I'm incredibly pleased to bring you insights from Jeff Goins today. He's one of the most interesting, insightful, and genuine people I've met in a long time. He's able to run a successful business and life by being relentlessly focused on his audience and mastering his craft. He's really living the dream. Below, we've got a hands-on interview with him on how he re-booted his blog that hadn't caught on and built it into a powerhouse. If you like the insights here, you definitely should check out Jeff Goins' Intimate Class On Building Your Audience (and Craft) with the proceeds going to charity.
Going From 50 Blog Readers to 100,000 Through Authenticity, Craftsmanship, and Giving
Insights from Jeff Goins, as told to Sebastian Marshall
It really was a scary decision. Anybody who has spent time building something of value online understands the opportunity cost of stopping and starting over. That applies to building anything anywhere.
When I started my blog over, it was a process of me struggling with this for about six months. I thought I wanted to start a new blog, because with my previous blog I didn't think I could accomplish what I wanted to accomplish: write and publish books, and build a personal platform. I didn't feel like I made room for that with the previous blog.
It was hard, and I talked to a lot of different people and got a lot of different advice. Some told me to go for it, and some said not to. The tipping point was a conversation with a friend. He asked what my dream was, and when I said it was to be a writer, he said, "You don't have to want to be a writer, you are a writer. You have to just write."
I was blogging, publishing magazine articles, etc. But I realized I was an amateur.
When I started thinking of myself as a professional writer, I took my writing more seriously and did better work. Leaving one blog and starting another was a scary decision, but if I hadn't made the mindset shift, I would have gone from creating mediocre content in one place to making it another.
When I restarted, I had a burst of creative energy, I thought of myself as a writer, and not just someone who wrote.
I think focus is important. The adage in the publishing world is, "Narrow your focus to broaden your audience." Like many writers, I wanted to write about everything from my dog to the church service on Sunday, to a fight with my wife yesterday, to what I had for lunch.
I thought my perspective was so unique and everyone should care about it. I didn't understand about adding value, being resourceful, and making it useful for the audience. To gain attention, you must be helpful to people. It works everywhere in life -- be a giver, not a taker.
I wanted people's attention, but I wasn't focused on giving.
I knew focus was important, but I didn't know what to focus on. I was afraid I'd miss out if I focused on the wrong thing. I knew I wanted to write in a certain way, and I didn't set out to write about writing. Instead, I set out to help people, and I didn't necessarily have as narrow a focus as I began.
At the time, I had a small audience of maybe 25 or 50 people. And I paid attention to what they responded to. I noticed that whenever I talked about writing -- and I'd been teaching and coaching on it for years, but I'd never talked about it a lot -- when I wrote about the craft of writing, how to not sound stupid when you're writing something, and so on -- the response was usually five to ten times more than an article about leadership or motivation.
Very quickly, I realized this was the thing my readers were looking for. I began to grow a platform focused on that particular topic. I found that, over time, people get bored if you only talk about the same thing. So I think it's key to focus, but I realized over the last two years on this blog and six years of blogging in general -- it's not so much a topic you need to focus on, it's a worldview. A unique paradigm or perspective you can see the world through.
The biggest authors, motivational speakers, and especially bloggers don't write about a particular topic; they have a worldview that others either align with or disagree with.
I don't think you choose your worldview; you discover it. I discovered mine by taking the opposite approach of normal. Everyone is concerned about what they like or love.
Instead, do the opposite. Think about what really bothers you. What gets you really mad every time you hear it on the news or see it in front of you? And start talking about it.
We see this abused when people are being controversial just for the sake of being controversial, but it turns out that everyone has something they believe in, stuff that bugs them, so you find your worldview through largely saying, "I don't like this."
I found my worldview evolved over time.
Everyone in my space was talking about how to make money, succeed, or get famous -- but I found it all very disingenuous and missing the point.
The point for me was -- passion.
Being able to do what you love, and then pay the bills and sustain yourself secondly.
In any situation, people race to "make a million dollars" or "become famous," but I think what sustains any sort of work is passion, not results.
The reality is, we can't control the results. So is our writing, our working, our striving just a means to an end, or an end in itself?
When I was undiscovered as a writer, I asked if I had to play someone else's game to get my words out there. I was wrestling with this idea, and I chose to take a stance -- I'm going to love my work as I do it, but I'm going to be very intentional about not chasing those rewards. It's like chasing the wind, you're always grasping at it but never reaching it.
I think people are innately good, but are sometimes flawed and broken, and missing something, and we're looking to fill that emptiness and brokenness. We use money, prestige, and accolades to fill that void, and often we're disappointed in the process.
What I've found, and I continue to find, is that the thing we don't want is often what we're searching for.
Everyone wants to be happy, wants to be satisfied. Your natural inclination -- which is often the broken part -- tries to fill it through self-centeredness, pleasing yourself, satisfying your appetite for food and sex. But the promise of those things never really satisfies the thirst for those things.
