10 Life-Changing Lessons I Learned From Kevin Kelly
1. Get lost before you find yourself.
Kevin Kelly is one of the most interesting humans alive. After dropping out during his freshman year at college, he spent a few years traveling across Asia, working as a photographer.
Today he is known as the founder of the most famous magazine about IT and startups — Wired Magazine and as the author of bestselling books on technology.
Kevin is a visionary and one of my heroes. Below are ten lessons that I’ve learned from watching, listening, and reading him over the years.
1. Get Lost
As the saying goes,
“The only way to find something is to stop looking.”
The first lesson from Kevin Kelly is that your twenties are for slack, play, goofing off, and finding yourself. Productivity is for the middle ages. This probably goes against everything you currently believe in.
Social media does a great job of pushing young people to ‘achieve’ as soon as they can.
In his interview with Tim Ferriss, KK talks about hiring interns for Wired:
“I got involved in starting Wired and running Wired for a while, and hired a lot of people who were coming right out of college. They were interns and they would do the intern thing, and then they were good and we would hire them…and I kept telling them,
“Why are you here? What are you doing? You should be fooling around, wasting time, trying something crazy. Why are you working a real job? I don’t understand it.”
If we look at most biographies of highly successful people, most of them have this time of doing nothing, being unproductive, and playing (i.e. not having a goal) in their twenties.
Most young people (me included) today don’t spend enough time finding themselves.
When Kevin Kelly left college to roam around Asia for a while, he didn’t think it would make him successful. In the 60–70s, success wasn’t something people aspired to — stability was. Instead, he chose to pursue his passion (photography) and see where it would lead him.
He was young. He didn’t have any money. No prospects. It was a scary decision then. But in retrospect, he says it was the best place to be at that time of his life.
And Kevin has skin in the game. In one interview, he talked about giving the same advice to his son, who was graduating from college. He told him that he should take the time to waste time, and “imagine that you’re a billionaire and on a sabbatical.”
Part of finding yourself is being lost first. So be lost. Play. Explore. Be unproductive.
2. You Only Need 1,000 ‘True Fans’
This is possibly the most famous idea, and it all started as a blog post by Kevin Kelly. I’ve been writing about it for a few years now, and I am a firm believer in it.
It’s simple: If you’re a creator (i.e., a maker of things), and you’re able to produce $100 worth of value per year, you only need 1,000 true fans.
That way, you’ll earn $100 x 1,000 = $100,000 per year, which is living to most folks.
The trick is in the definition of ‘true fan.’ It’s someone who will buy anything you do and will drive across the city to get your latest book, album, CD, whatever. Finding and aggregating these people is not as easy as it sounds. It requires some hard work.
In order to have 1,000 true fans, you’ll need to have a total of 5,000 or 10,000 just ‘fans.’ You will find a way to attract them. And you’ll need to find a sustainable way to produce $100 worth of value per year.
This model works because, in the world of the Internet, you’re able to sell your art, as a creator, directly to the consumer.
Personally, that’s the model I aspire to achieve with my art.
3. Memento Mori
One of the most interesting things about Kevin Kelly is that he uses death as a way to focus himself.
On a podcast with Tim Ferriss, he talks about a few tricks that we can all use.
- Countdown clock. KK has a countdown clock on his desktop, reminding him how many days he has left to live (approximately). I am 22, which means that if I live to 90, I have 24,820 days left. As he says, “Nothing focuses me more than seeing that each day, I have one less to live.”
- Six months to live. At one time during his life, Kevin spent six months preparing to die. It was a spiritual practice, and it gave him a profound insight into human existence. While I do not suggest that you go and experience something similar, it’s a good thought experiment to understand what you value most in life.
- Five-year projects. When you’re young (which luckily, I am), it’s tempting to think that you have your whole life in front of you to do everything you plan. But as Kevin suggests, if you define a ‘big project’ as a project that takes five years to complete, you don’t have that many. In my case, if I work until 80, I have just 11. I think about that every time I want to start something ‘big.’
4. Hire Other People
When asked what he would tell his younger self, Kevin replied, “I would tell myself to hire other people and not try to do everything by yourself.”
Specialization is for insects. Hiring other people to do things for you frees up your time and gives you leverage. While they do what you need to get done, you can get something else done.
