My Rebuttal to Steve Pavlina: Getting Started Without Skill

Last week, Steve Pavlina wrote an article entitled, “Skill”.  In it, Steve claimed, that most people under-invest in the skill-building phase.  In a rush to profit, they don’t spend enough time working on their ability to create value.

I agree with Steve that skill-building is important.  I’d also agree that many bloggers (or other new ventures) fail because they don’t provide enough value to other people.  It isn’t marketing strategy or search engine optimization, it’s writing skill and useful content.

But as someone who started his blog when he was 17, I have to disagree with what I felt was Steve’s underlying conclusion.  I started this blog with a minimal skill set.  I never started with the idea that this blog would be hugely successful in six months (or even six years), but I did start with the goal of earning some passive income.

When Should You Get Started?

Steve argued that the time to go pro was when other people were practically recommending it.  He writes that before he started, many people were telling him how great his articles were.

My only quarrel from this advice is it holds people back needlessly.  I think, before we get started, all of us have a lingering fear of, “Am I ready for this?”  Steve’s article suggests that people should spend more time incubating in the skill-building stage instead of taking the bolder step of going full-force into an endeavor.

I agree with Steve that you should invest in developing skill.  But, one of the best ways to build skills is to have repeated failures.  I’m two years into this blogging and internet entrepreneurship adventure.  I’ve poured a lot of sweat and strain into building this blog, a great deal more than the financial rewards it has brought me.

However, the lessons I’ve learned from getting fully-engaged have been worth it.  If I had sat on the sidelines, hiding all of my writing and reading business books instead of starting a business, I would have learned only a fraction of what I know today.

A friend and reader of this website corresponded with me that he was posting comments on forums before taking the step to start his own blog.  My question is, why?  You’ll learn more about blogging from actually blogging than posting comments in forums that will be read by a few dozen people.

Steve Pavlina’s First Business

I don’t think the 20 year-old Steve would have followed the advice of his senior.  Steve started his personal-development efforts by graduating from University in three semesters and starting a game development business.

Twenty year-old Steve didn’t sit around, perfecting his game-design skills in his basement while working another job to pay the bills.  He dove right in and failed numerous times before getting his first commercial success, Dweep.  In his first endeavor, skill-building was never separated from “going pro”.

Stumbling in the Dark

I think a better alternative than incubating in a skill-building period is to just go out and fail.  Place yourself in the real world and set the real goals that inspire you.  If you lack experience, then go get some, instead of waiting for it to build privately over years.

When you do fail from a lack of skill (and everyone does), you’ll know that you’ve learned more by failing than you could have done practicing by yourself.  Indeed, going full-force and failing is often the best skill-building experience you can get.

I think the lesson to be gathered from Steve’s article, is that you shouldn’t expect success without the years of skill.  Have the humility to brush off early failures.  When I didn’t have readers for a few months of posting articles, I wasn’t frustrated or disappointed.  It was exactly what I had expected as a starting point.

Don’t hold yourself back because you lack skill.  If you want to become an actor, act.  Don’t sit in your basement memorizing Shakespeare.  If you want to start a software business, build software and release it.  Who cares if it is crap?  You’ll learn far more about what it takes by getting bruised in the real world than by reading every PHP, Perl or C++ book in the library.

I don’t think anyone can argue that skill is unimportant.  But I think you can argue about what it takes to build that skill.  Practice and mastering the basics will always need to be there.  But if you’re always training in a place that’s safe, where you can’t fail or be criticized, you’re going to build skill a lot more slowly than the person who is willing to go forward anyways.

Perhaps I have a lot of opinions about this subject because of my situation.  The most common compliment I receive is the quality of writing, for my age.  It’s also one of the most common criticisms I get for the same reason.  I’m not arrogant enough to believe I have all the right answers (or even a fraction of the right answers).  But I’d like to think I’m smart enough not to sit around and wait while bolder people build skills faster than I do, because they had the gumption to get started without a lot of skill.

  • Kali


    I think you are right about quality being the most common reason you get compliments and criticism, and about the importance of actually getting started without skill. I respect everything you write and everything you don’t.

  • Kali

    Okay. The part where I wrote about respecting everything you write and everything you don’t, I was lying. What I really meant was in the end, I always seem to appreciate everything you write and everything you don’t. Gawd…

  • Cal


    I think Steve would agree with you. That is, my read of his article is that you need to build skills before “going pro.” In his framework, because you are not yet deriving a full-time living from your blog, you’re still in the amateur skill-building phase. Indeed, I think that’s his whole point: don’t expect by wildly successful until you’ve paid your dues. In blogging, one of the best ways to start building your skills is to actually blog (though it helps, of course, to also gain a general expertise in your area.)

