My Experiences In Sales

I took this sales job at the beginning of 2018. I worked for an independent sales firm which specialized in doing door-to-door sales for huge companies that didn’t have the time to bother with such a thing themselves.

I decided to take a sales position for a few reasons. Most important of those was that I always knew that I had a major weakness in the area of social skills, and I wanted to improve at it. I figured that the best and most effective way of doing this would be to go somewhere that I was in way over my head. If you’re drowning, you only have two options: die or learn to swim. Knowing that, I walked in the door on my first day.

I’d made it through the interview process, which was as much a test of charisma as it was anything else. My father, for all he had failed dismally to pass it on to me, has always been able to exude massive charisma when necessary. And I knew from the interviews that from a charisma standpoint, I was in an office full of copies of my dad. Every single person could do backflips over the social stage, when I could hardly find the confidence to walk without tripping.

But despite all of this, I was ruthlessly determined. I was going to learn from these people, I was going to absorb this charisma that saturated the air, and I was going to come out of this experience stronger. That was the goal, I thought as I was shown into the main meeting room.

I learned that a conversation with a prospect was broken out into five main sections: the intro or elevator pitch, the questioning, the presentation, the rehash, and the close. On the first day, we learned the intro pitch, which I will probably still be able to recite many years from now. “Hi, how’s it going? So nothing crazy, my name’s Jenya, and I’m dropping by really quickly on behalf of Verizon. [Did I mention our main client was Verizon? It was.] We’ve done a ton of updates around here, helped out a bunch of your neighbors, and I’m just here to see how I can help you too.”

We dissected it based on what they called the “four factors of impulse”, which were as follows: Jones Effect, or the impulse to want what others have; Fear of Loss, or the fear of missing out on an opportunity; Sense of Urgency, or the importance of both the salesperson’s time and the prospect’s; and Indifference, or the necessity for a salesperson to not act like a salesperson, since prospects don’t trust salespeople.

I recited that pitch to myself in the car on the way home. I recited it as I was washing my face and getting ready for bed. I recited intermittently through the entire next day, which I had off. And by the day after, I had it solidly memorized.

Evidently, this was impressive and unusual. We practiced our pitches in the office the next day, and the more experienced salespeople were impressed. In the afternoon I got the opportunity to practice it “in the field”. I’d knock on the prospect’s door, introduce myself and also the person who was mentoring me, and after I finished the pitch, I would pass the proverbial baton to my mentor so they could keep talking with the prospect. That first day, we collectively made a sale, and I got to keep half the proceeds.

I was tentatively optimistic, but I refused to let my determination slip. Hearing “no” over and over wasn’t hard when I wasn’t doing much, but I imagined that when I was controlling the conversation, it would be harder. Still, the fact that a seasoned professional still got a ton of “no”s gave me some very useful perspective.

The next day, I learned the questions: a complicated decision tree based on what the prospect’s answers were. After “how many TVs do you have” was “do you use DVR”; if they said “no”, you moved on, but if they said “yes”, there were a number of so-called “deeper questions” that you had to ask about it. There was no such thing as a learning curve here: we still had only one day to learn this, but it was fifty times as complex as the pitch.

I took exceedingly prolific notes and stuck the notebook I’d taken them on into a bag. Every piece of paper, every chart and graph and magazine article that I was given, I stuck into that bag. It was my sales bag, and every time I needed anything, I could get it from there. When I got home every day, around 10pm (our shifts were 10am-8pm, and I had over an hour commute each way), I would review everything in my bag in detail. For this reason, I never had to be told anything twice.

I deep-dove into this so much partially just because that’s what I do, but also because I knew I had to make up for my lack of natural sociability. Growing up, I had been reprimanded a number of times for using the wrong tone, saying the wrong thing, or otherwise not intuitively knowing what to do in a social situation. I had absolutely no social sense, and so during this job, I asked a number of what they probably thought of as incredibly strange questions. How far away from the door should I stand? Where should I put my hands? How often should I make eye contact? What tone should I use during what segment of the conversation? All these sorts of ridiculously specific questions that they had probably never thought about, since they don’t think about what tone they use, they just use it, and people like them.

But I asked these stupid questions, and I got better. I may not be able to intuit what to do in a social situation, but I can sure as heck analyze it to death and memorize every minute difference. So, just like my pitch, I analyzed the conversations. I analyzed my tone, eye contact, gestures, body language. I analyzed those things for the prospect, too. When I didn’t know something, I didn’t think about how dumb it was to not know it, I just asked. And I took liberal notes. Then in the mornings and evenings and during any other time when I wasn’t doing schoolwork (because remember I was in college too), I reviewed my notes. Use a low tone when stating facts. Avoid crossing your arms. Put one foot one step above the other when on a staircase. Take two steps away from the door after you knock. Use eye contact for emphasis when you’re talking, and during the whole time the prospect is talking.

