Give a crap. Don’t give a fuck.

How do you know if you’re doing a good job? There’s always an external way to measure quality—being prepared, attending to the details, listening to the collective wisdom about what it means to do good work. Give a crap about the little things, and you’re good.

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What about doing a great job? There’s no checklist, no guidelines that will get you there. Being great means being vulnerable; not giving a fuck about what other people think. It’s harder than it sounds.

A.#section2

There are lots of good conferences out there, run by dedicated people who strive to put on an engaging show for attendees and treat their speakers right.

And then there’s Webstock. Everyone tells you Webstock will be an amazing experience, unlike any other event. I spoke there this year, and despite having my expectations ratcheted up to astronomical peaks, the conference managed to exceed them.

It’s a compelling puzzle to reverse-engineer what makes Webstock so wonderful. I could list so many things—the stage, the space, the people, the flat whites. But what really stands out at Webstock is the organizers’ attention to detail. Tash Lampard, Mike Brown, Deb Sidelinger, and Ben Lampard could teach a master class in giving a crap about the small stuff. From the first email explaining what to do and where to go, through the last dregs of the closing conference party, it’s obvious that no issue was too insignificant to merit concern. Along the way, there were a million small touches—several custom flavors of ice cream, their very own conference beer (a reverse IPA they called API), even flowers waiting for me in my room when I finished teaching a workshop.

By setting such a high standard for themselves, the people who run Webstock bring out the best in everyone there. Every speaker clearly wanted to give the best talk he or she could. And it showed.

Want some of this magic in your own life? There’s no shortage of tips on the web that will tell you how to do a better job. Here’s how to run more effective meetings. Anticipate problems and plan for them. Rehearse. Sleep eight hours a night. Write 750 words before checking email. Test and iterate. Ask for feedback. Recycle. Write shorter emails. Tailor your message to other people’s communication style. Proofread. Call your mother. Wash your bowl out after you eat. Follow up with new contacts right away. Save your receipts. Smile at strangers. Meditate. Inbox zero.

Always, the solution is to try, try again, try harder. You can always hold yourself to a higher standard.

B.#section3

I hold myself to a high standard for public speaking. I respect the people who spend their time and money at a conference to hear me speak, and I’m grateful to the organizers who offer a forum to share my ideas. I typically spend between 80 and 100 hours writing a new talk and designing the accompanying slides. I work with a speaking coach who makes me rehearse each talk repeatedly and is unsparing with his feedback. I feel confident when I can stand up on stage, knowing I’m fully prepared.

In August 2012, I had to write a new talk for An Event Apart DC. AEA is another conference that inspires speakers to be their best, and under normal circumstances I would agonize over getting this talk exactly right. Only this year, I was dealing with the aftermath of a personal betrayal that left me bewildered, reeling. I’d barely eaten in weeks. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a full night’s sleep. I was treading water with my clients and behind on all my commitments. People were really starting to worry about me. I was a mess.

I had absolutely nothing left in me for this talk. I wrote the slides at the very last minute, on the train from New York to DC. I had planned to rehearse them that night in the hotel, but instead I had a devastating phone conversation which took my personal crisis nuclear. I don’t remember sleeping that night, alternating between tears and numbness. I have never in my life been less prepared to give a talk.

But, the show must go on. Twelve hours later, I was on stage. The only thing that got me up there was this thought: “Fuck it. I can do this.”

Reader, I killed it. By every measure available to me, both objective (audience surveys) and subjective (comments from friends), this talk was one of the better ones I’ve ever given. I don’t say this like it’s some kind of triumphant tale of come-from-behind victory, the Bad News Bears of public speaking. Stepping off the stage that day, I felt the opposite of victorious: I felt weak, alone, vulnerable. And that, paradoxically, is what the audience responded to.

In retrospect, I’m as proud of that performance as I am of anything I’ve ever done. I’m comfortable when I can tell myself I’m in control, when I can attend to all the small details and various checklists that add up to “doing a good job.” I had to be forced into a place where I simply did not give a fuck in order to find out what I was really capable of.

What elevates someone’s work from “technically excellent” to “truly great” is the extent to which you feel like you’re seeing them live their truth, be fully themselves. When I watch Mike Monteiro on stage, I don’t see someone who’s obsessing over every detail (even though I know he is.) What I respond to is the fact that he’s putting himself out there completely. When Brené Brown talks about being vulnerable, that’s what she means. And that—more than beautifully designed conference swag bags or hilariously-written e-mails—is what makes Webstock amazing. It’s an event where you can tell they’ve put their whole heart into it, and everything great you’re seeing is a reflection of how great they are as people—they’re pursuing not what someone told them it meant to be good, but living their deep, abiding personal commitment to being good.

