The Best You Can Be

January 28, 2016 – 6:15 pm

I write a short daily series for O’Reilly Media, Four Short Links, which I’ve done for years.  I recently posted a link to someone’s “10 Golden Rules for Becoming a Better Programmer” and said “what are your 10 rules for being better in your field? If you haven’t built a list, then you aren’t thinking hard enough about what you do.”

Dan Meyer cheekily tweeted “Money where your mouth is, Nat! What’s your top ten list for becoming a better link farmer?”.

Here’s what I’ve learned in my umpty-years.  I’m tempted to say “if only I’d know when I started …” but the fun has been learning these things. …

  1. Know what you’re hoping to achieve by blogging.  This is “know what success is” or “begin with the end in mind” kind of advice, but it still holds.  Four Short Links started as a heartbeat for the O’Reilly Radar blog, so there’d be a post every day instead of two a week.  Since then I’ve had to decide whether I’m driving readers to O’Reilly properties, or whether it’s a destination itself. I chose the latter, because part of reason to read is that I — Nat — only post things that I think are relevant, and I filter out the huckster material that has no reason to be read. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
  2. Know what’s in and what’s out.  The brief (which I made myself) is pretty loose: “find four links relevant to O’Reilly’s interests”.  You might be surprised, but O’Reilly doesn’t maintain a great list of what its interests are.  And it’s doubly hard to identify those things from the other side of the world and the other side of the corporate firewall.  So eventually I have my own list. I’m relaxed enough now about the gig that “interests Nat” is good enough for one or two links a week.
  3. RSS or go home.  RSS is still the best way to feed the mouth of the funnel.  I follow a lot of people on Twitter, but RSS tools are still optimised for this.  I’m a Feedly fiend.
  4. Cull sources.  Some sources only give one good link every week, but they post 20 things a day.  You can live without those.  The secret of this game is efficiency: you COULD spend 24h/day reading the Internet to find those four links.  But you shouldn’t.  I can do it in about an hour a day by being ruthless about who and what I follow. (And being a Ninja Level 10 skimmer)
  5. Fill your back pocket.  I have >4500 tabs saved in OneTab (Chrome extension).  Not all of them are usable now, or even relevant, but each time the day’s trawl fails to yield 4 links, I pull one out of the pocket.
  6. Schedule for your holidays.  I have a daily regimen, so I prewrite a few before I go on holiday. I used to feel bad about not being timely, but I don’t think many people can tell. But most importantly, this beats the HELL out of being more relevant but very distracted on my holidays.
  7. Don’t break the streak.  It’s a source of pride, and of no small pressure on my life, that I’ve only had one day when I was completely unable to get to a computer and post and make Four Short Links go to press.  I don’t want a second gap in my record, so I work late and hard to ensure there’s something there every day.
  8. Cultivate sources.  “Where do you find your best links?” is a good question to ask experts.
  9. Cultivate other link bloggers.  Pete Warden, Greg Linden, and Matt Webb have helped enormously.  I wasn’t sure initially whether it was just cheating to post links I found from them, but I operate on the assumption that my readers may not have another source. Some days the challenge is to not repost EVERYTHING they’ve found.
  10. Be comfortable with write-only interactions.  I used to try to encourage interactivity in The Comments but my readers’ lives are too short for that.  I’d like to own more of the channel to the readers — I feel like analysis and further links could be collected from them, but that’d require software and effort and right now I think 4sl is in the sweet spot of effort and return for me, for the readers, and for O’Reilly.
If I had more than 10, numbers 11 and 12 would probably be around bullshit filters and being comfortable with what you don’t post.  (11) I now have a pretty good sniff test for things that seem too good to be true–I often don’t post things simply because I can’t find an original source or it sounds like too good to be true.  (12) I’ve acquired the valuable discipline of shipping every day, instead of holding on to make it perfect. Don’t fret the things that didn’t make it into the final edition–the readers won’t!
Thanks, Dan!

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