After a few months, though, I noticed that I was stagnating. My peers were making sales on their own, but I wasn’t. I had learned everything I could, and I didn’t know what else I could do. I got frustrated. Not the kind of momentary frustration, the kind that spikes up when you spill a drink; this was a long, drawn-out frustration that seeped into my mind over the course of these stagnant weeks, when I was walking six miles up and down peoples’ doorsteps, knocking on a hundred and fifty doors, working a twelve-hour day, and coming home long after it had gotten dark with nothing to show for it all.

To make it worse, around this point, my greatest mentor quit. He had been the greatest help to me overall: he gave detailed explanations of what to do in each specific situation, he knew like a good coach exactly what I was doing wrong and how to fix it, and he communicated clearly. Not only that, he was a delight to have around, and he was consistently one of the people in the office who made the best numbers.

Even after all of this it was hard for me to get up the nerve to quit. I had known from the get-go that I wasn’t suited for a long-term career in sales, but I didn’t want to be one of those people who just quit when the going got rough. It took a long conversation with my mother about priorities for me to see past this. I went into this with the goal of improving my social skills, and I had succeeded. Yes, it would have been nice to make more sales, but at the end of the day, this wasn’t what I wanted to do professionally. I didn’t need to be frustrated with my lack of success in something I’d only gone into in the first place because I knew I would be awful at it. So soon after, I handed in my resignation.

The lessons I learned from this tough period follow me to this day. Through this process I learned what it’s like to be literally the worst person in a group at something. Growing up, I’d never had that opportunity, since I was always in the top 1% of everything (I’m one of those weirdos that thrived naturally in the school system). It was hard to be the worst, but it was also useful: I could learn from literally everyone.

I learned grit and determination. The experience created for me a crazy high benchmark that I can always compare future stressful events against. No matter what I go through, I can think, “this is easier than taking multiple extremely difficult classes, none of which I find fun or satisfying, on top of having a full-time job that I suck abysmally at; as such, I can get through this.”

I learned how to be cheerful no matter what. Growing up a performer, I thought I knew how to be cheerful in the extremes of misery: after all, I went out in -10º weather, in the snow and freezing rain, in a skimpy leotard, moved around a sheet of ice at 30+ mph for five or six minutes at a stretch, and had to make it all look easy.

Sales made that look like a walk in the park. I walked around neighborhoods in the snow and freezing rain, not for six minutes, but for six hours. I walked up and down many flights of stairs in the grueling heat, too; something I never had to do as a figure skater. And when I got to peoples’ doors, I couldn’t grimace in the slightest. Unlike in skating, where the audience sees you from fifty feet away and won’t notice a tiny crease in your brow, your prospect will see you from two feet away. They will notice.

I also learned how to take “no” for an answer, and in fact to take it in stride. Just because of how the numbers play out, even the best salesperson in the world won’t be able to get a “yes” from every single prospect. There will be people who, say, work for Comcast and get their internet for free. There will be people who slam the door in your face. And you just have to deal with that, don’t let it shake you, and move right along. Next to their name on your list, write “110” and put a diagonal line between the 1s.

But most importantly, I learned how to sell. I learned the details of how the sales funnel works. I learned how to direct a conversation. I learned the difference between a legitimate “no” and a “no” that comes only from a fear of change. I learned how to make smalltalk (a surprisingly huge part of sales!). I learned to speak and persuade off-the-cuff.

Sales would have been an awful career choice for me, but taking a sales job anyway was one of the most useful experiences of my life.

Announcement: The Next Big Thing

Hey all! So I’ve got an announcement to make today. For some time, I’ve been moving along with my Associate’s degree, learning computer skills at every available opportunity. By now, I’m a decent coder – but my degree is nearly done, and I’m certainly not! As such, I’m taking a new project for the month of September: I’m going to systematically and at a high pace learn new coding skills, create projects, and post about them here!

I’ve found a few resources (such as those on W3Schools) and classes (such as some on Udemy) to help me out with this, but for the most part, it’s just going to be an extended exercise in improving my programming skills, mainly in the areas of web development (like CSS, PHP, jQuery, and SQL). It’ll be a ton of fun!

Here’s a breakdown of what I’ll be doing for my portfolio project (that’s what I’m calling it, since it’s a project that expands my portfolio) each week:

  • Developing a certain technical skill (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, SQL, etc.)
  • Creating a page on my website which contains information on:
    • The projects I’ve created using that skill
    • The resources I used to learn the skill
    • Any certifications or other achievements related to the skill
  • Writing a blog post about what I’ve accomplished that week

In addition to this, I’ll also be taking a number of MTA exams and adding those certifications to my LinkedIn and website.

