Do what you must, do all you can

I've recently been going to a few tech-related meetups, which is something I've been trying to do more often since I moved to Japan. It's a great way to meet new people, hear interesting talks and conversations, and - in my case - just gives you a chance to get out of your daily routine during the work week.

One of the meetups I go to is pretty loosely structured. There are a few scheduled talks and guests that are planned out ahead of time, and the organizers allow anyone in attendance to give their own talk about anything that they would deem to be interesting to the rest of the audience. Often, people take this time to promote something they've been working on. Sometimes it's something related to their job, but many times it's a side project they have been working on and are eager to show.

In one of the recent meetups, someone in attendance gave a brief presentation about a side project he had been working on. It was still a work in progress, so it was very rough around the edges, but you could see that the creator of the project was proud to be showing this. It was an idea he had and he brought to life. For any maker, when things are palpable and coming together, it's truly a tremendous feeling to have.

However, as soon as he was done presenting, he asked if anyone had comments about what he just showed. What followed was about 10 minutes of various people in attendance asking why he built it, how he was planning on making any money off of it, asking why someone would choose his product over a similar product, etc.

Not a single positive, encouraging comment came out of that Q&A session, and it was highly disappointing to see.

Now, this wasn't a malicious attack by any stretch. The people making those comments were smart people, and they seemed to want to offer some assistance to the presenter. The comments were polite enough on their own. But many of the comments seemed to come more from the commenter's point of view if they were the ones working on the project. They were certainly not emphatic to the fact that maybe the project's goal is about fun and exploration instead of monetization and growth.

After the meetup was over, I went up to the presenter of the project and told him that I really enjoyed his talk, was glad that he gave it, and asked him more about the project. He noticeably perked up and enthusiastically started talking away. As I suspected, he mentioned that the project was incredibly fun to code and that he's learned a ton of things that he's already putting to work with his freelancing gigs. But he admitted that he would have loved to work on it more and see how he could make some money off of it. I don't know if this was the result of the Q&A session he went through or not, but he sounded very hesitant at the thought of continuing work on his project - almost defeated, I would say.

This is one major issue I'm facing myself right now - possibly my greatest obstacle in the way of building things. As a current example, I have been working on a small project since the beginning of February. The idea started as a tool I wanted for myself, but I decided to expand upon that and share it with the small community that can benefit from it (Japanese language learners who are members of a site called WaniKani). However, my progress has stalled because comments and thoughts like the ones from the meetup group filled me with a lot of uncertainty and doubt. What could have been a two-week project has expanded to three months of frustrated progress.

The feeling I get from comments like those - if you can't make a decent amount of money or generate a lot of traffic or gain enough new signups to your mailing list or increase your Twitter followers - is that you're doing something wrong or it's not worth doing at all to begin with. In my six years living in the heart of the tech scene in the Bay Area, this type of thinking was especially pervasive - both with entrepreneurs and employees equally - that it really made me think that everything I was working on outside of my day job was not worth pursuing. It was one of the least-likeable things I encountered in the Bay Area while I was there all that time.

As a result of that, I developed a mentality of not making anything because I felt it wasn't "big enough" to be worth it. After years of this way of thinking, I'm now realizing what a huge mistake it's been. In the past couple of years, if I had just made things without any fear or doubts, without caring whether or not my project would be useful outside of myself and possibly a handful of other people, I would have already created a ton of things. And those creations would have definitely lead to more opportunities and more building, maybe even more. You have to put yourself out there if you want to grow, in anything that you do in your life.

I'm not saying that having the desire to make big things is wrong. If you are truly wanting to build a business, then you should think big. Think about how much money you want to make or how much attention you want your product to have or how many people you will be able to help. But this way of thinking is not for everybody at all times. We should give ourselves permission to experiment, break things, and simply just have fun.

One anecdote related to this comes from the world of professional wrestling. I was watching a documentary about a professional wrestler, whose stage name is Finn Bálor. It was a short documentary mostly detailing his career, but it also showed bits of his personal life. The most surprising thing that came from these segments is that when he's off the road, one of his main hobbies is spending hours playing with LEGO. When asked about it in an interview, he said the following:

The whole process of building [something] is therapeutic and relaxing, it kind of takes your mind off of everything else, you turn the phone off and build things. [...] Then you got a cool pirate ship or a Star Destroyer.

Re-watching this now, it really clicked in my head. I'm sure most people reading this now have played with LEGO or a similar toy in the past (or maybe even now). Can you remember how much fun it was build something and admire your creation, even if it wasn't a picture-perfect replica of the box's cover? You built it, and you enjoyed the time making it. That's the main thing that mattered.

I'm sure no one ever asked you how you were planning on monetizing your LEGO model. So why does it have to be so much different with making things now in your adult life?

I honestly have no interest in being an entrepreneur and making businesses with the potential of risks and big rewards that can come along with it. But what I do have a lot of interest in is making things. And that's what I plan to do from here on out. I will not care if my project is not polished or can attract huge audiences or make any kind of money. If I'm having fun, I'm doing it. If it helps someone else along the way, even if it's one single person, that would be amazing. But I'll just keep on having fun regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Written by

Dennis Martinez

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