Defensive Hacking: How to prevent a brute force attack

Your password’s never as safe as you think it is, and understanding how to protect your website will help you from becoming the next iCloud. Today I want to look at the security weaknesses that led to brute force attacks.

Most brute force attacks work by targeting a website, typically the login page, with millions of username and password combinations until a valid combination is found. The same concept can be applied to password resets, secret questions, promotional and discount codes, and/or other “secret” information used to identify a user.

To perform a brute force attack, we need to do a few things:

  • Confirm account lockout/request throttling is disabled or easy to bypass
  • Determine the format of the username
  • Create a list of potential usernames
  • Confirm which usernames are valid
  • Test passwords for each valid username

The first step is to determine if an account lockout exists. This can be done by failing the login for a user. Next we need to figure out the format of the username. These can be significantly from one site to another, but the current trend is to use an email address since it’s easy to remember and can be used for password resets.

Here is the login page on our example site that we are targeting:

The first thing to notice is that the username is an email address. If the login screen didn’t tell us that, we may have been able to figure it out by trying to register or signup for an account. It’s pretty obvious from the signup page that an email address is used for the username:

If it’s a large public site, generally people sign up with gmail, yahoo, or other well-known email domains. Unfortunately, with the rampant hacking on the internet these days, it’s fairly easy to find massive lists of email addresses from compromised databases (https://haveibeenpwned.com/), (users.tar.gz, Adobes hacked list of 135M users). For the iCloud hack, the attackers probably started with the email addresses of the celebrities they wanted to target.

Let’s say we were (HYPOTHETICALLY) targeting James Franco’s use of our site here. First, I enter jamesfranco@gmail.com and a password then click login.

No dice. However, there is an interesting error message — “jamesfranco@gmail.com doesn’t exist!”

Determining Usernames

Now that we have our first clue, the website telling us if the username is registered or not, we need to build a list of usernames. If this was a company site, determining the email format and then creating a custom list is pretty simple. Corporate email addresses generally consist of one of the following formats:

  • firstname.lastname@company.com
  • james.franco@company.com
  • firstinitiallastname@company.com
  • jfranco@company.com
  • lastnamefirstinitial@company.com
  • francoj@company.com
  • firstname@company.com
  • james@company.com

A quick google search (http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2009/09/23/find-anyones-personal-email) for the email domain will generally give you one email address from which you can deduce the format from.

For our example application, we know that the domain is onemonthsimple.com (which we found in the domain and footer), so we can start there.

Guessing Accounts

Let’s guess a few accounts and see if we can find a valid username. Manually testing a few common usernames with the @onemonthsimple.com domain is our first step. Let’s try these users:

  • Joe
  • Kate
  • Brian
  • Eric
  • Kristen
  • Emily
  • Jon
  • Chris

Wow — a few of those worked. When we guess the correct username we get an error message about the password being incorrect. We have a valid username and are on our way to breaking in!

Lets review what we already know:

Usernames are email addresses. The application will tell us if the email address is valid or not. If we find a valid email address with the wrong password, an “Incorrect Password” error message is shown. Since it is a (demo) corporate HR application, we guess correctly that most users have the @onemonthsimple.com as the email. Using this, we can create or use a list of common names and try to find out more users!

Manually guessing these usernames takes awhile. In order to find as many usernames as possible, an attacker would automate the process of trying usernames and matching the error messages to determine which ones are valid.

Automating Attacks

First, we need a larger list of names. In hacker terms, these are called dictionaries or wordlists. Based on what we know about this app, we need a wordlist of first names. Let’s grab the most popular 10,000 baby names from the US census (http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/limits.html) as a starting place.

Next, we need a way to automate the login process. For this, you can either write a small custom program or use a variety of different brute force hacking tools such as brutus or hydra. For this example, let’s just write our own. All it needs to do is:

  1. Read a file of usernames line by line
  2. Send the username to the website login
  3. Review the error message to see if the user is valid or not

Here’s the code:

require "net/http"
require "uri"
uri = URI.parse("http://localhost/sessions")
http = Net::HTTP.new(uri.host, "3000")
File.open("onemonth2013-users.txt", "r").each_line do |username| # remove the newline
  username = username.chomp
  request = Net::HTTP::Post.new(uri.request_uri)  
  request.set_form_data({"email"=>username,"password"=> "n0taL1k3lyp@ssw0rd","commit"=>
"Login"})

  response = http.request(request) 
  # If response contains incorrect password then the username is valid  
  if response.body.include? "Incorrect"
    puts "Found: #{username}"
  end
end

After this tool is run, we have a list of users for the site. Next, we rerun the script, but slightly modified. For each valid user, we try thousands of different passwords until we stop seeing the “Incorrect Password” error message — then we know we have the right username and password! Game over.

Defending against brute force attacks

Brute force attacks work because developers tip their hand to attackers by revealing critical information in error messages, fail to properly enforce account lockout and password complexity, and do not implement any form of request throttling. Let’s take a look at each one of these areas and see how you can protect your site.

Leaking Information

In our example, the login page revealed if the username was invalid or not. This is how we were able to determine valid usernames. The same thing happens with the password. This problem exists all over the Internet, just try a few favorite sites (https://secure.meetup.com/login/) and use the wrong password, does the site give you any hints you can use to break in?

The best way to prevent these types of attacks is to return a consistent error message for failed logins. Don’t give hints to hackers with verbose error messages!

Also, don’t forget the password reset functionality!

Account Lockout

Now that we have fixed the error message, we still want to strengthen the login further to prevent brute force password guessing attacks. To do this, we will add an account lockout to users when they fail the login after a certain number of times. This will prevent our script from testing millions of passwords for each account. Here is how we add the account lockout in Rails when using devise (http://rubydoc.info/github/plataformatec/devise/master/Devise/Models/Lockable):

First, make sure the devise initializer is properly setup for account lockout:

config/initializers/devise.rb
# Lock account based on failed login attempts
config.lock_strategy = :failed_attempts
# Lock and unlock based on email
config.unlock_keys = [ :email ]
# Email the user the unlock link
config.unlock_strategy = :email
# Lockout the account after 5 failed logins
config.maximum_attempts = 5
# Make sure devise has:lockable set in your model:
devise :database_authenticatable, :registerable, :recoverable, :rememberable, :trackable, :validatable, :lockable

Give it a quick test and make sure accounts are getting locked out and can be reset. If you are adding this to an existing site, you may need to run a migration to add the required devise database fields.

If you are not using devise, then you can manually add a counter in the user model and increment it for each failed login during the authentication process. However, you should use devise!

Password Complexity

Next, we want to make sure the passwords are a little more complex (http://www.sans.org/security-resources/policies/general/pdf/password-protection-policy) so that user’s cannot enter in a weak password, such as “password” or “wizard1”. There are a couple ways to do this, although I personally like the “Devise Security Extension”. This gem provides the ability to configure a number of security controls around passwords, including complexity. Check out the github project for all the details:

https://github.com/phatworx/devise_security_extension

Again, without devise, a decent option is to create a regular expression and make sure that all new passwords meet the requirements. In general, I think it’s best to require at least one number and one special character, with a minimum character length of 10. Passphrases, or passwords that are more than one word are the way to go!

Throttle Requests

Finally, we want to slow down the attackers. One common way developers do this is to implement a security control called a captcha. A captcha is a special image that is intended to be easy for humans to understand, but difficult for automated tools (like our Ruby script). In general, captchas can be annoying and lead to a poor user experience. Also, there are a few tricks hackers use to get past captchas including things like optical character recognition tools, (http://www.zdnet.com/blog/security/inside-indias-captcha-solving-economy/1835), or tricking users into solving captchas.

