.
I make a living on the Internet by being myself and sharing the things I’ve learned. But I’m also scared shitless to be myself and share the things I’ve learned.
Some days, I don’t care about being judged. I’ll write 5,000 words about life with 48 cusses and sweatily hit “publish”. I’ll get 254 emails about how awful a person I am because I: work for myself, voice my opinions on the Internet, give myself permission to do silly things like cancelling an almost-funded kickstarter campaign or sponsoring my own podcast or writing about my pet rats in business magazines.
Other days, I care too much about being judged. What people think, who’ll be offended, what the contents of every single one of those 254 emails said and how right they are about everything that’s wrong or imperfect about me. I’ll write 5,000 words on 50 topics and delete every single one (without even hitting save).
People tell me how lucky I am all the time. To have the life I want and be able to live it. And they’re right. I am really lucky. I don’t have to worry about being killed in a war and I wasn’t born into abject poverty. I live in an age where I’m able to communicate directly to the people I want to reach without having to go through any gatekeepers.
Everyone wants the secret. No, not the Rhonda Byrne kind. The secret to working for yourself, to making money, to building an audience, to getting somewhere. What’s the one tip you’d tell an aspiring freelancer or someone just out of school or someone who’s struggling to get their business off the ground?
To which I say, “Type words into the Internet and money will come out!”
Just kidding (that doesn’t always work). Anything you read is all just survivorship bias any way.
The truth is, I haven’t a clue.
Yes, I know and teach quite a bit on the subject of business, but that really comes down to systems and processes that you can use to track, evaluate and iterate on. I’d never teach or sell anything that guaranteed success or preached “there’s only one way to do things, and it’s this way…”
Sometimes the difference between success and failure comes down to how you perceive the results.
A lot of folks I know that do far better than I do with money or reach don’t feel like they’re even close to successful. Some folks I know with neither of those things feel untouchably stoked about the life they’ve got. I don’t personally feel successful—mostly because there are still a million things I want to try and even more things I need to learn.
My only advice is to pick a direction that feels right to you and run screaming towards it. WEEEE!!!!! You can always change directions later. Unless you die, then it probably doesn’t matter. But if it does matter when you die, let me know, ok? Also, try not to run in directions that greatly increase your chances of dying (like wrestling polar bears with ninja skills, for example, please don’t do that).
Persistency and bravery always trump following safe bets and proven methods. And bravery doesn’t have to look like free solo climbing mountain or standing on stage in front of 35,297 people. The bravest acts can be simply putting ourselves out there without knowing the outcome or reception or that 254 people are going to hate us for it.
For the most part, I enjoy being scared shitless. This balancing act forces me to keep learning and questioning, and to feel brave because all I did was press the “publish” button.
Sometimes I hate my guts
He blares warning signs to me (similar to what I think an impending nuclear strike warning would be like — alarms, flashing lights, people running and screaming in every direction). And then, when I don’t listen, he screams, “I TOLD YOU SO” at the top of his lungs until he loses his voice (then he has a cup of lemon tea to sooth his aching larynx and gets back to shouting at me).
I can almost hear him screaming, “You dumbass!” every time I work with a client who’s not a good fit, or when I agree to do work that isn’t in my niche or when I think someone has bad intentions but continue to engage with them anyway.
I’ve started to think that my gut is an asshole for another reason. If he’s so smart, and always right, why the hell is he holding out on me? What does he know that he isn’t telling my brain? Why does he know things that my brain doesn’t?
He’s somehow got all the answers. And he’s got them without seemingly scientific or logical reasons (which is why I don’t always trust him).
Whenever I look back on a horrible business decision, there’s one thing in common: I didn’t listen to that gut feeling I had. I ignored it, paid the price and suffered the consequences.
The reason I sometimes don’t listen is because although my gut is loud and clear in voicing his opinion on everything, he sounds a lot like fear and discomfort. And fear and discomfort are horrible reasons to guide choices (typically choices should be made in the direction of fear and discomfort, with them screaming at you the whole time).
Gut instinct is different though. It’s not that making a choice is scary or will lead to an unknown outcome, is that’s one option is the wrong one. Big difference.
My gut is an asshole because he cares. He doesn’t want me to make the wrong decisions, especially when I know they’re wrong and still proceed to choose them.
A study done by Marius Usher at Tel Aviv’s School of Psychological Sciences found that participants who let their guts choose an outcome made the right call up to 90% of the time. That’s because our brains are smarter than we give them credit for — and can take even subconscious pieces of information we’ve collected and weigh them against options.
So maybe it’s not my gut holding out on my brain, but my brain holding out on giving me the whole picture when presented with a choice where one option is totally wrong for me.
