What role does skill play in the path to success? Are good intentions enough? Or do you actually need some talent?
Why So Many Bloggers Fail
I’m often asked why so many people who jumped on the blogging bandwagon failed to get good results. While the A-list bloggers enjoy soaring traffic and income, countless other blogs fall by the wayside. Why?
There are several ways to answer this, but perhaps the most obvious answer is that most new bloggers give up within the first six months. The web is littered with abandoned blogs. But six months is nothing. It takes six months just to get your bearings in the blogosphere.
During my first six months as a blogger, I earned a whopping $167. That’s about 17 cents per hour… not exactly what you’d call an unqualified success. But about a year and a half later, my blog’s income was passing $10K/month and kept going up from there. What if I’d given up during the first few months?
Why didn’t I give up? Partly it was because I wasn’t doing it for the money to begin with, so I didn’t define success in financial terms. Probably the main reason though is that I felt this line of work was such an excellent fit for my passion and skills that I couldn’t fathom doing anything else. It’s a virtual certainty that I’d be writing about personal development today in some fashion even if I was still making only 17 cents an hour. What really drove me was the desire to creatively express myself in a way that might help people.
However, in order for my creative self-expression to provide value for others, I had to do a ton of work on the skill side. Most people don’t see the years I invested in personal development before even starting a blog. My interest in personal development really began around 1991, but I didn’t start blogging until 2004.
Before I started blogging, I’d read about 700 non-fiction books on topics including productivity, relationships, spirituality, health, finances, and more. I had a good understanding of the broad field of personal development. I also worked enough on my own personal growth to generate some unique ideas.
When I started blogging, I’d already written about 20 articles between 1999 and 2003, some of which became popular online. I’d also been paid for about 6 articles by CNET ($1000 per 1000-word article). So I’d earned some money on the side from my writing before I started writing for a living.
Moreover, when I started my blog, I’d been running an online computer games business for 10 years. During the first 5 years of that business, I turned $20,000 cash into $150,000 debt. I had to learn a lot of difficult lessons about how to run a profitable business, most of which had nothing to do with money. My most important lessons actually had to do with developing and trusting my intuition and using it to make major business decisions. I had learned how to succeed as an entrepreneur long years before I started blogging.
So yes, my blog became an overnight success, but that night was about 15 years long.
I don’t know too many successful bloggers who jumped into the blogosphere with no meaningful experience and did well off the bat. Most had something in their backgrounds that prepared them for blogging success. It may have been a previous job that helped them build good work habits and discipline while stockpiling many great ideas. These people really weren’t starting from scratch. They had a decent skill set and a proven ability to create value. They started blogging because they had something of value to share.
Paying Your Dues
The reason so many bloggers fail to build a significant audience is that they haven’t paid their dues yet on the skill side. They get drawn in by the lure of passive income, but they don’t have the skills to deliver on the service side. Passive income is certainly nice to have, but it shouldn’t be your primary motivation. What will you do when you have tons of passive income? Wait for death? Passive income is a means to an end, but what’s the end you’re after?
There are a lot of reasons certain blogs get a lot of traffic, but I’d say the #1 reason is that they deserve it. They provide lots of value, and word of mouth builds traffic. If a blogger generates no word of mouth traffic growth, the reason is simple: Visitors don’t value the blogger’s content… at least not enough to tell anyone else about it. Another way of saying this is that if you aren’t seeing a steady growth in referrals for your professional work, it’s because your work isn’t very good.
Sure there are some ways to game the system, but I consistently see that the high-traffic blogs deliver a lot of value to people, whether that be education, entertainment, inspiration, creative ideas, or some other form of value. The top blogs ultimately deliver what people want.
Most of the failed blogs deserve to fail. The bloggers have nothing special to say. Instead of being inspired to write, they try to meet a certain quota of posts. They think studying search engine optimization can make up for lousy content. That’s like a bad poet concluding that the key to great poetry is better fonts.
Early Skill-Building Pays Off
You’ll probably have a hard time building momentum in any new endeavor if you fail to pay the price and develop your skills. I know it’s hard to be patient, but your early skill-building work can pay off massively down the road, not just for yourself but for all the people you’ll eventually help.
Every field has a core set of basic skills. If you commit to mastery of those skills over a period of years, you’ll probably do very well in your field. If you try to shortcut the process, get used to disappointment.
For example, some of the core skills that are important in my current line of work are:
- Personal development knowledge – A broad base of knowledge of existing ideas, systems, and methods that can foster growth in the areas of health, relationships, career, money, habits, and spirituality.
- Writing – Being able to express thoughts clearly through written language. Knowledge of basic grammar as well as high-level structural elements like unity and coherence.
- Speaking – Presentation skills as well as comfort speaking in front of a live audience. There are many details here including knowledge of sound equipment and microphones, humor skills, and vocal variety.
- Web/technical skills – Functional understanding of blogging and web technologies such as email, RSS feeds, discussion forums, and social bookmarking.
- Business skills – Ability to manage general business responsibilities such as accounting, taxes, legal contracts, record keeping, and payroll.
- Interpersonal skills – Networking with others in the field, avoid isolation/cocooning. Many great opportunities will come through the connections you build.
