The Kanye West Religion (Part 1)

Image: Rich Fury/VF20/Vanity Fair/Getty Images

Who Is This For?

  • Artists and creative independents. Kanye West’s most recent albums sound nothing like the one before. In an age of blockbusters and calculated risk, he proclaims his strategy is no strategy. Yet he has also cultivated one of the most fervent fan bases, rivaling the Beyhive, Beliebers, and the Swifties. Rolling Stone and Billboard said he made the best recording album of the 2010s. Love him or hate him, there’s something to learn.
  • Leaders. Kanye took his fanbase, his investments into product, and his reputation, and figured out how to create and extract hundreds of million dollars worth of value from it. In an age where the artist has been declared dead, Kanye transcends. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a CEO, or a politician, you’ll get a lot from understanding his psychology and what convinces people—fans or collaborators—to buy into his thoughts.
  • Thinkers. From popular culture to high fashion, and business to politics, Kanye West understands the world from a unique perspective and has taken the time to develop his own worldview. It’s important to discern the values behind what he talks about, because his words hold weight with a lot of people. It’s like how Kanye’s alma mater Nike talks about athletes. If you’re a human being, you’re a thinker—and you’re going to find this piece really interesting.

See, I invented Kanye,
It wasn’t any Kanyes,
And now I look and look around,
And there’s so many Kanyes.
— I Love Kanye,” Kanye West, 2016

Kanye West is not Picasso
I am Picasso
Kanye West is not Edison
I am Edison
I am Tesla
Jay-Z is not the Dylan of anything
I am the Dylan of anything
I am the Kanye West of Kanye West
The Kanye West
Of the great bogus shift of bullshit culture
From one boutique to another
I am Tesla
I am his coil
The coil that made electricity soft as a bed
I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is
When he shoves your ass off the stage
I am the real Kanye West
I don’t get around much anymore
I never have
I only come alive after a war
And we have not had it yet
Leonard Cohen, 2015

Like our own stories, we know how this one ends. But unlike our stories, anything that could happen has happened to Kanye West, and we have literally no idea what will happen next. Some of us have chosen to stop watching, but most of us don’t. Before the 21 Grammys, before Rolling Stone and Billboard, before the Adidas and Gap deals that would make him a billionaire, only Kanye knew that he would be the greatest artist of our generation.

This is the first of a series covering the religion of Kanye West. I read Mario Gabriele’s piece on Modern Gospels, and I had to do it. Gabriele’s piece introduced me to sociologist Émile Durkheim, who says a religion consists of three elements: 

  • “A unified system of beliefs and practices”—the values, practices, and beliefs that bind Kanye’s followers to his religion
  • “Sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden”—Kanye himself, his creative process, and his products (see the Kanye halo effect)
  • “One single moral community called a Church”—the companies, communities, and individuals who have bought into Kanye West’s beliefs and practices

Jargon alert: This piece will introduce Kanye West and cover one unified belief of the sacred object that ties the moral community together. I would love to do more parts that cover the other unified beliefs, as well as the Kanye West mythology and how he became a sacred object. I’d also like to write about the collective effervescence that sustains it (through concerts, products, and content), as well as the moral community (the Churches of Kanye). If you end up getting something from this article, consider buying my latest book, which was written with the spirit of Kanye West’s creative process.

Fervent celebrity worship is nothing new—for example, the church of John Coltrane has stood for over five decades. But even then, the case of Kanye West unlike any other. Love him or hate him, Kanye’s influence on today’s culture is undeniable. His admirers have ascended into powerful positions (e.g., Donald Glover has called himself the son of Kanye). Many of his collaborators have as well—the most prominent exhibit would be Virgil Abloh, who took the coveted menswear designer position at LVMH.

People worship Kanye the way they worship Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, etc… Maybe even moreso, frankly. Some of these people carry the big bucks. Consider how Gap Inc., a Fortune 500 company, is betting on Kanye’s company, brand, and product insights to turn its core business around

Creating a religion is a simple feat the same way telling a story is a simple feat; it starts easy, but it’s actually really difficult. The hardest parts involve believing in yourself, getting people to care and believe you, and actually making the story come true.

This is an investigation into why people care about Kanye. Ever since he released 808s and Heartbreak, people have considered Kanye’s career to be increasingly irrelevant. Yet, not only does he survive, he thrives. It’s not merely the controversy; otherwise, we would still be watching Charlie Sheen and Tekashi69. Why did you click into this article? Why do we care?

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” Jay-Z rapped on “Diamonds (Remix)” with Kanye West. Kanye is no longer just a business or a brand—he has informally created a modern gospel that his fans can latch on to and incorporate into the world. Here’s what it looks like, and why it works.

Disclaimer: Kanye West as a person is different from his persona, I imagine, and I don’t know the guy personally. Like many in the Church of Kanye, I am only familiar with the persona—the one at the core of millions, if not billions, of parasocial relationships. Like Kanye says, I’m going to use that disadvantage as my advantage though.

I wrote this for entertainment value. Other people have written books about this topic, so feel free to look into them if you want a comprehensive, academic, view of Kanye West’s religion. For now, I see this as a foundational sketch—not a final painting—of his work. An introduction to ideas beyond the headlines, perhaps like a demo of a song, if you will… 

Kanye, the Free Thinker

These past few years, we’ve heard Kanye West repeatedly compare himself to people like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Karl Lagerfeld, Howard Hughes, Michael Jackson, and such. These comparisons don’t hint at his intellectual background necessarily—they’re references for what Kanye wants people to see his possibilities as. He says, “In no way do I want to be the next any one of them. But I am the first me. So I only mention those other names to try to give people a little bit of context.” 

The most prominent intellectual influence on Kanye West happened at home; his mother, Professor Donda West. Donda West was a notable English professor at Chicago State University, whose dissertation involved systems approaches to education (as seen in the recently published Donda’s Rules). 

It’s clear Donda West’s expertise provided Kanye with a wealth of literary experience and systems thinking to draw from. Through his mother, Kanye became the product of some of the world’s most forward literary thinkers. The world owes Donda West a lot more credit for cultivating Kanye West to be the genius he is. 

While Kanye was growing up, his mother made church an important pillar of their lives. On p. 138 of Raising Kanye, Donda West writes:

We’d go every Sunday to Christ Universal Temple in Chicago. I liked the church because the minister, Johnnie Colemon, preached prosperity. I had belonged to Hillside Church, which was very similar, before moving from Atlanta, and would take Kanye there. Barbara King, the minister there, was also a very spiritual and progressive thinker. I wanted Kanye to be steeped in that kind of exposure to God. I never bought into the fire-and-brimstone type of religion or one that was repressive. Certainly, I would not expose Kanye to that. But I felt compelled to see to it that a spiritual component was a key part of Kanye’s upbringing.

Colemon’s and King’s churches are associated with New Thought, a metaphysical movement encouraging positive thinking, and material wealth as a sign of God’s blessings. There are many movements that fall into New Thought, the most popular one today might be The Secret and the Law of Attraction. Other contemporaries include Goop and Soulcycle. 

The fusion of New Thought and Christianity is known as prosperity gospel, the term for a variation of Christianity which proposes that through faith and hard work, God will make your financial and physical dreams come true. 

This childhood exposure to prosperity gospel and New Thought is also a core belief, or as Kanye puts it, the “dragon energy,” that binds Kanye West and Donald Trump together. Fred Trump would take a young Donald Trump to Marble Collegiate Church to listen to Norman Vincent Peale’s speeches. Peale is the author of The Power of Positive Thinking

Kanye’s mentor and “big brother,” Jay-Z, has been at least a dabbler of new thought, recommending books like The Seat of the Soul, as well The Celestine Prophecy. Similarly, a writer Kanye West works with, Sakiya Sandifer, is a proponent of new thought as well. 

