How to Get Paid to Learn
“I want to get paid to learn. But the way to get paid to learn is to share knowledge and create something useful with that.” – James Clear
James Clear gets paid to learn. His writing on the hidden forces that shape our habits using them to maximize performance is read by over 1 million people per month at jamesclear.com.
In our conversation, James emphasizes that he is an entrepreneur; we break down in detail how he thinks about his business, metrics he tracks, how he’s scaling, and more. His product is his knowledge or, more precisely, his ability to communicate that knowledge in a way that people are willing to pay for it.
In this interview, James shares insight into applying this knowledge to your life, including:
And like James’s work, one of the best parts of the legal profession – at least to me -- is that we get paid to learn too.
Listen to the interview on Soundcloud or download from iTunes. If you enjoy this interview, please share it. Thanks!
Josh: James, you've been writing for years. And you have a pretty significant following on your website and through your email list. It would be really helpful if you can just help lay the groundwork and help us understand how you got your start in writing and how things have progressed for you over the last several years.
James: Sure. I would say I started as an entrepreneur, not as a writer. And in a lot of ways I still identify as an entrepreneur although if you think about what I spend my time doing most days, it's writing and research and reading. But I started as an entrepreneur 6 years ago. The first 2 years were spent trying a bunch of ideas that failed and flopped. Standard entrepreneur story. I look at that period as when I incubated my skill set. And there were a lot of things that are skills that are central to my writing career now that came out of that time.
I taught myself to code and program, I built my own website and designed it. The site that I run at JamesClear.com is still designed by me. Very minimalist design, which is my style, but I learned how to do it.
Building an email list: I didn't even know what an email list was when I started. I had to learn about that and how to get people to sign up, learn about conversion rates and design. And how to create products and courses, get people to buy things, learn how to sell things. Write sales pitch copy, direct response copy writing, that type of stuff.
Along that journey, I started studying consumer psychology, because I had products or businesses that I was trying out and nobody was buying a thing. I figured I had to learn how to get over that. As I studied consumer psych, I started to get into behavior psychology and habit formation and performance improvement and all the stuff, and I started using it for my health habits and my strength training habits and to study more effectively. Gradually I made this transition to writing about the hidden forces that shape our habits and lead to human performance. That was about 4 years ago, that I started writing on JamesClear.com, and those topics have been central for me ever since.
Josh: Was there a point in that process that you realized that you were getting hooked on this stuff and you were going to put some of the other products to the side and focus more on this [topic]?
James: I think there are two parts. First, I was definitely interested in it. Like a lot of people who have an achiever mindset or who are former athletes – I played baseball all the way through college – that idea of continuous improvement and continuing to try to stay on the edge of my abilities and upgrade to the next level, that naturally resonated with me.
But the second part was that I was trying to pay attention to what people found useful and practical. I would say now, one of the main things that I want is to be useful to people. So it seemed like when I wrote about those articles, they went over better than the other stuff that I was writing about. I tested, for example, a couple of iPhone apps early on. This was back when iPhone apps were a big deal, and they didn't really go over that well. They didn't seem that useful to people. But when I started writing about habits and performance improvement and deliberate practice and things like that, the response was much better. And now, my site gets over 1 million visitors a month. And there are hundreds of thousands of people on the email list.
But back then, I could measure improvement by did I get one or two emails that week. And if I heard from one or two people who really liked it, and that was more than I was getting otherwise, it was a good signal to keep going.
Josh: Did it feel like you were giving up on some of the other stuff at that point, or did you feel like, okay, this is the thing?
James: That's a good question. I would say not really, just because I wasn't doing it for that long. Baseball was incredibly meaningful to me when I finished played. I ended up being an academic All American my senior year in college. My dad played in the minor leagues with the St Louis Cardinals. It was a big part of my life for the first 20 years or so, and I played baseball for 17 years. So of course I was really invested in it. By the time I got done, I had put in almost two decades of work. Whereas in comparison, a lot of these entrepreneurial ideas, especially in the beginning, I'd only been working on for 6 months or even maybe 18 months. So yes, I was invested because I'd spent a little bit of time on it, but it paled in comparison to the level of passion that I felt for baseball when my career finished.