If you have questions, suggestions, or anything else, please leave me a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

Cheers!!

Dating: A Rational Approach

About four years ago, I decided I wanted to find a life partner. Primarily because I was socially oblivious and didn’t know any different, I took an analytical approach to do this—as we all do with other important areas of our lives. The entire process took me a matter of weeks and I have since been in a committed relationship for four years.

For a long time, primarily because of the fact that my method was so unorthodox and unheard-of, I largely imagined that the normal way of doing things was the best method, and I was a lucky fluke. But a number of recent conversations and some reading has led me to consider that maybe I’m one of the only people who does this right.

Before I dive into this, let’s establish a key point: if you’re going to get married, it is absolutely the most important decision of your life. While your choice of career dictates how you spend a good portion of your life, who you marry dictates how you spend all of your life, because it dictates who you spend your life with. The best recipe for misery is a bad marriage, and the best recipe for greatness is either no marriage or a great one.

John T. Reed, author of Succeeding, wrote about both the great importance of marrying the right person, and the haphazard way that many people take to get there. He writes, “The divorce rate is about 50% in the U.S. The median duration of marriages is seven years—just enough time to have some kids and acquire property so that the divorce really screws things up. […] Why are so many people screwing up the most important decision of their lives? Look at how they go about it. I read a book once that said most Americans feel the correct way to meet your spouse is ‘chance proximity’.”

Most people go about their lives making little to no effort to meet anyone, and they expect to meet their spouse by chance. Reed writes, “‘Some enchanted evening, you will meet a stranger across a crowded room.’ Ask an old maid or old bachelor why they never married and they often tell you that the right person never ‘came along’. ‘Came along’! You gotta be kidding me! People make more effort to buy the right used car!”

And he’s right! Why, of all our important life decisions, do we so adamantly fudge this one?

My best guess at a reason is this: habit is a powerful force, and societal habit is even more so. This way of coming at meeting spouses began when communities were small enough that putting forth much of a deliberate effort was unnecessary, and it’s perpetuated itself into modern society on our collective force of habit.

Nowadays, though, there are so many more people, and so many more ways to meet those people, that a systematic approach to dating is in order. Below I detail my method; read Succeeding for John Reed’s method, or think about the problem through an analytical lens to come up with your own.

First, create a list, as comprehensive as you want to make it, of every important trait you want in a partner. This is physical traits (i.e., a beard), personality traits (i.e., wanderlust), or anything else you can think of. Once you’ve made this list, rank-order it, from most to least important.

Now, make a similar list of everything you don’t want in a partner. Be specific, but feel free to be obvious – while “emotionally manipulative” is an obvious anti-want, it might still be useful to put it on the list. Once you’ve made this list, rank-order it.

After you’ve done both of these, now it’s time to do some market research. What kind of dating pools exist? While answering this question, be sure to keep in mind which of these you’ll be willing to utilize. If you live in the U.S. and lack the budget or inclination to travel, it might be out of the question to try to find a date at a convention in London. If you’re considering internet-based dating pools, make sure you think about whether you’re willing to be long-distance for an extended period. Make a list of some potential dating pools and rank-order the list by feasibility.

Now it’s time to merge all these lists. Figure out what kind of person you’re mostly going to find at each of these dating pools and compare that to your lists of wants and anti-wants. Re-rank your list of dating pools against these criteria, then compare your list of dating pools ranked by plausibility of candidates against your list ranked by feasibility. Whatever dating pool is ranked highest in both (feel free to bias your ranking toward whichever you think is more important for you), make plans to go there.

Let’s go through my own story as an example. My list of wants included someone who is sensitive, who is okay with going against the grain, and who could adapt to my hectic lifestyle. My list of anti-wants included someone who is overly macho, pompous, or self-centered. I was young and very broke, so my options for dating pools were financially limited, but I also didn’t mind distance (I’d never really been taught that it was supposed to be hard, so I didn’t think it would be; and now, after having “suffered” two years of distance, I maintain that view). Based on my specific desires, dislikes, and difficulties, I was able to put at the top of my dating pool priority list a convention in Baltimore that ran three days in August.

This process is not over once you arrive at your dating pool: aimless drifting is still not a good plan (though it’s a better plan here than it would be elsewhere). No, now were going to systematically look for possible candidates.

To start with, walk around and scan crowds, finding people you find physically attractive. This is easy to judge from a distance just by a look, so do that first. Second, walk up to some attractive people and have conversations.

