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You already have everything you need to create stuff on the internet

As Apple’s fall announcement event approaches, I’ve been eyeing the rumored iPad Pro. I find myself daydreaming about a “magic” tablet that, paired with a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil, will inspire me to consistently create content and publish it online. That will somehow catapult me to internet nerd success.

Based on my history, that’s not going to happen. I’ve bought three iPads in the past; none of them made me more disciplined, more creative, or more talented. Each time, I struggled to find a use case for the thing, and the iPad would sit, unused and unloved, for weeks. Eventually, I abandoned the iPad upgrade train and sold off my iPad Pro. To be honest, I haven’t really missed it since.

Lesson learned? A new device won’t magically transform me into a prolific creator.

Fortunately, the inverse is also true: if you want to create stuff, you don’t need a new device. You probably already have everything you need to make stuff on the internet. Consider:

  • You could put off podcasting until you have spent $600 on a microphone, an audio hub, and a year’s worth of hosting. Or you could create an Anchor account for free, record using the built-in mic on your iPhone—and start today.
  • You could tie your blogging aspirations to writing software that costs $40 a year—or you could just use the text editor that comes free with your computer.
  • You could believe that a $150 mechanical keyboard will make you a better writer—or you could get by with a $15 Logitech bargain from Walmart.
  • You could “learn to draw” using a $700 iPad Pro and a $100 Apple Pencil—or you could pick up a $10 drawing pad and $20 worth of pencils and pens.

If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not the tools that hold us back. The real obstacles to creative productivity? Low motivation and overcommitment.  ■

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Being okay with being terrible

Lately, in addition to blogging and podcasting every day, I’ve been recording short videos and uploading them to YouTube.

These vlogs are pretty bad. I address the camera from my cramped little home office—a talking head with a weird-looking haircut. My ramshackle light rig casts a yellow, washed-out pall over my face. I deliver this scripted, stilted little speech, often spouting half-baked ideas. Very few viewers ever see these sad little videos; as I record this, yesterday’s episode has a grand total of one view. One.

Making something mediocre, let alone something that’s genuinely bad, is difficult for me. I’m very much a type-A personality; I was the kid who mourned every A-minus and who restarted a piano piece every time he hit a wrong wrong note.

And it’s not hard to see the flaws in what I’m posting, particularly when I compare it to others’ work on the web. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Casey Neistat, vlogger king. His work makes me feel simultaneously jealous and ashamed. I feel jealous because he’s so damn good at what he does. And I feel ashamed because Casey and I are almost the exact same age (we were literally born just four days apart). Two thirty-six-year-olds, one who does amazing, admired work, and one who… doesn’t.

This self-critical, all-or-nothing mindset has sabotaged my creative impulse before. I have abandoned a half-dozen online projects when I wasn’t satisfied with either the quality of the result or the (nonexistent) audience reaction. My latent perfectionism sabotaged the daily discipline, grinding the machine to a halt.

The only difference so far this time around is that I’m pushing through that discouragement and trying to ignore the results. In short, I’ve learned to be okay with being terrible. I’ve decided to just keep making stuff, whether it’s mediocre or not. ■

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On internet obscurity: analytics be damned

At least five times in the past decade, I’ve started online projects, only to see them wither away from lack of attention.

Past abandoned blogs

Oh, I invest long hours at first: writing a mission statement, shopping for a WordPress theme, and hand-hacking the CSS. But once the actual content creation begins, I quickly lose interest. I may post sporadically for a month or two. But soon enough, I give up. Eventually, I surrender the domain name, and my “brilliant” concept vanishes from the internet.

Occasionally, these projects failed because I lacked passion for the niche. For example, I once founded a project called “The Outage”, which was dedicated to suburbanites who put down new roots in the mountains. It wasn’t a terrible website idea, but I soon realized that I was more interested in my own urban escape than in telling other people’s escape stories. The Outage died a slow death.

More frequently, I abandon my blogging efforts not because I’m disinterested but because no one else is paying attention. My posts generate nearly zero pageviews. My Twitter follower count barely budges. I put myself out there, and I’m met with dead silence in return: no engagement, no encouragement, no audience.

Obscurity kills creative drive, if you let it. Love me? That’s great! Hate me? Well, at least you’re following along. But ignore me? That’s the response that’s most difficult to accept.

Working in obscurity

Here’s what I’ve learned from these multiple abandoned efforts: when you’re starting from scratch—totally unknown—you need to find satisfaction in something other than audience engagement.

Imagine a wood worker, hand-crafting beautiful furniture on her homestead, high in the mountains. She’s miles from the nearest collector or customer, and there’s no chance of selling her handiwork—or even showing it off. No one will see the rear joint on that oaken cabinet. Nevertheless, the craftswoman spends hours sanding down its rough edges and carefully aligning the two joined pieces. She delights in the making, even when no one else will appreciate the end result.

I’m not kidding myself; this blog isn’t a work of art. But the metaphor works for me. If audience engagement were my only reward, it would be so easy to justify cutting corners. Half-ass the proofreading. Ignore that clunky paragraph. Skip posting for a day or two. Who cares, after all? No one’s paying attention.

From experience, that way lies surrender. When I stop delighting in the work for its own sake, I soon stop working altogether. When I let website analytics or podcast download stats serve as my primary motivation, discouragement festers, and I soon stop writing. It’s happened a half-dozen times before.

Analytics be damned

But it’s not going to happen this time. I’m determined to keep sanding down those joints, day after day after day. Despite feeling obscure and ignored, I’m going to keep making stuff. Rising before dawn. Posting every day.

That effort won’t be quickly rewarded with audience interest. In fact, I may never grow a sizeable following. My tiny reader and listener numbers may stay exactly where they are, and my creative efforts may never become anything more than a hobby. The analytics may never reflect my level of effort.

I’m okay with that. Screw the analytics. At least I will have made something. I will have tried. That’s pretty damned satisfying, in itself. ■

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Does Steve Jobs’ creative philosophy (“Make something wonderful”) apply to obscure bloggers?

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of Steve Jobs’ untimely death. Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, shared this reflection on Twitter:

Here’s a longer version of the same Jobs quotation, which Apple highlighted in the prelude to its September marketing event:

“One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there…. Somehow, in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love, something is transmitted there.”


I don’t feel a strong sentimental connection to Apple’s co-founder, but I find him a fascinating figure: irascible and difficult, yet undeniably visionary, even prescient. At times, he was childishly petulant; at others, he demonstrated careful thinking. So it seemed worthwhile to reflect on how Jobs’ ideas might apply to my renewed blogging and podcasting efforts.

Now, “expressing my appreciation to the rest of humanity” isn’t the way I usually think about my daily writing and recording routines. But maybe it should be; too often, I get hung up on “appreciation” flowing the other way around: from readers and listeners to me. How many times did listeners download this episode? How many views did that post get? Could I ever earn enough followers to monetize this site? Is anyone out there even paying attention?

This sort of selfish obsession quickly leads to discouragement. I lose my motivation to write, and I’m tempted to quit, as I have so many times before. That’s why I haven’t enabled analytics on this site’s current incarnation; I’m terrified that knowing how few readers I have will derail my determination to rise early each morning and do the work.

The Jobs quotation above suggests a more productive approach: ignore my desperate desire for affirmation and appreciation. Instead, focus on the work itself: creating something good, genuine, and helpful. That mindset makes blogging more sustainable, more fun—almost automatic.

Now, the end result may not be “something wonderful”, in Jobs’ parlance, but if I’m investing “a great deal of care and love”, it will be rewarding—to myself, if not to anyone else. ■