The future of the Android community is YOU


If you’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in our community — conferences, meetups, blog posts, podcasts, open source (the list goes on and on) — you’ve probably noticed a really wonderful energy and spirit behind them all. Yes, our community is healthy and thriving!

And while things are really good today, I do think that we all have a responsibility to think about the future of our community — to really consider what we’re going to do to help shape what it will become, not just for ourselves, but for all the new folks that will be coming into Android for many years to come.

But before we get into the future, let’s take a step back and consider why our community even means so much to us. Why do we even care? The best place I can think to start is my own story.

🤤 My (boring) story

I started with Android back in 2014, which wasn’t really that long ago. I had been writing Java for a long time before that, but didn’t know anything about Android. So I had a bunch of stuff to learn — all the APIs, UI frameworks, etc. were all new to me.

Like many people, a natural place for me to learn was at work, on the job. And that’s exactly what I did. I learned a lot from my coworker Jay. Jay really taught me the ropes and helped me get off on the right foot. He put up the guardrails so I wouldn’t go careening off the side of a cliff.

Turns out though that Jay has a life, a family, and his own work to do. He couldn’t be my personal Stack Overflow, 24/7. So yes, of course, there are limits to what our coworkers can provide. They’re a wonderful people that help us in our projects and day to day work, but naturally they have a bunch of their own stuff to do!

And so like just like everyone else, I started Googling around for resources that would help me become a better Android developer. But what I found wasn’t just a bunch of “resources”. Instead I found an incredibly rich network of teachers.

My peers were out there teaching and offering help without asking for anything in return. They covered every kind of topic and every kind of app. It was really amazing to see, and these teachers became a big, big part of how I learned and got a lot better at Android.

In fact, I’m certain that I don’t reach this level in my career without them. That is why this community means so much to me — I’m literally not here today without the help of all of you out there. So thank you!

I bet a lot of you feel the same way and maybe have similar stories. If you stop for a second and think about it, we’ve all been impacted by these amazing contributions in some way. Think of the conference video that got you really jazzed about something for the first time. Or the blog post that finally, for the first time, helped a concept click in your brain. And of course there’s all the open source work that all of our apps are built on.

And so if you think about how much benefit we’ve gotten from this community and what a positive influence its been on us, here’s a scary thought…

🙀 Can you imagine if this community didn’t exist?

What would happen? Well, for sure our jobs would be a lot harder, they’d be a lot less fun, and a lot less interesting. We’d find ourselves solving the same problems over and over, and it’d get tiring and tedious real fast. I wonder how many of us would even be making Android apps still.

Now of course our community isn’t going to magically disappear or anything like that. But I do think it’s healthy to occasionally reflect on stuff like this — to make sure we don’t take things for granted, and to help us appreciate what we have.

And this thought, as scary as it is, does highlight one really important aspect about communities that people probably don’t think about too often: that sustaining a healthy community is really hard work.

Sustaining any community is tough, and it’s especially difficult to sustain one at a high level like our’s is at. Communities don’t build themselves, they’re not some miracle of the universe. They’re the result of hard work of thousands of well-meaning people, donating their time and effort to help all of us.

I think this can be easy to forget sometimes because there are some folks within our community who are super-pros at doing this stuff. They make it look so easy, you could be forgiven to think that it’s no big deal for them to create these contributions.

But in reality it’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of effort to build these things. Whether it’s maintaining an open source project, prepping a talk, putting on a conference, or the dozens of other types of contributions, these things take a lot of time to put together. And often people are doing this on their own personal time. I don’t say this to make you feel bad for these folks or make it seem like they’re martyrs or something — it’s just to level set how much work really goes into this stuff.

The other thing that makes sustaining a community tough is that Android moves really fast. If you look back 2–3 years almost nothing is the same. Hell, if you look back a few months at Google I/O, almost nothing is the same! This is awesome and exciting of course, but it also means it’s really hard to keep up and cover it all. There’s a wide surface area of topics, and a relatively small number of contributors.

And so because it’s so much work, and because things move so fast, what you often see is that there are natural ebbs and flows to contributions. It’s not uncommon to hear about people taking a break from giving talks, or perhaps you’ve seen an open-source project go unmaintained. Life happens, work picks up, or any number of other factors can play a part, and this is absolutely natural and OK. Of course people deserve a break and should only contribute when it works for them.

But because people are cycling out, we need to make sure that we’re also cycling people in. And so if we truly appreciate this community, and you’ve positively benefited in any way from its contributions…

👉😳 We need you to become contributors

This is especially true for folks who haven’t been super active before. It’s really important to remember that new voices are a key element in moving us in the right direction.

New folks bring many important qualities to the table, but there are two that I really want to highlight.

Your energy. When starting something new, people have a natural energy about them. You’re excited and energized by the possibilities, and that’s important. That energy has a halo effect, not only around those you’re with every day, but also to other members of the community — that energy is contagious! When we see someone doing something new and exciting and full of enthusiasm, that keeps us motivated, interested, and energized too.

Your diverse perspectives. We don’t want to become a stagnant community of unchangeable ideas. New people naturally bring in fresh ideas, new angles, new ways of thinking, tend to challenge the status quo, and bring up issues that we might be blind to.

These two qualities are really, really important for us to have within our community. But unfortunately, a lot of times when encouraging new folks to get involved, there are a couple common retorts that I’ll hear.

“I have nothing new to say.” There’s this common misconception that people have. This idea that “I have nothing to contribute” or “Everything I would talk about has already been said by someone else.”

And while I understand where you’re coming from, I’m sorry to say you’re 100% wrong. You do have something to say whether you realize it or not.

Here’s the thing: the sum total of your life experiences, everything that’s gotten you to where you are today — your journey, your struggles, your successes — are incredibly unique and valuable. And because of that, someone out there can learn from you.

Even if by some chance you and I had the exact same skill level and were giving talks on the exact same topic, there’s no way that it would impact the same people the same way. Your unique vision of the topic, how you express it, and your perspective that’s been built up all your life carries an inherent value that nobody else can recreate. End of story.

“I’m just a beginner.” This is the other thing I’ll hear a lot — this idea that “I’m just starting out and I’m not an expert”. But what you may not realize is that, in some ways, being a beginner is a huge advantage that you have. How can that be?

There’s this wonderful quote by Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor. In it she says…

“The essence of making an idea clear requires a deep understanding not only of the idea but also of the person to whom one is explaining the idea.”

That makes a lot of sense, right? Now I could expound on this, but why do that when my esteemed colleague Christina Lee has already done that so eloquently.

https://twitter.com/RunChristinaRun/status/1018575201393520640

Exactly! You were just in the person’s shoe’s, of course you’re in an excellent position to explain it to another beginner more clearly than an “expert”. Some of us are so far removed from being a beginner that sometimes we’re not good at teaching — we can glaze over important steps, make a lot of assumptions, and even use different language. But as a beginner, you are immune to all of that, and that in many ways makes you a perfect teacher.

All that to say, you have to get those negative thoughts out of your head. Forget this idea that you have nothing to say, that you’re “just” a beginner, or whatever other doubts you might have. I guarantee you every contributor has said this or something similar before they got started.


The thing that’s hard to see until you jump in is that this is one of the most open, accessible, and encouraging groups of people you could be a part of. Everybody is, in my experience, incredibly nice and willing to help other get started.

