“She doesn’t deserve to be alive”

“She doesn’t deserve to be alive” — this is how my late grandmother “complimented” Nigella Lawson.

And why does she not deserve life?

“Well look at her, she’s beautiful, she’s rich, she’s smart, she’s an amazing cook, and did it all with with kids. No one should have all that.”

I think this all the time. David Heinemeier Hansson doesn’t deserve to be alive either for instance — he makes millions of dollars at his bootstrapped, profitable, beloved business, he’s honored by geeks for creating Ruby on Rails, he’s a New York Times best-selling author and a race car driver, and all this with a 30-hour work-week.

Or James Altucher, who has lunches with people like Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics), writes like Penelope Trunk, appears on CNBC to talk finance, and manages to be funny and poignant and inspirational even while writing daily.

Of course they all do deserve to be alive, and deserve their success. And when it happens to you, it doesn’t work at all like you think it will.

The general reaction after I sold Smart Bear was that it somehow meant that now I’m “successful.” Was I not while I was building it?  Was I not 4 months prior to selling it, before an offer came but I was the same person and Smart Bear was the same company? What about selling the previous company? What about raising my child?

What about this blog? That’s a good one because I’ve got subjective stories and objective data. In the past six months the tenor of the comments and email from strangers has changed. In response to an innocuous opinion piece about whether new top-level domain names are useful or wasteful, I hoped for and expected counter-arguments. I even expected people to skim, decide (incorrectly) that I was arguing a different point, and then attack that straw man with righteous indignation. That’s right, get it alllll out of your system. But what I didn’t expect was this:

“… These bloggers think they should dictate policy just because they have subscribers.”

At first I was full of indignation myself. I typed out a predictable, defensive, childish retort, full of stuff like “it’s an opinion” and “if you would bother to actually read to the end instead of assuming what I meant, you’d know that I do not in fact want policy to change, but just for people to think.”

Wah wah wah.

I didn’t send it; what’s the point? Such things only make those people angrier, and never convinces them.

Social media usually isn’t a debate, it’s a combination rotary club and soap box.

What did change my perspective was the bit about being “popular blogger.” I liked that part!

That title never makes sense to me. I still remember having 51 so-called subscribers, knowing full well half were blog directories and half of the rest were family members or Smart Bear employees who probably felt it was their duty. I remember scouring the latest posts on other blogs to scratch out a comment insightful enough to raise the eyebrow of a potential new reader, deftly slipping in a link to a relevant post of mine, baiting the hook that might catch another precious subscriber.

I remember strategizing about the appropriate moment to slap up the FeedBurner “subscriber count” image. My wife and I discussed the implications with excessive gravitas. (Actually I was the one with the grave concern and she told me that it doesn’t really matter, which, of course, is true.) We decided that “a thousand subscribers” was the right time to start bragging. That’s when it enhances the effect for a new viewer — seeing that amount of popularity should motivate a subscription; any less and it might have the opposite effect.

A year later and with slower-than-expected growth in subscribership, I decided that reaching the goal of a thousands subscribers was impossible, and “gave up” blogging, by which I mean I gave up trying to follow the “rules” of blogging as described by other bloggers who wrote about blogging. (Talk about the social media echo chamber!)

Of course, that worked. Here’s some tactics for blogging that I stumbled into, and my Ignite Austin presentation (5 minute video) about the broader lessons I learned.

At 1000 subscribers I should have felt like a success — when viewed from 51 it sure seemed like it would feel that way. But although it was fun to pass that threshold (and to install the FeedBurner counter which still lingers today at top-right), it wasn’t actually anything. It was an arbitrary invisible boundary, like turning 30 or the US debt ceiling (we can raise it 70 times but not 71?).

It’s a milestone by convention only.

So nothing changed, and I blew by 2000, 3000, and still nothing changed, except eventually I made the healthy decision to stop watching the counter so obsessively. And still nothing changed. (Which proves that was healthy.)

At the time of this writing, 50,000 more people have clicked “subscribe” than “unsubscribe.” And somewhere between then and now, I got a tattoo invisible to me but obvious to others that I’m a “popular blogger who thinks he has the right to…” I think it’s still the healthy thing to ignore that and just keep going. I refuse to accept some new responsibility, e.g. “careful what you say because people might hear it.”

Careful my ass. Nothing’s different. My opinions are still just opinions, based on my experiences, just as valid or invalid as ever. There’s more RT’s and HackerNews up-votes, more constructive comments and more vitriol, but it’s still just me thinking aloud.

