Teaching a man to fish is overrated.

A long time ago, I set out to build myself a portfolio website. I lacked even the most basic skills to accomplish the task, but luckily I was friends with a talented web designer, and he agreed to teach me to code. He never seemed to get around to it, though; after many long months of waiting, I ended up googling “how to build an html website.” I clicked the links, followed the tutorials, and before too long, I had a functioning website, with all the garish colors and font choices one might expect of a fledgeling web designer.

But making changes to the website was a time-consuming process, and some things I wanted to accomplish (rounded corners! drop shadows!) were still beyond the scope my knowledge. I went to my web designer friend again; he mentioned CSS (a language that allows sweeping design changes to be made to an entire website with a few keystrokes, and unlocks a whole world of nifty design hacks). Again, he agreed to help me.

As summer turned to fall and the promised assistance failed to materialize, I grew impatient and googled “how to add css to an html website.” A few tutorials later, my website had rollover effects, drop shadows, and rounded corners; but I’d discovered the limitations of this language as well. It seemed that integrating PHP was the logical next step; luckily, my friend was an expert. Would he teach me how? “Yes,” he said, and off to Google I went, having finally gained the insight my wise and lazy teacher had been trying to impart all along.


The King of Spades: Introspection.  From my illustrated playing card deck, Reign of Sin.


If you teach a man to fish, he’ll be eating fish for a lifetime. Teach him to teach himself to fish, and you’ve given him the fundamental life skill of figuring things out on his own. Now, a whole world of skills are within his reach — even the ones you, his teacher, lack (cooking, canning, marketing…) Now, instead of eating raw trout on a riverbank for the rest of his life, your former student is building his own canned fish company from the ground up! He’s going to be eating steak.

As a playing card illustrator, I get a lot of emails from aspiring deck designers. “Where did you get your card decks printed?” they usually ask first. I tell them that while there are many companies that will print card decks, only a few of them offer the exact specifications and quality that a serious playing card collector will deem worthwhile. I tell the would-be designer to do some research on playing card forums, where the matter is discussed in greater detail.

“OK, but which company did you use?” they ask. I used the best one, I tell them.

“So you’re not going to help me?” they ask. Yes, I answer. Seated in my perfect lotus position, I levitate only slightly.

And now, I’m going to help you too! I’m using the playing card inquiry as an example, but the steps below are a good way to tackle almost any problem you feel out of your depth on.



1) Identify a teacher. 

Choose someone as a role model. No need to pick your #1 favorite artist or the future father/mother of your children – just someone who’s succeeded at the thing you’re trying to do, preferably someone with a strong online presence so that you you can retrace their footsteps and dig through their garbage bins a little. This is the person you’d like to pepper with questions… but! You’re not going to.

2) Write down all the questions you’d like to ask this person. 

Start with your top-level newbie questions BUT (and this is important) add a “why” after them. (“Where did you get your decks printed…and why?“). That little “why” means you’re not just looking for a checklist to follow – you’re seeking to actually understand something about the nature of the problem.

3) Identify the “true” questions. 

Now, dissect the “why” of your original question. Why would someone choose one printer over another? Because one of them is better, obviously. Your question is now a little more specific: “which printer is better?” Don’t stop here. Go one layer deeper and ask yourself the question: “what does ‘better’ mean in this context?” From the standpoint of our aspiring Kickstarter profiteer, the “better” choice is probably the one that will allow them to sell their deck to a larger number of card collectors at a higher price. So — what does “better” mean to that target audience, the collectors themselves?

4) Try to answer those “true” questions on your own. 

The internet is a big place that contains almost every answer. If you want to know what inspires playing card collectors to get out their wallets, google “playing card forum” and start clicking around – you’ll quickly find collectors fawning over the decks they love, heaping scorn on the ones they hate, and justifying each reaction with the kind of detail that professional focus-group testers could only dream of. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find threads weighing the pros and cons of various types of card stock, different styles of tuck cases, and yes… which printers can produce the kinds of deck the collectors consider worthy of collecting.

5) Seriously, ON YOUR OWN! 

Inevitably, you’ll encounter a question that requires some tidbit of knowledge you don’t have yet, and your knee-jerk reaction will be to run to your teacher for help. Try to resist this urge (they probably won’t answer your email anyways!) Take another look at the question that’s stumping you, and go a layer deeper.

If your question is one that you couldn’t possibly puzzle out yourself and can’t find the answer to on Google (“How much does it cost to print 1000 card decks? How did you promote your Kickstarter?”), rather than asking your teacher, ask yourself how they would have figured it out.

That elusive pricing question? You’ll realize that your role model probably reached out to manufacturers for quotes – and that your own next step is going to be firing off a few inquiries to customer service.

The Kickstarter promotion? Try searching for their name in those playing card forums, or scrolling back through their social media posts from the time they launched the project, noting how frequently they posted and how far in advance of that launch (weeks? months? years?) they were sharing content.



If you go deep enough into this process — distilling your broad, checklist-style questions into “true” questions that get to the meat of the problem, and putting yourself in your teacher’s shoes to ferret out the answers for yourself — you may very well hit bedrock, discovering that there were never any questions that you really needed your “teacher” to answer for you at all. You may find that there was never a gatekeeper to the knowledge you sought, only a threshold you were uncertain about crossing alone.

This is the moment that you realize you’ve taught yourself how to teach yourself to fish.