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Where there's passion, there are stories


Anyone who is passionate about golf knows the backstory about Tiger Woods. Those passionate about film can tell a story or two about Fellini, Eisenstein, and Kubric. Those passionate about open source know the story of Linus, Stallman, and the stories from Revolution OS. Most serious Mac lovers know a good bit of lore from the Revolution in the Valley. Heck, those who are really into Web 2.0, or FlickR, know the backstory of Caterina and Stewart's it-was-supposed-to-be-part-of-a-game creation.

From "creation mythology" to gossip to heroic against-all-odds tales, one of the ways we judge whether someone is truly passionate (as opposed to just enthusiastic) is if they know the key people and their stories. Do your users know your story? If not, you might consider writing it down and making it public.

But what if it's not interesting? Look again. Are you sure there isn't something worth telling (and more importantly, that others will enjoy re-telling)? No? If your founder story is just...too... dull... then find a compelling user story. After all, Tiger Woods didn't invent golf. Ask your users if they have an interesting, "hero's journey" story that somehow involved your product. It may not be dramatic enough to count as actual "lore", but it's a start.

Look at your website. Do you have a backstory there?

We don't, so we're writing one -- although many of the bits and pieces of the Head First story is somewhere in this blog. Short version -- Sun tells me that my ideas about learning are bad. I tell them that their ideas are bad. That didn't go over well. I'm kicked out and vow to put EVERYTHING I wasn't allowed to do there in a book series, to prove that the learning theory was sound, just for the satisfaciton of saying, "Told you so!" I get Bert to help me, and we create and submit an unsolicited proposal, cold, to O'Reilly, who had never heard of us (we had never written a book at the time we sent the Head First proposal). Tim O'Reilly loves it, most of O'Reilly hates it. Most other tech book authors hate it too. The only bright spot was shortly after it was released when author Dori Smith, of whom I was a fan, sent me an email saying, "I saw Head First Java in the store and told my husband that 'this is the book I wish I'd written'" She had no idea (until now) how much of a turning point that was, after we'd been taking such a beating from other authors. (Some day I'll say more about the details of that first year, and why so many people hated the book.)

Oh yeah, before O'Reilly, we submitted it to two other major publishers. They turned us down. One of the editors who turned it down got into trouble when the book-he-turned-down went to #1 on the Amazon computer bestseller list. Tim has been known to "congratulate them on their fine judgement" ; )
Today it's one of the most successful new computer book series (in unit sales and revenue) since the bubble, has been on the Amazon Top Ten Computer Books each year since we started (2003), won the Jolt Cola / Software Development Award for Best Computer Book, and has survived two slashdot reviews. The whole "creating passionate users" thing grew out of our desire to teach the brain-friendly principles we use to others, and discuss how they can be applied to other things. It started as a talk to other authors and editors, then became this blog, and a book is in progress. This time, we got lucky and we were right. I'll spare you all of the other things we did that weren't ; )

Your turn.

Posted by Kathy on February 15, 2006 | Permalink


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» Tellin stories from think mojo
One of the ways to get ahead in this world is to be good at telling stories. Youve a higher chance of being remembered if you tell an engaging one, probably equally so if your delivery is great and the content ordinary. Dan Pink seems to think s... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 16, 2006 4:34:30 AM

» journeyman vs. master from gapingvoid
Martin over at Easyweb makes an interesting point about "The Three Ages Of Slavery".I'd love to draw parallels with the old Guild levels of Apprentice, Journeyman and Master, but I feel I'm still Journeying.Yeah, I know the feeling all... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 16, 2006 5:06:02 AM

» journeyman vs. master from gapingvoid
Martin over at Easyweb makes an interesting point about "The Three Ages Of Slavery".I'd love to draw parallels with the old Guild levels of Apprentice, Journeyman and Master, but I feel I'm still Journeying.Yeah, I know the feeling all... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 16, 2006 5:17:43 AM

» Passion & Stories from Bootstrapping - the weblog formerly known as CommonMe
Where there's passion, there are stories. So true, so true. There's no need to coach people about storytelling, the story... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 17, 2006 2:56:34 AM

» Passion Leads To Stories from Church Tech Matters
Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users fame written a post titled Where Theres Passion, There Are Stories. From creation mythology to gossip to heroic against-all-odds tales, one of the ways we judge whether someone is truly pas... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 17, 2006 2:05:53 PM

