Band of Outsiders

Erin Kissane just wrote an essay for the pastry box project, which I can only describe as “A Letter to a Young Web Professional”. In it she talks about coming to the web community from outside, and offers some great advice on how to navigate new and unfamiliar waters. It’s very much an essay I wish that I could send back in time to myself, but the advice about culture, curiosity, generosity, and entitlement is still relevant to me right this second.

Curiosity

Erin writes this:

Read all the things. Watch all the videos. Develop opinions about what you’re reading and hearing—and try to balance negative criticism with generosity, because there are always complexities that are easy to miss.

I think Erin’s advice is evergreen: you cannot succeed as a web professional without an enduring sense of curiosity. I liken it to waking up every morning and finding that the rules and tools have changed ever so slightly. If you’re going to work on the web, you had better get comfortable being uncomfortable, because every day you’ll find yourself (re)learning.

The line about counterbalancing negative criticism is probably even more important, though. I’ve worked with many people who seem to delight in tearing down other people’s work. Curiously, there’s often an inverse relationship to the quality of that person’s own work. It’s fine to have a negative reaction to something, but remember that being able to express that opinion with grace will get you further in your career.

Generosity

Speaking of generosity, actively seek out a mentor. It’s been my experience that people in our community love explaining things, even if they’re really busy. I suppose it goes hand-in-hand with the curiosity bit. It’s kind of hard to be curious without also being excited to share what you know.

When I started working on the web I was fortunate to have an experienced programmer named Mike Abato as one of my mentors. Mike was a professional educator in earlier parts of his career, and that was evident every time he would walk me through why and how we solved a problem a particular way. He taught me how to debug code, the value of the UNIX command line, and why memorizing keyboard shortcuts would pay off immeasurably over time. He didn’t really have to do any of these things, but he enjoyed it. Now, almost fifteen years later, I try to put in similar time and care when I’m solving things with a junior colleague. If I’m fortunate maybe they’ll look back fondly and thank me silently.

At the same time, you don’t have to be the more experienced party to be generous. Erin put it this way: “Help the people you work with be awesome”. That’s something you can do, regardless of your experience level.

You Can Say No

On “bad” jobs, Erin writes:

The hard reality is that you will probably have at least one terrible job, if you haven’t already. And you probably won’t be able to quit immediately, especially if you don’t have financial support from your family, or if you’re reliant on a sponsored visa, or you have kids of your own, or a dozen other things. This is hugely stressful even for people who aren’t particularly vulnerable, and no easy advice helps.

There truly is no easy advice for a bad job situation, but even the hard sort is useful. During my first job out of college I was working 70-90 hours a week, and I was convinced that it was necessary. A more experienced coworker quit a few months after I started, and when he said goodbye he told me, “You can always say no.” Nobody had told me that before. Now, you may not be able to say no for a multitude of reasons, but try to remember that you’re choosing not to say it.

Fortunately, there are ways out, and Erin points out ways to actively get to a better place:

But you won’t be stuck forever. Our industry includes boatloads of kind, generous human beings and plenty of organizations that will support you in having a healthy life. You just have to make a path to get to them. How? Learn all you can where you are. Be good to people. And above all, get outside your company (or regional) bubble, talk to people who are doing amazing things, and ask how you can help.

Output is Important

Erin’s essay reminded me of a video that Allen Tan sent me months ago, wherein Ira Glass talks about the gap between your taste and your ability. Glass says:

What nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish someone had told this to me…is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

This is something I’m still learning to this day. I hold too tightly to things, often smothering ideas and projects because they don’t measure up. It’s important to remember that one of the surest ways to get better is to be comfortable producing and finishing work, even if the end result falls short of your vision. I wrote recently about how big projects often leave me with a sense of loss and regret, and I think I often avoid that feeling by simply choosing not to produce anything.

Make things, and keep making them. If you make things often enough, you might not even realize that you’ve gradually gotten better and better, until all of a sudden you find yourself writing some of this down, much like Erin did.