Kate Bowler, author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, describes New Thought: “Adherents, acting in accordance with divine principles, relied on their minds to transform thought and speech into heaven-sent blessings.” Three aspects of New Thought are rooted in the twentieth-century’s view on how the power of the mind:

  • High anthropology: God and humanity separated only by degree
  • Priority of spiritual reality: The world should be reimagined as thought, rather than substance
  • Generative power of positive thought: People share in God’s power to create by means of thought; they can shape their own worlds by their thinking

And ever since he became a reborn Christian, Kanye’s particular Christianity is the one of his youth—prosperity gospel. He’s hanging out with Joel Osteen. Here’s an example of something Joel Osteen has said, “The guilt is finished. The depression is finished. The low self-esteem is finished. The mediocrity is finished. It is all finished.” Kanye speaks publicly with the tenets of New Thought; here’s an example.

Kate Bowler identifies three intersecting streams of prosperity gospel: 

  • Pentecostalism: A direct, personal, experience with God
  • New Thought: Channel your mind’s powers through divine principles to manifest blessings
  • The American gospel of pragmatism, individualism, and upward mobility

My friends would say that I am a huge fan of Kanye West. A few years ago, I even made an unofficial sequel to his book. It started when I looked at my iTunes Most Played playlist and saw Kanye all over it. These days, even though I’ve never bought a Yeezy-related product, I still like the music, but it’s his interviews that stay on my mind. I didn’t realize why I found his ideas so appealing until this essay; and once I did, I couldn’t unsee it. This abstract, intertwined, nature of New Thought completely fits in with Kanye’s persona. For example, this essay he wrote for PAPER oozes it. Here’s the opening: 

I know people want to talk about the American Dream, but my dream is a world dream. It’s a world in which everyone’s main goal would be to help each other. The first thing I told my team on New Year’s Day was, “You know, people say bad news travels fast, but this year let’s make good news travel faster.” You get back what you put out, and the more positive energy you put out, the more positive energy you’ll get back.

Clearly, Kanye West values his ideas and thoughts. He has likened his ideas to oxygen, calling free thinking his superpower. He is known for his convicted, contrarian, stances—supporting Trump against the norm of his industry and the media. Even his debut album, entitled The College Dropout, suggested an alternative to higher education and student debt (“Use school, don’t let school use you,” used to be one of Kanye’s favorite sayings—Raising Kanye, p. 104).

Influences on Kanye

There is no shortage of influences on Kanye West. Early collaborator GLC has likened Kanye to a sponge, explaining that Kanye’s behavior changes to adapt to whomever he is around. This expands beyond just his peers—Kanye has been said to take feedback on his music from a delivery guy in his studio. The influences around the sponge change fast and slow, but Kanye remains the nucleus.

Of course, there’s his father Ray West, whom Kanye spent summers with. Pharrell Williams was an early role model for Kanye’s career, fusing the worlds of “real fashion” and hip hop. The late fashion designer Louise Wilson supported Kanye’s fashion efforts. 

Charlie Munger may doubt Kanye West’s wisdom, mainly because Kanye is a non-reader of books. But, Kanye also just hires the people he admires to consult with him. (For example, Kanye met Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director of Holy Mountain, the film he put muted on repeat during recording.)

As for the rest of the time he could have spent reading books, Kanye West watches a lot of movies, which influences his thought, his contextual and aesthetic references, and his creative output. (I’m still waiting on that Watching the Throne movie interview.) For example, he has said, “The Matrix is like the Bible of the post information age.” 

Even amongst celebrities, Kanye is probably one of the most well-connected across industries. Elon Musk wrote his TIME essay. He made a film with Spike Jonze, and another with Nick Knight. He funds James Turrell’s spaces. He got his wife on the cover of Vogue, thanks to Anna Wintour. 

Now that we’ve established some of Kanye West’s intellectual and spiritual roots, we can dive into the first of the unified beliefs that bring his moral community together. 

Belief One: Everyone can Be a Genius

I am one with the people. — Saint Pablo, Kanye West, 2016

The throughline of New Thought is the idea that your mind can unlock the secrets to a better life. There are variations of this—for example, the Law of Attraction suggests that your mind attracts what it is focused on. If it’s obsessed with the positive, it will attract positive people and outcomes. If it’s focused on the negative, it will attract negative outcomes.

The tenets of the New Thought movement are outstanding in our culture today. It is intertwined with spirituality, the American Dream, and even with medicine. It is about believing in yourself, and making your dreams come true against any circumstance. Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise when Kanye says something like… 

“Go listen to all my music, it’s the codes of self esteem. It’s the codes of who you are,” he says in the Zane Lowe (2013) interview. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe that you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.”

In a podcast around the same era, he says to Bret Easton Ellis (36:00), “I’m not concerned with people liking me. I’m concerned with people liking themselves more.” Or as he says to David Letterman, “I love people being the maximum version of their character. I love people being themselves.”

From this perspective, Kanye is a humanist. Soylent co-founder and former CEO Rob Rhinehart writes, “Kanye West is a genius. But more importantly, he realizes that everyone is a genius. They just forgot. He knows how to inspire people. He will bring out the best in people.” 

Kanye believes that most people are controlled by fear, and limited by their perception of themselves. Society programs most people that way, to control them. After saying that we’re at war with terrorism, and racism, he raps, “But most of all, we’re at war with ourselves,” on “Jesus Walks.” By contrast, Kanye was named, “Only one,” and raised to believe that he could overcome any limit. He wants his music to enable all other people to do the same.

The first key to that, of course, is bringing out the best in himself. He committed decades of his life, and tens of millions of dollars, to the mastery of music and fashion. For example, even though he won Grammy Awards as a rapper, he says (5:15), he was the weakest rapper out of the people in the groups he was a part of. Kanye overcame this with his work ethic, which almost indirectly killed him in 2002—he fell asleep at the wheel, causing a near-fatal car accident.

Make the Most of Today, Because Life is Impermanent

Image: “A Life Restored,” by Ernie Barnes. Commissioned by Kanye West.

The shock of the near death experience, paired with the time allowed for recovery, set Kanye up to finally release his debut album The College Dropout, which set the stage for his artist career. Kanye credits God as the central force of the album, saying to Charlie Rose, “The music on this CD—I was only the vessel for this. God was in the studio with me. In the future, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make anything like this. This was my healing process. This was my rehabilitation CD.” 

The first words of his Grammy speech are, “When I had my accident, I found out at that moment nothing in life is promised, except death. If you have the opportunity to play this game of life, you need to appreciate every moment.” Kanye doesn’t fret about existentialism; he speaks with purpose. He says, “We’re all going to die one day. Live like that. Live like you could die tomorrow. Go for it.” 

The accident also made Kanye even less patient than he was before. He says, “I think I started to approach time in a different way after the accident. Before I was more willing to give my time to people and things that I wasn’t as interested in because somehow I allowed myself to be brainwashed into being forced to work with other people or on other projects that I had no interest in. So simply, the accident gave me the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do.”

He is unwilling to compromise not only on his goals, but also on his approach. “Waiting for everyone to agree may take too long. I’m not going to sit inside a corporation for 20 years. The time is now. The time is now to express, and for people to believe in themselves. The time is now for it to be okay to be great. People in this world shun people for being great; for being a bright color, for standing out. But the time is now to be okay to be the greatest you.”

