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Nick Ang

Prioritise regularity over quality

When it comes to learning, always choose to do what works for you.

But if you don’t know what works for you yet, then choose what can be done either daily or weekly. My simple rule for learning is to always prioritise regularity over all else. Yes, even quality.

Why is regularity important? Because it’s impossible to not improve at something that you keep doing regularly.

I have many examples from my life:

  • Flossing
  • Blogging
  • Coding
  • Cooking
  • Everything about caring for a baby: bathing, changing diapers, putting on clothes, fastening the child car seat, burping, holding, strapping to body with a cloth wrap, estimating clothes sizes, …

Are there counter-examples where regularity leads people to deteriorate at something they’re trying to learn? Nope. Not unless you’re talking about excessiveness, like rock climbing everyday without rest thinking that you’ll improve quicker than the rest. But we’re interested in learning normal things here, not becoming world champions.

Before we reach the level where we can write quality blog posts, we should write regularly.

Before we reach the level where we can floss well, we should floss regularly.

Before we reach the level where we can code well, we should code regularly.

Before we reach the level where we can cook well, we should cook regularly.

Then one day, we’ll realise that we can write well, floss well, code well, cook well, and care well for a baby.

Then, and only then, should we even entertain the idea that spending more time on a single blog post, flossing session, coding session, or cooking session, leads to quality. Because by then we’ll actually know what quality is for us and we’ll be able to plot a path to achieving it. Maybe we’ll even achieve it regularly.

Technical or not, the hardest part of blogging is still writing

This blog is run on Gatsby.js, a decision I made 1.5 years ago and haven’t looked back on. Well, until recently. I’m not planning to change the CMS behind this blog any time soon (who has time for that after only less than 2 years?), but I do want to pause and reflect on this idea of a Technical vs Non-Technical blogger.

Good things about running one’s blog from scratch

Gatsby is a server-side JavaScript library that lets Technical Bloggers build websites that are incredibly fast. Just browse around my blog a little and you’ll see what I mean. (Gatsby is not built for blogs only; developers use it to build big websites, too.)

How it works is that it pre-generates every single page on a website and stores them as static files on a server, so that when you click on a link to a particular page, all that needs to happen on the server is to serve that page. This, as opposed to the server having to look up dynamic data from a database (e.g. the post content), render that data into an HTML template, then server that page. That’s why Gatsby and other frameworks like it are called Static Site Generators (SSGs).

Gatsby also provides nice touches like image lazy-loading (i.e. visitors are shown a lower resolution photo, which loads and displays before the full image is fetched from the server and replaces the lo-res one), pre-fetching of resources that users might click, and more.

For me, a big draw was also the fact that it’s built on the super popular React web framework and the query language GraphQL in mind. I thought this was great, because I’m much more familiar with JavaScript than other programming languages (like, say, PHP, which WordPress uses) and can therefore make rapid changes to my blog whenever needed.

But there’s a downside that I’m beginning to see more clearly: maintenance.

Technical? Do what you want but maintain it

Two weeks ago I swapped laptops with my wife. She had, at that point, a faster machine than I did. She agreed that I can have hers and she’ll take mine since I work on technical side projects that could benefit from higher specs, whereas she uses the computer mostly for email and using the web.

If you’re not a programmer, allow me to explain how painful it still is in 2021 for a programmer to set up a new laptop. You need to install this, and that, and this, and that, and make sure that this dependency for that has been fulfilled, like Xcode and Homebrew and Bash profiles. Lots of manual “refer to previous computer” setup to be done.

The most painful part is when something goes wrong and I need to spend time figuring it out. Like I did with setting up my “new” laptop to run my blog locally (so that I can check how new posts or styling tweaks look visually via localhost).

This is also painful because it distracts me from what I flipped open my laptop to do, which is to write.