Maybe trusting gut instincts aren’t just for hippies or self-actualized, spiritual realists. Maybe those feelings happen because we’re smarter than we think we are. We all come wired to make better decisions if we will just shut up and listen to our guts.
Our work ego: the good, the bad, the ugly
Ego’s are a funny thing when we’re working for ourselves and launching our own products. They can be the catalyst to proceed, as in, “screw this company, I can do this better on my own” or “none of these products on the market are a good fit for their audience, I can make something better.”
But sometimes, that same ego that led us down a road of starting something for ourselves can lead us astray.
Last week I had someone from my freelancing course ask me for my feedback on his landing page that was selling a product he had created.
After reading it over, I told him that I didn’t get what he was selling, so I went on to explain where I thought improvements could be made. For one, I didn’t understand the copy (a common problem with sales pages written by the creator of the project, who’s too close to it see it from their audience’s perspective) – so I detailed ways to tweak it to be more audience-friendly, how to run A/B tests on headlines and buttons, and how to poll his audience for cues on what kind of language to use.
An hour later I got an angry (and very belligerent) email from him saying that he wanted a refund for the course because I had deeply insulted him, and furthermore, that I had no right to tell him what he should do (even though he explicitly asked).
I’m not telling this story to single this person out. I’ve been there too. I’ve made something that took all of my time and effort, and then felt insulted when someone else didn’t understand it. I put so much work into it, how dare you think it isn’t good enough!
When our business doesn’t feed our ego, it hurts. Deeply. We get mad, stomp around, or even lash out. Working for ourselves is so personal that sometimes it feels like it’s our ideas against the world’s.
We can get so caught up in our work that we forget about a key point: our businesses exist to serve others. Sure, they also serve us financially, emotionally and otherwise, but they couldn’t and wouldn’t be a “business” if they existed solely to feed our ego. It’s only when they serve an audience that the audience in turn, serves us, like a wheel of reciprocity.
As such, our greatest enemy in working for ourselves can be… ourselves. Or rather, our ego. It’s a wily adversary as well because it sneaks up on us. We don’t need to be cocky for it to rear its head either—we can be full of self-doubt or internal criticism and still fall prey to its wrath. We need ego to venture out on our own and have the gall to start something in the first place, but then it can become a liability. Left unchecked, it can cause you to lose relationships, potential clients, business partners, or even free advice.
So how do you avoid letting your ego take over?
- Listen + Learn. In any and every situation, try and remember that you don’t know everything (which is in fact true). There’s always something to learn. If someone is saying something you don’t want to hear, then use that as an opportunity to learn (as in, why don’t you want to listen to them, why do you disagree with what they’re saying, etc?)
- Give up control. Control is mostly an illusion any way. The less you try to control and the more you accept that what others think and how they feel (about your products or even your character) is beyond your control. Your idea or product or even job could bear no fruits. It sucks, yes, but it’s not the end of the world (and doesn’t mean you can’t then try something new).
- If you ask someone for help or feedback, circle back to #1 and #2. Too often we ask questions of others we think we already know the answers to. If you’re asking something, there’s a reason for it.
I honoured that guy’s request for a refund immediately (even though he was FAR outside the refund window), because that’s how I run my business. I also mentioned that it wasn’t my intent to offend, but instead, to help (since he asked). I even offered to go into more detail about the changes I suggested (with links to how to’s on running A/B tests). He never replied, and that’s ok.
We have to step back from our egos and understand that if something isn’t working, maybe we should try something else.
Besides, there’s no use taking it personally if someone disagrees with or doesn’t understand something you’ve made, because it’ll happen. Instead of letting the beast take over, ask yourself: what can I learn here?
The complete and logical guide to winning at your own life in 19 super difficult steps
Just like every other human on the planet, I have epically awesome days and days when life just shits on my face. And while I can’t stand most self-help (see: tired quotes over stock photography on Instagram), sometimes I need a little pick-me-up. And most of the time, in order to get out of a slump (because my brain leans more into math/science than anything else), I need to drop a logic bomb on my ass.
Yes, this is a long article. But here’s the thing — if you’re reading this in your inbox and are already like, “fuck this!” delete it. No hard feelings. If you’re reading this in a browser on a website, and you see how tiny the scroll-bar is because of how far you still have to scroll to get to the bottom, close this tab and go back to 140-character tidbits of advice.
Still with me? Phew. Just had to weed out all the folks from points: #1, #4 and #8. Welcome friends, onward we go.
This guide works when anything shitty happens. Someone criticizes you online? Read this. Someone wants a refund on something that took you five years to build, and they’re mean about it? Read this. You got fired from a job or by a client? Read this. Zombie apocalypse? Well… in that case, what’s probably more important is non-perishable provisions and zombie-smashing devices (but maybe afterwards, read this).