Jason Scott, the historian and digital archivist, told me at Webstock that a fitting epitaph for his headstone would be: “He gave a crap. He didn’t give a fuck.” That sentiment might not be found on a motivational poster, but I found it inspirational. Care deeply about your personal values and live them fully in this world. Don’t get caught up in worrying about other people’s checklists to tell you what good work means to you.

Give a crap. Don’t give a fuck.

46 Reader Comments

  1. That was a really terrific first-person perspective, Karen. Thank you for sharing.

    You’re spot-on about the difficult of not worry about the opinions of others and how those views influence your personal convictions, your personal thoughts about your own work. We inherently look for feedback in many different forms and the most obvious is the reaction of your audience; when we speak on topics we have passion for we might live and die by that reaction. You really put it in a great light in the final paragraph: care more about your personal values with your work (and life) than what others think you should be caring about.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. As someone in attendance at that AEA talk, I would *never* have guessed how you were feeling on the inside. I spoke with you briefly afterwords (had a question) and up close and personal, I was impressed by the intensity with which you felt about the subject. It was a barn burner of a talk. I wonder if it was not so much of a case of being ‘unprepared’, as not being overprepared. You’ve done a lot of talks, and you know what it takes to pull it off. Maybe the short amount of time you spent building *this particular* talk allowed you to more ‘go with the flow’, and in doing so, tapped into some genuine emotions, which is what the audience responded to. (Looking forward to seeing you talk at DrupalCon – no pressure!)

  3. Can anyone explain the rise in the use of profanity by speakers and writers in the UX field? Is this happening in other fields also? I’m not personally offended by it, but I do think it’s inappropriate an unprofessional.

  4. @Brianh — that’s actually a really interesting shift, speaking from a purely word-geek perspective. Informally, profanity is on the rise in situations where the assumed audience is adult and mature – especially online. It’s something I love, a well-placed swear word can really make a piece of writing. Many editors are shifting their style guides and expectations to reflect this.

    On the other hand, official style guides on services like AP and CP are moving towards a heavier hand of editorial control /against/ profanity, because corporate clients who are buying copy and content rarely use editorial oversight and are upset when otherwise editable profanity slips through without them noticing.

    TL,DR: where there are actual editors or content creators in direct control of the site, yes, profanity is coming through more to reflect a more personable tone; but it’s being used less in more robotic situations. UX tends to be full of people who write from a personal place, so I do think the field drifts towards the former model.

    This is all a total sidenote, sorry. The article was fucking brilliant.

  5. Thank you, Karen, for paying attention to the details. I often see Mike and Tash thanked for Webstock, and rightfully so since they’re the ones who get on stage, but people often forget about Deb and Ben. I’ve been friends with Deb for something like 12 years, and I know how much work she puts into Webstock, so it’s nice to see her and Ben get recognized as well. Nice example of sweating the small stuff. 🙂

  6. Doing a great job takes time. Sure imagination and intelligence play a part, and so do the opinions of others. But eventually (after 10,000 hours or so, according to David Brooks) you’ll achieve a level of skill where you won’t have to think about the basics, they’re ingrained. Now you can sweat the small stuff and truly achieve. This is true of any endeavor worthy of attainment.

    Fortune cookie version: Success lies in mastering the details.

    All that and not an f-bomb in sight. Profanity is for weak minds.

  7. Your talk at AEADC was truly amazing. I couldn’t stop talking about it to my coworkers and pounding the drum about the importance of mobile. I’m always inspired by your talks and they way you break complex issues into bits of information that are not only digestible, but memorable.

    I like reading posts like this because it really brings out the humanity in those that I admire. I often feel like I need to be supernatural in order to achieve the level of greatness you, Jason Santa Maria, Jessica Hische, Ethan Marcotte and many others have attained.

    Humbling for sure… thank you for this perspective

  8. Loved the article. I care a lot about the small details even to the point of being irritating, so I get it. You reminded me that sometimes you’ve just gotta go with what you have and get it out there already. It’s also made me think about how I can make my project stand head and shoulders above the rest in the personal development space. As for the profanity, I don’t find it offensive if used well.