Be the Greatest You

Perhaps these sacrifices have earned him the right to declare that he is a genius, which he does constantly. His approach stands out to his predecessor, Pharell Williams, who once said, “Credit isn’t to be taken, it’s to be given.” For his sixth album, Kanye even recorded a song entitled, “I Am A God.” To be clear, as he sings, he is not “the Most High,” but he is “a close high.” 

One of Kanye’s unique traits is, through his songs, he has the capability of getting people to repeat his words. Fans of hip-hop know this well—when we rap out the songs, we put ourselves in the artist’s position. If Kanye is saying, “Wait till I get my money right/Then you can’t tell me nothing right,” he’s not saying that to us—we’re saying it to someone else. In Trying Not to Try, Edward Slingerland writes (p. 74), “One early Warring States Confucian text notes that what is special about music is “its ability to enter inside and pluck at the heartstrings.’”

This is one of the ultimate draws of being a Kanye fan, and one of the foundations of his religion. He elicits a wishful identification in listeners, one of supreme confidence, and capability to exceed any circumstance. 

And these days, a lot of people are facing a lot of tough circumstances. We are all told the rich are getting richer, faster. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We see people showing off on our social media feeds, while we’re just trying to get by. People want—need—hope.

Kanye has spoken on self-love, and owns the hypocrisy and contradictions of being himself. He says, “People say I’m a hypocrite, right? Yes, I am. 100%. I’m a human being. I’m super hypocritical. I can feel something one time, and completely a different way another time.” Or as he describes it, “I think just my usual pattern is like that. It’s like a pendulum. The pendulum gains momentum by swinging in the other direction.” 

You might call this an excuse, but Kanye also embodies dialectical thinking—constantly switching and stretching between contradictory trains of thought. He won’t let practicality and reality get in the way of his dreams. (He even calls reality a negative word.)

Viewed from this perspective, if he had an opportunity, why wouldn’t he run for president? It’s not like the media has been kind to him—nor has he been courting the media.

Kanye has an extremely internal locus of self, expanding his responsibilities to the point where he blamed himself for the death of his mother. “If I had lived in New York, she’d still be here. That’s how I really feel. A lot of my apprehension toward celebrity and pop culture comes from the concept of real versus fake.” 

Everybody Is Equal

If everyone could be a genius, that makes no one person inherently better than another. In the 2000s, Kanye pushed for justice in racism. In the 2010s, Kanye has pushed to level classism in all sorts of ways—making music about it, but also creating clothing to make rich people dress like homeless people. These types of responses are exactly what he wanted.

Kanye is interested in designing cities, but he chose to start with homeless shelters—which are placed in nearly every interview he has spoken of lately. Another musician recalls Kanye spending $100,000 to personally rehabilitate a homeless man.

That wasn’t the only time Kanye has said he was the vessel for God; he has also positioned himself as a servant. He has also talked about how God made him a billionaire to show off to the rest of the world.

The Legacy Continues

Kanye’s unified belief is one that is core to his personality. Because of his background in New Thought, he believes that everyone can be a genius, but most people are programmed not to be. He sees his responsibility to break that programming, and to help people tap into their inner confidence, creativity, and genius. He has a genuine desire to help the world, in his way (even from a young age, he stole khakis for his friend, only to have his friend steal his chain from him). 

In order to tell a good story, you need to genuinely believe it. You need to tap into your feelings, into the core of your being, and where your convictions are. If you don’t believe you have any convictions, then you need to dig deeper—back into your childhood, back into the things you believe the most. Don’t let facts hold you back from what your feelings tell you. 

This level of conviction and belief is what will connect you with other people and encourage them to buy into your work and your movement. You can’t artificially cook up a story out of this; you have to do the psychological work to make those connections.

“Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” Kanye demands on his song, “Feedback.” Kanye’s life and work are incarnations of this line. You can count on Kanye to say how he feels, and with conviction. On songs, his words come out perfectly; in live interviews, they’re muddled and phrased in literally one of the worst possible ways he could have said. 

This is just the first, most fundamental, belief that turns casual listeners and buyers into fervent followers. People return to the Church of Kanye for a renewal in confidence in themselves, which Kanye provides them happily. There are a few other beliefs that tie the Church of Kanye together, as well as the sacred objects—Kanye’s content, products, and of course Kanye himself—that people put their energy into and build relationships with. 

In future posts, I also hope to further explore how Kanye distinguished himself from the other “demigods” of celebrity and entertainment, and the many numerous cores that support Kanye’s moves. (Shouts to r/WestSubEver, r/kanye, KTT2, TeamKanyeDaily, Watching the Throne, YeezyMafia… I’m sure unintentionally left some out for now, but—if you know, you know.) 

If you like what you read, you can support me by buying my book! A lot of Kanye’s creative process is in it—as well as insights from his collaborators, including Joe Perez, DJ Dahi, and Virgil Abloh.

Announcing: There Is No Right Way to Do This & How You Can Get Involved

This isn’t the order page for my upcoming book, but it’s just as important.

There Is No Right Way to Do This is my first book, and I’m publishing it myself. As such, I’m writing to ask for your support. This book has been developing since I wrote this blog post seven years ago. I wrote it for anyone who wants to learn a new skill, or to gain a new perspective on an old one. 

I’m asking you, my friends and readers, for help in marketing the book and sharing it with people who would benefit from it. If you know someone who has a large audience (an influencer at Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Reddit), someone who runs their own blog, podcast, or newsletter, or someone who works in journalism or media who might be interested, please let me know. My mind is open to anything, and my release date will be November 8.

If you have ideas, suggestions, or have a large audience of your own, I’d be interested in hearing from you. Please fill out the form below with your ideas on how you can support the launch, and I will be eternally grateful.

The Agile Writer

A key concept I learned when I worked at Xtreme Labs was the idea of agility. Agile development was one of the distinctive features of their services. Xtreme believed that this style of programming, driven by weekly releases of a project to their clients at the end of every week, enabled better speed and quality. Xtreme Labs made mobile apps, for companies like Facebook, Uber, and Twitter — amongst many others.

A simple example: a client project might start as a set of wireframes the first week, then a rapid prototype the second, a core app the third, with new features being built every week. Through client meetings and internal demos, the project teams also took in feedback every week. 

Image via: Hackernoon

This stands out in contrast to the “old way,” waterfall development, in which clients wouldn’t see updates on a project until it was close to completely finished.

I started working at Xtreme Labs during my fourth year in college, and it really imprinted the virtue of speed into my mind. (It would be years before I recognized the virtues of slowness as well. More on this another time.)

The philosophies and ideas of agile are straightforward enough, but in practice, it takes focus, discipline, and critical thinking. Executing on this simplicity provided Xtreme Labs with many clients, and ultimately a $65 million acquisition.

As the pace of the world accelerates, being “agile” will matter more to every field and all sorts of work. The people who are quick enough to keep up with change, and adapt, will be the ones that can exploit the marketplace. This applies to the craft of writing. People are applying the principles of agile into their work. Here are three ways they manifest agility in their writing process to take their work to the next level: 

Constant Releases Enable Experimentation and Understanding

The benefits to agile are the constant releases, which ensures constant feedback, which ensures constant progress. In The Phoenix Project, a business fable about continuous improvement (another theme in agile programming), an operations guru tells the protagonist to, “Figure out how to get to ten deploys a day.” I recently heard entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk say to Shopify founder Tobi Lutke that he wanted to ship 4,000 pieces of content a day

Erik, probably invoking the same thinking behind Gary, elaborates, “If you can’t out-experiment and beat your competitors in time to market and agility, you are sunk. Features are always a gamble. If you’re lucky, ten percent will get the desired benefits. So the faster you can get those features to market and test them, the better off you’ll be.” Features, like content, are also a lottery.

