I’m Joan Westenberg. I’m a journalist, a writer, and a content and comms genius. Did I say that last part out loud? Good. It’s something I’m proud about. I have spent a long time growing my career, growing my skills, and growing who I am as a person.
In the past few years, I have been able to reach some impressive highs. I have won advertising awards for the content I have created and edited on this platform. I have become the #1 most read, followed, viewed and subscribed Medium blogger in the Asia pacific.
My content has been read and shared by young kids starting out, who have told me how much of an impact I have had on their lives, and by folks like Craig from Craigslist who told me he loved my message and the way I put it into the world. I’ve won a platinum Hermes Award. I’ve been published by Inc.com, Crikey, Wired, The AFR, The SF Chronicle, Observer, Elite Daily and over 40 other publications.
Along the way, I have also found the courage to face who I am. And I have come out as an openly transgender woman. It’s a move that answered a degree of cognitive and personal dissonance that had plagued my mental and emotional health for longer than I can remember. And doing this, accepting myself, taking a huge step, has been liberating beyond anything I could imagine.
I feel more confident than ever in my work.
Here’s how to work with me.
I don’t believe there is one right way to do anything.
Okay. Let’s talk about the binary.
It doesn’t exist.
Let’s talk about the right way.
It doesn’t exist.
We’re told that there’s a binary, a right and a wrong way to go about your career, that the only path to happiness is just working for yourself and being independent and either scaling a massive startup or being a “digital nomad.”
I generally reject binaries anywhere I find them. I don’t think binaries represent reality in any way shape or form. I’m f**king transgender — you tell me if that fits a binary.
This is particularly true in your career. The narrative is going to tell you a whole bunch of rules about what makes a happy life. But the narrative isn’t always strictly true to reality.
There is nothing wrong with combining multiple paths, with being and doing more than one thing. There is nothing wrong with being an employee AND an entrepreneur AND a writer AND a musician AND an artist AND anything else. What matters is that you do it yourself, and you do it your own damn way.
That’s more what my career looks like. Before I transitioned, my dream was to work for tech companies, build out their comms and be a part of a team I lived. After I transitioned, I found out the hard way that nobody wanted to hire a vocal transgender woman, and the job interviews dried up overnight. The binary choice disappeared for me.
These days, I’m a PR executive, building a practice that works with tech companies who capture my spirit of adventure and are proud to work with me for who I am, and I juggle that with my career as an entrepreneur, and I juggle that with being a blogger, writer and influencer
It keeps me f**king busy, I’ll tell you that much — and it also keeps me fulfilled.
It doesn’t match the narrative at all, because I don’t do anything to make other people happy, I don’t do anything to make other people feel comfortable with their life choices. I do things to give myself the life I want.
I think there’s something really dangerous about believing that you’re not a *real* entrepreneur if you’ve got a day job. Just like there’s something dangerous about believing you don’t have a *real* career if you’re an entrepreneur.
Both of these ideas are based on a binary narrative that doesn’t represent what humans are all about.
I can and will explore my passions however I want.
Just because you read a book that told you that real happiness lies in being able to go to the beach any time you want, and work for yourself, doesn’t mean it’s true. You can explore your passions in whatever way feels right.
Maybe your dream is to build a software company, but you also want to be a part of a startup that’s contributing to new technology you could never create on your own. You can work on both.
Maybe your dream is to be a punk musician. Well let me tell you something, one of my favorite punk bands is a group called MadBall, and when they’re not touring, they work full time jobs. When Joe Escalante from the Vandals isn’t touring, he’s also a lawyer.
Everette Taylor was an exec at Microsoft, but he was still an entrepreneur and the founder of an awesome agency.
All of those paths are equally valid. You don’t have to be ashamed of ’em.
My dream is to be a writer, to invest in tech startups, to build products I love and to change the world through creativity. None of those things are mutually exclusive.
Nobody else gets to tell me what my true source of happiness is.
People try and tell me that working for other people will never make me happy. I wonder if they’ve met the staff at Google or Canva or Hubspot — because I have, and they’re incredibly happy with their lives.
Other people don’t get to define happiness for you. They don’t. They don’t even f**king know you, no matter how long they’ve been around. The only person who really knows you is…you. Just you.
And if you want to work for a company you love, whether it’s Google or Disney or a small agency who have a great culture, that’s perfectly acceptable. You can still be an entrepreneur. That’s cool too. The important thing is to do what makes you happy.
I am the only person who gets to decide what that is.
I believe that in the future, everyone will be an entrepreneur. Some will do it full time, but most people will have side projects that make additional income and help them work on things they love and make more money. I think everyone will do something like that.
But we’ll still need employees. We’ll still need teams of people who can build the brilliant ideas and visions of people who are driven enough to make them happen.