A quick story — a little while back I was thinking of doing my first talk. I had never even submitted a proposal much less give a talk, so I had no idea what I was doing. I saw that Android Summit was coming up, and it looked like a good place for me to get started and so I was interested in submitting a proposal.

But like I said, I hadn’t the slightest idea what i was doing. So I looked up who had previously spoken there, and I saw that Huyen Tue Dao had given a talk the previous year. Now at this point, you have to remember, Huyen and I aren’t friends. Hell, we had never even talked to each other before. But out of the blue I sent her a message and asked for her opinion.

It was incredible! She gave me so much encouragement and advice, I could barely believe it. I went in the conversation cold and anxious, and came out excited and enthusiastic. And remember, we didn’t even know each other at all! Here’s a tiny excerpt of what Huyen told me from that conversation:

“Yes, you should totally propose a talk. Do it. End of story. If you have any questions let me know. You gotta go for it. Would love to help. You’ll do great! Let me know!”

That is an amazingly warm, open, encouraging way to treat someone you don’t know! To that end, I think it’s a wonderful embodiment of what our community is like.

The other thing that’s tough to realize until you get going is what an immensely rewarding experience being a contributor can be. If you think about it, there aren’t many professional endeavors where you can…

  • Help others, teach, and pay forward all the things you’ve gained
  • Make new friends and contacts all across the world at many companies
  • Improve your own skills and your career prospects, at the same time

If nothing else, those are three pretty damn good reasons, don’t you think?

🙌 So you’re convinced, right?

I hope at this point you’re convinced that our community is immensely important and valuable, that you absolutely have an important voice, and that we need as many people as possible to contribute to keep things going in the right direction.

So your next logical question might be, “OK, what do I do now? How do I start?”

Well lucky for you I’ve thought of four ways you can contribute. Each one is a little bit different, and I picked them because I think they might appeal to a range of different personality types. I hope there’s a little bit for everyone here. I’ll go into each one broadly and give you a few tips on how to get started. (These four are, of course, not the only things you could be doing, just the ones I happened to pick.)

Let’s get started!

✍️ Contribution #1: Writing

Writing is really near and dear to me, and it’s one of the most important skills you can have. I think many of us have probably read a blog post at some point that had a big impact on us or helped something really click for the first time. And given that so much of our work is writing — chatting, pull requests, feature descriptions, etc. — you could argue that it’s a vastly under-appreciated skill.

Specifically, there are a few things that make them immensely useful to our community.

It’s information dense. The written form is capable of carrying an awesome amount of information — they’re often packed with diagrams, explanations, and code snippets. Pound for pound, nothing can really match a written post for learning, especially compared to something like video or audio.

It’s self-paced. People can absorb the information at their own pace, which is really, really important for learning. I don’t know about all of you, but I usually have to read things at least twice to make any sense of something, sometimes more. Others can probably blow through stuff very quickly the first time. But that’s why it’s great — no two people learn at the same pace, and writing is by far the easiest way to guide your own pace (again, compared to something like audio or video).

It’s an excellent reference (basically forever). Once you’ve created something, you’ll find that it serves as an excellent reference on that topic for many years to come, especially if it’s on a topic that doesn’t change that often.

There’s this great tweet by Kelly Shuster regarding an article that Amanda Hill wrote a while back on image scaling types, and she’s absolutely right. Being able to go back to that article, time and time again, is a huge win.

https://twitter.com/KellyShuster/status/958811409697062913

Our friend Chiu-Ki Chan has expressed a similar sentiment, saying how she often writes to serve as a reference to herself, which is tremendously helpful too.

https://twitter.com/chiuki/status/958844851503722496

So if writing sounds like something you might be into, a few things to keep in mind.

Writing tip #1: Practice editing (a lot) ✂️

When you first start writing, one of the hardest things to do is to write clearly. And one of the best ways to improve clarity is to edit.

I read so many things every day that could benefit by a good round of editing — an email, a blog post, a news article, and so much more. Now this isn’t a criticism of those writers, far from it. I think it’s just a reflection of how hard it is to consistently write clearly. Hell, I struggle with it plenty, too. It’s a learned skill and it takes a while to get good at it.

Editing is a big topic so I don’t want to get too deep into the nuts and bolts of it, but there are three “types” of editing that I think would serve you well when writing for the community.

Cut the fat. I think this is probably the one that most people think of as editing, and rightfully so. Condensing everything to the bare minimum, using as few words as possible, and still clearly expressing an idea is incredibly important.

But there are two other kinds of editing that I think people sometimes forget about.

Revise and reorganize. A lot of times a good round of editing isn’t just about cutting things out. At some point there’s going to be a diminishing return for paring down your words too much. Sometimes editing is just about moving stuff around — moving a paragraph, sentence, or even just a single a word— to improve its clarity. Don’t forget that!

Use simpler words. One of the easiest traps to fall into is using complex language. I do this all the time too, I think because it makes me feel really smart or witty. But the reality is that if you have a choice between a simple word or a complicated/fancy one, always pick the simpler one. It will almost always serve you better, be easier to understand, and therefore will be more valuable to the reader.

Bottom line: editing is absolutely crucial to writing well. Practice early and often!

Writing tip #2: Claps are not a measure of success, impact, or value 👏🚮

It seems like every site these days has some way of providing “positive” feedback. Twitter has hearts, Medium has claps, and on and on.

And sure, I’m not going to lie to you, it feels good to get a lot of those. If you write on Medium and you get a ton of claps, it feels like you did something great and important — like you really struck a chord with people.

But if we’re being honest with each other, they’re all bullshit metrics.

From my own personal experience, some of the best things I’ve written that I was most proud of got very few claps or attention. And some of the most outrageous, antagonizing shit that I wrote got an absolute ton of claps. Does that make the latter more successful or more valuable?

Of course not. You absolutely cannot measure the impact that your writing can have by some arbitrary metric like claps, which are designed for Medium to get readers and clicks, not to serve your writing.

I really want to drive this home because sometimes new writers will think “Well, nobody clapped for my writing, so I’m not helping anyone. There’s no point in continuing.” And while I understand why you might feel that way, I urge you to persevere.

It’s possible that your work will live on for years and years, and eventually find its way to helping someone. Plus, how do you really know that it hasn’t helped someone? As unfortunate as it is, we often don’t read something useful then go through the trouble of contacting the author and tell them how much we appreciate it. For all you know, your article has made a tremendous impact on someone, they just didn’t go through the trouble of going back and saying thanks.

And worst case, remember you’re not just helping others, you’re helping yourself! I guarantee you that while you were writing the post, you learned something useful. And on top of that, you’ve got a wonderful bit of writing for your portfolio.

Don’t get too hung up on these bullshit metrics. You’re creating something useful, giving back to our community, and building up your skills and portfolio at the same time. Forget the claps and focus on the writing.

Writing tip #3: Have a strong opinion 💪

Don’t be afraid to tell it how you see it. We talked earlier about how writing clearly is one of the hardest things to do, and this is another way to really improve that.

Having a strong opinion means you are inherently being clear. When you’re being direct, that’s clarity. When you’re being wishy washy or qualifying every statement with “You may not all agree, but I think…” then your writing and clarity suffer badly.

Now of course that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what you say — far from it. You are absolutely responsible for being respectful, accurate, and convincing. But while doing that, be confident, be convincing, and say what you mean.

