projects

‘Real artists ship’

What do you do to motivate the person who has trouble staying motivated? Or to the self-starter who can’t quite get started?

How about the person with the great idea but no self discipline to get the idea off the ground?

Seth Godin quotes the famous Steve Jobs dictum: “Real artists ship.” It means you can have all the great ideas you want, but if you don’t release them out into the world, they’re worth nothing. Godin says:

A check in your wallet does you very little good. It represents opportunity, sure, but not action.

Most of us are carrying around a check, an opportunity to make an impact, to do the work we’re capapble of, to ship the art that would make a difference.

Just last week Merlin Mann talked about New Year’s Resolutions, and what a waste they are:

My bet is that most people who are seeing the kind of change and growth and improvement that sticks tend to avoid these sorts of dramatic, geometric attempts to leap blindly toward the mountain of perfection.

…Calendars are just paper and staples. They can’t make you care.

For me, that’s tough to hear (for you too, Dear Reader, I’ll bet). I’ve long been a Project Guy – someone who sets challenges for themselves, just to see how it goes. To experiment. To learn and grow.

I’d never seen America West of the Mississippi River. So I got in my car and went there. I’d never not eaten potatoes for 90 days. So I took on a potato fast for Lent, just because. I’d never not imbibed alcohol for a whole month. So last January I did it. I’d never grown a garden before, so last year I gave it a try and it turned out great. Not perfect, mind you, but I “shipped,” to use Steve Jobs’s phrase.

It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. My problem is, it has to be perfect the first time.

Self starting and self discipline – these are my weaknesses. It’s easy for me to think of a neat idea, and at least get started on it. But seeing it through has always been tough. And lately, it’s been a drag just to even start.

Take this idea I have. It’s a clear solution to an obvious problem here in Jackson, and the more people I talk to the more I realize it’s an idea worth pursuing. Like, this could be my Big Thing.

The idea is there, fleshed out on scraps of paper and in the brain of me and Kelli, my co-partner. But I’ll be damned if I can get the thing going. From brain to paper to real life – the shipping is always the hardest part.

Now, this idea isn’t going to make itself. Someone else could come along and ship it before I do, and then I’ll be one of those people who kicks themselves over not having the guts to deliver.

I want to deliver. It’s my responsibility to deliver. Even if it’s not perfect, even if there are kinks in the beginning. The point is to make something, not think about making something.

So the wheels are in motion, and the homework has begun. I’ve set a deadline for myself, and I’d like to run the idea by a few more people to get their feedback. But man. This thing has to launch. It’ll kill me if it doesn’t.

Even failing is a better option than not shipping at all, right? I mean, it could be that my idea floats and then pops like a punctured balloon. The grim reality of Jackson could render the whole venture useless.

Thing is, Seth Godin and Merlin Mann and Ben Franklin tell me that failing is always an option, because we need to fail at least once in a while to learn some things. If, however, you don’t have the guts to ship anything, you’ll never fail because your stupid pea brain shifts from “Drive” to “Safety Mechanism” and you become some depressed mutant reptile who mutters “Shoulda Coulda” to teenagers at the coffee shop. No one wants that.

I type this after having worked out at the gym, meditated on self-evaluation, and completed a project for my freelance business. Surely I have the wherewithal to do something as simple as ship an idea I’ve been kicking around since October. I mean, really.

This story gets told a lot, but after my first job interview, on the eve of graduating college, I came up to my journalism professor and trusted mentor. After explaining my reservations about the job, Dr. Renner looked at me, and said, “Dave, I had a brother who noticed the same thing in me from time to time. And he told me, ‘Dennis, you can him and haw and wring your hands and sweat the small stuff, but sometimes you just have to buck up and DO IT.’”

At the “DO IT,” Dr. Renner really yelled at me.

While I haven’t always been the best at applying that little lesson, shouted at me from Dr. Renner’s office at the newspaper, I’ll never forget it. Because he saw what my problem was. Dr. Renner had the same problem, and someone once upon a time told him exactly what he needed to hear to get him moving.

Just do it, Dave. Just do it.


I Am Not A Filmmaker

I Am Not A Filmmaker « Photofocus


On starting a blog for fun and (hopefully) profit

A friend, Britt, wants to start a blog after getting laid off at her teaching job.

She wrote:

So, I have some questions about blogging. You seem to know what you’re doing in this arena and I like what I’ve seen from your work. I outlined my Blog Plan below the questions so you can get an idea of what I am going for.

