Contributing to Your Field

April 9th, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

A good way to attract interesting and inspiring people into your life and to boost your overall success is to actively contribute to your field. Contributors get noticed and attract new friends and opportunities easily, and contributing is much easier than you might assume.

Tired of Isolation

When I worked as an indie game developer during the mid-90s, I felt isolated for many years. I was focused on my own projects for the most part, often working alone for days on end.

I had friends, but most of them had regular jobs in other fields. After college they zigged into the job market, while I zagged into entrepreneurship. We always had fun hanging out together, but we couldn’t do much to help each other succeed professionally.

Eventually I grew weary of my professional isolation. I wanted to make more friends within my industry. I wanted to network more and to feel more connected and integrated. I wanted to feel like I belonged there and that my presence actually mattered to someone. I felt that my progress was stagnating because hardly anyone in my field even knew I existed. Making my business succeed was an uphill battle. I got tired of having to figure out everything for myself or always having to learn from third-party sources. I wanted more help and assistance. I wanted people in my life who could offer me solutions and keep me abreast of new developments. I got tired of doing things the hard way, and I wanted to find a more effective way of doing business.

Deciding to Connect

One day I decided it was time to take action. I was ready to do whatever it took to become more connected professionally. I figured that one of the best ways to do that would be to raise my profile within my field, so more people would at least know who I was. Then I could leverage that to make more friends and contacts. I figured that it would take time, but I expected to be working in that field for many years to come, so I might as well get started. That way I could expect to be in a much better position a few years down the road. If it worked out, I anticipated that my life would get easier, and my business would become more successful.

One of the triggers for this decision was listening to self-help audio programs over the years. I noticed how often speakers in this field would name-drop other speakers. Tony Robbins knew Deepak Chopra, who knew Wayne Dyer, who knew … It seemed like there was some kind of “in crowd” where everyone knew everyone else.

I gradually saw that this was also true in the software and computer gaming fields. Those fields didn’t seem to be as well-networked as the self-help field (perhaps because professional communicators have an advantage when it comes to interpersonal networking), but it was clear there were multiple overlapping social networks where many of the top developers knew each other and often seemed to hang out together. It was obvious to me that I was an outsider, and I wondered what it would take to get integrated into one or more of these networks.

Connecting Through Contribution

I determined that the best way to raise my profile would be to contribute to my field in some fashion. I noticed that the people I respected most in the software and computer gaming fields — and the people who seemed to be the most well-networked — were frequent and generous contributors. These were the people who spoke at conferences, wrote articles for magazines and journals, and published books. They didn’t just work for themselves. They passed on their knowledge and helped to elevate everyone in the field. I particularly admired game developers like John Carmack, Sid Meier, and Will Wright who helped to advance the field as a whole.

But by and large, these people weren’t pounding the pavement to make new friends and contacts. Quite the contrary — people were constantly coming to them. They acted like magnets, attracting others to them with ease.

As I pondered what I could do to contribute, one particular event really got to me. I was attending one of many technical lectures at the annual Game Developers Conference, and the speaker couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. I’m guessing he was only 17 or 18. Yet he got up and spoke to several hundred people, sharing some fascinating ideas on dynamic sprite compression. His technique was somewhat tricky to implement, but I found it ingenious. I later applied his overall approach in two of my games with great success. His ideas allowed me to squeeze what might have been a 2-5MB game into just over 1MB. This was important at the time because I was still shipping games on 1.44MB diskettes, and this saved money and postage by allowing one of my games to fit onto a single disk. It also made the download size smaller, which saved bandwidth and made it easier for people with slow dial-up connections to download the game.

Now the developer who shared these ideas wasn’t a great presenter — I recall that he seemed a bit nervous at first — but I doubt anyone in the audience cared. He was still able to deliver value by sharing what he knew. That was a key lesson for me. I realized I didn’t have to be a great writer or speaker to be able to make a contribution to my field. If the content is worthwhile, and if it’s shared in a spirit of giving and cooperation, audiences tend to be very forgiving.

Passing on Knowledge and Advice

I certainly wasn’t the best game developer or entrepreneur out there, but over the years I’d figured out a few things that I imagined others would find useful. Some of these were technical ideas, and others were related to marketing and sales optimizations.