And hey, if everyone doesn’t agree with you (which they certainly won’t), don’t fret. Discourse, discussion, and disagreement is a normal, healthy thing in a active community. If you’ve riled up a few people and got ’em thinking, you’ve done good.

🗣 Contribution #2: Speaking

If writing isn’t your thing, maybe you’d rather just say it from a stage?

Speaking definitely isn’t for everyone — it’s insanely nerve-racking and an absolute ton of work. We’ve all heard the statistic of how people fear public speaking over death, right? Sounds like a blast!

The good(?) news is that this doesn’t just affect new speakers. Even the most experienced speakers run into this. Hadi Hariri, Kotlin guru and developer advocate at Jetbrains, aptly said:

https://twitter.com/hhariri/status/1028984915214389248

Pretty damn accurate! So given how terrifying and hard it is to do, why would anyone want to do this? Well, there’s one amazingly thing that speaking can do better that no other medium can do…

Speaking is the single best way to inspire and motivate.

If I think back on the things I’ve often been motivated or inspired by, they’ve been talks. Whether they were conference talks about technical topics or a a Ted talk about life, these speeches have always had the greatest impact on me. Writing and reading are awesome, but they simply don’t convey the same kind of energy and excitement as someone speaking on stage. This is why people go see live events!

Another reason you might be interested? Well, speaking is “fun”, in sort of a sadistic, strange away. There is an amazing burst of excitement and energy that you get as your talk gets close, and nothing gets your ass in gear faster than a speaking deadline. And when it’s all done and you walk off that stage, it feels really rewarding when you pull it off.

And lastly, speaking has the potential to open up new opportunities for you. Donn Felker has this great article that he wrote a while back about the first time he publicly spoke. He talks about how he blacked out and all the nerves, but the most important thing he said was this:

“That one day led to many job offers…to do bigger and better things…I decided to jump and go work for myself as a consultant. How? All from speaking.”

For me the opportunities weren’t so much professional as they were personal — the connections and friendships that I’ve made from speaking are the most important “opportunities” that I was able to unlock. I’ve met some truly incredible people and developed friendships that I would’ve never otherwise.

So, if that sounds like your cup of tea, what are some things to keep in mind?

Speaking tip #1: There’s no right or wrong way to start 👆👇👈👉😕

When you first start thinking about speaking, you’re going to have a lot of questions. Where do I do my first talk — brown bag, meetups, conference? How should I prepare? What topic should I discuss? How do you write a CFP?!

And while of course those answers do matter, the key isn’t to get those answers — the key is to START.

Start down the path you think is right. What you want to avoid is becoming completely paralyzed from being unsure and trying to do everything “right”. Try to start answering those questions yourself, and see what you come up with.

After you’ve gotten going, start soliciting for help. Ask people for their opinions and work them into what you’re doing. But at the same time, don’t take any advice as gospel. It’s important to remember that ultimately it’s going to come down to knowing yourself and doing what you’re most comfortable with.

As an example, I’m really weird. The first talk I ever did was at a conference. I prepare by writing my slides and practicing by myself — literally nobody ever sees my talk before I do it. I pick a topic I’m interested, and I write the CFP myself without any feedback.

That works for me. If you couldn’t tell, I’m fiercely independent and slightly neurotic, so I tend to do a lot of stuff myself. So far it’s worked out fine for me, but it’d probably be terrible advice to give to most everyone else.

So yes, take the input from others. But most of all understand yourself, what your preferences are, and get started.

Speaking tip #2: Be yourself on stage 🤪

Another thing that’s tough to do when you’re just starting off is figuring out your “style”.

If you’ve ever seen me on stage, I wave my hands around like a madman. My slides are brief and have a bunch of silly emoji on them. If you’ve ever seen Mark Allison speak, he opens with a magic trick almost every time. If you’ve ever seen Christina or Huyen speak, they do live coding. I wouldn’t dare attempt either of those as I’d probably kill someone.

It’s easy to think that just mimicking someone else’s style is the answer, but it most likely isn’t. You’ll ultimately need to find a way to do things that feel natural to you. And while it might take some work and introspection to figure that out, the biggest benefit is that it’s going to make preparing and presenting a lot easier. When you practice by doing what comes naturally to you, it makes the final show on stage a hell of a lot easier.

And remember, people are there to see you, so be yourself! Of course they’re interested in the topic, but they came into that room to see you talk about it, not someone else. Be proud, be confident!

Now all that said, there are some tactical things you’ll want to avoid. Chet Haase has this great talk called “Top Tips for Terrible Tech Talks” that’s worth a watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osVpqz10UP8

It’s satirical and funny, but at its core has some really good tips on some of the tactical things you’ll want to avoid in a talk. Highly recommended.

Speaking tip #3: Don’t forget, we’re rooting for you! 🤗

This may sound obvious, but it bears repeating especially when you’re anxious on stage: we want you to do well!

Literally nobody wants to go back to the office and say, “Wow, I saw Dan completely implode on stage. It was a disaster and it was awesome!” We want to go back and say how much we learned, how great the talk was, and how inspired we are to get cracking on something new. What you as a speaker want and what we as an audience want are exactly the same.

You’ve done the work, so relax. Execute. You’re ready. And really, what’s the worst that happens? You flub a couple lines? Nobody will notice. You fall of stage? Hell, you’ve got an amazing story to tell.

And remember, when it’s over, it’s over. It’s a success no matter what because you accomplished something that most people can’t. Be proud of that and don’t look back or nitpick your work. You did it!

🧙‍ Contribution #3: Mentoring

This type of contribution is for folks who aren’t really into putting themselves out there in a public space that reading and writing demand. But that doesn’t make it any less important and valuable, not by a long shot.

So many people need mentoring, but I think it can be easy to forget how hard is to be a beginner who is just getting started. When you’re just starting out (if you can remember) you crave direction and guidance, and it can be hard to find that.

What’s wonderful about mentoring is that you can provide exactly what people are looking for. Even better, the work you put in doesn’t just have a positive effect for a few months — you’re setting someone up for long-term success. You’re establishing the foundation of how they’ll do their work for years to come, and that has a compounding effect for all the people they’ll eventually work with and mentor themselves.

And I have to say, there is nothing like seeing someone grow right in front of you, sometimes far beyond you. It’s by far one of the most rewarding things you can be a part of.

So if that sounds like something you’d want to do, here are some things to keep in mind.

Mentoring tip #1: 100% expertise is not required 📚

It probably goes without saying, but you can’t possibly know everything. But sometimes I think people avoid becoming mentors because they feel like they don’t know “enough”, when in reality they probably know plenty.

What’s more important than having all the answers is to be able to show your approach — to share how you think about things and work a problem. That’s almost as important as any answer you can give.

In fact, showing that you don’t have all the answers and make mistakes is a wonderful thing too. When beginners see more experienced folks struggle, it’s a welcome reminder that we’re all just figuring this out as we go.

Mentoring tip #2: Advertise yourself 📢

Another thing that’s easy to forget is that as a beginner, it’s hard to ask for help. So let’s flip it.

As someone with experience and knowledge to share, put yourself out there — whether that be publicly, at work, or just on a small team. This doesn’t have to be formal or some big announcement, but it should be specific. If you’re talking to someone and want to offer help, say so. Tell them you are willing to help out or mentor, directly. that’ll make it a lot easier for someone just starting off to approach you when they need help.