Some questions:

1. Preferred blog host? Blogger vs. WordPress vs. TypePad? Most book blogs use Blogger, but I don’t like the look of most of them. I think that I’ll go with Typepad because Andrew said that it was the best (but what does he know anyway?)

2. Do you have an editorial calendar? How far in advance do you plan blog postings?

3. Do you have any advice for community building?

4. Any advice on a good name?

5. Any advice in general?

How fun. And I must say, it’s great that you’ve put a lot of thought into this.

To answer your questions:

1.) I’m more adept at WordPress, and I love its flexibility. Chances are there’s a theme you’ll like and they’re all hackable, so you can tweak it to your exact liking. But something like Tumblr is worth looking at. It depends on how much upkeep you want to do. If you’re geeky and want to dig into some HTML, then WordPress or Typepad will be good. If you want a no-frills, just-let-me-write-and-post blogging tool, something like Tumblr, or Posterous, will work well. There’s also a question of cost: Tumblr/Posterous are free, but WordPress/Typepad may cost you – even if you only buy the domain name (like www.loblawlaw.com or something).

2.) My editorial calendar depends on the blog. For Newton Poetry, I try to do two or three posts a week, and at least one longer one every few weeks – posts where I really get down, dirty, and detailed. My personal blog is whenever I get an idea or see something I think it worth commenting on. But I do type up posts ahead of time, sometimes weeks in advance, and just sit on them until I have a slow idea week, and then I can reach in the grab bag and fill in a pre-made post. But two to three a week is good, with maybe little “here’s something interesting” posts as you find them.

3.) Your community building starts with the people you know, so this could be as easy as posting your blog on Facebook, e-mailing all your friends and family (this is no time to be shy), maybe starting a Twitter account – that kind of thing. My community was built from classic Mac nerds, so I went to where they were, delved into the culture, made posts on other’s blogs, and made myself known. Most importantly? Write good stuff. When someone finds it, your audience will build itself.

4.) Short and sweet – so loblawlawblog.com or something. Head to 1and1.com, type in some domain name ideas into their little input box, and see if someone has it already.

5.) Yes. Before anything, you need to listen to John Gruber (of Daring Fireball) and Merlin Mann’s (of 43 Folders) podcast/talk from South by Southwest on finding your voice, and finding the point of your blog. It’s a must-listen for anyone who wants to bootstrap a blog.

Also, just start writing – even though you don’t have the darned thing set up yet. Get a few draft posts in the hopper, ready to go. Show them to Andrew. Then kick him in the pants.

You’re right about those book blogs being too cluttered. You want a unique style without all the crap. If, hey, you get popular enough that advertisers want to put ads on your site – that’s gravy. But you don’t have to make it look like crap with ads and links and little “POST TO DELICIOUS!” boxes everywhere. Again, my philosophy is minimalism. Let the content speak for itself.

The cost thing again: It’s about $10/year to buy a domain name. A lot of the blogging platforms have free hosting and setup, and then you buy the domain name and point it at yourblogname.wordpress.com or whatever, but to the reader it’ll appear as yourblogname.com – so that’ll be the minimal cost, the $10. From there, if you want to do your own hosting (read: super geeky and technical), then the cost goes up.

Most of my blogs, with the exception of Newton Poetry, I let the blogging platform host, and I point my purchased domain name at it and no one knows the difference.

You’ve thought a lot about what kinds of posts to write, who your audience is, and what you want to focus on – that’s the tough part, really. Now you just need to write, find a voice, and make it all look pretty.

Easy enough, right?


The weird go pro

Seth Godin:

Laying out the design of a page or a flyer so it looks like a pro did it takes about ten times as much work as merely using the template Microsoft builds in for free, and the message is almost the same…

Except it’s not. Of course not. The message is not the same.

The last ten percent is the signal we look for, the way we communicate care and expertise and professionalism. If all you’re doing is the standard amount, all you’re going to get is the standard compensation. The hard part is the last ten percent, sure, or even the last one percent, but it’s the hard part because everyone is busy doing the easy part already.

This is what makes what I do paradoxically enjoyable and frustrating. I love concentrating on the stuff that no one else cares about because I care intensely about it. Things, little things, do matter.

On the flip side, I encounter people who are template humpers and think good enough is good enough. They have no respect for, or are totally ignorant of, that last 10 percent – and have no interest in it. It’s the interest part that’s frustrating.

