Last night I had the opportunity to speak for Linux Dominicana, which is the Linux Users Group in the Dominican Republic. I was approached several months ago by a man who has since become a good friend, asking if I would give a webinar-based talk. As most people reading this know, I’m currently trying to produce more and more content, and hopefully reach more and more people with it. So even though I had concerns over cultural errors I might make, I agreed to do the talk.
Spoiler: I’m very glad I did.
My whole personal “brand” thing about being kind, assuming the best in others, admitting when I’m wrong, etc., is not so much a “brand” as genuinely who I want to be as a human. And so in the months leading up to the talk, a bunch of the leaders joined me in a group chat so I could ask them an annoying amount of questions. I was not worried about embarrassing myself (clearly, based on most of my public interactions, I have no problem looking silly). But I was very concerned that I would make an offensive comment, or make an assumption out of ignorance that would hurt the feelings those attending. I gave my rough talk outline (it was about Linux as a vehicle to a career), and I asked awkward questions about job opportunities, difficulties with language barriers, salary inequalities, and how things “work” in the Dominican Republic.
This group of folks were so patient, and so kind, my gratitude doesn’t seem like enough payment for all the education they provided me. After a couple months of trying to learn Spanish, it was clear I wouldn’t be anywhere close to capable of conversation in their native language, and still they were nothing but patient with my litany of questions. Honestly, I was probably rather annoying. And even though I learned a lot about Dominican people, and even about Latin America in general — the upcoming talk was more distressing than pretty much any other talk I’ve given. (OK, the Ohio LinuxFest keynote address where I lost my entire presentation the night before was pretty stressful, but this was a different sort of stress.)
See… I wasn’t sure I’d be relatable. Don’t get me wrong, human stories are about humans, and in general we can empathize if we try. But would my life experiences translate (literally and figuratively) to another culture? I normally weave sarcasm and self deprecation into my talks, but sarcasm is often hard to pick up in your native language, so my standard go-to would probably fall flat. Plus, my talk wasn’t really about anything technical. It was a story about how I found my passion, and how those passions helped me in my own career. It was a very “soft” talk for a group of hardened IT professionals.
How did it go? I think the talk went fine. (That link will start the talk when it switches to English) It wasn’t earth-shattering. It was a story-based look at my career, with a few pointers for finding passion of your own. And an awkward section about the unfair importance of speaking English. Again, it wasn’t a bad talk. But it wasn’t amazing by any stretch of the definition.
But it was significant.
What I didn’t mention earlier is that this was the first time they’ve had one of their presentations in English. I was even one of the first (maybe the actual first) presenter without a tie to the Dominican Republic at all. Heck, I’m so white I’m almost clear! They did this on purpose, but I didn’t realize it was that out of the ordinary until I was chatting with the group of leaders the day before the talk. Whether or not my talk went well, they assured me it was ground-breaking. Assuming the attendees enjoyed the talk, it probably means they will have future speakers from other places with different views and different insights. And I got to be the first person to open that door. I’m still so very humbled.
I hope my mediocre talk, where I tried to speak more slowly than normal (I talk fast when I get excited) was enough to tear down a few cultural walls. The kindness of commenters, saying things in English so I could understand it, was really quite touching. This group of Dominicans will always have a special place in my heart. And once winter sets in, I might find out if their offers of helping me get the most out of a trip to the DR were genuine. And to be honest, I already know they were. Because along with being the first English-only speaker to their group, I also made a pretty great group of friends. And that. That is how we change the world.
I was scrolling through social media the other day, and ran across this photo. I laughed out loud, because a bottle of cleaning spray decorated like this is the most Yaya thing I could imagine. I mean, these things are usually “decorated” with a Sharpie marker declaring what sort of cleaner is inside the bottle. Or maybe a piece of masking tape declaring the owner’s name. But not this bottle. This looks like a centerpiece for the head table at a fancy dinner or something. It’s SO Yaya. But I should step back a bit.