Think of this like going to a used car dealership and looking at all the cars. First, you look around the lot to see which ones are aesthetically pleasing enough. Then, you go around to some of the ones you think look nice enough, and you sit in the driver’s seat. You can find out a lot about a car just by sitting behind the wheel – just like you can find out a lot about a person just by having a conversation. And just like you don’t need to take every car in the lot on a test drive, you also don’t need to take every candidate on a date.

This variety of speed-dating has the benefit that you don’t mess with anyone’s heart—theirs or yours. You simply have a list of traits to compare this person against, and all you’re doing is comparing.

An important thing to do as you continue conversing with people is to take notes from your conversations and update your lists accordingly. If you started with a list item saying you want to meet people who do X, but when you actually met several people who did X they didn’t seem appealing to you, modify the list! If initially you thought that people who did Y were unbearable, but you met some people who did Y and they actually were fine, modify the list! Make sure to also modify the priority order of things if necessary.

These lists are not set in stone. In fact, it would be silly to have your actual experience with real people take second place to what you dreamed up about what real people might be like.

Once you’ve gone up and talked to a bunch of attractive people (my benchmark was 25, but you can do more or less, depending on what you think will work for you), you’ll likely have a small set (2-3) of people who you like the best. Ask them on formal dates. Once you’ve spent a few hours alone with each person, you’ll almost certainly have a winner.

Pretty good, eh? The only thing we still need is to account for feelings. It’s all well and good to meet a person you think would be perfect, but you both need to fall for each other. How do you account for that? Very simply, actually. If you start to feel something good for them as you’re talking, keep talking. And, as you usually do when you date the conventional way, look for signs that they like you back. If you’d like to improve your chances, though, you can try to ask some or all of the questions on this list.

Now, if by the end of your first venture into a dating pool, you don’t have a life partner yet, don’t worry! Just go on back to your lists and find your second choice for a dating pool, then rinse and repeat. It may also be possible that your criteria are too broad, or too narrow, or you were wrong about what kinds of people frequent what places. If so, don’t sweat, just go back and revise your lists with your new knowledge. Then go on back into the world and keep at it! Having a systematic approach will work so much better than just waiting for someone to “come along”, and it will feel better, too. You’re being way more productive!

Obviously, this is a very different approach than the conventional one. But if you step back and think logically about how people should go about making this choice, it’s a much more reasonable approach. I’m sure there will be people saying it’s “not romantic”, but approaches like these have resulted in lasting relationships: my father took a similarly systematic approach to dating and my parents have been together for thirty years; John Reed followed a similar approach and was married for much longer. You don’t need to take my four-year relationship as your only data point.

Furthermore, “romantic” should mean “spontaneous”, not “stumbled into”. Too often, people confuse the two. Romance doesn’t have to be about random chance.

I am a 4-year-college opt-out. Here’s why.

A few days back, a family friend asked when I planned on going to college. I said, “I’m not. At least not right now.” I didn’t have the time to explain my reasoning to her, so I don’t think she understood. But here, I have the time and the words, and I’ll try to explain the reasoning behind this massive and unconventional life choice.

Let’s skip back ten years, to the summer of 2008. My siblings and I are debating with our parents about where to go for dinner. As with most families trying to decide on things, we vote on it. By purely counting heads, the option the kids want should win, but my parents throw a wrench into the rules: “adults get five votes”. Suddenly, the kids are outnumbered.

I don’t mind all that much – I still get free food, after all – but I’m curious as to the reasoning. “So we get five votes when we turn 13?” I ask, being a Jew, who gets her bat mitzvah and becomes an adult at 13. “No,” says my mother, “it would be silly for you to be able to just age into it. You have to earn your five votes. For our purposes, an adult is someone who’s graduated from college.”

From that point onwards, I made it my goal to get into Stanford, where both my parents went, and in fact where they met. It seemed an accomplishable goal: both my parents had gone, and so from a genetic standpoint I had everything I needed. Furthermore, I considered, they were not genetic flukes in terms of intelligence: most of my grandparents had gone to high-end schools. My maternal grandfather went to Harvard, my paternal grandfather to Yale.

I took my first class at my community college at 14, thinking it would up my chances for getting into Stanford if I already had an Associate’s by the time I graduated from high school. My brother, who had decided on a similar track, took the class with me. I wasn’t sure about a major yet, but it also didn’t really matter: there were a ton of prerequisites I had to take, for both high school and college, before I needed to worry about it. So, we took Spanish 1.

I had a great time in that class for a number of reasons. I was absolutely stoked to be going to college, albeit a podunk community college. My professor was great (only later did I find out that this was a blessing rather than a rule), the coursework required a lot of study but was nonetheless fun, and I got awesome grades. I felt I was preparing well to go to Stanford in four years.

