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?

On scratching the itch

Route 66 - A glimpse over the top.

So here’s the plan: fly into Vegas on Friday, Sept. 10 around 9:30 at night, grab my compact rental car, and start driving. Leave the Sin City behind and hit the road.

Next, make it to Springdale, Utah, just south of Zion National Park, check into a room at some low-rate motel, and hit the park. Hiking and picture taking. A day, maybe two, then hit the road again, southeast this time, toward the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Find a spot to sleep, maybe with the rental car as my tent, build a fire in the desert, and wake up to do some more hiking – to the bottom of the Earth.

Last time I was in the neighborhood, I passed up on the Grand Canyon only because of time constraints. By the time Route 66 wound through Arizona, there was too much left to see along the actual route – and when I got to California, I had to turn around and drive all the way back home.

But I always knew I’d be back, and it only took four years. So it’s time to do the largest gorge on Earth justice and explore it righteously.

My only concern is gear: since I’ll be flying and not driving West, it’s not like I can fill the car with tents and pots and backpacks. In fact, I want to travel as lightly as possible. One option is to pick up everything I’ll need there, use it, and ship it home. I’m still working this one out.

After all the parks, it’s on to New Mexico, and to Albuquerque to see Cowboy and Sarah and Kita, their nice, skittish dog. The last time I was in town I had a burger and malt at a ‘50s-style diner, and became a member of the Albuquerque Public Library System to use the Internet. That was only an hour or two, but this time I’ll have days to explore: visit the Route again, maybe do some hiking, definitely go swimming in the Myers’s apartment complex pool.

That’s until Friday night. Saturday morning has me hauling ass across the desert to make it back to Vegas and take a red eye flight back home.

It’s an adventure like the old days, when time and money were no object. My last big trip was New England, and that seems so long ago that I get experiences from that trip mixed with the others. Which trip had my knee hurting? (New England) Which trip had fears of car trouble? (Route 66 and Pennsylvania/Columbus) Which trip was I hit on by a gay guy? (All of them)

This is how I get my head straightened out. Me, sitting in a car, blaring the radio, windows down (yes, even – and especially – in the desert), seeing things I’ve never seen before. It’s cathartic and therapeutic and fun all at once. It’s the “me” that I’ve gotten to know so well, and it’s time to revisit that feeling.

There was a story in Ken Burns’s “The National Parks” documentary about the head of the national parks, Stephen Mather, going bat-shit insane if he didn’t get out and explore the country on a periodic basis. He spent so much time in Washington that he would up in a mental ward for 18 months until his family took him out West and – lo and behold – his soul and sanity were restored. I can relate.

After a certain amount of time, I get The Itch – the feeling that there’s adventure out there somewhere. Really, it’s because there’s not much room to sit and think around these parts. Sitting and doing nothing but thinking, with some hiking and picture-taking mixed in, allows for time and space totally dedicated to reflection. What have I done? Where am I going next? Why didn’t I stop at that last rest area? These are questions that need to be answered.

So I’ll answer them at the bottom of the Earth, and in between tunnels of rock and dirt, and in the middle of nowhere – amongst my best friends.

Charting the Frozen Continent

Boing Boing special feature: Charting the Frozen Continent:

This year, Morin and his crew were preparing to camp in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleysóa place that serves as an analog for Mars on Earth. As the name implies, there’s little snow in the dry valleys. There’s also very little life, just cyanobacteria and the occasional seal that wandered in and died.

We all have a mental image of what Antarctica must be like (maybe from “The Thing”), but it’s more diverse than most imagine.

Call it a mental exercise, but lately I wonder what other parts of the Earth look like. These images from Boing Boing help paint a more detailed picture of Antartica’s landscape – and help dispel any continental stereotypes we have.

Part of the pleasures of travel is that, when someone mentions a place you’ve been, you can retrieve a reliable picture of it in your brain. Tell me about Arizona, for instance, and I can pull up a few images: broken Route 66 running parallel to the interstate, alpine Flagstaff and its snowy ridges, the Black Mountains and the doom they inspired. It’s all in my head because I’ve been there.