There’s this great tweet from Stephanie Hurlburt from a while back that really nails it:

https://twitter.com/sehurlburt/status/889004724669661184

And what’s been great is that within our Android community, we’ve had people offering this exact kind of help publicly:

https://twitter.com/crafty/status/951816925956407296 https://twitter.com/danlew42/status/882931899982684160

It’s just wonderful seeing people in our community do this. And by the way, if you haven’t taken up Nick or Dan on their offers, you should!

And remember, there are a lot of different ways to help. No mentor/mentee combo is the same. You can offer to informally review someone’s work, go through code or a pull request, or even just sit down and shoot the shit. It depends on your dynamic and what the person is looking for.

Being a beginner is hard, so let’s make it easier on them and help build our community from the ground up.

Mentoring tip #3: Provide guidance, avoid answers 👩‍🏫

Said another way, be a teacher, not an encyclopedia. Anyone can look up an answer on Stack Overflow and implement it, but it’s much harder to understand the thinking behind a solution. And really that’s what matters.

Your goal should be to guide them toward an answer, rather than give them the answer. Giving the person an opportunity to think and problem solve is ultimately going to make them a better developer in the long run.

One of the most common, convenient ways to do this is in a pull request. Instead of offering specific code solutions, consider just asking questions. Instead of pasting in a code snippet, ask “Have you considered trying this approach” and offer up a pseudo code alternative.

Sure, there are going to be times when a specific answer is going to be exactly what the person needs, but more times than not, the path toward an answer will serve them best in the long run.

👩‍💻 Contribution #4: Open source

OK, this is the big one, the one we all rely on. Perhaps it goes without saying, but this is an excellent, excellent way to give back — you could argue it’s the most important. I probably don’t need to tell you why it’s so important, but I’m going to anyway. 🙉

First, you can make a huge impact. Obviously if you make a library that a bunch of developers use, your work will directly be impacting thousands and thousands of customers. Your impact will enormous, which you have to admit is pretty damn cool.

Secondly, and I think somewhat overlooked, is that working on open source is a powerful way to learn. At work you usually end up working on the same closed source app, with the same people, and the same patterns. This isn’t a bad thing of course — that kind of continuity and stability is wonderful.

But when you work in open source, you can learn a bunch of new ways of doing things. You learn how other people and teams operate. You learn other ways of approaching problems. You consider different factors when you’re not writing closed source. The list goes on and on. By doing something out of the norm from your “regular” work, your opportunity to learn grows tremendously.

Finally, working on open source is an instant resume builder. At Basecamp when we hire programmers, the first thing we do is ask for code to look at, because that’s the thing that matters the most (at least to start with). The problem is when you’re looking for a new job, a lot of times your old company is not exactly going to be offering for you to take their closed source code with you to show off.

The great thing about open source is that you have a portfolio ready to go. At any moment you can point to the work that you’ve done in open source and any prospective employers can immediately see the breadth and depth of your contributions. That makes you immediately more marketable.

Sounds good right? Here are a few tips to get started.

Open source tip #1: Every little bit helps 🦐

As you get started in open source, remember that your contributions don’t have to be huge. You don’t have to work on some major overhaul of a project in order to make your mark.

There are a bunch of little things you can do: fix a small issue in the issues list, update the README or fix up some documentation, or even just log a well-documented bug. These may not sound like important contributions, but they’re very helpful to maintainers. Everybody wins when you tackle some of the small stuff.

As you get more comfortable, you’ll find yourself naturally working into bigger issues and bigger sections of the code. Just give it time — starting small is great.

Open source tip #2: Discussion is good, code is great 💻

A lot of times on Github you’ll see really long discussions on how to implement something, and that’s a good thing. Discussion and discourse is usually a solid path toward well-designed solutions.

But sometimes discussions stagnate, start to get nitpicky, or just completely derail. There’s no exact formula to recognizing it, but you know it when you see it. And it’s times like that where code is great.

Code cuts through all of the noise. It’s a real implementation that can be discussed in concrete terms, not abstract ideas or theoreticals. You can bake off different approaches and determine the pros and cons of each. You can see everything in front of you instead of trying to piece together half-formed ideas from multiple people in your head.

If you’re ever in doubt on what to do on an open source project, just write code. Maintainers love pull requests and real implementations.

Open source tip #3: Be friendly and respectful 🤗

When a bunch of people are working on an open source project, you have to remember that it’s likely that these folks are spread across many continents, speaking many different languages, with backgrounds from many different cultures.

Personalities plus a thousand other variables makes interactions unique and probably a lot different than you’re used to. Miscommunications can happen. A lot of times people are working on open source on their own time. And even for those doing it professionally, it’s not an easy task to wrangle all those people and personalities.

So remember, generally speaking people aren’t trying to be dismissive or rude. More likely they’re just trying to be direct and cut to the chase. And hey, if you’re not sure and something makes you feel gross, you can always choose to take the (much harder to travel) high road and keep things positive.

Jessie Frazelle had this great tweet from a while back that summarizes it perfectly:

https://twitter.com/jessfraz/status/952946789375729665

So that’s it — four areas that you can contribute to. I hope there’s something there that appeals to you. But if not, there are dozens of other ways to be an active member of our community. Find your niche! If you haven’t been super active before, I’d really encourage you to think about how much our community has meant to you and how much you can help others.

🎬 One year ago

The last thing I want to leave you with is this: one year ago, I hadn’t given a single talk, not one. And just a couple weeks ago I was standing on stage giving the opening keynote at Droidcon NYC.

Now I’m not saying that to make it sound like I’m hot shit or that I accomplished some amazing feat.

No, I say that to give you perspective. If you start today, who knows where you’ll be three months, six months, or a year from now. You could be the most eloquent writer, a prolific open source contributor, or a world renowned speaker. The key is that you just have to start now.

I can’t wait to see what you all come up.

Note: This was a transcription of my opening keynote from Droidcon NYC 2018 that I did from memory, so it’s not an exact 1:1 from the talk. If you want to see the actual talk, I’ll link up the video when it’s up. Here are the slides from the talk if you’re interested. Thanks!

New in Basecamp 3: Image Galleries

At Basecamp, we write a lot—from announcements to pitches, and everything in between.

Quite often, we’re presenting something that has a Before and After, like a mockup or interface design that’s been revised. Until now, this was always kind of frustrating. Basecamp only supported full-width images, so it could be difficult to quickly compare two images at once.

Today we’ve added support for side-by-side image galleries inside written posts!

This is a subtle but substantial change: galleries support and enhance your writing by making it more fluid, expressive, and precise. They’re great for sharing screenshots, comparisons, mockups, sketches, photos, and so on.

Here’s how it works.

Creating a Gallery

In any rich text field in Basecamp 3, you can make a gallery of images by uploading multiple images at the same time. You can do that in the file-browser dialog, or by dragging and dropping files into Basecamp directly.

Dragging images to make a gallery

When you do that, Basecamp will automatically group the images together in a nice arrangement. There are a few different layouts based on the number of images you’ve posted together.

If you upload two images at once, they’ll be oriented side by side.


If you upload three images at once, they’ll be shown 3-up in a row.


If you upload four images at once, you get a 2×2 grid.


And then finally, if you upload 5 or more images, they’ll be arranged in 3-up-sized rows.