I started by writing an article called Zero-Defect Software Development (this link goes to a copy of it that’s still available online at GameDev.net). That was my very first published article. If I recall correctly, I wrote it in 1999, had it published in the Association of Shareware Professionals newsletter, and when asked I gave permission to other sites to republish it as well.

Incidentally, the advice in that article was partly from doing research on industry best practices and partly from my own personal experiences developing software for several years. I got pretty good at releasing computer games with a very low defect rate, and for years I offered a bug-free guarantee on all the software I sold (bugs fixed promptly or you get a full refund). To my recollection no one ever took advantage of that guarantee, so it worked out pretty well.

Initially that article was probably seen by no more than a few hundred people, but the feedback I received was positive and encouraging, and I was inspired to keep writing. I went on to write a couple dozen more articles over the next several years, so this was a very gradual process. I typically wrote about one new article every 1-2 months. I had most articles published in several different places and eventually created a central archive for them on my computer games site. Some authors even requested reprint permission to include one or more of my articles in their books, which I readily granted. Later on I also did some work for hire for CNET, writing 1000-word articles for their developer newsletters. I got paid $1000 per article, which was a nice bonus. On average it took me about 2-3 hours to write each piece. CNET owned those articles though, so I couldn’t republish them elsewhere.

The Ongoing Expansion of Contribution

As a result of writing these articles, I started getting invites to speak at conferences, such as the Shareware Industry Conference and the Game Developers Conference. I also ended up doing hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of volunteer work in that field. For many years I accepted nearly every contribution-oriented invite I received. It was a lot of extra work for no pay, but I learned a lot from it, and it most certainly raised my profile in the field. At times I definitely overdid it and started to feel burnt out, but eventually I learned how to calibrate the right balance of contribution with self-renewal.

Further down the road, I added a discussion board for indie game developers to my website, and it became very popular, partly because it was free and ad-free and had some really awesome volunteer moderators to keep it spam-free. Years later when I switched careers to work in the personal development field, I gave that forum away to some industry friends to keep it going, and they successfully transplanted the community to another site. In fact, that community is still thriving today at http://forums.indiegamer.com/. It’s very gratifying to see that after all these years, it’s still going strong. I can even see that some of the subforums I originally added are still there. Over the years I’ve received dozens of thank-yous from indie developers for playing a role in helping them start their own businesses and/or release interesting new games. I’m grateful that I was able to leave a small legacy behind in a field that I’ve been so fond of.

None of these contributions were particularly difficult to make. They mainly took time and patience. The most important thing was getting my mind in the right place first. I imagined that I was in a relationship with my field, as if we were a family. I thought about what kind of relationship I wanted to cultivate with that family. Did I want us to ignore each other, to fight, or to love and support each other?

I loved making games, and I loved being a part of that field, but it struck me that I was being too much of a moocher. I’d learned so much from others, but I wasn’t being a very good mentor to others. After years of working in the field, I could semi-predict where my old path would lead, and I didn’t like what I saw. Maybe I couldn’t contribute as much as someone like Will Wright, but surely I could give a leg up to someone who was just starting out. I could at least share some practical software development and business tips for beginners. I didn’t worry about trying to out-contribute others. I just focused on helping those I felt I could help.

Contribution Pays Dividends

Professionally, the cumulative payoff from all these contributions was wonderful. My income went up by roughly a factor of 10 over a period of about 5 years. I made many great friends in the field, some of whom I still keep in touch with. I published about two dozen games. And I enjoyed some lucrative side deals with people I met as a result of raising my profile. I also got hundreds of free games. :)

Fast forward to the present day, and I’m sure I can trace at least a million dollars worth of business to the free articles I’ve written. Even if I never wrote another article again, I’m sure there would be millions more dollars of business to come as a result of the articles I’ve already written. They consistently produce a strong ongoing flow of new opportunities. I’ve done many business deals over the years with people who originally found me by stumbling upon one of my articles. The financial results make it easy to sustain and continue this practice.

While financial rewards aren’t a major motivator for me, I do want you to see that contributing isn’t all about self-sacrifice. Rather I think it’s about cultivating a mutually supportive relationship between you and your particular field. I often think of it like humanity’s relationship with the environment. It works best if we’re sensitive to each other’s needs and do our best to work cooperatively. When we fight each other or ignore each other, we all suffer for it.