I found the paradox is, if you want to be happy and have a purpose-filled life, you actually need to do the opposite of what you're inclined to do. Instead of get, give. Instead of trying to accumulate more, do something for yourself. Do the opposite. At least, try it as an experiment. If you're constantly trying to strive for more, what if the point was the opposite? Fill the opposite, fix the brokenness. What if the design is that we shouldn't live independent of others, but rather giving and helping others who are in need?
I have talked to everyone from Christian missionaries to entrepreneurs to schoolteachers who confirm that this is the secret to an abundant life.
Why are people self-centered? I don't know. The goal of philosophy and religion is often to answer that question. I'm more interested in the solution.
Nobody likes this about themselves, being so selfish, but they think it's the only way to survive. I think a better solution to filling that hole is give, be generous, empty yourself rather than trying to fill the hole.
Everyone who has ever been in love, who has ever been a part of a cause bigger than themselves, then they've already felt this. It's not a call to altruism, it's confirming what you've felt -- that you can work towards a larger whole.
I think writers are maybe a little self-centered than the average person. I think artists in general are. If you're going to create, if your vocation is creative in nature, then chances are you're more in touch with yourself -- self-aware, aware of the world around you… more sensitive, and I mean the word sensitive in the most positive way. You can communicate what others are feeling when you're a great writer. When you can feel the empathy and connect with a character… that's a good thing, we can all identify with that.
The downside is when you're constantly aware of emotion and context, and just in a room, you're aware of yourself. Partly because I'm an artist, I'm a little more aware of myself than others are. And that's a bad thing for me! I'm constantly thinking about myself… that self-awareness can devolve if left unchecked. Devolve into self-centeredness. Writers naturally want to write about their lives, their thoughts.
The other reason is, writing is solitary. You're alone in a room doing your work, and it's easy to think you're the center of the world. I think that that shift, where you realize the best way to live is to give. It's also true as a writer -- instead of wanting people to read your work to feel more popular and feel better about yourself…. instead, if you set out to encourage, inspire, or help in some way, that goes better.
A stranger will write you an email and say, "Thank you, this changed my life…" that's what happens when you help others, and it's immensely more rewarding.
In terms of writers being afraid of missing out, they're afraid of never being acknowledged. This is true for humans in general -- in love, in relationships, in anything. Writing is a relationship, too. When you're putting everything out there and you don't get anything back, it can feel empty.
Sometimes we do things with mixed motives -- but if the point is really to give instead of get, then you immediately get a return. When you do something for the right reasons, it feels good right away. You don't need anything in return, and writing is the same way.
If you pour your heart into something you're proud of, and know you enjoyed the process while you did it, then certainly it's nice to get it appreciated. But, there's something just in the act of creating that's good. Maybe it'll be acknowledged, or maybe it won't be, but if you do the work you can just feel satisfied with what you've done.
I remember in high school, in communications class, they explained the science of communication. There was some drawing in a book where "this is what communication is -- it has a sender, a message, and a receiver" -- 3 parts. The communicator, message, and the person or thing receiving the message.
The basic math was that if you had a sender and receiver and no message, no communication. Sender and message but not receiver, no communication.
When you think of writing as art, that can be really good. But I don't think that's a full description of what it is.
When writing, it's communication. You're writing with an intent to send a message for someone to receive it, and for it to matter.
Don't exhaust yourself worrying about pleasing everybody, or crafting messages people will like. But it does mean, have some idea of how you're crafting your writing for who is receiving it.
All communication, by definition, is a relationship. The message is what creates the relationship between the sender and receiver. And the great thing about living today is that the Internet makes it easy to put messages out into the ether and build real relationships with perfect strangers. I think that's really exciting.
Writers traditionally sat in a dank corner in an office or room, or cabin in the woods somewhere, and wrote with the hope that maybe someone would real it someday. But the world we live in, it's no longer a matter of finding the receiver. Now it's about creating the best message you possibly can, and the relationship then becomes forged.
If you want to write more and better, the answer is always practice. You're usually not as good as you think you are. I had a friend who had been writing for years, and she felt like she'd been writing for years and has several books on her laptop. What my friend found, when she pulled all her essays together to write a book, she found she had a quarter of one book, and even that wasn't very good.
You sort of delude yourself, because you write three hours once a month on a Saturday, and then you don't touch your keyboard for another two weeks. You're playing around, acting the amateur.
I encourage people not to worry about if you're good enough. Good is subjective anyways, depending on the genre, audience, and context.
I remember reading yesterday that James Joyce was highly criticized by his contemporaries. People called him nonsensical; even his wife admitted she didn't understand his writing. Some thought he was genius, others thought he wrote preposterous prose.
Time Magazine recently voted him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.
You begin by practicing. Seth Godin put this well in a blog post -- practice in public. The great thing as a writer is, you don't have to wait to be given a chance. You have free opportunities to publish a blog, and if you're really good, people will notice. And if you're not really good, now you have a public platform to practice
I don't do my best work in private. When something is definitely going to get published, I up my game and I know people are going to read it, and there's going to be consequences for it.