1. Everyone is offended all of the time.
We’re all set in our ways. As much as we tout how open-minded we all are, we all have little nit picks about everyone else. Slow drivers (who speed up when the road goes from one to two lanes), 17-year-old yoga teachers who talk about the meaning of life for the first 45 minutes of a 60-minute yoga class, people who write op-ed pieces on the Internet (like me…), people who swear, people who use social media in a way that we don’t.
Assume whatever it is you’re doing, someone else can — and will — be offended by it. This shouldn’t stop you from doing what you’re doing, but it also shouldn’t come as a surprise when someone tries to tell you how offended they are by what you just did.
2. If someone is offended by you, that’s because they’ve noticed you.
Before you get bent out of shape about someone dumping their shit on you, realize that they’ve taken time out of their day to call you out. They noticed you, paid attention, and consumed what you made. Sure, they hated it, but now you’re wasting even more of their time because they’re telling you how much or why they hated it.
Even if you don’t respond (and you probably shouldn’t), you’ve won because you’re on their radar and they don’t want you to be. Plus, even if someone is offended by you, them telling you about it is basically the worst case scenario. Life will continue, the planet will keep fucking spinning, and no one but you will be the wiser that someone was offended.
Worst-er case scenario: someone complains about you publicly. Reality: it’s not that bad, because people have the attention span of a gnat when it doesn’t relate to them, so it fades quickly from the collective radar (or Twitter stream).
We’re all paranoid that everyone will hate us. Especially when we make things for other people, and especially when we put those things online. Go into everything assuming that even if a few people do hate you or what you’ve made, there are more people silently consuming what you made (or even better, buying what you made).
3. Not being noticed sucks more, but it’s a universal pain.
If no one hates you, no one is paying attention. If attention is what you want for vanity, confidence, or, hell — to make a decent living — then know that it’s not instantaneous. Every single person that you’re currently paying attention to, at some point in their lives, was in your exact position. They kept at it and worked enough so that others started listening.
Also know that if no one is watching, you can experience true freedom. Dance in your underwear. Write entirely for yourself. Swear like there’s a going-out-of-business sale on “fucks” and “shits.” Find yourself — not in some coming-of-age hippie way involving pasta and ashrams— but in a way that helps you draw your own line in the sand for what matters and what doesn’t. Do what you want to do, just because you want to do that thing. This will build confidence that will come in handy later.
4. People will judge you, regardless of what you do, because everyone’s “judgy.”
Fear can make us afraid of what others will think. It’s not a question of if people will judge you, because they definitely will judge you. People are judgy and that judgement is scary.
True story: I just got invited to an event, read the invite online, and judged the hell out of the event. I actually said, out loud, to myself, “Fucking hippies!” It’s a party that features fires and dancing, wild-harvested local food, rosehip mead and gratuitous photos of people with dreads and body paint hugging each other. Is their party happening regardless of whether not I attend? Heck yes, it is. Will the party be awful because I think they’re a bunch of hippies? Heck no, hippies don’t give a shit about me. They’re going to drink their rose hip wine (probably out of chalices they whittled while chanting to fairies) and dance into the night having a blast.
Don’t be me in that situation, be the hippies. Not literally of course (unless that’s your thing), but you get what I mean.
Look at it this way — whatever you do, whenever you do it, you’ll be judged for it. Even by letting fear kick your ass and doing absolutely nothing, you will be judged. So, since you’re going to be judged any way, why not actually take action? That way, at least when you judge yourself, you’ll be able to sleep well at night (you’ll be tired from the figurative mead and dread-locked dancing). Everyone else who judges you can politely fuck off.
We all care what others have to say. But it becomes dangerous when we value their opinions more than our own. The list goes, in order of importance: 1) our opinion of ourselves, 2) (which is a distant second) everyone else’s opinion of us.
5. Luckily, judgement & respect are different things
Being judged and being respected are not the same thing. People can think you’re an asshole and still hold you in high regard. People can totally disagree with you, but still understand your values.
Conversely, if someone judges you as a nice person or a decent human being, it doesn’t mean they respect you. People walk all over nice and decent human beings all the time. It sucks, but it happens. On the other hand, people don’t tend to walk all over people they respect.
6. Self-respect leads to others respecting you.
Self-respect, in a world where everyone is constantly offended and judging you, is fucking tough. But it’s necessary.
You need to figure out what makes you respect yourself first, before anyone else will respect you. That’s because people are sheep. They see one person doing something, and they do it, too. Like fucking lemmings and cliffs. Or that Derek Sivers TED talk where that one guy started dancing and everyone followed (he was probably drunk on rosehip mead). So if you’re respecting yourself — publicly and proudly — chances are, others will follow. And even if they don’t follow, hey, you’ve got yourself a nice big bowl of self-respect and there’s nothing wrong with that.