Be Generous With Your Value

The truth is that just about anyone who works in a particular field long enough will make some interesting distinctions that, if shared, could provide a lot of value for others. I certainly learned a lot from others in my field, especially from their books, articles, and lectures. Their generous contributions saved me a lot of time and helped me tremendously. I think it’s only fair to continue that tradition and pass on what I’ve learned, so that others may be able to benefit from it.

Many publications are eager for fresh content, so if you can write something halfway decent, it isn’t that hard to get published. And these days it’s a no-brainer to self-publish, although it may take a while to build up some readership.

When I started working in the field of personal development, this lesson was so ingrained that I felt it was more important to build a substantial contribution to this field than it was to make money. So in the first six months, I wrote more than a hundred free articles, but I only earned $167 total. That didn’t discourage me though because I knew that if I could simply contribute enough value over time, eventually the money side would take care of itself, which of course it did. It was simply a matter of planting enough seeds through contribution. Within two years of starting, my income hit $40K per month. And most of that was a result of writing for free. It was nice to see this kind of validation in a different field than the one in which I first learned and applied this lesson. I believe these lessons can be applied to just about any field with positive results.

I’m sharing these stories with you because I want to clarify how all of this works. I’m not trying to impress you with my generosity or anything like that. For me this is a habit that began more than a decade ago, so these days it’s second nature to me. Most of the time I don’t even think about it; the associated behavior patterns are automatic and subconscious. But what shifted me onto this path was largely a sense of frustration. I was tired of working so hard with only debt to show for it. I felt like I was stuck on the outer fringes of my field and that it didn’t really matter whether I showed up for work or not. Who would even care whether I succeeded or failed? I could disappear overnight, and scarcely anyone would notice. My motivation was that I wanted my business to be more successful, and I also wanted to feel more connected and integrated into my field. I wanted to know that what I was doing actually mattered and made a difference to people. Working just for myself was becoming boring and de-motivating. I felt that if more people cared about what I did and were checking in with me, then I’d have more incentive to succeed. And that turned out to be true.

Take Action and Make a Difference

It’s my hope that if you can understand these ideas a little bit better, that perhaps you’ll adopt the long-term habit of contributing to your field as well. You can share technical ideas, practical how-to advice, lessons learned, and mistakes to avoid. You can also help motivate and encourage people by sharing your enthusiasm. Even if you think you can’t contribute much, try it on for size. You may be surprised to discover just how many people are grateful to learn from you. You may not even realize how much knowledge and expertise you’ve acquired until you start sharing.

I now have a much better understanding of why the leaders in various fields tend to be such prolific contributors. Contributing makes life so much easier. Regular contributors stand out in any field. They attract abundant friendships and business opportunities. They’re welcomed into the “in crowd.” I’m not referring to some Skull & Bones style of networking here, but when people recognize that you’re a contributor, they tend to trust you more easily, and trust is a powerful business lubricant. Trust motivates people to refer their friends, family, and co-workers to you because they expect they’re doing their friends a favor.

What can you contribute to your field? Do you have something worthwhile to share? Could you offer some practical advice to someone who’s just starting out? There are a lot more beginners in need of help than experts.

Don’t worry about creating some grand legacy. Just contribute something in the here and now. Establishing the long-term habit of contribution is what matters. Don’t delay indefinitely because you think you must make that one giant, blow-out contribution “someday.” Let someday be today. Your legacy will take care of itself — it’s the cumulative impact of all the little contributions you make over a period of years.

If you really want to advance in your career, I encourage you to kick off a 30-day trial of contributing to your field. Do something every day to add value to the lives of others. Don’t over-engineer this, and don’t get stuck in perfectionism. Just write up and share one potentially useful idea each day. A few paragraphs is plenty if that’s all you have time for. You can post it on your blog, on your Facebook account, or even on our discussion forums. Instead of contributing randomly and haphazardly, focus on one particular field where you’d like to have a small positive impact. Don’t worry about adopting the posture of an expert. Simply consider offering a leg up to people who are just starting out.

If you can maintain this habit for 30 days, there’s a good chance you’ll find it so worthwhile that you’ll want to continue with it indefinitely in some fashion. Once you get used to it, I think you’ll find it a very positive addiction, one that will serve you and others for many years to come.


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