But there are far more places I haven’t been than have. It’s a logistical fact of life that, unless you’re some modern-day Magellan, a trip around the world is impractical. We do the best we can to get out and see the world.

So what does Siberia look like? Or inland China? Or the Eastern coast of Africa? How about those islands smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic? Or the herding plains of Argentina?

That’s why I can get lost in a map. It’s so easy to spend time imagining what those topographical grooves look like in real life, or what high-tailing down this or that highway would feel. Dots connecting to dots, with so much along the way – what is life like from point to point? What is there to see? Is it worth the trip.

Photo journeys like the brief one at Boing Boing help ease the craving for more landscapes. I’ll never see the majority of the Earth, but any little bit I can gather is worth it.

30 And Under – ‘Don’t Settle’

[I gave a shorter, punchier version of this essay at Jackson Magazine’s 30 And Under banquet, as a way to warn these ambitious young professionals what was in store for them. They probably already knew the second part, but the first part was 30 And Under wisdom after I was honored last year.]

There’s not much tackier than unasked for advice, so we’ll call these next two tid-bits “tips” instead of advice.

Tip one: whether anyone who is honored as a 30 And Under winner likes it or not, you’re going to become a celebrity in Jackson. The picture and profile will show up in the magazine and you’ll have strangers on the street saying “congratulations!” It happens. And grandma and grandpa and that guy you owe money to will all call and say they saw you in Jackson Magazine.

It’s a heavy burden, those first few months after winning. You’ll be famous to a group of people who have a very local sense of fame. You’re now in a select group of people that will probably make appearances on JTV or United Way billboards.

And in case you weren’t busy enough now, you’ll have community groups and committees asking for your help for their next big project. Jackson needs help, so being an up-and-coming hotshot means groups are pointing their volunteer laser beam right at you. Be prepared.

Tip two: listen for what people say about Jackson, especially when they pipe up about an idea, project, or event being “too good” for this town.

I heard it even before I was honored, but now I pay more attention. Too often, someone will claim an idea will never go over, never be attended, never be supported – because Jackson just isn’t that classy of a town.

Don’t think about that wild project you want to tackle, because it’s too good of an idea. And don’t even attempt to tackle some barrier in town, because they’ve been there and tried that and it doesn’t work around here.

Jackson has a crisis of confidence – a low self-esteem that rates somewhere between Chelsea and Hillsdale. Maybe it’s too much bad news in the past generation, or maybe it’s something in the water. Whatever. It’s very real.

It’s also true that good ideas have died on the vine in this town. But I’d rather have too many good ideas than a hum-drum philosophy that accept mediocrity and doesn’t break a sweat.

So don’t settle. Don’t let “good enough” be good enough, or think that something exciting is too exciting for Jackson.

I often think about AKA Sushi, the little boutique eatery up by Starbucks on West Ave. A business owner could have played it safe and threw in another McDonald’s, or Tim Horton’s, and offer another chain restaurant. Those are good enough for Jackson. Anything fancier would never make it, right?

Instead, there’s a hip sushi joint that draws a crowd on a Friday night. Not settling has been good for business.

Jackson’s chapter of the American Red Cross took a chance on a pop-up art gallery. With real art! And people had to pay to get in! The result was a smash success. The RED committee didn’t settle.

But many of my 30 And Under compatriots understand this already. They don’t go to work and go home and flip on the TV, day in and day out. They don’t settle for a life lived as usual – if they did, they wouldn’t be honored by Jackson Magazine.

The way we make Jackson raise its chin is by doing what we’re doing: not settling. Experimenting. Taking chances.

It’s tough, and it draws attention to your efforts, but the payoffs are pretty cool.

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.


This post took me literally 15 minutes to write.

“Literally,” it seems, has become a word used in just about everyone’s vocabulary these days. Literally. We don’t just say, “I’m five minutes away.” We say “I’m literally five minutes away.”

