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Hank Green’s YouTube Success

Story by Hank Green, illustration by James A. Rolph

Before YouTube paid his bills, before he planned internationally attended conferences — before he had fans — Hank Green was a web developer and journalist. Then on January 1, 2007, vlogbrothers was born. It began as a simple online conversation between Hank and his budding novelist brother, John. Five hundred million views across 10 channels later, the video series has a dedicated following of “nerdfighters.” Today, John lives and writes in Indianapolis, and his New York Times-bestselling books have been adapted into movies. Hank lives in Missoula, where he runs his business and continues to make videos in his downtown office.

My Canon Elura 100 cost $99. I had no idea how to use it and my brother was even more clueless. I was at a holiday party on Lake Tahoe and my friends were wondering why I’d spent so much time on the computer instead of skiing, sledding, or just getting completely wasted. Honestly, I was wondering the same thing.

I’d agreed to making video blogs every other weekday for a year — a public conversation between two fairly estranged brothers. It was John’s idea. He’s my big brother. I said yes without really thinking about it. That first video was terrible.

Seven years later, I’ve produced a show that won an Emmy, my album hit No. 8 on the Billboard Comedy Charts, my nonprofit has raised $800,000 for charity, and I have 25 employees.

How the hell did I do that? The honest answer is that I have no goddamn idea. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some secrets. You might not believe them, or like the sound of them, but I’ll tell them to you anyway. That’s the trick of keeping a secret: Make it unbelievable, complicated, and not particularly useful. That way, no one cares to spread it around.

So here’s secret No. 1: Wanting to be famous is a terrible way to get famous. When I started on YouTube, there was no money, no strategy, no goal, and no angle. But it was interesting, and its cultural importance was rising. So, unbeknownst to me, it was a perfect place to be.

Success is easiest to come by in places where there is no predetermined path.

Your heroes didn’t become stars by walking the paths blazed by someone else. They found new trails through the mountains, new resources to carry them to where no one had ever been. If you want to become your idol, you will fail. A safer and more rewarding goal is to become, for someone else, what your idol was for you.

But this isn’t what people mean when they ask for secrets to success. The secrets are the tools, the tricks, and the shortcuts.

Well, here’s a secret about secrets: If they’re mass-produced, pre-packaged, and available over the counter, they’re ancient, used up, and useless. You’ll have to make your own tools out of hard work, understanding, relationships, trickery, and skill. Sometimes they’ll be so devious you’ll choose not to use them, and you’ll bristle at others who don’t have your scruples. Sometimes they’ll be ingenious and, as soon as you use them, they’ll be copied by a thousand other wannabes without a single word of credit to you. Other times, you’ll be the thief. Occasionally, you’ll think you’ve found the one tool that will carry you through forever — the trick up your sleeve that makes success both certain and permanent. You’ll be wrong. You will need a new tool, a new strategy, and new relationships to keep you moving forever.

Eventually, if you’re lucky like I was, you’ll get there, right? What was it for me? Was it the first time I was recognized by a fan in public? Or was it when YouTube started paying my bills in 2009? Or maybe it was when we hit 100,000 subscribers? Or was it 1 million? Which day was the day when I got to have success and put it on the shelf forever? Which was the day when I became perpetually satisfied and never unhappy again?

Right, it was none of those days. If you’re smart enough, diligent enough, powerful enough; if you have enough self-control, and sacrifice enough, here’s what you’ll find out about success: It’s made up. It doesn’t exist. The whole everything of it sits not in the individual achievement, but in the process. It’s the accomplishment of crafting a beautiful, ingenious tool that rests within your morality and your goals. And the use of that tool to do something interesting, something beautiful, and something good for the world.

Real success is when you realize that your tools exist for everyone. Because each of us is nothing, but all of us together are the most wonderful, peculiar, and beautiful thing the earth has yet done.