Three years ago, sitting on the beach over empty champagne glasses and the smoldering remains of late-night firecrackers, I made a New Year’s resolution to start this blog and publish once a week. Write, I told myself, attempting to channel Nike: Just. Do. It.
Write about the lessons now so familiar they can be recited in your sleep. Write about the insights not yet sighted, their silhouettes blurry like the edges of a distant shore. Write about the job, the joy and chaos of designing and building. Write at least once a week. Write to learn how to write, and write to understand, the process itself like a looking glass through which you may yet discover a strange new world. Write so something meaningful can be said to others. Write to be accountable, write with honesty. Above all, write to preserve the scrap of an age, a voice; write so you won’t forget.
That first year, through many late nights and plenty of teeth gnashing, I published 52 articles. The next year, I published once every two weeks. Last year, it became once every three weeks. I’m delighted to discover that this three-week cadence seems sustainable, so in 2016, that will once again be my resolution.
It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that these writing goals have changed my life.
When I started in 2012, I did it purely for myself — to untangle the knots in my head, to find and make peace with my voice, to lay my inner wall of confidence brick by brick. And through the habit of writing, my thinking sharpened. I became a more curious and humble reader. I spent more time on reflecting and giving thanks. So I continued. I could not have predicted how over the years, my words would fly across wires and oceans to light up the screens of many faraway strangers.
In the past year, my articles received 1.5 million views. I published 16 new pieces in 2015, and they averaged 58K views each.
Logically, I recognize that this means I am known in certain circles. But it never fails to surprise me when people I don’t know stop to say that they know me from my work. It never fails to warm my day when somebody tells me a particular piece of advice or passage resonated deeply with them.
Sometimes we’ll get to talking. And when there is a particular kind of pause in the conversation — a sigh, a wistful look — I can guess what is coming next. The person says, “You know, I’d love to start writing as well, but…”
Here’s the thing. I know all about the but’s. Through the years they’ve swarmed me like mosquitos, determined to suck my willpower dry. But I don’t know what to write about. But I don’t have the time. But who’d be interested in what I have to say? But I’m a perfectionist. But I’m not original. But I’m not a good writer.
There is a poster above my desk, a Dostoyevsky quote, which serves as a reminder that lack of topic should never be a problem.
“But how could you live and have no story to tell?”
No matter who you are, I know this to be a fact: that you have interests. That there is something you go to bed thinking about. That there is some experience you’ve had that not everybody has had. That there are lessons you’ve learned in your road less taken. That there is some version of the world you’d like tomorrow to be.
If you wanted to write, these topics, like San Francisco in 1849, are rich for the mining.
As for whether or not you have the time to write, well, we humans tend to have time for the things we prioritize, and not have time for the things we don’t. Last I checked, the average person in the U.S. has five hours of leisure time every day. It’s possible you wouldn’t really want to spend that time hunched over a notebook or keyboard. But then saying, “I don’t have the time” is kind of a cop-out. Really, what you are saying is While the idea of writing is interesting, I don’t choose to prioritize it over other things in my life. Which is perfectly fine. After all, we should all be doing the things we intentionally choose to do.
So then, assuming that you do indeed have things to write about and that you do want to prioritize writing, in my experience, the biggest barrier that prevents people from actually doing it is the expectation that what they write should meet a certain criteria of success.
In all the times before that I have failed to get something on paper, it was because I had thoughts like the following: geez, what if I hit publish and nobody reads this? That’d be embarrassing and pointless. Or I only want to publish something if it’s really good and makes me seem smart, witty, and knowledgeable. Or What if I say this and somebody disagrees and tells me I’m wrong? Or Hmm, I should only write when inspiration hits me, and right now I don’t feel inspired.
In every creative endeavor — not just writing — this train of thought paralyzes. I have experienced it enough times to know that holding yourself to some lofty standard when you are just starting out is like blowing a deathkiss to your chances of success.
Instead, if you’d like to write, I offer the following tips:
- Set a writing goal that is purely about the mechanical act of doing. Maybe, like me, it’s Hit the publish button every third Tuesday, Maybe it’s Write 3 journal entries a week. Or maybe it’s Write 500 words a day. (In case you wonder how all your favorite authors complete their novels, I have it on good information that pretty much all of them do it via daily word-count/time-spent-writing goals.)
- Tell yourself that nothing else matters besides #1. The thing you publish every third Tuesday does not have to fit any particular theme (in my case, not having any better ideas at the time, I’ve published poetry, listicles, and essays about my dog.) Your journal entries can be one sentence long. Your 500 daily words can be crap words. Don’t obsess over your audience. Don’t try to write what you think other people will want to read. Write about what you are excited about, because the best writing tends to reveal a piece of yourself anyway. The point is to bust down any possible barrier that might get in the way of you being able to achieve #1.
- Commit to doing #1 for long enough that you will have built a habit out of it. A week or a month isn’t sufficient. Try 6 months or a year. By then, the act of writing will have molded to your life like a favorite sweatshirt, and you will begin to feel its effects on the way you think, reflect, and process the world.
I confess, I have two selfish, ulterior motives for persuading you to write.
The first is that if I know you, I want to learn from you. One of my most powerful reads in recent memory was about the unparalleled power of social influence. It turns out that there are very few ways to change a person’s mind about something they believe strongly. Data or rational arguments rarely work. Heartfelt, emotional appeals have limited success. Using authority isn’t effective. In fact, nothing really seems to work to persuade people to consider a different view except hearing that perspective from someone they know and trust. Writing affords us a way to broaden the reach of how we think. It helps us connect our friends, family, and community to the perspectives we uniquely have.
The second reason is that if you are reading this, there is a pretty good chance that you care about design. And the world I want for tomorrow is one in which there are more voices, perspectives, and ideas about design, including yours.
Why? Because this is a field that is still young and evolving. Because not every business gets why design is important yet. Because as Bob Baxley reminded me of recently, most young people in high school and college (and I was one of them) do not yet realize that design is a career, let alone a rewarding and high-paying one. Because in a decade there will be many times the number of designers as today, and those designers should learn from our triumphs and mistakes. Because we need more design leadership at every level. Because every day I stumble across products and experiences that leave me frustrated, and that means our work as makers is cut out for us.
These perspectives can’t just come from a small handful of existing design thinkers. As much as I love the words of Donald Norman and Cap Watkins and Geoff Teehan and Frank Chimero and Margaret Stewart and David Kelley, that isn’t enough. We need more voices and more stories and more truths.
This past year, one of the things I’ve been the proudest to see is the emergence of our Facebook collection of design stories. I love this collection because it covers so many topics from so many different designers. There are stories about launching products and hacking icons, building tools and giving feedback. The only rule of the collection is that each piece should be from the voice and perspective of the individual designer, because Facebook Design isn’t one person or one narrative. It’s a group of people who come together, each with his or her own unique skills and worldview, and for whom the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
And that is how all of design should be. I want more stories. I want more best practices. I want to become better, and I want all of us to become better, so we can build more useful, usable, and thoughtful things.
I want you to write.
Will you join me?