Sure, if I’m all doing is trying to publish a new post, I can technically ignore it and just deploy a new post and let Netlify (my hosting provider) generate the static pages for the site and everything should still work. But I can’t help but think about it. It’s like a floater in my eye - as a Technical User, I find it hard to ignore the fact that something in the build workflow of my site is broken on my computer.

Is there a CMS that sits somewhere in middle, providing a technical blogger with the freedom to make rapid changes without ever being bogged down by the need to maintain and troubleshoot it? I’m not sure, but my gut says no. It’s like uncle Ben says to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Non-Technical? We take care of everything so you can focus on writing!

For non-technical bloggers, the problem exists not so much in having to update packages and ensure their site can be previewed on localhost. Nevertheless, as a non-technical blogger myself pre-2015, I know there are other issues with using CMSes like WordPress.

It is configurations galore, detracting people from writing. People spend inordinate amounts of time dressing up their sites, thinking of snappy phrases for their pop-up email banners and so on, instead of writing. I get that. I was like that.

That’s the issue I take with corporate slogans that go, “We take care of X so that you can spend your time where you actually want.” Bullshit. Many times, a product that takes care of X also introduces A, B, C configuration options that provide the user with too many shiny buttons.

The point I’m trying to make is this: it doesn’t matter if you’re technical or non-technical as a blogger. Problems will arise in both camps. As long as you focus on writing and publishing, which is really the hardest part that requires the most discipline and concentration, you have succeeded for the day as a blogger.

For me this time, I spent time to fix the issue. If it comes up again too soon, I’ll go to the market and pick a new CMS, so that I don’t have to waste time maintaining the innards of the blog instead of writing.

Why I'm active on Instagram again

I started to use Instagram again, prompted by the entry of my daughter into my life.

Before becoming active on IG this time, I had left the platform for a year and a half because I didn’t like the person I was becoming as I used it.

Whenever I posted, I pegged too much of my self-worth to the engagement I received on them. When I wasn’t posting, I scrolled the feed and watched people’s Stories and I noticed that I was subconsciously belittling myself. Luckily I’m mature enough to recognise these patterns and trigger the kill-switch of leaving the platform indefinitely.

But for the last 3 weeks, I’ve used my IG account (it’s currently set to public) as a place to visually document my life and it has gone better than expected. I wanted to reflect on that.

Looking back, made simple

While I disliked the side effects of being active on IG, I loved the fact that I could revisit my memories anytime on any device. I’ve also on several occasions shared links to specific posts with friends to remind them of our shared memories. I have to admit, I visit my profile a lot because I have a terrible memory and my IG profile serves as a digital manifestation of a memory lane, albeit a selective one.

screenshot of my instagram profile page

And now, with Charlotte in our lives, I have so much more to look back on. Because children grow up extremely fast (way faster than I had realised before I had one), there’s much to document and look back on to remember.

You might be thinking: why not document these as blog posts? My answer is twofold: 1) my friends are on that platform and spend time (unfortunately, an inordinate amount of it) on it; 2) it’s quite hard to replicate the visual design of IG on a blog.

Yes, I don’t own my data on IG - I’m painfully aware of that. But I choose to think of the bright side: I still own the original files of everything I upload (in my Google Photos account and my Synology storage device). And, as a software developer, if I hear that something might jeopardise the longevity of IG, I’ll probably write a script to download all my posts so I can preserve the post format and my writing.

Reflecting daily

I like forcing functions - that is, things that force you to do something before you can achieve what you set out to do. For example, you cannot start a car if the gear is engaged.

In my case, I find that having to upload daily to IG also forces me to reflect daily. The very act of sifting through a day’s pictures on my phone will force me to reflect on the day. On top of this, as someone who prefers writing over talking or photographing or videoing, I naturally tend towards words, and what are words if not for thinking (i.e. reflecting)?

Practising laying hooks

We live in a noisy world. What I realised is that because it is a noisy world, I need a reliable technique of broadcasting signals that cut through the noise to reach people online. This is useful for, say, building an audience for a business, but it is also useful for getting the attention of the people whose attention you’ve already captured before. Even inner circles have inner circles!