The constant smaller, less promoted, releases create opportunities for active learning, but it requires working smaller and writing in serials. Every piece of writing you make is an opportunity to get feedback. Similar to agile programming, writing can be a team sport. And more importantly, don’t promote everything the same way — save your promotional efforts when you know you’ve worked on something that will resonate.

Define Your Criteria to Preserve Quality

The challenge is, it’s not difficult to make something fast; rather, it takes time for good work to get done. Thinking. Re-thinking. Writing. Re-writing. Author Robert Caro deliberately writes by hand so he can slow himself down. He triple spaces his words and edits by hand. It’s important for the material to make a good first impression; for him to craft it in the way that he meant to. 

It’s arguable that products and features are more objective; they either work, or they don’t. But that’s not entirely true, either. There is an art to building a product roadmap, and choosing the path to roll out the product. If the product team takes shortcuts, design and technical debt accumulates, and the user experience eventually breaks.

Certainly, for testing apps, quality assurance can be automated; and there’s always Grammarly to automate proofreading. But if you’re going to write and release more, you need to define what’s acceptable to you and to meet those goals — not necessarily to aim for perfection, every time.

Collect Feedback from People

Agile doesn’t mean thrashing away at creating high quantities of meaningless features. In the world of agile development, there is a product manager who plans and guides the roadmap, there are developers and designers who execute it, and there’s a product owner (or client) who provides feedback.

The agile writer doesn’t have (or need) such a large team, so they need to do this themselves. They need to integrate the roadmap of their writing, and the execution; they need to decide what their goal is, what to write, and then actually write it. They will need feedback, which an audience will provide. 

Having followers is absolutely invaluable; I’ve seen Daniel Vassallo, and Nat Elaisson, both test out and validate their new product ideas with a single tweet — practically on the fly. 

Even without such large audiences, the agile writer needs to work harder to collect feedback, which takes away from their agility. Instead of live feedback from a single tweet, an agile writer without an audience can search for readers. It might be at a forum, a subreddit, or their friends.

The agile writer works to build this audience with their work. They execute and release new content continuously. They scope and size their creative work, so they can make sure they don’t bite off more than they can chew. And of course, they also take in feedback and understand which articles do well, and which do not.

With this continuous release comes lower stakes, less pressure, and a greater flow of creativity. When every day provides an opportunity, the next release doesn’t seem so ominous. 

The Elements of an Agile Writer

Agile programming is full of weekly milestones and feedback points, but the promotional efforts take place when the app is finally launched. Similarly, an agile writer may take time to show people — individually, at first, if they must — and to gain an audience. 

As they continue writing and learning, the agile writer can eventually plan and work their way to make something big. Something that they know will resonate, based on their learning and the feedback. 

Then, they can put their full efforts into promoting that piece of work, and growing their audience with a massive promotional effort. 

When the circle comes to an end, they start the journey back around again. Such is the life of an agile writer.

Your Success Does Not Depend on Productivity Rules

Your productivity settings should evolve to keep up with you, not the other way around

Image: Helena Lopes/Unsplash

Productivity advice seems to be everywhere these days, but the more you read, the more you’ll see its contradictions. 

For example, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen used to advise against keeping a schedule, but now he keeps a really close schedule.

If different people — or even the same person — can succeed with each of these opposite methods, then there’s no point in attributing success to the productivity advice itself. 

In other words, you can succeed either way.

That’s not to say that all productivity advice is useless. Having seen dozens of these types of contradictions through years of saving time, and as a staff writer for Lifehacker, it makes more sense to treat productivity advice like settings we can flexibly dial up or down. Success depends on knowing when to use which setting, where, and why:

Enter the productivity setting

In cases where people succeed with each piece of advice and its opposite, there’s bound to be people succeeding somewhere in the middle too. Thus, each of these settings can be organized into what I call a productivity setting. I’ll illustrate this with two examples:

Productivity Setting Example A: Deep Work vs. Open Door

Author Cal Newport believes in deep work, and that the ability to focus will be the most important ability of the future. He urges us to cut distraction, and cultivate our capability to focus without interruption. 

Conversely, mathematician Richard Hamming agrees that when a person disconnects from the “distracting” outside world, they are more productive, but they lose the sense of what problems are worth working on. There’s another benefit to participating in distraction; venture capitalist Andrew Chen recommends connecting with interesting people on social media, and staying outbound to better recruit, network, and fundraise. 

At one end, there is monastic deep work and no social media or notifications. At the other end, there is no deep work and always-open social media and notifications. In between, there’s the rest — for example, 30% deep work and 70% open door, or vice versa.

Armed with this information, you can now pick a setting that best suits you. What is your philosophy on connectivity and the outside world? How can you combine these two points to make something that works for you? What is the best decision for you? 

Productivity Setting Example B: Schedule vs. No Schedule

There’s no shortage of advice on how to make an ideal schedule; there’s the maker’s schedule and manager’s schedule, there’s the 5AM club, along with the mountains of advice on what to do in the morning and the afternoon. Each person might think their schedule’s the best, but all of them believe that scheduling is important. 

Conversely, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen advocated not keeping a schedule at all. At the time of writing his blog post, he didn’t commit to anything at a set time in any future day. The main benefit, he writes, is this: “As a result, you can always work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.” 

At one end, there is deep, intense, minute-by-minute scheduling. At the other end, there is an empty calendar. In between, you can do 50% scheduled, and block 50% of your calendar for unscheduled and unplanned work. 

Once again, you have a choice. What is your philosophy on spontaneity, intensity, and opportunity? Does one of these make more sense than the other, or can you stretch your mind to combine them together? 

Analyze your values, life, and context

In each of these productivity settings, just a couple of amongst many others, there’s no clear answer which is the right one, and the range of possibilities are vast. 

There are clearly people who succeed with one extreme of the productivity setting, and others who succeed with the opposite. It’s useless to attribute successful outcomes purely to the system; so, then, what is the variable that changes?

You are.

Your life changes, and productivity advice enables you to keep up with it. You can use it to slow things down, or to speed things up; whichever your goals require, changing time and energy commitments, or other circumstances require. It’s on you to identify each piece of advice and its opposite, and to figure out setting is most useful for you right now. 

A better productivity, focused on you

Productivity advice has come to dominate our attention. But there’s no reason that it has to always be about doing more; that’s just one option, amongst many problems that the settings can address. 

Treat productivity advice like settings that you can dial. Your setting should keep up with your changing situations. This mental framework enables you to adjust the settings. Sure, there will be productivity enthusiasts, just like there are tool enthusiasts; but for the rest of us, we just need productivity advice to enable the rest of our lives, not to continuously do more, or to make a shiny productivity system.

An Alternative to College this Fall

Image: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

If you’re enrolled in college for September, there’s a strong case to defer your semester in September. There are better ways to learn during the four months. For example, you could start an online business, or build projects to learn new skills

Both of these ideas have small risks (e.g., four months), with huge potential benefits. Your business could make some money. Your project could get attention in the industry, or become the jewel of your portfolio. At the very least, even if you fail, you can share something interesting to potential employers. But there is an equally powerful alternative that I haven’t mentioned yet: Become an apprentice.

The Case for an Apprenticeship

An apprenticeship is an opportunity to work, in exchange for developing your character, mind, and skillset. Most importantly, an apprenticeship is the first step to mastery. Some may consider an apprenticeship a raw deal — unpaid work, for a business that you don’t own. Yet people who have done apprenticeships call it one of the best ways to learn, which leads to earning in the future. You have to decide if the apprenticeship fits your goals. 