A better solution is to add in some form of rate limiting based on IP address after a certain amount of failed login attempts. However, be careful as this could be abused by attackers to deny access to legitimate users coming from the same IP range (think your office, coffee shop, or school). Ideally, combining the rate limiting with displaying a captcha is a fairly secure way to go to stop these types of attacks.

The best Ruby gem I’ve seen for throttling requests is rack-attack (https://github.com/kickstarter/rack-attack). Rack-attack was built by Kickstarter to stop brute force attacks. Not only can rack-attack be used to protect login pages, it can be used to protect any page on your site from brute-force attacks.

With our security fixes in place, retest your site and make sure you’ve crushed these types of bugs! If only Apple had enabled these basic login controls, maybe iCloud would be a safe place to store pictures!

Learning Hack: The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoros are a simple learning and productivity technique. We all get burnt out or spend time doing stuff that’s not really effective or valuable, right?

Take a kitchen timer (a Pomodoro timer) and set it to 25 minutes.

Work on one thing for those 25 minutes. If you’re able to do that, when the 25 minutes are up make a little X on a piece of paper, like a post-it, and take a 5 minute break where you’re NOT thinking about work. Go walk around, or drink a cup of water, or use the bathroom, or stretch a little bit.

Then decide what you’re going to work on next and do another Pomodoro.

After about four Pomodoros cycles (with 5 minute breaks in between each), you should take a longer break of 20 minutes or so.

The goal will be to hit a certain number of Pomodoros in a day, like 8 or so, and then hit that number again or more the next day.

If you get really distracted during a Pomodoro (like you end up spending a few minutes on Facebook) then the Pomodoro doesn’t count and you have to start over.

The Pomodoro Technique accomplishes a few things:

  1. It gives you an accepted relaxation / bucket time. Then you don’t feel bad taking a break. In fact, studies show that breaks are important for optimal learning and focus. If you don’t take breaks, you might not be as productive as you could be.
  2. It lets you recalibrate what you’re working on every 25 minutes. I know that for me I often get unproductive when I’m working on the same thing for a long-time because I start focusing on stuff that isn’t important but tricking myself into thinking its super important. (Have you ever found yourself spending more than 15 minutes agonizing over the formatting of a powerpoint slide?) The more often you step back and check in with the self, the more you’ll feel like you actually worked on the tasks that you were supposed to.
  3. It provides a small, but reasonable challenge for you to maintain focus. You can defer distractions to a time that is at most 25 minutes away.
  4. It sets a personal challenge for yourself. By quantifying how many Pomodoros you’ve accomplished during the day, you’ll naturally feel a desire to at least match that never the next day.
  5. You feel better at the end of the day. Most of us spend way too much time hunched at our desk and then we feel like shit at the end of the day. It’s usually because we haven’t been physically active, we didn’t drink enough water, or stretch enough throughout the day. These 5 minute breaks are perfect for that. I find that at the end of a day when I practice pomodoros, I usually feel awesome.

So how can you get started?

Well it’s as simple as getting a timer, a piece of paper, and a pen, really. But there are a few things I’d recommend:

  • There’s an app for that. Pomodoro Timer for the iPhone is a good one. There are a lot of fancy apps out there that track all your Pomodoros and are adjustable and whatnot, but this app does all I really want. It vibrates when your 25 minutes are up, and lets you pick whether you want to take a short or a long break when that’s done.
    (My friend Jon notes that there’s a cool desktop alternative called E.gg Timer, which has a pomodoro option at this url: http://e.ggtimer.com/pomodoro)
  • Get a notebook, a day calendar, or even just a post-it at your desk to track your Pomodoros. This will actually be a good reminder at the start of your day that you should be doing Pomodoros in the first place.
  • While you’re at it, buy a nice pen.

Hope you enjoyed this post. Do you have a learning technique you’d like to share? Or do you think Pomodoro is a stupid idea? Post about it in the comments below.

I want you to do Deep Work

Deep work is the title of a Cal Newport book, and
the topic of my latest podcast episode: “Deep Work.

I fight desires all day long.

The five most common things*
that get in the way of doing deep work are:

  1. Eating
  2. Sleeping
  3. Taking a break
  4. Sex
  5. Checking email and social media

* That’s according to a 2012 study on willpower
by Roy F. Baumeister, PhD.

I know people who say
“I worked 8 hours today.”
But how much of that work
is actual productive, focused work?

A year ago, I was in a month-long focus slump
that lasted until I overheard a friend
use the term Deep Work to describe his work.

What is Deep Work?
Professional activities performed in a state of
distraction-free concentration that push your
cognitive capabilities to the limit.

Learn More 
If you want to learn more about Deep Work,
listen to this week’s On Books Podcast episode
in which I discuss highlights and applications
of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and
its influence on my own work flow.

Listen to Deep Work now on iTunesYouTube or Spotify.

 

Changing Careers at 30: Are You Bold Enough To Do It?

You’ve been dreaming about it for almost a decade. You see it so clearly it’s almost three dimensional. You can practically taste the sweet nectar of success.

Except that it’s nothing more than a fantasy. A pipe dream. One of those woulda, coulda, shoulda things you dwell on, that fascinates and scares you at the same time. It’s painful, but you can’t seem to stop.

You’ve been slowly wasting away at a job you loathe, letting it drain the life out of you, while you eye your friends with envy. You know, those friends that bit the bullet back in your glory days and dove head first into exciting career plans? Who never looked back, not even once?

You keep thinking, “Man, that could have been me.”

Except, well, it wasn’t. For whatever reason. Maybe you decided to take the more secure albeit less exciting route, or that well-paying “safe” job. Or you decided to start a family right out of the gate. Maybe you coasted for a few years, drifting from career to career, or project to project, but never really seeing results you’d hoped for.

No worries, friend. Whatever your situation, wherever you’re at right now, life isn’t over until it’s over. Now’s the time to stiffen up that upper lip and chase those dreams in earnest. But where to begin?

Have a Plan

Why? Because planning is cool. And because, well… if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Really though, you don’t want to just drop your life and switch careers on a whim or start a new business without doing some due diligence. Quiz yourself. Ask yourself why you want to make this big change. Can you handle the pay cut that most likely will come (at least initially)?

Do you have the working capital you need to fund your idea? If you’re starting your own business, do you have a marketing budget? Do you need any sort of insurance coverage to legally operate? Assess all the required moving parts that will be necessary to make your career move a success, then ask yourself: Do you fall short in any of those areas?

Consider a Trial Phase

Perhaps your idea is something you can test the waters in first, before making a major move and potentially lighting bridges afire behind you. Ask yourself if the change you are contemplating could be something you could do on the side around your current job, just to make sure it’s viable.

For instance, if you’ve always dreamed of launching your own web design company, maybe you can start out with a couple of freelance projects during your spare time, and see where the waters take you. You might find web designing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and decide you want to focus your attention in another direction.

That’s perfectly fine too. There are no rules that say we have to settle on one career path, and one career path only. Variety is the spice of life, or haven’t you heard?

Deep Dive into Your Dreams

While it can be tempting to want to change careers simply because you see others around you succeeding at something, it doesn’t mean what they are succeeding at is right for you. We humans are a quirky lot, and we each come with our own unique gifts, talents, and skill sets.

Instead of being seduced by the lure of quick or easy money, or dazzled by a career that seems glamorous but doesn’t give you any kind of thrill, sit down and actually think about what you want to do. Analyze your passions, honestly assess your skills and strengths, figure out what lights you up and sets you on fire for life.

Then get to researching and find out if there’s a market out there that will let you somehow marry your passion and skills with smart business. If there’s a market for it, turn that idea into the best career move of your life, and don’t look back. But never forget, switching careers merely because you see someone else doing better than you at something is lame. Don’t do that.

