An Open Letter to the Green Brothers

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I recently read advice about writing letters to famous people. I think it was in the Steal Like an Artist Trilogy by Austin Kleon, which is a wonderful set of books. (I’ve listened to the audio version several times) This is not a letter to him, however. The point was that you can write letters to famous people, but it’s not fair to expect a reply, because their fame makes it very difficult to read all the letters they receive, much less reply. Fred Rogers was an exception to that rule, and sadly I never thought to write him in my youth. I regret that often, because since he did reply to all the letters he received, I could have a personal letter from Mister Rogers hanging on my wall right next to the poster of him which you can see in my online videos. But I digress.

This is a letter to John and Hank Green. Or Hank and John Green. I have no idea if there’s a rivalry about whose name goes first.

Dear Green Brothers,

I’m not actually a long time fan. That’s not a poor reflection on you, it just felt like something I should get out of the way, because a fan letter sort of assumes fandom. And while I appreciate you both, I still have no idea what most of the inside jokes you reference mean. (Things like “pizza-mas” and “nerdfight-stuff” mean little to me) But due to unfortunate circumstances, I’ve had the fortune to watch many, many, MANY of your vlogbrothers videos. So many, in fact, that I felt compelled to write this letter. Because while you had no idea that I watched hours and hours of you both, around day 4 it started feeling creepy. So this is me, waving my hand in the air and acknowledging the weirdness, and explaining that I’m currently on day 17 of a pernicious Covid infection that just won’t go away. And so I’ve watch a LOT of YouTube. And totally getting my money’s worth from that YouTube Premium subscription.

John, I first saw you when someone passed along a link to your video about Mister Rogers. Hank, I didn’t know John had a brother, and so the first time someone mentioned you in conversation (my daughter I believe, because her teacher played CrashCourse videos in class) I assured her that no, it was “John” not “Hank”. A quick googling ensued, and it turns out that you too are a real human, and thus was born my understanding that there are TWO brothers Green, each awesome in their own way. (See? I kinda warned you I wasn’t a very good fan. No pizza for me. If that’s a pizza-mas thing. Again, I don’t really know)

Still, even with my total lack of fan juice, and a mere inkling of the Green Brothers Mythos, I felt compelled to write you. Yes, yes, partially because I felt creepy devoting my Covid isolation binging your channel. But honestly, that was partially YouTube’s fault. As I blankly stared at my phone, the YouTube algorithm kept feeding me vlogbrother videos. (Very much not in any sort of order, which was odd, but also somehow still worked).

Wow, I really need to get over myself. The focus on me feeling creepy is starting to get creepy itself.

I’m writing for probably the same reason many people write to you. You’re both very relatable, and present yourselves as quite genuine. It’s possible you’re just really good actors, and the “regular old nerd” persona is just an act, but that seems unlikely. It’s also intimidatingly impressive how professionally successful you’ve both become. I’m pretty sure you’re both younger than me (I’ll turn 47 next month), and your accomplishments are not only admirable — but downright world-changing. And while you both seem humble about the multitude of things you do, the ripple effects of just being you are probably not always easy to see.

My tiny YouTube channel where I create Linux training to help people find a fulfilling career is just that, tiny. And my video style has always been simplistic. But it’s not like your vlogbrothers videos are exactly high production quality, and yet they continue to resonate with people. You give away the vast majority of your creations, and a huge percentage of the money you bring in, and yet manage to live indoors and regularly eat warm meals. And while we obviously don’t know each other, you’ve become the pair of humans I can regularly point to (mentally, I promise I’m not really stalking you) and say, “See? There’s a way to be the sort of person I want to be, while still being able to afford food!”

So thank you. Not for anything in particular that you’ve done, but just for doing the things “out loud” so people like me can see it work. While it’s unlikely my influence will spread quite as far as yours, I appreciate that you’ve blazed the trail a bit for kindness and generosity being a road to success. Because whatever the second half of my life looks like, this tweet remains true.

Hank – I’ll see you on Friday. And John, Tuesday. 🙂

Significance

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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.

Assuming the Best

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This bottle is SO Yaya…

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…

Truth Isn’t Always True

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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.

Just Do the Next Thing

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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.