Working in Public is Weird
I’ve been working in public for seven years now. For the past year and a half, the majority of my work has been public in nature. My first book has been a big success, and with that success comes more and more public attention.
It’s been an odd experience, frankly.
I’m an introvert by nature: I get my energy from exploring and learning on my own, and by having deep conversations with one or two people at a time. I have no overwhelming need to be famous, and I don’t wake up every day trying to figure out how to get on the cover of FastCompany or star in my own reality TV show.
Even so, the past year and a half has been full of interviews, journalists, and requests from people I don’t know. Some of these interactions have been positive, and others have been negative. Regardless, the single best adjective I can think of to describe the experience is weird.
The benefits of working in public are clear: I make a good living doing things I enjoy. I live where I want to, choose my own projects, and enjoy reasonably high social status.
These benefits come with tradeoffs that aren’t as obvious. I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything, but it has a price. This post focuses on the downsides of working in public. If you’re considering working in public, consider this a preview of the price that you must pay to get what you want.
To be clear: these are observations, not complaints. Every profession has benefits and tradeoffs. I’ve made a conscious decision to do what I do, and I’m willing to handle the drawbacks.
Still: working in public is weird. Here’s why.
Public Work = Public Reaction
Since most of my work is publicly available in this age of free-flowing information, the most noticeable element of working in public is the presence of reviews. These reviews come in many forms: book reviews on Amazon, articles in newspapers, blog posts, forum comments, etc.
Many, if not most, of these reviews are good: reviews of my book on Amazon are 90%+ positive. I get many emails every day thanking me for my work. Most of the interviews I participate in are fun, and I get to talk with interesting people.
On the flip side, negative feedback is also common. What I do isn’t a good fit for everyone, which is perfectly okay and to be expected. Nothing is perfect for everyone, and getting over the idea that “it has to be perfect for everyone" is a necessary precondition of creating anything useful.
That fundamental reality doesn’t prevent some readers from getting angry or overreacting. Here’s a common troll-style comment, which appeared on a public forum shortly before my book came out.
First and foremost my question is who the fuck is Josh Kaufman and why should anyone care what he thinks? This is a largely stupid article….this douch is sophmoric and pretty immature in my personal opinion.
A rough analogy: imagine working in an office job. You’re going about your business when a random person walks in off the street and starts yelling, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that you’re stupid, horrible, and suck at your job. How would you react?
When I read something like this, the rational part of my brain dismisses it as nonsense. This person does not know me, has no exposure to my work, has not read anything aside from a poor summary of a second-hand article posted on a forum, etc. Nothing to be concerned about. If anything, someone is in desperate need of a hug.
The emotional part of my brain, however, automatically and instantly interprets comments like these as a personal attack and an immediate threat to my status. This reaction isn’t abnormal: it’s a universal human response, hard-coded into my brain via millions of years of evolution. If someone had made a comment like that to my face in a hunter-gatherer village a hundred thousand years ago, blood would be spilled.
The reality: this is not a hundred thousand years ago. I will probably never meet the person who made this comment, and they have absolutely zero ability to affect anything I do in any meaningful way. The worst possible outcome is to let random events like this affect what I do on a daily basis. It’s noise, plain and simple.
And so a battle rages in my head when I discover negative feedback. I’ve learned to get better at noticing my emotional reactions to things like this and diffuse them as quickly as possible. I’ve learned to distance myself enough to extract useful information from negative reviews without overreacting. I’ve learned to set up some simple structures to prevent me from wasting time on useless chatter.
Still, it’s a skill, and a hard one at that. Some days become Stoic exercises in equanimity and restraint. I’m still working on it.
Few Seek to Really Understand; Some Deliberately Misunderstand
“Truth is work, people are lazy, for a great many lies you need suppose nothing more."Eliezer Yudkowsky
Shortly after my book was published, I agreed to a phone interview with a reporter from a prominent publication. I was excited. Some cursory research indicated the reporter had published pieces in most of the highest-circulation newspapers in the country, so I was looking forward to a good article.
