The best advice is that which you do not expect

I was invited by my friend and all around good guy Dan Shown to talk at his Digital Media and Society class at my alma mater, SLU. I was there to share with his students what a career with a Communication 1 degree could look like. I had the great misfortune of presenting after Jon Michael Ryan who runs around shooting amazing videos.

That’s right, the cubicle dude follows up a guy with slow motion videos. It was amazing that the students even stayed in the room when it was my turn to talk.

But talk I did! I don’t pretend to be a guru, ninja, expert, or any other ego-boosting superlatives, but I have learned a few things and was happy to share. The most important thing I wanted to hit on was that the ‘tips and tricks’ to succeed as an adult have very little to do with tools, software, programming languages, or social media platforms. It has to do with being a well-rounded person who is, at the very least, content with life.

What follows is a pretty version of my talk. Who knows, something I said might be correct and even useful. 🙂

The first thing I mentioned wasn’t about what tools to learn. I reminded students  to not work more than 40 house thinking that’s the path to happiness and success. Working 60 hours thinking your boss will recognize you for that extra effort and that it’s the only way to stand out or get ahead? Won’t happen. It’s not worth the damage it will have on your relationships. Friends, family, partners, are all more important.

You can get an amazing amount of work done in 40 hours – if you’re actually working! Just because the office culture is a particular mindset, doesn’t mean you have to follow along. Keep that strong work ethic and get your stuff done.

Reflect before making decisions – even in situation where your boss is telling you to do something. A lot of people, when given a task want to complete it immediately and without question. When the boss says, “We need a blog” don’t turn around and say “OK HERE’S A BLOG”. Use your education, your experience, your research. Think about they why of the question. What are they trying to accomplish. How will a <blog> help along those lines? Who’s your audience. Ask questions, find out as much as you can, then execute.

Have empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of the people using your thing, your service, your product, your art.

Don’t dismiss critique. Embrace it. Silence does not mean acceptance. Feedback, even harsh, direct, ugly feedback, is better than apathy.

Be able to defend your decisions. If it’s sticking to APA style, picking colors using solid color theory, or explaining typography, make sure your design decisions 2 are based in all the stuff you’ve filled your head with. Not because “I like the color green”.

I closed my dribble talk with a truncated quote from Paul Graham.

Don’t ignore your dreams;
Don’t work too much;
Say what you think;
Cultivate friendships;
Be happy.


  1. No “S”. Communication degree majors are picky about this.

  2. code is design too!

Community is as Important as Code

I’m a fan of the ATP 1. On a recent episode they talked about the amount of time one of the hosts, Marco Arment, spends on responding to email regarding his podcasting app Overcast. The gist 2 is that Marco doesn’t respond to much, if any, email regarding his app. I don’t think that’s the best thing for the community that’s developed around his code. I encourage developers creators of anything to rethink how they handle communication from their customers.

Marco is a successful one man shop. He’s the engineer behind the successful tumblr and Instapaper among other accomplishments. I like him and I think he’s one of the good ones 3. He obviously knows what he’s doing.

I understand where he’s coming from when it comes to feedback and engaging with folks, especially over things like bugs and feature requests. It takes time that  isn’t coding and that can sometimes feel like ‘not work’.

But nurturing the community around your product/service 4 is work and it’s incredibly important. Just as important as every line of code you type.

Ignorance is Bliss

People don’t know you’re a one-person shop. They don’t think about the expectation of support from one $5 app from a larger company 5 compared to that of a smaller company. They don’t know that the app was made by a team of 10 in an organization of 10,000.

They might do a little research, ask a friend what they recommend, and then hit the App Store to download something to solve their need or want.

Frankly they shouldn’t care. Some level of support is expected. I don’t view it as an entitlement, but perhaps more of an expectation of doing business. If you contact a business, of any size, I don’t think it’s crazy to expect a response.

Look at the use and success of tools like Yelp. Why does Yelp exist? What’s the most unusual and valuable part of that service? The reviews! Businesses (smart ones at least) care about what people are saying on Yelp. They respond with sincerity and engage with their customers.