7. Self-respect & entitlement are very, very different things.
Self-respect means you know what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do. It’s honour and dignity that makes you, you. It’s your line in the sand to help you feel good about who you are and what you’ve done.
This doesn’t mean that you have special privileges or rights to anything, though. Whoa there, pardner!
Entitlement means you think you deserve something. You deserve your own self-respect and to be treated decently by others. Anything past that — you’ve got to fucking work for it. And even then, even if it doesn’t work out the way you wanted, that’s just the way the cards fall sometimes.
Feeling entitled is the quickest way to lose respect from others. The world doesn’t revolve around you. You don’t deserve anything that you didn’t earn. You need to start small and build up; paying some dues. You can’t just do whatever the fuck you feel like and make a shit-load of money or get famous doing it. The world doesn’t work like that. I’m glad it doesn’t. That’s not healthy.
Ashton Kutcher had it right when he said, “working hard and being generous and thoughtful and smart is a path to a better life. The only thing that can be below you is to not have a job.”
Self-respect doesn’t mean you deserve something. It doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to venture into the unknown, like the rest of us, and see what happens when you do.
8. If you don’t have their respect, you don’t need them.
So, say you’ve got your own self-respect dialled in. You know that entitlement is bullshit. Yet, some people are still not going to respect you.
The good thing about people not respecting you is that unless they’re actually causing you some sort of harm, you can be like, “fuck ‘em.” They’ll never support your work or make you better as a human being, so you drop them as quickly and silently as possible. They’re dead weight to your path to winning.
Unless you’re into pain and anguish, people who don’t respect you shouldn’t be in or even near your life. They’re not your audience, your rat people, your customers. You don’t need them for anything.
9. You really only need the people who respect and value you.
With the disrespectful assholes and trolls out of the way, the people that are left fall into two categories: People who don’t know who you are, and people who respect and value you.
The former don’t matter, unless you’re into building an audience, in which case you just need to show them that you exist in some way. They should know about you, but they just don’t know about you… yet.
What’s left is your people. These are the most important people to you on the planet. They’re the ones who not only pay attention, but are interested. Treat these people like royalty, because to you, they should be. Make things for them, be generous towards them, and basically make sure they know how you value them.
10. Confidence is achievable by the timid, introverted, or non-a-types.
I’m an awkward little nerd who’s afraid of everything, dislikes groups of people, and has a penchant for being alone. I’m definitely not type-a or extroverted.
I’m confident, not because of ego (ok maybe a little because of ego) but because I try things, fail at things, and learn things. I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to do a couple things well (and I don’t ever stop learning). You can get confidence like that too — all it involves is action and a willingness to learn.
You don’t need to be loud to be confident. Sometimes the most confident person in the room is the woman who has said three sentences the whole night. And probably, when she spoke, everyone else shut the fuck up to listen to her awesomeness.
You don’t need to be putting it out there how much you know about some shit to be confident, either. Confident people know what they know, and don’t need to share it to build confidence. Confidence comes from within. They share when the time is right or when they’re asked. They also share it in a way that works for them.
So confidence doesn’t look like some idiot on stage shouting platitudes and waving his hands around (I’ll bet you 10 quadrillion dollars that guy isn’t actually very confident). It can be quiet, reserved, and like Kenny fucking Rogers — knowing when to hold’em.
11. Don’t give fucks like fucks are going out of style.
“Giving a fuck” is basically your life’s currency.
If you give a fuck about everything and everyone, you’ll quickly run out of fucks, or even worse, go into fuck debt. Your time will be spread too thin, you’ll stress about tiny things and insignificant people, and external factors will rule your life and run it into the ground.
When you find yourself giving too many fucks about things that don’t matter, it’s a signal that something in your life needs to change. You need to find more people or ideas that are worthy of your limited fucks.
Is this the line for the convenience store?!
Don’t give your fucks to small things that are out of your control or to people who don’t deserve them. Trolls don’t deserve giving a fuck about. The long line-up at the convenience store doesn’t deserve even a single fuck. Learn to meditate instead.
If you save up your fucks and squirrel them away, you’ll have lots to give when the time is right. Bank those fucks! Save them for a rainy day, like when something or someone really matters.
12. It’s okay to give a fuck about certain things.
When something or someone does really matter, it’s okay to give a fuck. Or several.
Give those fucks then, otherwise you’ll become too cynical and jaded and all your fucks will lose their value and depreciate.
There’s a tiny handful of people and ideas I’m willing to stick my neck out for. In those cases, I give several fucks, and that’s only because I’ve saved my fucks up like a squirrel with nuts in the fall.
