The horrible thing about tiny compromises in values is that they never seem that big of a deal at the time because they’re so small. But then they turn into a mountain range that feels almost impassible. Then you’re stuck on a slippery slope, which is too steep to climb. And yes, that slope is aptly named, “Unhappy due to lack of alignment with values – Population: Me.”
I write about this stuff because I’m constantly plagued by it and it’s always in my head. Every time I open Photoshop or Sublime Text, or iA Writer, or sit down at the drum kit, I fight with a voice that says “Your work is terrible. You have no skill. You don’t matter.”
A therapist would probably tell me this has something to do with my childhood and upbringing, and maybe it does, but I’ve never been able to shake it. Even in the height of “success”, I’m still filled with doubt.
If you feel that way, I want you to know that you do matter. I know how helpful it can be to hear that from someone else, even if deep down you know it’s true. You matter.
You may not realize it, but you impact the lives of people all around you. That’s an incredible responsibility.
A few month ago I was at a tiny web conference in Greenville. A guy walked up to me and said he loved my podcast (The Gently Mad) and that it was the reason he was there that day.
He told me how he had always dreamed of taking his life by the reigns and getting into the web industry so he could quit his job and do something he loved.
He told me that my podcast had given him the inspiration needed to move his family across the country and go through a web design and development course taught by The Iron Yard. He was graduating that day and just wanted to let me know how my show had encouraged him and given him the push he needed to start this new life.
I was completely floored. I had just finished whining to a friend for an hour about how nothing I did in life seemed to matter very much. How I had nothing to offer and nothing to say that hadn’t already been said.
And then that guy showed up. I knew nothing about him and yet he had been listing to my show and it had impacted him.
There are people like that in your life right now. People you don’t know, whose lives are being affected by what you do.
Zig Ziglar is famous for saying:
You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life.
This should give you pause (and fill you with hope). Regardless of the size of your audience, you have an opportunity. Don’t miss that opportunity by believing the voice in your head that tells you you don’t matter.
The next time you sit down to write or design or create something, remember that there are people out there who are listening. You may never hear from them, but they’re there and they need you.
And that matters. A lot.
I spent hours listening to stacks of jazz and classical records from heroes like Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and Doc Severinsen, and dreamed of being able to play like them.
But there was a problem. I hated practicing. Practicing was hard. In reality, I was more obsessed with the *idea* of being a great trumpet player, than actually playing. But I wouldn’t figure that out for many years.
So I became obsessed with gear. Even as a kid, I was a gear whore (some things never change).
I thought if I used the same gear as my heroes, I would be a great trumpet player. I would save my allowance and use that money to buy mouthpieces, mutes, bags and other accessories.
One day I was telling my teacher how I planned to save up and buy a Bach Stradivarius (a horn that cost thousands of dollars and was similar to the models played by many of my favorite trumpet players).
He encouraged me to try one first, so I did. My mom drove me to a Ken Stanton music store in Marietta, Georiga (where I grew up) and I asked to play one of those amazing trumpets.
I sat there in a practice room staring at that horn for several minutes before working up the courage to play something. When I finally did, I was shocked that it sounded exactly the same as the beat up Yamaha I had been playing for years.
Needless to say, I was pretty disillusioned. I related the experience to my teacher and he said something to me that I still remember:
“The horn doesn’t matter. It’s how you play it.”
I continued to play trumpet throughout grade school and into college. I always enjoyed it and I was good at it, but I never put in the sweat and practice needed to be great.
I’m a web designer now and I often find myself doing the same thing, obsessing over designs or platforms or processes or mechanisms. It’s easy to get distracted with tools, because some part of me thinks that if I just had a killer design, my blog would take off. Or if I had a better process or writing environment, I would finally be able to be a great writer.
But deep down I know that’s not true. We get good at things by doing them every day. By practicing.
If there’s something you want to do, then just do it. It really is that simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple.