You can also make a gallery by uploading images one by one. Just upload one image, then immediately upload another. Basecamp will notice that the images are directly adjacent and bundle them for you.

Adjusting a Gallery

If you don’t want the gallery layout, you can split it up by putting your cursor between images and hitting return. That will break up the gallery at that spot and resize things accordingly.

If you prefer a different arrangement (for example, maybe the second image should be first) you can drag and drop them to reorder.

You can also drag and drop images outside of galleries into galleries, and vice-versa.

It all works like you’d expect images in a text editor to work!

Related Changes

New toolbar for images

Clicking on attachments in Basecamp’s text editor has changed a bit. You’ll now see a balloon at the top that shows the file name, size, and the trash button. (Formerly this was just a trash button.)

New attachment toolbar

A more prominent caption field

Did you know you can write custom captions for any image you upload in Basecamp? If you didn’t, you’re not alone! This feature used to be rather hidden, but we coaxed it out of its hiding place.

Now just click on any image in the editor and you’ll see the Add a caption… field at the bottom. Click on that to type any caption you like.

This is a caption for the picture that shows adding a caption. 🌀

Popup menus on gallery images

Every image in a gallery has a small ••• menu adjacent to the caption. Click that and you’ll see a popup with the original file name and file size, plus links to download the image, or view it at full size.

Popup menu for details

That’s it!

Galleries work everywhere right now, in our mobile apps and on the desktop. We hope this update helps you create richer posts, and makes writing in Basecamp a little more enjoyable. Let us know how you like it!


New to Basecamp? Head on over to basecamp.com and see what it’s all about.

Deliberate Practice?

Photo by Steven Lelham

There’s an endless list of books about how the greatest become the greatest — deliberate practice. They don’t just show up time after time. They also set short measurable goals and keep stretching them.

Time your runs. Swim a bit faster. Get yourself over that pull up bar just one more time.

That’s great for performance sports. The goals are easily measurable.

But I’m not looking to be, for example, a fast editor. I’d like to be a better, more creative, editor. I want to build bigger audiences. And get more subscribers this week.

So how do you deliberately practice in the creative field where success is often external, unpredictable, and uncontrollable?

Here’s four ways I’ve found over the years to deliberately practice being more creative.

Repetition

How many times have you redone something? Probably not more than 18. Monet painted at least 18 haystacks that we’re aware of. He destroyed a bunch too.


Work on the same thing over and over and over and over again. It’s that simple.

I repeat myself constantly. I try and tell the same story over and over. I redesign the same thing over and over. Each time trying to make it better.

At Highrise, I’ve started a new redesign of the whole site at least 3 times. I’ve burned them like Monet, but they’ve all informed me of things I’d like to see and honed my eye for things that work.

Imitation

Try to imitate other people’s work. Don’t pass it off as yours of course. But envision what it would be like if someone you look up to was working on your current goal.

More than once, I’ve channeled Malcolm Gladwell. How would he write this? What would the style be like? Where would he go to be inspired?

Use imitation as way to practice techniques others have mastered.

Experimentation

Force yourself into modes of experimentation. In other words…

Do weird shit.

A great example I found recently was watching an interview with Casey Neistat. You know how interviews go. You’ve seen a million of them. Except this interview involved hot wings. The wings got hotter and hotter and made Casey more uncomfortable as they went. Now, that’s taking interviews in a really weird direction. But it worked.

How’d they come up with that? I have no idea. But I bet if you took an interview and decided, “you know what, I’m just going to get really weird with it.” You would eventually come up with something compelling.

I’m sitting here now, and I’m thinking, let’s have an interviewee play with my kid’s toys (hell, let’s even make them play with my kid, while I ask them questions?) Great idea? Who knows. Unlikely. But at least it’s an experiment you haven’t seen before. Maybe it’d work. If not, something else will.

Constraints

James Altucher, writer, podcaster, and just interesting human, is constantly encouraging people to come up with 10 ideas. Then 10 more. Then 10 more.

It’s just lifting a weight. Training the idea muscle like an athlete would train their legs.

The best deliberate practice I know is adding some arbitrary constraint.

Publish a video every single day for a year. Write 5 articles a week for 3 months. You normally write 1000 words? Force yourself to only write 500.

I often publish vlogs anywhere from 4 minutes to 10 minutes. With 2018, I’m now giving myself the constraint of publishing only 3 minute vlogs. I have no idea how long I’ll keep this up, but the constraint forces me to get better at editing, and finding places where the story repeats itself or gets boring.

It really doesn’t matter what you pick. Just pick something that makes you uncomfortable, like picking up some heavy weight. Then do it a bunch.


I think a lot of us read these books about deliberate practice, and see all these examples of athletes, and we miss the lesson. There are parallels we can use to improve our creative selves, if we just dig a little deeper.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good. ― Malcolm Gladwell

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.


Before You Launch A Startup, Learn This

Photo by Lisa Brewster

My 2011 startup with Y Combinator imploded, largely because we couldn’t get enough traction. What was I going to do next? And more importantly, how was I going to avoid repeating my mistakes?


A couple weeks ago my wife was out of town, so my three year old daughter and I had our weekend together. We went to see My Little Pony.

I enjoyed it. Lots of great voice actors. Including Sia! She pretty much plays herself as a pony. Similar hair/wig style, and she sings in it.

My daughter was traumatized.

Well that’s a bit strong. Let’s just say she was in my lap the whole time worried about what was going to happen to those damn ponies. But she’d stop covering her eyes and be right back in the movie. Only to again fear for the ponies lives.

There’s something interesting there. How did this movie succeed at capturing her attention so well? So much so that she’d be afraid but go right back to being engrossed?


Robert McKee is a popular teacher of screenwriting. A well read book of his is “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting”. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone pursuing writing of any kind.

But there’s one bit in there that will instantly improve your ability to tell stories, write, vlog — make anything, really.

A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and ACHIEVED THROUGH CONFLICT.

That’s it. That’s the nugget that all good stories revolve around. An entire film, according to McKee, is 40–60 of these story events. And what is that “value”?

Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next.

Human experience. Love/hate. Anger/peace. Fear/calm. Alive/dead. And so many more.

Telling people a story is all about showing how someone goes through conflict and changes the “charge” of those human conditions. They start out in love and end up in hate. They start out broke and end up wealthy through a bunch of difficult terrain.

That’s what keeps us in our seat.


Toy Story does this so well. Go watch Pixar’s work. Every minute there’s a value change. They’re happy, now their sad. They’re safe, now they’re not. Now they are. Now they aren’t again.

My kid was glued to her seat at My Little Pony because their writers also know this basic tenet of interesting writing and storytelling.

The ponies were in a wonderful stupor setting up for a party. Now terrible danger and monstrous creatures ruin their lives. Now they’re running. Now they’re safe. Now they’re at death’s door again.

And when you think about the boring drivel you read or hear all too often — maybe it’s your friend talking about work, or someone going on about their day — I bet it’s because there’s simply no conflict, and even more so, there’s no value change. They went from doing well at work to still doing well at work. They went from depressed to still depressed.

Of course there’s a ton more to practice and learn about the craft of telling good stories — things like the Hero’s journey or three act structures — but just get this little part right from McKee and you’ll already 10x the stuff you write and tell people about.

