Interview with Travis Neilson
Hey Travis. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. For those that maybe don’t know who you are, can you tell them a bit about yourself and what you do?
Sure, my name is Travis Neilson, I’m an American designer working in California for startups. For the past two years I’ve been releasing weekly (and sometimes more) videos on YouTube with the intention of teaching the next generation of web builders to do what I do: design and code websites. The name of the YouTube channel is called DevTips. This is what I’m most widely known for but I try to reach people on other mediums too. I co- host a podcast called “Late Nights with Trav and Los” and I write and send weekly emails I call “notes” to people who want to read about creative health and my ideas about creative professionalism. Visiting travisneilson.com will point you to all these different things.
You publish a massive amount of content, which for people like myself is awesome! How have you managed to keep doing all of these things on a consistent schedule?
I think it’s a combination of a few things. The first and biggest factor in my ability to maintain a high output is probably my relationship with my wife. It’s based in encouragement and support. In everything I do, and everything she does we pre-commit to help each other meet our goals. Most of the time that means giving each other space and trying our best to pick up the slack where we can.
The second thing is that I have a really great and encouraging employer who is interested in and supportive of my endeavors. Everyone in the office is really engaged with what I am doing, they keep track of my milestones as they come, they buy DevTips shirts when they are in print, some of them are Patrons of my work. Meaning that they donate money on a regular basis to my projects. That’s a wonderful feeling.
Then there are the followers, subscribers, fans and patrons of my work. I can’t tell you how many emails and messages I get from people who tell me about how my work has impacted their lives in really awesome ways. I have a special folder that I keep full of those messages. I look at them when I feel overwhelmed or a little defeated.
All of these things are really great motivators and enablers, but in the end the work will never do itself. So the way that you get a lot of stuff done is just to do the work. I sleep about four hours, and every other moment of the day I try to make sure that the thing that I’m doing is moving the ball forward, even just a little bit.
It’s really great to see that you have many sources of encouragement and support that can help you keep motivated in the work that you do. I see you mentioned that you only sleep for 4 hours which I understand is called Polyphasic Sleeping. Can you tell me more about this and how long have you’ve been doing it for?
Polyphasic sleeping is the practice of sleeping many times during the day. I maintain a schedule called “Everyman” which includes a core-nap of three hours during the night, and three twenty minute naps spread throughout the day. I mentioned earlier that my employer is really supportive, they let me nap at work. Haha.
This schedule really enables me to get a lot done. I have 4 more hours in the day than the average person sleeping 8 hours in the night. I don’t advise this for everyone, but for those who have a lot to get done it can really be a game changer.
I’ve been sustaining this pattern for about seven or eight months now and I don’t see any reason to stop.
It definitely sounds beneficial for those needing more time consistently. I understand that you are a non-educated professional (in that you didn’t go to University). In what ways have you taught yourself? Was their specific websites, online courses or person that helped you gain that knowledge?
This is a touchy one for me. I’ve always been embarrassed and self-conscious about my lack of higher education. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was really able to overcome that insecurity and embrace it, not as a handicap but as a point of virtue. Now I am very open about it and use it to empower others like me who were priced out of a university experience.
Being forced to rely on my own tenacity and resourcefulness has been one of the greatest things that could possibly have happened to me. Every now and then I come across a person who has had a lot handed to them and I take note that they have a very limited mindset. They are concerned with getting permission and doing things in the prescribed way. I kind of like making things up. I like discovering that I am wrong and trying again.
Set a goal to make something… and educate yourself to do it along the way!
This is how my self-education has come about. Set a goal to make something. Not so much a goal to learn, but to get something done, and educate yourself to do it along the way.
There was never a single source of knowledge. Never one website, course, or person — but I will say that paying attention to my mistakes and trying to learn from them has been essential in that process.
The world’s knowledge is getting more and more organized and available to those who are looking in the right places. Information is not a scarce resource. Applying knowledge and struggling through the creative process is where real learning happens.
What you are saying, to me, really empowers the phase ‘practice make perfect’. You mentioned earlier that you have a lot of support from your wife, employer and fans but have you ever found yourself at a point where you have lost all creativity and if you have how did you go about regaining that creative flow?
I’ve never lost all creativity. No. I don’t think it’s possible. Believing that it is comes from misunderstanding creativity itself. I’ve exhausted myself. I’ve become distracted. I’ve lost passion for a project, sure — but creativity is just the act of connecting things, solving problems. As long as you have a problem and the desire to solve it you have the ingredients of creativity.
I get a lot of emails from frustrated people thinking that they are not creative or that they have lost creativity or what have you. The truth is, they have misunderstood their predicament. In most of these cases they have not clearly defined the problem that they are trying to solve. They think that to create something wonderful you have to sit down and wait for something to come to you, to have a magical existential moment, but that’s not the case. What these people need most is to take more time defining the problem.
There are things you can do during a creative session to maximize output and to make sure that you are more likely to get a good result. These things are more about removing distractions, and doing the right kinds of work at the right time however, not about being more or less creative.
Creativity, as a principal, is an often misunderstood phenomenon. I think we would do well to approach it like any other subject; be it maths, literature, science or social studies. It’s not a mystery, we just act like it is too much. I would like to see creativity connected more to action than ideas. Edison famously said that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Meaning it’s the work that matters. Dreaming all day will get you nothing.
I have never looked at it in that way which refers to your point of creativity being misunderstood. I just want to go back to point where you said you have become distracted and lost passion for a project. What do you do when that does happen?
I have a very blue-collar approach to work. I don’t see what I do as any different or special than a farmer or factory worker. What do they do when they feel distraction or passion loss? They get up, put their boots on, and get to work.