Those books that tell you to only work for yourself? None of them would be available to buy without the employees at Amazon and Adobe and the publishing company. That’s kind of ironic.
You can do great work for someone else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with building someone else’s dream — you can still build your own too.
Believing in a binary when it comes to your career is just going to make you unhappy. I don’t think it ever works out. Real lives aren’t an option A or option B kind of thing. Real lives are messy, and they’re different for everyone.
So I don’t think you can take it as gospel when someone says “This one thing will make you happy” — in fact, I think you can take it as total bulls**t that should not be given currency.
Don’t feel bad about yourself for loving your job and building side projects or freelancing. If you’re happy, be happy. When someone asks what you do, and you can’t tell them you’re building a startup full time, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Your career can look however the f**k you want it to look. That’s the only truth I know. Your success depends on what your own metrics for success are. Your happiness depends on doing what you really want — not what some book tells you to want.
Here’s something else I believe: audiences don’t grow by accident.
I don’t publish a blog post and sit back twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the readers to lumber over and get into it. No, that’d be a waste of a damn good post, because no matter how many followers you have, you can’t ever rely on them to keep reading your work.
When I publish, I get myself out there and I start telling people about it. i have a list of around a couple hundred other writers, influencers, entrepreneurs that I’ve built up a rapport with, one on one, for years. People I emailed out of the blue back when I had around 12 followers on Medium, people I asked to read my work when nobody else in the world did.
Remember, I didn’t start creating content with a huge audience built in, I started with nothing, grew from nothing, and never stopped pushing ahead.
I’m not passive about it, I’m active. I don’t wait for opportunities, I go out there and I look for them. I look for readers, and I ask them to take the time to check out what I do, and if they like it, to keep reading and I’ll send them some more posts.
When people ask me how to build an audience, what they really want to know is, how do they get an audience to just come to them.
You don’t. No audience just magically appears. Why do you think the biggest movies in the world have trailers, and ad campaigns, up to a year before they come out? They have to build the audience. Why do you think Apple have billboards in Sydney’s Town Hall Station? People know who are Apple are, but they still need to be drawn to the product.
In reality, this is the best advice I can give anyone who wants to build an audience, and it’s the answer I always give when people email me about it. You have to identify your audience and just get in front of them. There are some great ways to do this, but it starts with a profile.
This is my manifesto.
- There is nothing that has been built that can’t be made better, using empathy, kindness and a human approach.
- Any problem that you can solve, someone else can solve too. Solve it faster, work harder, and make it the best that you can — but be prepared to admit when someone else has done it better.
- Just because something has always been one way, doesn’t mean it can’t change tomorrow. And it doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of that change.
- Just because one way has always been right, doesn’t mean you can’t prove it wrong.
- When you fail, when you fuck up, you can’t just say you’ve learned a lesson and move on, you also have to take it seriously and burn it into your mind so you never repeat it.
- Every single win could be your last, so appreciate it and celebrate it and make it the best Goddamn memory you have. It’ll keep you warm if you’re out in the cold.
- The time you spend being jealous of others’ lives and work is time they spend enjoying their lives and their work. Guess which one is more valuable.
- The answer to your problems will never be found in a bottle, at the end of a downward spiral, at the the top of a mountain, or on a flashy watch. You can pretend and play-act and make believe all you like, but it won’t change anything internal. That’s up to you.
- Hard work isn’t wrong. Smart work isn’t wrong. Work itself isn’t wrong. There is something beautiful in caring about your craft. Just because you can take it down to a 4-hour work week doesn’t mean you should.
- Every disaster in human history has given rise to stories of incredible human kindness courage and innovation. Be one of those stories.
- Money makes the world go round, whether we like it or not. So there’s nothing wrong with trying to get enough of it that we can make it go round the way we want…
- …but If you always choose money over people, they’ll always choose money over you. That’s a cycle you won’t survive, so make sure it’s a cycle you never start.
- The right stuff isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you strive for.
- Life is about what you overcome as much as it’s about what you achieve.
- Innovation doesn’t mean breaking whatever you don’t like and not giving a shit.
- Failure doesn’t mean you’ll succeed eventually.
- Success doesn’t mean you won’t ever fail.
- If you can’t make something without fucking people over, you won’t make anything of value.
- Ethics and morals aren’t just for philosophy students and religions. If you think you can exist above, outside of or separated from them, you’re not going to build a life that will make you happy.
- If you don’t respect the decency and dignity of the folks around you, you won’t respect your own in the long run.
- Hustle doesn’t mean working 24/7. That’s a sure way to burn out and lose your own path. Working on a Sunday just means you won’t want to work on a Monday. And also your friends and your cat are going to get pissed off.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.