    Steve would say it would have been dumb for you, at the age of 17, to drop out of school and say “I’m going to start making a living off of my blog.” When you do gain that ability (which is probably pretty soon, as you’re blog is now fantastic), it will be because of the long years of skill building.

    Or something like that.

    – Cal

  • Richard

    Learning by trial and improvement is definetely a great way to learn but some people find comfort in learning about an area before starting a business in it for example. But I see your point, like all things it depends on the situation. If its building social circles, experience is definetely necessary. Although, you dont want to dive in head first into something and then realise it wasn’t for you. In all, great article, you have a way of saying things that I think but can’t get into words!

    ps. I think an article on what steps you’re taking and have took to acheive a digital life, an update if you will, would be an excellent article,


  • Erick

    I have to agree with you on this point. In my on life, I have on numerous occassions decided that I wanted to do something, did the basic research (internet, took a class, talked to mentors, etc.), then jumped right in. Some examples that come to mind include:
    Software programming – which is my current profession, mostly learned on the job.
    Fencing – which I did for about 3 months, and while I loved it, did not have the time.
    Cycling – I average 100-200 miles a week.
    Singing – singer in a band.
    Guitar and Piano – again, in a band.

    I think cycling for me though exmeplifies this point. About 5 years ago I weighed in at a surprising 210 lbs and at 5’7″ that’s a lot of extra weight. And while I was not in poor health, I knew that if I kept the weight on that I ran the risk for all sorts of problems as I got older. One cold winter Sunday, I was watching the Ironman Hawaii on T.V. and was awestruck by intensity and passion that the athletes had for would could be considered the most difficult (and most insane) sport in the world. There were also a lot of ordinary, non-professional participants as well. I was struck by that passion and decided there and then, “I can do that”. I did some basic training reasearch on the internet, updated my running shoes and bike helmet and got out on the road 4 times a week (2 running, 2 biking). At first, I was slow and couldn’t go very far on but I was doing it, and getting faster as I was getting thinner. I later added swimming and while I struggled at first, I worked hard my technique, relentlesslty tweaking and reading everything I could, and actually became a pretty respectable swimmer. I only completed one triathlon due to knee problems, and have switched to cycling as my primary sport, but I am fitter than I have been since high school wrestling. I usually do at least 3 centuries (100 mile rides) a summer, and work out 4-6 times a week.

    Another good example is Ultramarathoner, Dean Karnazes, who, after feeling old and overweight, on his 30 birthday impulsively went for an all night run. Now, he paid for it for the rest of the week, but he proved to himself that he could do it. Now he is a bestselling author, speaker, and athlete.

    One last example is from Paul Graham who runs Y Combinator, a very well run and ethical VC company that specializes in incubating technology companies. You can read his excellent essay entitled “Why To Not Not Start a Startup” (that’s not a typo) here:

    As Julius Ceaser once said, “Experience is the teacher of all things”.


  • Lana

    Great article! 🙂

    I understand why you react to Steve’s writing the way you do. Steve has the aggressive tunes in everything he expresses through writing (I’ve never seen him)
    It challenges the intelligent mind, actually it challenges… Period. I have the same reaction to Steve’s articles, but this is exactly what distinguishes him and attracts so many people to his blog.

    Passion is the key.

    “You might be right in your communication, and you might be wrong, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter, as Kierkegaard so rudely reminded us, is that only by investing and speaking your vision with passion, can the truth, one way or another, finally penetrate the reluctance of the world. If you are right, or if you are wrong, it is only your passion that will force either to be discovered.

    Ken Wilber

  • Scott Young


    Thanks, I always appreciate the comments.


    I think Steve would probably agree with me to. I read over the article several times, and that is the main way I interpreted it. However, based on my interpretation of Steve’s overall philosophy and his past writings would say he is in agreement with me.

    I interpreted “going pro” as the conscious decision to earn an income from your talent, regardless of the specific monetary amount. Similar to the distinction between amateur and professional athletes. I think the term “full-time” would have been more suitable if Steve had directly referred to being able to draw 100% of your income from a skill.

    But the point is still valid. I was hoping I could get Steve’s response himself, as he has responded in comments before.


