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Today's guest is PJ Milani, a high school film and animation teacher recently turned social media star. He’s known for his “visual metaphors” — single-panel illustrations featuring lessons about life and creativity. Across his socials, he has over 200k followers, his newsletter has 16k subscribers, and he teaches a perennially sold-out cohort course about visual thinking on Maven.

In this issue, we discuss:

  • 🌱 Organic growth

  • 🔜 Trusting the process, every day

  • 🔁 Reusing old content for new results

  • 🤝 Working in community with other creators

As always, if you’re short on time, skip ahead to the Steal This Tactic section for a brief analysis of the tactics at play. And if you don’t feel like reading, listen to the full interview on our podcast.

— Francis Zierer, Editor

PJ (Pejman) Milani has been teaching film and animation at the same Texas high school for 20 years. When students asked what he was working on outside of class, his answer was always some version of “nothing.”

In 2021, around his 41st birthday, PJ wrote in his journal that he wanted to find a way to work on creative projects just for himself. A lifelong diarist, he felt a sense of déjà vu — he dug around and found a journal from around his 31st birthday, where he’d written the same thing.

Unable to stomach the idea of journalling about the same regret another decade later, PJ finally decided to do something. He’d “avoided social media like the plague” all his life, but it seemed time to try it out; he wanted to write, and he wanted what he wrote to be public to create accountability.

“I have to admit, because I had waited so long to start creating, I had this tension between my age and what I was doing. But I tried to just push all those fears, all those anxieties down.

I didn't have too much direction. I was just trying to do something and do it on a daily basis. That was the goal.”

Lifelong diarist that he is, PJ decided to start a newsletter. He was using Revue, the newsletter service that the company formerly known as Twitter bought and later shut down.

PJ’s earliest posts, from 2021, were journal entries about trying to post. It helps to write through what’s in front of you!

After getting out nearly 20 posts, PJ found Dickie Bush and Nicholas Cole’s “Ship 30 for 30” program on YouTube. The $500 course fee was a big investment on his teacher salary, but he took the leap and, as part of the course, started posting to Twitter in earnest in March of 2022.

PJ’s first day posting under Bush and Cole’s program was March 12, 2022. But the kicker came 12 days later:

PJ’s first illustration post, at the time of writing (2 years later), has 10 replies, 2 reposts, and 29 likes.

People loved it — fellow members of his Ship 30 for 30 cohort praised him in the replies. His style has changed since, but the core concept has not: today, he’s still using simple illustrations to translate personally resonant ideas.

After three months of daily tweeting, on June 11th, 2022, PJ had 1,000 followers. To celebrate the milestone, he decided to try a new thing he'd been seeing other people do: a Twitter thread. He compiled 10 of his most popular images and scheduled it for the following day, his birthday, June 12th:

Less than 24 hours after posting his first thread, PJ’s following doubled. By the end of the day, it tripled. He remembers being more baffled than elated, given he hadn’t posted anything new:

“My expectations up until that moment were: I just have to create good enough work to be seen, and I'm not there yet.

But at that moment, I realized that it wasn't necessarily about the quality of the work; it was the packaging of the work.”

By the end of 2022, PJ joined LinkedIn because he kept hearing from friends who’d seen his work reposted on the platform without credit. When he eventually posted a carousel version of the same 10-piece thread that had done so well on Twitter, he blew up. It’s the single most-engaged LinkedIn posts I’ve ever seen:

Reader, have you ever seen a LinkedIn post with more likes? Seriously, let me know. I haven’t. Screenshot taken May 8, 2024.

That post alone drove PJ’s LinkedIn following from around 12,000 (his one-off illustration posts were already popular) to 15,000, then around 65,000 by the time the post had been up for a week. He continues to post daily, and every post attracts hundreds of likes. In the two weeks between interviewing him and writing this sentence, his following has gone from 98.8k to 102.4k.

This entire time, PJ has also maintained his newsletter. All his subscriber growth has just been from plugging it at the end of his social posts. He publishes anywhere from once to thrice a month and includes a collection of his illustrations plus reflections on life, work, and creativity.

Last November, PJ launched a course — his first real monetization play. He's run a few ads in the newsletter and collaborated with high-profile creators like Justin Welsh and Sahil Bloom, but the course represents something new. A few slots are still left for the next cohort of the three-week course, "Thinking in Visual Metaphors." It’s proven popular: one person, a neurosurgeon named Gordon, has signed up for all four previous cohorts.

It's no surprise that a career teacher can put together a solid Maven course. Still, he's not doing this for the money, though it helps. He still teaches full-time and prioritizes spending time with his family.

Find links to PJ’s social accounts, course, and newsletter here.

Read an excerpt of our interview below or listen to the podcast here. Continue scrolling to Steal This Tactic for a breakdown of how PJ approaches content creation.

The following interview excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

CS: Your illustration style has changed so much in the past two years. Tell me about that.

PJ: Yeah, absolutely. I share my first 50 visuals with my course students and say, "Look at these. They do not look anything like the illustrations I create now." It's just to say you have to trust the process. 

Illustrations from PJ’s first and most recent six months making illustrations. Notice the consistency and polish in the bottom row compared to the top.

One of my earliest blog posts, the “trust the practice” post you pointed to, was about this. I wrote about when I first learned how to play the guitar. I was like — and I don't know if you've played the guitar — but E chord? No problem. C chord? No problem. And then I got to the G chord, and I was like, what the hell is this?

