Build your personal self-invention machine

(Credit where credit is due: the distinction between websites as self-invention machines and self-promotion machines is due to Austin Kleon.)

Most people treat their personal blogs with a wrong attitude. If you think of it as a self-promotion machine, chances are high that you’ll quickly be demotivated because not enough people read your stuff and most readers won’t enjoy reading your articles.

Blogs as self-promotion machines are dead since platforms like Twitter and Instagram are certainly better suited for that task.

But as soon as you think of your blog as a self-invention machine, everything changes.

Characteristics of a successful self-invention machine

A self-promotion machine requires an elaborate content strategy. You need to do keyword research to find out what you should write about and hire editors and ghostwriters to churn out as much content as possible. You need to research competitors, identify a niche and develop a plan how you’re going to position yourself as an expert in it. I’m exhausted just by writing this.

A self-invention machine doesn’t need any of this.

  • You don’t need a plan because your blog becomes the place where you figure things out. Writing is the best way to think and writing in public forces you to think clearly.
  • You can write about whatever you want and don’t need to act like an expert. Leave the polished bland stuff for big brands. Your competitive edge is authenticity.
  • You don’t need to do worry about if anyone else has already written about the topic since you write primarily for yourself.

This way, your blog becomes the most important tool you can use to discover who you really are and what you care about.

Now it’s time to get more specific. In the following, we’ll discuss the following two questions:

  • Which software you should use to create your personal self-invention machine. (Spoiler: Wordpress is for self-promoters not self-inventors.)
  • What exactly should you write about?
  • How exactly should you write?

Let’s dive in.

Software for self-invention machines

There are thousands of articles titled “How to set up a blog” and I certainly don’t want to bore you with yet another one. But I’m convinced that the distinction between self-promotion machines and self-invention machines is also important when it comes to the correct choice of software and hence I want to give you my two cents.

The most popular blogging software is WordPress. It’s extremely popular because it is so flexible. There’s a plugin for almost any kind of feature you can image. This is great, for example, if you want to include pop-ups, ads, and social-sharing features. However, this flexibility comes at a price. Unless you spend a lot of time optimizing, securing and updating your WordPress site, it’ll be slow and prone to hacking. Moreover, backing up your site in a reliable way is far from straight-forward.

One option is to choose one of the premium WordPress hosters. While this solves some of the problems, it doesn’t change the fact that WordPress is just too bloated for your personal blogging needs. Another problem is that these hosters cost $20+ and while it’s possible justify these kind of costs for a marketing machine, this isn’t necessarily the case for a self-invention machine. If you rely on such an expensive hosting service, you’ll always be tempted to delete your blog to save costs. This would be a huge mistake because most of the rewards from having a personal blog come from compound interest that are hardly visible at the beginning. Moreover, since it’s quite a lot of work to move your WordPress site to a different hosting service, you’ll become quite depended on your hosting service.

The same is true for alternatives like Ghost and Webflow. In all of these cases you’re paying a lot for features that you don’t really need. They might be great choices for self-promotion machines but not for self-invention machines. (And please be aware that the main reason why some services like Webflow and some hosting services get recommended over and over again and praised in the highest tones is because they have great affiliate program. If you read such an article, click on the link that leads to Webflow and then sign-up, the person who wrote the article currently gets 50% of all payments for 12 months. That’s $100+ per sign-up. So please, don’t be fooled by hype and do your own research.)

Okay if money is an issue, what about free platforms like Wordpress.org, Medium.com, or Substack? First of all, as usual, there is no free lunch. You’ll always pay in some form or another. For example, Wordpress.org inserts ads into your site. But far more problematic is that you become completely depended on these companies. A perfect example why this is problematic is Medium.com. At some point, they decided to put all articles behind a paywall, whether or not the writers liked it. Many didn’t and their only option was to go through the painful process of moving their content to a different platform. Moreover, will Medium still be around in a year or two? Probably! What about in ten years? Twenty? Who knows?

This leaves us with just one option: simple, barebone blogging software. My current favorites are

  • Jekyll is a static site generator which also powers this site. This means your files get processed by the software and are then served to your visitors are simple html files. As a result, your site is incredibly fast and completely secure. Moreover, Jekyll sites can be hosted for free on Github. There are lots of beautiful free themes and setting your site up only takes 5 minutes or so. A good alternative is Hugo which also can be hosted for free on Github or Netlify. If you feel comfortable handling code, Jekyll or Hugo are definitely the best choices for your personal blog.
  • Bludit which is a flat-file content management system. This means, there’s no database you need to worry about and if you want to move your site to a different server, you only need to download your website folder from the old server and upload it to the new one. The big advantage compared to static site generators like Jekyll and Hugo is that you have a proper backend that you can use to manage your site. A good alternative is Grav. To host your Bludit or Grav site I would recommend getting a virtual private server at Linode, Amazon Lightsail or Vultr which costs around $5 per month.

As a final recommendation, get a proper domain for your site. Preferably, try to get FirstNameLasteName.com which will cost your around $10 per year. If the .com domain is not available, it’s perfectly fine to use an alternative like .io. However, a free domain like jakobgreenfeld.github.io should be avoided since it signals that you’re not very serious about what you’re doing.

