As I write this, your social media accounts are likely flooded with memes talking about how horrible 2016 was because Prince and Bowie and Princess Leia (and Leia’s mom) all died and everyone’s Christmas was ruined, and oh yeah, Trump won too.
2016 was an intense year, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most significant of which is that I believe it’s the year that our attention reached full saturation (more on that below) causing every smallish piece of news to feel like it’s both world-ending and totally-not-a-big-deal-and-maybe-not-even-true, all at the same time. We now live in a post-truth world, and I think we’ll look back at 2016 as the year in which that began. The seeming omnipresence of celebrity deaths is merely a side effect of that.
But I don’t want to talk about politics here. I want to speak more personally. Because, personally, 2016 was likely the most pivotal year of my life.
My plan with this post is to simply go over all of the major themes of the year for me, and reflect on them a bit, see what I’ve learned and what can be gleaned going forward. Unlike most of my articles, this post will be loosely organized — merely a collection of my thoughts as I look back.
Moving Back to the US After Seven Years Abroad: Both Bittersweet and a Life-Saver
In case you don’t know, beginning in 2009, I lived a primarily nomadic lifestyle and spent the majority of my time living outside of the United States for the next seven years. In the process, I traveled to over 60 countries, learned two languages, and met my wife.
There were a number of years while living abroad that I sincerely believed that I would never return to live in the US. My disdain for some aspects of American culture has been no secret, and granted the freedom to settle down anywhere in the world, I always figured I’d end up somewhere else.
Yet, in February, my fiancee and I moved to New York permanently. The choice was made for a variety of practical reasons. My fiancee and I needed to select one of our countries to register our marriage and begin the residency process. I wanted to be closer to the publishing industry and be able to take advantage of more mainstream media opportunities. We wanted to live long-term in a first-world country with excellent amenities and we both spoke the language. On top of that, we both loved New York City and both dreamed of living there at least once in our lives.
But the real benefits of the move wouldn’t be clear until after I arrived.
The years living abroad and constantly on the road, I always kind of knew in the back of my mind that I was missing out on community. But I never knew the extent. I had forgotten how important it was to simply have people around you that you can reliably call up for a beer, year after year, people you can develop and grow a history with. Instead, on the road, and living in many places, friendships would be transitory at best, superficial at worst. But when you share a home, you share an investment and commitment with the people around you. And that investment in your locale makes all the difference.
In hindsight, 2014-2015 had been difficult for me. At the time, I chalked up the stress and burnout that I felt in those years to the pressure I was putting on myself with the new book, the explosive growth of my website, and the internal struggles I was having coming to terms with my own commitment issues. And I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to all of those things.
But my god, if somehow moving home and rooting down didn’t solve 90% or more of those issues for me, I don’t know what did. But it’s amazing how night-and-day happier I became. How more comfortable and relaxed my day-to-day life ended up being. I needed stability and comfort. And I needed a strong network of in-person, face-to-face friends. Looking back, the problem had been fairly obvious yet hidden all along: I needed a home.
Launching a Bestselling Book: Those Sales Numbers — What the Actual Fuck?
I worked on The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck on and off throughout 2014 and 2015. I put as much time and effort into it as anything I’ve ever worked on in my life, and while I knew not to get my hopes up too much, I felt like it had a real chance at being a big, important book.
The launch was pretty insane. From July to November, I did, by my count, more than 150 interviews, readings and promotions, with the vast majority of them falling in the few weeks around the September 13 release date. The book did well out of the gates, garnering more than 15,000 pre-orders and selling well enough to hit the NYTimes bestseller list (and stay there for the most part).
But the insanity really began towards the end of November. In early November, I started receiving emails from Harper telling me that the audiobook was selling a lot of copies. Each week they’d email me telling me that the audiobook sales had jumped up, 60%, 80%, one week even 110%. Soon, it was selling more than ebooks and hard copies combined. And it didn’t stop there.
Then Black Friday and the holiday season hit, which is always a good time for books. My guess is that people who bought and read the book (or listened to it) decided it’d make a great gift because sales skyrocketed and haven’t looked back since. The next week, Audible chose the book as its Best Self-Development Audiobook of 2016, and from there, sales took off and never looked back.
Since then, the book has been selling upwards of 30,000 copies each week. And that doesn’t even count international sales.
Without digging into the math of it, let me just tell you bluntly: those are life-changing sales numbers. Not simply from a name-recognition point of view, but from a purely financial point of view as well. I estimate that the royalties from my December book sales alone will be about as much money as I made during the other 11 months of the year combined. And if these sales continue well into 2017, I could see my income as an author grow ten-fold over the coming year.
As Joe Biden would say, that’s a big fucking deal.
The effect this is having on me is already noticeable. No, I didn’t go out and splurge on a Lamborghini and, I’m sad to report, there have been no hooker/cocaine binges as of yet (let’s see how the marriage goes, first).
What has begun to change is my relationship with my own time. Money, for all of its power, is often overrated for the wrong reasons, while its real uses go unnoticed. In my opinion, the most valuable aspect of money is not the stuff it buys you, but rather the time it liberates.