Make Lots of Friends

A big part of changing careers successfully is making sure you have an established network of friends in place before you make the big move.

This is your social circle, your network of people that you know in the industry you’re trying to move into that can help make your transition a bit less difficult. In many industries, they say it’s all about who you know, and this is more true than you probably realize.

Even that guy you say hello to every day at the coffee shop might be a potential contact that could prove valuable in your business at some point. As an entrepreneur, you just never know when you meet someone, how they may affect your life and your business further down the road. Make friends, exchange contact information, expand your network. But do it with class, and don’t be an… well, you know.

Just Do It

Have you done all the research? Asked yourself all the tough questions? Have you mapped out some kind of game plan on where you’re going, how you’re going, and what you need to get there? If you’ve done everything you can think of to mitigate potential failures, it’s time to quit talking about the big plan, and do the big plan.

It’s easy to get stuck in some kind of holding pattern as you wrestle with a big life change. Any big life change, really. It doesn’t just apply to careers. “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” is the mental narrative that seems to loop on repeat.

It often triggers something I like to call procrastination assassination. I should know, I’ve been a victim of it myself. Don’t let that be you. Once you’ve reached a certain point, you just have to take a leap of faith. Or give it all up for good and resign yourself to your current ho-hum career.

But if you’re reading this post, I know you don’t want that. You want more than ho-hum. So how about you get busy, and make that long-awaited dream happen?

By my admittedly flawed calculations, I figure now is as good a time as any.

Take Control of Your Career And Create Your Own Learning Curriculum

Learning online is overwhelming. How many times have you started a class and flailed about, looking for the right next steps?

In today’s rapidly accelerating world, we’re all trying to learn as much as we can as quickly as possible. If you’re anything like me, however, this means you can quickly get overwhelmed by all the choices.

Today we get to learn from Mathias Jakobsen, Internet entrepreneur, creator of Think Clearly, and Learning Designer at Hyper Island. Mathias has also curated workshops and learning sessions for the entire team at One Month. It helped our team find our own way as we grow. He took time to share with us his thoughts on learning, online education, making your own career path, and what to do when the transition feels clunky and uncomfortable.

How to chart your own learning path — An interview with Mathias Jakobsen

Sarah: We have a lot of students who are in the middle of career transitions. They’re learning new skills so that they can either get a new job or start an entrepreneurial project on the side. What is some advice you have for students who want to learn new skills but aren’t sure how to begin, or where to start?

Mathias: Make sure to check in with your motivation.

Why do you want to learn this skill? Is it because it might make you money which might give you better life conditions? Or is it because you are truly fascinated and want to learn because you are curious? Or something else? Of course, they are not mutually exclusive, and just because you are motivated by curiosity doesn’t mean that you can’t use the skill to make more money. But I think you will always be better off if you can dare to be honest with your motivation.

I think you will always be better off if you can dare to be honest with your motivation.

If you know that your main motivation is to make more money, then you need to keep that in mind when it gets challenging. How will you deal with getting stuck when it feels like you are not making progress for hours or even days? That’s when you are most likely to give up.

Perhaps you can give yourself a set number of hours and trust that if you truly spend 100 hours trying to learn this. It doesn’t matter so much if you feel stuck for parts of it. It’s a mindset shift from certainty to probability. You will never know in advance if you will be able to learn a new skill and make money from it, but you can define clear steps and conditions that will certainly increase your probability of succeeding.

If you are truly motivated primarily by curiosity, then it will be less challenging.

But if you are not honest with yourself and tell yourself it will be easy because you are curious but actually you are motivated by something else, then when it gets difficult, you will get discouraged and give up.

It’s important to dare to dream precisely about the future you truly desire.

In my coaching work with entrepreneurs I have often helped people dream about what could be possible instead of being stuck on all the things that are currently not possible. The trick here is to be very specific and precise. For example, someone might say that they dream about more money. They also have lots of other ideas and visions, but most people I meet seem to also have this idea of “more money.”

But they have never radically considered exactly how much more money they really want, what exactly they would do with it and what that might concretely look like. Do you want $200K annual salary? Do you want a million? Why not ten million?

So I ask people to tell me how they would spend their money if they had unlimited funds. What exactly would they buy? Most people start off making variations of the same list of all the things that society teaches us that we should desire: one or more luxury homes in a various metropolises, a boat, a plane, a fancy watch or two, some cars, some people are into helicopters, all organic food from Whole Foods, a private chef and so on.

Then I ask people to be more precise and to look up the price tags on all these items so that we can figure out how much money they would actually need to get everything they can dream of. But you can’t look up the price tag of “a fancy car” so you need to decide: is it going to be an old Ferrari F40, a Mercedes AMG SLS or a Bugatti Veyron? All three?

Do the research. And where will you park them? Who will clean that beach house when you are not there? It takes time, but what happens when you keep pushing yourself to see the specific details and make all those little choices, is that suddenly the dreams begin to feel more real, and when that happens, you can begin to realize that most of these are actually not your dreams.

Imagine that life with the specific things in it that you want. Draw it. It can be very motivating.

And then you can begin peeling off the layers and uncover the things you actually want in your life. Again, with the same precision. And don’t be ashamed if you (like me) dream about a vintage Rolex GMT-master. It’s a beautiful watch. Imagine that life with the specific things in it that you want. Draw it. It can be very motivating. But you need to dare to shamelessly let your desires run wild first and go as far as you can into the wanting. See what happens.

You need to dare to shamelessly let your desires run wild first. Go as far as you can into the wanting.

Why is it important to continue to re-invest in higher education as you grow older? What are the smartest leaders doing that other people aren’t doing?

Change is happening very fast today.

And the only thing that we know is that it will never again be this slow. It will only get faster. Companies have shorter life cycles. Technologies are being adopted faster. Information travels further and faster. Our skills are getting outdated all the time and need constant updating.

As I see it, learning is the only solution.

And not just this course or that course. But learning as a fundamental attitude is the only sane way to approach the future. Investing in education is just a piece of the puzzle.

What are some of the key tools and aspects of ongoing growth that you see people engaging in?

There is no tool for this. The tool of today may be outdated before I’m done with this sentence. It’s the attitude that matters.

An attitude of curiosity and openness to what’s new. You don’t need to like it or love it. But try it once or twice before making up your mind. I recently tried the new Periscope app. I thought it was stupid. But I pushed myself to try. I had so much fun. I was so surprised by how truly engaging and interesting it was. Just walking down the street, filming, live-streaming my life and telling the camera that I was on a mission to buy ice cream for my wife. Suddenly there were people from all over the world watching, commenting, interacting and I felt like a human. I felt they cared. I truly felt that. It was incredible.

Three days later I deleted the app and I haven’t used it since. Was it a failure? Does it matter? I spent a total of about 30 minutes playing with it. Now I at least have some sense of what it can do and particularly I can understand why others might love it. I explored. Get curious.

Do you see common mistakes people make when digging into self-learning and/or career transition?

People get stuck in all kinds of places. Most often people get stuck in one of these four places:

  • Trying to do it alone, and thinking that they need to (and are supposed to) know in advance, rather than going into it with an explorer’s attitude and taking notes along the way as they uncover, discover and figure it out.
  • Second, not taking the time to properly understand their true motivation. They set out to do something — a bit like a New Years resolution. They want to “lose weight” or “implement a new strategy” but they don’t put in the time and effort to understand why it truly personally motivates them to do this. You need to keep asking yourself “why is this important to me?” And for each answer you ask again “and why is that so important to me?” It typically takes at least seven steps, and often more. And often there are forks because there are multiple answers and each must be explored.
  • Third, people fail to clearly and precisely specify the goal: how much weight to lose. What exactly they want to see as a result of the new strategy. A good guide is to ask yourself: “is the goal so clear that I could give the instructions to someone else and hire them to unambiguously judge if the goal is achieved or not?” It must be something they can actually see with their own eyes. You must be able to track your progress, even if you don’t know exactly the results you will have in advance.
  • Finally, people don’t break their goals into small enough steps. They overestimate their own ability to change and they underestimate how powerful it can be to make tiny changes. If the steps are not clear enough it’s super difficult to act on it.