13. Not giving a fuck is the opposite of apathy.
Apathy is indifference you feel when something just doesn’t matter. Not giving a fuck means you’ve stopped yourself from making something matter that shouldn’t matter. This is a key point to understand and reflect on.
Not giving a fuck is strength in the form of willpower, whereas apathy is just not feeling anything.
14. Greatness happens when you’re okay with being foolish/stupid.
The truth is that no one knows what the fuck they’re doing.
Experts, thought leaders, those who seem like they have it all — there are too many variables to account for what specifically worked in creating success and what didn’t. The only difference between them and someone who hasn’t seen success is that they tried a whole bunch of shit, and didn’t stop trying until something worked. Then they wrote a best-selling book about the process, like they knew what the fuck they were doing the whole time, and became even more successful. It’s the circle of life or something.
Taking action on the unknown is scary shit. We aren’t guaranteed an outcome like a math problem. We basically have to line things up, do a few stretches and take a big fucking leap. Sometimes we trip, or realize our shoelaces are tied together and face-plant.
The most successful people I know aren’t afraid to be seen as idiots for trying. They’re more concerned with the “what could happen if I…” than “what will others think if I…”
I’ve also found, much to my wife’s chagrin, that I’m having the most fun when I’m making a massive fool of myself (in public). Little known related fact: “losers” have more fun with life because they know when to give a fuck and more importantly, when not to give a flying fuck about what everyone else thinks because they’re having a blast drinking rosehip mead and dancing by themselves at concerts (or in my case, in the produce aisle at our grocery store).
15. Everyone is awkward, weird, different.
You are, too, so use it to your advantage. The only way to stand out, or stand apart, is to be your real fucking weird self. Otherwise you blend in.
Embrace what makes you different, even though it’s difficult and stressful to do. Everyone you admire or look up to does this. Think about it. They all take the reigns of what makes them different and use it to their advantage. No one that you’ve heard of got there by being like everyone else.
Also, anyone who seems “normal” is faking it or you just don’t know them well enough yet. We all have quirks. We all have oddness. This is what makes life interesting.
16. Refuse the boundaries of other people.
If someone tells you “you shouldn’t do that” or “that can’t be done,” assume they’re talking out their own asses until you’ve proven otherwise for yourself. People are well meaning, but their advice is clouded by their own bullshit, their life experiences and their choices.
Instead, set your own boundaries and only acknowledge those.
If you don’t want to take client calls or emails from your boss at 11 p.m. on a Saturday, don’t fucking do it.
Boundaries are like self-respect, the majority of people will be okay with you setting them, simply because you’ve set them. Letting others know what isn’t okay doesn’t make you an asshole or a bitch — it makes you a strong and respectable person.
Never let someone else draw your line in the sand. That means it’s their line, not yours, and you’ve just been following their lead.
17. Be honest about who you are and who you aren’t.
In having self-respect and setting boundaries, it helps to know a little about yourself, so you can make these decisions. Be clear about who you are and who you aren’t. First with yourself, then with others.
Honesty is a lot easier than you playing a role because you think it’s a role you need to play. Honesty can be pulled off with less work. It’s more enjoyable in the long run, too.
18. You can be honest without being a jerk.
Learn the difference between being very clear about something and being an asshole about it. If you don’t like something or someone, honesty doesn’t mean you have to ream them out. Sometimes honesty means you just shut your damn face and move on.
Being the bigger person doesn’t mean you have to win, it just means you know when to let someone else feel like they’ve won. Sometimes you have to be nice instead of being right.
Being honest isn’t a licence for you to run your mouth with impunity then end things with, “Hey, I was just being honest…” No, you were being a jerk. Don’t be a jerk. Not even jerks like other jerks. You’ll die alone with 17 cats who now have no one to feed them (which, by the way, is a big jerk move).
The best way to know if you’re being honest or just being a jerk is to think first, then speak. Otherwise you run the risk of vomiting instead of communicating. A five-second pause can do wonders if you lean towards being a jerk sometimes.
19. The less you expect, the more accomplished you’ll feel.
The Bhagavad Gita, a super smart and fucking old yogic book, talks about how we’re only entitled to the work, not the fruits of that work. That’s deep, and true.
Don’t do anything because you expect something to come from it — do it because you really want to fucking do it in the first place. It’s like writing a book because you really want a best-seller. Well, tough shit. It’s impossible to guarantee that. Write a book because you want to fucking write the book. That way, regardless of what happens next, you’ve already accomplished what you set out to do.
Spend your time focusing on what you give fucks about where the outcome doesn’t matter.
None of the above points can happen without you paying attention. Paying attention to others, paying attention to where you give your fucks, and — most importantly — paying attention to yourself. You’re the one in charge of your life, so take charge of it already.
