The Creative Professional: How Liz Fosslien remains prolific with a full time job

🗝 The Keyring // 008

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Last month, in Audience as a Career Moat I wrote about the benefits of building an audience that aligns with your professional goals. To better illustrate what that looks like, I wanted to introduce you to someone who is doing an amazing job at running this playbook.

Liz Fosslien was an online creator before it was trendy. It started on Valentine’s Day 2012 when she submitted, “14 Ways an Economist Says I Love You” to the Freakonomics Blog. Nearly a decade later she’s the Wall Street Journal best-selling co-author and illustrator of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work and shares her illustrations with her nearly 300k followers on Instagram. Meanwhile, she somehow manages to hold down a job as Head of Content at Humu.

In this issue of The Keyring, Liz shares:

  • 📈 How she built her audience

  • 📖 Why she decided to publish a book

  • 📝 Her holistic approach to content creation

  • 🎨 How she integrates creativity in her professional life

  • 🙏 How she incorporates her creative and professional identities

and plenty more…

What do you do for work?

I’m the Head of Content at a startup called Humu, where I design nudges and resources that make it easy for leaders and teams to improve.

Outside of work, I’m also an author, illustrator, and speaker. 

If I had to combine these two parts of my life into a coherent description, I might say something like: “I help people make work better by effectively embracing their emotions.”

Do you have a holistic approach to content creation?

The biggest lesson I’ve taken from content marketing is that you shouldn’t be creating new content all the time. It’s exhausting, and it also means you’re likely putting out a disjointed message. A great content strategy starts with some kind of big seminal piece, like an eBook or white paper, that you turn into five blog posts, the script for a webinar, 50 social posts, and so on.

That was the same way Mollie and I approached marketing our book, No Hard Feelings. I originally worried that if we shared too many sneak peeks, people wouldn’t buy the book. But in reality, no one is going to comb the internet and piece all your snippets together. It’s fine to give your best ideas away in small chunks here and there. If you do a good job, people will still want to buy the book to get more.

Speaking of marketing your book, what tactics have worked for you as you’ve built your audience?

I’ve tried lots of things. In the early days, I had a Python script that would automatically like content with certain hashtags. It wasn’t that useful, and I later learned that doing that can get you banned from some social platforms. I can’t recommend it.

Here are a few tactics that have actually been valuable:

  • Assessments – My co-author Mollie and I found that a great way to build your email list is to put gated assessments on your website. People learn something by filling them out, and you increase your reachable audience.

  • Sharable Content – We decided to include my illustrations in our book partly because we thought it would make people more likely to share the content e.g. by taking a photo and posting it to Twitter (which did end up happening). When creating something, I’ll often ask myself: “Would I want to send this to someone or repost it?”

  • Activating Aggregators – You can usually find people in your domain who have built big audiences by sharing other people’s content. Try to get on their radar and have them repost some of your work (with credit of course).

To what extent do the platforms you share content on shape what you post?

I won’t post anything I think is misleading or just plain wrong, but I do prioritize content that I know will do well within a certain channel. For example:

  • Instagram and Linkedin tend to like more uplifting content

  • Newsletter readers want to read about a high-level idea followed by practical takeaways

  • Twitter is most likely to reward snarky takes

I test illustrated content on Facebook because no one goes to a Facebook page to consume your entire portfolio of work in the same way they’d go to your Instagram page. Facebook pages are also aesthetically horrific. So I test there, then if something does well, it goes to Twitter. If it does well there, too, I’ll share it on Linkedin and Instagram, where I’ve been the most intentional about building an audience.

Why write a book?

One of the biggest advantages of writing a book was psychological. Building an audience online can feel abstract because you rarely interact with people face-to-face. With a book, there’s something tangible that sits on your desk. That physical reminder of your portfolio of work is really powerful. You also have more opportunities to talk with your readers through speaking engagements or book events. 

Getting published also serves as a stamp of prestige that can open doors for speaking opportunities and help you get a foot in the door to talk to and interview interesting people.

And finally: a book forces you to pick a lane. What’s your big take on how people should approach the world? When you’re publishing bite-sized content, it’s easier to give advice on this topic or that topic, and never really settle on one big defining idea you want to rally your efforts around. A book necessitates high-level thinking and introspection.

Your personal audience overlaps quite a bit with the audience Humu wants to build. Does your company view you as a marketing channel for their content?

It's hard–if you have a personal audience you don't want it to be entirely subsumed by your company. Ideally, though your work-work and non-work-work should be complementary. If there’s some overlap between what you write at work and at home, it doesn’t feel like you are working two separate, full-time jobs (which sounds like a fast track to burnout).

Fortunately, my boss, Laszlo, has been really supportive of my work. His attitude has been that what's good for me is good for Humu, and vice versa, especially since the topic of my book and Humu’s mission (to make work better for everyone, everywhere) have so much overlap.

What tools do you use at work on a weekly basis?

I use:

My best time management tool is my calendar. The moment I know I need to do something, I block off time for it. For example, if I have to write a newsletter, I’ll block off an hour or two to write the draft, block off time to send it to whoever needs to review it, and then block off time to schedule it. Doing this serves three purposes: 

  1. I know I’ll have time to complete the task, 

  2. I know I won’t forget about it, because it’s on my calendar, and 

  3. It boosts internal visibility into what’s on my plate because when people go to schedule a meeting with me, they can see that I’m busy, and why I’m busy.

What are three books that have impacted your career & life?

  • Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson – Really tugs at the heartstrings at times, and contains wonderful life lessons. Taught me that something seemingly simple, and illustrated, can still make people feel deeply and learn something valuable.

  • Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock - Walks through how Laszlo brought academic rigor and data science to the People function at Google. A super practical approach to making work better by giving people easy-to-act-on tips and better ways to learn in the flow of their work. Too often we’re told things like, “Be vulnerable,” or “Bring your whole self to work.” And while those are directionally useful, it’s super hard to figure out how to be vulnerable in your team meeting on Tuesday at 9 am. I also now work for him, partly because I liked his book so much. :)

  • Quiet by Susan Cain - This book put introversion on the map. I need a lot of time by myself to recharge, and Susan Cain’s work made me feel like that was not only okay, but something I’d be best served by listening to and acting on. Introverts unite (separately)!

How do you come up with creative ideas and bring them to life?

Good ideas are like plants. They start out as a tiny sprout, and often only you can see the flower or the tree that little sprout could be one day. If you explain that potential to the wrong person, they may not see what you see, and end up metaphorically stepping on your delicate sprout and killing it. So you need friends in your life who can also see the flower or the tree, even when it’s in its earliest stages.

As for where my ideas come from–often, some random comment on r/AskReddit. I love Reddit. My best ideas seem to always be inspired by the collective chaos of the internet.

My dream is to be a meme.

Five Takeaways

Whether you’re building an audience of your own or just want to be more creative, here are five insights you can take from Liz to make progress in your own career:

  1. Reuse and remix your best content on different platforms.

  2. Online assessments are a great way to capture email addresses from your audience.

  3. Getting published serves as a stamp of prestige that can open doors for speaking opportunities and help you meet interesting people.

  4. Your best time management tool is your calendar. Put your heads-down time on the calendar so it doesn’t get devoured by meetings.

  5. Creative ideas need to be carefully nurtured in their early phases

A big thanks to Liz for sharing her insight. If you want to hear more from her, check out our recent conversation at Compound.


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– Nick