The knowledge that I was going to a four-year college, and furthermore, I was going to a top-tier college (Stanford preferably, but Yale, Harvard, or something else comparable would also do), saturated my entire childhood. I made every decision based on what would get me into the colleges I wanted to go to. By my sophomore year, I’d either taken or planned for seven AP tests. When it came time to study for the PSAT, I spent nine months doing so to the near-exclusion of all else. For my Associate’s, I chose only those electives that would prepare me to apply to the colleges I wanted to go to.

Until sometime in the spring of 2018, when everything changed.

Unlike a lot of major life shifts, it didn’t happen slowly. It happened in one fell swoop of three chaotic weeks, as I realized three fundamental things.

Firstly, I was sick of taking classes. It had been four years, and community college courses had turned from a joy to a slog. Seldom did anything I worked on in my courses relate to the real world, and if it did at all, it reflected real-life work through a funhouse mirror. I was close to graduating high school with my Associate’s in computer science, and I felt I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. At last, I thought, I could start doing meaningful work and creating value for real people! Wait, no, I couldn’t. I had to go to college. Didn’t I?

I started to doubt my rationale for pursuing college so ardently. I’d decided I would do it when I was a child, mostly because my parents had both done it. When a child thinks something is worth pursuing, it’s not because they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it’s the logical conclusion based on their knowledge and previous experience. A child thinks something is worth pursuing because it sounds impressive, fun, or cool.

Further, societal expectations had pushed me away from questioning the idea of going to college. Even when I questioned the usefulness of college, I needed only to look at any book or article, or to talk to any human being, and I would have my wishes to attend college validated. On top of that, even the people who said college might not be a necessity for everyone continued to say it was the best option for smart people. And given our societal propensity for scoring children on standardized tests, it was always very apparent to me how smart I was, at least from an intellectual standpoint.

But now it became apparent that college was not the best option for me, or even a terribly good one. Everyone knows that the cost of college in dollars is excessively and often prohibitively high, but on top of that, I had to face the opportunity cost. My goals in life, like most other peoples’, had to do with the real world, with making money in real life, with having a career. If I went to college, I would put all that off for four more years. And for what? A name on a résumé and a few connections. The former might not even be necessary: I didn’t know enough about the work world yet to know whether any of my future employers would even care whether I had a degree or not!

Lastly, I realized that I had another option. Sometime in the spring, I heard about a business internship program called Praxis. Their business model: create a more practical college alternative by giving young people a six-month professional bootcamp, followed immediately by a chance to apply what they’ve learned through a six-month internship at a startup.

The process of learning about Praxis was what kickstarted me out on questioning the path I’d presumed my life would take from childhood. I had to face the facts: recently, despite my stated goal and plan for getting into a top-tier school, I was moving towards it like a duty, an obligation. When I was younger, learning had been a joy; now, I yearned to apply what I learned. I had kept going because I saw college as an inevitable end for a smart person like me; if not that, what else?

The answer to that previously-unanswerable question became Praxis. The application process was intensive, with a multitude of essays and interviews on a very tight timeframe, but I came out the other end with a scholarship and a plan. A very different plan than the one I’d had before, but also a plan I liked a lot better. A plan that brought the light at the end of the tunnel closer, instead of further away.

It was still hard to cope with my decision. For the next few months after my turning-point, I doubted myself a lot. It felt horrible that I’d spent so long working monomaniacally towards a goal only to quit at the last second. But I had to remind myself, I wasn’t quitting. I was choosing a better alternative, since I had more information at seventeen than I’d had at eight (surprise surprise!). I reminded myself that the statistics showed the uselessness of college as a preparation for real-world jobs. That tons of people, entrepreneurs especially, became very successful without degrees. That the field I was going into—technology—didn’t have a strict degree requirement (unlike, say, accounting, where you cannot practice without a CPA, and to sit the CPA exam you need ~150 credit hours of college). That Praxis provided me with the sort of community I was hoping to get from a top-tier school.

At the time of this writing, I’m a month into the six-month professional bootcamp. So far, I’ve hand-coded my personal website (the one you’re on right now!), fixed up my LinkedIn and résumé, and created a personal pitch deck (more on that in this article). Everything I’ve done is immediately applicable to my career.

Contrast this with the inapplicable classes and assignments from last year: AP Latin, during which I badly translated texts by Caesar and Virgil that had been translated much better by others, and tried impossibly hard to be a little less horrible at literary analysis; AP English Composition, during which I wrote a ton of essays and analyses I’m never going to publish because the prompts are so obscure and the topics would be boring to read about, and also tried to be a little less horrible at literary analysis; and AP Java, which consisted mainly of writing code on paper, by hand, with a pencil: something no programmer in their right mind ever does.

