Don’t Squander Your Time in Obscurity – It’s an Artist’s Greatest Gift

This year has been a wild ride for me so far. After a quiet start on Medium, I had a couple of posts hit the top 10 within a few days of each other. I subsequently got an offer to work over at Observer.com and since the end of March I’ve put out an article a week for them. This last week I hit a point I never believed possible — I published a piece on Bernie Sanders that went well and truly viral. As in, half a million page views and over a hundred thousand shares viral. It’s still the top story too, so while it might be slowing down because it’s the weekend, who knows how many views it will end up with. It may spike again next week and hit a million.

A lot of people have asked me how I feel about it. It’s pretty nice, but to be honest a number that large, I can’t even really fathom it. It’s too big. I remember not so long ago having a piece do 10k or even 20k page views would leave me giddy with excitement. This time I didn’t actually feel any kind of exhilaration or enormous high, because I had a really important change in mindset recently — that of finding happiness in doing great work, rather than finding happiness in the result of the work. Believe me, it took a long time to get to that point, and that’s what I want to talk about.

Let’s rewind the clock 7 or so years. I started my first blog intended for an audience about 2009. It was similar to what Art of Manliness is, but a little less in depth. I guess you could say it was somewhere between AoM and a printed magazine like GQ. I kept going at that for a few years not really knowing about using social media or how to get an audience. The result was I had maybe 15k views for that entire period. I spent a lot of that time copying what other sites were doing and adding my own spin, really just experimenting and trying to get my voice out there.

I eventually stopped doing it because I figured people just weren’t interested — it was probably a wasted opportunity.

Then a few years ago, I started my current blog. This time, this time was going to be a success. I’d been reading Tim Ferriss, Derek Halpern and Ramit Sethi and thought I had it all worked out. I knew all the social media avenues, how to get traffic and so on. Well, it worked out ok. Certainly not great, but ok. I worked hard on doing what I thought would get lots of traffic and bombarded social media with my stuff. Unfortunately, it never really took off at the level that I wanted or expected it to. I published my first 3 books, two of which sank like a stone without a trace of a sale, one of which has at least done passably well (passably well = over 200 sales, which is apparently the average number of copies a book sells, skewed upwards by the bestsellers).

I started to get mad. I got mad and I got jealous. Jealous at the fact that there were people out there who proclaimed they were making a living off of their blogs/books with material that I though was either derivative or just shit. “Why is the universe so against me?” I thought. “Why am I toiling away in obscurity, when I have so many better things to say than them?” See, this is what so many gurus just don’t get. They’ll tell you to stay positive about it, that you aren’t entitled to success and that if you just stay positive you’ll make it. But the negativity was good for me, because being mad made me work like a demon. It made me think that if people with sub par work can be making a lot of money off of this, why the fuck shouldn’t I? Where is my share dammit!? So I expanded. I started writing for other major publications and had some great results, but none of it brought me what I thought I wanted — lots of email subscribers and people paying for my books.

And after that frenzy of work and nothing paying off, I was dejected. I felt exhausted, defeated and completely deflated. I didn’t write for months and I just left my blog there to rot.

After a while I returned to my blog just to clean up all of the spam comments out of my filter and found myself reading through old posts. My oldest made me cringe at how bad they were. I steadily made my way through, finding myself surprised here and there at older posts I’d actually still be proud of if I wrote them today. I finally made it to the present day and found something that made me really happy: the standard of my work at that point was far better than when I started. I didn’t realise it during that time, but I had grown a lot as a writer and thinker. This was tempered with a sobering fact though— when I looked at my recent posts, I realised they weren’t really that good, that I wasn’t as good a writer as I wanted to be.

That was late last year. Since then all of my energy has been spent just getting better. My “marketing” is limited to posting my stuff on Medium, Facebook and Twitter. If you want to read it, great. If you don’t, I don’t care. I found myself becoming increasingly happy, because rather than writing and hitting publish, I’d be spending weeks on each piece. I’d usually go back at least ten times, changing words or sentences here and there, challenging my own assumptions on what I had written and in some cases rewriting large portions or scrapping a piece altogether. It’s gotten to the point where I can leave what looks like a finished, polished piece of work for a week, come back and see that a certain paragraph just doesn’t sit with the flow of the piece. Or maybe a single sentence needs changing. Looking at my finished pieces since the start of this year I feel incredibly proud of what I’ve put out there, even if no one reads them.

In short, I’ve found a deep love in making great art.

