14 May

What Marco Polo and a web designer have in common

Have you ever played the game Marco Polo?

It’s a pretty simple game and it’s the most fun if played in a pool. The rules are simple: one person closes their eyes and tries to catch or tag someone else. In order to find people the person who is “it” can say “Marco” at any time. Everyone else has to respond “Polo.” By listening to where the sound is coming from the person who is “it” can more easily find their prey. Once they touch someone else, the game starts over with the person who was caught now trying to find everyone else.

It’s a great game. At least it kept 10-year-old me quite entertained.

What does this have to do with writing?

Well, nothing. Except that I want to talk about Marco Polo. The explorer, not the kids’ game.


The Explorer

Marco Polo was a Venetian explorer who lived from 1254 to 1324 and became famous for being the first to explore the Silk Road to China. At least that’s how he is remembered. There is only one small problem. He wasn’t an explorer at all. Like all good Venetians of the time, he was a merchant.

Plenty of people had explored the roads to the east long before Marco Polo. In fact, Marco’s father and uncle had made their exploratory trips well before Marco was born. So why does Marco get all the credit? Why is he the one we remember and name silly games after?

Simple. He wrote about it.


Those Who Teach

Think through the people who are well known in your industry. Why do you know who they are?

Are they the most talented? Sometimes, but often not.

Almost always it is because they teach. I know when it comes to web design (my industry) the people I had heard of were the ones whose books, tutorials, and blog posts I had read. They weren’t necessarily the most talented, but they shared and taught everything they knew.

That’s how they became well known.

You can continue to create cutting-edge work and strive to be the best in your industry, but until you start teaching and sharing, your reach and influence will be limited.


Teaching Web Design

Back in 2007 Chris Coyier launched a site called css-tricks.com. It was a site dedicated to teaching people how to code websites. (CSS is the language that describes how websites should look.) When CSS-Tricks first came out I remember reading a tutorial and arrogantly thinking, “I know that already.” Chris and I were at about the same skill level, so I didn’t learn anything new from him.

This continued for a while as he kept putting out new tutorials. But over time, as friends started asking me CSS questions, I found it easier to link to one of Chris’s articles (since they were really well written) than explain everything myself.

Years later Chris ran a Kickstarter campaign to redesign his site. Those who contributed would get behind-the-scenes access to additional tutorials and content related to the redesign.

The goal was set fairly low at $3,500. He quickly blew past the goal and by the end of the campaign had raised $89,697.


The point is that he did it with relative ease, all because he had built up an audience who loved his work.

He and I started at the same point and our skills progressed at about the same rate. The difference was that he taught and shared, whereas I kept what I was learning to myself. That made the difference between being able to make tens of thousands of dollars on a new project versus releasing to no one.


To be known, you must teach

Watching Chris’s successful campaign, it finally sunk in that I needed to be teaching. My worth to the world wasn’t in how well I knew CSS or how effectively I could code a website, but instead in how much value I could deliver to other people through teaching.

So I started to write my own tutorials and build my own audience. Within a year I had released two eBooks and made over six figures in profit from them.

The way I see it, you have two options: keep your skills and knowledge to yourself and be quickly forgotten (like the first explorers) or take the Marco Polo/Chris Coyier path and share what you’ve learned so that you will be remembered.

Which path is for you?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Authority: a step-by-step guide to self-publishing, which comes out on May 21st, 2013. For more details (and exclusive content) signup for the private notification list using the form below.


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10 Responses to “What Marco Polo and a web designer have in common”

  1. Gianluca says:

    Very motivational article!
    I should really do the same that my fellow-countryman did 800 years ago!
    I’ve just started using your Commit app days ago and it is very useful, thanks!

  2. Agreed. The other great thing teaching accomplishes is to solidify the material in your own mind. The act of preparation and then teaching a topic does wonders to enhance your understanding of that topic.

  3. @Gianluca: my fellow countryman, as well. Some modern biographies claim he was born in modern-day Korcula (island) in Dalmatia, Croatia. But, regardless of the nationality or whereabouts, it’s important who he was and what he did.

    Because of him and his alleged exaggerations, we got the meaning of that magical number (in USD or EUR), Million. Whatever he did, travelled or not (as some say, he was only writing stories about travels he heard from others), it’s the writing that made him history. Enough said, let’s go writing! :)

  4. This is like a strong blow on the head. And the way you have used the metaphor of Marco Polo, incredible.

    Thanks for the wonderful teaching :)

  5. Good point. Usually the best technology writers are not the best in the industry. Same is true with science as well. Those who teach will always remembered. The progress is made by teaching and then creating together. Well said, Nathan.

  6. Love this, and I’m really looking forward to your book!

  7. […] Marco Polo is remembered as an explorer. Why? He wrote about his travels as a merchant. Writing is one method to share and to teach others what you know. Web designers and developers who write and teach can build an audience. If you want to be successful, start sharing. […]

  8. […] video also has one core element. Teach everything. I learned that from Nathan Barry. In the video, I teach anyone who watches it a free way to debug SQLite databases on their iOS […]

  9. […] Manifesto was posted linking me to Nathan Barry. I subscribed to his blog and also read To Be Known You Must Teach. This guy was onto something I thought.   This turned me onto his book Authority and to his […]

  10. Thank you for this stellar post. Incredible insights.

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