I find IG a perfect battleground for testing these techniques that I’m making up as I go. My mission with this who-knows-how-long project is simple: upload a post every single day to document that day. While I’m at it, I might as well try and make the post stand out so that it compels people who follow me to consider putting their thumb on their screen to stop the scroll and read. I might as well learn something since I’m already putting in the effort.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams writes well, and he has this to say: “Your first sentence needs to grab the reader.”

Practising visual design

canva screenshot

The previous point is not just about writing. Since IG is primarily a visual medium, creating an effective hook for someone to pause and do a double-take involves visual design.

You know how some IG profiles make impeccable use of the profile grid and as a result, exude a particular feeling when you view them? Here’s a Pinterest collection of them. That’s one creative way of practising visual design that will get attention.

So I’m trying to learn this, too. I’ve so far learned a few tricks when using Canva to edit each post’s cover image, like using frames and various typefaces. There’s a lot to learn.

Showing up daily

Finally, this project is also an exercise in showing up. I think of Austin Kleon:

Focus on days.

The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that.

(That’s from the book Show Your Work. It’s a good read. Find my partial notes here.)

I think there is tremendous value in proving to yourself that you’re capable of showing up again and again, regardless of the weather, external or internal. For example, I’ve been writing and publishing a post on this blog for the last year and a half every single week, and at any time when I feel like I’m not very capable or talented, I know that I’m at least capable of that.

What I learned asking 120 people about my writing

About a week ago I sent out a letter to my subscribers asking them to tell me one question: Why are you subscribed?

I wanted to find out what kind of people were on the receiving end of my nascent personal newsletter:

  • What drew them to subscribe?
  • What did they like so far from reading the newsletter and blog?
  • What did they dislike?
  • Who are they?

I learned several things, so I thought I’d write them for sharing, in case you’re ever in a similar situation wondering what the hell you’re doing with a newsletter.

Everything is a funnel

I sent the email to 120 subscribers, of which 80 opened, and 6 replied. A funnel!

This supports something I read recently about the 1% rule, which says that in any internet community, 1% of people will create, 9% will contribute, and 90% will lurk.

In the case of my newsletter community, I’m part of the 1% creating the blog posts and newsletters. The 6 people who responded are in the 9%. And the rest form the 90%.

Actual stats? 6 replies out of 80 opens equates to 7.5%, which is in the ballpark of the 9% contribution figure. Claim supported.

(I first read it in Sahil Lavingia’s The Minimalist Entrepreneur, in the chapter where he laid out how to leverage internet communities that you belong in to find an interesting problem to build a minimalist business to solve.)

The learning here is mostly “this reinforced my perspective that everything is a funnel, so put in more at the top.”

If you want to know, ask

The second thing I learned is that we live in an incredible time where if you wanted to know something, the only thing standing in your way to getting an answer (or many answers) is to ask.

The internet and the ubiquity of personal email addresses have made this feedback channel entirely cost- and hassle-free. All one needs is to find the courage and ask.

Courage is in short supply, though. I hesitated a while before sending that vulnerable newsletter, leaving the draft to ferment overnight. I almost didn’t send it, but I’m very glad that I did.

Had I not sent that newsletter out describing how blind I was about who was there enjoying which things I wrote, I would still not know. If you want to know something, just ask!

People read this blog because they connect with me (and maybe it’s true of yours, too)

This is an insight I uncovered from talking to the few people who replied (and I haven’t even responded to everyone who replied, so who knows what other insights may spring up). Most people said something to the effect of “I read the stuff you write because I know/feel like I know you personally.”

I laughed to myself in the face of this insight. It’s really obvious now that I’ve heard it. People read what I write because we are, at some level, connecting. It’s about shared interests, like in our case, communicating well, technology, leadership, and tools for thought.