Ignorance also goes the other way. How you respond is how you will be perceived. Not caring what customers think of your company and product is inviting ignorance into your work.

It’s also a humbling thing to receive feedback and questions. You do not know it all. No one does. Ignoring or mocking the idea of responding to email from people shows arrogance. I can’t believe I’m referencing a Reddit comment as part of my argument, but, in this thread asking “What is the most unflattering thing a person can do to themselves?” someone said:

“It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”

While you could argue that responding to emails might not help your code – responding to people is being nice. That’s more important than one more bug fix or one little tweak to the UI. Letting people in, shedding some of their ignorance and empowering them with knowledge is helpful to you and the community at large.

Community Props You Up

People will help support you. There is an admonishingly large amount of prior work in this area. Look at the Apple community boards. A giant company creates a place for others to help each other. Panic, a much smaller company, has a nice Q&A site setup for their community. These are for-profit companies. Looking at the open-source communities you’ll see even more – like local Meetups around Ruby, Drupal, PHP, WordPress, Small-Business owners, photographers, marketers, etc. Wikipedia in its entirety is all about people helping each other to make something.

Word of mouth is still the #1 best way to grow a product or service. It’s incredibly powerful – more so than almost any other form of marketing. It’s genuine, it happens naturally, and it’s often more deserving than spending millions on a campaign. The people helping other people are doing it out of love for the things that you create.

Outside feedback is invaluable. Working in a small team or inside of a large organization it sometimes becomes difficult to get a genuine outsider view of your work. Developing a community around your products or services helps to break out of that echo chamber and get a fresh set of eyes on what’s going on. Invaluable help from interested folks. Ya can’t beat that.

Ignoring the 700th email of a particular issue, say a bug, is wrong.

These +1 numbers on an already existing issue are indicators. They should sway you. Influence your to-do list. Your response. A handful of responses in one direction could mean a lot. A “canary in the coal mine” on what your community wants, or more importantly, needs.

Trust is Scary

Putting faith into a community of people you don’t know is scary. Terrifying even. I help to host events for the local WordPress community here in St. Louis. Every month, at the end of one of our meetups, we ask what topics folks would like to hear about next month. We take an informal poll and pick a topic. Then we ask who would like to present. Numerous times it’s someone I’ve never met who has never spoken up.

I have yet to be disappointed with a presentation. I put faith that if someone is willing to step up and speak in front of a group of strangers, they’re doing it out of good will and are motivated by something other than financial or professional gain.

You Work For Each Other

They took their time. That’s what is valuable. Your customer’s time. Not the novelty. Not the accuracy. Their time. It doesn’t even register to them that their bug report or suggestion is the 500th in a long line of similar suggestions. Their time is equally important as your time. Thinking and acting otherwise shows hubris and arrogance. They are working for you by using their time to give feedback, ask a question, or file a complaint.

By not responding, by not putting it out there, you have nothing to point to say, “Yes, I hear you.” It enters a void of your inbox and only encourages more silent tosses into the abyss. Creating a community helps alleviate these emails. People who enjoy your creations will help you and other people who are looking for information.

It Pays Off

Terry Gross had this great interview with David Remnick the editor from The New Yorker.

At the end of the interview Gross asks if Remnick asks him about his time and how he manages responding to every inquiry regarding The New Yorker.

From the transcript:

REMNICK: Bring it on. The odds are tough. I remember when I was in my 20s, I sent William Shawn a query letter, and I got an answer. And I never forgot getting an answer.

GROSS: What was the answer?

REMNICK: The answer was no (laughter). But I never forgot the time that was taken to write a cogent, short note about why not. And I also remember when I submitted my first piece to The New Yorker, which was happily accepted by Gottlieb – by Bob Gottlieb – he answered that day – that night. And I’ll never forget that. And I know in my heart that I’m falling short all the time in a million different ways, but I try to answer emails, letters, phone calls because I know not only is it the right human thing to do, I think, but also, once in a blue moon, it’s going to pay off. Once in a blue moon, you are going to get a short story, a suggestion, an idea that’s going to find its way into The New Yorker and be something or someone brilliant. And that’s part of the job. And it’s a delightful one.

