Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

writing

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The hobbyists (and one prominent pro — Seth Godin) profess that it’s the opposite that has the most positive impact on your life and mental health: short-form writing, and just getting your ideas out there. They’re correct.


It's All About the Work

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates.

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, writing this article. I’ve always loved writing, whether it was cringe-worthy journal entries as a kid or my short-lived career as a journalist. 

I respect and admire the many journalists doing the often-thankless work of keeping us informed. But, after spending time in a few newsrooms, I realized it wasn’t the profession for me. Looking at Facebook, that applies to many of my fellow journalism school graduates. A few have stuck with it, but most are working in decidedly non-journalism jobs these days.

My favourite part of working in a newsroom was the opportunity to solicit feedback from fellow journalists, photographers, editors, and the paper’s readership. You get feedback on your writing, whether you want it or not. At best, you hear reasoned arguments and opinions. At worst, you get a valuable opportunity to develop a thicker skin.

But these days, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, anyone can publish their work and receive feedback. It wasn’t all that long ago you had to wait for someone to write a letter or call the newsroom. Now, feedback hits your inbox almost daily.

With sites like Reddit & Hacker News, it’s possible for thousands — or millions — of people to read what you write. If your post ranks highly enough, your traffic goes through the roof, newsletter signups skyrocket, and your inbox gets slammed.

I was on the receiving end of it, once, when I wrote Be Kind.

I posted it to Hacker News one Friday, on a whim. Much to my surprise, it quickly climbed to the #1 spot. For many of you, this was your introduction to the Monday Mailer.

For a few days, I felt great. I saw the number of people visiting the site, signing up for the newsletter, and emailing me and thought I’d finally “made it.” Whatever that means.

But, eventually, it all came to an end. My website traffic went back down to pre-Hacker News levels. The rate of newsletter signups dropped off. The majority of the emails stopped coming.

In the end, I had the same thing I’d started with: the work.

I’ve been lucky to meet and chat with a few people who are prominent online. Despite their Internet fame, they’re all regular folks like you and I. They’re busy working at a job, or running a business. They’re raising a family. They’re working hard to build an audience for their work. They’re putting their voices out into the world, despite their fears.

The one thing they all obsess over? How best to do their work.

They want to get better, work fucking hard, get to know their audiences, and find ways to help them. To build products that improve people’s lives or jobs. To have real conversations about doing good work.

The work never really goes away. It’s always there. You can accomplish audacious goals, becoming well-known in your community, and earn a lot of money. But, in the end, none of it matters. The work will still be there, waiting for you.

Temporary “fame” will change your brain if you let it. You create something new, it gains a following, and suddenly all you care about is numbers. And once those numbers start to decline — and they will — you’ll do anything to keep them growing. It’s why scam artists find financial success selling “50 Ways to Turbocharge Your Newsletter” courses.

You stop caring about the people consuming your work and start caring about how many unique visitors your site had last month. Or how many Twitter followers you have. Or how your podcast’s downloads are faring.

It’s the wrong path.

In the words of Charles Bukowski:

“Find something you love and let it kill you.”

You can read every blog post about marketing, shell out thousands of dollars for online courses, and tweak your social media presence until the cows come home. But, in the end, all that’s left is you, a laptop, and the work. So you’d damn well better love it.

Love the work. Love the process. Love the act of working. Protect that love and put it into everything you do. It’s all you have.

You aren’t guaranteed anything in this life, except the opportunity to work hard.

Embrace it.

Until next week,

-Brian


How to Start Writing

Writing and publishing the Monday Mailer has been one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had online. It’s allowed me to share my work, improve my writing, and connect with people all over the world. I often hear from folks who want to start writing on a regular basis but don’t know where to begin. It’s easy to look at individuals who write and publish new articles multiple times a week, like Seth Godin, and feel intimidated.

Writing and publishing the Monday Mailer has been one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had online. It’s allowed me to share my work, improve my writing, and connect with people all over the world. I often hear from folks who want to start writing on a regular basis but don’t know where to begin.

It’s easy to look at individuals who write and publish new articles multiple times a week, like Seth Godin, and feel intimidated. But it’s important to remember that everyone, from world-class authors to niche bloggers, starts at the same place: zero.

Zero writing skills. Zero online presence. Zero audience. Zip. Zilch.

If those people can improve their skills, publish on a regular basis, and build an audience, so can you. It all comes down to consistent, daily practice. Putting your butt in the chair and doing the work. Start by setting a target; maybe 250-500 words a day. Every day. No matter what

In the beginning, write without worrying about proper spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t get hung up on that stuff. It’s far more important to focus on creating a new habit; on making words happen with some regularity. What you write might suck, at first. That’s perfectly normal, and should be expected. You’ll want to throw it all away, but I encourage you to resist the urge. One day you’ll look back at those early pieces and marvel at how much you’ve improved.

Write about your life, your challenges, or something you’ve learned recently. Write about the weird thing your dog did this morning. Write about your relationships, or your career. Whatever pops into your head. Try to be vulnerable and honest. Everything under the sun has been written about before, but no one can replicate your experiences and what they’ve brought to your life. You have a unique angle on just about everything – express it!

With time and a bit of dedicated practice, you’ll be cranking words out in no time. That’s what I love about writing. You may not be the next Stephen King or have formal training, but you don’t need it. You don’t need to wait until someone else proclaims you a “Writer.”

As long as you’re writing, you’re a writer. So, get to work.

Until next time,

–Brian


Make a (Public) Commitment

I’m writing this article because I have to – I’ve set a deadline. One new article a week, no matter what. It’s a time limit that’s entirely self-imposed, but I’ve committed to it publicly, and now I have to stick to it. Setting a deadline and sharing it with the world is the most effective strategy I’ve found to force myself to be productive. The more public the commitment, the better.

I’m writing this article because I have to – I’ve set a deadline. One new article a week, no matter what. It’s a time limit that’s entirely self-imposed, but I’ve committed to it publicly, and now I have to stick to it.

Setting a deadline and sharing it with the world is the most effective strategy I’ve found to force myself to be productive. The more public the commitment, the better. If I tell everyone I’m going to write one article a week and fail, I’m going to feel pretty awful. So, I work hard to make sure I don’t have to feel that way.

It’s a strategy I’ve used in my personal life, too.

For a long time, I hated running. I tried it a few times over the years, but always gave up. I’d look at the thin people running laps around me and decide, time and time again, that running just wasn’t for me. I hated that I gave up so quickly. So this summer, when a coworker started recruiting people for a 5k, I decided to make a change.

Before I could second-guess myself, I signed up for the race and paid the registration fee. This time I would have to stick with it. Otherwise, I’d end up looking pretty bad in front of my team. I committed. To up the ante even more, I tracked my runs with Strava and posted the results to our Slack channel, along with Twitter and Instagram. Lots of people responded with words of encouragement – which felt great. But it also made me feel accountable to them.

In October, I ran my first 5k without stopping. A small distance for most of you, I’m sure. But to me, it felt like all the distance in the world. It was easily my biggest accomplishment of the year.

To become good at our work, we have to put the hours in. A deadline, announced publicly, forces you to stop being precious. It kills perfectionism and resistance to just getting shit done. The more deadlines I set, and commitments I make to other people, the more I’m able to get done.

Until next time,

–Brian