That’s it. Nineteen super fucking difficult rallying points for winning at life. Now stop reading listicles on the Internet and get back to being awesome.
Confession: I wrote this for myself, but you’re more than welcome to use it if it helps you, too.
What if your best work is behind you?
I had a lot of trouble writing something for this article.
To be more specific, I spent an entire day trying to write. I wrote five articles that didn’t make the cut for sharing with you.
There was a lot of staring blankly at a blinking cursor. (Damn you, blinking cursor!)
Then the fears set in.
Oh no! What if all my best writing is behind me? What if last week I finally said everything I had to say about … everything? What if the last thing I wrote was the best thing I’ll ever write, and nothing else will ever come close? What if it’s all downhill from here? What if that was “Peak Paul?” (It’s like Peak Oil, but more environmentally friendly, since I’m recyclable.)
I put a lot of pressure on myself. To write well. To design and code well so my clients are successful. To help the folks I consult with take their business further. To make products that are useful. And most of all, to be valuable to the folks who pay attention to what I’m doing.
It’s stressful. And it’s never more stressful than right after something performs well, because now there are high expectations. Now the bar has been set. Now people are listening. Now I’m putting more pressure on myself than ever before.
Hi there, I’m Paul. And I honestly don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. Sure, I know how to do a bunch of things and I can stack the deck with what I know from previous experience, but there are a lot of wild cards. So much is unknown. While most things come down to skill, focus and perseverance, a lot is really just based on luck, fate, and the randomness of the world. Right place, right time sort of deal.
Whenever I write an article that gets more exposure than usual with tweets from Ashton Kutcher or Arianna Huffington, or launch a product that generates more revenue than usual, instead of being happy with that, I start to worry. When the chart—whether it’s followers, website stats or product sales—suddenly spikes upwards, I go to a bad place. What is the follow-up? How can this stay relevant in the “Era of Ephemera?” (Sounds like a good term, right? I just made that shit up on the spot.) Have we truly reached Peak Paul?
But then, I trudge on. Knowing that what happens next probably won’t be as good as the last thing. It’s a numbers game, and not everything is a winner. The only way to actually win (and win for a second) is to keep trying. So I write more articles. I launch more products. I come up with new weird ideas and roll with them. Because even if that next thing doesn’t work out, the next one after that might. Or the one after that. Or the one a year from now. Perhaps Peak Paul is more like a sine wave than a bell curve (nerdy math reference).
The “greatest thing I ever did” could be in the past or it could be waiting in the future. What I do know is that if I keep going, I’ll get to see if the last big thing can be outshone by the next big thing. Which is scary. And stressful. And it makes it difficult to put words down some days. But it’s also interesting. And exciting.
I honestly struggle with this. So instead of sharing one of five articles I’m not 100% stoked on sharing with you, I wrote this instead—to give you a little insight into my own thought process.
A world without advice
What if all advice just stopped existing?
No longer are there any “5 easy steps” or “10 simple ways” articles (i.e. the Internet is now a much, much quieter place). There’s no more paid or free brain-picking sessions. Industry experts are not able to bestow their wisdom to their audience.
What would happen?
Would we be better or worse for it?
I have been wondering about this a lot lately. What purpose does advice ultimately serve? Sometimes I think it’s crutch or just procrastination. Sometimes I think it’s the asker looking for an easy answer to a not-so-easy question. I’m guilty of that — I see someone who can do something I want to be able to do, so I ask them about it, hoping I can learn those same skills near-instantly.
I got to thinking about all the times I’ve been happy with accomplishing something. Every single time it happened because I just wanted to try something and thought, “What the hell, let’s do this!” I didn’t ask anyone first. I didn’t consult a mentor, advisor, oracle, or listicle. I just jumped in head-first.
When people ask me for advice, I do my best to give a quality answer. But really, for a lot of questions, I don’t have a good answer. For example, I don’t know how to get started with web design. I started so long ago the industry was very different — the biggest debate was Flash or HTML. The biggest challenge to overcome with getting clients was to explain to them what the Internet was and how it might serve their business.
My advice is warped by time, my own opinions, and personality quirks.
Advice is also heavily affected by the subconsciousness of expertise. Experts aren’t necessarily better than people starting out, they just know how things work and can do some tasks without thinking. They are able to think several steps ahead. If I asked a carpenter how she would build a house, she would only be aware of steps she has to think about. Not the thousands of steps her skill takes over and does for her subconsciously. She’s not thinking about how to hold the hammer or where to place a nail, she’s thinking about the house as a whole because she knows how to abstract her present to an intended outcome. Those small steps and skills are the important parts, however, when you’re learning something new.