Yaya (the name she chose to use in America), or Tipsithong Keawlaor, (whose last name I butchered while announcing at basketball games, and still get horribly wrong) is a young lady from Thailand who was an exchange student at the school where my wife teaches. She’s here in the US again, and based on her post, she’s working on the cleaning crew at a hotel or some such thing. She doesn’t normally post about cleaning supplies, and if you see her on social media, or honestly in real life, she appears to be the most vapid, selfie-crazed young woman you could imagine. She lives her life very much out loud, and between duck-lip poses and over-romantic hashtags — she really appears to be an extra superficial example of everything wrong with the Internet.
But she’s not.
Yaya does certainly enjoy attention. But she doesn’t seek attention at the expense of others. She might appear to be “full of herself”, but that too is an assumption which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Yaya is an incredibly kind-hearted young woman, who doesn’t shy away from helping others, even when there’s no glory in it for her. She enjoys the limelight, but I’ve literally seen her chopping lime leaves in the kitchen while helping cook food for a fundraiser. She will work hard to help others, even when it’s not required, even when she’s unseen — but will also happily draw all the attention in a room for no other reason than to be the center of attention. She’s truly an enigma.
OK, So What is She Hiding?
Does Yaya draw attention to herself in order to distract from insecurities she’s trying to hide? I have no idea. I know that I do that (and so Blue, in my comic, does as well).
But more importantly, Yaya doesn’t prop herself up by pushing others down. And I think it’s vital to make that distinction. She might very well struggle with inner demons, self doubt, insecurities, and a myriad of other emotional difficulties. Her over-the-top photos might be a way to hide from herself.
And maybe not.
My point is this: We often hear that comparing our lives to what we see our friends posting on social media is unhealthy, because people generally only post the good things. And that is very good advice. Our lives are more than a highlight reel, and sometimes those with incredible highs are also struggling with incredible lows. Unfortunately, we often deal with that reality in a very unhealthy way.
We Do The Thing Ourselves
Remember when I said that Yaya doesn’t prop herself up by pushing others down? It was literally 2 paragraphs ago. The thing is, when we try to accept that social media is often a highlight reel of the best a person experiences, we equate that to being shallow. We tell ourselves that of course they’re faking, and they’re really miserable, just vying for attention. Heck, we go so far as to pity them for needing the attention of others. We judge them for being happy, because we’re secretly jealous that we’re not.
So here’s my takeaway. You’re welcome to join me, or to just find me naive. I strive to assume the best in people. If someone shares a blessing in their life, and it doesn’t appear to be at the expense of someone else? I’m going to try my very best to be genuinely happy for them. If someone appears to be shallow, I’m going to assume they’re just not sharing the depth of who they are online. And if someone chooses to never share the difficulties they certainly face, I’m going to hope those difficulties pale in comparison to the joy they do share. Because honestly, someone else being happy does not make me less so. And if someone I care enough to follow on social media has good things happen to them? Knowing about it actually makes me pretty happy too.
Yaya, I hope you’re as happy as you portray on social media. Because you’re a wonderful human being, and you deserve all the joy life has to offer. And living life to the fullest is such a Yaya thing to do…
Several years ago, I was asked to speak at a bible camp in southern Michigan. It wasn’t my first time speaking there, and I’d been a youth group leader at our local church for years, so my talk wasn’t vetted before I was allowed to speak to a couple hundred teenagers. And no, I didn’t actually do or say anything that was inappropriate – but my talk affected me far more than any of the teenagers who heard it. Because I inadvertently deceived them. All of them.
If you’ve been given the opportunity to speak to groups of people, you probably know that using stories is one of the best ways to engage an audience. Stories reveal our humanness, and bridge gaps in our experiences. Even if you haven’t experienced the same things I’ve experienced, when I tell a story, you get to join me in my joy and pain and ultimately in my life. For the brief moment when I tell you a story, you become me, you walk my path, and my experiences become a part of who you are too. Really, stories are amazing.