Who knows what responding to a simple request for feedback will turn into? What might seem like a boring response to a question asked for the 300th time might turn into something much more.

Writing is Thinking

Listening and responding helps you to think about your creation. The entire product or service is evaluated in a new light.

Automattic requires all new hires to work the help desk. Why is that? Shouldn’t those developers be writing code? Shouldn’t project managers be catching up on the team’s progress? No. Learning how the product works and understanding how customers approach the product works to improve the product.

Writing up a FAQ with that experience from the customer’s view helps you think about how your creation works. Where can it be improved? What keeps coming up as a difficulty? What’s not clear? What can I go back and make better?

That comes from wiring and thinking about things in public. Pushing the ‘Submit’ button and letting others see it. Responding to what they put out there.

In Summary

I encourage all creators of things, whether it’s an iPhone app, a web site, a community, a non-profit – whatever – to deeply consider the work and art of community feedback and dialog. Consider it to be just as crucial to the growth and stability of your work. Just as writing code, organizing topics, or wrangling volunteers is. They go hand-in-hand with happiness and success and are not nearly as scary or time-consuming as one may think.

In the end you grow as a person and professional, your product or service grows in its capability and focus, and the community as a whole benefits from learning and sharing from one another.


  1. Accidental Tech Podcast

  2. You should go listen to episode #102 and #103 specifically.

  3. So are the rest of the hosts of ATP. All good people. All doing amazing things. All are mensches for taking time out to share their thoughts with us.

  4. What you do could be for-profit, proprietary, or non-profit, open-source, whatever. It doesn’t matter.

  5. Say Adobe, or even medium-sized like Panic or Savage Interactive (The folks behind Procreate)

David Foster Wallace on the Humdrum of Life

learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master

This commencement speech from David Foster Wallace1 is really interesting.  The whole thing is worth a read, with many sections that made me let out an audible, “Ooof”. Especially the part about the boring routine of adult life.

As someone who’s many years from graduation, the whole thing really does ring true and is solid advice for anyone, not just graduates. Although, I assume a younger person would gain more value than those who are older.

I still struggle with the choice of where to put my mind.

(via kottke.org)


  1. I’ve never read any of his long prose, but many shorter pieces over time via the web. He was such an incredible thinker.

Pendleton Ward on Leaving the Helm of Adventure Time

“He says this not with sadness or frustration, but with relief. “For me, having quality of life outweighed the need to control this project and make it great all the time.” So he stepped down from running Adventure Time to become simply one of the show’s writers and storyboard artists.”

Every time I hear about someone I admire, or unanimously successful, getting burn out and recognizing the importance of a work/life balance I feel both sad and happy. Sad that it takes them as long as it does to come to this conclusion. Happy that they have, and can now (hopefully) continue making cool things – without the cost of diminishing the other parts of their life.

The best advice I ever received about the time I graduated college was this – don’t work over 40, no one will thank you for putting in a steady 60, no one will promote you for it, and you’ll regret all the things you miss out on outside of work. Don’t do it.

Work Life Imbalance by Rian van der Merwe

“See, the time I spend with people is what gives my work meaning. I do what I do for them—for the people in my life, the people I know, and the people I don’t. If we never spend time away from our work, how can we understand the world and the people we make things for?”

Rain’s first column on A List Apart is already one of my favorites. A cliché as it is to say this I will. I could quote the whole damn thing.

Remember, everything your employer or client does is to get more out of you. It’s not nefarious, it’s driven into everyone. From the employee feeling like they have to work hard (and they should ) long (and they shouldn’t) hours to the leaders trying to get the most out of their employees. It’s a vicious circle. Only you as an individual can change that.