The use of “literally” has spread so fast and so aggressively that even smart, well-intentioned people are prone to literalize everything.

Here’s what bothers me about the overuse of “literally”: it adds emphasis that doesn’t need to be there. It’s okay to say, “I jumped out of my seat,” or “There were two people in the theater.” You don’t need the exclamation point “literally” provides.

Is the overuse of “literally” a reaction against metaphor? When I say, “The dog had three legs,” what else could I be saying that would necessitate a “literally” in between “had” and “three?”

Now, if you want to clarify a point and make it clear that you’re not using a metaphor, saying “literally” notifies the listener that you are, indeed, speaking in a literal sense. So you can say “all hell broke loose” if a situation gets hairy, but it’s not appropriate to say “all hell, literally, broke loose” unless a hole in the earth swallows your house and little imps and demons carry away your pet llama, while in the background some maniacal laughter signals your doom.

Because unless that happens, hell does not literally break loose. There’s a difference.

Metaphor is a powerful agent in the English language, and we use it – along with similes – every day. I’m as high as a kite, fit as a fiddle, sharp as a tack, happier than a pig in shit, and as rabid as a dog. Also, we are all snowflakes.

But often metaphor isn’t needed, like when we say we’re driving 90 down the highway. The silliness with “literally” is that saying we’re driving 90 down the highway implies meaning and conjures up a visual automatically. There’s no metaphor involved. You’re really driving 90 miles per hour. We get it.

So why the hell would you ever say, “Honey, I’ll be there in a minute; I’m literally going 90 down the highway.”

Was there any confusion? Would your honey not believe you? Was speeding and driving recklessly enough of a stretch in behavior (there’s a metaphor!) for you to qualify your statement with a “literally?”

No. There’s no qualification needed.

Using “literally” goes along with the overuse of “to be honest” or “honestly” (replacing “basically” as the overused phrase of the decade): am I to assume you haven’t spoken to me truthfully before? Why add “honestly?” Are you being super grownup serious when you say, “To be honest?”

Same with “literally.” If you’re implying that you’re using a metaphor in a denotative instead of connotative way, then by all means use “literally.”

You’re literally a pig in a poke? Great. Can’t wait to see you in a dead cat costume, climbing out of a bag, yelling “fooled you!” You literally flew down the road? Super. Can’t wait to see your supersonic hovercraft.

Otherwise, leave the “literally” behind. Because, to be honest, I’m so sick of it I could puke. Literally.

Hey Pete

“I’ve lost myself again
It’s a nightmare
But it’s clear
It will end
But when?”

– Type O Negative, “White Slavery”

Peter Steele came into my life through dumb luck.

My high school buddy Nathan and I were playing “Magic: The Gathering” at his place, listening one of those satellite TV stations that does nothing but play a certain category of music. I was probably 16 or 17 at the time. We’re sitting there, and this thundering, brooding rock came on, and I asked what it was.

“Oh, that’s Type O Negative,” Nathan said. “Their frontman is a giant, seven-foot-tall guy with that deep voice. They sing mostly about sex and death.”

Sold, I thought. What more do I need to know?

But actually I forgot about that encounter for a few months, until later that summer I was browsing through the CD section of Jackson’s Circuit City when I found the Type O Negative section. Browsing through the albums, I took a chance on the newest one – October Rust.

It turns out I picked the right one, because October Rust changed my life. It has since risen to the top two or three albums I listen to, and it introduced me to something I had been looking for. Here, I discovered, was a perfect blend of lush, methodical, brooding music. It was funny, heavy, and catchy as hell. I remember “Burnt Flowers Falling” being stuck in my head for months, and after repeated listens the whole thing became a classic.

From there, I caught up on the rest of Type O’s catalog, with the (what I felt) uneven Bloody Kisses, the album that gave Pete and the band their first big hit with “Black No. 1.” I had to wait two or three long years until World Coming Down came out my first year of college.