I know friends who have done their own versions of an apprenticeship even after college; the management consultant does an unpaid external secondment to get closer to the field of technology, an ecommerce entrepreneur does free consultations with businesses on their finances, or the agency provides pro bono creative work to get clients in a new industry. Unpaid work is a big part of the business world. In addition to the learning opportunity, here are some of the more tangible benefits of an apprenticeship:

  • Someone else fronts the operating and learning costs. If you’re getting paid $0, but you have the ability to influence a $20,000 budget, that’s $20,000 worth of learning that didn’t come out of your pocket (which it would have if you started your own company). I now run my own business, and I do get to see the profit-generating side of it, but there are a lot of moments when I wish I had the freedom to learn without fronting the costs myself. 
  • Meet other talented people. Whoever you work for, they should already work with other really good people. In my case, even though I was working remotely, we formed working relationships and can vouch for each other. I know two people ended up starting businesses together. 
  • Voluntary commitment. An apprenticeship is a commitment.You’re not committing your own money, but you still commit to delivering for someone else. You can’t just wake up and not “feel” like doing something, which happens to some people when they start their own businesses. An apprenticeship provides the structure and processes you need to get started.
  • Learn from experience. Historically, apprentices work for master craftspeople. They don’t work for other apprentices. It’s your responsibility, as the apprentice, to figure out if the person you’re working for is actually worth working for. Try not to apprentice for someone whose work you don’t respect. But, don’t be afraid to apprentice for someone who’s punching above their weight class or moving into something new. In my case, I worked with a master musician who had always seen ahead of the curve with technology, as he was starting up his first funded technology startup. When I thought about the money people would pay to have lunch with him, I realized that I was actually coming out ahead. 

Notice I didn’t say that an apprenticeship should turn into a full-time paid working opportunity. I’ve seen apprenticeships go well, and I’ve seen apprenticeships go poorly. At the end of the day, the apprenticeship itself is the reward. To be a fly on the wall, while important decisions are made, or while somebody practices their craft, is the benefit. To get insight into an industry you don’t understand. To build your body of work and refine your own thinking.

These days, there are still plenty of apprenticeship opportunities, but most of them don’t float around on job boards or anything. I’m going to show you how I got mine and what you can do to get yours:

How I Got My Apprenticeship

In 2013, Ryan Leslie was preparing to launch his new album, Black Mozart. He wasn’t interested in launching it the traditional way. So he set up a Shopify store, shared it with his followers, and told them this would be the only place they could get his music. I’d been following Ryan’s music for several years, starting with his in-studio videos to his journey becoming an independent recording artist and his short films. I signed up without a second thought.

Around that time, he had tweeted out that he was looking for interns and taking in applications. I had just graduated and was working at Xtreme Labs, but I applied anyway, and wrote down some ideas of how I thought I could support his work. (Charlie Hoehn’s Recession Proof Graduate is a great resource.) I didn’t hear back, so I figured the application fell flat.

A few weeks later, Ryan released his Black Mozart film to fans, and I bought a copy. He responded in the receipt that he saw my application. We chatted later in the week, and he told me a bit more about what he was working on. I didn’t know it then, but my internship unofficially started. 

In the beginning, most of my energy was spent coming up with ideas and pitching them. I had just graduated college without much work experience to show, so I had to rely on what I knew. I was familiar with internet marketing, I was a passable writer, and I had very rudimentary graphic design and coding skills. 

I looked for opportunities and anticipated potential problems. Some of the ideas received enthusiastic responses; others were critically considered, and many others were ignored. Here are some that we worked on together:

  • One of my ideas was to support him with search engine optimization, so I started my efforts there. I also noticed that his Wikipedia page got 25,000+ monthly views, so I figured we could use it to promote the startup.
  • I built the startup’s first website. (Another look via Dribbble.)
  • I supported Ryan and his team with writing wherever I could. For example, I wrote and shipped a press release that got coverage here. I’d also occasionally write more administrative things, like application forms for conferences. 

All of this took place remotely. I was based in Toronto, but Ryan already had a structured core team in New York City, as well as interns (who worked with him in-person, and with a much deeper time commitment). At the start, for me, there was no formal role or even a job title. I just wanted to be useful (i.e., “add value”) at the start of the relationship, and learn as much as I could. 

How You can Get Your First Apprenticeship

My conversation with Ryan Leslie may have started off with an application form, but we continued it with other things. I bought his album and short film. I sent social media graphics he could use before the first time we spoke, and I provided dozens of ideas before I even got a formal team email address. The key is to listen closely, and provide value. If you haven’t gotten the person’s time yet, then anticipate the problems they may face. Show them specific something they’re not seeing, or support them somewhere they’re not supported already. You don’t just offer to work for free; you get in where you fit in.

Maybe you don’t even start off where I did. Maybe you start by interviewing them for your blog. Or you email them a note from an article you read, that connects with their business. Or you start by sending them good energy — a quick, short, note of appreciation for one of their recent works. Or you get introduced by a friend. There’s no shortage of ways to get someone’s attention; the higher profile they are, the more effort you’ll need to put into it. 

The returns of going back to college are much more uncertain than before. Try creating an apprenticeship opportunity for yourself for four months; if you fail, or if you don’t like the work opportunity, then you can always return to school. Deviate for a semester. Although this unusual path seems riskier, it’s really the safer one.

Keep Your Expectations Small

When your skills evolve, so does your fear. Here’s what you can do 

Image: Eunice De Guzman/Unsplash

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor,” Truman Capote’s saying goes. The inversion is equally true; even just a sample of sweet success provides failure with its bitterness. 

Three weeks ago, I decided to make a screencast, film it, and sell it for money. It was an idea my friends and I’ve had for years; some of us run ecommerce businesses, some of us run studios, but none of us have actually tried selling information products. Almost immediately I decided, the thoughts came into my head… 

What an Evolved Fear of Failure Sounds Like

Eight years ago, I got takeout sushi with my friends, went upstairs to the Xtreme Labs office, and worked from sunset till dark to write and launch an ebook. I didn’t have a worry in the world; I was with friends, and even if I launched to a beautiful, round, zero, I would just figure it out after that. Hell, I was supposed to fail. I was a student. When else was I going to experiment?

But this time, I heard myself harshly critiquing the idea from the start. All those things I didn’t know eight years ago — the joys of ignorance — stood up and spoke out.

“Your audience isn’t big enough.” 

“You haven’t validated this idea.” 

“There’s not enough time to promote.”

The truth is, these voices weren’t even wrong. They all had valid points. But they were also just sophisticated ways of saying the same thing:

“I’m scared. Don’t do it!”

In accumulating my own expertise, I realized that my own fear of failure had evolved as well; I could point out flaws and reasons why things wouldn’t work much easier than I could eight years ago. 

My fear knew all the right, logical, things to say to talk me out of this. And in many ways, it was what I’d say to a friend or client in my situation.

As I worked throughout the week, I realized that I had lost agility compared to eight years ago, when I was a beginner. I was a student, and I’d never tasted success; I’d gotten used to the taste of failure. At least I was doing something

But now, my career, client list, and body of work grew, and I developed what I call.. 

The Intermediate’s Fear of Failure

As we get better at what we do, we expect to fail at it less and less often. We lose our connection with failure. The more work experiences a person accumulates, the stronger their reputation, and the greater their own expectations for the things they work on. The more we learn, the more we earn, the more we feel like it’s normal

For example, in the few weeks I focused on this experiment, I know the amount of money I could have made, if I wanted to get a job. A month not making that money can feel like I lost it. It’s tempting to expect my hourly rate to be the quantity I need to get back from my projects to justify my earning. Opportunity cost forces me to realize I’m investing all the potential earnings into my own life and learning experiences. 

