Paul Jarvis: Designer, software creator, writer, teacher, and podcaster

Ellen Fondiler| UNLOCKED Stories | Paul Jarvis: Designer, software creator, writer, teacher, and podcaster

To do the work you love, you’ve got to unlock a few doors. UNLOCKED Stories are honest conversations with people who chose a path and made it happen.

A note from Ellen:

Nothing about Paul Jarvis is “conventional.”

This is a man who lives on an island off the coast of British Columbia with his wife and two pet rats. His arms are covered with tattoos. His career is entirely self-directed. When he’s not working, he surfs, wanders through the woods and makes music with his wife (they have a band together).

How did he create this type of life and career?

The answer is: he really doesn’t care what anybody else is doing or how they choose to live and work, and he’s not interested in following someone else’s blueprint. He wants to follow his own gut instincts and sources of curiosity—wherever they may lead.

For the past seventeen years of his self-employed career, that’s exactly what he has done.

I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with Paul, where he shares some of his current projects, his ongoing challenges, and his advice for anyone who wants to build a meaningful career.

Ellen Fondiler| UNLOCKED Stories | Paul Jarvis: Designer, software creator, writer, teacher, and podcaster

What do you do?

[Paul]: I’m a website designer, software creator, writer, teacher, and podcaster. Basically: I make things for people who make things online.

I’ve been self-employed for the past seventeen years. My work has evolved a lot over that span of time. I’m always starting new projects and moving in different directions, depending on what’s most interesting to me at the moment.

Currently, I host a weekly podcast called The Freelancer where I share my thoughts on running a freelance business.

I recently released OfCoursebooks, a tool for people who teach online courses. OfCoursebooks gives your students an easy way to take notes on what they’re learning and share their notes with other students online.

I also run the Creative Class, a course for freelancers that shows you how to get more clients, earn more money, and deal with common business headaches—like figuring out how much to charge for your work, and figuring out what to do when a client wants ten million revisions on a project but doesn’t want to pay for your extra time.

I do quite a few other things too, most of which are listed here.

What were you doing before you became a maker of Internet-things?

[Paul]: I delivered newspapers, worked as a veterinary assistant, and worked as a creative director. I also toured with various bands and worked as a studio musician.

(I still make music today. My wife Lisa and I have a band called Mojave, which is an acoustic / folk project.)

What is your favorite part about your work?

[Paul]: Freedom. I’m in charge of my day, week, and life. I don’t have to set an alarm or keep to a rigid schedule. If the sun is shining and I feel like being outside all day long, and then working from 6pm to 10pm while it’s dark out, I can do that.

Also, I love the fact that I don’t have to do the exact same type of work every single day. I can explore new ideas—even if they’re wacky, weird, or “out there.”

What is your least favorite part about your work?

[Paul]: I don’t really have one. I love what I do, and if I don’t love something, then it’s my own fault since I work for myself.

If I had to pick ONE thing it would be accounting, but I hired a bookkeeper and accountant to do that for me—so now, I don’t even need to know what’s going on except for the big picture stuff.

How do you typically begin your day?

[Paul]: With a strong coffee from my AeroPress.

When you’re having a difficult or stressful day, how do you get through it?

[Paul]: I leave.

If work isn’t working, I stop. Typically I’ll go outside and work in my garden, build something with my hands or go for a walk in the woods.

Ellen Fondiler| UNLOCKED Stories | Paul Jarvis: Designer, software creator, writer, teacher, and podcaster

What has been the most challenging chapter of your career so far? (A roadblock, setback, or “locked door” moment?)

[Paul]: The biggest challenge of my career has been learning how to deal with vicious criticism from people who feel offended by me, or my work, in some way.

People have written articles insisting that I am greedy (because I sell products online), that I am unprofessional (because I swear like a sailor), that my advice is terrible, my ideas are stupid, my products are worthless. You name it.

