21 Dragons

In Search of Wisdom

For my Friends, the Makers of Things

HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog with Credibility! a SxSW ‘09 panel by Merlin Mann and John Gruber, has been on my repeat play-list for the past few weeks. Merlin Mann and John Gruber are wildly successful web authors. They are both amongst my favorite writers; this is their first recorded panel together and it is insanely funny. Despite the tongue-in-cheek title, not only is it full of great advice about how to blog well, but when you replace the word 'blog' with any creative endeavor – like 'photography' or '3D animation' – the advice translates across disciplines and gives insight about creativity, ownership and how to make something you can be proud of.

The first time I listened to the end of this one-hour recording, I forwarded it to my creative friends, because I knew they would get so much from it. But I was afraid they wouldn't get the many (hilarious) Web 2.0 in-jokes and be turned off by the heavy blogging overtones.

So this short summary is for my friends; the makers of things.

Note: Quotes in this post are thanks to Jordan Cole's full transcription.

1. Find Your Obsession and Your Voice

The core of the panel can be summed up in one simple phrase: find your obsession and your voice. Mann says:

So what does that mean? I think almost all of the best non-fiction that has ever been made comes from the result of somebody who can’t stop thinking about a certain topic — a very specific aspect, in some cases, of a certain topic. And second, they got really good at figuring out what they had to say about it.
... Like, you’ve got something that you care a lot about, and you’re obsessed about — it’s almost like an intellectual fetish. And then you’ve got something that’s your angle on that...

2. Make Your Aim Higher than Your Reach

Have a goal about making a quality product that's beyond just becoming popular or rich. Gruber says:

I think it’s so important to have a goal that’s out there that you know is beyond your reach, so that you’re always improving. I do feel, I feel that I am such a better writer now than when I started the site six years ago. I mean, there’s just no doubt in my mind that I’m better at it. And I still feel like I’m nowhere near as good as I wanna be. I can write something and it’ll be the article that, y’know, when I meet people at a place like here, and they’ll remind me, they’ll say ‘I love that thing you wrote a couple weeks ago’, and it’s something that I just think, ‘Oh my God, that is so far short of the idea I set out to write, but thank you so much for saying it’, but that to me is the whole point, is that you’ve gotta have a goal that is so far out of your reach, and… it seems to me that almost everybody else is setting their goal to write…

To which Mann chimes in:

… write on a very broad topic that a lot of other people cover to a very large audience that they they don’t really care about... if everything is what you wanna do, then you’re not really doing a thing.

3. Who do You Want to Delight?

Instead of making a generic thing for the masses, think about one specific person your thing will reach. Mann says:

I think about it in terms, the phrase is, ‘Who do I wanna delight?’. I try to think a lot, less about, like, ‘Is this something that will, y’know, get me this kind of link?’, and more like ‘Is this something that John would think is not a piece of crap?’.
... Do you follow me? Can you think about, like, one face behind your monitor that you see when you’re making something? Like, can you tell, like, whether you’ve made something that would make somebody’s day? Or are you just thinking about a big pot of people who will click on your stuff? Because the truth is, once you figure out who those faces are, it gets a lot easier to make something that you’re really really proud of, regardless of what it is that you wanna make.
... And again, I’m talking about photography, I’m talking about music; whatever you make. Like, who are you making it for? Who’s your ideal reader?

4. Be a First-Rate You, Not a Second-Rate Copy

You can't re-create someone else's success by copying him. Find your own obsession and voice, Mann says:

He goes ‘The thing is, people go out there, and they’re always trying to emulate the success of other people, right? And so you get on TV, and you try to pretend you’re Ted Koppel. But you know what? They’ve already got a Ted Koppel. They don’t need you.’ So y’know, like, your competition is somebody who had a unique opportunity a long time ago, and now you’re gonna try to, like, trace the shadow of that on a sidewalk and hope it’s a career? Right? It’s… we’ve got our Koppel, now who are you?

5. You are Not Your Work, You are Your Creativity

Don't confuse your work for your creative ability. Mann again:

And if you don’t have the confidence to go, like, ‘My ideas, and the things that I have to say are so valuable that, like, I’m not worried that I’ll run out of them. I’m not worried that there’s any scarcity to what I have to say about this.’ So yeah, people scrape my RSS feed hundreds of times a day. But that’s not me; I’m not my RSS feed. I’m the ideas that went into the RSS feed.

6. Embrace Ambiguity

Don't be in a rush to figure out exactly how what you do is going to make you a millionaire. Have a tolerance for exploration, discovery, change and growth. Mann says:

The biggest tolerance that you’ve gotta have — and I’m as thin-skinned as anybody; I don’t like people saying mean things about me — but, I think what we’re saying, in some ways, is, you need a tolerance — this is gonna sound so unhelpful — you need a tolerance for having no idea where your thing is going. Y’know? ’Cause if you have too much of an idea of what it is, like, you may be accidentally making the wrong thing.

7. Awesomeness First, Bling Second

At the beginning of the panel, Gruber asks if you're crafting for money, or are you crafting so you can create even more?

And so there’s this quote that I’ve sort of hung this whole thing on, right from the outset, from Walt Disney, and it’s, to me, it’s the thing that made me wanna do this talk. And he said: ‘We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.’ And I think that’s so profound, and to me, it’s not about a subtle difference in strategy; it’s a fundamental, you’re either going this way, or you’re going that way.

Mann says that it's not just about making money, it's about doing awesome work, and that opportunities can come out of that:

Because the real opportunities of this stuff — this sounds like bullshit, but I am dead serious — the giant opportunities in this are not short-term gains… I’m giving you an opinion here, which I don’t usually do. But the real long-term gains for you are not pageviews and CPMs; it’s the opportunities that come out of being awesome at what you do. And if you think that’s BS then, like, I can’t help you.
But I swear to God, if you look at the people around who seem like they were born on third base, yeah, it’s good timing; yeah, it’s hard work; but I think a lot of it is they had a tolerance for the ambiguity about where it was gonna go, they had a tolerance for the fact they were not gonna take short-term money that got in the way of what they really wanted to do. And the ancillary revenue streams and opportunities that come up as a result of making extremely-high-quality content…

Gruber adds that there are more ways to get paid in than money, and while these ways might not pay the bills, they also have value:

But a lot of times they’re very true, they’re totally true; and there are things that money cannot buy that have tremendous value.
And one of them — I mean, you’re (Mann) practically making a career on it — is that attention, human attention, is valuable and it is limited. There is nothing you can possibly do give one person more attention in a day. You wake up; you have eighteen hours; and then you go to sleep. And in that time, you only have so much attention. It’s a limited resource. You can’t directly buy it. You can’t… there’s no dollar value on it.
... But it is incredibly valuable. And so that is the one thing that when you give stuff away in the Internet, it’s like, well then how am I gonna get paid for it? Well, you’re gonna get paid in attention. And I know you cannot pay your rent, I mean, I know…
... Honestly, you cannot pay your rent with attention. I mean, I’ve tried. You can’t buy fast cars; there’s all sorts of stuff you can’t buy with it. But it has value, and you’d be surprised at what happens when it builds up.

And Gruber quoting Mann, summing this point up:

Don’t do stuff that seems profitable, but potentially messes up the reason people like you.