A simple manifesto for making good things.

1. Only make what matters to you, and do it with authenticity, transparency and honesty.

You could make something right now. If you wanted to stop reading, grab a sheet of butcher’s paper and brainstorm ideas, you could probably come up with half a dozen ideas for apps, books or products. Ideas aren’t the hard part, after all.

You could build a Wordpress site and start harassing your friends to test the concept. You could start writing op-ed pieces on Medium and put “Founder” or “Author” in your Twitter bio within 48 hours. You could throw up a landing page, post the first chapter of a book and start pushing it on Product Hunt.

The tricky part is, we have to make the things we genuinely care about. Because if we don’t folks can tell. If we don’t, and if we’re not honest, it won’t be work that has value.

If you want to make something that people really care about, that they actually give a hot shit about, you have to care about it yourself. Because if you don’t, then try as you might, it’ll come out in the final product.

The reason for this?

Making something is hard. Making something you don’t care about is even harder.

The only way you’ll be able to consistently work, when you don’t want to work, consistently try when you don’t want to try, is by deeply and honestly caring about your work.

Make it for real people.

The best writing advice I have ever heard was to write specifically for someone I know. It’s a genius idea. Every time I go to create something, or build something I think about who I know that would benefit from what I’m doing.

If you have something that you care enough about to make, you have to ask the next question — who are you making it for? What information do they need? What turn of phrase would stop them in their tracks? What is their single pain point that the product could solve, or their secret story that your novel would be able to touch and cultivate into a real emotional response?

Stop thinking about your audience as a vague concept, a collection of faceless people.

Believe that your audience is a real person with feelings, experiences and a story. It will change your perspective.

Always ask: are you the right person to be making that work?

You need to ask yourself whether you have the courage, the strength, the motivation and the passion to make what you want to make. And I mean really ask yourself, because when you first come up with an idea you can get so caught up in it that you can’t see anything else.

It’s easy to mistake excitement for passion, motivation and ability.

When that feeling starts to die down, or you get used to it, you can realise that you don’t have the real raw power to be able to finish and follow through. That’s not a bad thing; there is nothing wrong with recognising that a project isn’t right for you. Maybe there’s another project that is.

It’s not enough just to care about what you’re making — it has to feel right.

Don’t make something, just to be someone.

Have you ever watched one of those reality TV singing competitions? You’ve probably seen a hundred young people, eyes shining, clutching microphones and talking about their dreams. They’ll explain that ever since they were kids, they wanted to be singers.

They hardly ever say they wanted to sing. When it comes down to it, half the time it’s because actually singing isn’t the end goal. They want the trappings and lifestyle and the breaks of being a singer.

If the act of singing was really their end goal, they wouldn’t be on a reality TV show. They’d be out there every night singing anywhere they could, writing songs, starting bands, recording music.

The same is true for anything you could make. Do you want to make X, or do you want to be the person who made X? Because if you don’t care about the act of making something, and if you don’t want to get out there every day and try to make something, you might as well quit.

Put in the work that you give a s**t about, too.

If you want to write a book that can break someone’s heart — work hard.

If you want to start a business that changes the world — work hard.

If you want to draw a comic book that expresses everything you are, and dream about — work hard.

2. Mindfully and carefully solve problems that matter, to you personally and the world you touch.

A lot of us really do want to change the world in meaningful and measurable ways, and the problems we see in the wider world horrify us. When I see and hear about harassment and violence against women, I want to fix the fucking problem. When I hear about people starting their own businesses in poverty stricken countries and trying to help their local community, I want to help those fucking visionaries.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and distilling, and reading. Some of what follows isn’t tested, but I think it’s true and I think it’s right. Without further ado…

Always try to learn first. No problems are as 2-dimensional as they seem.

We have a powerful lack of understanding about problems that don’t directly affect us. They could be problems that we deeply give a shit about, but without the personal connection we will never fully understand the intricacies of the situation that we’re outside of looking in.