Fictional stories can do this too. They really can. Just like you can live my experiences if I tell you my stories, we can all live experiences told in fiction, and better understand the human condition in scenarios that never actually happened! Heck, Jesus himself did this with parables. There was no actual woman who lost a coin and then partied when she found it. It was fiction. The important part though, is that people understood Jesus was telling a fictionalized story. He didn’t say, “My Mom Mary lost a coin once, and oooh boy did we have to search for it…”
The Three-armed Sweater
So back to Bair Lake (the camp I where I was speaking). I honestly don’t remember the particular lesson I was teaching, but based on context, I’m guessing it was a lesson about grace and kindness. And as a young(ish) youth group leader, and a speaker known for being fun and animated, I decided to tell a story about a funny situation regarding a Christmas gift. I was a pretty crafty writer and storyteller at the time, so this story was almost certainly funny and engaging, while driving home whatever point I was tasked to teach. And heck, I was using a parable, just like Jesus! The talk was bound to be legendary in the annals of Bair Lake history. Sadly, I made a fatal mistake.
My “parable” was about a sweater I received one Christmas from my beloved aunt. My aunt (whose fictional name is lost to me now) was in mental decline, but spent a large portion of her time knitting sweaters for all her nieces and nephews, so she’d have Christmas gifts for all of them. As her mental acuity waned, the sizing and consistency of sweaters declined as well. One Christmas, the sweater I received from this beloved aunt had a third arm. I don’t remember the details, but I’m sure the fictional me was gracious, and appreciated the time and thoughtfulness knitted into the garment which I’d never be able to wear. Heck, there was probably even a situation where I had to wear the sweater, and somehow honor the aunt while also protecting her from ridicule. But it’s not the story I remember about that summer. It’s the effect it had on the teenagers.
See, it worked. I’d managed to teach my lesson, and pull their heartstrings, and even offer them a glimpse at the joy which only comes from serving others. They learned to be gracious, and kind, and in turn they were kind and gracious to me. They asked me about my aunt. They wondered if I had pictures of the sweater, not to mock, but so they could share in the story even more. One of the other leaders asked if they could share my story with their own youth group back home, because it resonated with the group of campers so well.
But it was all a lie, and I was the only one who knew it.
Fiction Can Teach Truth, But a Lie is a Lie
I didn’t set out to deceive anyone. Truly. But like I said, I was a fairly good storyteller, and the story of my aunt was compelling. It honestly never occurred to me that someone would think the story was a real situation from my life. I crafted it like a parable, or so I thought, and just like there was no actual prodigal son who slept with swine, there was no Aunt (Gertrude? I honestly don’t remember) who knitted me a three-armed sweater. But I told the story as if it were true. So people believed me.
It’s possible the story of my aunt is still being told by people at that bible camp who were particularly moved. And for them, it’s a story that works. For them it’s not a lie, it’s a story. It’s a story they once heard, and its basis in fact is no longer what matters. But for me, it made for a terrible week of camp. Because every time someone came to me and asked about my aunt, I had to tell them that I didn’t really have an aunt who made sweaters, it was just a story I made up to illustrate a point. And they were crestfallen. A story that gave them hope and clarity, helping them to understand grace and kindness instantly turned into them feeling duped and betrayed. All because I didn’t frame the story correctly.
Good Stories Can Be Fictional, but They Can’t Be Lies
That experience still haunts me. I’d like to think it made me a better person, but the cost was painful. Stories are what bind us together as humans, and with good intent, I broke whatever trust those campers had in me. Rather than learning the lesson I intended, those who found out it was made up learned I was a scam artist. I’d fooled them with my storytelling skills, and they felt dumb for believing me.
Could there have been a follow-up lesson on forgiveness? You bet. Heck, it probably would have been a pretty great talk about consequences from unintentional wrongdoing. The speaker could use my situation as a way to explain how forgiving someone benefits you as much as the person you’re forgiving. But it’s not a lesson I could teach, because for that group, I was the guy who lied about the sweater.
Stories are powerful. Fictional stories can be just as powerful as real stories. But even fictional stories have to be honest. Because while truth doesn’t have to be true, it does need to be honest.
I often think about Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall. If you aren’t familiar with the married comedy duo, it’s not surprising. They were the act who followed the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964. How could you possibly follow that?!? Thankfully, Justin Bieber didn’t recently make Linux training videos that I have to follow. But the thing is, this past week has been a surprisingly good week with regard to the things I’m creating being appreciated by other humans. (And maybe robots, I’m ok with that. Meep morp, y’all. How ’bout those electrons, am I right?)