50,000 RSS subscribers doesn’t make you happy either, by the way. Money doesn’t make you happy. Neither does selling a company, getting funding, or knocking something off your bucket list. You knew that already, right? That all this striving doesn’t automatically bring happiness? That even if you’re so successful that you don’t deserve to be alive, you’re not necessarily happy?

Maybe that’s how Altucher feels, and why he can’t stop creating. Probably, given the content of his blog. Maybe that’s how DHH feels, though it’s harder to tell with his minimalist, impersonal writing. Maybe that’s why Jobs couldn’t stop. And maybe Jobs demonstrates that this state of affairs is OK, that the lack of a finish line is what drives us, makes us interesting, gives us a reason not just to get up in the morning (the urge to pee is enough for that) but a reason to strive and live.

It’s why an entrepreneur is often a serial entrepreneur. I started my fourth company for the same reason that I started my first — because it’s a compulsion even when it’s unhealthy or wrong, like a momma hamster eating her young.

You could say “the journey is the reward” and “it’s a lifelong love of learning,” but although that might be true, it’s just alliteration.  That’s not really why we do it. It’s because it’s a compulsion.

In fact, “success” is in fact often coupled with unexpected sadness.

Depeche Mode set out to do the impossible in 1988, playing a concert at the Rose Bowl. The media predicted an embarrassment, playing to a massive, largely empty stadium. They sold out all 60,000 seats. Backstage after the show, having achieved literally the pinnacle of their career, the band cried. As lead singer Dave Gahan said in an interview (my emphasis):

That was defying all the odds and, you know, people were whispering, “They’re never gonna fill this place,” and that kind of stuff. You could feel it but, at the same time, I had a real confidence that it was gonna be just fine and it turned out really well. And at the same time, see, a lot of those high points then become real low points as well afterwards, because what do you do to top that?

That’s the problem with “success.” After so many years of climbing your mountain, it’s not until you reach the top that you realize the next step is down. And the next mountains after that are lower.

What could DHH do that would surpass the thrill of creating Rails or hitting the New York Times best-seller list?

What if there isn’t a next thing?

Nevermind. Back to work…

  • Cutting down those on top is how we keep the tribe together.  Otherwise it’s back to Pharaonic  idolation and slavery for the rest.  You wanna be rich, be CEO, be an author, blogger, whatever, you’ve gotta take the cut-down.  More than that, you deserve the cut-down.  Not because you’ve necessarily done anything wrong (only you know that), but because you need to be kept in line, as we all do.  Just suck it up and take one for the company.

  • I believe it was William Faulkner who said something like “a writer doesn’t write because he has something to say; a writer writes because he has to, because that’s simply what he does.”

    I wish I could find the actual quote, but the idea applies to art and music and startups and everything else worthy of doing. You simply have to be compelled to do it.

  • In an inversely proportional act of ego, I like to read a single post by a popular (occasionally even well-regarded) blogger, then ignore them forthwith and forever.


  • As I watch my parents age, and recently retire, I’ve been wondering how much they might feel something like this.  Sure, retirement isn’t death.  But I assume old age _must_ feel a lot like this, knowing there probably won’t be any more highs.  I guess it’s something we’ll all experience at one time or another.  But what do we do with that knowledge?

    • We make the most of the time that we have.

    • Chris

      My mother met one of the loves of her life, when she was in her early eighties, decades after she and my father divorced. For a while she felt silly about it — a man, at *her* age — but I’m glad and she was glad she took the plunge. 

      • That’s really awesome.  I guess a few people do still get a few more highs late in life.  But that must be the exception rather than the rule.

  • JC – as a bear under your tenure I never felt like it was my duty, it actually really humanized you – you weren’t just this crazy energy filled machine typing so loud we giggled about it, but also a regular guy with the same stupid navel gazing hang-ups as me :)

    • Haha, thanks for saying so.  Maybe I should get one of those old IBM clicky keyboards and really cause a ruckus.  :-)

  • Did you really just write that entire post sans as a single paragraph (aside from block quotes)?  I wanted to read it, but my eyes just kept loosing track…

    • No!  Don’t know what happened… trying to fix now…

      • Whew! I thought you were slipping. Glad to know that’s not so. :)

  • Omen Huber
  • Zachary

    Only people who have never had any real problems would be concerned with something like this. There’s no such thing as “deserving” success (“success” being in a financial/business sense); ultimately, your success is driven by a combination of many factors, most of which are out of your control. It isn’t a coincidence that most people who succeed with tech/web start-ups are white/asian/indian men from upper middle class backgrounds (and very rarely lower than middle class). 

