Do The Work You Love

Do you yearn to do work you love, but struggle to take the next step or even know what the next step is? I want to help you. Here's why.

So many times, the things I really want to do are the things I’m most scared to do.

Like most of you, I’m curious and I love learning. I have tons of interests and could probably be happy pursuing many different things. But if I’m honest, it doesn’t take much soul-searching to find the things about which I’m truly the most passionate.

But for some reason, I can’t even let my mind GO there. Because those things? Those are the things that are truly impossible. Those are the things at which I will absolutely, undoubtedly fail.

Or so my mind tells me.

For me, those things are creating content (podcasting, writing, making videos, etc.) and helping people. Specifically, helping people through my content creation.

But I’m afraid. And if you’re afraid too, then I want you to know you’re not alone. I know what it’s like to doubt myself on a level so deep it’s almost impossible to reach. I know what it’s like to spend YEARS standing on the dock and never diving in because I’m afraid I will fail, or worse, end up looking foolish. I know so deeply what it’s like to yearn to do work I love, but just can’t bring myself to do it, because I don’t think I have anything unique to offer. I’m an echo. Not a voice.

A very famous (and smart) guy was recently quoted as saying, “Be a voice. Not an echo.” And I understand what he meant, but it was so discouraging to hear, because my deepest fear is that I’m nothing more than an echo.

Whether or not that’s true is for another newsletter, but even if it is, I want you to remember this: History has proven that sometimes the echoes rang louder and truer than the original.

So DO the things that scare you. Face your fears. In all likelihood, the things you’re afraid you are, you probably aren’t. But even if you are, embrace them and do them anyway. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’ve missed the boat on doing the work you love. Or that too many people are already doing it, or that the “market is too saturated”, whatever the fuck that means.

For me, that means I’m going full speed ahead building my business of helping people overcome their fears and do the work they love. Are other people doing that? Yes. Am I just an echo? Maybe. But I’m going to be an echo that rings so loud and so true that no one will care.

And you can too.

You Matter

If you've been following along for any length of time, you know I write a lot about my fear of failure, insecurity and chronic self-doubt.

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.

On Professional Profanity and Being Yourself

My buddy, Sean McCabe, whom I respect greatly, published an article today entitled Cheap, Lazy, & Foolish: Professional Profanity. You should read it. It’s full of Sean’s typical thoughtfulness and unique style. (And while you’re at it, subscribe to Sean’s podcast. Trust me, it’s one of the best on the internet.)

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. ;)



Say What You Can Say

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.

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.


It’s OK to Be Yourself

Let’s be honest, the pressure to conform is a bitch. It starts at the earliest stages of life and many people never escape it.

I think we are born with an innate desire to be liked and respected. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all crave connection and one of the building blocks of any meaningful relationship is a mutual respect for each other. But, like any good thing, this desire for acceptance, love and respect can turn into a demanding slave-master. And that is a miserable existence indeed.

I’ve found this to be particularly true in business. I’m a freelance web developer and when I started out I spent a lot of time pretending to be something I wasn’t in hopes it would bring me success. I started Bottlerocket almost three years ago and only recently did I figure out that it’s ok to be who I am. I don’t have to copy the “successful” studios to be successful myself.

In the beginning, I tried. I followed conventional wisdom and removed most of my personality, opting instead for a slick, ad agency-like brand and web presence. I made my company appear much larger than it was, offered dozens of services and hoped clients wouldn’t find out the truth.

I struggled to get business and the business I did get was no fun. After a year of doing this I was seriously considering going back to regular employment because I hated what I was doing. I was stressed all the time trying to keep up this image of a full-service agency that could compete with the best in the world. Every time a prospective client would call, I would put on this stone-faced, Don Draper bravado, all the while praying they would accept my proposal because, in reality, I was completely broke.

I thought everything had to be perfect for me to be successful. I had to have all the answers. I had to not need anyone. My writing had to rival Michael Chabon; every website had to be this stunning Jason-Santa-Marian beast that would launch to great applause and adulation. I thought if I could just be like those guys, clients would come running.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I’m not Michael Chabon and I’m not Jason Santa Maria. And the truth is, I wasn’t fooling anyone. People can smell fakeness a mile away.

About a year and a half into Bottlerocket, I started being myself with my clients. I’m a pretty open-book kind of guy. I crave authentic conversations and deep friendships. I can also be pretty sarcastic and a bit of a jokester. And I realized that my favorite (and most successful) projects were those where I didn’t hide these things behind a straight-faced, business persona. I’ve found that realness beat slickness every time.

I saw an immediate change in my business. First, I started really enjoying my work. I wasn’t hiding behind a fake persona anymore. Second, I started getting a lot more work. My business has tripled this year. Clients not only keep coming back, they recommend me to others on a regular basis. Since the beginning of this year, I have had more work than I can keep up with and I still don’t even have a live portfolio. I raise my rates on a regular basis, but clients keep coming.

I’m not going to say that all you have to do is be real and you’re business will skyrocket. Skill and professionalism are essential to success. But you can be skillful, professional and authentic at the same time.

My friend, Yaron Schoen, wrote a post recently related to this topic and you should read it. I loved this part:

Don’t get me wrong, the product should get the job done well, efficiently and save the user valuable time or even add great value to the users life. But is that enough? Soon, the utilitarian efficiency of a product will not be the reason users come back (if that isn’t the case already). Perhaps the reason users stick around is the same reason we keep going back to our dentist. It’s the personal relationship that trumps. If the web is indeed a customer service medium, I’d say the best customer service is an honest and friendly face.

So if you’re funny and irreverent, go with that. If you’re a suit-and-tie business dude, go with that. Be who you are. There is plenty of work to go around, and being yourself will actually attract the kind of clients you’ll enjoy working with.