Outside comparisons play a part, too. But now, eight years after my student side project, things seem scarier. People take on corporate VP titles. (I didn’t realize Goldman Sachs had 12,000 VPs in 2012.) They’re flexing on LinkedIn. They’re making down payments.

The fear of failure kept me doing the things I know I was good at, and didn’t support me in exploring the things I could be great at. Plus, it wasn’t real; nothing bad would actually happen if this project didn’t make a single dollar. Rather than enable me to develop new skills, it was keeping me in a silo. I needed to break out.

It really took this project to really encourage me to apply what I knew. I’ve watched Gary Vaynerchuk yell at 30- and 40-year-olds, “You’re a kid!” I think it’s an admonishment to return back to the mindset of a student. Like Amazon, everyday is day one. 

Return to the Beginner’s Mindset

A beginner’s mindset has no expectations. It is, by default, loosened up. It doesn’t worry about how the work or experience will turn out. 

The beginner’s mindset is about being okay with zero. Zero Likes. Zero views. Zero sales. Zero expectations. It’s purely about the experience, and zero results. You are a student again; you are a beginner again. 

In conventional linear progression, beginners accumulate experience. Other people may see them becoming intermediates, and then experts. But with the beginner’s mindset, even the most veteran experts are humble. They know that there are so many things they don’t know; so they’re always open to exploring, or re-exploring, an old idea. 

A beginner’s mindset can’t be read about; it takes practice. This experience meant a lot to me; it wasn’t the same as reading a book about the beginner’s mindset, it was a lot better

Keep Your Expectations Small

Paul Graham once wrote about keeping your identity small. I think it’s important that as we start excelling at the things we do, that we not throw away our experimental and playful side to preserve our reputations and expectations. In short, make something just for the hell of it, and ship it. 

It might not help your legacy; Andre 3000’s meticulous body of work is an example of that. But it will keep you creative; in his podcast with Rick Rubin, Andre talks about the pains of his legacy and how he feels stifled by external expectations.


The solution is to do something new, even if you think it might suck. Adopt a beginner’s mindset to overcome your intermediate fear of failure. What you’re working on today will limit or expand the things you can work on in the future. Keep your expectations small, and build the skill sets you need to do the things you want to do.

If You’re Starting to Write, Here’s the #1 Thing to Focus On

When the writing process met the theory of constraints

Image: Damir Spanic/Unsplash

“Should I write at my own blog, or at Medium?”

Of course, the question is worth considering if you’re a new writer. But a more pressing question you need to focus on is:

“How do I write something I’m proud of?”

Writing is meant to be fun and stimulating. It turns out best when you enjoy the process. Not only do you write better, but you keep writing. So the best place to start writing is wherever you get the most enjoyment from. It doesn’t really matter where it is, especially when you’re just starting out. Here’s why:

When You Start, Your Constraint Is Your Writing

In The Goal, author Eliyahu M. Goldratt introduces the theory of constraints:

Improvements made anywhere beside the bottleneck are an illusion.

In case you’re scratching your head, I made a diagram to illustrate this idea. Lastly, let’s say each piece of writing starts off as an idea, and your goal is to move it downwards as quickly as possible to add value to it (and make money). The pink bars are the measure of capacity. The red bars are the actual flow of effort and value produced and extracted:

Let’s unpack what each of these mean, starting at the far left:

The inefficient writing process: This process involves a lot of writing and editing, but is bottlenecked first by its opportunities to publish. For example, maybe the writer using this process writes only for Fast Company or New York Times. They’ve developed a strong reputation which enables their promoting capabilities. But because they don’t sell their own products (e.g., books) or offer services (e.g., speaking), they’re not maximizing what they earn. Writers pursuing this method are not interested in monetizing. Instead, they choose to focus on the craft of writing

The suboptimized writing process: This is the process of the cautious new writer we talk about in the opening section. They’re often so fixated on the place they publish, they don’t consider developing the critical parts of the writing process (ideating, writing, and editing). This process shows them eventually becoming capable of promoting and building an audience, but the underdeveloped early phases limit the amount of value they create. I see that first question, “Should I write at my own blog, or at Medium?” as an attempt to optimize for:

  • Promoting (e.g., SEO, network effects, etc.)
  • Monetizing (e.g., Medium pays for writing, whereas WordPress doesn’t)
  • Building audience (e.g., You can speak directly to readers in a newsletter, but if you write at Medium their algorithm determines your distribution)

But really, this person is best suited by focusing on writing better. Once they widen those parts of their capabilities, they’ll be able to create a larger volume of, which enables them to produce and eventually extract a lot of value.

The optimized writing process: The third is an expert writer; one that’s able to earn most of what each piece is worth. They still aren’t making the maximum money on everything they publish, but they’re getting close. Maybe they haven’t gotten their back catalog organized, so they don’t circulate (i.e., syndicate and republish) their work as much as they’d like to. Or, maybe they have so many ideas and drafts, but they’re not able to edit fast enough to keep publishing going. A lot of professional authors fit into this mould.

The high impact writing process: This process creates the maximum amount of value with each article, and extracts every single dollar out of it. This person publishes amazing work, perfectly optimizes their SEO, has a group of core fans that promote their work, sets up sponsorships and affiliate links without messing up their own reputation, and regularly attracts a ton of new readers to their audience. They also have a back catalog they often excerpt or republish at other places. This is the perfect writing process. I know of only a few people who have come close to mastering this mythical process. (I’d love to hear suggestions.)

When You’re Starting, Focus on Ideating, Writing, and Editing 

Nobody starts off writing their first article at the “optimized writing process.” When you’re first starting off, you shouldn’t worry yourself about all of those factors anyway; the main constraint is how much you’re actually writing. It’s about ideating, writing, editing, and publishing your work. 

If you’re not ideating, writing, editing, and publishing regularly, then the rest doesn’t matter: 

  • Your distribution won’t matter because you won’t have any writing to distribute
  • Your payment won’t matter because your work is not worth paying for yet
  • Your audience won’t matter because you won’t have anything to send to them

At the beginning, focus on writing better, faster, and more. The “better” part is the most important (quality), but shouldn’t come at so great a sacrifice that the other two (speed and quantity) aren’t always slowly improving. Make acceptable, not perfect; and always make sure you keep publishing.

Of course, when you write regularly, and you’ve got an audience, you might need more time to polish each article up. You can then reset your speed and quantity metrics (e.g., instead of four times a week, just once a week). Juggling these three factors will balance you out. 

When to Focus on an Ideal Place to Publish

Let’s say you’re writing regularly, and notice that each of your articles are producing the results of an inefficient writing process. You’re starting to ideate, write, edit, and publish good writing that you’re proud of. But, you’re only monetizing a small part of it. 

This is the time to focus on where you’re building your home on the internet. By then, writing should no longer be too serious a constraint; you’ve developed your skills as a writer, your ideating, writing, and editing capabilities are there, and you’ve refined your skillset. 

You’ve also likely developed a body of work that’s starting to get readers, hopefully passively through search engine traffic or social media. In situations like that, migration can be painful (e.g., you might be kicking yourself for not setting it up at your own blog), but it’s important to remember… 

You could not be writing at all.

It’s a challenge I face, and I see others wrestling with too. Starting to write is easy; constantly figuring out something worth writing, and polishing it up, is hard. It needs to stay enjoyable if you’re going to succeed at it. It’s easy to give up from the discouragement, or from a sense of overwhelm. The enjoyment and intrinsic motivation can counterbalance this.