The problem is, one success feels like setting the bar for the next thing. And a big success makes for a really high bar.
After this blog was shared by a super popular friend of mine on Twitter (the same friend who often shares my comic… he’s basically my ex-naval fairy godmother), and then one of my youtube videos was showcased in a Hackaday article by another friend, the traffic and popularity of my stuff has stepped up a bit. No, I’m not an influencer, or a YouTube celebrity, or parking a Tesla in my garage… (or, you know, having a garage) — but I crossed the monetization threshold on YouTube (the process of which apparently takes about a month, and then I could make DOZENS of cents a day!) I was sent a tech product to review without me asking or buying it, and there are actual conversations happening in the comment sections of my stuff.
OMG, I’m Too Good Looking, and My Wallet is Too Fat…
I know, I know. Complaining about a modicum of success is pretty douchey. I mean, isn’t being successful exactly what I’m intending to do with all this writing and newslettering and podcasting and videoing and cartooning and… everything? And Shawn, if you can’t handle a video getting 1000 views without feeling overwhelmed, you’d better hope you never actually make it big.
And yeah, I get all that. And I do hope the success continues. Heck, my lofty aspirations include the need and ability to actually hire people to join me in my endeavors. The problem I’m mulling over now is that I find it difficult to do the next thing when the last thing was deemed “worthy and good” by the masses. I think as humans (or robots, still love you guys) we tend to look at a very narrow slice of time. Heck, we practice “living in the present” as a way to stay healthy in mind and body. But the road to success is long. For some of us, very long. And while intellectually I understand a video that gets 10,000 views isn’t 100 times better than a video that gets 100 views, it sure feels that way. Let me get very specific. I’ll use my YouTube channel as the example, because this week has some prime examples of what I’m talking about.
The Hackaday Debacle of Awesomeness
One of the many things I do, is to occasionally co-host on FLOSS Weekly over at TWiT.tv. One of the OTHER occasional co-hosts is Jonathan Bennett. We don’t know each other in meat-space, but I consider him a friend, and if we were at a tech conference, we’d totally hang out and be nerdy. Anyway, he’s a writer at Hackaday.com — and last week he included my SSH Tunnels video in an article he wrote. It sent a flood of users to my tiny YouTube channel, and quickly elevated that video to like 7,000 views in the first week. Most of my videos get about 100 views in that timeframe. It also brought in lots of new eyeballs, who subscribed to my channel, which increased the views on my other videos, and there was a snowball effect that gave my tiny channel a boost.
Again, my channel is small. We’re not talking fame and fortune, we’re talking a cool growth acceleration. Like I mentioned above, it even bumped me over the monetization threshold, so that approval process started.
But HERE is the crux of the situation. My brain tells me that SSH Tunnelling video must have been the cream of my video crop. THAT VIDEO is what will breed more success. Whatever I did there is what I need to do every time, and improve on. Because for some reason, my brain says, “This is a video of a creator that has 3,000 subscribers. If you want to increase to 5,000 subscribers, you clearly need a video that’s about twice as good.”
Now I KNOW that’s not how it actually works. Heck, even my observation of older videos getting more views proves that it’s not a single video that raises the bar of adequacy. But as I often point out, brains are not logical. They’re emotional, fickle, jiggly think-meats which assume the worst and never appreciate the best. And so, I didn’t make another video that whole week. The week where I was getting more and more people interested in my channel and my content. I was crippled with fear that I’d release a video that wasn’t better than the SSH Tunnel video. And people would know that the apparent “star quality content” was a fluke.
Brains suck. (I actually accidentally typed “Brians suck”, and autocorrect was just going to let me insult innocent Brians everywhere. C’mon robots, I thought we were friends?!?)
The week went by, and the popularity boom waned. I still garnered quite a few new subscribers, which was incredible, but instead of riding that incoming wave, I floundered and released no new content. On Friday, I felt so terrible about not releasing anything, that I threw together a video on Linux Certifications, and posted it. I figured it would flop, but at least I was trying. (That video is honestly doing really well, which is weird, because it hasn’t been boosted by anything external. So who knows.)