It’s that love that has allowed me to put my recent success in perspective. Writing something that over half a million people see could very well be my peak of popularity. After all, the next level would probably be publishing a bestseller, something even fewer people are able to pull off. The old me would have been frantically trying to capitalise on this success, or even worse, trying to put out another article that I think would garner lots of traffic.

But I don’t want to do that. I want to keep writing things that are important to me. I want to write things because I have something to say. Every now and then, something will come out like that Bernie piece that will strike a chord with people, that will hit in the right place at the right time. That’s cool, but as a writer, it’s incredibly dangerous to tie one’s happiness to results like that. When we do, we end up depressed and bitter, because we put our happiness in the opinions of other people. And people are fickle. When you learn to find happiness and fulfillment in the act of making art, in putting the best of yourself into something you can be proud of, you’ll be happy anytime you create. The only way you’ll do that is by spending all of those years toiling away in obscurity, when the only person who cares what you’re doing is you.

The other great thing about obscurity is that I learned to never read the comments, because there was never anything in there anyway. I had to learn to make my own judgement on what was good, and rely on a few friends who could walk a fine line between not sugar coating and not devastating me with their feedback. Now when I check the comments, there is no shortage of people ready to tell me how stupid I am, how terrible my writing is, that I don’t know what I’m talking about and any number of other pointless criticisms. I have my own internal radar though, so I don’t feel any need to even look at the comments, let alone take them to heart.

Most importantly, what the time in obscurity and this recent success has shown me is that even if I really have peaked in terms of popularity, I certainly haven’t in terms of my skill as an artist. Not even close. With any luck, I’ll look back at my work in 3 years time and think it’s trash. Maybe I’ll have another big hit, maybe I won’t. Either way, I can be happy and fulfilled knowing that I can always create, and make each effort better than the last.

The 4 Things No One Admits When it Comes to Success

frustration

Ok people, it’s time to get a little real here for a moment. Most of my work is dedicated to helping people become successful through real, actionable advice (not any of this bullshit “inspirational” stuff). Everything on this site and in my books are a toolkit to help you succeed that have come from Olympians, creatives and high level business people that I call my friends and mentors. Here’s the thing though: even with all of this, while you might be successful, you might not be as successful as you want to be. Much of the time, the difference between success and millions of dollars success is up to the universe, because… Continue reading “The 4 Things No One Admits When it Comes to Success”

The Best 20 Pieces of Advice for College Students

Feelings-in-university

College is so many different things to different people. For some, it is an incredibly rich experience that leaves them looking back at it even in old age as a great time. For others, it turns out less great – they finish without any job prospects, crippling debt and having to move back in with their parents while working in fast food. I’ve done both undergraduate and postgraduate studies and I have also scoured the web and asked some of the people I respect most to give their thoughts on making the most of the college experience. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of stuff like time management tools etc, that’s for you to figure out. Likewise if you’re looking for general advice on how to live in your 20s, take a look at this guide.

But here, without further ado, is the ultimate guide to maximising your college experience. Continue reading “The Best 20 Pieces of Advice for College Students”

The Biggest Lie About Social Media

Gary Vaynerchuck wrote a really great article recently regarding personal brands, and the fact that people should shut the hell up about them and instead get to work. As someone who has always been drawn to the pursuit of mastery and what it takes to achieve it, this piece really resonated with me and crystallised a lot of thoughts that have been floating around my head as of late.Personal brand can just as easily be interchanged with a social media following these days. Everyone wants to put themselves out there and get millions of followers, at which point the cash will surely start rolling in. Jenn Selter (who I know I mention a lot) is the first that comes to mind, building a following of millions based purely on her behind. The fitness industry is rife with this kind of thing, but really it’s springing up everywhere. People with no discernable skills thinking they can strike it big if they just get enough followers. No doubt they have seen Kim Kardashian out there whoring herself and said “me too!” It’s like some twisted gold rush that doesn’t actually have any gold at the end, just a whole lot of really narcissistic people wondering why they haven’t hit the big time when they have so many followers on social media.

Here’s the answer – in all this time you were busy cultivating a vapid social media following with your personality or even worse, your body, you haven’t gotten good at anything. You haven’t mastered anything and you sure as hell don’t really know much about anything. Why in the hell do you think any of this should translate into long term success with lots of money? I’ve listened to hundreds of podcasts of the most successful people in the world, and you know what, not one of them recommends or even brings up developing a following or personal brand. The most common piece of advice I hear is to either master something and become the most sought out authority on it, or find a problem people are having and solve it. If you want to make a tonne of money, find really big problems and solve them.

