Show your work!

Over the years I’ve followed many makers, developers, indie hackers, solopreneurs, and entrepreneurs. I’ve bought books to read even more and to let the experience of others shape the decisions I make.

But then I received a wake-up call. I read “Show your work” by Austin Kleon.

Here are a couple of highlights from the book that really inspired me:

What to write about

One of the biggest lies I tell myself every now and then is - “I don’t have anything to write about”. In this day and age, there’s never a shortage of things to write about:

So don’t think of it as starting over. Think of it as beginning again. Go back to chapter one – literally! – and become an amateur. Look for something new to learn, and when you find it, dedicate yourself to learning it out in the open. Document your progress and share as you go so that others can learn along with you.

For me, the real obstacle has always been - “I don’t know enough to write about it”, but in his book, Austin argues that you don’t need to be an expert, instead - be an amateur. Document your learning.

Any time I learn a new framework or find a new app I like - that’s something I can write about! I learn something new every day, be it at work or on a side project.

Don’t chase the destination - enjoy the journey and document the process.

Whether you share it or not, documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: You’ll start to see the work you’re doing more clearly and feel like you’re making progress. And when you’re ready to share, you’ll have a surplus of material to choose from.

Why write at all?

As soon as the big lie is defeated, another pops up - “Why even bother?“.

In their book Significant Objects Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker recount an experiment in which they set out to test this hypothesis: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.

First they went out to thrift stores, flea markets, and yard sales and bought a bunch of “insignificant” objects for an average of $1.25 an object. Then they hired a bunch of writers, both famous and not-so-famous to invent a story “that attributed significance” to each object.

Finally, they listed each object on eBay using the invented stories as the object’s description, and whatever they had originally paid for the object as the auction’s starting price. By the end of the experiment, they had sold $128.74 worth of trinkets for $3’612.51.

Artists love to trot out the tired line, “My work speaks for itself,” but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself. Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work.

Whatever you do, if you want your work to be noticed (or you just want to sell your junk on eBay) - you have to learn how to tell stories. Writing is a skill. And like any skill, you have to practice to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Document. Don’t create. Learn to tell stories to show your work.

p.s. I think there’s a subtle difference between “tell stories to show your work” vs “show your work to tell a story”. Even though the work might be the centerpiece, it’s the story that matters.