» Whats my story? from think mojo
Couple days back Kathy Sierra posted on telling stories, gently prodding in her inimitable way for us all to look at our own, and revisit where we get the passion from. I mentioned it in a post here, and at the time wasnt certain I had the bott... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 19, 2006 1:00:49 PM

» Good blog presentation from John Hannafin's Weblog
A blog I enjoy reading is Creating Passionate Users by the authors of Head First books. Not only do I enjoy reading what they have to say but I am also very impressed with how they present their blogs. In true Head First style, each blog is accompanied [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 23, 2006 3:16:39 AM


This is a great post and it resonates with an emerging meme; for another perspective, checkout patrick hanlons book "Primal Branding" availible from amazon at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/074327797X/qid=1133731098/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-3685486-8329614?n=507846&s=books&v=glance
and his site at http://www.thinktopia.com

Posted by: marcanthony | Feb 16, 2006 2:29:37 AM

Okay, what is it with you and Scoble making me go back through old email?

I didn't say

"I saw Head First Java in the store and told my husband that 'this is the book I wish I'd written"

What I wrote was

"My first, second, and third reaction when I saw your book was, "I wanna write one of those!" I dragged my husband over to the O'Reilly booth at a conference last week to make him check it out. It's the first new thing I've seen in tech books in way too long."

Slightly different (but still highly complimentary!). I don't want to sound like I'm not proud of my Java books; they were darn good for the times they were written and what I was then capable of, and I've had plenty of people tell me that they've worked for them.

Now I have to figure out what in that original email was eyes-only and what wasn't, and then post the original up on my blog like I did with Scoble's... ;-)

Posted by: Dori | Feb 16, 2006 4:08:21 AM

Agreed, Kathy, I always said that English Cut's success was all down to having a story other people like to tell.

I've also said in tha past that not having a story make other people's eyes light up when they tell it, is a serious marketing problem.

Posted by: hugh macleod | Feb 16, 2006 5:35:46 AM

I have a story but I don't want to tell anyone. I came from a lot farther back in the pack than anybody else I know. I don't want anyone to pity me. I don't want people to hold me up as some kind of example to other devastatingly disadvantaged people, that if I could do it, others can too because I don't believe that's true. Why is the burden of being a superhero imposed on those with the greatest disadvantages? Then, there's the overt assumption that someone with the kind of social history I had will never be intact. I don't want to be judged as the sum of that experience. When I have told my story to people, they end up feeling bad about themselves because they haven't accomplished as much as I have. They also cry. I hate that. I don't want people to feel bad about themselves and I don't want them to pity me, what happened to me is not "me" anymore. Surely there is something to be said for leaving some stories untold.

Posted by: Kathleen Fasanella | Feb 16, 2006 8:06:25 AM

Okay, I'll come clean Kathy. The first time I saw the Head First series I couldn't take it seriously. Nothing was at fault apart from my perception. The loud graphics, the layouts, the everso Bakerlite chic looking photographs from that 50's looking period. Though I knew exactly who the book was targeting I still disagreed with it. The code made sense, the diagrams explained way better than I'd seen before... this still can't do!

Now I love it and wish that all *technical* books were written this way. The intro to RMI in Head First Design Patterns actually knocks all other examples in to the bin. Period.

Posted by: Jason Bell | Feb 16, 2006 3:03:32 PM

I know how to make computers think.

In 1984 I was just a kid. My father, a truck driver, asked me "Why can't this computer check my spelling?"

I thought about it awhile and said "That's impossible, you would have to type every wrong spelling of each word along with every correct word, it would take forever."

Well, it did not. The next year Appleworks came with a spell checker for the apple ][e

Since then, I've asked myself more and more complex questions of why a computer can't do most things that a person can. Why can't a computer understand infinity? Why can't a computer learn abstract ideas?

Since then I've spent an average of 14 hours a day in front of a keyboard with a stubborn determination and belief that the greatest achievements are yet to come. You don't need a piece of paper hanging on the wall to be smart.

My idea is as simple as a slide projector. Anyone can understand how it works. The difficulty is making the first one.

I invite anyone reading this to join me in my quest.



Posted by: Shaded | Feb 16, 2006 3:06:16 PM

Hey Kathy!

What a coincidence! I happen to be writing a series of posts on the Hero's Journey (shameless self-plug here):


I wish I had your knack for simplifying things tho, that is one kick-ass graphic you did that nails the Hero's Journey at one glance!

Posted by: Alvin | Mar 15, 2006 8:34:34 AM

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