How to start something that scares you (and I’m Twittering)

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I started using Twitter, after thinking about starting for at least six months. It’s very scary to start something new and have no idea what I’m doing.

But I also know that all the excitement in my career has come from my willingness to try stuff that is scary—because I don’t know if I will be good at it and also because I don’t know if it will pan out. So, here are five steps I took to overcome the scariness of trying something new. (And until I get Twitter onto my blog sidebar, here is where you can find my Twitter feed.)

1. Trust the buzz on what’s worth a try.
Many people in my life think Twitter is totally stupid. So for months and months, every time I said something out loud about how much I would like twittering, a cacophony of naysayers would send me in the other direction.

Then Guy Kawasaki told me I should Twitter. And Laura Fitton. And I told them both that I was too busy and I thought they were too busy too. And they told me Twitter is an amazing way to connect with people and I’d love it if I just tried it.

They told me that nonstop, over dinner. And every time I tried to steer the conversation to our sex lives, they would steer it back to Twitter.

After dinner, I went to and started clicking on peoples’ feeds. To be honest, they all looked stupid. Even Guy’s. I didn’t understand Twitter at all. But I knew that if Guy and Laura were both telling me I’d like it, I needed to try it.

2. Don’t hide the lame stuff.
When I started blogging, I had no idea what I was doing, and Dennis Yang walked me through each first step. I asked things like, “Can I list columns that I wrote before I started blogging?” Dennis said, “Yeah, that would be cool.”

I remember him saying those exact words, because I thought it was nuts. I didn’t understand the rules of blogging and in print media, that would have been totally insane. But I did it. And then I spent a month trying to figure out what to blog about.

I wrote very short pieces and I tried to be funny and clever. But gradually I started writing longer and trying less hard to be clever. And I found that when I was back to writing a regular column, just with a lot of links, I was writing my best. Being my true self was writing my best. It’s so hard to find our true selves in a public forum, but really, that’s what we do offline every day when we leave our house.

3. Get mentors.
Social media changes peopleslives. So anyone who is blogging or twittering or uploading photos to flickr would be happy to help because that is what mentors do, they are enthusiastic to help you with what they love. I know this because I am so willing to help someone else start blogging, and I should not have been surprised when Laura (read her Ode to Twitter) spent a whole morning emailing back and forth with me about how to get started on Twitter.

4. Just start doing it.
I was touched that Laura’s final email to me that morning was so similar to the advice I give people who spend months emailing me questions about blogging: Enough. Just get started. You cannot learn about social media by talking about it. You have to do it.

So here’s the advice I give to you, and to myself when I worry that I’m doing Twitter the wrong way: There are no mistakes. There are just ways that make good connections and ways that don’t. Experiment to find the ways that do. And all time is well spent when you are searching for ways to express yourself and make connections. After all, what are we doing here, on earth, if not that? And in this respect, I love Twitter already.

51 replies
  1. Neil C
    Neil C says:


    I guess I don’t yet understand the phenomenom of posting every monotonous happening in every moment of one’s existence. I see posts on Twitter such as “had to much caffeine today” and “replacing my morning walk with a Margarita”.

    If I was on Twitter my posting for today would be “changed my daugther’s diaper B4 coming to work. It was poopy” or “guy was yelling at me at stoplight-I thought he wanted to fight me but he was only alerting me that my gas cap was off”

    I guess I just don’t get it since I am a skeptical gen-Xer & not an enlightened gen-Yer. If you are writing something it should have some substance or meaning.

    * * * * * * * *

    I think that if you like my blog, you’ll like the Twitters. But who knows, right? You should give it a shot. Go read them here:

  2. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    I have to say, my own reservations about Twittering mirror your own. Plus, I don’t have an iPhone or Balckberry, so it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to just start doing all of a sudden, everywhere, all the time. That said, I wish I’d started Twittering when I heard about it its first few months, because I should have learned through getting into blogging that the early adopters in the Next Big Things build a heck of a lot of social capital in those areas.

    But as someone with a full time job that’s not my blog or a consulting or freelancing business, it’s hard to find the time to expirament with every new thing that comes along because at first, you don’t know what’s going to make and what’s going to flop, so I guess now it’s time to listen to that wisdom of the crowds and hop on board . . .

    Thanks for the post and the frankness about the whole thing. Makes me feel better that I’m not alone in my thoughts on the matter.

  3. Diana
    Diana says:

    I’m a newbie to Twitter, and when I first started I was really confused. Like how do I respond to people? How do I even find people on there? You are right…you just have to do it.

