If you were going to give someone "how to succeed in a career" advice, what would you say?
You'd probably start off with the usual statements about hard work and persistence. Maybe throw in something about networking — it's not what you know, it's who you know, amirite? (With a friendly slap on the shoulder for good measure.) If you were a certain type of person, you might cite that Ira Glass piece about how it takes a long time for talent to catch up with taste.
Well, okay. Let's say the person in this case is talented. Let's say they're persistent and they work hard. Let's even say that they're good at networking and have good taste. Even with all these attributes in place, not everybody succeeds. It's more than that, and it's something beyond that.
Here's the advice I would give: You have to be willing to work hard. You have to be persistent. You have to develop your talent and your connections. But—most of all—you have to be working on the right thing .
Here are some of the things I've done, all of them with the same work ethic and persistence and latent ability:
- Launched a children's theater in rural Missouri
- Taught Shakespeare at the University of Hyderabad
- Worked as an executive assistant and project manager at a think tank
- Put 100 songs on the internet for 100 consecutive weeks
- Took my geek musician act across the country
- Completed a successful Kickstarter and recorded an album in a Los Angeles recording studio
- Tried to develop a card game and take it to market
- Began working as a freelance writer, telling stories about my life to The Billfold, Yearbook Office, The Toast, The Magazine, Boing Boing, and many other publications
I brought the same Nicole to every project, and every time I started a new project I was prepared to become a professional children's theater director or project manager or indie musician or whatever it was.
And I'd say I was reasonably successful at many of these potential life paths. Hard work, persistence, and natural ability does get you pretty far.
But it was only when I ended up on the writing path—and I did "end up" there as a fluke, when I started looking for ways to make extra money between indie musician gigs—that I realized my work felt different than all of my previous jobs.
As a writer, I was connecting with people in a way that I never did as a theater director or musician (or even as a project manager). People were seeking me out and asking me to write for them; I wasn't having to pound the pavement scrambling for gigs. I was no longer in a position where I had to hustle for secondstage spots at geek conventions and then play music "for the exposure." Publications were writing me and asking me to take the mainstage space, as it were, and offering a pay rate that allows me to make a living.
And more people have read my writing than have ever listened to my songs or watched my shows.
Everything I had done before I started writing was just a Thing. Writing, for me, was the Right Thing.
Once I saw how differently the world responded when I transitioned from being a full-time musician to a full-time writer, I realized the difference between hard work on any project and hard work on the right project. You'll have to trust that I've always been a hard worker—but hard work only takes you as far as you can go. You need the support of other people to help you build a career, and I mean real support from everyone around you, not just the one friend who reads all of your stuff, or the person with whom you swap business cards and Twitter handles.
It wasn't until I started working on the right thing that I realized how it changed everything.
Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar, for example, is a Right Thing project, as is Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy and, of course, the Harry Potter books. The Pebble Watch is a Right Thing project. Jonathan Coulton's Song A Week is a Right Thing project. Boing Boing is a Right Thing project. The card game that my friend Alice Lee and I tried to make could have been a Right Thing project for us, but it turned out to be a Right Thing project for Games By Play Date.
Sometimes people who haven't figured out their own Right Things try to imitate other people's Right Things, the way I put 100 songs on the internet to try and get the same results that Jonathan Coulton got from 52.
And that's the hardest part with trying to find a Right Thing—I'm not sure you can try. I think you just have to do things and see how the world responds. That's terrible career advice—eh, just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks, amirite?—but I'm beginning to wonder if it's true.
So I decided to start asking questions.
I wanted to talk to Erika Moen because I've been a fan of her work for years, starting in the mid-2000s when she was drawing the journal comic DAR! A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary.
"I've always been a compulsive comicker," Erika told me over email. "It's just in my blood to make comics and I've been doing it since I was a teen."
I asked Erika if she started DAR! with the idea that it would be her entry into the professional comics world, the way I sat down to play 100 songs with the goal of coming out the other end with a professional career.
"When I began DAR! I definitely did not see it as my entry into the professional comics world. DAR! to me then is what Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr are to young people now; just a way to document and share your experiences with your friends and strangers."
Erika's friends urged her to turn DAR! into a book, and she eventually printed two volumes of her collected journal comics. "Once the first book took off, that was when I started to realize "Oh hey, I have a real book and people are buying it. I guess there's a place for me in the comics world."
DAR! was popular with a lot of people (I loved it), and Erika's second project, Bucko, was also well-received, and Erika was building a solid freelance career for herself as an artist.
And then Erika started work on Oh Joy Sex Toy. In her own words:
"After I finished drawing Bucko, I knew that I wanted my next project to be about sex education, a topic that I am passionate about. I'd done autobio, I'd done fiction, now I wanted to make something that would actively help young people become sexually active safely and positively.