Most of the time — due to stubbornness more than anything else — I prefer to figure something out on my own, rather than ask someone. If I’m going to fail, I’d rather fail my way. If I’m going to succeed, it has to be the same.
It seems like the only advice I’ve given someone else that I can truly stand behind is this: above anything else, listen to yourself. Sure, you’ve got to use external sources to learn. You need to have other people to lean on, gain knowledge from, and see how things could be done before doing them. But ultimately, and once that’s all finished, it’s your life, your choices, your ultimate decision.
So, how would you proceed with what you’re thinking about doing if you couldn’t rely on advice from others? And, how can we stop this advice gold rush?
8 out of 10 statistics are completely made up
According to business statistics from a study done by Bloomberg, eight out of 10 small businesses will fail within the first 18 months.
The only problem is that this study done by Bloomberg doesn’t exist. Or at least, isn’t public anywhere on the Internet. Or referenced specifically, other than, “a study done by Bloomberg.” But there are hundreds of articles referencing it, even one on Forbes. And worse, there are even more articles that reference the Forbes article. Thousands of them.
Out of the plethora of articles in real publications (i.e. not just blogs) that reference this study by Bloomberg, not one cites the name of the study, a link to the study or more information past, “a study done.”
An actual study done by Bruce D. Phillips, of the National Federation of Independent Business, and Bruce A. Kirchhoff, director of the New Jersey Institute of Technology found that half the companies polled survived the first five years.
Also, what does “failed” even mean? Bankruptcy? Turning no profit? Not turning enough profit to sustain itself? Not making enough money to afford the lifestyle to which the founders were accustomed? Maybe it relates to the founders not being happy enough to continue? Does it take into account businesses that were sold? Closed due to personal/family issues? Maybe it’s because the companies backed by VC money didn’t turn enough profit for their investors? Which specific industries fail more than others?
Lies, damned lies and statistics!Mark Twain
(Warning, there’s a whole paragraph of stats and numbers, then we move back into the story.)
After some digging, I found some more interesting facts from specific studies (better than vaguely referenced ones, right?). The University of Tennessee did a study in 2013 that showed only 25% business of businesses fail after one year and 35% fail after two years in business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US found that 24% of businesses failed in the first year, and 48% didn’t make it past the second year. Industry Canada says 50% of businesses last more than five years (numbers collected from 2002 to 2008). Out of 150,000 new businesses, only 7,000 businesses filed for bankruptcy between 2008-2009 (according to CRA).
Statistics can easily be doctored, based solely on survivorship bias, made up out of thin air, or even serve as reference articles in massive business publications that didn’t thoroughly fact-check. This isn’t a slam against Forbes (who I write for sometimes)—it’s a slam against the way news happens now.
Think about this the next time you read something that may change your mind about creating something. Or next time someone tells you something is a bad idea, will never work, or is ludicrous to try. Or the next time someone says that four out of five dentists agree (ok, I can’t see this happening too often).
And the next time anyone quotes a random statistic at me, I’m answering with, “Eight of 10 statistics are completely made up—and sorry, I can’t remember the source on this one.”
Survivorship Bias and Hungry, Hungry Hippos
When Tim Ferriss or Seth Godin (or insert name of successful person here) write and release a book in a new and different way, of course it’s going to do well. They’re Tim and Seth! They have massive audiences (which I’m happily part of), chomping at the bit to consume whatever they create. Survivorship bias happens because they’re already successful, so of course their latest thing will succeed.
Survivorship bias has nothing to do with the TV show, Survivor. It happens because we tend to focus on the people that have lived through or accomplished something, and conversely ignore the folks that didn’t (due to their lack of visibility).
To put this another way, let’s look at cats falling out of windows (poor kitties). A study done in 1987 showed that cats who accidentally fell less than six stories sustained worse injuries than cats that fell from more than six stories. The study didn’t take into account the fact that if a cat accidentally fell from more than six stories and died, it wouldn’t be taken the vet for treatment, and therefore would be unaccounted for in the statistics of the final report.
This bias is the norm online—experts bestowing well-intentioned advice on winning at something, while failing to take into account that the reason they might have succeeded is due more to their visibility than whatever method/tactic they used.
What if the way Tim so successfully launched his book was simply due the insane size of his audience and the quality of the work he creates? What if Seth’s lessons learned from self-publishing are due to the audience he built through years of traditionally publishing amazing books that caught the attention of the entire marketing and self-starter audiences around the world? Which business statistics are even valid at this point?
How we can accommodate for this in our own lives is fairly simple (but difficult to do)—because it involves critical thought. Next time we read an article on how one person achieved something, we need to ask ourselves:
- Would this work in my own unique situation, for my own unique audience?
- Is this something I’d actually be comfortable doing, or does it not feel like “me”?