Notice the similarity between the two options? They actually involve work, and a lot of it. No one is mastering anything in a couple of months, and no one is solving major problems in the world without a lot of hustle. Look at any twentysomething millionaire making the front cover of business magazines. The articles will always focus on their lightning fast rise to the top (which is measured in years, not months) and completely gloss over the reality – that to make this happen these people worked insane hours and hustled their asses off. They had missteps where they weren’t sure if it was all going to work or come crashing down. They had no thoughts about their personal brand – they were too busy getting shit done to even consider it. Yeah, there are always elements of luck involved, but they pale into insignificance when you look at the entire picture.

On the other hand you have all those people clamouring over each other to get noticed on social media. Maybe they start up a podcast, thinking that because people are out there making money that they can too, not even considering that to run a top rated podcast takes a lot of work and is a pursuit of mastery on its own. The problem is that these people see their personal brand and social media as an elevator to the top floor of success because they don’t want to do any of the work. Here’s the truth – the elevator is broken and it always has been, if you want success you have to take the stairs like everyone else.

I fell victim to this initially. I had a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, Instagram, Pinterest, the list goes on. I was always worried that I wasn’t cultivating more followers, that people weren’t clicking enough, that I was basically a failure for not having thousands of people worshiping me on my social media channels. I was told by people “in the know” in media that social media is of the utmost importance and that without it I’d always be a nobody, striving to get attention. It exhausted me to be honest, because I’m not of the personality type to go and put myself out there, to take selfies and constantly make posts about the most inane thing I’m doing at any given moment. Then one day when I was going through some of my first posts I had a moment of clarity – I didn’t have a following because my work was shit. It had nothing to do with me not having the right social media strategy or missing “one crucial factor” that so many articles on the subject would have you believe. No, it was my work that was the problem. That’s a pretty hard truth to tell yourself and an awfully bitter pill to swallow, but it was correct. Maybe if I spent more time doing better work, more people would read it? It was a crazy idea for sure, but it was worth a try.

So I did something that gave me a new lease on life – I stopped paying attention to all my social media. The time that I spent on that I instead used to make everything I wrote better. Rather than trying to constantly write shitty clickbait articles and submitting as soon as I had finished something, I spent hours on each post. Revising and revising. Not only was it about demanding more of myself, it was about respecting my readers and demanding more of them. The result has been dramatic to say the least. In the last couple of months I’ve had more readers (and comments) than the entire period I’d been writing beforehand. People are even emailing me now. Not only that, because I stopped looking to social media to solve all of my reader woes, I started looking for other avenues that are far more worthwhile. Social media proved to be nothing more than a distraction in my pursuit of mastery, a detour that took me off the path I was supposed to follow.

So if you want success in this life, forget about social media. Forget about your personal brand. If you’re actually good at something you will be successful. If not, you might gain a following, but it will evaporate just as quickly. Every day I see people start an athlete page on Facebook and ask everyone to follow them. Here’s a tip: if you aren’t at least a podium finisher at national level in your sport, get off Facebook and get to work instead of trying to be popular. Do you think Ronda Rousey has to work to cultivate her following? She has followers because she’s a champion, as do all the other champions out there. If the only reason you have a following is because you have a big personality or a great ass, you’re going to be replaced as soon as someone more interesting comes along. Then what will you have?

I also see small businesses wasting their time on social media. I even saw a plumber once start a Facebook page – every now and then he posts pictures of gunk he cleans up or interesting jobs. He is far from rare, he is the norm. Does anyone in their right mind believe a plumber can drum up more business via Facebook? It doesn’t matter what you are, whether you’re a plumber, a sports team, a coach, or a public speaker,  you can be just as successful without social media. Instead of chasing likes and social media popularity as a small business, ask yourself a really important question: where is my next dollar coming from? I can almost guarantee that it isn’t coming from likes on Facebook.

So if you’re one of the people I’ve described in the post above, I recommend you sit down and take a good, long look at yourself and where you are headed. Could you be more successful by getting to work? Is social media taking up time that you don’t have for no gain? Are you stressed that you aren’t getting followers that you don’t need anyway? I’m not saying not to use social media at all, but it would behove anyone who uses it to study the return on time invested – more than likely that return is worse than investing your money with Bernie Madoff.

PS. To all my faithful readers that have emailed me in the last few days, I apologise for not responding. Internet is currently down at my house meaning I can’t answer them from that account until it is back up and running.

Did you enjoy this post? You may also enjoy

Is Your Upbringing Holding You Back?

Changing Your Mental Narrative