So What Have You Learned, Shawn?
Honestly? I have no idea. Here’s the thing though — it’s pretty common with anyone who gets a bump of success, that they struggle with their next endeavor. One-hit wonders, authors who write a successful book, middle-aged men who get a compliment on how their hair looks… we all flounder with how to meet or exceed whatever we did that was deemed “good”.
The only advice I really have is that maybe we shouldn’t try to outdo ourselves. Just like it’s unhealthy to compare our success to other people, comparing ourselves to the most successful thing we’ve done is just silly. I’m just as good as that guy who made the SSH Tunnel video, because I’m that guy. I wasn’t trying to specifically make a stand-out creation, I was just doing what I love. Greatness isn’t a thing we do, it’s the way we do the things we do. Trying hard to be a more perfect self seems silly. We’re already exactly ourselves.
So just do the next thing. And in the words of Paul McCartney, Let it Be.
When I started this “be a professional creator full time” adventure at the start of 2022, I got lots of advice. And as a quick recap for those who don’t know about my “Big Year” (sans birds), which is honestly most of you, because I didn’t really shout about it from the mountain tops, here’s the deal:
For the past decade plus, I’ve been a trainer for CBT Nuggets. Many of my videos are still in their catalog, and most people would have no idea I’m not working there anymore. I’m currently a full time sysadmin managing a bunch of Linux systems in various datacenters around the western US. But a couple things made me want to do more than just my DayJob.
The pandemic proved that jobs are not a sure thing. So many folks were laid off, or lost their jobs entirely, it was a scary wakeup call. A single income stream, even a really good stream, is scary if it might disappear.
I really really miss making training videos.
I really really miss writing for Linux Journal.
My kids are grown now, so I have a little more time on my hands.
My kids are grown now, and they’re currently trying to survive in an economy where surviving, much less thriving, is difficult. I want to set an example on how to diversify income.
Anyway, for those reasons and probably more, I decided to go “all in” for the entire 2022 calendar year. I still have a DayJob, so this means lots of after-work work. But again, it’s a good time in my life for that sort of thing. I’m not missing anyone’s basketball games, etc. As of right now, I’m about a third of the way through the year, and I’ve learned a few things.
There’s no Right Way, but Lots of Wrong Ways
My biggest focus thus far has been with YouTube. Yes, a 46 year old man becoming a “YouTuber” seems like a sad sort of midlife crisis, but I actually have a lot of experience making videos. And I’m a bit of a camera whore (I really like being on camera/mic). So YouTube actually makes a lot of sense. But oh my goodness are there nuances with the platform. For example:
You Must be Genuine
I think I do OK with this one. I’m not good at being fake. But… I’m a fairly weird dude, so maybe I should strive to be genuinely Ryan Reynolds… but Ryan Reynolds already does that, so y’all are stuck with me. Seriously though, I think people assume that unless they’re super charismatic, they’re too boring. That’s honestly just not the case. I’m a pretty boring guy. But when I’m passionate or excited about something, that’s when I light up. And everyone is like that about something. I tend to get excited about a LOT of things (more on that later), but the common adage to, “write what you know” works for YouTube as well. When you’re excited about something, that passion is contagious.
You Must be Unique
This is really a carryover from the previous point. If you’re genuine, you’re unique. Because no one else is like you. When I started taking YouTube seriously, it was tempting to emulate other successful people on the platform. There is some value to seeing what works and doesn’t work but it’s important to only emulate what they do, and not who they are. It’s hard to be genuine or unique if you’re trying to be just like someone else.
Those two “rules” are the most important, at least I think so. Look, I’m not a professional at YouTube, and this isn’t an article on how to be a YouTuber, but I think without following those two ideals, it’s impossible to be happy as a content creator. The next points are important to be a financially successful YouTuber though. And I like them much less. 🙂
You Must be Specific
This is the whole idea of “niching down” on a subject. The narrower you focus your content, the more people you draw in. This seems backward, because a broader array of topics would capture the interests of more people. You know, a bigger net catches more fish. But since there are an almost infinite number of YouTube channels, people tend to gravitate toward the ones where every video hits their sweet spot. If you branch out, the number of people your particular eclectic tastes match will dwindle quickly.
