In a digital world that often feels oversaturated with content, how is one to cut through the noise and share work that stands out from the crowd?
If there’s one man who seems to have figured out the formula, it’s Tim Urban — the writer and illustrator of Wait But Why. The wildly popular blog has over half a million subscribers, garners a million unique page views per month, and boasts famous fans like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, TED Curator Chris Anderson, and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. With topics ranging from “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate” and “7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook,” to “How to Pick a Life Partner” and “The Fermi Paradox,” it would see everything Urban writes is gold.
IVY hosted Tim Urban at an IVY Ideas Night focused on How to Unlock the Power of Original Thinking, hearing his thoughts on how the ability to think creatively has been the key to success for pioneers such as Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and John Lennon. He also offered us his insights on how to create viral content, and the patience needed to strike out a successful career. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
It’s safe to say Wait But Why “went viral.” What steps did you take to get there?
“The cool thing about the Internet is that there’s three billion, maybe four billion people on there. If you happen to be a native English speaker, two-thirds of those people, or half of those people, speak your language. So, if you’re writing in English, the potential audience that you have to reach is just unthinkably huge — billions of potential readers.
“If you’re doing something that appeals to one in one thousand people, that means 999 out of a thousand people don’t like you or what you’re doing. That still leaves you with millions upon millions of potential readers — who are all that one in one thousand who like you the most.
“So if you can do something that literally just I like, there will be at least one in one thousand random people that will happen to agree. That’s a million potential people — really hit the nail on the head for all of them, because it’s that one in a thousand who likes it the absolute most. You don’t want to kind of hit it for a lot of people — you want to smack the nail on the head for even the smallest percentage. As a blog, you can get huge that way. I think that’s what got us a bunch of readers.”
What’s your approach to writing and publishing a new post?
“I have a very specific model: the-quality-over-quantity model. If the post is an A+ versus an A, it’ll go ten times more viral, because there’s one-tenth the A+’s out there. Taking it from 20 hours of work to 80 to get from that A to A+. In my experience, that’s the smart place to put your time.
“Other people say: ‘What’s the best headline? Let’s work on headlines, let’s work on strategy, let’s work on this and that. Where should the sidebar be?’ And then they pump out content. To me, that’s not the way to do it. Post it on your personal Facebook page, post it on your website’s Facebook and Twitter pages, and honestly, things will happen. It might not happen on the first post, but if you keep putting out good things, things start to happen. Whether it’s the first or the 27th, one post will make the round somewhere.”
Any advice to aspiring bloggers out there?
“Your success and career are going to be on a flat line for a while. It can be two years, it can be five years, sometimes it’s nine or ten years. To me, that means: of course I’m not going to stop, the good part’s ahead, why would I stop now? All the fun is yet to come. It’s the confidence that this is going to happen, it’s just going to take awhile. That’s what keeps all the people going.”
Then why don’t more people make it?
“The people who quit, they can’t see this. Society doesn’t tell you this is how it goes. Society says: ‘You’ve been doing this for two years, and, well, it’s not really happening.’
“The people around you, who are influenced by that mentality — they’ll be saying: ‘Oh yeah, he’s still out there in L.A. doing his thing, and I don’t know.’ You have to deal with that, you know? They’re wrong, they really are, almost all the time.”
How do you stay resilient amid the doubters?
“Look, the worst case scenario is: ‘Oh my God, I went for the flat thing. It never really happened. Now I’m 36, and it didn’t happen.” Honestly, I firmly believe that someone who does that, at 36, they turn around and do something else. They will have learned so much in that time that it’s going to serve them in some way. And they will not be sitting there when they’re 45 thinking, ‘I never went for what I wanted,’ — which is what really makes you unhappy.”
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