“Being more organized” is a great ambition to have, but what’s the step to take? Perhaps the first tiny step is to schedule just 10 minutes every week to make a list of what has been most disorganized that week. If you do that for five weeks you may not instantly become more organized but you will have better insight into what specifically is disorganized in your life.

Then the next step may be to pick one of the smallest things that kept showing up. Then, treat yourself. You are on the way to becoming a lot more organized by taking this first small and incredibly crucial step. You are shifting your perception of yourself from being disorganized to being someone who slowly but surely will become organized. And yes, this will not immediately solve your inbox and the clutter on your desk, but remember you’ve lived with the mess for years now anyway, so it can probably wait another few months.

If you could teach people three things, what would it be?

To seriously explore their own wants and desires in a precise, honest, ongoing and systematic way. Not to act on every desire, but to know what they are. And to get rid of all those that have simply been pushed onto you, as I wrote above.

I also strongly believe in taking notes and using tools that help you slow down at least temporarily. This shift in mind tempo seems to be very beneficial for seeing the longer threads that get lost in the haze of rapid (but small) changes that we see day to day.

To reflect regularly in order to integrate thinking and feeling and to discover and learn about yourself in whatever situations and experiences you go through.

To be kind to others. Both for the benefit of the other, but mainly for the benefit of oneself. Part of this is learning about yourself and what situations where you find it more difficult to be kind. Being late for a meeting and waiting on a busy subway is not a situation where I personally find it easy to be kind and let others on the train first. So I try to always be very early for things. If I haven’t eaten properly I also find it hard to be kind and sharing with others. So,I try to ensure that I get proper meals. This sounds stupid when I write it, but it’s really important.

You are a learning designer with Hyper Island, a company that focuses on the development of individual and company leadership growth. Can you tell us a bit more about your work at Hyper Island and the process? What do you do, and how does it work?

Hyper Island is a creative business school, and we consult with extraordinary individuals around the world. We enable organizations and individuals to see the bigger picture, engage, and act on opportunities that arise in our digital and technological age.

My primary job is to create a learning journey for the participants, which takes them from where they are and to where they can be, using whatever resources I have available in the form of speakers, sessions, workshops and our methodology.

The first step is to know where the participants are in their lives, companies, and experiences. I often do interviews with them or others do the interviews and I read the results. For some of our open classes, there is also bit of a filter for who signs up in the first place, so it’s not completely random. However, for some of our tailored programs for companies, the interviews are absolutely crucial to understanding where they really are and what they need.

The journey has several stages and we design different experiences and elements to best suit each team. There can be a lot of variation from one workshop to another, but some of the recurring elements are:

  • Build trust amongst the group. This is important for everything that comes after.
  • Set a clear precedent or example of the type of participation that is expected (this is not a class where you get to lean back and just listen, you will be asked without warning to discuss a question that seemingly has no definite answer, and still come up with one clear answer in a small group, in just 120 seconds, so get used to it) This might make people uncomfortable at first. That’s part of it.
  • Encourage space for self-assessment. Where am I in relation to X? Where are the others in the group?
  • Gather input. This can be powerful stories, ideas, concepts.
  • Lead exercises and workshops. Building on the input, pushing participants to do something with the material. Putting material into context and applying the skills they are learning enables them to take it home with them more permanently.
  • Self-reflection. Participants learn “what does this mean for me?”
  • Group sharing of reflections.

These are the elements of a learning journey, and within this journey, we can go through stages like “opening up and seeing the big picture” into “experimentation with a new attitude” and finally “planning, execution and implementation.”

Take us into the transformation of a participant. What are they like when they arrive, and what has changed when they leave?

People arrive with expectations.

Maybe they expect a traditional class with lectures. Others come on the recommendation of a friend. While they have no clear understanding of what will happen, they have very high expectations because their friend told them it would be incredible.

One of the first things we ask people to do is to share something that they normally would never share with others. It catches people off guard, and with little time to prepare, most people simply go for it. They are pushed to be vulnerable in front of a whole group. I think it’s pretty intense for the participant. But it also opens up the space so much after.

Some of our speakers are really good at pushing your thinking. To let go of some of your ideas and beliefs and judgements. Or at least consider how the world would look if you saw beyond your own judgement. That others might see it differently.

By the end of the first day most people express that they feel that their head is spinning. People report not being able to fall asleep.

The morning of the second day it’s time for quiet reflection and introspection. I love this part of the journey. We ask people to write down their answers to a set of questions that gently guide people into their memory, then into their emotions, then into critical thinking and eventually to consider larger implications of their new insights. It all happens individually, in silence at first.

Because most people don’t take the time (or have the time) to sit quietly and reflect, it can be super powerful.

It’s legitimate because the facilitator asked you to do it, and everyone else is doing it. I personally hate when some senior executive feels that he is so important that he must check his e-mail during those minutes. It’s like pissing on everyone else.

The second day of the journey is very creative and the experience for most people is that they suddenly tap into creative resources they never knew they had. It’s hugely empowering. The climax is typically at the end of day two.

On the last day it’s time to gather the new learnings and come back down to earth. To devise concrete action plans for putting the new stuff into practice. To solidify the learnings into an understanding or a framework that they can take with them.

When they leave they are less afraid.

They often say this out loud, but even if they don’t I can feel it. That’s probably one of the main reasons why I work here. It’s so hard to think clearly when there is fear. We help people leave lighter, less afraid.

As a school, you do this predominantly through face-to-face interactions. Tell us more about why in-person interaction is such an important tool.

Most people have really bad habits when they are in front of a laptop. The rapid Cmd-tab multi tasking shortcut is so hardwired into my brain that if an app or site is remotely unresponsive I will instinctively jump to another app or site while I wait.

Even if I have nothing to do there I just do it because it feels like I’m wasting time waiting for something else. This might be rational from a certain efficiency perspective. Back in the day when downloading a large PDF might have taken 50 minutes, I’m probably better off writing a few e-mails rather than waiting for the file to download while staring at the progress indicator.

But today the lag might be half a second before I switch. All it does is make me feel scattered and it’s simply a bad habit that I haven’t managed to change. I think we all have such habits, which most of the time are not that big a deal, especially if we are doing lots of little admin-style tasks, responding to tweets and other things that require no more than 3 second bursts of concentration. But for learning we often need more focus. Especially if we are trying to learn something that is not easy.

Face-to-face is by no means a silver bullet for this. Many learnings environments are so dull and boring and disengaging that you are probably better off just randomly surfing interesting Wikipedia articles on your phone than paying attention to the lecture or training that is being presented. We have all been there. It sucks.

You can make both online and offline teaching boring as hell.

However, let’s consider a session that is highly engaging but with content that is also difficult, challenging and hard to comprehend. For this I think that face-to-face sessions with a group, the way we do it at Hyper Island and many other places, can significantly help people stay focused and engaged because there is interaction and because it’s very easy to see that nobody else is “checking out” with their phones so it creates a social pressure to not do so.

The room creates a certain force of attention which both fuels the presenter with energy but also makes it less demanding for the participants to hold the attention because it’s already flowing in the room.

The other thing that can be much more effective in person-to-person, is building trust, which can be crucial if you want to have an engaged and engaging conversation or discussion in a learning environment. Trust can of course also be created online, but in my opinion it just takes a lot more time and effort. Probably because we have less non-verbal communication (body language, scents, touch etc.).

