Last Updated: August 23rd, 2020
A while back, I wrote a thread on the approach I’m taking with my newsletter — rather than focusing on growth, I focus on pursuing my enthusiasms and connecting with people. My main motivation for this approach is to ensure that I’m enjoying the work along the way. I believe that’s the only way it will be sustainable for me in the long term.
Last week, I tweeted out a thread with some quick thoughts around all this and got quite a surprisingly strong response. I decided to host an open discussion with folks on the thread to talk about the problem more. It went really well, and made me excited to take that step for other ideas in the future. In just a matter of days I went from an idea in my head to a concept discussed on Twitter and ‘in person’ (over video). Pretty cool!
Clearly, I’m not alone in my desire to redefine my metrics for success.
I’ve been engaging with people who reply to newsletters, tweets and over DMs. Many of those have translated into video calls and new friendships. All things considered, I should feel fantastic about how far my writing has come from just six months ago.
I do feel that way sometimes, but the positive feeling is short-lived and fleeting. Often I find myself saddened by the lack of growth of my subscribers in a given week, or when an edition gets a bunch of unsubscribes. This isn’t surprising, given the compounding power of negativity.
The irony is that the editions where I get the most positive feedback in emails and DMs will also typically have the most unsubscribes. I take this as a signal that I’m really “finding myself” in those words, and I need to go even deeper. Some folks are not into the real me, and that’s fine! Life is an opt-in game.
I already know all the positives of engagement, and the folly of metrics. So why do I still feel bad?
The problem lies in the defaults.
Defaults are powerful. The only dashboard I see is one that shows me my Substack subcriber counts and open rates, my Twitter followers, and so on… That’s the page I see almost every day. Its judgements are imprinted on my psyche like a grading from my high school teacher. When grades were the only thing, they were everything.
We grew up, left grades behind, then immediately found new numbers to stress over.
I want to flip the script.
I think we need to define our own measures of success, lest we become permanently subservient to the metrics dictated by the platform Gods. The only way to live and work the way we want is to define our own incentives.
It’s important to ask yourself this. Often folks will start working toward a vision, emulating someone else, without even understanding what it’s like to be there.
Have you ever listened to someone with a huge following speak their truth? They won’t shout this from the rooftops, but if you listen closely, many of them will tell you they feel stuck. They found a channel that worked, and now they can’t talk about anything else. Maybe that’s what you want (success at all costs), and if so you should pursue that. But for everyone else, think carefully about what the end game looks like for your current path.
When I think about the returns on writing that truly matter to me, some of them can be measured while others cannot. This is a key point that we’ll need to keep in mind later on when we talk about solutions. But to name a few of my most meaningful ‘events’:
I took this list and made a quick spreadsheet in Notion that would track some of them for my different newsletters. Immediately, it became clear to me that measuring some of these things with numbers just doesn’t make sense.
Quick example: One of my recent newsletters tackled a topic that led to an email exchange with a reader, which then led to a video call and a budding friendship. If I had a column for that, would it say “Friends”? Would this entire series of events be simplified down to a number incremented from 0 to 1? That’s definitely not how I want to look at my life.
The things that have meaning to us deserve more prominence in our reflections. A simple number is not enough. The answer can’t be to replace platform metrics with our own metrics. It has to be more than that.
What should we do instead? I’m not sure. But I have some ideas…
I think the best place to start is with more reflection. The very act of taking time to look back at some of the events that mattered most to us is worth while. We already know the value of this with journaling, but I’m suggested we do it in a focused way around the outcomes for our creative work as well.
When should we do this? I think there are three main opportunities:
This way, we would constantly get a chance to review and see the impact of our work. Over time, we’d see the total value and impact of a given piece of work. Normally we don’t have this kind of perspective — our memory is fleeting and we usually only remember the most recent responses.
Your first response might be to say, This sounds like a lot of work!. Yes it does, and yes it is. Platforms spend billions of dollars trying to get you to behave a certain way. Did you really think countering that would be easy? It’s going to take some work!
I think the best strategy would be to integrate this into an existing note-taking or journaling habit. I’ve started to do this, and am already seeing some benefits of reflection.
As much as I want to emphasize the importance of putting in the time, I also want to see how to make this act more enjoyable. One idea that came to mind was to think of each piece of feedback as a ‘story’. It might look something like:
I wrote about X, and it was a really tough thing to write. I felt really embarassed to share some of those anecdotes, and really anxious to publish. But I did it! I’m proud of myself.
The minute I sent that newsletter, a bunch of responses came in! One of them shared this related idea of Y. I became friends with Z and now we talk all the time. I’m really glad because I didn’t have an outlet for this kind of thinking and vulnerability before, and now I do.
I feel safer and more secure in my writing thanks to this edition!
You can’t measure that in a number. It has so much meaning, energy, and inspiration packed into it.
It’s fun to journal about these things, so what if we just took it a step further and collected them? Imagine a dashboard where for each article / newsletter, you could add these little ‘stories’ to each one? Later, you could review them all at once, in a fun and beautiful interface. I say beautiful because these stories are beautiful, and deserve prominence and beauty in how they are presented.
I’m imagining it would be a sort of ‘writer’s log’, that allowed you to reflect on your own published pieces and add stories and meaning to them. It would let you measure you work in a way that is most natural to writers — with writing!
I think you could do start doing this with a simple journal note each week that reviewed the outputs of your writing. You can look back at what you published, write down some thoughts, and celebrate the wins that mattered to you. I truly believe this simple act will go a long way in adjusting your mindset. It could be as simple as a Notion sheet, a templated set of notes in Roam, or just a new note in any note taking app. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.
I’m going to try this myself for a while and see what happens. I’m hoping there will be some patterns and structures that work best. Stay tuned…
P.S. Let me know if you try this out! I’d love to hear how it’s working for you.