The seed for this had actually been planted nearly a decade earlier, when I met my husband in 2005. Right before we met, I'd done this short comic (as a final project for a class in college!) called GirlFuck about how cisgender lesbians have sex, plus some information on safety. From the get-go, he told me that I needed to do more comics like this, that I have a natural knack for talking about this subject and making it fun and appealing while also being educational. I was always like "Yeah, yeah, I'll do a bigger version of that some day…"
So fast-forward many years and it's 2012 and I've just finished Bucko and I'm ready to do it, ready to start my "How to become Sexually Active Safely" magnum opus book for teens. I spent basically the entire year writing the first draft. Towards the end of the year, I suddenly hit this wall. I had two chapters left to cover and all my energy suddenly vanished. I was realizing that this was only the first draft of the script, that it was going to take another year or two before it'd be in good enough shape to start drawing, and at that point it'd take another year or two or three to finish drawing. I felt buried. But that's ok, because at this point I got accepted on to Penny Arcade's Strip Search reality TV game show, so I figured that was a good excuse to take a little break, get my head straightened out, and then come back to my manuscript when I returned.
Robert Khoo, the business manager behind Penny Arcade, took me out to dinner (Red Robin) after I was eliminated from the show and let me pick his brain about what to do with my career. I knew what I wanted to be doing (sex education comics) but I didn't know how to get there and make it financially viable. He told me to give my audience what it wants right now. That's when I realized I should be doing bite-size weekly online comics talking about a variety of different sex subjects. I came home, told my husband about my realization, and he was like "That's fantastic and also THAT'S WHAT I'VE BEEN TELLING YOU TO DO FOR THE LAST DECADE."
Oh Joy Sex Toy is more than a success; it's a cultural touchstone. Readers might first click on an OJST webcomic because they're interested in a review of a particular sex toy, but they stay for Erika's discussion of inclusive, enthusiastic sexuality. They also stay because Erika and her guest artists draw characters that encompass a diverse spectrum of body types, genders, races, sexualities, and abilities. (Readers have written Erika to tell her that it's the first time they've seen people who look like them drawn as characters who enjoy sex with partners who find them sexually attractive.)
I asked Erika if she knew before she started that Oh Joy Sex Toy would be a Right Thing project.
"It felt like the Right Project Right Now for me to do as a creator, but I did not predict at all that it would resonate as many people as it has. I've been really blown away by the response it's received. It's overwhelming and humbling and I feel so goddamn lucky I can't even believe it. It does feel different than my earlier projects because it's letting me hit all my favorite parts of creating comics. I still get to share bits of my life and experiences (autobio!), but I also get to tell more broad little stories too, that aren't just MEMEME. I get to talk about sex and help people learn what their options are and how to have a healthy, positive relationship with their sex lives and I also get to make horrible puns and dick jokes. Plus, I also get to hire my favorite cartoonists to tell their own sex/sexuality/gender stories too—that's a really awesome feeling!!!"
So then I asked: did she think my theory was right? That it takes more than talent and hard work and perseverance to be successful at a career; that you need to be working on the Right Thing, too?
"I think it is all of those things wrapped up together! Hard work, perseverance, talent, luck, being in the right place at the right time, and working on the Right Thing are all the ingredients that need to come together in just the right combination to make a career—and for every successful career, no two people have the same proportion of those components."
The first Oh Joy Sex Toy book recently released in bothprint and PDF. Meanwhile, Erika closed up sales on the print versions of DAR! right around the time that the book version of Oh Joy Sex Toy launched, although you can still buy PDF versions.
It's hard not to see this as a transition from one phase of a creative career to another, and it got me thinking: okay, maybe I'm wrong about this idea of a Right Thing project. Maybe it's not that you have to work hard until you find the one Right Thing; maybe it's more about the idea that a career is made of continuous growth and transition, and that sometimes you transition into the Right Thing and sometimes you don't, and you keep working hard regardless.
It was time to ask more questions.
I've known Joel Watson for about two years. He and I both sat on a "how to quit your job and become a creative freelancer" panel together, because that is essentially what both of us did; I quit to see where my music could take me, and he quit to start The Experiment:
"I decided to change the way I was living, take a risk and [cliche]"follow my lifelong dream"[/cliche] of being a full time artist so that when my daughter was old enough to ask me what I did for a living, I wouldn't be ashamed of the answer. I didn't want her to grow up with a father who was too afraid to take a chance at real happiness. Sappy, right?"
Joel's experiment took the form of the webcomic Hijinks Ensue, a gag-a-day comic focusing on geek humor and clever T-shirts. Like a lot of geek comics, it relied on referencing new tech products, movies, or video games in order to connect with an audience. His first comic project was a lot like DAR! in that it was drawn with talent and skill, Joel was committed to putting in the hard work, and his art found its group of core fans. (It's hard not to go to a geek-themed convention without seeing people wearing Joel Watson's T-shirts, for example.)
And then, five years after starting Hijinks Ensue, Joel changed the strip's direction.
"I realized that everything I had made up until that point had a very short-term lifespan," Joel told me over Skype. "I couldn't imagine there ever being a world where my kid could grow up and pick up one of my books and relate to any of it at all. There would be no context."