One of our challenges at One Month is in building this type of community online: in your perspective, what are the pros and cons of online education? When does each thrive?

I obviously love doing live, in-person learning experiences, but I am also realizing that it has so many limitations. It really doesn’t scale well: if you add more than 30 people in the same room you begin to lose the interactive experience, and it becomes like a conference instead.

It’s also geographically limited to people who are in close proximity to each other, or who are willing to travel. For brief learning sprints of 2–3 days this is not an issue, but if you want to really go deep in something it’s usually better to come together as a group on a weekly basis and then do individual exploration in between.

At Hyper Island we don’t believe that online education can replace some of the personal and organizational transformation work we do through our courses, but we do believe that integrating the online and offline can be tremendous. By using both, you can create a blended experience where some of the early trust building work happens in person and most of the deep dive and implementation happens virtually.

This allows us create much more valuable learning experiences. We are curiously exploring and experimenting in this space. We definitely haven’t solved it yet, but the opportunities are so massive and the fact that it has transformative potential on a truly global scale makes me really excited.

When does online learning excel? What is special about being online and connected in a way that we can’t do in person?

What online can do much better is to make the learning path individual. Each person can move in their own tempo and it can even be non-linear. One might choose a different order of learning.

What online can do much better is to make the learning path individual.

You can also do a lot of things that are not synchronised. This allows people to learn together from completely different locations and time zones.

I think online learning can excel when:

  • It’s social — an actual group of people who are learning together and who are committed to getting to know each other just like you would naturally do offline. This means taking the extra time to build trust. To small talk. To talk about the stuff we care about personally outside of the stuff we are learning. Who we are as people. What we dream about. I think it’s best when it’s a pretty small group. Even if the small group is also part of a huge group, I think a sub group of 5–10 people is ideal online. Everyone takes the time to have 1:1 conversations. Using something like the NYTimes 36 questions to fall in love, could be a simple 30 minutes activity that everyone does with each other (that’s two full hours for each person in a group of five)
  • What is to be learned is already well documented on the Internet at large (most stuff is today)
  • The teacher’s main job is to give the group the questions and directions for exploration.
  • Assignments that the group must solve together or maybe in pairs and which has some form of creative output. The teacher knows that it can be solved. The teacher has defined a reasonable format and time frame for the task. And the teacher is available for support if anyone gets really stuck.
  • The groups present their findings to each other.
  • The teacher also designs the experience so that there is a reasonable progression and adjusts based on the feedback of how well the groups solve the challenges. So the initial exercises are simpler and require few steps but they build up resources, knowledge and confidence which can be incorporated in later and more complex challenges.

You also write a newsletter, Think Clearly, based on your years of work with entrepreneurs and business leaders. What is the process you use when working with entrepreneurs? How do you help them clarify the noise and focus on what’s important?

I listen and ask questions.

More concretely, I have also used certain spaces and places that are not so ordinary. This is in order to help people get out of their normal habits.

A busy coffee shop can be fine for some meetings and for long time clients where we have built our habits and ways for working, we can do the conversation in the most distracting place and still be 100% focused.

But when you are first starting out, a quiet and slightly strange place can simply be more effective. I have used the lobby in the TriBeCa Grand Hotel for years. They serve great coffee, the staff is super friendly, and it’s quiet with high ceilings and skylights, yet, dark and intimate. It’s perfect.

You recently had a brand-new baby. How has she helped you reconsider the world? What do you see about the world through your children’s eyes?

The three things I want to teach everyone (above) are probably what I will teach my kids.

I think being a father is amazing for me. I feel so grounded in that experience and in having a family where there is so much love flowing around. My wife is incredible.

No matter how many miles I fly away to the other side of the planet to run some workshop, I feel grounded in them and I am happy that I both get to go away and then to come back home.

I learned that it’s very important for me to be doing work that I truly care about. Because then I take the energy I get from home and invest in my work, and I get a different kind of energy from doing the work which I can then bring home.

I also realize that while I have very reasonable hours at Hyper Island (I work pretty much exactly 40 hours per week), I still don’t see my kids that much. I see Noah for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening and then on the weekend. But I know that when we are together, I’m a dad that brings home energy from doing something that matters to me. I work because it matters. It also pays for our rent, but I honestly feel that’s an added bonus. If I were independently wealthy I would still go out and do work that I care about because I want my kids to see that.

We’ve talked before about the magic in the mundane — how the smallest of things can make the biggest difference in life changes. What mundane things are magical in your own life? Can you give a few examples?

Magic: baking bread. Mixing flour and water and salt and making delicious food. Baked loaf 326 yesterday.

Changing a diaper can be such a rewarding experience. When I pay attention it has a lovely mix of intimacy but also efficient choreography of moves and swipes which can truly be mastered as an art form.

Sometimes just seeing the lit up NYC skyline from the packed subway car passing over the Williamsburg bridge after a long day.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned this year, personally?

That my kryptonite is that I want to be liked by others.

I realized this a few weeks ago and it is so hugely liberating to know that this is the case. I think it is quite common actually, but I never knew for myself, and it limited my scope of action. From now on I may still limit my scope of action, because I still want to be liked.

But now I know it and it is my choice. I know I can also choose a different action outside of that scope if I am just willing to risk not being liked. I tried it recently and it was hugely empowering even though it was such a tiny thing.

I Studied German for 20 Min a Day For a Year and This is what I learned

Last year, I decided I needed to learn German. It started one night while I was at a dinner party in Berlin. During dinner I noticed that I was at a table of German speakers who were all politely speaking in English just for me! I felt like the stereotypical stupid American. Berlin is one of the most amazing cities in the world. I knew I’d be back the following summer, so right then I set a goal. To return one year later with enough German skills to, for example, read a menu, ask directions, and follow along with some basic diner conversation.

My strategy: Every morning for one year, I would spend 20 minute learning German. I was curious: could I learn enough German to meet my goals by only studying 20 minutes a day?

My goal: return to Berlin in one year, with enough German to have a basic conversation

My goal: return to Berlin in one year, with enough German to have a basic conversation

One year timeline for learning German:

How much German can you learn with DuolingoThe first two months went smoothly. I started with Duolingo everyday for 20 minutes. Duolingo is a free language learning platform that includes flashcards, tests, and a social component where you can see your friend’s progress. It helped that a few friends of mine were also using Duolingo because I could see their progress alongside mine. Social pressure is a real thing, and I didn’t want to fall behind my friends!

After three months, I watched the movie Good Bye Lenin! in German and I couldn’t understand one word. I realized that I had no practical application to use German in everyday life. So I thought it would be best to pair Duolingo with other forms of learning: That month, I hired a teacher on Live Lingua (Roughly $28/hour) to help me improve my listening skills. We had a total of 10 one hour lessons session together where she’d help work with me on what I was learning with Duolingo.

In the fifth month, I traveled to Japan for a week. I found the context switching between studying German and visiting Japan was surprisingly difficult (note: I lived in Japan, and can speak very, very basic Japanese). For example, when I meant to say “Yes” in Japanese, German came out of my mouth. I felt like I was losing control of my mind.

By the sixth month, I realized that there were dozens of important everyday German words I wouldn’t learn in Duolingo. Such as entire categories of food that were missing from their library: raspberry, blueberries, pears, peach, and eggplant. So in addition to Duolingo I began using Anki. Anki is a flashcard app you can use on your laptop or phone.

In month seven, I picked up the book Fluent Forever. The biggest takeaway: I should pay more attention to pronunciation (I had skipped over learning the alphabet because Duolingo doesn’t teach it, and because it seemed boring to learn). This had left me making the same pronunciation mistakes over and over again. To balance this I found some YouTube videos on German pronunciation which were helpful.

