Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

fear

Start Paddling

I’ve launched a lot of side projects over the course of my career, but I still get nervous each and every time — especially when I’m trying something for the first time, like selling an icon set or an Apple TV app. A laundry list of doubts creeps into my brain. What if nobody likes it? What if there’s a bug I haven’t found? What if it turns out I’m not all that good at this programming thing?

I’ve launched a lot of side projects over the course of my career, but I still get nervous each and every time — especially when I’m trying something for the first time, like selling an icon set or an Apple TV app. A laundry list of doubts creeps into my brain.

What if nobody likes it?

What if there’s a bug I haven’t found?

What if it turns out I’m not all that good at this programming thing?

My hand hovers over the keyboard. I could walk away without risking anything, I tell myself.

And then I launch it anyway.

It isn’t because I’m brave, or free of fear. It’s because, over the years, I’ve learned pushing through my fears is the only way to learn and grow. 

You can plan all you want. You can fiddle with a landing page design until your eyes bleed. You can hem and haw, and worry how your side project will be received. But, in the end, you only make progress when you look over the edge of the cliff and jump. You’re never going to feel ready.

It’s easy to sit around forever, waiting for the moment you feel prepared to dive into something new. But that moment is never going to come. You always could have worked more, tested more, practiced more. There’s always something more you could have done. But, at some point, you have to launch the damn thing.

I often think about the first time I went whitewater rafting. One of the first things they teach you is you don’t sit in the raft; you sit on the edge of it, right next to the rushing water. I won’t lie; it scared the crap out of me. I constantly felt off-balance, and I was sure I’d end up in the drink at any moment.

But here’s the secret: the only way to keep your balance is to paddle. It’s only by putting your oar in the water and getting to work that you’ll stay in the boat. If you wait until you feel stable, you’ll be waiting a long time. Because it never feels stable. 

Unless you have a crystal ball — and let’s talk, if you do — you’ll never be able to look into the future. Accept that you’ll make mistakes and be criticized, no matter what you do. Pick a direction and get moving.

Perfection is something you can strive for, but you’ll never reach it. Launching something imperfect can feel risky, to be certain. But I think it’s a far bigger risk never to launch it at all.

Until next time,

-Brian


What's Your North Star?

On a clear night, with just the right conditions, there’s about 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. As far back as the 2nd century, human beings have looked to those stars to help determine their location and heading. And none is more well-known than the North Star. The North Star has one unique property: it never moves. Okay, that isn’t strictly true. But for all intents and purposes, you can count on it staying put — right above the North Pole.

On a clear night, with just the right conditions, there’s about 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. As far back as the 2nd century, human beings have looked to those stars to help determine their location and heading. And none is more well-known than the North Star.

The North Star has one unique property: it never moves. Okay, that isn’t strictly true. But for all intents and purposes, you can count on it staying put — right above the North Pole. If you were trying to navigate in the days before GPS, knowing which way was north turned out to be pretty handy.

When it comes to doing our best work, I think we all need our version of a North Star — something that reminds us where we’re going and what we’re trying to accomplish. My North Star is “Be Useful.” When I’m feeling lost, unsure of what to do next, or stuck, I know I can’t go wrong trying to bring value to someone else.

I’ve said before that procrastination is a byproduct of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of other people’s opinions. Fear of not being “good enough.” But I think there’s another angle.

Procrastination is forgetting our North Star.

When we get stuck on a project, it’s helpful to remember why we started working on it in the first place. Most of my early side projects were a response to a job I hated. The work was uninspiring, the clients were awful, and I wasn’t learning anything new. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a better job with the kind of work I’d been doing. So one night, at the peak of frustration, I said “fuck it” and started coding. I realized there was only one person who could change my situation: me.

You’d think that would be sufficient motivation to carry me through to the end of the project. But it wasn’t. There we so many nights where all I wanted to do was flop onto the couch and watch TV. But it didn’t take long before a tiny voice in my head spoke up.

“I thought you wanted more than this?”

Once I remembered my purpose — my North Star — it became hard to justify six hours of TV on the couch.

Your North Star can be anything that speaks to the heart of why you started a side project in the first place. Landing a more fulfilling job, satisfying the creative half of your brain, improving your skills, or creating a better life for those you love.

No one can tell you what your North Star is. It’s something you have to decide for yourself. So decide, right now. Write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.

And when those dark, tired moments happen — and they will happen — take a look at that piece of paper, and remind yourself of what drives you.

Until next time,

–Brian


Crossing the Finish Line

Before I dive into this week’s article, I want to extend a warm welcome to everyone joining us for the first time. After Be Kind reached the top of Hacker News, the Monday Mailer grew by more than 600 subscribers – in less than 48 hours. I’m glad you’re here! Have you ever found yourself close to finishing a side project, only to become stymied by one last task you need to complete?

Before I dive into this week’s article, I want to extend a warm welcome to everyone joining us for the first time. After Be Kind reached the top of Hacker News, the Monday Mailer grew by more than 600 subscribers – in less than 48 hours. I’m glad you’re here!


Have you ever found yourself close to finishing a side project, only to become stymied by one last task you need to complete? You have to figure out how to integrate Stripe payments. Or you’re futzing around with the landing page design. You know you should just ship the damn thing but, for whatever reason, you can’t.

It feels like running the New York Marathon. Except when you near the finish line, there’s a brick wall in your way. At that point many of us give up and walk away, promising to do better next time. But the cycle continues. We start the next project full of energy. Then, as we near the finish line, we stall. Again.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone. Here’s a gem Facebook surfaced recently. 

Facebook Screenshot

I never did ship that project, by the way. If I had a nickel for every side project I’ve abandoned, I’d be living large right now.

Why do we allow ourselves to get so far, only to succumb to procrastination? 

Often, deep down, it’s because we’re afraid. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what our family and friends will think. Afraid that, if everything isn’t just perfect, we’ll have wasted our time. Afraid that we’ve built something nobody wants. It’s safer to keep fiddling around – secure in the knowledge that, as long as the project sits on our hard drive, we don’t have to risk anything. 

It’s self-sabotage. And, for those of us trying to do our best work, build an audience, and make an impact, it’s a habit we have to break.

A lot of times people fall into this pattern because they put the concept of “Launch Day” on a pedestal. They think they get one shot to reach a huge number of people and impress them. They’re not only wrong – they’re limiting their audience

When I started working on Chronicons, my icon set for Apple Watch apps, I took the opposite approach. Instead of hiding it away from prying eyes, I shared what I was doing as often as possible. I wrote about it on my blog, posted updates on Twitter, and solicited feedback on Dribbble. I got valuable comments and advice from designers around the world and built up an audience of people who couldn’t wait to buy from me. And they stuck around once the launch had come and gone! It’s a process I’ve repeated a few times since, with similar results. 

I won’t lie – it’s hard to do, the first few times. But it gets easier with practice.

You side project could be a huge hit. Or, it could be a disappointing flop. But until you can set aside your fears and share it with the world, you’ll never find out. 

You – and your work – deserve better.

Until next time,

–Brian