Two hundred and thirty one of you have lent me access to your inbox. Given me the keys to post prosaic presents to you through the internet wires. My audience has roughly doubled in the last two months since I started writing again. I published four essays and many of you went “I like this and I want more”. Either that, or I bribed you. Whether you’re here for the money or the honey, you’re here and it means a lot to me.
How do I make sense of this number? What does 231 look like?
231 is about the size of a small Nigerian wedding. It’s more people than can comfortably fit on the dance floor of Madrones. Even though the owners would beg to differ. It’s roughly the number of people that Oprah bought those cars for.
It’s more people than the Concorde could carry as she proudly bellowed her carbon across the Atlantic. And if you were all seated next to each other in a theatre, it’s large enough to send shudders and shivers down the spine of a shaky public speaker.
If I reached out to one of you every week, it would take me four years to orbit around you. So it’s not a small thing.
I remember when I knew every single one of my subscribers. My first sixty readers joined when I launched. Best friends that didn’t have a choice in the matter. Family that I guilt tripped. Coworkers that swung between colleagues and friends. I knew them by name and nature. I published on and off for a little while. Then I stopped writing for about a year because I was depressed. Since I returned last month, about a hundred lovely strangers have joined the ship. Future friends that peruse and ponder my words. I am so grateful.
The magic of writing is finding your people. No matter how unique or esoteric I might think I am, there are people who feel the same things and are on the same wavelength. When I was an engineer, my work didn’t move anyone. It moved charts and metrics that people told me were important for “business reasons”. But now, people reach out from the ether and write me heartfelt messages. The difference couldn’t be more emphatic.
Yet in a world where we hear stories of stupendous scale, 231 feels small. When I look around, I see creators who either have huge followings or those with dreams who haven’t started yet. The middle ground seems vast and lonely. Against my better judgement, I occasionally compare myself to someone with a much bigger following. Like there’s someone out there with 231,000 readers. It’s dumb, but hey I’m fallible. My logical brain knows that comparison is the thief of joy. But the reptilian guy underneath whispers: “Stop wagging your tail, 231 is small potatoes”.
Duct tape in hand, I silence the reptile guy and banish him to the far recesses of my mind. I remind myself that raw volume is not the goal here. It would suck to have tens of thousands of disconnected subscribers who are unmoved by my essays. Or a crowd that constantly ignores them. If I had to choose, I’d much rather have a vibrant community of readers, even if there are fewer of you. And so many of you have made me feel truly alive in the last month: texts, emails, DMs, hugs, comments and compliments from friends old and new.
What does it mean to subscribe to a newsletter?
We live in an information flood. We get far too many emails, too many spam calls and too many notifications every day. Step out for a quick run and your group chat will greet your return with a hundred messages. Close your eyes for a nap and you feel your phone’s phantom buzz even though nobody texted you. There’s an avalanche of inbound content directed at you at all times.
Instacart tempting you with discounts and offers. They promise they will send you a whole bag of shallots this time, instead of a single, shrivelled bulb. Uber Eats nudging you like a toxic ex grafting for a fourteenth chance. Twitter whispering sweet nothings in your ear telling you that this time will be different. There’s a constant, aching battle for your attention.
On one side of the battlefield, we have the bruising, uncompromising giants: TikTok, YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, HBO etc. All perked up with their artillery and machinery in tow. Precisely aiming their firepower at you. Trying to invade and capture your time and attention. And on the other side is little ‘ol you holding the paper-thin shield you call willpower. The odds are stacked overwhelmingly against you.
In a world like this, it is quite a big deal for one to subscribe to a newsletter. When there are far more potent drugs (hello TikTok) that addict us on a primal level, it says a lot to want to read the words of a stranger. Especially when that stranger is mostly writing opinion pieces. I’m not giving you any tips to make passive income. Nor am I giving you any productivity hacks. So when you subscribe, you’re saying “Despite the noise in my inbox, I want to hear from you”. That is quite something. It’s deeply rewarding and it’s intoxicating.
It’s inviting me to your most precious space, your mind, and giving me access to your most sacred resource, your attention. Giving me permission every other week to prod your mind in tiny little ways that could give you a new perspective on something. It’s an incredible privilege. Letting my reflections marinate in your mind, even for a single moment. Hopefully, causing you to wrestle with the existing ideas in your mind. The truths, the narratives, the fables and the figments you tell yourself when nobody else is listening.
As a writer, it’s my responsibility to uphold my end of the bargain and deliver honest, authentic content to you. If you invite me into such an intimate space by giving me your trust and attention, it’s my duty to step up and deliver. You give me the mantle and the mic, so I have to drop bars.
I’ve learnt three big things from writing this year:
You love the vulnerability
I am unable to count the number of positive messages I have received since I started truly opening up here. My college counsellor reached out. Strangers about to quit their jobs messaged me. Old coworkers I haven’t seen in years. People I dated in previous lives. A friend who quit engineering for film school. A classmate I haven’t heard from since 2010. Someone offered to help me turn my writing into physical zines. A writer asked for a collaboration.
I saw someone quote my essay as a way to back up her claim in a debate she was having online. I’m a reference, now?
This intensity and depth of feeling is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I plan to explore even more vulnerable topics in 2023 like death, money, purpose and dating. But let me ask you. What do you want to read from me?
The best writing takes time
If you ask the internet how to grow a newsletter, it will tell you to publish frequently and consistently. I agree with the consistency piece. Your readers need to know when to expect to hear from you.
But frequency is a tricky one. Write too often and you’ll publish bland nonsense that nobody wants to read. The best stuff I’ve published is stuff I’ve contemplated and mulled over for months.
Because writing is alchemy. You can’t force a wine to age faster because you’d like a vintage bottle. You have to let the grapes and yeast do their thing. Moreover, the best essays are the ones that grapple in the grey areas. It’s the uncomfortable dissonance, the contemplation of options then the considered decision. Then, the reflection, the judgement, the guilt and ultimately the acceptance. It’s the whole spectrum of feeling and introspection that a writer goes through….that makes their written work worth reading. Well, those experiences and ideas need time to ferment into thoughtful essays. In this profound piece,compares the art of coming up with great ideas to making a good pickle.
Growth is random
In a previous life, I worked in a lab that grew yeast for making cool things. We knew how to make them grow because…science. Keep them warm, feed them sugar, give them air and they grow at a predictable rate.
This kind of controlled growth is totally opposite to growing a newsletter. Nothing here is predictable. I take shots in the dark and sometimes, I get a thumping response and other times I get radio silence. My best performing essay generated 21 new subscribers, 17 likes, 7 comments and a ton of LinkedIn DMs. But why did this essay hit a nerve? I think it’s because I spoke about something a lot of people feel but don’t express openly. But I don’t know for sure. I’m learning to surf the stochastic waves.
I cannot emphasise enough how sincere I am when I say that I’m grateful for your readership. Thank you for letting me feel this fire.
So tell me in the comments, what should I write next year?
Oprah donated nearly 300 cars. Yes, I’m rounding up for dramatic effect.
Just subscribed. I’ve also recently gone on a journey similar to yours (see my post about seeking simplicity) look forward to sharing the journey together brother
Tobi, I love to see you deriving joy from writing! And you are a joy to read. I’m excited to hear about whatever comes up for you between your adventures and down time!