In month eight, I had completed all the Duolingo lessons and the app told me I was 48% fluent. I think that is generous, because I still couldn’t understand 80% of what I would hear while watching movies. At this point I went back to the top of Duolingo’s lessons and I tried to do all of the lessons again until they were gold (which is supposed to mean it’s fresh in your mind).

Duolingo review example

After every lesson, if I didn’t know a word in Duolingo I would add it to Anki.

In month nine, I was getting bored of being on Duolingo everyday, so I also joined Yabla ($9.99/month) which is a site that adds English subtitles to German YouTube videos. Yabla has a really cool feature where you can slowly scrub through the video in case you miss something. I decided I would substitute 10 minutes of my German language using Yabla.

One year later, how much German do I know?

In month eleven I returned to Berlin. I immediately noticed that signs and advertisements that were there in the past suddenly had more meaning. “Oh that’s a barber” and “There’s a sale on blueberries today, buy one get one free.” On the other hand, speaking with Germans was almost impossible for me since everyone spoke either too fast for me, or would default into English upon hearing my mumbled accent.

Kapital Zwei language learning

In the week leading up to my arrival in Berlin I took an online test with Kapital Zwei and was ranked as level A.2.2. That’s equivalent to Level 2.5 of 8 on the scale of zero to fluent. Not bad! I decided I would join a German language school for two weeks while in Berlin to keep the momentum going (Kapital Zwei offers 12 hours a week of in class studying @ roughly $6/hour to learn with a group of 10 students).

The classes were 90% in German, and from the first day of class I was pleased to learn that I could follow along with the teacher fairly well. The takeaway being: if you speak to me slow and like I’m three, I just might just be able to follow along.

What would I do different next time?

1. Have a goal, and sub-goals for learning. Learning German “just to learn German” isn’t motivating. It’s the same plateau that I see One Month students make when learning to code.

My greatest motivation came when I had a goal:

“To return one year later with enough German skills to follow along with some basic diner conversation.”

The problem, is once I arrived to Berlin it was clear I wouldn’t hit my goal. And I didn’t have a new goal. Having a goal is important. Having subgoals (perhaps quarterly) would help me course correct for months when I fall short of my goal.

2. Use Multiple resources to learn (and sooner than I did): I was naive to think that using only Duolingo, or only any one resource, would provide me with enough knowledge. Duolingo’s greatest strengths is that it helps set goals, gives reminders, and a sense of social pressure, but isn’t helpful for practicing natural conversations.

In the future I’d suggest learning from Duolingo, while also learning songs (they were helpful for remembering vocab), and I’d take an in person class sooner.

Did you know that all European languages use the same grading scale that I mentioned above (A.1, A.2, B.1, etc)? It’s called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). I hadn’t realized this, but now that I know it’s helpful because it gives me a sense of how to set expectations or reaching level A.2.2 of Spanish, French or any other European language.

I get the sense that if I took the German class for six months (everyday for 3 hours) that I would have been able to go from a A.2.2 to a C1 (which is much closer to my goal of listening and speaking during a dinner party).

3. Practice sentences, not just vocabulary words. Practicing vocabulary each day with Duolingo gave me the false impression that I knew more words than I did. Sure I knew how to say “Sister” and “Brother” but as soon as I used them in a sentence the conjugations and sentence structure made speaking much more difficult. This lead me to using a lot of one word answer and pointing at things. “Yes” (point) “Almond Milk.”

Conclusion

In one year I spent a minimum of 120 hours studying German, and a total of $615 on resources. Overall, my grade of A.2.2. is roughly 25% fluent according to the official German CERF test, which is pretty satisfying for learning mostly on my own, and mostly from my laptop.

 

8 Ways to Change Your Habits (And Actually Get What You Want)

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What does it take to make a goal or a dream come true?

You know the drill. You’re vowing to change your behavior. Tomorrow I’ll … start meditating. Start brushing my teeth. Finally get around to writing those essays you’ve been meaning to write. Make plans for the new book you’re putting together. Learn to code.

You vow that you’re going to do it. You know it. You have to do it.

But it didn’t get done today. So you wake up tomorrow and do the same thing you’ve always done. Yet your behavior doesn’t change.

When we make broad-sweeping declarations about our life, they don’t work.

In fact vowing to do anything, no matter how strong the vow, usually wears off as your willpower drains throughout the day. So how do you make a change in your life that’s actually effective? “Everyday people plan to do difficult things, but they don’t do them. They think, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ and they swear to themselves that they’ll follow through the next day,” write Carol Dweck, researcher at Stanford and author of Mindset. “Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues show that vowing, even intense vowing, is often useless. The next day comes and the next day goes.”

So how do you make a resolution that actually works? Here are a few of the best tips and tools we’ve read about, used, and know to work:

1. Make a concrete, vivid plan.

What works, writes Dweck, is making a vivid, concrete plan. Describe to yourself exactly what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and what steps you need to take, down to the minute detail. “Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a problem you have to confront. What is it? Now make a concrete plan. When will you follow through on your plan? Where will you do it? How will you do it? Think about it in vivid detail.”

Increase your possibility of success by outlining when you’re going to do something, by putting it in your mind as a behavior — and on your calendar as an action.

These concrete plans — plans you can visualize — about when, where, and how you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through, which, of course, ups the chances of success.

If you’re looking to write a book in the new year (which, full disclosure, I am), then break it down into its constituent parts. When will you write? What will it look like? What days a week will this happen?

Think about it exactly, not vaguely.

For me: I’m going to set an interim goal of writing on my book for at least ten days in January. More specifically, a writing session includes just opening the doc and working on a single page. I’m focused on making the habit of working on my book part of my regular routine.

2. To make change, visualize the change. Take time to imagine your behavior change in detail.

It turns out, detailed visualization is powerful enough to change behaviors even before you start. As I’ve written about before, the power of visualization is so important, it’s proven to change behaviors:

“In a famous basketball study, players were divided into groups that visualized perfect free throws, a second group that practiced their shots, and a placebo group that did nothing. At the end of the study, the players that visualized their perfect throws improved almost as much as the group that practiced — without ever touching a basketball. It’s important to note that the visualization involved the specific steps and actions it takes to perfect a free-throw shot.”

If you want to change what you do, you can begin with your thoughts.

3. Start small.

Habit change happens when you start really small. Want to learn how to run? Your first month might focus just on the first five minutes of each run, until you’ve mastered that first step. This includes mastering the steps of putting your shoes on, walking outside, and only then maybe adding a few minutes to walk to the corner or around the block each day.

What’s key is successive positive reinforcement, or rewarding the behavior you want more of. Too often we jump cold turkey into a brand-new routine only to find ourselves back in our old habits before we know it. Instead, focus on the smallest possible change that could build into a habit over time. For more on this, check out Stanford Professor B.J. Foggs’ Tiny Habits program.

“We often think that if you start with something so small, it won’t make a difference. But the truth is, because that momentum builds after you get going, you can often start with something really tiny, and it will blossom into something much bigger,” says writer and author James Clear.

If you’re stuck or overwhelmed with a new project, ask yourself: what’s the smallest thing I could do next to make this happen? It doesn’t matter how small it is — the trick is to make it small enough that you actually do something.

Tweet: “Even when you start small, it can make a huge difference.” — @James_Clear

4. Prime yourself.

New behaviors need an introduction, of sorts. Whenever I start to learn something new, I try to expose myself to the new context before actually committing to a new behavior change. Often the weight of how much is going on can be intimidating — researching a new location, mapping it out on google maps, looking up schedules, figuring out payment options, sticking to the plan — that enough friction in any of these steps and you don’t end up doing it.

