Q&A with Polina: How I Built The Profile
What's the biggest mistake I've made? How do I get ideas? Will I retire?
The Profile is a newsletter that features the stories of the world’s most exceptional people. So it’s only natural that when I interview figures like famed restaurateur Danny Meyer and Square co-founder Jim McKelvey, I’m the one asking the questions.
But now, the tables have turned.
I invited you — the readers of The Profile — to submit your own questions to me.
You asked about making mistakes, generating ideas, growing a newsletter, building daily habits, reading memoirs, and more. One person even asked if I had plans to retire … 🌴 👀
I appreciate everyone who took the time to submit a question. My answers are below.
What was the biggest blunder that you made when starting The Profile, and what did you learn from it?
I learned that there’s no better gift than the feedback from total strangers who care about your work. They’re willing to say what your friends and family aren’t.
In the early days, the foundation of The Profile was there, but everything else was sloppy. If you look at the very first edition, you’ll notice that the formatting is bad, the tone is way too casual, and there is an unnecessary gif in the middle of the newsletter.
Of course, that’s partly because I was originally writing the newsletter as a personal email to send to family and friends, and I never thought of it going beyond my immediate network. Most of all, I never thought it would be a full-time business one day.
But it did venture out of my network and land in the inboxes of perfect strangers who were also looking for profile recommendations. The feedback seemed brutal at first. I was receiving emails with feedback like, “Here’s a tip: Lose the gif,” and “The tone is incredibly juvenile. Unsubscribe.”
I once heard Kat Cole say that one of the biggest lessons she has learned after years of business experience is to put your ego aside and improve from criticism. She said, “Anytime you’re criticized, assume first that it’s correct.” The act of simply considering that a fraction of the criticism may be accurate will keep you learning, unlearning, fixing, and ultimately, gaining respect.
So I professionalized my tone and got rid of the gif.
Remember that the most creative things in the world are typically horrible at first. It's better to start with a good idea that’s poorly executed, iterate, and get feedback along the way than wait for the perfect idea to spring into your brain.
What are some activities you do to spark creativity for your writing?
It’s simple: Ideas are always hiding in plain sight.
For me, it’s about being obsessed with the details. A great idea typically masquerades as a question in a friend’s text message, a quote in a documentary, a line in a book, or an observation on a walk.
In all honesty, most of my ideas come when I’m walking. Research suggests that people’s most creative ideas strike when they’re not actively thinking about anything — that’s why walking, running, meditating, driving, or any sort of rote activity can spark inspiration.
But it’s more than that. I can't get new ideas staring at a blank page. Creativity, for me, requires motion. When you go on a walk, you can turn your world into an idea-generating sensorium, and ideas will spring up from the most unlikely sources.
We tend to miss so much because we’re always doing something else. When’s the last time you went on a walk without something like a podcast or music occupying your mind? We rarely take a moment to truly notice.
For example, the idea for my series “The Faces of American Business” in 2020 originated during a walk in my neighborhood. My husband and I were walking around New York City during the first week of government-mandated quarantine, and I noticed how many small businesses had shut their doors. So I started thinking about the people behind the businesses, and I decided to interview several small business owners and ask them how the lockdowns affected their livelihoods.
Here’s an exercise recommended by Hugh Jackman: Take a picture of something you stare at every day — it could be your backyard or your neighborhood street, for example. Send it to a service that can turn the image into a jigsaw puzzle. As you work to complete the puzzle, you’ll zone in on the image for so long that you’ll notice things you’ve never noticed in your own backyard before. “You’re focusing on the minute details of this building and that building or that tree, this tree,” Jackman says. “When you go back to that place, your appreciation of the world is so much greater.”
There is one thing that's absolutely certain about creativity: It's an active process, not a passive one. The best ideas come when you become curious, aware, interested.
(Also, if you’re curious about how people like Malcolm Gladwell and Shonda Rhimes flex their creative muscles, you can check out my article, “9 Practical Ways to Boost Your Creativity.”)
What are tangible tactics to growing newsletter subscribers that are not often talked about?
Before I answer this question, let’s first address this simple truth: “Consistency + time = trust.”
I’ve learned that the only way you can earn people’s trust is by consistently keeping your word and delivering on what you’ve promised. So no matter what your business is, make sure that your users, readers, or customers know they can rely on you to send your product on time and consistently. Don't start something if you're unsure whether you can stick with it on a regular cadence.
Once you’ve made that commitment, you can start thinking about growth. Here are some of my thoughts:
Get in front of new subscribers. Partner with large newsletters that have like-minded audiences to do a link swap so you can get in front of their readers.
Find creative ways to showcase your expertise. I read thousands of profiles a year, so I wanted to prove that claim while adding value to potential new subscribers. So I played a game in which people gave me random topics or ideas they wanted to learn more about, and I replied with a profile. We’ve got everything from “dyslexia” to “solo cups.”
One reader said, “If this tweet thread suddenly went behind a paywall, I would pay a heavy price to get access.” So many new people learned about The Profile simply because of this one tweet.
James Clear did something similar a few months later, but with tweets.
Jack Butcher did it with designs. It was amazing.
Turn to your own readers for help: If you have smart, interesting people who subscribe to your newsletter, make them part of the conversation. For example, I asked my readers — many of which are business execs — to send me their favorite profiles, and I published an article titled, “20 Business Power Players Share Their All-Time Favorite Reads.” This is great for building community, but it also increases the chances that the people you included in the article will share your work with others in their network.