Already, I’m finding that a lot of pesky parts of my business that I used to loathe doing, I’ve simply stopped doing them. They no longer economically make sense. For much of this year, I agonized over a drop in website traffic, the increased competitiveness in blogging, the rise of audio and video, what to do with my courses, and so on. The breakout success of the book has abated a lot of this stress. I’m no longer obsessing over SEO traffic or wondering if Facebook is somehow secretly screwing over my entire business model. Sure, these things still matter, but here in December, they now matter about 10% as much to my career and livelihood as they did before.
I spent much of this year struggling to decide whether or not to dive into video and podcasting. I even went as far as interviewing with a number of production studios (another perk of living in NY) in order to get serious about potentially launching a big-time, capital-P Podcast. Throughout the year, I felt some excitement at the prospect, but I also felt pressured. For eight years, my blog grew in size every year… except this year. This fact really bothered me for some reason, and my natural inclination seemed to be to immediately whore myself out to whatever mode or medium would get those readers/listeners back, all the while ignoring the soft voice in the back of my head whispering, “Shouldn’t you be writing?”
But again, the transformative power of money. I used to joke with my friends when I was broke about having “fuck you” money — that is, enough money to say “fuck you” in pretty much any situation you want to. Well, the massive success of the book this winter has allowed me to say “fuck you” to my insecurities about my site’s slightly less staggering traffic numbers — because really, who cares? It’s allowed me to say fuck you to my impulsive need to always expand my audience, because since when does having more readers necessarily mean what you’re doing is better or more important? Kim Kardashian likely has the biggest personal brand on the planet. Is that who I aspire to be? Probably not. It also allowed me to say fuck you to my nervous desire to start podcasting or making videos — two things I have little experience doing, with large learning curves and time commitments, and two things that I don’t even know if they’d be worth the trouble.
I’m a writer. People clearly want me to write more than anything else. I want to write more than anything else. So what the fuck? I should write. It really is that simple.
A Couple Other Comments on the State of Blogging in 2016
As mentioned before, 2016 was the first year in nine years of blogging that my traffic went down, and this had an embarrassingly large effect on my confidence this year.
First off, I realize that given my staggeringly high traffic numbers in 2015, some sort of decline was inevitable. I knew this on some level, but even so, it bothered me. Because what really disturbed me wasn’t less traffic, but it was the shifting landscape of the internet.
In my opinion, the internet and people’s consumption habits changed more this year than any other year since Facebook launched its newsfeed. Two of the most relevant changes I noticed were: a) blog traffic appears to be declining almost everywhere — publications from the NYTimes to Tumblr are seeing drop offs — and b) people seem to have hit “peak attention” and are simply overwhelmed by content on the internet right now.
What’s changing is beyond a simple preference for video or audio content. I think people are becoming desensitized to information in general, and this spells bad news for anyone who is in the short-form words-writing business. Overall, I am bearish on the blogging medium over the coming five years. I think that not only is the overall pie shrinking, but the amount of people fighting for pieces of that pie is increasing.
To me, this is only more of an argument for focusing on books going forward. If there’s been a single principle in my career that has dictated my success more than any others, it’s the simple idea of doubling down on what works. And right now, my books (both of them) are far more reliable and have a brighter outlook, on the whole, than blogging. This isn’t to say that blogging is “dead” or that it’s not worth it. For me, it clearly is. It simply means that blogging will likely no longer be my highest priority in the coming years in the way it has been in the previous five years.
Oh Yeah, the Whole Getting Married Thing
I did that whole thing where I stood in front of all of the most important people in my life and pledged a lifelong commitment to my best friend and partner. That was pretty cool and overwhelming and one of the best days of my life.
The only comment I’ll add about the wedding experience that I haven’t already written elsewhere is this: the emotional intensity and mental/financial stress of a wedding creates an interesting situation that likely only comes around once in a lifetime. As such, the people who show up, more than any other event in my life, really show up as who they are. Friends and family who genuinely love you unconditionally, make that love crystal clear. Friends and family who are working through their own insecurities in their relationship with you, those insecurities shine through. Friends and family who are jealous, selfish, magnanimous, altruistic — these qualities become impossible to hide.
Weddings are a real moment-of-truth for your relationships. From your parents and siblings all the way down to the most casual friends and acquaintances. The person who shows up to your wedding is the real person in your life with no pretensions, for better or worse. All of the amazing moments and life-changing statements of my wedding aside, this was an incredibly interesting and invaluable side effect.
Looking Ahead to 2017
I’m already in contract negotiations with Harper about another book. This one will be about relationships. I will likely spend most of 2017 writing it and it will be published in 2018.
Hopefully, the dramatic success of The Subtle Art will continue throughout next year. If it does (and everyone seems to expect it to), the plan is to simplify my internet presence to a few, tightly focused, high-value writings each month on the site and for subscribers. Now that I’ve reached a point of financial stability purely through my writing, I’d like to simply continue to cultivate that moving forward with as little distraction or diversion as possible.
Thank you for being a part of that, for your support, and your continued enthusiasm for my ideas. This has been one of the most difficult years of my life. But if you know anything about my work, you know that that difficulty has come along with some of the most important moments and breakthroughs as well. I feel that many years from now I will look back and see 2016 as a turning point for me in many ways. Thank you for being a part of it and thank you for your support. Here’s to 2017 and a few less dead famous people.