Finally I’m working on projects and learning skills that will actually matter to me in the long run. While I was in school, I frequently had to say to myself, “This may seem obscure or stupid or useless, but it’s moving me towards my eventual goal, so it’s worth it.” Now, I don’t need to: everything I do has an obvious connection to my goal. I was dreading the next four years of my future; now, I have a fresh start.

I’m looking forward to it.

You CAN Be the Best in the World

There’s a common thing repeated by people trying to tell people to diversify their skillsets: that being the best at one specific thing is functionally impossible. Take this bit from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

  1. Become the best at one specific thing.
  2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

Adams’s point about the second strategy is golden. It’s excellent advice with a personal example, and many people would do well to apply it. However, I would contest with him on the first point.

There are two types of examples people cite when they try to make the point that being the best in the world at one thing is impossible: fields that have very specific, unchangeable rulesets, and fields that are very broad. Adams references playing in the NBA and making a platinum album: these are examples of the first type.

Now, I’m not trying to say that Adams isn’t absolutely correct about both of these examples; he is. The problem is that neither of them actually apply to the majority of the people in the work world.

For a field that has specific, unchangeable rulesets, such as just about any sport, there is only one way to succeed in these fields: be in the top fraction of a fraction of a percent. As such, not only does success require the kind of absolute, relentless focus that means pursuit of it takes over your entire life, it also requires a non-negligible amount of birth lottery: no matter how hard you try, you can’t play in the NBA if you’re 5’3″. And yet, I have never seen or heard of a job that has such steadfast rules as a sport: the work world is much more malleable.

Now let’s look at the other type of example: exceedingly broad fields. Adams doesn’t give such an example, but it’s easy to find one: being the best writer in the world, being the best programmer, etc. Now, at first glance, these seem like they apply to the work world, and they also seem like they confirm the “you can’t be the best at one thing” wisdom. Except they don’t. Because these examples are all far too broad.

Setting out to be the best writer in the world would, yes, be inconceivably difficult, and likely impossible. But this isn’t because you particularly need to combine your writing skill with some other skill in order to succeed: it’s because you need to niche down. You may not be able to be the best writer in the world, but I’m sure you can become the go-to guy for famous people who want books ghostwritten for them. You may not be able to be the best programmer, but you can become something like a guy my mother knows.

My mother works in Navision (abbreviated Nav), a type of ERP software owned by Microsoft. Essentially, Nav is a UI that makes SQL easy for accountants to use. However, as with any UI with a complicated back-end, sometimes the back-end does something funky. And as with any time a program does something funky, there is a niche for a programmer who can fix it.

In this case, the man who occupies that niche is Ahmed Amini. Everybody who does Nav programming knows who he is, and if you have a strange SQL problem, he’s always your go-to. Over fifteen years while my mother has worked with Nav, he has been recommended or mentioned countless times. He didn’t diversify his skillset. He just became the Nav SQL guy.

I’ll give another example. I know a cardiac surgeon by the name of Dave Garber, and he specializes in a very specific procedure (I don’t recall the name) by which an artery in the thigh is transplanted and used to fix something with the heart. This is now nearly everything he does, because he is the best at it. He didn’t diversify his skillset either. He just became the surgeon for this procedure.

How did this happen? The first step is to find something you seem good at within your field, that most people aren’t. Next, specialize in it. Seek it out. Try to do more of the thing that you’re good at. Over time, other people in your field will realize that you are very good at the thing, and they’ll start recommending you as the go-to.

Once you’re here, you’re golden, because it creates a virtuous cycle: you’re good at the thing, so you do good work, so people see the good work and recommend you, so you do more of the thing, and you get the opportunity to get even better, so you do even better work, and so on.

This is how you become the best at a field. Pick a niche you’re good at, specialize in it, and then let the word-of-mouth about your excellent work take it from there. No skill diversification needed.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s true. I’m a big believer in truth. I like it when people have accurate beliefs about what’s possible and what’s not. If “become the best at a thing” has been moved from your mental “not possible” bucket to your “possible” bucket, this post has done its job.

Skillset-diversifying is still an excellent option. It may be the best option for you. But if that’s the case, it’s still the best option if it’s not the only one out there. And if it’s not the best option, know that you do have others.

How I Work

Everybody has a certain way they work, and I’ve noticed that the number of distinct ways people work are nearly as numerous as the people themselves. I’ve also noticed that how someone works tells a lot about them. So, to be a bit more informative about who I am, I’ll tell you a bit more about how I work.