That was the thing with Type O. You had to wait Tool-long periods of time, usually four years, between albums. What you had, you had to stick with, until some other life-altering event in Peter’s life made another album necessary.

For me, World Coming Down was almost too much. It was their darkest album yet, dealing with death and suicide and – for the first time that I can think of – Pete’s cocaine habit. And from that album on, Type O albums weren’t immediately grabbing. Hell, I didn’t like WCD after the first few spins. It wasn’t until I spent a year or two with it that it began to grow on me.

Same with Life is Killing Me. Same, amazingly, with Dead Again.

When you give them enough time, however, they become a part of your standby list. Need a CD to get you to work in the morning? Grab Dead Again and skip to “Profit of Doom.”

I remember printing out reams and reams of Type O guitar tabs in my high school computer class. I’d get done with my work so early that the teacher gave me permission to dick around on the Internet. So I’d head to a Type O site and print off all the guitar music, and learn those dead-heavy chords in dropped-B tuning.

I remember walking to my first in-college job, at Lincoln Elementary in Adrian, rocking World Coming Down as the maple leaves fell around me, and thinking that Type O was the soundtrack for fall.

I remember “Anesthesia” getting me through a few breakups.

Are a thousand tears worth a single smile?
When you give an inch, will they take a mile?
Longing for the past but dreading the future
If not being used, well then you’re a user and a loser

Type O drummer Johnny Kelly, in the After Dark video, called what Pete did “sonic therapy.”

For Pete, is was for himself more than anyone. Over the years, the music became less about girls and sex and more about family and addictions.

During the interim between Life is Killing Me (2003) and Dead Again, Pete faced all kinds of wacky stuff: incarceration at Riker’s Island, a stint in rehab, the death of his mom, coming back to Catholicism. Through all that, he never lost his sense of (dark) humor. And I can’t speak highly enough of the end product: Dead Again fucking rocks, and I’ve listened to it constantly since 2007. Constantly. It’s now right up there with October Rust in terms of rotation.

That got me thinking a few days ago. Dead Again was released in 2007, and we usually wait about four years between albums, meaning new Type O was due to hit in 2011.

Turns out I was right. The band’s statement on the Type O web site put it best:

Ironically Peter had been enjoying a long period of sobriety and improved health and was imminently due to begin writing and recording new music for our follow up to “Dead Again” released in 2007.

Now he’s gone. But as Don said, there’s bound to be some music in some deep, dark crypt that has yet to be released. Let’s hope.

And maybe this is all one big frigid’ joke. Pete faked his own death in 2005, and once spread a rumor that Type O may call it quits:

With a recent trip to Iceland to “clean his mental health” behind him and The Profits Of Doom ahead (an early summer release is planned), Steele is non-committal about Type O’s future. And if he did return to making music as a hobby? “Maybe I can start my own website and send out CDs for free to fans, who could send me a donation for what they feel it’s worth,” says the former NYC Parks Department employee. Then he adds – with the slightest hint of self-deprecation – “So I guess I could expect a bag of shit in the mail.”

Pete and his humor. Man, to count the time the guy made me laugh out loud. I remember nearly pissing myself in the Adrian library reading interviews from the guy. As a journalist, Pete would have been a dream interview, full of those “did he really just say that?” moments. His personality was a big as his giant, hulking frame and as deep as his voice.

Hell, the guy did a Playgirl spread. Now that’s having a sense of humor about yourself.

I had no pulse last time I checked
I’d trade my life for self respect
So I say with my ass whipped
There are some things worse than death

I can’t believe I died last night – oh God I’m dead again.

Pete worked for the New York City Parks Department. He tried to instigate a Vinnland uprising. His favorite venue to play? Harpo’s in Detroit. Don and I saw the band there twice. He said all kinds of crazy things. He did all kinds of crazy things.

Eventually, all that stuff – the cocaine, the drinking, the giant frame – catches up with you. Yesterday, it caught up with Pete.