When I used to play guitar more with a band, and we jammed in a garage, if I hit a wrong chord or messed up when we first started playing together, we'd restart or go back and fix it. When you're performing a show, you have to keep going and stumble through. If you mess up, people know it, so you want to practice more and mess up less.
When you realize to perform in public, you realize how high the stakes are. When we rehearsed between concerts, we realize we couldn't stop and had to keep going.
If you blog or belong to a writer's group and you're sharing and giving feedback, it's going to change how you work and how you practice. It's going to change the standards you hold yourself to. It's the only way to honor the craft you've been called to.
I am basically plagiarizing Steve Pressfield when I talk about the professional mindset. The War of Art is a brilliant book, and "Turning Pro" is the sequel to that. He basically said, and I interviewed him once, and he said, "A writer has to turn pro in his head before on paper."
I asked, "When can a writer call himself a writer? When you get published? When you publish a NYT bestseller?" Because writing isn't something where you go to school, graduate, and get a badge that says writer. You can get an MFA, sure, but I know lots of highly educated people who don't call themselves writers. It's not like going to the police academy where you get a badge at the end.
Pressfield said, "You are when you say you are. Screw what everyone else says."
I found that to be profound and empowering.
I realized, when you start calling yourself something, it changes you. When you say you aspire to something, or play around with something, it minimizes your work. Saying aspiring or calling yourself a wannabe is destructive to your confidence and the competencies you're trying to develop.
How do you turn pro? You can't just start acting like it, because you don't have the skills. And you can't just start thinking it, because sometimes thoughts follow action.
So, I think you need to call yourself a writer, and grow into that declaration. You can't just go around and say you are something and not work to become it. Sometimes we have to work to become who we already are, who we want to be, but our own fears and insecurities hold us back from doing the work that is required.
The way to get there, I found, is to believe. To know you can be this thing, and work to actualize it. The alternative where you never really believe in yourself, but keep working hard, never does as good of work as saying you're writer, taking that step of faith past your comfort zone, and then growing into it.
And once you get that down, the question becomes how to keep improving.
Some people would say aim for mastery, but I think it's a step further than mastery -- legacy. That means you have not fully achieved your life's potential until you've duplicated your success and exceeded your success through other people.
It's not enough to be a guru or mentor, it's enough when you're a true master of a craft and understand the true principles of a craft beyond the work. If you understand those principles, you can apply them to other contexts and other people, and it should allow them to do better than you've done.
Look at some of history's greatest artists, leaders, and master craftspeople. You see it in what they've done -- if they do it well, humbly, and not about themselves, then their success becomes duplicated through other people.
It goes back to the idea of being generous, give to others, and make their lives better.
Whatever skills or blessing I've acquired along the way, these are given to me with the idea that I'll pass them on and pay them forwards, and make others' lives better.
If you like the insights here, you definitely should check out Jeff Goins' Intimate Class On Building Your Audience (and Craft) with the proceeds going to charity. For only $19.95, you're going to learn hands-on from a brilliantly insightful, practical teacher on how to build your audience online with the right intention and mentality, and a constantly growing craftsmanship.
Question from a reader -
You have maintained your commitment to being prolific which is made even more exceptional by the fact you are travelling around the world at the same time.
I realise your article on being prolific is about this, but accepting that I'm going to release a lot of crap before I realise something good is a tough wall to knock down. My biggest issue writing anything seems to be that it feel insufficent. Naturally no post I write has the length of Steve Yegge, the persuasiveness of Paul Graham, the content of Unqualified Reservations etc. etc. and while I can consciously accept this, there seems to be some mental block. How do you go "that's sufficient" and release it into the wild?
There's two basic approaches to being successful as a writer. The first, we could call the "Paul Graham / Derek Sivers" approach. This is where you explore a lot of ideas privately, go forward with the best ideas you have, and edit and polish the hell out of everything before you release it into the world. If you do this, and you've got talent as a writer, and you've got important ideas - then you're going to consistently only release masterpieces.
The second way is to just write a hell of a lot and know that a number of the things you write will turn out quite well, but your average quality level will be much lower. We could call this the "write every day no matter what" approach.
Let's be honest: My blog is pretty cool. It's not nearly as popular at Boingboing, Tuckermax, or that weird housewife who writes about her kids, but I have a pretty steady readership who all post comments and get something out of the site. Since I started around a year ago, I've averaged 1200 unique readers a day (half of that is thanks to huge spikes from digg and such). My blog hasn't made me rich, but I've probably made a few thousand dollars, which is a nice side effect. More importantly it's made me a much better writer, and has helped me chronicle the past year of my life.
What I'm saying is this : I can't help you build the next Engadget or WWTDD, but I can help you get started to building a moderately popular blog.
First you need decent hosting and Wordpress. Don't mess with blogger - no one reads blogger blogs because they all look the same and don't have cool plugins that you need. I know you can customize it and all, but stop arguing and do it my way.