How I Created a Top Publication on Medium & Transformed My Life in the Process (FS218)
I'm going to Tarantino this for you. Let's do a quick rewind to the height of the conflict and start there. Then we'll come back to today. Ready? Here we go…
It was the summer of 2014. There I was, a new dad, trying to keep Rory (our then one-year old girl) alive as well as my freelance copywriting business. I had a couple great clients. But most of them (which will remain unnamed to protect the innocent) were so dry and stale that, if they could be described in a flavor, would actually be a sort of anti-flavor that extinguished every flavor it touched.
Note: this is a guest post from Jonas Ellison, one of the largest publishers on Medium.com. His story is amazing and we wanted you to hear it in his words as well as in a podcast (below). Enjoy.
My wife was in the early stages of growing her business at that time too. She’d broken off from her boss and started her own thing when Rory was two months old.
Stress levels were on high alert. Only difference was, my wife loved what she did. I was happy that I could write for a living, but found that it was starting to work against me in a creative sense. It was sucking the life out of my love for the craft.
I was tired. Tired of expending my creative gifts on other people's lame businesses. Tired of edits upon edits upon horrible edits from accountants and engineers and fucking 'serial entrepreneurs'.
I was tired (did I already say that?). Our kid had developed a habit of waking up and crying every couple hours throughout the night since day one. I’m a light sleeper and was always the first one on the scene. Between cries, I’d find myself awoken by a sense of dread. A low, humming fear that I was wasting my life getting paid crumbs while helping businesses that I despise make a ton of dough.
So I did what I always did when feeling like this. I bought a book.
Books are my pills. The pill I chose this time was How To Live? by Sarah Bakewell, a book about one of my favorite humans – Michel De Montaigne. In it, the author explains how Montaigne would write his way through life in a reflective manner, not stating how to live, but as a constant asking, "How to live?"
This thing lit a fire in me. I yearned for a body of work like Montaigne’s.
I needed my creative muchness back.
I had words inside pushing to get out. So taking the encouragement from Montaigne paired with the fact that another one of my favorite humans, Casey Neistat, had started a daily vlog, that was it.
I wanted a blog where I'd share something positive every day. Not bubblegum positive like a Ghandi or an Einstein quote. But deep positive. I wanted each day’s writing to come from my personal human experience.
I had a personal WordPress blog at the time. A mentor of mine from a couple years prior, Kamal Ravikant, told me that I needed to share my work where people could see it. He wanted me to write a book on Amazon, but I never did. However, there was this new website out called Medium.com. It was the YouTube for writers and seemed like the perfect arena.
Listen to Jonas tell his story on The Fizzle Show podcast in your podcast app if you’re already subscribed or here:
The birth of a blogger
And so Higher Thoughts was born. The concept was simple: short-ish, daily posts written from a contemplative, meditative (albeit lighthearted) state for 30 days.
The first thing I realized is that writing on Medium (as you may know) is a dream. The wordpress editor and html and plugins and nonsense were a thing of the past. Now, I could just sit down and… Create.
The response was welcoming. It was gradual. Not gangbusters, but there was life on the planet of Medium. Much more than on my wordpress blog where my most engaged reader was my mother in law who trolled me every time I wrote a post that went against her conservative Catholic worldview. I digress…
I had a few recommends and responses here and there. At the time, my subject matter was mostly creativity with some spirituality sprinkled in there.
After 30 days, I wrote about my experience and went to bed. The next day, I woke up (after the two or three wakeup calls from Rory the night before) to a buzzing phone. Twitter (which I hardly ever used) was rocking. My email inbox was blowing up.
Apparently, my post had gone micro-viral (not Gangnam Style-viral, but more viral than I'd ever experienced). It got picked up by The Huffington Post, The Observer, and The Daily Dot. Some of my blogging crushes reached out to me to be a contributor.
Damn… I was a blogger. This was it. It had been a suppressed desire ever since the early 2000's when I fell in love with the lifestyle-blogger concept. I didn't think it was ever possible. Making this my full-time thing was still miles away. But never had I felt a solid foothold like I did then.
Suddenly, my 30 day ending point became just the beginning.
Who am I?
Another deep influence on me was Seth Godin. I found his blog in my previous career as a golf professional. I wanted out of that industry so bad. I knew I loved writing, but I had no idea how it would be feasible to make a living doing it. Seth sent me bite-sized notes of encouragement every single day.
I found his words… Refreshing. His posts were so much more real and human than the other ‘how-to-do-this-internet-thing’ blogs I followed. I felt like Seth was just hanging out with me in a park. He spoke softly, but his words carried heft. Unlike the other bloggers who were all about shouting at me and constantly trying to win me over.
When I started this daily blog, I wanted to do things like Seth. I wanted to whisper, not yell. I wanted to write for my readers, not constantly be on the hustle for new ones. But many of my marketing cronies (now that I was in the business) advised me otherwise. Here’s a little of what they advised…
“There’s no way you can grow an audience today without clickbait headlines”.
“You can’t respond to every email/response – that’s not scaleable.”
“You should invite people with huge audiences to contribute to your publication.”
But nothing these experts suggested went along with my values. I had nothing to lose. I had no audience. I was going to experiment and try it my way.
Soon, people began thanking me for such a refreshing voice. “It doesn’t feel like you’re trying to trick me,” read one. “You’re the only one I allow in my inbox,” read another.
Day after day, the blog grew. Medium did a fantastic job of promoting my work because I was getting a lot of engagement and showing up consistently to post.