Joel started The Experiment in part because he had also started a family, and his experiment evolved alongside his family. "I started doing a semi-autobiographical storyline-based comic. I'm trying to keep the enthusiasm and the nerd-rage and the things that are relatable to people like me, but I'm also trying to, slowly but surely, build up something that is mine, rather than something that only comments on what other people have made."
This evolution, still called Hijinks Ensue (the old comics are now "Hijinks Ensue Classics") feels very different from Joel's initial work. It's more immediate and more honest. As a reader, I'm much more connected to Joel's characters—especially the interaction between the character named Joel and his daughter, Gracie.
When I contacted Joel, I was sure I was going to hear a story like Erika's. It was so clear: this new version of Hijinks Ensue was Joel's Right Thing. I loved it, lots of people I knew loved it, his work was compelling and true, and it had to be earning Joel the recognition he deserved.
This only turned out to be partially true.
"The people that speak up have said that [they love it]," Joel told me. "The people that don't speak up just stop reading. Which is fine."
In short: the new version of Hijinks Ensue is getting fewer readers. I was not expecting to hear this. It didn't fit my narrative, for starters, and it didn't fit with what I wanted to happen to a talented artist who was drawing something that was both honest and valuable. But Joel put it into perspective:
"I was intentionally aware that I was going to alienate people that only liked the way I did things before," he explained. "Realistically, right off the bat I shaved a third of my audience off. The easy math behind that is that the comics became a lot less sharable. They became less "viral-worthy," I guess."
Joel used to get pageviews and site hits when his gag-a-day strips were shared on sites like reddit, but the type of audience he's getting now is different.
"The other thing I realized is that yes, those pageviews were nice, and seeing my comic online might make someone buy a T-shirt, but it didn't make that person a reader." Joel's comic is now getting fewer pageviews, but the people who stay are there because they want to know what happens next. They're more invested. They're an actual audience, instead of a casual one.
"Although I was sad to see those numbers go from a ego standpoint," Joel explained, "it's possible that instead of losing half my audience, it just revealed the audience I already had."
This, Joel believes, is a good thing.
"In the long run, and this is very much a long game, it's this audience that will keep you propped up for the next decade or so."
I had one more set of questions to ask, and so I turned to Alan Lastufka. I've known Alan for about a year, he's hired me to work for him on a few projects, and he's had a very interesting creative career that has gone through many transitions and evolutions.
Alan is a zine artist, a musician, an author, a songwriter, a record producer, and a vlogger—and that's just the start. Alan was part of the very early days of YouTube vlogging and collaborative channels, and in 2008, Alan and Hank Green had the idea to start a record company that focused solely on YouTube musicians.
This record company became DFTBA Records.
If there's anything that epitomizes a Right Thing project, it's this one. DFTBA Records was quickly named Mashable's Best Online Music Label of the Year. It expanded out of Alan's bedroom into a warehouse and then into a bigger warehouse. Now, DFTBA Records sells music, but it also sells T-shirts, audio versions of The Fault in Our Stars read by John Green, and DVDs of the Emmy Award-winning Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
This past June, Alan announced that he was selling his stake in DFTBA Records and moving on to something new.
So I asked him: why did he leave a Right Thing project? How did he know that it was time to evolve and transition into the next phase of his career?
Alan replied via email:
"The right time to leave wasn't something that was planned for very long, or even a goal I thought I had, but this past summer, there it was. We had rapidly built a team of employees that could take care of all the day-to-day stuff and most of the bigger long term projects. That left me with the boring maintenance and legal stuff, or taking a backseat role. Neither of those appealed to me. I like being hands on. I like being the driver.
So my business partners and I started discussing them buying out my shares. This would give them the business to run (or let the team run) and would give me enough money to walk away happy. But I've been starting business projects since I was in high school though, so I doubt I'll sit around for very long. The next Right Thing should find me soon."
I think the core of these questions, the reason I wanted to talk to Erika and Joel and Alan about their work, has to do with this lingering sense of strangeness I still have about "failing" as a musician and "succeeding" as a writer. It also has to do with my building a career while people I know who are equally talented and hardworking aren't having the same luck.
And while I know that the way to build a career isn't as simple and straightforward as "you have to be working on the Right Thing," that doesn't mean it isn't wrong.
But the piece I left out is all the stuff that comes before the Right Thing. Erika Moen couldn't have drawn Oh Joy Sex Toy without all the work that came before it. I couldn't have learned how to write and revise quickly without doing my 100-song project. When you talk to somebody about their Right Thing, you often learn about everything they did first.
Which makes the advice you might give to someone even more complicated: well, you have to work hard, you have to be persistent, you have to connect with people, and you have to try a lot of different things—and then, maybe, you might take everything you've learned and evolve it into a Right Thing project. But even then, even if you become really successful, you won't want to do that Right Thing forever. You'll outgrow it someday, and you'll have to figure out how to transition into something new.
Working on the Right Thing does, in fact, change everything.
But it isn't everything. It's just one part in the sum of a career and a life. That's what I learned, when I started asking questions.