When you’re first writing, it’s important to dial back; it’s the same as learning to cook. Signing up for a meal kit delivery plan can be crucial to starting the habit of cooking and building capacity. Eventually, when you’ve gotten a grip on cooking, you’ll make your own meal plans and order your own groceries. But if you give up, then you lose a chance to build a rewarding habit (and to enjoy the results).

The Key is Focus

Naturally, in a lot of situations, you can improve more than one thing at any given moment. In theory you can become a better writer, find more places to publish, and promote better at the same time. 


But focus can be the difference that makes or breaks your efforts as a writer, especially for anyone starting this part-time. When you identify your focus, then you can also set more realistic and reasonable goals, level your expectations, and move forward with a plan. At the beginning, every extra drop of effort needs to be focused into making something you’re proud of. You can sort everything else out after.

Hard Decisions Become Easy When You Do This

4 Ways to Gain Clarity When Opportunity Knocks

Image: 傅甬 华/Unsplash

Last week, a friend had a job offer come up. It was a stable job opportunity in a chaotic time. It would be a step up in his field of work, it promised good money, and it could open up very interesting doors.

He also experienced high stress while interviewing for the opportunity, he wasn’t sure about this specific career, and he wasn’t desperate for the money. 

He wasn’t sure yet about what he should do.

He called me because I was in a similar situation just a year and a half ago. Long story short, I decided to take on a big work contract. I was lucky things unfolded the way they did, but I should have known how to make that decision more deliberately. 

We chatted for an hour or so. I talked about my experiences, and almost started wandering down the path of what I’d do in his case. Then, I smartened up. 

In my note-taking system, I started a thread about how to make difficult decisions. I ran to get it, and read the notes in it to my friend during the call.

A few days later, he texted me and said he knew what he needed to do, and that our call gave him a lot of clarity into his situation. 

I was happy. I wrote the thread for myself, and I knew it would be useful for him, but didn’t realize how clarifying it could be. 

Here’s what I’ve written down in my notes, and what I told him:

Define the Important Areas of Your Life

I really like Skillshare and Otis founder Mike Karnjanaprakorn’s post on setting goals. The short of it is, he defines the areas of his life that are important to him, and sets goals he wants to achieve. Each week, and quarter, he checks in on his own progress.

The key to this is not just in the goal-setting portion, but actually in quarterly and weekly reviews. Are you actually making progress on those goals? What are you doing that’s working and not working?

In my experience, setting the initial goals can take maybe even less than an hour. The best way to come up with the best answer you can in that moment, then think and improve it the next quarter. Goals and plans are guesses, and you can always improve them. This way, whenever you check on your goals, you have the best version of them.

These goals will determine what you want your life to look like, as well as how you evaluate your opportunities. If, for example, my friend was interested in mental health, he’d consider that the interviewing process created a stressful experience for him. He might consider whether or not it was indicative of how the job would be, and decide deliberately whether or not it was worth it to him.

Define Your Anti-Goals

Metalab and Tiny founder Andrew Wilkinson writes about the power of knowing what you don’t want to do. He figured out what he wanted his days to look like by calling out the things he didn’t like (e.g., long meetings, packed calendars, etc.).

Back to my friend — he could quickly list the worst parts of his days. Or, if he wasn’t sure, he could look back at the worst 5 days of the month (or year), and see what they had in common. 

For example, if he hates meetings as much as Andrew does, and the job clearly requires a lot of meetings with stakeholders, etc., then he’d know this opportunity might not be worth his time. On the other hand, if there were no meetings at all, then this opportunity could be interesting. 

Work Backwards from the Future

In 2013, Pixar set a goal to make their movies cheaper and faster. On average, each movie cost them 22,000-person weeks, and they wanted to bring that down to 18,500. In Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull shares how he prompted his team for suggestions: 

“The year is 2017. Both of this year’s films were completed in well under 18,500 person-weeks. … What innovations helped these productions meet their budget goals? What are some specific things that we did differently?” 

It’s a simple prompt, but one that I really like. They forecast the setting four years later, and ask for suggestions on specific things done differently. Without a realistic way to get there, a vision remains little more than just that. It won’t become reality.

If my friend had defined his goals, he could use this to determine how to get there. He’d have an idea of whether this opportunity sets him up to achieve his goals, or takes him further away.

Assess the Current Situation

Ryan Holiday asks, what’s the absolute worst thing that could happen? What would you miss out on if you did it? 

The answers need to be clear here. If they’re not, go ask someone who has either done something similar, or knows someone who did. Ask them what happened with the decision and what the outcome was. Or, go read a book about it. 

And as Ryan advises, most people can’t see your goals and vision beyond their own experiences. Don’t outsource your decision-making to them and ask, “What would you do?” They’ll give you an answer for what they’ll do, which they might position as what they would do if they were you, but neither is the same answer as what you should do.

I emphasized this to my friend, calling myself out, cognizant I might’ve biased him towards one decision or another. (Of course I had an idea what I would do in that situation, but that doesn’t mean I knew what was best for him. There is a subtle, but very important, difference.)

Clarity Makes Hard Decisions Easy

If there’s a common thread in all of these exercises, it’s that they clarify your goals, desires, and enable you to put a plan together for yourself. Whenever an opportunity comes up, you at least have a destination you’re working towards. 

From there, it’s just a simple matter of figuring out whether the opportunity supports you to getting closer to it, whether you can finesse it into such a vehicle, or whether it’s a trap — a swamp that will keep you stuck, forcing you to chase something you didn’t want to in the first place.

The Power of the 10% Read

Remember, 10% Is Better than 0%

Image: Nicole Wolf/Unsplash

“I wish I knew about this 10 years ago!”

I exclaimed this after I started organizing my notes and writing with them. And I only did that because after I read parts of How to Take Smart Notes. The book had been on my shelf for years; I’d even moved a couple of times with it. Yet I only picked it up after I resolved to spend 20 minutes reading it; I couldn’t put it down until two hours later.

The main subject of the book is a man named Niklas Luhmann, who wrote 60 books and published a two-volume grand theory, The Society of Society, on time. He did all this, as you can probably guess, with the help of his note-taking system.

I don’t know what Niklas ate for breakfast, or how he solved specific note-taking problems (like adding a card between 1 and 1a), but I started my note-taking system right after reading just a portion of that book. I also completely see a better way of doing it; a system that can be both analog and digital, and how to make time to maintain it. If a contemporary disciple of Niklas Luhmann had a look at my slipbox, they’d probably:

  • Turn me into a meme and laugh themselves silly
  • Cringe so hard they give me access to their thousand-dollar courses so they never have to see it again
  • Make a note to add to their thread about the deteriorating nature of notes… 

Hell, maybe all three. (Some note takers have big personalities!) But without having been willing to read parts of the book, and apply a lesson imperfectly, I’d never have learned or experienced any of this. So I propose a method to reading now, moving forward:

The 10% Read

The 10% Read idea is useful to everyone, but probably most useful to people who aren’t already reading 25 pages per day, and want to get value out of books: 

Read 10% of a non-fiction book, and apply one lesson from it.

The point of the 10% Read is to give yourself permission to speed-read through a book. Get acquainted with its best ideas, through looking at the table of contents, the index, and just randomly flipping through it. Accept a superficial understanding of an idea, and acknowledge it’s just the start. 

Take action on what you learned. If you’ve read 10% of Deep Work, start blocking chunks of time in your calendar. If you read Radical Acceptance, pay attention to your self-talk. Put reminders of these applications and ideas in your phone notes, your wallpapers, and your journals.