My fingers — it was the first time I'd ever come to a physical limitation. I was like, how the heck are my fingers ever going to make this shape, with this pressure, to make this sound? For some reason, I kept thinking and I trusted the process.

I couldn't see any progress happening. Day to day, I kept trying to do that freaking G chord. And it was no sound, no sound, no sound. Day to day, my fingers hurt. But over time, one day, bing, that G chord actually sounded out. And I was like, whoa.

This was the first time that I had real proof that just because you can't see the progress that you're making doesn't mean that you're not making progress.

Besides how PJ’s illustration style has developed, this is where trusting the practice can get you.

With visuals, it's the same way. And it's tough because we are painfully aware when our images don't look like what we want them to look like. Whereas, if you're writing, you can't always tell if your writing isn't perfect.

You really have to fight through that frustration barrier early on. Tell yourself: I know I will get better. I know, by making this fricking shape on my fingers, I know that this is eventually gonna sound like music. Just, right now, it sounds like crap. It's just one of those things you have to trust.

Want to hear more from PJ? Listen to our full conversation in his episode of The Creator Spotlight Podcast.

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Repeat yourself again and again and again

There are no new ideas — which is itself not a new idea. Mark Twain wrote a version of this over 100 years ago, but I’d bet my life someone else said it before him. Great artists steal, et cetera. You know this.

PJ repeats the same ideas time and time again. He’s put out nearly 400 illustrations in the past couple of years, but probably not much more than half that many ideas.

To quote PJ from a recent issue of his newsletter:

If you’ve followed me for a while, you might notice I’ll often revisit an idea — to find a different articulation of that message.

There’re 3 reasons why:

1. Each articulation forces diving into deeper understanding.

2. Improves pattern recognition of how things are connected.

3. Different metaphors will impact people differently.

There’s also a more personal reason worth mentioning—it keeps my perfectionist monster at bay.

If I know the visual I’m creating is just ‘one of many,’ then I’m less precious about finding the ‘perfect analogy.’

When I interviewed Jared Dashevsky a couple weeks ago, he said he sometimes just updates an old newsletter for a new issue, adding any new information he’s learned or responding to his old opinions with new ones. Like PJ said, repetition drives deeper understanding.

Your audience is never the same as it was last time you explored an idea. Some people will have left and some people will have joined. All the more, the people who’ve been there the entire time will have changed. Think about your favorite book or painting or park bench. Each time you come to it — when you’re young, when you’re old, when you’re in love, when you’re in grief — has it dimmed?

Repeat yourself.

How to live a creative life

“Taking that next step after having an idea — that is what it means to live a creative life. Not having the thought, but acting on it.”

The above quote comes from another interview PJ did last summer. If you take only one thing from one issue of this newsletter, that’s it. PJ spent two decades as a teacher without pursuing any public-facing creative work. When he finally decided to start a daily, public creative practice, it only took four months to develop the first iteration of his “visual metaphor” illustration style.

After less than three years of just showing up and posting every day, PJ has over 200k followers across all platforms, has built friendships with people from all over the world, and is about to launch the fifth cohort of his online course.

The best way to make better your content better or grow your audience? Just do it. Any “growth hack” can only magnify what’s already there.

Summing up a few lessons from PJ and his work.

  1. Just do it. Longtime readers will note that some version of this line appears multiple times in nearly every issue. This is because it’s true, it’s always relevant, and it’s something I need to remind myself of every day.

  2. Experiment outside of your comfort zone. Though PJ is a film and animation teacher, he doesn’t have an illustration background. But his budding illustration skills were what drew an audience online.

  3. Visual content has a broader appeal than written content. There are billions of people on the internet. They don’t all speak and read the same languages. Visual-first content is always more accessible to a wider audience than written content.

  4. It’s never too late to start. PJ didn’t use social media until he turned 41 a couple of years ago. He was worried he was too old and out-of-touch to figure it out. Now he has more followers and better-engaged content than probably 99.9% of internet users. It’s never too late.

  5. Packaging matters more than ideas. PJ’s most viral posts on Twitter and LinkedIn have been threads and carousels of his 10 most popular illustrations. In other words, people react better to his greatest-hits albums than his singles. That may not be the case for you; the point is just to experiment with how you package your ideas.

A few relevant highlights from the endless stream of content we consumed this week.

  • Long live magazines. For Fast Company, Nicole Gull McElroy wrote about a few indie magazines still thriving on an annual subscription model. As a newsletter creator, it affirms the evergreen value of high-quality content geared toward a niche audience. And as a magazine lover, it just makes me happy.

  • Apple is about to release new iPad models (good explainer from Marques Brownlee). PJ uses Procreate, the iOS illustration software, to make his drawings. Good time to buy an older-model iPad if you want to experiment with illustration. I bet there’s a spike in people selling older models on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, etc.

Thank you for taking the time to read today's issue. If you liked this one, I highly recommend listening to the podcast version.

On to next week's issue, featuring a creator who’s built a newsletter audience of over 12k almost entirely through TikTok. She started her TikTok at the same time she started her newsletter — within three months, her videos drove dozens of thousands of followers and 6.5k newsletter subscribers.

Talk soon,
Francis Zierer, Editor

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