Two minutes into the call, I felt that something was very, very wrong. The reporter wanted to start off with some “fact checking," but pretty much everything she cited as a “fact" about me was flat-out wrong. When I tried to correct the error, the reporter became angry, then hostile. The conversation began to resemble a cross examination similar to what you’d see on Law and Order.
After a few minutes, I ended the interview and wrote a note to the reporter’s editor explicitly forbidding the use of any material from the interview and asking the editor to not run any story about my work written by this reporter. The whole experience was surreal.
After long thought, I have a hypothesis: the reporter had already written the story, based on many incorrect assumptions about what I do. When I disagreed, it threatened the story. By refusing to cooperate in the “fact checking," I was making the reporter’s job more difficult, facts be damned.
I had a similar experience with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, who published a piece about my book on the front page of the international section. The reporter took a single sentence out of context, ignored contradictory statements in the very next sentence, and wrote a hit piece whose thesis was something analogous to “Every MBA-trained individual is a fraudulent monster AND their mother is ugly." He never contacted me to clarify my position: the controversy the article would generate was too enticing.
A few weeks later, I rediscovered a quote by Jason Kottke, a prominent web curator:
“Some people are determined to deliberately misunderstand much of what they encounter in life. Sometimes I have a hard time realizing that that’s their problem, not mine."
I never fully understood that quote until I experienced it firsthand.
Errors are Multiplied by the Size of the Audience
On a more nitty-gritty level, my subscribed reading audience is approximately 4x what it was when I started working on my first book. That’s a great thing, with an unexpected twist: when I make a mistake, I hear about it from 4x more people.
A simple typo in a blog post can flood my email inbox. I’m thankful that people care enough to tell me when I mess up, so I don’t want to actively discourage it. The scale is the problem: I have over 30,000 readers, but there’s only one of me.
The consequence is that I’m more careful about what I publish, which slows me down. If there’s a sweet spot between speed and diligence, I haven’t found it yet.
Unreasonable Requests are Very, Very Common
Here are some real requests I’ve received, paraphrased for anonymity:
- Can you please tell me what I should do with my life? Be detailed.
- I heard you’re adding more material to the second edition of your book. Does that mean I have to purchase it again? Can’t you just send me a new copy for free?!
- I need in-depth coaching from you, but I don’t have any money. Can’t you work with me for free? Can’t you make an exception just for me?
- I have a top secret business opportunity I want to discuss with you. Call me at 3:00pm this afternoon, sharp. Don’t be late.
- Your courses are too expensive. Anything more than free is too expensive.
- I want to work for you in exchange for your material. Can you please create and manage an easy unnecessary project so I can avoid paying your fee?
- I would like you to run live training courses in [very small market]. By the way, people in [very small market] can only pay [very small fee]. When can we expect your arrival?
- I’m offended that a free resource you already provide is not in the format I prefer. Do it again, then send it to me, and I won’t be so offended.
- I set you [an unreasonable request] yesterday, and haven’t heard from you. Please hurry up, this is urgent!!!
Many of these requests follow the classic “freeloader" pattern: I want what you have, but I don’t want to pay for it. A contributing factor is that I’m essentially selling information and knowledge, which are intangible. Most of these people wouldn’t dream of going to dinner and asking the proprietor to waive the bill in exchange for them “telling all of their friends," but they consider it acceptable for information.
Even when the requests mention some potential benefit to me (work, opportunities, etc.), very few people take the time to figure out what I’d actually find valuable or worthwhile. Most people assume that I’m naturally going to be interested because they’re making the request, and who in their right mind wouldn’t be interested in what they want?
The other thing that makes these requests challenging is the volume. These types of emails aren’t rare: they’re normal. Par for the course. I have to manage hundreds of these requests on top of getting real work done.
I found the volume of these requests odd until I remembered this…
Shortly after Seth Godin was kind enough to link to the Personal MBA reading list, 22-year-old-me sent him a thank you note and invited him to lunch. He brushed me off.
I was crushed. I thought I was being generous and expressing gratitude.
I wasn’t. I didn’t understand… not yet. I understand now. I was placing a demand on his limited time and attention. I was making an unreasonable request. Seth was right to turn me down.
Most people have no concept of working in public until they work in public.
Working in public is weird.