  9. Absolutely brilliant post. Detail is one of those things that especially eat at a conscientious designer. I’ve found that the giants in many industries always put a bit of themselves into their work, even if it’s intended to be used by others. You can identify that personal touch even if it’s well hidden. It’s like an… aura that surrounds the work. That’s the kind of design that makes me smile most.

    As Chris said though, it takes a ton of effort to make it all look effortless. I push toward that level of skill every day. When we truly care about what we do, when a signature becomes redundant to us, it shines. Heh, I can’t back him up on the profanity. To me, a well placed precision f-strike can drive the point home in ways more polite rhetoric just can’t touch.

  10. I absolutely agree that it is the little things that count. Webstock (my first time too) was a fantastic experience and your talk was a standout for me. As someone once told me, prepare well then just be in the moment and relate to your audience. Something special happens when you do this.

  11. I was there at AEADC and you totally nailed your talk. I would never have guessed that you had difficult things going on in your personal life. There was a certain intensity to your talk that I attributed to you feeling passionately about your subject matter but perhaps it was more than that… Love your post and your willingness to put yourself out there and be vulnerable!

  12. Karen, the challenges and experiences you share make me want to hug you and high five you all at once! I’ve thrilled at the opportunity to be in your audience on several occasions, and I never miss the chance: like a Broadway star, you always deliver an emphatic, invigorating performance. That takes vulnerability—but also deep, ungated generosity. Thank you for always giving your all to the audience.

  13. 80 to 100 hours and a speach coach – wow. Your Webstock talk was just superb (my whole team thought the same). The delivery was flawless. I have so much respect for those who do the hard yards to apply polish, and make things look easy.

  14. So many points in this article that make me love and admire you even more, Karen. One that amazed me is that every time I’ve seen a video of you speaking, you OWN that stage. Are you content with that? No. You invest your money in a speaking coach! Always, always a learner. That, too, is a form of vulnerability, especially when learning one-on-one from an expert. Not only that, you reveal it to us in this article. No pretense. You are the epitome of someone who is “Daring Greatly” and putting your REAL self out there while being absolutely tops in your profession. How exhausting it must be for people who invest, instead, in maintaining a “brand” of superiority—which is not even remotely the same as being great. Margot nailed it, too, when she distilled it all down to the word, “generosity.” Thank you.

  15. Thank you to everyone for all your kind words and positive feedback. It’s always meaningful when I get to hear people’s comments on my work (whatever it is) but hearing all your good wishes and compassion in response to this piece really means a lot to me. I’m so grateful to be a part of this community.

    To any who happened to see that talk in DC, thanks for letting me know you didn’t notice I was a huge mess. I had one big thing going for me, and that was all the material I’d collected while writing my book, Content Strategy for Mobile, so I was able to quickly pull a talk together on a subject I cared a lot about. (Well, I had two big things going for me, and the other was the warm and supportive audience in DC. Thank you.)

    Finally, to anyone who feels uneasy about the use of profanity in this piece, please know that it wasn’t done carelessly. Jason Scott’s comment at Webstock really resonated with me, and it was the organizing principle that made this piece come together. I don’t think the column would have worked if I didn’t share that anecdote. There are many things in life I will never do and one of them is censor Jason Scott. (Though it would have been amusing to see him read this piece with the quote neutered to “Give a fig, don’t give a hoot.”)

    Thanks, again. I can’t really say that enough.

  16. The use of profanity in the article, is a turn-off. It shows a lack of vocabulary, and originality. We can do better. Saying that profanity is needed to get a point across, is lazy and insufficient.

  17. Damn. Wasn’t expecting this. Wasn’t expecting to immediately treasure this piece as an exercise in vulnerability, where I can sense the words living, breathing, shaking with the crude awareness that even to suggest “Don’t give a fuck” takes guts. Like most worthwhile things. Basically, I’m in awe of your bravery, and your sincerity.

    I still give a fuck, but I’m working on it. Thanks for reminding me to.

  18. see, there i was, kneeling at the foot of great advice from an industry luminary i admire, and suddenly you got all honest and vulnerable. double benefit for me. thank you for giving your talk even though you felt terrible. and thank you for being brave enough to tell us about it. and of COURSE, thank you for continuing to investigate, plan, test, and write about how we should be making the web awesome/suck less. i’m taking copious notes. 🙂

    wrt swearing, if it’s good enough for Stephen Fry, it’s good enough for me. 🙂

  19. > Reader, I killed it.

    Had the same experience myself. I was unabashedly willing to tell those close to me about it because it felt so good. Stands out, like you say, as an example to aspire to.