It’s happened for me. I went from that miserable failure of a startup to realizing I needed to get better at audience building before my next venture. And so I practiced my craft of writing and storytelling on my blog. One article a week. Tell a good story. Me or someone else figuring out some problem through some conflict. My audience grew.

And that audience grew to support my next project, Draft, which turned out rather successful in a crowded market of writing software. And then someone in that audience picked me to take over the business they were spinning off, Highrise. Mostly, all because I finally learned to capture people’s attention better through storytelling.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.


Writing style

Was there a source for my writing style or was it self discovered?

Surprise!

Adapted from Gage Skidmore

My dad loves talk radio. I remember as a kid driving around with him and the car tuned to WGN an AM station based here in Chicago. One of the personalities the station hosted was Paul Harvey. Paul Harvey had a popular segment called “The Rest of the Story”.

I wasn’t in love with talk radio, but I enjoyed Paul. He always told some odd bits of someone’s story and concluded with the name of a fairly well known person he had just described.

The surprise made the stories interesting.

Murray Davis discovered this when he looked at what research papers spread more than others.

An audience finds a proposition ‘interesting’ not because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew, but instead because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew was wrong.

We love movies when the bad guy doesn’t hurt someone when we expect it. We devour books where the good guy unexpectedly turns out to be evil. We crave surprise.

And so a big part of my writing style is simply trying to surprise people.

Did you know that young kid who no one wanted to play on the radio turned out to be Justin Bieber? Or the two guys who struggled to become actors, so they decided to make their own movie instead, catapulting the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

On and on I’m looking for morsels of Paul Harvey/Murray Davis-like surprise. Is there something I can poke at that people currently assume? Or is there even something I can hold back through the course of the story that might surprise people at the end?

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch”

Source

I remember a Chemistry class I had in college. There was this Teaching Assistant (TA) who collected Beanie Babies and decided to sell his entire collection for a pretty good sum. He did it because he wanted to use his money to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring. This has nothing to do with anything, I just remember that being something cool the TA did.

The TA was also the one to show me one of the first “viral videos” ever to hit the internet. It was a cartoon filmed with cutouts using stop motion animation of 4 kids swearing like crazy and Santa spinning Jesus over his head before throwing him across a field of snow.

That was the second ever short episode of South Park that Trey Parker and Matt Stone created in 1995. Today, South Park is one of the most successful cartoons in history.


I picked up a book once about writing. I can’t remember the name of it or the author of this chapter but it was all about an important technique the author used in their writing: weaving. Weave stories together. And that stuck with me.

I started seeing it everywhere. You see it in authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Sinek, The Heath Brothers, South Park.

Wait, one of those isn’t like the other.

South Park’s season 21 premier weaves stories about Amazon’s Alexa replacing people’s jobs and a fake TV show called White People Renovating Houses. Back and forth the show moves from this group of people arguing about Alexa taking over the world and the remodeling show. Until they converge.

Some call this storytelling technique “Meanwhile, back at the ranch”, nodding to the days of the early silent cowboy films that needed to use subtitles to signal to people they were now literally going back to the ranch for the next thread of story.

But you see it constantly in the shows and movies you love. One thread starts, and before it reaches a peak, the story moves you to another thread keeping you in suspense.

The weave also helps in another form of surprise: showing you interesting contrasts between two things you might not have thought of being related before: Justin Bieber and ridiculous hard work, Stealing Cars and Frankenstein, Sansa Stark and building an audience.

Don’t get caught stealing

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

One of my favorite vloggers right now is How to Dad. He’s got a bunch of funny videos showing exactly what his channel’s name describes: weird shit he goes through raising his kids.

He’s been showing more videos recently of his daily life and you can see the things he’s “borrowing” from other vloggers. The selfie-sticks, the drone shots, the timelapses, the musical score. Except the musical score is now often him singing, playing the flute, or banging on his kids toys in his shower and recording the result. It’s a musical score unlike anything you’ve probably seen on a YouTube vlog.

He’s taken pieces of things that have inspired him along the way and added his own bits of creativity to make it truly unique.

Yes, I’ve been inspired by a great many people. And consciously and subconsciously I stand on their shoulders. But I make sure I’m only trying to take a piece of influence. I like his story structure. I like her use of surprise. I like how he uses narration in his videos. And I take all these pieces of things and merge them into a new whole adding my own unique bits.

For example, probably unlike many of my favorite authors, I spend an inordinate amount of time paying attention to People Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Variety. One, I try like How to Dad, to add my own ingredients. And two, because I think there’s some great lessons from those channels people haven’t explored past their surface.

Stop doing the same thing every single time


If I came home on a weekend from college, I would go back to school late on a Sunday night because my mom and I couldn’t miss watching X-files together after dinner on Sunday.

X-files was a fantastic show. Its peak season in my opinion was Season 5. That’s where they really stretched themselves creatively. They broke the usual formula of an episode and told stories through different main character perspectives, with different film making techniques, etc.

That’s how all my favorite shows have worked. Sure they often have a go-to style, but they aren’t afraid to change it up constantly.

And so there’s a style to my writing I reach for a lot, but I’m constantly trying new things and source material. Maybe tonight’s vlog episode is about the psychology of getting my daughter to swim and what that means for us as humans, or it’s simply a montage of the Highrise team enjoying our meetup.

I can’t stand formulaic output over and over, and so I’m always looking for new styles and mediums to use.

Do what you’re not passionate about

Photo by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

And finally, my writing style is a product of me being interested in everything. I don’t know if it’s something I’ve been born with, or something I learned from my parents. I played every single sport growing up from Figure Skating to Football. I enjoy Justin Bieber and Phish. In college I took classes in Thermodynamics, Philosophy, Advanced Calculus, and Acupressure.

I love variety.

And that’s a big reason I can’t stand things like conferences in my industry. We’re all doing the same thing, and now we’re meeting to all talk about the same thing we’re all doing? Yuck 🙂

My favorite conference/trade show I attended recently was a show in Food Technology. I didn’t have a direct use for any of the crazy robots and food packaging technology. But it was interesting seeing the trends in food product design and dissecting how they could be applied to other industries.

Everyone is so obsessed with doing what they’re passionate about. Spend more time on things you start with zero interest in. Become interested in just being interested.


So was there a source for my writing style or was it self discovered? Both. It was a lot of influence from people I enjoy and admire and also an attempt at being uniquely me.

Put those two things together in everything you do and it’ll take you far in writing, work, and life.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.


Bury the lede

How can we keep people interested?


Technology doesn’t always give us the highest quality outcome. Sometimes it just buys us more convenience.

Look at coffee. It used to be a pain to prepare and drink. Then in 1850 Folgers started roasting and grinding it for us. It wasn’t as fresh, but it sure was fast.

Or look at photography. Today, smartphones put everything from supercomputers to cameras into our pocket. But the pictures pale in comparison to what my 5lb DSLR can take.

But we compromise. Sometimes convenience wins. Writing made a similar compromise.

The telegraph was a huge improvement in communication compared to smoke signals. We could now transmit messages over long distances.

But man, were those early messages expensive. A trained operator needed to type each letter by hand. And so compromises were made to shorten and change the message. For example, when the Wright Brothers completed their first flight, they couldn’t gush to their parents. Orville had to send this:

Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas . Orevelle Wright

(Yes, his name was spelled wrong)

Newspaper articles also had to change. They couldn’t be narrative. They had to get to the point immediately. Just the facts. And the inverted pyramid style of writing was invented.