The corn field and the assembly line don’t care if you are tired — neither do your clients, boss, or audience. All that matters is that the work gets done on time. I place a high priority on the due date. Deadlines drive me. The reason that I’ve posted one or more videos every week for the past 2 years without fail is simply because I have committed to post a video every Monday at 8AM. If it’s 8:05AM and there is no video yet, I get a lot of emails asking where it is. That’s a fail.
I would post a video that I am only kind of happy with rather than not post, or post late. Woody Allen, the prolific filmmaker, wisely said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up”.
Jerry Seinfeld once told Alec Baldwin that “Most of the people we see in the arts are not there because they had the most to offer, but because they wanted to be there the most.”
Distraction doesn’t matter. Passion doesn’t matter. Creativity doesn’t matter. In the end the only thing that matters is work. So I get up, and I work.
Now, here is the big secret: when you just get to work — distraction fades, passion blooms, and creativity sparks. But it starts with work, not the other way around.
If I’ve ever been in a slump, it’s because I wasn’t working like I should have been.
I think this is also the reason why we procrastinate so much because we don’t just get up and work. I am also very surprised that people email you when a video is ‘late’. I just wait for a notification to appear on my phone and sometimes hit the refresh button a few times on video day. Moving away from work, what are your hobbies and how do you relax?
I divide my day into three parts: Work on personal projects, work for my employer, spend time with my family. I love wrestling with my kids. Getting on my hands and knees and letting them jump on me, tossing them about. Sometimes I play guitar and sing. I’m not good at all, but I like to do it anyway. It’s just for fun, it doesn’t have to be good.
Sometimes working on my channel, podcast, and articles takes me to new places and to meet new people. I really enjoy interacting with people who have something interesting to say. There are people out there who really think about the experience of life and make wonderful observations, people who are willing to share their perspectives. When I meet people like that I really latch onto them. My podcast co-host Carlos is like that. A thinker and a doer. The best kind of people.
Meeting and engaging with others helps me to step outside of my own experience which is very important for me. I need that perspective or else I will get lost looking inward too much.
I remember wrestling with my brother when we were younger, they were the best times! If you could pin point this down to one thing what would you say has been the biggest problem you have faced in your life to date?
This is a really hard question for me to answer. Mostly because I feel like my problems are not really problems to be concerned with on the grand scale. My belly was never swollen with hunger. I was never sold as a sex slave, or forced my local war lords to murder my family. So I have a really hard time justifying the small whimpers that can from time to time escape from my throat.
When I was younger I thought my struggles were particularly poignant. I was very concerned with myself. I think most of us start out that way. But as we get older and get some more experience, when our awareness expands, we see how nice we have it. It’s unfair for me to complain about any friction that may give me a little bump or bruise along the way.
I think perspective is a great way to get someone to quit whining about their problems. It’s kind of like when my kids won’t eat their veggies and I tell them that there are kids in other parts of the world who would just love to eat them. They don’t get it. They can’t, they haven’t seen it. They need time, maturity, and context to appreciate what I’m saying. But I say it anyway, maybe more for myself.
Anyhow, I was stuck on this question for so long because I have a hard time rationalizing my problems. But the thing I try to remember is that our problems are all relative. I could be really concerned about my daughter getting a happy face sticker in school today, but another parent, somewhere else, is concerned with feeding their children today. Perspective will allow you to see the difference.
Moving onto the other end of the scale, what has been your greatest achievement to date?
Hahaha, hopefully this answer won’t be so dark. Ummm, when I think of my greatest achievements I think of the things that bring me the most joy — and my thoughts go immediately to my family. Now, relationships are never really done. So I can’t really call this an achievement, but I am really proud of the healthy relationship I have with my wife and kids. We love and respect each other and give each other a lot of support to do the things we love.
So if I’ve ever won any awards, or an awesome client. If I’ve ever gotten a promotion or just made something cool, it’s been because of the encouragement and love of my wife.
I think we, as creatives, need that. Someone to believe in us when it’s hard to believe in ourselves. She was that for me when I first started, she told me I could achieve when all signs pointed to failure.
I totally agree. Having support from others really does help and it boosts our confidence! Do you have any words of wisdom for someone new entering the industry?
A while ago I answered this question in a video. I think I called it “Advice and Crap for Young Creators.” I’d recommend giving that a watch. Many people have written me saying that this particular video was really impactful to them.
In the video I talk about having a clear definition of what you want. Surrounding yourself with people who have similar goals, and working hard to make it all happen.
If I were to go back and revise that video; I’d add the advice to treat every success as temporary. It’s good to celebrate your wins and be happy with your achievements, but never get comfortable. Never lose the hustle.
Awesome advice! Finally, what do you have planned for the future?
John Lennon sang to his son that “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I’ve always loved that lyric. It helps me to remember to make plans but hold on to them fairly loosely. Being flexible is a big part of how I work, and how I try to live.
To that end I make plans at a few levels. I have retirement plans. I have 10 and 5 year plans. I plan the videos that I will be making this week, but all of these are held loosely. I would throw any of it out the window if it seemed like a good idea.
Most people know me from my YouTube videos or my Podcast. I don’t have many plans for these other than to keep doing them. I want them to grow and one day I would like it if I could do them full time. That is a while out though.
“Plan for happiness, work hard.”
Awesome stuff, and good luck with everything you have planned! Is there anything you would like to add before we end?
Just a “thank you” for doing all this, and for being an awesome person to know. :)
Thank you so much Travis for chatting to me and giving us an insight into your life and for all the helpful advice. Thank you and KEEP ON HACKING!