With the exception of #3, I developed all of these core skills to a reasonable degree of proficiency before I even started blogging. I developed #3 to a reasonable level before I started speaking professionally. If I had jumped into blogging without these core skills, it would have been much harder to succeed. I simply wouldn’t have been ready.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened when I started my computer games business. I had good technical skills, but my business skills and interpersonal skills were weak. I had no clue how to run a profitable business, and I didn’t understand networking. At first I was too isolated, and then I kept doing business with people who were either dishonest or incompetent. It didn’t matter that I was a smart programmer. My lack of skill in the other critical areas dragged down the whole business. It was only when I developed basic competency in my weak areas that the business finally became profitable. That took about 5 years working full-time (and often beyond full-time).
Accepting the Price of Skill
If you pick a field you’re passionate about, the skill-building work won’t seem so bad. You can actually enjoy it. I enjoyed learning about business even while my games business was failing during the first few years. I had so much to learn that even the most poorly written books offered me a wealth of ideas.
The skill-building process never ends. I continue to study personal development because I want to keep integrating fresh new ideas. I listen to audio programs on my iPod, and my reading queue is always filled with dozens of books. Even though I’ve written a book of my own as well as hundreds of articles, I never think of myself as being done with the learning process. There are always new ideas and perspectives to consider.
Before I wrote my first book, Personal Development for Smart People, I read at least four books on how to write a book, all of them written by experienced authors. I’ve already written enough articles to fill 20 books, but writing a coherent book was an entirely different beast. Making a study of book writing helped me avoid some pitfalls that might otherwise have caused me to stumble.
If I didn’t keep building my knowledge and skill, it would be fair to say that my blog should be displaced by someone else who’s willing to make that kind of commitment.
Planting Your Skill Seeds
When you start building a skill, it’s like planting a seed. You may have to water it for a while before you see any results. But eventually you get a nice harvest that makes it all worthwhile.
What skills might you begin building today that could really come in handy 5-10 years from now?
Ten years might seem like a long time, but it doesn’t matter. That time is going to pass no matter what you do. It’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself there someday. When that day arrives, you’ll either have a decade of skill-building behind you, or you won’t. It’s up to you to decide which path you’ll take. If you don’t consciously commit to the path of skill-building, you settle for stagnation by default. Please don’t do that to yourself.
Before I started my blog, I could see that if I got on this path, I’d eventually end up doing some speaking. That’s a reasonable expectation for people who work in this field. I was an okay speaker but certainly not great. I recognized it would probably take many years to get really good at speaking because I’d never made a serious study of it. So I starting working on my speaking skills in 2004. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far, but I know I can always get better. So I keep working on my skills in this area and trying new things.
When I look back on my previous 15 years of skill-building, I’m very grateful. It was a big investment to be sure, but all that work is really paying off. I can also see that if I keep building my skills as I’m doing now, especially in the area of professional speaking, the payoff will be huge. I’m a much better speaker today than I was in 2004, and if I just keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll be an even better speaker several years from now. The seeds have already been planted; all I have to do is keep watering them. I’ll never be perfect, and there are people who have more natural talent than I do, but I don’t need to be perfect. I just need to keep getting better. Being perfect is impossible, but I can guarantee that I’ll get better just by continuing to study and practice.
When you commit to building your skills in any area, you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to grow. If you wait for perfection, you’ll never go out and apply your skills.
Amateur vs. Pro
Am I suggesting that you need to develop a certain baseline level of skill before embarking on a professional path? I’d say yes. If you don’t have a good baseline skill level, you’ll do more harm than good. You probably don’t want an unskilled mechanic messing with your car. Nor would you want an unskilled surgeon slicing up your abdomen. Similarly, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading the work of an unskilled blogger or being bored to tears by an unskilled speaker.
How do you know if you have the right level of baseline skill to go pro? Perhaps the most obvious sign is that people will begin to suggest it. People will say, “Wow, you are such a great cook! You should have your own restaurant.”
This is what happened with me. While running my games business, I was writing articles on the side to help other software developers. Eventually people started telling me, “Wow, those are really great articles. You’re a talented writer.” I thought that was strange because I’d never thought of myself as a writer before. I just thought it would be nice to share ideas with other game developers.
In addition to positive feedback, I started getting requests for new articles: “Steve, can you write an article about X?” Then webmasters and online publishers began asking permission to republish my articles in their newsletters or on their websites. Soon people started asking to translate my articles into other languages, and before I knew it, I had a Russian fan site. Some articles were eventually translated into more than a dozen different languages. Further down the road, CNET offered to pay me to write some original articles for them, which I did for several months.
By the time I started blogging, it was already pretty clear that I had a good enough baseline skill level to go pro as a writer. I started writing articles in 1999. I didn’t start blogging until 5 years later. So I’ve actually been writing articles for 9 years now. Even though I didn’t write many articles during those first 5 years, I had the opportunity to digest a lot of feedback from them.
A lot of people try to bypass this process. They want success without effort. Unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way. You have to pay your dues. Otherwise you’ll quit too soon or you’ll sabotage yourself because you’ll know you aren’t ready to go pro. You’ll look at others in your field and feel intimidated instead of welcomed. Or you just won’t have the skills to express yourself in a way that creates value for others.
The blogosphere is filled with amateur writers pretending to be professionals. That’s why the blogosphere is littered with dead blogs. The amateurs give up within 6 months or less because they aren’t committed to the skill-building years.
If you want to be a true professional in a certain line of work, don’t neglect the effort of skill-building. It’s hard work, but it does pay off. Building skill over a period of years is how you go from amateur to pro. The pros commit for the long haul.
The universe doesn’t really say no, but sometimes it says not yet.