For some, Microsoft Word is good enough, and Times New Roman is good enough, and an photo stolen from Google Images is good enough. For me, the fun is in tackling the good enough and making it even a tiny bit better.

Even if I never approach something a tiny bit better (and often times I don’t), the pursuit is, in of itself, a worthy goal.


On being an advanced beginner

There was a time when I could hear a song on the radio, pick up my guitar, and strum it out until I got the hang of the song’s chord progression or riff.

In high school, after I picked up my first guitar for $100, I could sit for hours and learn my favorite songs. Over time, I built up a competency for guitar playing. No, I couldn’t hammer out solos like my friends. I didn’t have a knack for songcraft, either. But I had enough skill to play what I wanted to play, and to learn something I heard and liked.

I like to think I still have that skill set. Like riding the proverbial bike, from time to time I pick up my acoustic guitar and everything comes back to me. The time I spent in high school was an investment that pays off every time I play.

My guitar playing came to mind during Merlin Mann’s 37-minute-long video on expertise and fake self-help. Mr. Mann learned that there are several levels of expertise, ranging from novice to expert, and your placement on the gradient is proportional to the time and attention you place on whatever it is you’re studying.

A novice, the thinking goes, starts out knowing nothing, and learns by doing exactly what they’re told. Learn the basics. Simple enough.

My journalism professor, Dr. Dennis Renner, said that “rules are made for smart people to break.” That little maxim always stuck with me because it makes so much sense. Learn the basics before you go sprinting off to change to world. You have to know something before you can’t start messing around. You don’t get smart until you move past the novice level.

So the expert and the master, as Mann labels a sixth level, are free to break the rules because they know the rules inside and out. They know the rules so deeply and personally that the rules fade into habit.

It’s the step above novice, what Dreyfus calls “advanced beginner,” that has me thinking.

For years now, I’ve dabbled in many things and have become an expert of none. It’s the Renaissance Man Syndrome: know a little about a bunch of stuff, enough to talk intelligently during dinner hour conversations, but not enough to go out and change the world. Or get anything practical done. Just knowing is different from actually doing.

Take graphic design. I’ve been doing design work for almost seven years now, from my first design class in college, yet I wouldn’t call myself anything next to an expert. I know enough to get my job done, to dabble in freelance projects, and that’s it. Mostly, I think it’s because I never developed a strong enough foundation. No art training and little design sense handicap me, and prevent me from developing my craft to an expert level.

Writing, however, is something I know deep and well. My whole life, I’ve studied grammar and story telling and expository writing. It made English an obvious bachelor’s degree choice, and helped journalism come naturally to me. Writing isn’t easy. But I know enough to do well, help others, and critique bad writing when I see it. This comes from years of doing writing.

As Merlin says, every writing book on Earth has one shared piece of advice: sit in a chair and write. That’s the only way to get better.

Well, that and pick up a goddamn book now and again.

But besides writing, I don’t have a particular skill I can call my own. Sure, I can fix a computer – but I get the knowledge to do that from online searches and a bit of history. And yeah, I can take a decent photograph – but that comes from seeing how others have done it, not from any particular depth of knowledge.

I respect men and women who can work on cars so much. They have to know a vehicle deep and well or it doesn’t get fixed. It’s a skill I’d love to pick up (and it has me researching some ways to do just that).

Mann argues that so much of our knowledge about a particular subject doesn’t get much deeper than a Wikipedia search and a few how-to articles. We become beginners at something and never really advance beyond that. It’d be like Michaelangelo putting tracing paper over a painting he saw and transferring it the Sistine Chapel. From afar, it might look nice, but up close – well, anyone could do that.

That little bit of knowledge makes us arrogant. We end up thinking we know more than we actually know.

Renaissance Men and Women of old, especially some of our founders like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, knew a great deal about many things. They were deep and wide. Their lives were dedicated to learning and thinking, and – in all fairness – few of us have time for that today.

Instead, we take up hobbies and learn a lot about one or two subjects. But knowing something deeply doesn’t simply affect what we do in our free time. It also affects our prospects for employment and advancement.

And shucks, it makes us interesting people. Deeply interesting. Like, magazines-or-NPR-will-interview-you-for-your-expertise interesting.

That’s not for everyone. Some people (and you know them well) are comfortable with a mile wide and an inch deep. I respect that, and it’s naive to think that everyone will become an expert in something.

But man, wouldn’t it be great if we had more people who knew what the hell they were talking about when they open their mouth?

Wouldn’t it be cool if more of us moved past the “advanced beginner” stage?