    I also have twitter-feed, so my blog posts are updated on my twitter. I haven’t seen a significant traffic increase on my blog, but I’m still new to it. I thought about how I could use twitter better for my audience, and think I will start adding helpful links and information to my twitter. I hope it will become a small supplement of ideas and inspiration – like something that is neat, but doesn’t merit a complete blog post.

    Great advice and look forward to your tweets!

  4. Ed Borden
    Ed Borden says:

    Yeah, Penelope, you’ve got it down. For someone like you with an already established following, Twitter is like a no brainer. You’ve already got over 100 followers like just from signing up.

    And for anyone actually Twitters mundane crap or who thinks that’s what you HAVE to or SHOULD Twitter, it’s just not true. Who in their right mind wants to read that stuff? It’s got to be either entertaining, a real information supplement, or something else USEFUL if you actually want it to be anything other than a waste of time.

    Anyhow, I added you Penelope,

  5. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    I’ve been off and on Twitter for a while, but now use it more regularly because it breaks the barriers between personal brands online. A blog gets you close to others, but Twitter inches you even closer.

  6. Miriam Salpeter
    Miriam Salpeter says:

    Twitter seems like the ultimate voyeur’s dream…When you posted Twitter feeds on Brazen Careerist, I couldn’t help myself but follow the links, but didn’t want to admit to caring about what you’re doing on a daily basis :-)

    Keith Ferrazzi says something pertinent in his book, Never Eat Alone…
    “Power, today comes from sharing information, not withholding it. More than ever, the lines demarcating the personal and the professional have blurred. We’re an open-source society, and that calls for open-source behavior.” (p.146)

    When I read that, I thought of you, Penelope. One of the reasons that your blog is so interesting is that you do share so much personal information with your readers. Obviously, it generates a lot of strong feelings, but that’s part of the appeal, both for those who love it and those who love to hate it.

    It seems like Twitter is the same type of thing: using social media to link personal and professional interests. As "the personal is political," maybe "the personal is business." Even if it seems stupid :-)

    Miriam Salpeter

  7. joel
    joel says:

    When I coached bloggers in our agency who were worried about getting their first blog post “right,” I told them “don’t worry, no one is going to read it any way.”

    Same is true of Twitter or anything else. Try new things. Make mistakes. Who cares? Only small-minded people will fault you.

  8. CompuWorld
    CompuWorld says:


    I remember the days when I was very new to blogging (over 1.5 years back) and finally had to shutdown that blog just because I kept feeling something was missing. Started all over again after few months and never looked back after that.

    I am very new to twitter and came to this page by Dan’s tweet, great read!!

    like to follow me?


  9. Ellen Hart
    Ellen Hart says:

    Great advice about trying the things that scare you. I just started blogging (for my business, but it’s still me, blogging away) and I couldn’t have done it without my blogging mentors, showing me the ropes and being patient with my endless questions (“Can I be funny?” “Why won’t this image line up?” “My daughter says I look stoned in my picture!”).

    I don’t know if I’m ready for Twitter myself, but I’m certainly enjoying your 140 character haikus of hilarity. I look forward to following your feed!

  10. jackie o
    jackie o says:

    WTF! jeez i really feel like you are trying too hard to talk about sex. it’s so apparent, especially in this post. twitter…blah blah! come on!

    it was funny at first but now it looks desperate, unprofessional, tacky, and just plain annoying to read!

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think Twittering is a natural fit for you and your blog. The link to the wikipedia on Twitter was interesting as it pointed out various ways micro-blogging has and is being used and how it can be over used to distraction. It’s another tool out there that can either be a time waster or a great benefit depending on how well you can adapt it to fit your needs. How else to know until you try it out and get proficient at it? It will be interesting to see how you integrate it with your blog. It certainly does look like you’re having fun with it!

  12. Michael Henreckson
    Michael Henreckson says:

    @Tiffany Monhollon:
    Paugh and Healy are already on Twitter at: and

    Penelope, I wouldn’t worry too much about Twitter. The worst that can happen is a) you embarrass yourself, b) you don’t like it and quit, or c) both of the above. But if you’re already used to life on the web, I can’t think of any reason Twitter should be any different or worse.

    A bonus tip Penelope, when I searched for your name on Twitter I came up with no results. The reason is that you didn’t enter a space between your first and last names. On Twitter your username and your real name can be different, and I’d suggest adding the space to your real name to make yourself easier to find. Unless of course you’re trying to hide until you decide whether or not you like Twitter. :)

  13. Jennifer Lynn
    Jennifer Lynn says:

    Love the post! I’m a big proponent of the “do the things that scare you” school of thought. Usually, the things that I’m scared to do are the things that I need to do to be successful/happy in the long run/ whatever. Interestingly, they are often the things that other people are scared to do also, and by doing them, I stand out.