Get the important stuff out first. Everything else is less and less important.

It’s a style that lives on today. Not because we need help anymore in transmission, but now when newspaper and magazines are laid out, it helps an editor to quickly chop off a writer’s article from 500 words to 400 words, and worry little about changing the quality of the writing. Just cut from the bottom.


And we wonder why people aren’t interested in our writing? Look at the rules we’re following. Most of us learned in high school or college to “write well” with the inverted pyramid. Get the necessary stuff out first. The 5 W’s (Who, what, when, where, and why). Don’t bury the lede.

But we weren’t taught enough how those styles are tools, and even compromises, for specific situations. So, that’s how most of us write everything.

Even an attempt at some form of narrative gives into the idea it still needs a “TL;DR” (Too Long; Didn’t Read).

Yet think about what you read and watch that keeps you interested. How do you think Game of Thrones turns out as an inverted pyramid of a story? You’ll get punched in the eye if you TL;DR that for a fan who’s behind.

But we keep doing it to ourselves. Sometimes even others do it for us:

Very much appreciate the share, but you blew one of the best parts — the surprise.

Skip the TL;DR.

If you have people requesting that from you, let them move on and find more headlines to read. It is your job though to keep them interested throughout your writing. If you still feel like whatever you’re writing would benefit from a TL;DR, consider throwing your post away and just Tweeting something.

If you’re going to write 500+ words, give them the importance they deserve. Keep people interested by flipping the inverted pyramid back, and making your writing more and more interesting as it goes along, not less. Give your readers a journey. Make them something to be inspired about at the end of a piece. A TL;DR rarely moves anyone.

Of course, there are situations that require conciseness. Just the facts. Anticipation that people will just read the headlines. But don’t cargo cult the styles of newspaper and magazine writers for all the writing you do. Better yet, don’t worry about rules from high school and college. Ignore style and grammar. Learn to tell a better story. Surprise people.

I’ve had an above average bit of success as a writer and getting people interested in my work. My secret? I bury the lede.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.


Write like you talk

You’re a better writer than you let on


A handful of years ago I was volunteering for an organization here in Chicago where we helped high school kids prepare for their college applications. These kids were the first in their families, often underprivileged, to be applying to college.

One Saturday I met a student who wanted help editing his application essay. We went over to the computer lab and he pulled up a draft he’s been struggling with.

The essay was fine. It read grammatically well.

But it was terrible. It was dry and uninteresting. Artificial intelligence could have probably auto-generated it from a history of other applications.

I doubt any recruiter would remember him. How were we going to fix this?


Most of us trying to write to gain an audience, inspire people, market ourselves, etc. are all doing it wrong.

We stick with the education and rules we learned in high school and college: “Don’t end sentences with prepositions.” “Don’t start sentences with conjugations.” “Sentences have subjects and predicates.” We focus on the perfect paragraph and essay structure.

And if I asked most people to write an essay about their day. It’s likely going to come out a lot like my mentee’s. Stiff, formulaic, unoriginal.

But if we had an intimate conversation over coffee, the story about your day would be remarkably different. You wouldn’t worry about the word you used to start a sentence, or which of your sentences made up paragraphs. Instead, your struggles, achievements, and thoughts would hit my ears before you had a chance to think about: “Can I end a sentence with ‘at’?”

And because you weren’t worried about a hundred rules of grammar while you were talking to me, I’m that much closer to your internal voice.

The voice that makes you unique and interesting.


So my first step with the student above was just to ask who he was, what he does, and what he observes all day. And then I just typed what he said. A lot of it was run on sentences, and sentences without verbs. If he turned this draft into his high school English teacher, he’d have failed an assignment. So we edited it a bit to fit grammatical rules that someone reading a college essay might expect.

But what was on that computer screen was a story in his voice. A story of how just four years ago he came to the United States, poor, with a single parent, and could barely speak English.

Then over his high school career, not only did he become an amazing student, he became a man for others. He was tutoring kids in math and leading programs to help students who were in situations that he was in just a short time ago.

When he was done, I was sitting there, mouth open with goosebumps. Some jerk must have been cutting onions next to us.

His essay was original, dramatically compelling, and told an inspiring hero’s journey.

This kid was awesome. And an essay finally came to him because he stopped worrying about the correct way to write, and just wrote like he talked.


If you find yourself struggling to get who you are onto the page, record yourself talking on your phone and write out the transcript later if you need to. Just get your voice on the page first before you start worrying about a bunch of rules.

When you finally have YOU on the page, now go back and make your bits bend to the style you want them in. But be careful with spending too much time on the grammar and the rules. Go back and make sure it still flows like you’d actually say it. Read it out loud to yourself. You’ll know when you sound fake when you stutter a bit trying to read a sentence back.

Because we aren’t trying to get an A in an English class. Most of us aren’t journalists for the New York Times all trying to write in a similar and strict style.

We’re just trying to contribute to a real conversation. And we want to meet you.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.


How to be interesting


A couple months ago a video made its viral way around the internet as some videos do. It was a mashup of the Sesame Street movie Follow that Bird and the Beastie Boys’ song Sabotage.

Mashups aren’t uncommon. Afterall, that’s a huge lesson most of us already know about creativity. Great ideas are often the collision of a couple different disciplines, technologies, inventions, etc.

But is that all there is to it? Or is there something a bit deeper about that video and why it became so viral.

Why was it so interesting?


Murray Davis was a professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University. In 1971, he published an interesting paper. Literally. It’s called “That’s Interesting!”

Davis investigated why some researchers and their theories get people’s attention and others don’t. He found that ideas don’t become interesting because they are simply true:

All of the interesting propositions I examined were easily translatable into the form: ‘What seems to be X is in reality non-x’.

For example, what seems to be a mess is really organized. Or what appears to be a bad thing is really a good thing.

An audience finds a proposition ‘interesting’ not because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew, but instead because it tells them some truth they thought they already knew was wrong.

We crave ideas that attack what we had taken for granted.


The creator of that Beastie Boys + Sesame Street video, Adam Schleichkorn, isn’t new to viral videos. His channel is called isthishowyougoviral, and it’s racked up 23 million views. That’s not his only channel. He has another channel called hiddentracktv2 with over 38 million views.

In fact, Adam Schleichkorn might be labeled the first viral YouTube star there ever was when he uploaded a video of his friend plowing into a fence, giving birth to a trend called “Fence Plowing” over 10 years ago.

This wasn’t his first mashup either. He’s been doing them for years. 3 years ago he racked up 1.8 million views on a Beastie Boys + Muppets mashup. 1 year ago it was 4.5 million views with Bone Thugs n Harmony, and 3.5 million views with Warren G — both mashed with Sesame Street.

If you look at Adam’s videos and you analyze it with Davis’ insight into what makes things interesting, I think we can further identify what makes some of Adam’s stuff so popular.

Many of his mashups are of things that you’ve now taken for granted. Pieces you now ignore because they’re for different audiences or different generations.

Sesame Street? It’s for kids. Follow that Bird? It’s from 1985. Beastie Boys? I love them. But I’m 39. Sabotage is from 1994. Crossroads from Bone Thugs N Harmony is from 1995.