If we want to fix anything, we need to get out there and get hands on, first contact experience of the painful hell that other people are living. People who weren’t lucky enough to be born in the first world where a laptop isn’t an unattainable piece of technology and water doesn’t cause wars. People who are told they shouldn’t walk alone at night in case they invite violence.

They say write about what you know.

So build apps about what you’ve learned.

Understand privilege (and try to lose your preconceptions)

This is something that I have to work hard at. Even as a transgender woman, I am still a privileged, white middle class woman. And the fact is that until we understand what we have and take for granted, we’ll never be able to understand the problems that affect others who live without.

I think something that is fundamental to any problem solving is to look at the basic obstacles and the most basic advantages that people need to have in order for their lives and situations to improve, but privilege leads to a certain blindness and a range of preconceptions that essentially block our ability to understand that what are basics to us are unattainable to others.

Know when to take a backseat and shut up.

Another important step is to question whether or not we even need to make something and fix something ourselves. In my post on how to make things, I made the observation that sometimes you aren’t the right person to work on something even if you care deeply about it. If your skills could be better served supporting someone who has a real, hands on experience of an issue, that’s what you should be doing.

Fixing problems sometimes means dodging the limelight and taking a less glamorous role, because the people who really need and have the ability to lead are those who are directly affected.

If I see an app or service meant to empower women who have suffered abuse and the team is made up entirely of men, I’m sorry but I’m not likely to have a lot of faith in their solution.

Ask yourself what the repercussions are going to be.

There’s fixing problems, and there’s creating fixes. When you set out to fix or solve something, you have to be very conscious of what the wider flow-on effect of your work is going to be and understand the indirect impact you’ll have on people and communities. Don’t build a better smartphone with cheaper data that uses more electricity.

There are always going to be repercussions of every action, particularly when it comes to social change.

I’m not saying that you have to be able to see the future and look at every possible path that you’ll go down just by building your solution, but I am saying that you need to at least be aware of it and ask questions around it.

Look at the bigger picture.

And on that, we all need to ask if our solution is a necessary one, or if the problem we are trying to solve is in fact just a symptom of something else. Don’t get me wrong, if someone has a cut you need to put a bandage on it, but if they have a cut because they’re stuck in a field of thorns, that bandage isn’t what you need to worry about.

When you do take a step back, you might see that your own resources and abilities might be better suited to working on a wider social issue rather than manufacturing bandages. There’s going to be something small that can be done to fix any issue, and it’s great if you can do it.

You have to measure what investment you’re making on that small fix and decide if you could be looking at something bigger instead.

Know that trade-offs are going to happen.

There’s no perfect solution. A lot of things you’re going to try are not going to work, and a lot of solutions you build are only going to fix 70% of an issue. But that’s a trade off you have to accept, and you have to learn to work with. When you’re building the next great document sharing platform, perfection is hard enough, but when you’re working with raw and vulnerable people it’s going to be a total impossibility.

There’s degrees of this of course. When charities spend almost all of their donations on salaries, that’s a trade off that goes way too fucking far. But smaller trade-offs are going to have to be okay.

Try to fix what you can, not tear down what you can’t.

After all of this, there’s going to be some problems you just can’t fix. And that’s going to break your heart and you’re going to feel useless. You’re going to feel like you have no chance of ever making the world a better place. But when that happens you’re going to need to get over yourself and get over it and find something you can have an impact on.

There’s a problem out there that you can solve. I don’t know what it is, but with your skills and status and assets, you’ll be able to change the course of at least one person’s life. So do it.

3. Start your journey with just one single step. That’s all it takes.

There’s a reason you’ve never started that big project. There’s a reason you’ve never built your side hustle, written a comic book, started a company, sold T-shirts, self published epic fantasy novels or founded a VC firm.

It’s because doing those things is recognizably tough, and you understand and accept that there are a thousand things you don’t know about ’em. And you can’t figure out where to start.

You want to design a WordPress plugin, but you’ve got no idea how to sell it, or how to iterate, how to bill, how to do your taxes, how to offer technical support etc.