    I’ve also noticed that acting in spite of fear produces a huge payoff in the personal confidence department. Knowing that your fear does not own you is very powerful.

  14. Sidney
    Sidney says:

    Question…when all of the connected, “my life is an open source book” crowd get done updating their lives on their blogs, twitter accounts, Facebook, linkedin and Myspace pages, and maybe even update their dated Friendster page…and then they read about the lives of others on blogs, Twitter, facebook, linkedin, Myspace and Friendster…when does the “my life is an open source book” crowd actually get to live? Or is everyone else just killing time at the end of the workday like me?

  15. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Wow, I can’t believe you’re just now twittering. I started almost a year ago and I thought I was late to the game! I’m following you now. BTW isn’t that kind of a creepy way to say you’re reading someone’s Twitter feed?

  16. Dave
    Dave says:

    wow, sometimes I just don’t know how to stay inspired at work!!! It could be an annoying co worker, a water cooler conversation, I just cannot stand the 9-5 work environment. Its so structured and it kills any ounce of creativity….

    I have an idea, I’d like to start up, but I’m just anxious….what if it doesn’t work out??? I’ve gotten to a point now where I’m 23 with a college degree and living on my own and I don’t want to lose it, but at the same time I’m losing my mind!

  17. SJ Delaney
    SJ Delaney says:

    You’re so right.

    Like facebook (and unlike Linkedin and Plaxo) I really didn’t get it at first. For months I periodically check in. It would not make sense so I’d drop it.

    But I hate not knowing the latest buzz.

    So finally I made both facbook and twitter a daily (hourly) routine and while I can’t explain it anymore than I could 6 months ago – I get it now.

    And I recommend it to all my friends, (most) family, and associates.

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “And until I get Twitter onto my blog sidebar.”
    Looks good … that didn’t take long. I guess that six months of scoping out Twitter has put you on the fast track for implementation!

  19. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    I feel the same way about twittering as I feel about blogging–it seems kind of futile because who’s actually going to read it anyway? But I started twittering for the same reason I started blogging–I enjoy it.

    Yes, it feels slightly stupid to spend time and effort blogging essentially to myself, my sister, my mom, an ex-boyfriend stalker and a few random people here and there. It used to feel like standing in front of a mirror talking to myself or something. I felt self-conscious like what if someone’s reading this and thinks it’s stupid or I’m trying too hard.

    Then I stopped caring and started viewing it as something I do for myself–like yoga or whatever. It’s helped me care less about what people think of me which in and of itself is not at all insignificant. If it helps me in some way professionally at some point, great; if not, at least my mom knows when I had to go to the ER or can call to lecture me that it’s not a good idea to talk about your personal business where people might see it.

    At least twitter is, to me, the equivalent of having a one-sided conversation with myself and is amusing. What I don’t get is Facebook–I just don’t get what the point is. At least Twitter you know what you’re there for–to write whatever random thought you’re having at a given moment. Maybe I’m just too old for Facebook because as far as I can tell it’s not even fun and just seems pointless.

  20. Dan
    Dan says:

    I hope you enjoy twitter. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Most of us had a gradual build up to 100’s of followers, “famous” people like you don’t have that luxury, I see you’ve got 500+ already. Read, what you can, engage where you can, but for goodness sake, don’t try to read them all!

  21. Jeff Scott
    Jeff Scott says:

    I like twitter because it filled in the gaps between my blog. I can add stuff I wouldn’t mention in my blog. I can also have a conversation with other through it. (Hard to do that through comments on a blog.) Of all the complaints about people writing about the mundane, some people can write very insightful things in just 140 characters. Maybe it is that 1000 monkeys typing rule :)

  22. Amy in Ohio
    Amy in Ohio says:

    Twittering – I still don’t know what I’m doing and I can’t stop. I’m glad to have stumbled onto your blog.

  23. Christine
    Christine says:

    Wow – thank you for linking to your very first post, and your 2006 Memorial Day post. I’ve been flirting with the idea of blogging (on a completely different topic) for over a year (I am ashamed to admit) but read your blog, and think….I don’t write as well as Penelope does. I won’t bother…

    It’s nice to know that even you started somewhere…

  24. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    Just call me old fashioned or maybe a stick in the mud. Twitter just seems like an extension of a stream of conciousness journal written by James Joyce wannabes. I mean, who really wants to know you went to Walgreen’s to get No-Doz? I certainly don’t want or need to know all the minutiae of everyone else’s day nor do I want them to know mine.