He took things we’d long forgotten and assumed were not worth our time and artfully put them together. This is stuff we’re certain wasn’t worth paying much attention to anymore until Adam showed us it was.

Or look at Fence Plowing. You take fences for granted. They keep people out. People don’t just go through them. It’s a counterintuitive idea.

Or another video he posted 6 years ago. How long do you think the average YouTube video is?


You take for granted you need to commit a little time to watching another thing on YouTube. So Adam crafted the Shortest Video on Youtube.

It measures 0 seconds.

Now, this isn’t a blueprint for creating viral videos. And this isn’t all to Adam’s success. Obviously. Just telling you to form your projects with counterintuitive things is like teaching you to draw an owl with a couple circles.


Adam’s been making mashups and editing video for longer than YouTube has even existed. He’s got skills, just like the researchers Davis studied. There’s still an enormous amount of work and skill involved with creating theories and papers that would be labeled interesting.

But this is a lesson for boosting your chances to get people’s attention. As you look at the world and plan your book, video, product, or business, you need to show us how wrong we were to take something for granted.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: here

youtube.com/nathankontny

where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.


Peaked?

A writer had a rough go of getting a book published. Even after he’d written plenty of short stories for magazine publications, he started his hand at writing books. But nothing hit.

His fourth attempt at a novel really gave him some fits. He finally finished a manuscript for it, but he still didn’t like it. The story didn’t move him, he was writing about people he didn’t know very well, and he didn’t like the characters. He threw it away in the trash.


Dean Simonton is a Professor of Psychology at UC-Davis. The guy has studied what makes people creative and smart his whole career with over 300 publications and more than ten books.

In 1977, Dean explored how time affects greatness. By studying composers, do we see if they peak and get worse as they get older?

Afterall, isn’t that what we expect? Don’t we expect to see that graph of a U upside down?


But, that’s not what Dean found. Instead Dean found the percentage of stuff composers did that was “great” compared to their “minor” things was constant over time.


Quality doesn’t change over time. Quantity does. If you see someone peak, it’s because their productivity changed.

In other words, the most creative amongst us have mastered beating the odds. Not because they have drastically better chances. But because they play the game more.

Dean’s conclusion also carries with it the observation: time doesn’t seem to make us much wiser in determining what’s good or bad about our work. If it did, we’d see the percentage of our “major” works improve.

Or as Dean has written: “Beethoven’s own favorites among his symphonies, sonatas, and quartets are not those most frequently performed.”

That lack of wisdom also then causes a lot of things to get thrown out that may have been good. Or as Dean calls it “backtracking”.

Adam Grant, who highlights more of Dean’s work in his book Originals, points out, “In Beethoven’s most celebrated work, the Fifth Symphony, he scrapped the conclusion of the first movement because it felt too short, only to come back to it later. Had Beethoven been able to distinguish an extraordinary from an ordinary work, he would have accepted his composition immediately as a hit.”


When the writer above came home one night from his teaching job, a job that barely paid enough money to keep a roof over his family’s head, he found his wife had dug the book out of the trash.

She wanted him to finish it. She was confident he had a worthwhile story. It took a bit of her help to get the characters figured out. But he polished the story and started sending the manuscript to publishers.

He didn’t hope for much. He moved onto other things. But one thing he definitely didn’t do was give up writing.

“I pretty much forgot about it and moved on with my life, which at that time consisted of teaching school, raising kids, loving my wife, getting drunk on Friday afternoons, and writing stories.”

But soon, he got a call that Doubleday wanted to publish his book in hardcover. It wasn’t for much. A $2500 advance. But soon after that, he also got a paperback deal and a $400,000 advance.

Stephen King’s Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year alone and became a multitude of movies, sequels and even Broadway performances.


That’s why you see me attempting things like a daily vlog or publishing a couple articles a week. I see the evidence that I’m terrible at determining what’s good or bad about my work. The things I think will get a ton of traffic, likes, shares, etc. do just the opposite. And vice versa. So I just keep publishing.

Today Stephen King, needs little introduction. But it might still surprise you that as I write this, he has no fewer than 5 adaptations of his work coming out to TV and film. That’s crazy. John Grisham’s work has turned into a lot of movies. But not 5 new productions simultaneously.

Stephen King is a genius. But if you playback his story, you see exactly why his genius is also so popular today. He’s never stopped writing. He’s written over 90 books, hundreds of short stories. He has 238 IMDB credits.

He’s prolific. He keeps moving on with new ideas. When Carrie was stuck, he’d already moved onto the next thing.

Stephen King has enjoyed a great amount of success since Carrie. It clearly wasn’t a peak. His work is still exploding into new projects now. But Stephen King just played the odds. He’d keep writing until he won.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: here

youtube.com/nathankontny

where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.


Why I illustrate all our blog posts, as a CEO

Lately, I’ve been getting asked more frequently: “Claire, do you illustrate your own blog posts?”

The answer is, “Yes.”

To date, I’ve written hundreds of blog posts. With the exception of a few (where I’ve used a photograph as the main image instead), I’ve illustrated each one myself.

I’m not a professional artist by any means (I grew up drawing and painting thanks to my mom, who’s an artist). A much better idea might’ve been to hire someone else who I’m sure could produce higher caliber work and save me some time…

But I insist on doing the illustrations myself. Why?

An illustration I did last week.

It shows we care.

These days, everyone is writing something— be it blog posts, e-books, newsletters — and a lot of it sounds and looks the same. A high-resolution, parallax scrolling image as the featured photo. A brightly-colored, minimalist infographic. You can even hire ghostwriters or outsource your writing to content marketing firms who’ll both write and illustrate the posts for you.

See the same thing enough times in enough places… and you start to smell the lack of authenticity when you read it.

You think to yourself, “Do these people even give a shit?”.

Here at Know Your Team, we do give a shit. Our sole purpose for writing is not to increase our SEO ranking or “growth hack” our business. We write because we truly care about creating more open, honest workplaces. And we believe sharing our insights can help more people influence their own workplaces to be that way.

Illustrations done by me, the CEO, is one way for us to show this. We don’t hire out anyone else to write our stuff. We don’t even hire anyone to illustrate our stuff.

We give a damn, so we do it ourselves.

Doing something yourself — whether or not you have to — shows that you care.

This past January, I received a birthday card that my mom made herself. Admittedly, I cried when I opened it. It meant so much more to me than if she would have picked up something from the store. (By the way, my mom has handmade me a card almost every year since I was born!).

The birthday card my mom made me this year.

The same goes for business. When a CEO writes, illustrates, etc. herself, it shows she cares.

Sure, it’s time-consuming and a bit tedious. I first google some images to get ideas for what I want to draw. Sometimes, I draw a few images and riff on them before deciding on one. I sketch out the final image. Then it’s Sharpie time. I use watercolor pencils to fill it in. I take a picture of it with my phone, adjust it in Photoshop… And voila! The illustration you see is on our blog post.

Is that all too “in the weeds” for a CEO to be doing? Meh, I’m not sure that I care.

The fact that something takes longer and requires a little more effort matters less to me. What matters is that we’re trying to communicate authentically with whoever is kind enough to lend us their time.

Even if it’s not “perfect” quality or the most efficient thing to do… So what?

If it shows you care, I say do it.


Big news! We’re now Know Your Team. Check out our new product that helps managers become better leaders, and get the full story behind our change.

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)