For example, a few of my passions are Linux, A/V equipment, Birdwatching, Renewable Energy, and Kool-Aid. Any one of those subjects might resonate with people. But if I made a YouTube channel with all those topics? Very few people would subscribe, because while they might like one or two of those subjects, they’d get annoyed by videos popping up in their feed on the less desirable topics. So, they look for a channel that has videos on their specific likes, and subscribe to multiple channels. So a person with my particular tastes would subscribe to a Linux channel, a birdwatching channel, a few A/V review channels, and an 80’s retro beverage channel.
That’s difficult for me. Because while I intellectually understand why having a specific niche is vital for YouTube success, it feels very limiting. And honestly, I get bored. Even if it’s one of my passions, if I don’t feed the other beasts in my head, they get restless. And that is sorta where the point of this whole post is going. Because the last “rule” of YouTube is…
You Must be Consistent
Oddly enough, posting videos every day isn’t 7 times better than posting once a week. Sure, you get marginally more views, but more importantly than number of videos you produce is the consistency with which you produce them. But honestly, even this is extremely flexible.
The consistency you MUST strive for is having consistently good content. Releasing regularly is also good, but not as important as having consistently good quality videos. And look, what “good quality” means is very much up for debate and evolution. For example, most people agree that having music in videos keeps people watching. But… I generally don’t, because it feels contrived for my style. I just talk into a camera, demo stuff, and try to teach complicated topics in a way that makes them easy to understand. A soundtrack seems to detract from that, so at least for now, I don’t add music.
Bonus Must: Audio
This isn’t YouTube specific, but just a tip for anyone making video. People will look past questionable video quality (to a point), but audio quality is king. If you’re going to spend money, spend it on a microphone first.
So What’s My Point?
I started the year making lots of videos in pretty short order. That was partly due to me really missing the training process. But also, I wanted to have a backlog of videos in place that new viewers could “binge” and get a taste for my style. So I worked hard to get a full “Linux Essentials” course created, making multiple videos a week, and publishing them in rapid succession. But that came at a cost.
At a mere 2 months in, I started to feel some burnout. This is not because I don’t enjoy teaching, or because videos aren’t interesting. It’s because some of those YouTube rules above are really oppressive. I understand my YouTube channel needs to be mostly Linux focused. But as a person, *I* can’t be all Linux focused all the time. So while the idea of doing one thing and doing it well is good advice, when it comes to creativity, it doesn’t always work. My inability to be disingenuous works against me here. If I’m genuinely miserable doing one thing, that one thing I’m doing will be a miserable version of the thing.
I Need More Irons, and More Fire
Toward the beginning of my “Big Year”, I tried to follow the standard advice of not having too many irons in the fire. If I do lots of things, it spreads my time and talent thin, so everything will be mediocre at best. And even reading that last sentence, it makes sense. But human meat sacks don’t always follow logical rules. I’m starting to discover that if I don’t put lots of irons in lots of fires, my one big fire will burn out. I know that is stretching the metaphor hard, but basically, I can’t focus all my energy on one thing or that thing suffers.
So as I enter the second trimester of the year, I’ve decided that I need to do more things. Even if I do those things a little less regularly, the things should end up being better in general. This rekindling of my blog is a prime example. I miss writing regularly, and the best way to scratch that itch is to write. Where better to write than in my own personal blog, where the only rules are ones I make up? I’m doing other things too, and will probably write about them here eventually, but off the top of my head:
Reading this blog as a “blogcast”, which is a word I made up. I think. It’s like a podcast, but is just me reading these words out loud.
My point is, rules are important, but they should always be examined and revised. Plus, the definition of success varies for the individual. I hope this “Big Year” of mine proves to be the start in a life long pursuit of passions and revenue streams. But if at the end of 2022 I discover that I really don’t like the whole “be a creator” thing? That’s valuable too. I’d rather be absolutely certain I don’t like something, than forever wonder what could have been.
Learn everything. Do what you love. And most importantly, be kind.