  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Current gigs: I’m presently working on searching for an entry-level tech job. Before I get it, I’ve been working for a few of my mother’s various businesses, doing everything from delivering tenant statements to developing Ellis Wyatt’s website.
  • Current mobile device: iPhone (5 or 6, I don’t remember. It’s old.)
  • Current computer: MacBook Air (2014. Also old.)
  • One word that best describes how you work: “Cheerful”. My family can attest to this: if I’m having a rough time with something, I don’t grumble or complain, I smile and exclaim enthusiastically, “This is awful!” Even when I’m in over my head I’m cheerful about my work.
  • What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Google Chrome: best web browser for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being their Developer Tools that let me look at the code of any website I want. My current IDE is CodeLobster, because it has PHP support on top of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and it runs on Mac. However, I’d more say that I care about having an IDE, not this IDE.
  • What’s your workspace like? I don’t have one specific workspace. If I have my laptop, notebook, and pencil, I’m happy anywhere, and I move around often. Currently, I’m sitting in my library, but earlier today I was on my porch, and yesterday I was at my desk. As to my desk, it’s covered in stuff, but less in a messy way and more in an I-have-lots-of-stuff way.
  • What’s your best time-saving trick? Be on a deadline. You have no idea how much you can get done in one hour until you only have one hour. The key to using this one effectively is to not rely only on other peoples’ deadlines: make them yourself. Set yourself a crazy tight timeframe for something and see if you can do it. I gave myself ten days to program a website from scratch, and I made it. (This was my personal website, as a matter of fact.) If you don’t make the deadline, don’t sweat it: it was arbitrary, and you’ve learned something about how quickly you can possibly work in the process.
  • What’s your favorite to-do list manager? Good old-fashioned notebook. I experimented with a number of softwares, including DoIt, but they didn’t work out for me. I have no clue why—perhaps it has something to do with my artistic need to have a pencil in my hand?—but a physical notebook I write in with a physical writing implement helps me track my work better. In addition to to-do lists and notes, I use my notebook to create database diagrams, make website wireframes, create task lists for projects, and record thoughts and ideas.
  • Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? If you count headphones as a “gadget” separate from my computer, I’d definitely say those. I can’t work without music on, and given the amount of time I spend working, I need comfortable headphones I can wear for 14+ hours a day. I currently have V-Moda Crossfade LP2s, which are perfect. Crazy high quality for a moderate price! If you don’t count headphones as a gadget, I’d say my notebook.
  • What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else? Eloquence. I can come up with a pithy way to say or explain something in a split second.
  • What are you currently reading? Well, I was intending to start reading either Turtles All the Way Down by John Green or The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mosquita and Alastair Smith (I’d heard good things about, read snippets of, and already bought both). But before I could properly start either, my good pals at Praxis sent me another book: Niche Down by Christopher Lochhead and Heather Clancy. So that’s what I’m reading right now.
  • What do you listen to while you work? It depends on how focus-intensive my work is. If it’s difficult, I listen to classical. If it’s less so, I can listen to something with words, though I sometimes end up listening to classical anyway because Beethoven is my homeboy.
  • Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? It depends on the day. Personality tests peg me around the 50/50 mark. I can spend all day with people I know and be happy, but spending even twenty minutes with a complete stranger is tiring and stressful.
  • What’s your sleep routine like? I have a very difficult time getting to bed before 11pm. Even when I was a kid and I had to get up at 5 to go to practice, I couldn’t get to bed early. I just took a nap in mid-afternoon. Nowadays, I just schedule my athletics to happen in the afternoon, and I get up at 7.
  • What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? “What is true is already so, and owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.” -Eliezer Yudkowsky

How to Write CSS That Doesn’t Suck

A few days back, I read an article that ended up significantly improving the way I wrote CSS. Given how quickly and easily stylesheets can get horribly disorganized and out of hand, I found the tips to be immensely useful.

The article is primarily for teams of coders, who need to keep a ton of CSS organized such that many different people can understand it. Even so, I found a lot of it useful as an independent developer. Here are the things I found most useful:

  • Group related styles together. If you do absolutely nothing else this article mentions, do this. It is so helpful to scroll through a stylesheet and know that since you’ve run across your <p> tag styles, your <h1> styles have got to be around here somewhere.
  • After you’ve grouped related styles, try to arrange them by which page or set of pages they apply to. After that, create some suitably humungous, obnoxious, and obvious comment headers and make section headings, like this:
    /********************\
    ** ABOUT PAGE STYLES**
    \********************/
    This makes it infinitely easier to know which page you’re styling and also helps save your ass if you accidentally name a class or id something stupid and uninformative.
  • Make constructive use of white space. For closely-related styles, put only one blank line between styles; for more loosely-related styles, use 2 or 3. Put 4 blank lines before a new heading. This groups stuff up visually and makes it even easier to find what you’re looking for.
  • In terms of individual styles, use this standard format. It’s easy to read, it’s the near-universal standard, and more. Single-line CSS is almost never a good idea.
    .foo {
      display: block;
      background-color: green;
      color: red;
    }
  •  Indent full rule sets if they’re nested. For example, if you’re mobile enabling, indent all the styles inside the brackets after the @media tag.
  • If a style relies on another style elsewhere, or if the meaning of the styles is otherwise at all ambiguous, add a comment! CSS never has enough comments. I know it’s annoying that there’s no single-line comment, but seriously, you can afford to type that extra asterisk and slash to make your code readable.
  • Last tip: be very, very literal about your selectors, because the computer certainly will be. Do not say “header ul” when you mean “.nav”; even if you don’t have another ul in your header, this kind of selector generality is a very bad habit that can and will come back to bite you. Whenever you’re writing a selector, ask yourself: “do I want ALL x, or just some x?” If you want just some x, write a more specific selector. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever use the other types of x.