  • Pete

    Yes, getting started before someone else is ready to certify you is the way to go. Once you’re out there, you will find that many of the experts are as dumb as you are; they just have more chutzpah!
    You still need to keep studying as a little knowledge can truly be a dangerous thing. But, if you keep practicing in the attic until you are perfect, you won’t have the constant feedback to let you know when you’re off the tracks.
    Not all worthwhile studying is from books. Frequently it’s from an angry customer. If your own head is not up your rear, you will understand that every complaint is a gift.

  • Brad

    Ha, wait till people start telling you that you look good “for your age”.

  • John

    Scott vs Steve.

    Yeah baby!


  • Scott Young


    I’m a huge fan of Steve’s writing, so I would say this is more philosophical nit-picking than a war.


  • Avi Marcus

    That article had given me pause as I am starting my blog, but some things are best learned in the trenches. I don’t trust it to be wildly until I invest a bit more time to improve my writing and learn more- although it would be nice 🙂

  • Avani-Mehta

    Hi Scott,

    That’s a interesting perspective and I while heartedly agree with it. And yes, I believe Steve would too.

    We can jump into anything we like without any skill sets. But to become a pro and become a success, we should be ready to pay the required dues in terms of skill building, effort, experience etc.

  • Charlie Gilkey | Productive Fl

    I’m a big fan of Steve myself, and like you, I see it more of a balance between gumption and skill. There’s a lot to be said about trying and failing – often times, we learn more through failure than we do success, but I think that there are plenty of ways to try and stumble rather than try and fail.

    We become better by actively doing – not sitting on the sidelines preparing to do. If you set reasonable goals that match your capabilities with your initiative, the worst that can normally happen is a stumble. But, at the same time, you may also be successful.

    Unless you count sitting on the sidelines as successful, the best outcome is that you sit on the sidelines. Sure, you can’t fail, but you can’t succeed either.

    Set reasonable goals, try, and plan for personal growth through success.

  • Derek Ralston

    Scott- I agree, and was thinking something similar while reading Steve’s post… You have to take action to get feedback and determine which areas you can improve on! Also, I believe there is room in the market for varying levels of skill… Take blogging for example- if you aren’t a great writer, but are posting about a unique idea/thought that no one else has mentioned, then you are adding value, so no reason to hold back (=

  • munish

    Nowhere has steve mentioned that we don’t start a blog.Whereas you are giving examples of starting a blog.

    He only gave examples of pro speaking assignments.or any other area where you charge fees for your services.

    For starting a free blog,you can start any time.

  • Scott Young


    True, but I feel the principle is the same. If your blogging for money (which, if you look at the taxes I’m going to pay in ’09, I am) then I don’t see a clear distinction between that and other forms of paid speaking/writing. But, I’ll concede that he didn’t discourage blogging.


  • Vikram harindran


    I totally agree with your thought regarding in trying without the necessary skillset. Only when we fail can really understand what is lacking in us and try harder the next time.

  • Justin

    I just finished reading Steve Pavlina’s blog post about polyamourous relationships. That post pretty much discredits everything this man says about anything for me. As a happily married man (with a successful business, multiple degrees, and gorgeous wife with a PhD and a kick-ass job), I find Mr. Pavlina’s outlook on relationships as repellent as it is nihilistic , cynical and depressing. Mr. Pavlina’s claim that partaking in polyamoury somehow signifies shuffling off the bonds of limiting thinking, limiting beliefs, and other “mud-person”-type beliefs is absurd. Mr. Pavlina, married 15 years to Erin, and father to 2 children, created a responsibility when he took that vow and sired those kids. Not only did he spackle the intimate details of his sacred relationship to his family all over the Internet for millions to see, he did so with such abandon and pleasure so as to beg the question: “Is this man mentally ill? Or completely psychotic?” Speaking as a student of several (effective, safe, and well-known) personal development seminars and curricula, Mr. Pavlina’s particular brand of pablum -i.e. his “personal development for SMART people”, is dangerous because it is consistently deceptive and insidious. He has to include that disclaimer “for SMART people” as a way to rope people in to purchasing his seminars. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy…. If you are SMART, he is telling you, then you will see the wisdom in my teachings and BUY what I have to sell to you. It’s an under-handed sales technique that snake-oil salesmen have been using for centuries on the unwitting to separate them from their hard-earned cash. Mr. Pavlina is a sick, sick man in desperate need of medical intervention. I understand he is getting a divorce and that according to the statutes of the state of California, he may be stripped of much of his wealth and needless to say, have his business reputation destroyed. This could be the best thing to happen to this man. Starting from ground zero, having to go back BEGGING his wife and family to take him back, and finally getting on the path to actual learning and growth would be a desirable outcome given his past performance, so called “teachings” and general chicanery.