It might sound unbelievable, but I have received death threats and other threats of violence (“I’m going to come over to your house and beat your ass”) from random strangers on the Internet. And I’m not even writing about sensitive subjects like politics, religion, or abortions—I’m just sharing my thoughts on creativity and commerce!

Sadly, I have many colleagues who have received similar attacks and threats over the course of their careers. Once you reach a certain level of perceived “success” or “online visibility,” you become an easy target for trolls and bullies. I wish that wasn’t the case—but it is.

When someone is criticizing or threatening you like that, what do you do? How do you get through it?

[Paul]: First, when people voice their disapproval about who I am and what I do, it hurts. There’s no getting around that because I’m a human being with feelings.

Second, I’ve come to realize that when someone feels the need to spit criticism at me, it’s because that person is dealing with something in his or her own life—which usually has nothing to do with me. This person might be going through a divorce, a financial crisis, or a professional setback—and then, boom, this person happens to stumble upon my website and I become the target for their pent-up anger and frustration.

Third, and mainly, I’m OK if people dislike me for who I am. I would rather be myself (and make some people upset) rather than try to be someone else, and still probably wind up making some people upset anyway!

I’ve found the more I’m just “myself” in my work, the more I attract the audience I actually want. Sure, trolls show up, and that sucks, but those people are in the minority. Over 20,000 people receive my weekly newsletter, and those people have signed up because they like what I have to say and they want to hear more. That feels good. I focus on writing and creating products for those people—and I just try to ignore the trolls as much as possible.

Do you ever fantasize about having a totally different career? What would it be?

[Paul]: I thought about being a writer. Then I started writing. Then I wrote and published 4 books.

I thought about making digital products. So I made some. Then I started doing that full-time.

That’s how my whole career has gone. If there’s something I want to do, I just start doing it. I start moving towards it right away. I don’t “keep doing” every single thing that I start, but I always start.

Last but not least: what’s your biggest piece of advice for anyone who wants to do amazing work in the world, stay motivated, and unlock major doors?

[Paul]: Stop trying to “find your calling.”

Trying to find your calling is a recipe for disaster—or at best, a recipe for horrible disappointment. What if you can’t find it? What if you find it and then a few days later you realize that wasn’t it at all?

I don’t think we have “one true calling.” Or two. Or twelve. And I definitely don’t think it’s something you “discover” all of a sudden like a shiny golden coin on the ground—like, “Whoa, there it is, I found it, now everything in my life is the BEST!”

Instead of trying to find your “calling,” find a position, place, or project that allows you to make a difference.

Making a difference is fairly easy. First, you have to leave things better than you found them. Second, you have to leave yourself better than when you started.

Making a difference can be anything from collecting garbage, to serving coffee, to coaching billionaires, to raising children. It can be anything you choose. It’s just you, doing something that holds your attention and serves others.

Ellen Fondiler| UNLOCKED Stories | Paul Jarvis: Designer, software creator, writer, teacher, and podcaster


Three questions to think about, write about—or talk about with a friend.

1. Paul doesn’t have a one-track career. He does many different things including writing, podcasting, and developing software.

If you could have a “hybrid” career like Paul, what would it be? Choose three or four or even five “job titles” that appeal to you and string them together. Imagine what that life might look like. Can you visualize it, write about it, or describe it to a friend?

2. Paul has received intense criticism from people who don’t “like” or “get” his work.

Can you remember the last time you felt criticized at work? What happened? Was it your boss, a colleague, a customer, or someone else? How did you respond? If you could “do-over” that moment, what would you do differently?

3. Paul’s stance is that you don’t have just “one true calling,” and that searching for your calling is ultimately pointless and frustrating. Instead, he urges people to focus on “making a difference”—which means leaving other people (and yourself) in better condition than when you started.

Without thinking about money (salary, revenue, etc.) for a moment: how would you like to make a difference? What sounds interesting and enjoyable to you?

Ellen Fondiler| UNLOCKED Stories | Paul Jarvis: Designer, software creator, writer, teacher, and podcaster

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See you next time for another inspiring conversation!