With that out of the way, I want to give you a few ideas what you could write about. (There are, of course, no rules. Write whatever you want to write about. That’s the whole point of a personal self-invention machine. Nevertheless, it’ll probably be helpful to talk about a few examples.

Content

Learn with the garage door up.

The best way to use your personal blog if you’re just starting out is to learn in public. Announce publicly what you want to learn to make sure you stay on track. Then share regularly what you’ve learned.

Writing about what you learn allows you to

  • test your understanding,
  • clarify your thinking,
  • and gradually become a kind of “tour guide” for others.

This is why one of the best ways to learn is to teach it to others. Moreover, by learning in front of others you’re not just helping your readers but are also giving them a chance to help you by suggesting improvements and error corrections. Additionally, you’ll built an audience since people want to learn from people who are like them and who are one step of them.

And don’t worry about imposter syndrome. No one knows what they’re doing. Just always be honest whenever you’re not 100% sure whether or not something is correct.

Within the “learning with the garage door up” category, two great angles you can take are:

  • Answering a question. If you try to learn something, there are always certain questions you need answered. And oftentimes the best answer you can find is incomplete, outdated and sometimes no good article exists at all. Whenever you come across such a question, it makes sense to write an article that explains your answer. This will not only help others, but also make sure that you remember the answer whenever you need it in the future.
  • Creating a heuristic. Sometimes when you focus on a new subject, a light bulb goes off in your head. Share these insights with others.

Work with the garage door up.

Once you feel you feel like you’ve learned enough and are read to work on real-world problems, don’t stop sharing what you do and what you’ve learned.

Writing about your work allows you to reflect on your own processes. It also allows readers to develop a closer connection to you and your products.

“Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel an what they understand about your work effects how they value it.” - Austin Kleon

Another advantage of writing about your work is that it’s a great way to validate your assumptions and ideas. Articles are a often a great way to gauge interest.

The best angle when it comes to working with the garage door up is to tell a story. Allow your readers to follow you in your journey through all the ups and down.

I’m not a good storyteller but I love reading about the adventures of others. It’s one of my favorite genres and something I want to get better at.

“Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. So study the great stories and then go find some of your own. Your stories will get better the more you tell them.” - Austin Kleon

Next, let’s talk quickly about writing styles and the importance of narrowing down what you write about.

Focus and Style

Don’t worry about your writing style. I don’t know about you but I rarely read anyone’s stuff because he or she is such a great writer. As long as the writing isn’t too bad and the content is interesting, I keep reading.

Just try to write like you talk. Another good mindset is to imagine you’re writing an email to a close friend. Most important, don’t try to sound sophisticated and avoid complicated words whenever this is possible. Use primarily short sentences but not exclusively because otherwise your text will sound monotone.

“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” - Mark Twain

The most important thing if you want to become a better writer is to write a lot. This is precisely what a personal blog can help you with.

If you feel like you need a bit more help with your writing, read at most one or two books. Additional time spent on reading would be better spent writing. My favorite books on writing are:

  • This book will teach you how to write better by Neville Medhora
  • Keys to great writing by Stephen Wilbers

A second thing you should stop worrying about is whether or not what you’re writing about is “on brand”. Write about whatever sparks your interest and eventually certain themes will start to emerge automatically. Also there is no magical publishing frequency you should aim for. The only thing that matters is that you continue to publish new articles.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to share your opinions and philosophy. The best content is often the one you’re slightly hesitant to publish and far too many people play it safe with their content. Building a humble personal brand is all about being authentic. After all, being you is the one thing no one, irregardless of how big their marketing budget is, can compete with you on.

“Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.” - Austin Kleon

Marketing

There’s no reason why your site has to remain in obscurity forever. Even though you’re writing primarily for yourself, having readers can be useful to stay motivated and gather feedback.

Hence, whenever you feel like you’ve something that might be valuable to other people, it can make sense to share it in relevant communities, for example, on reddit.

Moreover, allow people to follow your work via email and Twitter. Whenever you’ve written something that might be interesting for your readers, send a short email to your subscribers and a short Tweet to your followers to make them aware of it. Good email services with a generous free tier are:

Your initial choice doesn’t matter since it’s easy to switch to a different service later.

Start Today

There is just one additional piece of advice I would like to share with you: start today. Don’t wait until someone gives you the permission to share your thoughts or until you know want to write about. Start to think of your blog as a device that helps you to figure out what you want to do. It’s in the act of writing that we figure out who we are.

As usual, be impatient with your actions but patient with results. During the first months, no one will probably read your stuff. Just keep writing and remember that you’re primarily writing for yourself. If others start to find your writing that’s a nice side benefit but nothing more.

Most people will discover your work through just a handful of articles. This is true even for the best writers who are doing this for years. But since it’s impossible to predict which articles will turn out to be successful you simply have to continue writing. If you show up regularly and continue publishing, more and more people will start to find your work. This way your blog will become a cornerstone of your humble personal brand. This, however, doesn’t mean that you should treat it primarily as a marketing vehicle.

Always remember that first and foremost, your personal website is a self-invention machine.

Written on August 12, 2020
P.S. I'm now on Twitter too if you'd like to follow my adventures. Alternatively you can enter your email address below and I will send you occasionally a short email whenever I publish something new.