    Money doesn’t make you happy, but it’s damn near impossible to be happy without it. It’s one of those things you don’t really appreciate if you’ve never had to worry about it. I’m going to declare bankruptcy soon due to medical debt (despite having good health insurance), and the “am I really satisfied with life???” things I used to worry about in college seem laughable now. And I’m sure I’d still be worrying about those same things if I had ended up working a high-paying job at a tech start-up. 

    Despite this, I’m still honest enough to attribute most of the good aspects of my life to luck. Yeah, I wouldn’t have my job if I wasn’t skilled enough to do it. But I wouldn’t be skilled enough to do it if I wasn’t lucky enough to have good parents and the ability to do well in school without trying. I’d feel really dishonest if I tried to claim that I’ve *really* earned anything.

    • Your sentiment is common, but actually not supported by data.  

      There are in fact people who study the notion of “happiness” and in fact it’s absolutely untrue that “it’s damn near impossible to be happy without” money.

      P.S. I know quite a few “successful” tech startup founders, and very few were upper-middle-class.  Almost all were white/indian and men. Fortunately that’s starting to change, though not as fast as most would like.

  • ricopags

    This is known in Buddhism as the hungry ghost. It is good and healthy to strive towards a goal, it is better still to recognize it is the striving and not the goal which matters. 

  • “what do you do to top that?”

    That happened to me when I wrote a post in December that got tweeted 14k times … it was awesome, but at the same time … will I ever write something that compares even remotely?

    I sure hope so :)

  • GL

     I very often wish I had the drive and ability to be an entrepreneur, it’s been my dream for many years.  I understand all about how entrepreneurs can’t help it not being entrepreneurs but I’m wondering what am I missing exactly?  Is that the fear of failure or the fear of change?  Am I afraid to waste time and resources and get nothing in the end?  Or am I just lazy? 

    • I find it’s typically fear and not laziness.  Fear is greater than you think.  It took my co-founder at IT Watchdogs three weeks of cajoling me every single day, usually by long phone conversations, before I quit my comfy job to work on that and Smart Bear.  Sounds like a topic for a future post…

  • Steve W

    Jason – not to throw a downer on your late grandmother, but she probably didn’t know that Nigella lost her husband after a long and painful battle with throat cancer, when her kids were still little.   Worth reading his book, BTW, (http://www.amazon.com/Because-Cowards-Get-Cancer-ebook/dp/B0031RS5HO).  When you know this, you have a whole new level of respect for the woman (although I have to agree, she is smart, beautiful and an amazing cook).

    Anyway, for me, it’s that Jason Cohen – he blogs so regularly and so eloquently…   I hate him!

    • Thanks much for the correction — it is indeed impressive.  And perhaps a useful other side of the coin — that however rosy it might look on the surface there’s often a flip side that isn’t obvious or isn’t public.  It’s never as good as it looks.

  • Wow, great post!

    I don’t think there is a problem with “What is the next thing?!”. I think when you are a person who feels that way about your work, the next thing is just the next thing. A passion is more than success, it’s the drive to continue doing for the love of doing.

    I don’t think DHH worries about how to top Basecamp, or Rework or RoR. I’m sure the next thing he cooks up will just be the next thing he is passionate about.

  • TheDuffyAgency

    It is so challenging – yet so rewarding – to live in the present moment.  Once we realize that it’s not about the next big achievement (or drug / food / sex fix), we can become at peace and much happier.  

    I’ve found my drive as an entrepreneur has not only been a combination of wanting to change certain things in the world, but also by the desire to be happy “if only I can accomplish this next big thing.”  While that has been “productive” from a monetary or business viewpoint, it’s so key to remember that it is the immediate journey of the current moment and nothing else matters.

  • Mother hamsters eat their young?

    And how do you know its compulsive? Maybe it’s because they taste good…

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  • The absence of a finish line is a great motivator because it gives the impression that there’s still more to be achieved. The danger, though, is that it makes people downplay their achievements.

  • I think you’re struggling with something here that’s basic to all of us.  But it doesn’t have anything to do with success.  What you’re working through is the question of significance.  In other words, if what you measure is numbers of subscribers, dollars in the bank, trinkets collected, businesses built or revenue created you will never find true happiness.  Happiness is found in significance.  And that requires a life lived beyond the boundaries of, well, yourself.  I began wrestling with some of this myself on the blog post 

    In the end you have to figure out what the difference between success and significance is for you.  But if you ask me, I’m much more impressed by someone that helps the people around them reach their potential than the person who makes a lot of money, builds large companies or writes well enough to gain followers.