  20. Are we “web professionals”? Because this is not professional language, the same point could have been made with any number of more carefully chosen words.

  21. This is an excellent article, and it adds to a refreshing trend of web professionals sharing their personal/professional struggles and triumphs (e.g. @sazzy’s recent post, Speaking up.)—a great encouragement for those of us still climbing the figurative mountain.

    Putting aside comments from those with a personal distaste for the word, I cannot disagree more with those who commented that the use of “fuck,” especially when used tastefully and in an illustrative way (as this article exemplified), is “lazy,” unoriginal, or even unprofessional.

    I have several reasons for disagreeing with these statements, but my primary disagreement is with the implication that those who choose to use such words are unintelligent.

    This attitude comes across as judgmental and trite in the 21st century.

    Don’t get me wrong, many of us had this same idea drilled into us by many an English teacher, parent, or both. But, even a cursory investigation of the available literature (print or web) on the etymology and modern usage of so-called profane words should cause the aforementioned commenters to think twice before leaving such misinformed comments.

    Take, for example, this excerpt from Tony McEnery’s book “Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity, and Power from 1586 to the Present” (also referenced in the NYTimes.com article Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?):

    “The campaigns of the late 17th and early 18th century that linked bad language with moral degeneracy, low education and general brutishness were incredibly successful in forming views of bad language that endure in the English language to this day. They were also successful at establishing the nascent middle classes of the English speaking world as a locus of purity and hence a locus of power.

    The moral triumph of the middle classes was also a political triumph. The triumph endures and still sets the rules of the game for public political discourse to this day.”

    I understand the sentiment, but if you seriously missed out on the powerful message of this article because you couldn’t get past five well-placed “fucks” (out of over 1,000 words), well…that just sucks for you.

  22. Just experienced something that made me want to share similar sentiments. For the longest time people have wondered how and why I pay so much attention to the detail and sometimes let other things slide, and this is a great piece of anecdotal evidence to support it…So often we as designers and creatives are given some form of “control” with regards to our work- however this control can often be controlled/dictated by the whims and desires of the audience or the client.
    To the extent that we can keep ourselves sane, happy, and productive by taking care of the small bits that we can truly control, the rest is sometimes a crapshoot, and we need to step back and realize that. There are elements of life you can prepare for, but even the greatest preparation, or knowledge may not equip you to handle what’s around the next bend.
    Focus on you, your tasks, your sanity, your work, and the rest will have to fall into place on its own. You truly can’t be called out or blamed if you did what you were supposed to do…and you’ll feel better..
    So be sure to give a crap, and leave the rest of the BS ‘for the birds.’

    @Andy Ward – Sometimes being professional (to yourself) is being honest and forthcoming with your feelings. This is an article posted on a blog, you should be able to infer that Karen is obviously intelligent and experienced enough to know when to use what language. Also some clients do appreciate creatives that actually display soul, passion, and emotion.
    Apathetic, PC, watered-down creatives are just imposters.

  23. Wow. Seriously startled by the number of commenters bothered the use of the F word in this article. Really?!?! This isn’t a presentation for work, it’s an online article that reads more like a conversation amongst friends. What’s the big fucking deal? ;^)

    I, however, happened to find it incredibly inspiring. Thank you for sharing, and I hope to hear you at an AEA one of these days, prepared or otherwise.

  24. Dropped in to read the comments and was amazed by the self-righteous vulgarians.

    “Profanity is the attempt of a lazy and feeble mind to express itself forcefully”

  25. Karen, this is a wonderful piece. I came across it by accident, since I’m in a *completely* different field (I teach religion at a Canadian university). But speaking is speaking, and what you have to say resonates both with classes I’ve taught and with conference papers I’ve given. Preparation is great, but there’s something about those times when you’re on edge, out of time, and possibly terrified that take you to great places you cannot reach when you’ve simply done everything correctly and are fully in control.

    Your commentary also links to an idea at the heart of a book from the 1970s by theologian John Dominic Crossan that you might find interesting. I myself am *not* a theologian, but this is an idea I quite like.

    The book is *The Dark Interval* and in it Crossan proposes that there is a “spectrum” of stories. At the one end is “myth,” which provides us with a sense of meaning, which answers our questions about the world. At the other end is “parable,” which subverts myth; it asks questions, encourages doubt, and — in Crossan’s view — offers the opportunity for transcendence. Myth is about strength, parable is about weakness.

    In Crossan’s words: “You have built a lovely home, myth assures us; but, whispers parable, you are right above an earthquake fault.”

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