I think because I had that to use as a counterpoint, I was able to look at it and not feel like I was abandoning things or giving up on things as much as testing different ideas out and trying to figure out what worked. But your question is an interesting one because it gets to the central tension of life in a lot of ways but definitely of being an entrepreneur or being a writer, which is, when do you double down on something and when do you give up on something, and when is it quitting too early versus when have you cut yourself short and success is just round the corner? Everybody wants to know the answer to that question, but nobody really knows. And that's why it's really hard. And if it wasn't hard, then we wouldn't even be having this conversation about that. That's one of the things that makes it challenging.
Josh: Can we talk about baseball for a minute? I'm a big baseball fan too. A lot of times when you stop playing, it's not something that's within your control. Is that something that was, that you just hit a limit either of natural ability or did you get hurt or something, that something told you it was time to stop playing?
James: My best year ever was the last year that I played. I was never one of those guys who was the best player of the team from the very beginning. I kind of had this gradual progression where I kept getting better and better each year, so it was really hard to have to give it up. I was a right-handed pitcher. I threw 88. And right-handers who throw 88 are a dime a dozen in the minor leagues, so there would have been no reason for someone to take a risk on me as a 21 year old or a 22 year old when they could get an 18 year old coming out of high school who was throwing 93. I might have been more polished.
I was also probably at, let's say, 90% of my genetic potential, whereas someone who is raw coming out of high school is maybe at 50% of their genetic potential. So you're always going to take a risk on that guy. It was a decision that was made for me. I would have loved to play longer than I did, but I also have no regrets about the career that I had.
Josh: Is there anything you've learned about habits or deliberate practice or anything else, and your writing for your entrepreneurship career that you wished you could have told baseball player you?
James: Well, actually, it's probably the reverse. There were a lot of things that baseball player me was doing without realizing it that I wish I could have told entrepreneur James. One of the core things that I realized is that, our habits are often a product of these hidden forces that surround us that are usually invisible to us but impact our lives in very significant ways. For example, the people that surround you. It's a very common one. You don't really think about them that much. You don't think about how they impact your behavior that much. But once that veil is lifted, you have this vague notion of it, because once anybody brings it up, it's like, oh yeah, of course I do things that my friends do or I do things that my family does.
Environment is another one. The things that are on your desk at work or the items on your kitchen counter at home. These things impact your work habits and your eating habits. The technology that surrounds us. The digital modifications that you get on your phone. The way that you measure your habits and performance. These things all impact our behavior.
hat I didn't realize when I was a baseball player is that I had a lot of those things working for me without even realizing it. I had coaches and team mates that were pushing me without me really having to think about it a whole lot. I had this whole structure around my day, where, because we were going to be at the practice field for 3 hours each day, that was an anchor task that let me base the rest of my day around it.
After my playing career was done, well, suddenly the world was wide open, especially as an entrepreneur, and you get to decide what those things are. You have to choose what that anchor task is. You get to decide who surrounds you each day. You have to figure out where to get a coach or a mentor or whatever you want to call it. And a lot of these forces that I took for granted at the time, I have slowly had to discover and rebuild and create this architecture where I can actually perform and improve at a high level because it's not naturally there.
Josh: So it sounds like you described it as architecture. And it sounds like at least now, maybe you're taking an intentional approach to how you're putting that stuff around you. Has that always been that way over the last several years? Or how did that progress for you?
James: Yeah, it's definitely been a gradual evolution. I think it's true for a lot of us: the influence of those forces is always there. The system is always running. We're often blind to it. And one reason we're blind to it is because we're just not aware of it. Over the last couple of years I've read a lot about environment design and choice architecture and how our behavior is nudged by the physical environment that surrounds us. But 5 years ago, I didn't know anything about that, so I wasn't even aware of those ideas, but it was still influencing me.
For example, the items that are on the shelves at the eye level at the grocery stores tend to get purchased more than ones that are down by like your feet or your shins. Items that are on the end caps of aisles or that are on the checkout line also tend to get purchased more. It's visual stimuli. They are in a more prominent place. And the things that we see tend to be the things that we pay attention to. And so I was falling victim to that all the time, right? I was buying a candy bar just because it was put on the end cap right in front of my face. But I didn't realize that was the reason.