The 10% Read is meant to lower the barrier of reading a book so aggressively that you can’t help but show up. Then, apply just one lesson to apply to your life in some way. 

Most of us are taught to read cover to cover, and you may think it’s not worth your time to read just part of a book. But the truth is, even just getting one of a book’s best ideas are better than leaving it on your shelf and getting none of them. (And more importantly, not every book is worth your time to read in full!)

Ideas are worthless to you as mere words on a page. They’re only useful after you understand and apply them somehow.

The Power of Taking Away Just One Idea

It’s so tempting to say, “If I’m not going to remember this whole book, I might as well not read it. Why bother?” 

Curtis Jackson writes in Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter:

“After you finish this book, you might only take a few of the principles with you. Even just one. That’s fine. That was the case when I read Robert’s 48 Laws of Power. Ask me today what that book was about and all I can really tell you is, ‘As the student, never outshine the master.’

“There were forty-seven other laws in that book, but that’s the one that stayed lodged in my brain. And because it’s never left me, I’ve been able to apply it so many times over the years. I’ve literally made millions by remembering to follow that principle.”

Similarly, when Joss Whedon admits to never finishing the Getting Things Done book, he still says that he applies the principles constantly. He says, “‘Next actions’ is one of the most important things that you can say in any endeavor.” 

Both of these people took away one important thing from their books, applied it, and used the techniques to great success. 

Each Application can Change Your Life

Imagine if Curtis had decided not to read The 48 Laws of Power until he had a proper note-taking system in place. Or Joss decided because he couldn’t finish Getting Things Done, that it wasn’t worth reading. Sure, they might’ve succeeded nonetheless, but they each would be missing an incredibly valuable tool in their belts. (After all, Curtis directly attributes earning millions to his adherence of the principle.)

Oftentimes, you just need one opportunity to exploit, or an idea to connect two dots. The more dots you expose yourself to, the greater the connections you can make, and the more value you can get from a book. 

Don’t leave a book closed because you don’t have time to finish it. Open it, skim it, and get what you can out of it.

Of course, even in Curtis’s and Joss’s cases, you could say that they might be even more successful if they read or retained the whole book. That’s why it’s worth considering the next evolution after you’ve mastered and gotten value out of the 10% Read.

From 10%, to 100%

Without the 10% Read, How to Take Smart Notes would still be on my shelf, and I’d still be without a note-taking system. I wouldn’t have gotten any value out of it. But after my read, I know that there’s much more value that I can get out of it.

 The 10% Read is all about starting at 10%. It’s not about staying there. And it certainly isn’t conflating 10% with 100%. It’s very clear I haven’t grokked some of the important ideas and philosophies yet. As Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, wrote, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.”.

Understanding and applying 10% of a book might not be as powerful as understanding and applying 100%. I’ve now learned that How to Take Smart Notes is worth my time; I’m applying it every day, and I know how to improve it. Reading 10% of the book and applying the note-taking system already improved my writing process drastically. I can’t wait to read, and apply, the rest of it.

Respond, Don’t Create

Creating Content that Shares Your Perspective and Personality

Image: Joe Calomeni/Pexels

For many of us writing online, finding something worth saying is half the battle. And yet, this problem runs counter to one strategy to making ourselves heard: speak loudly and frequently. VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk, a successful user of such a strategy, has talked about how he was releasing 40+ pieces of content per day, but he wanted to figure out ways to release 1,000 pieces of content per day. It increases his chances of winning the social media lottery. His mantra, “Document, don’t create,” has gained a lot of momentum in the marketing world.

The idea of documenting is really about adding a more concrete prompt for us to create. And yet, while documenting our lives is one way to do things, there’s another — equally powerful — way to create more high-quality content each day: responding.

To borrow an analogy from How to Read a Book; the act of writing is like throwing, and the act of reading is like catching. Reading is not merely watching the ball go by; it takes work to receive it and understand it. Responding, in this case, involves catching the ball (catching), and then returning the ball back to the writer (writing). It does not catching the ball, dropping it, and losing our tempers.

Responding enables you to use the scale and communities of the internet to your advantage. It’s a very simple technique: 

  1. Select a few good sources (ones that you, and your peers and heroes, would like)
  2. Pay attention to what’s taking place
  3. Read or watch the things that pique your curiosity or provoke a feeling
  4. Feel, relax, think, remember, research, and collect facts
  5. Write a response to what you’re noticing

This is particularly useful on days that you’re short of ideas and inspiration; you can scan through the headlines of your favorite publications and see what’s trending. Use them as mirrors to see yourself, and for coming up with ideas. 

It helps to put some time and space between looking through the headlines, and seeing what you can actually remember maybe an hour (or 24 hours) later. Those have stood the test of time and stand out in your memory for a reason. Plus, any initial emotional reaction is likely to have cooled off. 

The simplest way of doing this is to spend time with an actual article, post, question, video, or book, and then respond to it. For example:

  • Draft founder Nathan Kontny’s response to a Reddit question about PPC campaigns. It’s worth noting this post, with four upvotes, didn’t exactly go viral at Reddit. It doesn’t matter. Spend your time at the places that you and your peers or heroes like to hang out, and let things catch your attention.
  • Author and Baohaus founder Eddie Huang’s response to a New York Times’ review of Peter Luger Steak House. Eddie deconstructs the essay and calls out flaws, and he does it all in his signature voice. 
  • Research Alex Guzey’s response to reading “Why We Sleep.” Alex uses his perspective and knowledge as a researcher to reveal that the science may not be as concrete as the original author would have us believe.

The key here is to use your perspective to do this. But of course, as you’re noticing and observing, you may notice some larger movements. That also provides you with a chance to put a name to a thing, which each of the following examples do:

  • Developmental psychologist Uta Frith’s Fast Lane to Slow Science is a response to the rise of fast science and the replication crisis. Not only does Uta tie together the observations to point out the trend, she also calls out specific ways for scientists and institutions to slow down fast science; namely, restricting output, emphasizing teamwork, and putting a greater focus on quality and societal impact.
  • Author Steven Gambardella’s response to the self-help stoicism movement (which he calls “pop stoicism”). Steven noticed the tons of trending self-help stoicism articles out there, and boils down his response to two points. I’ll bet he has more, but these two were the most relevant and developed of them.
  • Stratechery founder Ben Thompson’s response to Google Shopping serves as the hook to highlighting what he calls the “anti-Amazon alliance.” Ben’s clearly been observing and thinking about this for a long time, and he notices the Google Shopping move to be an important development in a larger thread. He uses the news to talk about his thread.

It would be fair for you to say, actually, that this piece itself is a response. I’m calling out a technique that I’ve noticed, that I haven’t seen as much of a spotlight on. 

Of course, the response adds a potential promotional benefit to spread your ideas; if your work is thoughtful, adds context, and reveals some sort of truth that the original piece didn’t, it could continue the conversation in social media or in some other publications. The original author might see it and respond. If you’re writing at Medium, readers will see it after they’ve read the original article. (From a marketing perspective, it “newsjacks” the original story and adds your perspective to it.)

For me, it helps to think of each response like a “Letter to the editor.” Here are some of my responses:

Social media requires a strange mixture of quantity and quality. While I started this particular article off with quantity, I want to highlight that each of the examples here are really thoughtful; they’re “high quality.” There’s no point in making something that you’re not proud of, or that you don’t find useful. 

If you’re ever in doubt, figure out what qualifies as acceptable work for you to put out. Don’t try to make everything perfect. It’s not only how you win at social media, but also how you practice and progress at your craft.