Instead, make one of the first steps a walk through. Whenever I try out a new gym or studio, I go in for a tour. You can learn the routine, see the studio, and practice the behavior of going to the gym. This makes it easier for you to repeat this action down the line because you already know how to do it.

Want to start flossing your teeth in the morning? Go right now to your bathroom sink and practice the behavior. Get out the floss, put it on the countertop, and floss at least one tooth. Even if it’s 2pm in the afternoon, even if it’s just one tooth. This will prime you for repeating the behavior the next day.

5. Look to the process, not the outcome.

Too often we confuse the reward of the outcome with understanding what, exactly, it’s going to take to get there. Sitting down to write every single day is a lot more boring than having a published book in your hand. So how do you create a schedule that rewards the small successes?

It’s actually psychologically difficult to conceptualize change. We don’t understand thresholds of small changes; instead, we’re biased to see big wins. The biggest change happens over time, however, when you enact small, consistent behaviors. Sometimes mundane acts over time add up to something more exciting, after all.

“It’s so easy to focus on this idea of one defining moment, or overnight success, or some massive transformation to flip a switch and become a new person — but it’s not that way at all,” explains Clear. To make a behavior stick, look closely at the process and whether or not you’re really willing to commit to the, at times, drudgery and slog that it’ll take to get there.

And be ready to surprise yourself. Entrepreneur Corbett Barr reminds us that “Not a lot will change in one single day, but a lot can change in 30 days.” It’s rare that I’ll have a breakthrough day to finish my book (and by definition, that will only be one day out of many), but if I keep showing up, that day will arrive.

6. Motivation doesn’t last long, so plan ahead for when you’re not motivated.

How do you stay motivated? Well, it’s not about motivation — it’s about habit. Stephen Pressfield describes Somerset Maugham’s relationship to motivation and writing:

“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Maugham reckoned another deeper truth: that by performing the mundane act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his.” — Steven Pressfield from The War of Art

In other words, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional doesn’t wait for motivation. They get to it, even if they don’t feel like it.

7. When you get stuck, reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule.

This idea comes from 37 Signals, and I heard about it from Eric Zimmer and James Clear on “The One You Feed,” podcast. James writes every Monday and Thursday, and he explains that even when there’s a dud of a day, he still shows up and sticks to the schedule.

It doesn’t matter how you feel, it’s about shipping something. Rather than skipping altogether when circumstances get dicey (skipping your workout because you only have 20 minutes, avoiding your writing session because you’re tired), instead, find a way to do something, even if it’s just for a moment. Do jumping jacks for 6 minutes, then 1 minute of pushups. Write 200 words, or three sentences.

Whatever time you have is how much you do.

A little of something is a lot more than nothing.

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8. Behavior change requires… change.

In order to get a different outcome, change the inputs.

This might seem exceptionally obvious, but it’s worth pointing out: if you want a different result, you’ll have to do something differently than you’re currently doing. What you’re doing right now (and for me, it’s spending three weeks not writing, then a day stressing about writing) — isn’t getting you the result that you want.

If you aren’t getting what you want, then what you’re doing isn’t working. In order to get what you want, something about the process will have to change.

What are you willing to do differently to get what you want?

How can you change your habits to get more of what you want?

5 Fool Proof Tips for Building a Strong Web Developer Portfolio

The demand for web developers is growing quickly. But even with this rapidly expanding demand, if you’re looking for a permanent or freelance assignment, landing the right work can feel daunting. The competition can be intense, and trying to stand out can be exhausting.

Many employers will look at your education and work history, but what they’re interested in most is your web developer portfolio. What have you done in the past, and more importantly, does your work fit their needs? Fortunately, there are steps you can take that will differentiate you from other web developers, and make landing your next position or assignment more effortless.

You likely have an online portfolio, but what do prospects think when they view it? After spending time on your site, do they feel like you’re a natural fit for their projects? Or are they left with unanswered questions? Here are some tips for refreshing your web designer portfolio when it’s not getting the job done.

Develop a specialty. It may be tempting to highlight a broad range of experiences so you will “fit” whatever the visitor is looking for, but this can be a mistake. Instead, focus on highlighting expertise for the projects that you most want to pursue. Or even better, focus on specific niches and industries. When you get specific about project expertise, the right employers will be attracted to your work, and will perceive you as a “better fit” than the majority of competitors.

Develop points of differentiation. Many designers are available for work, which can make these professionals seem like a commodity, especially in the freelance market. So what makes you different? Maybe it’s your expertise in a specific niche, or perhaps it’s the way you approach projects. Don’t be afraid to weave your points of differentiation into every aspect of your site.

Don’t showcase everything, only your “greatest hits.” Think about your web design portfolio like a greatest hits album. Many projects could be included in your body of work, but there are some projects that are stellar. Cherry-pick the projects, and displaying only a select few, rather than everything.

Highlight your skills and abilities through testimonials. Prospective employers and clients want to know “If I hire you, what will working together look like?” Will you improve their overall work dynamic and deliver excellent outcomes, or will they have regrets?

Ask previous co-workers, clients and others who can speak to the quality of your work to write testimonials. Request testimonials on LinkedIn if possible, and then leverage that content onto your portfolio site, doubling the impact.

Develop a clear call to action on every page. Oftentimes, a developer will create a fantastic portfolio, but there is no clear call to action. What should your visitor do next? Maybe it’s a “Hire Me” button for freelance projects or “Request a Quote.” Or perhaps it’s a softer call to action, such as “View My Recent Work.” Whatever it is, don’t leave your potential customer at the end of the page without a clear next step or a good idea of how they can contact you.

Portfolio Building Blocks: Finding the Missing Pieces

You’ve figured out how to make your portfolio stronger, differentiate your positioning and showcase your best work, but what are the basic elements that your portfolio should have? More importantly, are you missing anything? Here are some basics that every great portfolio should include.

Name and picture. Your site and work might be compelling, but nothing adds a personal connection like a photo of you. If you prefer not to include a photo, and it fits with your personal brand, consider including a logo that reflects your individual brand infuse additional personality into your site.

Who you are. This can be a basic “About Me” page that details your background, relevant education and anything else that demonstrates your expertise as a web developer.

Contact details. This information should be on every single page. Once you sell a potential employer or prospect, it shouldn’t be hard for them to get in touch with you. Make the experience fast and easy.

Recent work. A carefully selected sampling of your greatest work.

Social icons and networks. Encourage visitors to connect with you on social networks, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or other media.

Building a Portfolio With Limited Samples

Developing a great portfolio may appear simple for the seasoned pro with many samples to choose from. But what if you’re a relatively new developer, and you don’t have many work samples? Even if you don’t have a large body of work, you can still create an excellent portfolio.

First of all, if you don’t have a few samples to showcase, get some quickly. This isn’t as difficult as many people think. The easiest way is to handpick a few companies in the niches where you’d like to work, and offer to do a pro bono assignment for them. In return, ask the client for a strong testimonial, assuming they are happy with the work. If all goes well, hopefully they’ll hire you in the future, or at least provide a solid referral to another prospect.

Potential clients and employers won’t know the sample was completed at no cost. And more importantly, once you’ve completed a few work samples, you can upload them to your portfolio and have a starting point. A few strong projects are enough to start. Once you’re established and have more samples, you can swap out older samples and focus on displaying the most impressive work.

The Next Steps

Depending on the current state of your portfolio, there may be lots of work to do. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Select a small task to complete each day. By taking a single step daily, you will build the required momentum to create an excellent portfolio.

A web developer’s portfolio will always be a “work in progress,” but by continually tweaking it and making it better, you will become an established developer in your niches, and land your next assignments with greater ease.

10 Ways To Improve Your Writing Skills Today

One skill that most people need in business is writing. Entrepreneurs working on their own will find themselves writing emails, proposals, blog posts, social media posts, on a regular basis. This is why developing your writing skills as an entrepreneur is essential. In this post, I’ll share my top 10 ways to improve your writing skills.