You want to write a cool graphic novel, but you’d have no concept about how to hire an artist to make your comic come to life, or how much you should pay them, or any of the crap that comes down the road.

I have been there. I have wanted to found a record label, and without knowing where to start, it’s still in my ideas notebook.

I have wanted to write a book, but with no publishing contacts and no idea how it works, those manuscripts have never been started.

It’s the same again for anything you want to do. You know that the road is long, and there are too many variables, and when you start to think about it you lose your way and end up caught in a freezing point of inaction.

What it all comes down to is that you never take the first steps. Every single project, every book that’s been written, every company that grew into a billion dollar enterprise, started with one, single action.

Just one.

So here’s an approach I’m trying to push myself towards. If I want to start a project, I need to take one strong, firm action. It doesn’t have to be huge, it doesn’t have to lead to immediate results, it doesn’t even have to be the right first step. It just has to be taken.

You can figure out later on whether you’re going the right way, or if your first step was a misstep. You can figure out longer term plans and ideas and strategies, and you can write a business plan (seriously, a business plan or a lean canvas are essential) and you can get yourself a serious direction.

But you need to pull the trigger on something, and get started. Just one first step. Because if you want to be an entrepreneur, taking a first step by dreaming up a product and asking people if they’d buy it…that makes you an entrepreneur.

The first step is the hardest one to take, but if you can throw caution to the wind and set out, the others will come a little easier. It’s like any trek, any hike, you don’t start out reaching for the peak — you start at the beginning of the trail by putting one foot in front of the other.

So what do those first steps look like?

If you want to write a novel, here’s a first step. Write a single scene, with the first characters you can think up, and get a feel for how it works. Once you’ve started exercising the characters and your own thoughts, you can get to planning what the book will really be.

If you want to write a book, here’s a first step. Turn your idea into a single blog post, and send it to some people you respect, and ask them to tell you what they think.

If you want to sell a T-shirt, front up the $250 for 25 shirts of the first design you can dream up, and stand on a street corner handing them out to rando’s.

Take a single class. Launch a landing page. Knit your first sweater. Draw your comic book with stick figures. These are all fantastic first steps. Hey, you want to start a VC firm? Take $2,000 of your own money and sink it into a small business or a startup, and try and make it work. That’s something I do every year.

Whatever shape your first action or your first step takes, it just has to happen. You’ll never get around to it, and you’ll always be terrified of the unknowns, the to-do lists and the processes, systems and challenges that you’re yet to encounter.

Look, you don’t have to listen to me. But I started writing online by posting a single Amazon book review in the late 90’s. My first step. I started a management business by asking a local metal band if I could help them book some gigs. My first step. I started changing my lifestyle after a diagnosis of a blood disorder by learning to cook one healthy bowl of chilli and running up one hill. I started my own agency by asking one tech firm if I could help them write a single press release.

When my ex-girlfriend decided to trek to the Everest base camp, she went out and bought a pair of hiking boots.

These first steps, and about a hundred others, have changed the course of our lives time and time again.

You start at the beginning of the trail. You put one foot in front of the other.

Everyone is born as a creative. People are born with a curious and inquiring mind that asks why, what, when, where and how. Those minds are opened or closed by the games adults let children play, the books they give them to read.

That natural inclination to discover and create isn’t a special gift that special people have.

Far from it! It’s something that we all learn to either cultivate or hammer out of ourselves, depending on the way we react to the rest of the world.

The creativity of a person doesn’t depend on their birth. Their birth is just the dawn of a new life. It’s what they do with that life, and what that life does to them that determines whether they will explore their creativity.

If you think you have to be born a certain way to be creative, you’re buying into the idea that a person’s path and their identity and their hopes, fears, achievements and accomplishments are decided when they can’t even speak.

I think we all have the opportunity and the chance to use our creativity to make an indelible mark on the world. We just have to bend our will and our curiousity to making good things, simple things, things we deeply care about. That way lies adventure.

@Westenberg logo
Subscribe to @Westenberg and never miss a post.