This is one of the most important lessons for me personally. I used to be someone who would try to do everything. But soon, I realized that I am spending too much time figuring out how to do something I am bad at — when I could use that time to do something only I am good at.
You have only 8 hours (or so) at your disposal per day. But if you hire other people, you can multiply that number by the number of people you hire.
Do only what you can do (and do best), and hire other people to do the rest.
5. Find Your Slot in the Universe
What is success to you? Is it getting $100 million? Or 100 million followers on Instagram?
Kevin Kelly talks a lot about success as finding ‘your slot in the Universe.’ Ideally, you should become someone who can’t be described by popular terms like ‘successful entrepreneur’ or ‘successful writer.’ Because when you use those terms, you have a set image in your mind about what they mean.
And you should live life in a way that you can be described only by your [first name] and [last name]. You should be your adjective. You should be you. And you should only do something that only you can do.
Kevin Kelly teaches us that life is about figuring out who you are. That’s all life is about. If all you do in life is to figure out who you are, that’s already good enough.
6. Don’t Optimise Prematurely
When you’re young (18–30), full of energy and ambition, the impulse is to run and get it. You’re probably insecure. You’re probably full of desire to show the world you mean something.
You should do the complete opposite. And that is — nothing.
Waste time. Travel. Explore. Read whatever you can get your hands on. As soon as it stops being enjoyable, drop the book and go buy another one, there’s always another one.
Experience things, try things, break things, and learn: about yourself, the world, and others.
Don’t think about the money (yet). Don’t think about productivity (yet). Don’t think about yourself as an adult (yet). Don’t think of yourself as a ‘provider’ (if you’re a man) and a ‘mother’ (if you’re a woman) if you don’t have kids yet.
Enjoy being young on this planet. All the great things happen now. There’s no rush. You will have time for all that ‘serious’ stuff later. You will.
7. Invention and Discovery Are the Same Things
Kevin Kelly believes that there is no difference between invention and discovery.
Did Columbus invent America or discover it? Did Newton invent his laws, or did he discover them (they were already a part of nature anyway)?
“We could say that discovery and invention are the same. So that discovering yourself and inventing yourself is really the same thing.”
It doesn’t matter. You go through the same processes in both discovery and innovation. These are the terms you can use almost interchangeably.
8. Don’t Try to Find Your passion
There is a lot of talk about finding your passion and doing what you love. But this need to find your passion may paralyze a lot of people who are just starting.
Kevin Kelly has an alternative approach. He says, “Don’t find your passion.” Instead, master some skill that other people find valuable, and then you’ll naturally arrive at your passion.
“It almost doesn’t matter what it is at the start. You don’t have to love it, you just have to be the best at it. Once you master it, you’ll be rewarded with new opportunities that will allow you to move away from tasks you dislike and toward those that you enjoy. If you continue to optimize your mastery, you’ll eventually arrive at your passion.”
This idea has helped me a lot in my career. When I dropped out of college and didn’t know where to go, I got a job as a social media manager. I taught myself the ins and outs of marketing, wrote a couple of articles, and was invited to speak at conferences. That led me to start teaching digital marketing and founding my agency.
Today I used all of those skills I acquired in my work as an online author and blogger.
Don’t waste your time finding your passion. Go and try stuff, learn something that people will pay for — and use that to arrive at your passion eventually.
9. Give Away Ideas
We talked earlier about the importance of doing something that only you can do. But how do you find that? Vet ideas by giving them away for free.
Kevin Kelly talks about his experience at Wired. His job as the Editor (or Senior Maverick, as he likes to call himself) is to give assignments to writers. And he tries to give all of his best ideas away and see which ones stick.
Sometimes there is an idea that nobody wants to take, even though Kevin himself thinks that it’s a great idea. This means that he should be the one to write about it.
When he does, these turn out to be his best articles.
10. Why You Should What Only You Can Do
When you get a job, you try to keep that job by not screwing up. That’s you mastering a valuable skill and becoming better at it.
Eventually, you’ll find out how to combine fun with money, and that’s where most people tend to stick. You do what you love, and you make money.
How can it get even better? If it’s something that only you can do.
That’s something I am personally trying to optimize for right now and find. But I realize that it might take my whole life to figure out. (See lesson #5)
Mastering a skill is easy. Combining what you love with money is doable. Finding something you’re the best in the world at? It can take up to a lifetime.
Kevin Kelly is almost 70, and he is still looking.