Now, I think I am being more intentional about creating that structure whether it's physical environment or social culture or technology and measurement. But I'm only being more intentional about it now because I'm educated about it, because I know that it exists. So it definitely hasn't been something that I've done from the very beginning. It's been a gradual evolution. And the more that I unearth and discover about how my behavior and performance is being shaped for me, the more that I can transition from being the victim of that to being the architect of it.
Josh: So it sounds like when you're describing this stuff, you're talking in a lot of ways about the habits that we already have, and understanding the drivers of what is causing us to do certain things. Is that fair?
James: Yeah. I think that's definitely true. But it also transitions to habits that we want to build, right? Because if we want to create the space for us to be able to stick to a new habit, then we need to understand what's driving our current behavior so that we can transition or readjust or rebuild that, so that we can make the space to build something new.
I'll give you an example. Pretty much every process in the living system has some form of equilibrium or homeostasis. Like your blood pressure for example, if your blood pressure dips a little bit too low, then your heart rate might speed up or your veins and arteries can constrict and expand as needed. Your kidneys can flush out more urine if you need to lower your blood pressure. So there are all these different feedback loops that interact with each other to try to maintain this equilibrium or homeostasis that's in a healthy range. And your body has this for all kinds of things. Blood pressure, temperature, calcium levels, glucose levels. But daily life is also like that.
We have all sorts of things that impact the pace, the rhythm at which we stick to our daily habits. So we all settle into our own version of equilibrium. And the forces that are currently in your life, all these things we've been talking about like the people that surround you and the physical environment, those are the feedback loops that create that equilibrium. Those are the things that have established homeostasis in your life.
So whatever your current level is at, whether it's high or low or it's somewhere in the middle, for any given behavior, the stimuli that are in your life right now are what have established that level of performance. If you want to improve that level of performance, you have to understand what those stimuli are, because if you try to fight against them, what you end up finding is that the harder you fight, the more you get pulled back toward that balance point. You need to figure out how to adjust them to slowly nudge your equilibrium up so that you can advance to the next level, rather than trying to fight all the stimuli that have established your routine, stable life.
Josh: If we put it into a practical example, how does somebody use that? What's a good example of forming a new habit?
James: Sure, well, the best examples are the easiest ones to understand. For example, strength training and working out and exercise. There's this dose and response graph, where if you don't stimulate your muscle at all, let's say you're doing a barbell curl, if you have nothing in your hands, then it's not enough load to stimulate muscle growth. If you try to lift 1,000 pounds, then it's too much, and you either get injured or the bar doesn't move. But if you can find some happy medium in between, then it's just enough stimulus to promote growth and not so much that you can't recover.
And that's the same idea with any new habit that we're trying to build. If you try to build a meditation habit and you say, all right, I'm going to meditate 45 minutes each day. And you start from scratch, it's so far outside your equilibrium right now that it's really hard to maintain that. You end up dejected or burned out or injured or ill or whatever it happens to be, depending on the behavior. Same with writing. That's why you'll hear people talking about doing morning pages, where they write 2 or 3 pages each morning or writing 500 words a day. These writing habits tend to stick better because they are manageable. It's a large enough stimulus to make a meaningful difference and a small enough stimulus to be maintained over the long run.
Josh: Is breaking habits an entirely different conversation? Or do you look at your default settings that you've got these feedback loops and you try to find something to insert or substitute in there?
James: It's not an entirely different process because your brain learns repeated patterns. And it doesn't know if the pattern is good or bad. It just knows that I have been doing this time and time again and so I should automate this and repeat it as much as possible. When a behavior starts, it's very effortful, for example, imagine if you are 3 years old, or however old you were when you learned how to tie your shoes. The very first time you had to learn to do that, you had to think very carefully about each thing, right? But now, you've tied your shoes so many times that you can have full conversation while doing it. You don't have to think about that, it's mindless.
What we see is that at the beginning of a behavior, your brain strains, it's very effortful. And then the more that you repeat it, the brain transitions the behavior to being automatic. This is true for good and bad habits. What ends up happening is pretty interesting, researchers have found that once a behavior has been made automatic, and this is true for bad habits as well, that pattern is built. That road has been laid in your brain, and you don't really forget it. Pretty much any behavior that's been automated is like riding a bike. You'll remember how to do it if the circumstance comes up again.