Write Every Day

When it comes down to how to improve your writing skills it can be hard to know where to get started. The best way to refine any skill is to practice it. With writing, you should be practicing daily. Chances are, you already are as you are replying to emails and sharing social media updates. If not, then you need to start.

Your daily practice can include writing that is shared with others like blog posts, social media posts, and comments on articles. Or it can include writing that is for yourself only, like Morning Pages, a three-page handwritten stream of consciousness done every morning to reduce stress and anxiety.

If you can’t muster up the enthusiasm for writing about your business, that’s ok. Write about other things that you are passionate about (although hopefully, you are passionate about your business too). Write articles on a personal blog about your favorite hobby. Write social media posts in groups about a particular interest. Write comments on entertainment and technology blogs that you visit for fun.

As you write more, you will find one of two things. You will find that the more you write, the easier it gets or you will find that the more you write, the more you need to polish your writing skills. If the latter is the case, definitely try the following.

Write Something People Want or Need to Read

If your writing falls into the realms of something people want to read or something people need to read, then you will have a successful piece of writing. Better yet, you will be more motivated to write in the first place because you will know that someone out there will consume your writing.

Here’s a handy guide to determining if your writing is what people want or need to read.

For example, let’s say you’re working on a blog post. How do you figure out if it is something people will want or need to read? You can use tools like Impactana to help. Start by signing up for an account and searching for the topic of your blog post. Then click on the Impact rating next to blog posts similar to the ones you were thinking about writing.

The number of views will show you if people actually cared enough to view the content. This tool will also show you things like number of backlinks (for SEO value) and number of social shares so you can further determine the popularity of your topic.

Alternatively, you can just do a Google search for your topic, click on the top articles, and see what kind of engagement they get in the way of social shares (usually shown next to social buttons on a blog post) and comments they receive. You can also use Q&A networks like Quora and Yahoo Answers to see what people ask about often related to your topic.

Note that some topics might fall into the “need to read” category, but not necessarily be popular, or terribly interesting for that matter. Take insurance. No one gets excited about reading or sharing articles about insurance with their friends.

But if you’re thinking about buying your first house, you’ll want to do some research into different types of home insurance. If you have a friend who is buying their first house, you might share articles you find with them.

Keep it Simple

KISS stands for Keep It Simple Silly. When it comes to writing, the simpler you make it, the better. Make your point and move on. You shouldn’t be focused on word count as much as you are focused on whether your reader will be able to get what you are saying and take value from it.

Write First, Edit Later

There is nothing that can stall a good writing session like obsessing about spelling, grammar, order, outcome, and anything else besides the process of writing itself. Focus on getting your thoughts out on paper or in your document first. Edit once you are finished.

If you have trouble doing this, then try dictation software. Dragon software will allow you to say whatever is on your mind and write it out for you. You will have to do some editing work after, especially until you get used to verbally adding in punctuation and new paragraphs. But ultimately, it can help you write faster.

Once you are finished writing…

Use a Professional Online Editor

Most text editors and word processors like Microsoft Word or your browser have a built-in proofing tool that helps to correct basic spelling and grammar. But the problem with these built-in tools is that they miss a lot of mistakes and teach you little about the mistakes you are making.

Grammarly and Hemingway are the best alternatives to hiring a professional editor for your writing. They are online editors that can help you improve your writing by identifying specific writing errors, letting you know why they are errors, and helping you correct them.

Grammarly’s premium version allows you choose from a variety of settings based on the type of document you are writing.

Additional benefits of using Grammarly include the following.

  • You can save your documents in Grammarly as to refer to the fully edited versions later down the road.
  • You can install the browser extension and get Grammarly editing advice in different applications (like Gmail and Facebook).

While you can save documents in Grammarly, I’d suggest writing in a different word processor (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) and copying / pasting your text to Grammarly and back to your word processor. That way, you always have your document, whether or not you choose to maintain your Grammarly account.

Hemingway, on the other hand, is a free tool that offers similar advice, but in a more simplistic manner.

You can’t save your documents in this editor or use it in other browser applications. But you can toggle between write and edit mode so you can focus on writing, then focus on editing.

Read What You Write Out Loud

Even after you have done a full online editing of your writing, you should give it a final test by actually reading your writing out loud. There are some things that might be grammatically correct, but unnatural otherwise. If any portion of your writing is difficult to say out loud, then it might need to be rewritten for better clarity.

Alternatively, you can have someone else read your writing out loud to you. Being the recipient of your own writing could help you further improve it.

Follow Those Who Write for Your Target Audience

To get the best writing examples to study, look for writing done by those who write for your target audience. Subscribe to your competitor’s blog posts and email newsletter. Read the sales letters and landing pages on their website. Follow their social media posts. See if they published their investment pitch deck on Slideshare.

When reviewing your competitor’s writing style, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Is the writing formal or casual?
  • Is the writing serious or funny?
  • Is the writing verbose or succinct?
  • Is the writing first, second, or third person oriented?
  • Is the writing text heavy or light?

Be sure to analyze the writing of multiple competitors or others with the same target audience. That way you don’t model yourself after the one misfit in your niche or industry.

Create Templates

Templates are the answer to writing efficiency in business. Whenever you find yourself writing a similar document repeatedly, creating a template for that document will save you time (and frustration if you are not particularly fond of writing).

Email templates are going to be a huge timesaver for most entrepreneurs. Each time you find yourself looking back through your email archives to copy an email you sent to one person and paste it to send to another, that email content should become a template.

When using templates, pay attention to personalization fields throughout the template so you don’t address someone by another name or reference something from a different intended recipient. While templates can be great productivity boosters, they can also lead to some embarrassing blunders as well. Use them carefully!

Do Some Testing

If you liked science in school, then you will love A/B testing. When it comes to writing, there are lots of different things you can test. Start by defining your goal for a particular piece of writing. Here are some common goals for common types of writing in business.

  • The goal of your proposal will likely be to get funding for your startup.
  • The goal of your outreach email will likely be to get a blogger to write about your startup.
  • The goal of your blog post will likely be to get lots of social shares.
  • The goal of your sales page will likely be to get more sales.

Once you have defined your goals, you can start doing some testing with your writing to see what versions of your writing produce the most conversions, or goal completions. Start by changing the areas that are going to make a first impression in your writing: headlines, subject lines, bolded headers, and calls to action.

Change one element at a time so you can compare the results. For example, you can send 50 emails with one subject line and 50 emails with another subject line to determine which email received the best response. Once you know which one works, you can move on to testing different portions of the email content itself. Eventually, you will have an email that is scientifically proven to get the most conversions.

For A/B testing in direct email correspondence, you will need CRM tools like Salesforce. For your website, Optimizely, VWO, and Nelio are a few tools that will measure the results of your A/B testing so that you can quickly identify the best writing on your landing pages to accomplish your goals.

For email newsletters, several email marketing services offer A/B testing options for headlines and other aspects of your email content. These include GetResponse, MailChimp, and ActiveCampaign.

Don’t let the cost of investing in tools stop you from testing your writing. You can always go with good old paper and pen analysis to get good results.

Study the Art of Writing

If you are truly interested in improving your writing skills, take some time to study the art of writing itself. You can focus on business writing or expand your mind into the creative side of things. You will find lots of great books on writing on Amazon. If you prefer to learn while you commute, you will also find some great books on writing on Audible. You can even take a free course on High-Impact Business Writing from the University of California via Coursera.

In Conclusion

When it comes to writing, there is always room for improvement. Even if all you do after reading this post is invest in the professional online editor, you will have made a great investment in the future of your business through better writing.