Part 1: a letdown
I was in tenth grade, and I thought I was just bad at people.
I didn’t even really know what I meant by that, but I was just bad at people. Multiple things had convinced me of this. First, I didn’t fit into very many places, socially. In high school, I’d orbit one social group for a while, and then find myself flung out into the interstellar space until I found another bunch I could attach myself to. There were times when I felt like I was a part of a great group, and I’m thankful for those friends in high school, but times like that always ended with the feeling that I was hiding some part of myself to be a part of something. I had to switch into a different mode to fit right in.
So, that was the first reason.
And then there was the second reason, which was staring at me right in the face as I refreshed my Facebook tab looking at the clock.
I had launched this project – I was cooking up projects even then – where I wanted to gather small video clips about my high school community from the people who made it what it was. So a few weeks earlier, I had roped in some of my classmates to launch the project on social media with some videos and graphics and a Facebook page, and we had invited classmates to upload short video clips and answer some questions, the details of which escape me today. Honestly, there isn’t much from that project I remember, except for the fact that nobody participated.
That’s not exactly true – some of the friends I had pulled in to launch contributed, I assume somewhat reluctantly, because I really didn’t know what I was doing. So with those eight or nine clips, I did make a short video compilation in the end. But to me, the project was a failure and a very public demonstration of the fact that I just wasn’t good at organizing people to do things together. Thinking of it now, it almost seems trivial. And the failures that pull me down today, I’m sure I’ll look back in the same way five years from now. But it never feels so light in the moment, and this one hit me particularly hard, for a particularly long time.
I continued hacking on projects, but they became solitary affairs. I churned out small app after small app, and they accumulated on my portfolio, but I never dared venture outside of just making things entirely on my own. These projects got me my first job in tech, and they kept me entertained during my free time. I was content with that.
Part 2: an audience
Around the end of 2018, I got curious about the inner workings of UI frameworks. I had used React and Backbone.js for small projects before, but both of them seemed clunky to me in their own ways. So I decided to learn how they worked by making one of my own. This became Torus, my first big project in a long string of side projects.
Torus made me much faster at creating more interesting side projects. What used to take me days, I could now prototype and finish in a few hours. So I spent nearly every free hour of my spring in 2019 churning out side projects built on Torus – graphing calculators, little games, todo apps, artistic experiments, the whole gamut. These projects got me my second job in tech, and I was happy.
Over the summer I continued to work on side projects. I wrote Ink, my programming language, that summer in the evenings. I also launched two of my most successful pieces of work at the time, lyrics.rip (a collaboration with a friend) and a blog post on how I side project.
All through that time, I was also making a renewed effort to put myself out there and meet new people. I was never great at social encounters, so I made it yet another project of mine: I planned to meet 150 new people in meaningful conversations during 2019. That’s around three a week. It seemed just ambitious enough that I thought it would give me the kick I needed.
At first, I was just reaching out to friends-of-friends and classmates at Cal, and every conversation was awkward in its weird way. But doing it three, four times a week, I felt myself improve quickly. And that pushed me to keep going. By the summer, I was ahead of schedule, and by the end of the year, I had blasted through my goal by a wide margin of around 40. In time, I had also shed my awkwardness.
But I kept going, because after a year of building the habit, I was just enjoying meeting interesting people. And as I got to know more people who shared my interests, I stumbled onto more I wanted to talk to and learn from. This habit has stuck with me, even through the strange circumstances of the pandemic – I’ve met nearly 100 people remotely since I was pulled back home.
Going through these hundreds of conversations, I learned my first big lesson. Not everyone you want to meet is going to click with you, and that’s ok. The important thing is to hold onto the right ones. I tried to make every conversation a great one, but I couldn’t get on the same wavelength with everyone I met, and eventually, I came to terms with that. The people with whom I had amazing conversations became my friends and coworkers, and as long as that continued to happen, I considered the mission accomplished.
As I talked to more people, I realized the most interesting thing about me might be the formidable collection of side projects I had accumulated by this point. So I started sharing my work online, especially on Twitter, and even strangers started following my projects.
For the next year, as I continued to build out side projects, I also made sure to share my work with anyone who was listening. I paid attention to which of my projects people liked, and how I needed to explain and launch them to reach people who cared. I got better at this, too. Soon, I had hundreds of people reading this blog every week, and often tens of thousands of people visiting or downloading my projects. Most recently, I started writing an email newsletter. I had stumbled upon an audience, a growing group of people who thought my projects were cool. And that was new, and that was really exciting.
Part 3: the people
When you start seeing a number go up, it’s easy to get distracted. My focus shifted slowly, almost imperceptibly, from building projects and writing to ticking that number up. Growing an audience. I continued to hack, and I continued to write, but it was now in pursuit of growing the funnel.
The funnel is an interesting marketing metaphor. See, in marketing, the funnel is a mental model of where an audience or a customer base starts, and the steps that they might take to “convert” – to buy a product, read an article, sign up for a service. In my case, the funnel led people to my blog, and to following my work. And I think I started focusing on the funnel more than the fun of just making things.
I don’t think it was something you could notice from the outside. I was still coding, and still writing, and still shipping projects as usual. But I could tell my thinking changing, and I didn’t like that I felt held captive by this need to grow an audience.
All this time, I was still meeting new people, still having conversations that sometimes struck a chord, and sometimes didn’t. But I was finding more conversations and more friends from my audience, in the people who read what I wrote and followed what I launched. I enjoyed these conversations because they were more than just numbers ticking up. I was talking to student novelists and high school founders and quantum computing researchers, and people who lived on sailboats and went on tours singing their original songs. And with many of these folks, I could excitedly launch into my loud opinions about community building or microarchitecture design or homebrew productivity tools, and they’d be right there with me. I didn’t have to mode-switch out to fit in.
I’m still very much in the midst of this mindset change, but I think this is where I learned my second big lesson. More than growing an audience, focus on finding your people. The people who can just get in the zone with you about the topic of the day, and be unapologetically nerdy together about whatever happened to have come to our attention that week. An audience is helpful, but these people are the real deal. Hold onto them.
That’s my next big project. To try to find my people, the people whose conversations are already on my wavelength. People who don’t just watch what I build, but often become a part of the process, giving me feedback, warning me on my bad takes and pulling me up on my failures. Going forward, I want to focus on this task of finding my people, more than finding an audience.
The Internet is a noisy and chaotic place, and there’s way too many people out there for any of us to care about speaking to everyone. More important than growing an audience, find your people. And dance with them as if nobody else is looking. I think this is the best way for me to become happiest and most creative. Hopefully, the rest will take care of itself.
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