    Blogs, to me, are more like posted journals. You take the time to write about something significant or interesting and you expend the effort to pull all your thoughts, impressions and feelings into a coherent whole.

    Twitter to me seems like a Post-It note, with all the scribbling of various little, and many times, inane thoughts, impulses and so on. Insights sometimes come from them, but it’s an effort to sift through all the extraneous noise to find them.

    Anyway, I’ve never felt comfortable peeling open my brain and life for everyone to see. I do like to have the privacy of my thoughts, feelings, and activities.

  25. Nichelle
    Nichelle says:

    I’m new to Twitter too. Just as another commenter mentioned earlier, I like it because I can write or link things that I would not put on my blog. I usually link articles or blogs/sites I find interesting but I’m going to check out the Twitter “ten commandments” asap.

  26. karen
    karen says:

    Why twitter?
    1. To keep up with friends. This includes pointless tweets (what a post on twitter is called) such as *Having a bad day…on my third cup of coffee!* It makes it more personal and enjoyable.

    2. To connect with people in the industry I don’t know…yet. You can subscribe to anyone, which is great. I enjoy reading tweets from people who are considered experts in the field and hearing their thoughts on new things.

    3. To market. I haven’t gotten into this, yet, but will probably do so soon as I get more into my new job. The people I need to connect with are on twitter. This is common on Twitter, which is fine, but honestly, when all you’re doing is marketing “New blog posts: ” as your tweets, that’s boring. Maybe I’ll click on something if it interests me, but I’m less likely if that’s ALL your posting are links to your blog, website, etc. Spice it up and add personal tweets too.

    To see other ways Twitter is being used, check out how Robert Scoble (Fast Company) and Pete Cashmore (Mashable) used it at the Community Next conference I hosted in L.A. a few weeks ago: Lots of fun and great info on Twitter!. ;)

    P-welcome to twitter. Think about adding Twitterberry to your Blackberry.

  27. Philip
    Philip says:

    There sure is a lot of talk about Twitter these days. I’ve been thinking about trying it for a while now, but just haven’t gotten around to it. You finally convinced me. I’m signing up right now.

  28. says:

    Twitter shouldn’t be a scary proposition. Figuring out what to Twitter about is the more daunting task, but for someone who already has a popular blog, it’s a no-brainer all around.

    Twitter ties in to your blog, providing a more real-time connection to your followers. You should also have it tied into a Facebook and Myspace page, as well as provide meaningful comments on other peoples’ blogs that relate to yours (those that allow URLs to be included)

  29. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    Reading your Twitter posts deepened my appreciation of your writing. That you can distill so much humor, imagery, self-disclosure and touching moments in two lines in the sign of a remarkable writer. In fact, the page of two-liners I just read was some of my favorite writing from you in a while.

    So I got one too.

  30. Cheryl Kaye Tardif
    Cheryl Kaye Tardif says:

    Hi Penelope:

    You’re not alone when it comes to being intimidated by new technology. I come across this all the time, mainly in fellow authors. I think I was a bit spoiled, coming from a childhood where my father always had his head in front of a computer. He’s a computer genius and programmer. Ironically, he taught my 2 brothers everything and me nothing. So in my stubbornness, I learned on my own. The next thing I knew I was designing websites for small businesses (I don’t do it anymore.)

    My experiences taught me that the best way to figure out if you like something or if it will work for you is to “just do it”. :) Then evaluate the time spent and benefits.

    I’m a Canadian suspense author and I run into authors from all over the world who have no idea how to do anything else on their computer other than use MS Word–and some don’t even know that program very well. They’re missing out on some huge potential.

    I’ve been Twittering for less than a year, but I see the payoff. Short messages get noticed if written to entice. :) And that brings in new traffic. (Now I just need to entice a lit. agent!)

    Blogging is another vital tool to promote a product or service or information, and I can’t get over how many author friends I have who don’t blog, rarely update their websites and then wonder why they have no traffic. Hmmm…well let me explain…lol

    So good for you! Now I’ll have to go “follow” you (I call it Twitter stalking…hehe).

    All the best in success!

    ~Cheryl Kaye Tardif,
    bestselling author of Whale Song

  31. Mark - Productivity501
    Mark - Productivity501 says:

    I’m concerned about using Twitter because it seems like it could be a huge time sink. I’m getting enough advice to go ahead and do it though. Maybe I’m getting old–I’m not as quick to try new things anymore. :)

  32. Biodun
    Biodun says:

    Twitter really isn't for everyone, in fact just a small percentage. It was introduced as a "social media" thing but is mainly used in marketing for good effect.

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