He joked about dying all the time. When his mom died, he started taking death seriously, and tried to turn his life around.

Now he’s gone. Again.

We were watching TV

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

Something is better than nothing, says Clay Shirkey, especially when “in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads.”

I don’t hate TV. In fact, there’s a lot about it I love. “The Office,” “Mad Men,” football – I don’t get much done when these programs are on TV. Sometimes that’s great. My mind can stand to have a few minutes of down-time each week. So can yours.

But more and more, I find myself using that leisure time (the “social surplus” of time, Shirkey calls it) to do something productive: write a blog entry, or make a web site, or help out my recycling group, or just goof off on something creative. It’s all entertainment.

Sometimes, my heart aches at the silly YouTube videos people gobble up, or the hours spent managing a fake farm. But then I think about what’s going to come out of all this – how we’re all just goofing off and creating a new and vibrant culture.

Before, TV execs told us what to watch, and when, and we voted with our remotes. Now you and I and all of our friends make all this stuff and tune in to what we want, and vote with our mouse clicks and encouragement. My roommate can star in a video, and I can share an article that I read, and we’re having just as much fun. Plus, we’re using our brains way more.

On savings

On payday, this Friday, my savings level will reach a peak. Never in my life has this amount of my money been sitting in one place, fully accessible, and all at once.

It doesn’t matter how much, or how I got it, only that over time I’ve minded my manners and tracked my spending and saving enough that I have a tidy sum set away for emergencies or big projects.

That kind of thing does something to your brain. I’ve noticed, for instance, that what Dave Ramsey said about Murphy and his law staying away when you have money is totally true. If something unexpected does spring up, I won’t be anxious about how to pay for it. Unless it’s something huge and disastrous (hint: zombies), I’m ready for anything.

Goodbye, worry. Hello, peace of mind.

None of this is meant to be a bragging point. Goodness knows I don’t have as much money stashed away as many of my friends, and I still have a number of debts that I’m tackling over time. I have a modestly-paying job doing what I love, and my biggest expenses are prescription drugs and Macintosh computers.

Which points out another benefit of having money in the bank credit union: my recent iMac purchase ($1,200, out the door) barely put a dent in my savings. It’s mostly because I used my freelance income to pay for it, but still. It felt good to drop $1,200 on the barrelhead and not be affected by it. That’s the definition of security.

Back to the brain. My thinking, in the last year or so, has changed in ways that I’ve only begun to understand. An emergency fund, for example, is great medicine for paranoia, and it allows me to be more carefree in my everyday dealings.

Because I remember what it was like, not so many years ago, when the opposite was true. I learned money management on my own, with no help, until the Dave Ramsey class, and I see now that I made a lot of mistakes. But it was all an education. And it helped lead me to where I am now.

The single biggest change from then to now? Diligence, and simply paying attention to where my money goes.

I don’t want to go on and on about Ramsey, but he says that if you don’t control where your money goes, it controls you. That simple maxim is truer than true in practice. My secret? I keep a simple spreadsheet with each month’s expenses and income, what bills are due, and what long-term expenses (like my license renewal, or doctor appointments) to expect.

That’s it. Well, that, and a follow-up session at the end of each month. I have my budget, but then I track what I actually do over the month. When I get a positive number each month, I pat myself on the back. When the number’s negative, I know that was an expensive month, or that I slipped a little bit, and try again.

Some months, like April, are categorically more expensive because of taxes. Last month I bought my iMac, so it ended up in the negative column.

No biggie. I have money in the bank credit union.

The whole thing is hard to describe until you experience it, but it’s like a great big sigh. Like, aaaaahhh, life isn’t so bad after all. It sets your brain free to do other things, like not worry so much about the future. That’s incredibly powerful.

But I’m humble enough to realize it’s all temporary. Something, anything can happen between now and Friday. Unkowns creep from every back-alley trash can, diseased knife in hand, waiting for me to get complacent.

Thing is, that Unknown isn’t so scary anymore.

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?