A famous writer has been quoted as saying, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”
The few successes I’ve had in life can be directly attributed to that philosophy. The philosophy of doing.
My encouragement to you is to start that thing you’ve been putting off. Stop obsessing with the idea of doing something and just do it. I guarantee you’ll be happy with the results.
Even as a child, I dreamed of being a writer. I was fascinated with newspapers and books. I would devour them, imagining my name in the byline, my face on the jacket cover.
I think what lured me in was the idea that one day I could have enough confidence to write. Writing (or podcasting or designing or any form of art) is the ultimate statement of confidence. It’s me saying that I’m smart enough and knowledgable enough and sure enough of myself that I’m going to write this thing and put my name on it and put it out there for all the world to see.
That kind of confidence was mesmerizing to me as a kid. Because I didn’t have it. I’ve always been a bit quiet and shy, but not overly so. I did alright in first and second grade. The other kids liked me. I had a girlfriend or two. Those were the good old days. The golden years.
Then it all went to shit in third grade. I started gaining weight and the bullies came out of the woodwork. I don’t blame them now, because I was a 10-year-old kid with a set of extraordinarily large man-boobs, which is actually pretty funny if you think about it.
So, confidence. It was like a mythical holy grail of personhood that I couldn’t seem to attain. Sports were clearly not my thing, so I retreated to the world of the mind. I read, I wrote, I played music, I got into electronics and computers.
Looking back now, it was all clearly an effort to find that confidence. And I didn’t find it for a long time. But then, when I did find it, I lost it again after about 20 minutes.
And that’s been the last 20 years of my life. I make something. People like it. I get a little confident and then I start thinking, “They probably don’t *really* like it. They’re probably just saying that. I mean, come on, who would honestly like this shit? I don’t even like it.”
And suddenly I’m a 10-year-old again, with my arm crossed, trying to hide my manboobs from the sea of confident, successful, existentially-satisfied 10-year-olds all around me.
Because that’s all we really are if you think about it. We’re all 10-year-olds, hoping someone will like us so we don’t have to go onto the playground alone.
Maybe that’s why I put myself out there over and over again. Blogs, podcasts, articles, web designs. Maybe it’s all an effort to get someone to like me enough that I don’t have to ride the fuckin round-a-bout by myself. Someone to join me on the playground of life.
How’s that for a metaphor?
However, I felt the need to respond with an article of my own, because I disagree so strongly. Coincidentally, I just had a long conversation on Twitter with my friend Jonathan Christopher on the same topic. The issue appears to be on people’s minds, at least within my circles.
I want to say at the outset, that I don’t feel dogmatic about this issue. It’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. I don’t care whether you use profanity or not. However, I strongly disagree with Sean’s foundational presupposition and felt the need to respond.
For Sean, the issue is preconceived projections. He puts it this way:
Blog posts, tweets, speeches, books; they’re all produced with forethought.
You plan out what you post, you prepare what you speak, you have all the time in the world before your press publish, and yet you choose to curse intentionally.
You are making a conscious decision to trade class for crass.
Sean is baffled that anyone would intentionally choose to use profanity and believes that those who do are trading “class for crass”. The foundational presupposition here is that words, in and of themselves, have an objective quality. Meaning, some words are objectively classy and others are not.
This is my main point of contention. Words, like all forms of art, are relative. One person’s class is another’s crass and vice versa. Who are we to stand in judgement of what is tasteful and what is not (from an objective sense)? Everyone is, of course, free to form their own personal opinions, but we’ll get to that later.
Sean says that speakers (and I’m going to include writers, podcasters, musicians, film makers and anyone who puts their art out into the world) use profanity for shock value or to appear cool or hip.
Some speakers will leverage this informality and speak crudely in an attempt to appear “cool” or “hip” to the audience.
Here’s the problem: You don’t sound relatable and you don’t sound cool. You sound unintelligent and you look cheap. Of all the descriptive words you could have chosen, you selected this stale, worn-out cliché of a profanity because you’re apathetic.