When it comes to breaking bad habits, what we're basically saying is that, if you're in a situation where that bad habit habit would be triggered, where the thing that prompts that behavior is apparent, it's very likely that you would follow that loop because that neural pathway has been built in your brain. So the best way to break bad habits is to avoid the trigger entirely. And that is maybe a slightly nuanced or different way of looking at it than building good habits, but they're the same basic fundamentals. Because the behavior's already been built, you're looking at prevention because the behavior's in the automatic stage rather than building a new habit, where the behavior's still at that effortful stage where you’ve got to think about each step of tying your shoes. Then you're focused much more on repetition so that the behavior can transition to automatic rather than trying to just avoid the trigger or stimulus that causes it.
Josh: Let’s talk a little more about your writing. You've talked through your journey into writing more often, writing essentially full time as I understand it, right? Do you still find yourself writing about topics that you don't feel like you know very much about that you are starting from scratch or close to scratch? Or do you feel like you've pretty much landscaped most of what you're spending your time on now and other work?
James: It's a good question. I think there are a couple of interesting things that come out of this. So the first is, whenever you start writing about something - I know I felt this way - inferiority complex is very common, right? Who am I to write about this? I'm not an expert. A friend of mine said, you become an expert by writing about it each week. That was a really interesting way for me to look at it, where in the beginning I really felt like I wasn't qualified to write about these ideas. But now, since I've written about habits and performance every week for 4 years, I am an expert because I did the work. I think that's an important thing to remember in the beginning.
But to answer your question, I certainly don't feel like I have it totally mapped out. It's the same with any topic, right? The deeper you get into it, the more you realize there is to learn. But I also intentionally try to look at things that I haven't written about a ton, because ideas are magical for me in the beginning. When I'm first learning about it, it has this quality of magic and excitement and interestingness. I want to naturally share the feeling of discovery that I have when I come across a new idea or a new story or a new way of looking at an old problem, and that's one of the things that prompts me to write. I have spent the last couple of years writing a lot about habits, but I'll probably transition over the next year or two to start writing more about other topics, whether it's happiness or health or creativity and innovation. All of these things fall under the purview of human behavior. But by looking at these ideas from a different angle or through a new lens, it kind of sparks that magic up in me again. And I get to share the excitement of discovering the world in a new way.
Josh: As you've been through this process over the last several years, where have you failed? Where have you thought something was going to work amazingly and it just didn't?
James: Well, there's been far too many failures to remember them all. I would say, probably the biggest thing as a writer is that I probably fail by not having enough guts or writing about things that are hard for me to write about. Writing about my failures, writing about my struggles, topics that were personally sensitive to me. I've probably done that four or five times over the year. I'm usually good for one a year. And every time I do it, it goes over really well, because people want to know that other people are like them, that they have struggles and challenges too, that nobody is perfect, that we all are dealing with this messy, complicated world and life that we're living.
I would say that writers that do a good job of wearing their heart on their sleeve are probably much better at that than I am. Hemmingway has that famous quote where he says, writing is easy, just sit down at the typewriter and bleed. Can you showcase more raw emotion than you do? That's probably one failure on the writing front.
From a business standpoint, many writers want to write their books and not worry about the business side of things. I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that I view myself more as an entrepreneur. If I want to be able to maintain the integrity to write about whatever I want, whatever I find most useful, I have to earn that right. I have to figure out how to build a team and a business that allows me to have the freedom to do that. So that's a great philosophy to have.
But in practice, I end up having superhero syndrome, where I try to do it all myself. I probably waited far too long to hire full-time employees and grow the business. Last year, I hired my first full-time employee after having 6 or 7 freelancers that were stepping on various projects. That was a huge, huge benefit. She - Lindsay's her name - she's been absolutely fantastic. And we have grown as a result. It's no coincidence that this month we set a record for traffic and set a record for monthly email subscribers. It unleashed the ability for the business to grow more and for me to spend more time on what I think moves the needle best and is most important.
I have this big limiting belief about doing it. I think it's probably something that gets to the core of this question, which is, what are your failures? Well, at any point along the curve, if you view your career as a trajectory, there's always the next point or the next hurdle on the curve. You never get to escape that. You never get to escape the failures that are associated with your growth. There's always some limiting belief in front of you that is the bottleneck for the next thing that you need to do. I find myself continuing to run up against this as time goes on. Different problems, but they're always there.
