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In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

In Praise of Small Success

    Everyone these days is chasing after the billion-dollar idea. We look at the giants in the technology industry – Google, Yahoo, eBay, even Microsoft – and see companies that only a few years ago (or a couple decades ago in Microsoft’s case) were tiny startups struggling to get by. When they hit, they hit big, and made their owners more money than anyone on Earth had ever dreamed of having.

    Good for them. But their success has radically distorted the way most people look at their own lives, businesses, and prospects. The Google model of success is great – hooray them! – but frankly, it’s a little irrelevant.

    Most of us won’t have a billion-dollar idea. And even if we do, we’ll have it at the wrong time without the resources to make it a billion-dollar company. And you know what? That’s fine.

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    Oh, business books don’t think so. Peruse the shelves of your local bookstore’s business section and you’ll see book after book analysing, studying, describing, and generally fawning over the huge success stories. They all claim the same thing: follow the example of Apple, Starbucks, GM, Warren Buffett, or whomever and you, too, can be successful. Don’t follow their example, and you’re… well, doomed to failure.

    What a crock.

    First of all, visit a thrift store sometime and have a look at all the business books of yesteryear, and all the companies they held up as success stories. Compaq, Enron, Digital Equipment, Chrysler, AOL. Models to follow?

    But more importantly, it’s a false vision of success. Few companies ever operate at the scale the business gurus plot “success” at. And few of us need the kind of validation that building a billion-dollar business – or even a million-dollar business – provides.

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    I’m speaking out in praise of small success. The band that sells 50,000 copies of its album. The local dry cleaner who runs 6 branches citywide. The family with the chain of fast-food franchises. The couple that runs a popular pre-school and daycare. The painter voted Best Local Artist three years in a row by the city’s alternative weekly paper. The independent spirit who runs the city’s alternative weekly paper. The high school band teacher whose students win music scholarships year after year.

    I know it’s not flashy. But it’s good, damn good.

    1000 True Fans and the Stallman Model

    My thinking here derives from two sources. The first is Kevin Kelly’s notion of 1000 true fans. Kelly’s suggestion is simple: to survive as an artist doesn’t necessarily require a major label distribution deal, a wealthy patron, a contract with a multi-national publishing house, or an appearance on Oprah. All it takes is the cultivation – by whatever means necessary and possible – of 1000 loyal, devoted fans. People who will buy your books, records, t-shirts, paintings, or whatever else; who will travel hundreds of miles and line up for hours or days to see you speak, play, or perform; people who will spread the word, give your products (whatever hey are) as gifts, and talk you up to local business owners, media outlets, and other artists.

    If a thousand true fans are willing to spend just $100 a year on whatever it is that you do, that’s a healthy $100,000 a year income. Just from that core – others might well buy an album here and there, ask a library to carry your book, or purchase a print of your painting. But that core of true fan support is what sustains the artist, year in and year out.

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    Richard Stallman advocates something similar in his crusade for free (as in freedom) software. Again and again he’s asked how people can make money if they don’t charge for their software, and again and again he responds: by providing services related to their software. Support. Training, Customization. Made-to-order programs.

    Doing the right thing, Stallman admits, is not the fast-track to riches. Instead, he says, it’s a way for people who love coding to bring in a healthy income year in and year out. Coding for the software equivalent of 1000 true fans.

    Making a Living vs. Making a Killing

    What both Kelly and Stallman are advocating is making a living – a good, solid, stable living – doing something you love. It’s a living built on community-mindedness, social spirit, and a solid relationship with the people who buy or use your work. Yes, it means giving up the ability to “monetize” every interaction between a potential customer and whatever it is you make. But in return you gain the ability to focus on the thing you love, and the value it brings to other people’s lives, instead of the bottom line.

    Most of the business books on the shelves, and most of the businesses functioning  in our contemporary society, don’t have that luxury. They’re not focused on making a living but on making a killing – bringing in the big bucks, milking whatever they’ve got for whatever it’s worth, and making sure that not a single person derives value from their products without first ponying up some cash.

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    Of course, this hasn’t been without its successes. I’m not going to say there is no use for the kinds of innovations that some corporations have brought about – although it’s notable that very few corporations last more than a couple decades, and even fewer stay at the forefront of their field for even half that long. Microsoft is positively ancient by the standard of market leadership time (and there are plenty of folks who see their crown slipping); Apple is getting pretty ripe as well (they’ve been at the top of their game for about a decade now, in a rare corporate second  chance). Far more often the leaders of the pack give way to upstarts – remember Altavista?

    More importantly, the “making a killing” approach really is killing. Big corporations, especially publicly held ones, can’t afford community-mindedness, unless it yields a positive return for their public relations department. They can’t afford to build personal relationships with the people who buy, use, and live by their products – especially when, as so often happens, they are hiding information about health, environmental, and other risks from their customers. And let’s not forget that it was a handful of corporate leaders and financial players out to make a killing who brought the current economic crisis on us all.

    But it’s not to speak out against corporate greed that I am writing this piece. It is to celebrate the little successes, and to suggest that for most of us, they are more than enough to lead us to happy, healthy, and in the end regret-free lives. Because not a lot of people are willing to say it – certainly the folks who write business books aren’t. And it deserves to be said.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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