First, as I said above, it seems to me that this is merely Sean’s opinion. It may be true for him, but not for everyone. We can’t possibly know the motivations behind an artist’s art (unless they tell us), so this broad brush generalization seems ill-informed.
Second, calling it cheap, stale, unintelligent, worn-out and apathetic is, again, a statement of personal taste, not an objective reality of the art in question.
Let’s look to the world of music as an example, because who doesn’t love a good analogy?
What defines a quality work of music? For some, it may be Bach’s Prelude in C Major, while others would choose Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. But can we really say one is objectively better than the other?
What if, instead, Sean had said, “Anyone who chooses to use Nirvana instead of Bach in their speech is trading class for crass.”
It seems arrogant to me, to take one’s personal opinion and make it objective truth for everyone else.
Anyone is free to think, on a personal basis, that Bach is better than Nirvana, which in the end means it’s better for them. But to argue that Bach is the best that exists, as if such a thing could even be proven—that’s where the trouble lies.
I would venture to say the same goes for language. Language is an art form, after all, just like music. How can we objectively assign greater or lesser value to a particular grouping of English letters? To me, that is what is foolish.
Sean goes on to make a case for considering your audience:
Is it really worth estranging such a huge subset of people that could potentially be in your audience? In extremely practical terms, we’re talking about potential sales here. These people could be buying your products, hiring you for your services, or compensating you for whatever it is that you offer.
It seems that Sean is switching gears here from discussing the use of profanity in a general public sense to its use in sales and marketing.
So, now the question is, is profanity “cheap, lazy, & foolish” in marketing?
I can see why some would say “yes”, but for me the answer is still “no”.
Because you should never pander to the crowd. Pandering can certainly achieve fame and riches, but at what cost?
If you alter your message to be more palatable to a certain portion of the population, you’re not really connecting. You’re a hypocrite. It’s smoke and mirrors. People can smell fakeness a mile away.
Don’t be fake. Be yourself. Authenticity wins every time.
What connects people to one another is authenticity, vulnerability and realness. I can’t stress that enough. Be who you are. If you are the guy who never curses, that is completely fine. Be that guy. Embrace it. Find the people who love you for who you are and be vulnerable with them.
And if you’re the guy who curses, the same advice applies. Embrace it. Don’t worry about the people that don’t like it. If it is truly who you are, you will find the people that love you, the people you can serve and with whom you can be vulnerable.
Don’t stop being who you are because some people won’t like you or find you cheap, lazy or foolish. My guess is, you don’t want those people in your tribe anyway.
I don’t really care about who the world at large thinks I should be. I know who I should be and I want to put out into the world the things I feel inside me. I don’t care if a certain part of the population doesn’t like me. There are people out there who will like me and those are my people. Those are the people that matter.
My biggest complaint is the implication that those who choose to use profanity are somehow lazy, foolish, unimaginative or inarticulate. Some of the deepest thinkers I know, use profanity. Sometimes you just have to say fuck.
Maybe for Sean, it is cheap, lazy and foolish to curse. But that is for him to decide for himself. Claiming that this is objective truth for all humanity seems unprovable at best and arrogant at worst.
I hope none of this comes across as a personal criticism of Sean. As I said, Sean is a brilliant guy, a valued friend and trusted advisor. If you’re reading this Sean, I love you buddy and couldn’t think more highly of you. ;)
Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials, and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought. I was once told by a great master, that no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colors.
~ Samuel Johnson in Idleness
I guess I’m screwed.
Stop worrying about what you don’t know and say what you can say. This is advice my friend Chase likes to give me, but if I’m honest, it has yet to sink in.
So often I find myself struggling to produce because I’m trying to say things I can’t say. In an effort to seem valuable to my heroes, I imprison myself by trying to write things they will find impressive.
But here’s the truth: I’m not as good as my heroes. There’s a reason I look up to people like Jeffrey Zeldman and Jason Santa Maria. They’ve been doing this stuff for a long time and comparing my output to there’s is a losing battle. Comparing myself to anyone is a losing battle.