If you want more CSS tips, go on and read the full article! It’s a fun and helpful read, full of great info. Otherwise, that’s all for today: happy coding!

You Can Draw (really!)

As you may know from this blog, and as you certainly know if you follow me on Tumblr or DeviantArt, I’m an artist. Whenever I draw in a public place, which I do a lot, there is always someone who comes up to me and says some version of, “wow, you drew that?! I can’t even draw straight lines, I could never do that.” And this irks me just a little bit, even as I say thank you. Not because they assumed that just because I can draw, I can draw straight lines (I can’t). Because they can “do that”. Because art isn’t magic, it’s a skill.

Why do I say people think art is magic? If I asked someone, they probably wouldn’t say they do. People know that art is a skill, or at least a talent or a gift or a blessing or something. But the fact remains that when people see the process of art being done, or see a finished piece, they don’t think of the process at all. People think “ooh pretty” long before, and mostly in lieu of, thinking “how did they do that?” So you get responses like the one I mentioned. So for practical purposes, people do think of art as magic, at least subconsciously.

It can be very easy to think of art as magic. After all, there really isn’t a way for good information-transfer between two human brains other than oil and carbon on dry tree pulp. But the fact remains that art is not in fact magic, and there is in fact some process by which artists learn how to do art. So why do people act like it is?

I posit that it works like this. Humans really like being right, and when we’re wrong, we kind of freak out. This freak-out can be anything from a giggle to a scream, depending on the person and circumstance. Consider, for example, how people react to optical illusions.

The thing that humans are wrong about in terms of art is whether or not it’s real. “Is that a painting, or is there a person looking at me through a hole in the wall?” thinks your caveman brain, which wants the art to be real.

“Obviously it’s not a real person, because real people blink and move and stuff,” says your modern brain, which cares a lot more about truth and logic than your caveman brain.

But your caveman brain, which also thinks that anything with two dots and another shape below the dots counts as a face, is undeterred, and so, subconsciously, you freak out a little.

So then, the first step in understanding how art works is to convince your caveman brain that it’s not magic. The second step is to learn the real process behind art.

How art is done is actually very, very simple. There are two steps. Step one, pick up a pencil and try to draw. Step two, notice the ways in which your drawing does not look like the thing you were trying to draw, and then return to step one. Repeat ad nauseum until you do good art.

“But if that’s all there is to art,” you may want to ask, “where does all this stuff about color theory and vanishing points and other art words come from?” The answer to this is pretty straightforward: artists need names for certain ways of representing the world on paper. Color theory is just a guideline for making colors work together, and you unknowingly use it every day when you pick an outfit. Vanishing points are just a guideline for how to draw distance, since distance is a 3D thing and all we’ve got is 2D paper. This is how it goes for all the art things: they’re simple techniques to get art to look like reality.

Once an artist is very good, there are a few more steps to the drawing process. Think of an idea, map out how to put it on paper, think of colors, decide how to use them, then draw. But don’t be fooled: it’s not actually any harder. The real difference is that here, the analysis happens before the drawing, not after.

So basically: art is actually a very easy thing, made to seem hard because your caveman brain wants to think of art as reality. With this knowledge in tow, you should know one last thing: you can learn to draw too.

There is literally nothing special about me that makes me a better artist. There wasn’t a heck of a lot special about Michelangelo that made him a better artist. It was, in both cases, some small amount of talent and a ton of hard work (Michelangelo’s hard work was exponentially greater than mine), spread over many many years. The simple cycle of self-improvement does its thing and out comes a good artist with good art.

A lot of people don’t learn to draw because art seems complicated or hard, but you already know it’s not. All those years of improvement may seem daunting, but they’re not: do one drawing at a time, whenever you want, and you’ll improve. That’s all there is to it.

To wrap it up, if you want to learn to draw, you can draw. Don’t wait for the art fairy to sprinkle you in pixie dust; it won’t happen. You don’t need magic, or even talent. You need a pencil and an eraser. Just go ahead and start! It is really that easy.