I made it a point to answer every response that came in, even if it was just a 'thank you' in a private note on Medium. I met other Mediumers (hey, if they're YouTubers, we can be Mediumers, right?) with big publications I'd contribute to. It was a fantastic platform to connect and grow on.
But I was conflicted. I kinda knew what I was all about. But my posts were still a little… Random.
Some days, I'd write about writing. Other days, I'd write about spirituality or business, or whatever was on my mind. I wanted to get a pulse from my readers about what they enjoyed reading from me.
So I threw together a quick Google Form survey and sent it out. Being a writer by trade, I was sure that they liked my posts about writing the best. However, the response I got shocked me.
My readers gave me a resounding ‘Hell-yes’ for spirituality/life stuff. Which was interesting on many levels.
Walk back further with me for a sec…
My long-time dream of spiritual writing
I had a rough upbringing like a lot of us, unfortunately. My mom passed away when I was 16 and I was raised around a lot of poverty and addiction. I was Catholic, but not really. In my late teens and early 20's, I had a head full of lingering questions about life and what this whole thing was really about.
In 2004, I watched a PBS special with a dynamic older bald dude named Wayne Dyer. I had no idea who he was at the time, but my dad spoke highly of him, so I watched.
I was blown away for 2 hours while he waxed poetically about life and Carlos Castaneda and A Course in Miracles. The whole time, he was checking off the list, one by one, about the kinds of questions buzzing around in the back of my mind. This brand of spirituality was useful – holy shit!
Wayne Dyer was my gateway drug to a whole tribe of authors in that realm. I was taken to Marianne Williamson, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and even the old greats like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcus Aurelius, Charles Haanel, and Robert Collier.
Eventually, I made my way to a book from a guy named Rev. Michael Beckwith called Spiritual Liberation. He gave a title to this brand of spirituality: ‘New Thought’. Beckwith is a New Thought minister and created the Agape spiritual community in LA.
Essentially, I envied these writers and thinkers who'd changed my view of the world in such a profound way. I remember reading my first Wayne Dyer book so many years ago dreaming of how cool it would be if I could do the same thing he did. If I could sit and write and share a message that uplifted people from all over the world.
When I got that survey back from my readers, it struck me. Holy shit. I was doing it…
Back to church
So there I was. A reader-approved spiritual messenger. I mean, my audience literally told me they wanted more spirituality stuff from me. It was tough to stomach at first. Who was I to share this kind of message? And how was I going to make a living doing it?
I shrugged these questions off and continued on. I embraced this new subject matter and began going to a New Thought spiritual center (much like a church, but an interfaith one that welcomed all people: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, etc.) in town. As I sat in the sanctuary in the midst of a sermon by a female minister behind a gay couple and an atheist sitting to my right, I realized…
These were my people. This is who I was meant to serve.
A few months later, I signed up for divinity school. I had no idea where this was going to take me. I had no idea if I was ever going to open a spiritual center and do this professionally someday. But I learned through my writing that this wasn't the point.
The point was to follow my soul and jump head-in when I was pulled by something greater than myself. I realized the key to great writing had little to do with the actual writing. It had to do with devoting oneself to an interesting mission. Then, the writing took care of itself.
So that’s what I did. I announced my new life path on Higher Thoughts the next day. I told my readers that I'd take them with me through the journey. I'd share with them all of my doubts, fears, wins, and insights along the way.
When I did this, new doors opened. A couple friends opened up a digital agency in town. They needed a copywriter and they loved my writing. So they brought me on. Their client base was incredible. Plus, I now had the security and flexibility to pursue my work with the blog and my new spiritual studies.
Pushing me to the pulpit
I’ve been writing and posting every day since I started this 30 day creative project almost two years ago now. It hasn’t always been easy.
I’ve written and posted on sick days, holidays, while travelling to Europe with my family a couple summers ago, and every day in-between. I’ve had family days where I’ve stayed up late to write after my wife and daughter had gone to bed. I’ve since developed a system that fits my life, but it’s been a challenge.
However, today, Higher Thoughts is one of the most recommended spiritual publications on Medium. I’m a Top Writer in several categories including personal development, life lessons, creativity, poetry, inspiration, and more.
I’m faced with a ton of opportunities. I now mentor fellow bloggers who want to share their positive messages in an authentic fashion on Medium. I’m developing a course around this subject matter. I have a body of work my kid will be able to read long after I’m gone. And I’m headed to the ministry – something I never dreamed possible when I started this journey.
What I’ve learned is, if you put your whole life in front of a strong mission and share your journey authentically, your people will show up. And like a mighty wave, if you continue to serve them, they will carry you to your destiny. And one day you might look back, as I am now, and it will all make sense.
This is the power of your message. This is the value of an authentic body of work. These are the heights it can take you to. Not just shares and hearts and virality and monetization. But a total life transformation.
Here’s to you on your journey.
Jonas Ellison is the author of Higher Thoughts, one of the top spirituality/mindfulness publications on Medium.com. He's a spiritual practitioner and a mentor to those who want to create a presence on Medium as well. To receive his free gift to Fizzlers, an email series titled, ‘11 days to authentic audience building on Medium’ click here.
I’ve taken a lot of courses and been involved in several paid communities since I started my business, but I’ve never ever felt like anyone CARED as much about seeing my reach my goals as the Fizzle Team. They show up for me as much as I show up for myself. Thank you SO much, you guys!
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