You may not be able to speak directly to your heroes. They are far ahead of you for good reason. They have learned from experience, things you have yet to learn. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to say.
I may not be able to write an article about how to grow a design shop into one of the foremost shops in the world, but I can speak to the thousands of freelancers out there who are just starting out and worried about where their clients will come from or how to price their first jobs.
I probably can’t write an article about CSS or web development that would teach Chris Coyier something new, but there’s a lot I can say to the people behind me.
And here’s the thing, it takes doing it to get better at it. The reason our heroes are so good is because they were able to overcome their fear and just keep doing it, day after agonizing day.
Find the thing you can say and focus on that.
My friend Chase said it the best I’ve ever heard anyone say it:
Basically I saw the things that other people where saying, and I said to myself, “I need to say those kinds of things.” So I said those kinds of things in those kinds of ways. And everything came out all markety and weird…That’s what I thought I was supposed to do.
Here’s the thing, we often say things in or content, our marketing, our writing, whatever, that may not necessarily be true, because we think people want to hear it.
But I’ve learned something. For me and maybe for you too, the things that I make get better when I stop worrying about the things I’m supposed to say or what they want to hear or anything like that, and I start focusing on “What do I really know that I can say.”
Stop putting on yourself the burden of being remarkable. Fuck remarkable. Just be yourself. We all have something to offer. We all have something say. There are always people out there we can help.
You want your piece to be “the world.” And of course it isn’t “the world”. But you go in with these sort of larger, lofty dreams that you have for anything that you might approach writing wise.
That said, I never approach a story with “how can I make this weighty, how can I make it mean something.” I really do just approach it with my notebook and a pen and I just think, “My task right now, the task at hand, is to right as much as possible.” Something happens, right it down. Think of something, write it down.
In that case, it’s very much like a gerbal on a wheel. I’m just trying to get as many words of notes into my notebook and then into my brain.
It’s in the committing those notes later on to the keyboard where I can expand on them.
But underneath the shirt is the real me. Fear. Self-deception. Needing to be liked. Approval whore. That’s what I don’t want anyone to see.
But some days I wake up and want to tear off the shirt and live as free as a streaker at a football game.
But there’s that fear. The fear of judgement. The fear of being thought an idiot, or worse, a loser. The fear of being discovered as someone who isn’t very interesting, doesn’t have much to offer and isn’t needed by anyone.
I tell myself I’m detail oriented and a bit of perfectionist. But it’s not true. I obsess over the details because the details are all I have. If I don’t have details or designs or mechanisms or processes to obsess over, then I’m left with actually having to do something; to ship something. And that’s the greatest fear of all.
Deep down, I’m terrified of what people will think of me and of being a failure. Seriously, terrified. Take-a-bottle-of-pills-and-jump-out-a-window-rather-than-face-it terrified.
But that is no fucking way to live. I’ve done it for 33 fucking years and I can tell you, it’s no fun. And while I’m dropping f-bombs, I might as well say it again, FUCK! (sorry mom).
I build these personas based on what I think people will like, what I think they will respect. Every time I open up Photoshop or IA Writer or sit down at the drum kit, a cloud of angst settles around me as I set out to create or write something people will find impressive. And not just impressive, but so damn good, it will be linked to thousands of times and retweeted for all eternity.
How arrogant and insane is that?
Why are these fears so crippling? Why can’t I take off the shirt and bare my man-boobs proudly to the world and not give a fuck what anyone thinks?
I have designed and redesigned blogs hundreds of times over the last 10 years, but probably written less than 50 posts. I have dozens of side projects left half-finished. I have genuinely good ideas all the time. But I don’t do any of it.
I never ship because I can’t face the potential of failure. But this is failure in itself. The only thing worse than being the fat guy in the pool, is being the fat guy in the pool with a shirt on.