You know what I thought initially? I thought people read my stuff because I was helpful. But as one friend who replied to the newsletter put it:

… “help” needs to be seen in the context of an existing need.

You can only know that need if you know your audience and their context, then you can decide how to deploy your knowledge and perspective in a way that is meaningful to them. Otherwise, the “help” you give may not be very helpful to the receiver.

Since I had no idea about the audience I’m writing for — hence the vulnerable letter — it means that I correspondingly have no idea who I think I have been “helpful” to. So if I were helpful to anyone, it has always been incidental.

What I know is this: all along I’d only been writing about things that I found interesting. The only other requirement I imposed on myself was to put in the effort to let others who may like the same things stumble on and enjoy reading my perspective about those things.

And guess what? This approach has managed to attract 120 like-minded people from around the world to my mailing list, which I only started at the beginning of 2021. You may not think it, but 120 real people who put their email addresses down is a big number to me. It means something!

Right, so the thing I learned here is that people read you because of you.

Two rules for fearless writing

Now that I know that people read my blog because it’s written by me (wow, that sounded strangely grandiose yet intimate), I feel licensed to write whatever I want.

To be honest, with this experiment behind me, I feel like that kid at university again who wrote thinking nobody was reading him; except this time, I know some people are reading me and yet it matters very little as long as I keep to two basic rules:

  1. Write what I’m interested in.
  2. Try and write something that is fun to read.

Number 1 keeps “me” in the writing. Number 2 makes reading “me” enjoyable. Boom. This should be added to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life!

If you ever have feedback for me, send me an email.

Thank you Jonathan, Sébastien, Masha, Kaiying, Flince, and Judy for replying to my email!

Stop thanking me for what I ought to be doing as a father

This is going to sound utterly self-congratulatory, but it’s rather the complete opposite. Since our daughter was born a little over a month ago, I’ve received messages from a few people saying how happy they were to see that I’ve been a present father.

For example, our midwife said to me, “it’s always nice to see that the father is so involved,” when she saw that I was unafraid to change our daughter’s diaper and clothes during one of her earlier home visits.

Then, many DM-ed my wife when she posted on her Instagram a series of photos of confinement meals that I’d cooked to help her with her postpartum recovery, saying things like, “You have the best husband!”

screenshots of instagram stories with my cooking

So far, still sounding very much self-congratulatory, I know. Bear with me.

So anyway, when, after all these, one of my female friends complimented me, I lamented to her:

Women go through so much to grow and care for a child, it’s the right thing for a father to try and be an equal partner in other ways like cooking, cleaning the house, running errands, changing diapers, and so on. I think it’s sad that this is something that men get thanked for because so much of what mothers do are thankless and taken for granted!

That’s how I feel about the whole thing. Stop thanking me for what I ought to be doing as a father and husband! Please, divert your attention to the person who suffered 100x more and is yet doing everything thanklessly.

To this, she responded:

“It’s so heartwarming to read that! My husband was a superhero during my recovery of the birth but I know for a fact that not all dads act like this - I have many friends who couldn’t count on their partner the way Charlane and I are able to!”

(I’ve edited the wording slightly to preserve the anonymity of said friend.)

I think men have been cut too much slack for far too long when it comes to parenting. I believe that leniency has bred chauvinism across many cultures.

Here’s what I hold as truth: work is much easier than parenting.

Phrased another way: don’t use the fact that you’re working as an excuse to be an absent or unequal partner in raising your child.

If your wife didn’t have to be pregnant for 9 months, endure excruciating pain to deliver the child, and deal with her wrecked body during postpartum recovery, she would probably also be working. And I’ll bet that she would still manage to feed and play with her child, cook for you, clean the house, run errands, and do things to show you that she loves you.

So, my fellow men and people who identify as a “he,” wake up. Learn to be an equal partner. Earning money is not a good enough reason to let your partner feel like she is raising your child(ren) alone.

Be a man; do the right thing.