- Did the successful results happen because that person is already successful?
Survivorship bias pulls us towards experts, gurus, and generally successful folks doing successful things. Success is damn sexy. It’s unavoidable because those people all have something we want, and we can’t help but search for clues in what they say in order to get there ourselves.
“I have to chuckle whenever I read yet another description of American frontier log cabins as having been well crafted or sturdily or beautifully built. The much more likely truth is that 99% of frontier log cabins were horribly built—it’s just that all of those fell down. The few that have survived intact were the ones that were well made. That doesn’t mean all of them were.” Mike Johnston, The Online Photographer
This bias leads us to think that success can be easily obtained by following prescribed steps. When in reality, those people who achieved it and wrote about it didn’t follow any set path—they carved their own way, experimented with the unknown, and came up ahead.
The randomness and chaos of the world sometimes deals us a good hand and sometimes makes us wish we were playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos instead.
Never follow somebody else’s path; it doesn’t work the same way twice for anyone…the path follows you and rolls up behind you as you walk, forcing the next person to find their own way. J. Michael Straczynski
We need to be skeptical. Not as disheartening pessimists, but as critical thinkers who don’t blindly apply advice. Most of the time, doing well is a matter of guessing or experimentation. No one (not even those experts) know for sure if something will work out well in the end. All any of us can do is to figure out our own path and start walking.
What do you do when the trolls come marching in?
Online trolls routinely call me a spammer, a hack, a link-baiter, a self-centered and flippant asshole, and shoddy excuse for a writer who would do better if I stopped putting articles out.
And that’s just from last week. Seriously.
The week before last, I got a review from a reader who said he wanted to come to my house and punch me in the face for writing my latest book.
I’m not telling you this for sympathy or shock value or to scare you; I’m just telling you what can happen when your work reaches other people, even if it’s not many. They might hate it. They might hate it enough to hate you for making it. They might hate it so much that they need to tell you how much they hate it and you, and then tell others.
Such is the state of the Internet.
Anyone with an opinion can dole it out—publicly on social media, in comments, on their own website, or privately via email or phone. I receive all of these on regular basis.
It’s not just me either, it happens to anyone who has ever created anything and shared it with others.
John Nolan, the guy who created Ghost (a blogging platform), raised $300k to build his free, open-source platform through a crazy successful Kickstarter campaign and much media and nerd fanfare. His idea went from zero to a big deal fairly quickly.
On launch day someone tweeted, “@JohnONolan – $300,000 and Ghost is total piece of shit. How do you feel?”
How should he feel? Something he poured his life into to build for the past 18 months was summarily and publicly written off by some troll who probably didn’t pledge a cent and wouldn’t ever use the app.
The problem is that the more someone’s work gets out there, the easier it seems to be to criticize them. A troll’s aim doesn’t have to be as good when they’re taking potshots if that person is in the spotlight.
What’s worse is we hold these people to higher standards if they’ve made something of themselves. If they speak out, reply undiplomatically, or just stand up for themselves, it’s seen as bad. Like they’re attacking an underdog (who attacked them first). I’ve seen it happen with others and I’ve been called out for doing it myself.
Perception is a such a weird and screwed up thing, especially online. I try to be honest in how I put myself out there, and am okay with my flawed —and sometimes angry— public self when I’m standing up for what I believe in.
Here’s what I won’t do, though: I won’t let criticism or my own fears of criticism affect my work. It was a turning point for me when I realized that fear and action can exist in parallel. Realizing that led to me to start writing and sharing more. It led me to experiment publicly with how to put my work into the world. It has led to some verbal battles, some embarrassing mistakes, and absolutely zero regrets.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” – Teddy Roosevelt (1910) via Brené Brown
Progress as a creative is impossible if we let our fear dictate our actions and our art. It’s why Seth Godin doesn’t have comments on his website. We should be more concerned with our work being an honest representation of ourselves than hoping it’s not going to offend anyone.
We share our creativity because we know that even though there’s the risk of criticism, hate, and judgment, there’s also the opportunity to connect, change, and most importantly, to help.
I don’t need to save the hateful, personally attacking, and negative emails because I remember every single one of them, even if I only read them once. But I actually save the emails from anyone who has told me my writing has done something positive —even tiny— for their lives or their art. Those emails I need to be reminded of from time to time.
Just today (timely, right?) I received an email from a substance abuse counselor who asked if she could share an article I wrote with her group of people in recovery. It’s an article that I’ve been told “brings nothing to the table” and “is a waste of words.” It was a business article but she said how much it related to and could help her group understand the commitment of giving your word. My day = totally made. Email = saved.
If we let even one person sway us in sharing our art, our work, our voice—then they win. And I’m not into online trolls winning. They can have their bridges, but not our creativity.