Josh: It's a good point. And something I think about as a lawyer, right? Especially in this profession, it's one of these where for a lot of us, you're on a straight track for a long time. And the next move is often really well-defined. You go through the natural progression. You go to law school. You go to a big firm. Maybe you try to make partner at a big firm, maybe you go in house or whatever. But it is a pretty clear directional path. And as you think about transforming what you do or how you work, whether it's getting into anything entrepreneurial or frankly anything that doesn't involve being within the strict box of being a lawyer, I find that I and many people that are like minded in this profession to run up against that limit, that threshold, where you have to push yourself over and get through. It is an interesting idea.
James: Yeah, imagine you're in a raft in a river. And good weather is going to school and getting good grades, you're going to law school, you're making partner in a firm. The river has boundaries. It has these banks. And they say, all right your job is to row down the river as fast as possible. Avoid obstacles along the way, but this is the direction you're moving in.
Whereas entrepreneurship and creative pursuits are more like being in a raft in the middle of the ocean. You can go in whatever direction you want. But if you're not careful, you end up just rowing around in circles all day because you don't know what that true north is. The almost limitless freedom to choose where to spend your time and energy, what projects to work on, can sometimes be paralyzing, because you don't allow yourself to set a clear direction and stick to it, whereas that would be defined for you in a different role.
Josh: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it's interesting you talk about what the true north is and defining these things as creative projects, but, at least in hearing you describe what you're doing, at the core, there is still a business here. And it's creative but it's creative with a true entrepreneurial thread. That distinguishes it, I think, from some other types of situations where you're creating for creation's sake, versus creating with the purpose of earning a living.
James: I want to get paid to learn. But the way to get paid to learn is to share the knowledge and create something useful with that. I guess that's the requirement, that I don't sit around and read and learn and experiment with things all day and try to do fun stuff for myself, whether that's travel or whatever. All those are great learning experiences but how can I transition and translate that into something useful for the reader.
Josh: Can we talk about the business for a minute or two? We've talked about it in broader terms. But just to kind of drill down a little bit. You have an email list, right? You have that habits seminar class. I don't need to know the specifics, but generally when we talk about revenue streams, we talk about what is the business, what do you define as the business?
James: There are four primary revenue streams and two or really one primary lead generation stream. We can start at the top. Right now, just round numbers, say, a million visitors a month to the website. It's around 3% conversion to the email list. If we can get people to join month after month, that's our lead generation stream. The email list is about 400,000 people right and continues hopefully to grow quickly, fingers crossed. Once we have that audience, we can choose how we want to sell to them.
I decided to simplify my business. I want to have a variety of revenue streams, but I don't need 17 different revenue streams. I want a couple that could each turn into a really solid revenue stream itself. So the first one is books. My first book deal is with Penguin Random House. You can get a large advance if you have a sizeable audience. You can also hopefully sell books into perpetuity and make money on each copy. Then there are courses. You mentioned the habits seminar. We actually just reshot a new version of that. It's going to be called the habits master class. And that's going to try to be the world's most comprehensive course on how to build habits and improve performance.
Speaking engagements are the third. I am not really interested in being a professional speaker and being on the road like 50 events a year or something like that. I tend to only accept one a month; that's kind of my sweet spot. I was on the road 18 days last year for paid speaking events and that's about where I would like to keep it. But if you have a best selling book, then your rates can get fairly high and that can be pretty lucrative as well. And then the fourth one is kind of a bonus and that's affiliate stuff. I don't do affiliate things for other courses or things like that, but if I mention a book in an article I'll link to it on Amazon or something along those lines.
Josh: You read all day to create great stuff. Is there something you read everyday, that you think other people should be paying attention to?
James: I don't have any publications that I read everyday or any little quotes or things that I return to. I think the thing that could be useful along that regard is treating reading as a practice and not something to practice. For example, we often talk about practice as a verb and not practice as a noun. What are the practices in your life? And for me reading 20 pages a day is something that I try to make a practice. I would say that thinking about reading as a process that you commit to or a practice that you perform is probably better than thinking, I need to be reading more.