But I’m not kidding anyone. People can smell fear and insecurity. And, frankly, I reek.
Living this way is exhausting. I don’t know who it is I’m trying to please. So what if I fail? So what if people think I’m a loser?
I’m pretty sure there are at least three people (my wife and two daughters) who will not think that. Why can’t that be enough?
Don’t mistake what this is. It’s not an attempt to be “real” or “authentic”. I’m not trying to help anyone or garner praise for being raw. It’s an honest baring of my soul and some of my deepest fears.
I’m tired of hiding. I’m tired of missing out on the joy of creative expression. I’m tired of this soggy, wet, t-shirt that’s not really hiding anything anyway.
Adam (the one with the t-shirt)
When I first started Bottlerocket I priced myself low and took every job I could get. Often, that’s what we have to do when starting out. But the fear of having no work seems to drive many of us to maintain that modus operandi long after we need to.
We have high standards for our clients. We want them to understand that the work we do is valuable and they shouldn’t comparison shop for design the same way they would for a toothbrush. But then, as designers, we turn around and do the same thing in the way we price our services.
So many clients try to haggle with me on pricing. I constantly here phrases like, “Can you give us a deal?” or, “Can you come down 10 percent?” I never went to business school, so maybe I’m missing something; but when I go to the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk, I understand that the price is whatever it is. I don’t go to the checkout and ask if they can “give me a deal.”
“But there’s a difference between products and services,” you might say. Not really. I don’t haggle with my mechanic, plumber or electrician either.
I also have clients try to bargain with me about when they pay. I refuse to do Net 60 or Net 30 or Net anything. Payment is due when payment is due. I can’t think of a single service I pay for where I could say, “Awesome, I’ll send you check in 60 days,” and not be laughed at.
It’s our own fault that clients think this way about web work. We accept these attitudes as normal, so they do as well. But it’s not normal. I provide a professional service at professional rates with professional expectations. It is what it is. I’ve politely declined to work with many clients who don’t understand this or aren’t willing to work this way. And my business is better for it.
If you price low in order to get work, then you’ll just have to do more work to make the money you need. And trust me, the higher-priced projects are way more fun to work on. And not because you’re making more money. I don’t understand all the psychology behind it, but clients that pay me a lot also respect me a lot. They tend to understand the value they are receiving and what exactly it is they’re paying for. There is nothing more stressful than working for a client whose no. 1 priority is finding the cheapest price.
One of the biggest factors, I believe, in how clients perceive you is your willingness to walk away. You command the respect you deserve when you’re willing to do that. It seems illogical, but the moment I tell a client “no” they seem to want me even more. Saying “no” gives you an irresistibility factor. It’s kind of like dating, we tend to want the people we can’t have.
I’m not suggesting you be a jerk or start turning down clients hoping the reverse psychology will work. I’m suggesting that you respect your own work and process and be willing to walk away when the client is not on board.
Believe me, the projects you have to bend over backward to get will not make you happy. And I’m not talking about hustle. I’m not talking about working hard and doing the best job you can do. I’m talking about haggling. I’m talking about clients who think they own you and who think you should be honored to fill out their RFP.
I’ve been laughed at so many times because of my rates. And that’s good. If a prospective client’s first reaction to my prices is to think, “He can’t possibly be worth that,” then I know I’m on the right track. Because then I have a chance to explain to them why I’m worth that cost. I get to have a conversation about what their business really needs. It’s not usually what they think it is.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out. A client simply doesn’t have the budget to hire me and we part ways on good terms. More times than not though, those same clients come back to me six months later having invested in something of lower quality that they’re not happy with.
In the end, I firmly believe that you get what you price for. If you let a client know that you will do anything, sacrifice any principle, to get their business, you may well get it, but you won’t be happy with it.
Pricing isn’t the only factor, but it’s a big one in determining the kind of clients you attract. If we want clients to respect the value we bring to the table, we have to price accordingly. I promise, the projects you win without sacrificing your value will bring you much more satisfaction.