Get your work in front of the right eyes: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tweeted about The Profile four separate times. It's not something that I could've ever expected, but I had taken the extra step of sharing my article on him and tagging him on Twitter. Who knew that he actually paid attention to his notifications? Anyway, it reminds me of this great quote by David Perell: "Every article is a serendipity vehicle." You never know whose eyes your work will land in front of. The only thing you can control is taking that extra step of sending it to/tagging the right people in hopes of maximizing your luck.
Be the best at what you do: Finally, remember that the best growth tactic will always be, “Produce high-quality content, and bring value to the reader.” If you have a bad product, you won’t be able to grow no matter how many growth tactics you use.
Apart from your family, what is the thing or things that bring the most value to your life?
For me, it has always been books. Growing up an only child, I didn’t have siblings, so I would spend large swaths of time alone. When we moved to the U.S, the most frustrating thing was that I didn’t know the language, which cut me off from the one thing I loved most: books.
There’s so much value in a single book. You can revisit it over and over again, and it never gets stale. Books are always evolving depending on when you read them. By re-reading books at different points in your life, you notice things you may have otherwise missed.
For example, the book that changed fashion mogul Brunello Cucinelli’s life is "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius. "I re-read it all the time—just the other day, in fact," he says. "When I was 25, I'd underline certain parts of it, in my 30s other parts, and now that I'm in my 50s, it's a completely different read."
Just like when I was a child, I use books to live different lives. I gravitate toward memoirs and biographies because they immerse me into the mental state of someone whose life unfolded quite differently from mine.
Books are tools of empathy. The stories inside allow you to live hundreds of different lives, experience a myriad of emotions, and go on an infinite number of adventures.
I have a rule that I’ll never feel guilty spending money on books because each one adds so much value to my life. As Stephen King once said: “Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent.”
Do you love reading biographies? If so, which ones?
Not only do I love reading them, but memoirs and biographies are also the only types of books I read.
And of course, I personally enjoy reading other writers’ memoirs to help me get better at my craft. Some of my favorites include Stephen King’s On Writing, Robert Caro’s Working, and David Carr’s The Night of the Gun.
What are your favorite podcasts?
I don’t have favorite podcasts, but I do have favorite podcast episodes. Two of my all-time favorite podcast interviews are ones I’ve done — one with James Clear and one with Brandon Stanton. (For more, check out The Profile podcast here.)
Some other podcast episodes I’ve enjoyed are below:
When Carol Loomis joined Fortune in 1954, she was a bright-eyed 24-year-old whose job was to be a notetaker for the senior writers. She spent 60 years at Fortune, where she was responsible for discovering Warren Buffett (who happened to be her best friend), coining the terms “hedge fund” and “trophy wife,” and writing some of the most important stories in the history of Wall Street. Listen here.
Every single morning, Hugh Jackman meditates, takes a cold shower, and reads a book with his wife for 30 minutes. No exceptions. “And we know that, no matter what happens in the day, which invariably gets away from you, you’ve had that quality time together,” he says. In this podcast, we learn why Jackman believes a good life requires self-discipline — and why anyone can achieve it. If you listen to one thing today, let this be it. Listen here.
Jonny Kim is a former Navy SEAL, who went on to earn a doctorate of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Now, he’s a NASA astronaut. You would think this type of career path belongs to someone naturally fearless, but Kim didn’t fit that bill. This conversation is four hours long, and once you start listening, you won’t be able to stop. Listen here.
Spanx founder Sara Blakely breaks down how she began building her company with no business background, no connections, and no outside funding. “I did not have the most experience in the industry and I did not have the most money,” she says. “But I cared the most.” It’s one of my single favorite podcast episodes ever. Listen here.
Gay Talese’s famous 1966 Esquire profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” became the gold standard of profile writing even though he never once spoke with Sinatra himself. In this podcast, he opens up about his writing process & vivid storytelling. Listen here.
When David Goggins was in his early 20s, he had asthma, a learning disability, a stutter, and crushingly low self-esteem. He was earning less than $1,000 a month spraying for cockroaches. One night, he came home with a 42-ounce shake from Steak and Shake and sat down in front of the TV. He stumbled upon a documentary on the U.S. Navy SEALs that changed the trajectory of his entire life. Listen here.
Is there a daily hack you've mastered that's changed the quality of your life?
It’s not so much a hack as it is a lifestyle change. When I was younger, it was so easy to fall into automated habits that I did without thinking about them — eating poorly, going out all the time, drinking, consuming junk content, and spending time with the wrong people. After a conversation with James Clear, I decided to audit my habits and stop running on autopilot.
Here are the seven daily habits that drastically improved the quality of my life:
Getting 8 hours of sleep (or at least attempt to get close to it with a newborn)
Eating healthy meals
Exercising for at least 30 mins
Consuming quality content
Going on an evening walk
Being selective about the people I spend time with
Those seven things have the power to change your life. I find it’s more manageable to start with two or three and then continue optimizing your days. So in 2020, I started with exercise plus healthy eating. But because I was exercising and eating well, I naturally slept better. And then that made it easier to give up alcohol. And because I gave up alcohol and became more judicious about my social calendar, I began spending time with high-quality people. And so on.
Remember, if you get the basics right, everything else falls into place.
Will you ever retire from writing for the Profile? What’s next?
I have no plans to ever retire from The Profile. Here’s the thing: I don’t see it as a burdensome job. To me, The Profile is the manifestation of how I learn. So even if I wasn’t writing a newsletter, I’d still be reading profiles and summarizing them for family and friends.
In terms of what’s next, I have some big plans for a project that will be an extension of The Profile. Stay tuned!
… For more like this, make sure to sign up for The Profile below:
The Profile improves your content diet. To receive new posts each week, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.