My Similar Story
I still have a lot to learn from this essay. I haven’t branched out into theme development as of this point but that is one of the things I wish to do. Maybe one day my journey can be similar to his in that I too will become a theme developer who one day joins in developing on of the main themes for WordPress. And who knows, I might even travel the world as he has done too.
I hope you enjoy the read as I have.
Anders Norén’s Essay
Back in 2012, I was a media and communications student at Umeå University in northern Sweden. The overall state of the newspaper business had convinced me not to pursue a career in journalism, and I had figured the second best thing would be to work with media relations for a business or organization I’d feel passionate about. That’s about how much thought I put into my choice of education. With each lecture I attended and essay I handed in, I realized that I enjoyed studying media and communications, but I wasn’t overly excited about making it my career.
Fortunately, the lectures and essays left me enough time to pursue other things as well. Girls, friends, parties – things you’re keen on when you’ve moved to a city 500 kilometers from home – but also side projects. Money is always tight when you’re a student. I had started to consider different ways of making money from the web tinkering I’d had as a hobby from an early age.
I was aware that the business for selling premium WordPress themes was growing rapidly, with themes on websites like ThemeForest making immense amounts of money. Could that be a way to help pay the bills?
I have a very clear memory of the first time I wrote HTML. I was eleven years old, and I was browsing a popular link directory called Annas Länkburkar (”Annas link jars”) on one of the computers at school. The front page consisted of rows of jars, bottles, boxes and tea bags, each labeled with the type of links they contained. Somewhere in the dark blue bottle labeled ”Data”, I found a tutorial for writing simple web pages in HTML. My desktop was soon littered with .html files exploring the basics of coding web pages, all carefully written in Notepad. I learned that the email accounts my parents had at the web portal Spray came with member pages with HTML support, and I quickly planted a flag on my first plot of land on the World Wide Web. If I remember correctly, it had the memorable URL of http://medlem.spray.se followed by a random number sequence.
I switched schools when I was 15, and my interest in computers dipped for a while. Instead, I discovered Photoshop. Most of my output consisted of moody illustrations captioned with song lyrics – the main form of expression for 15-year-olds. I was also tricked into working with the school paper, which lit the spark for my interest in journalism and introduced me to InDesign.
When I started high school, back in 2006, the blog phenomenon was just starting to take off in Sweden, and I was eager to jump on the bandwagon. I had gotten it in my head that I was going to develop indie games, and rather than actually spend my time developing games, I decided that the sensible thing to do was to create a blog about indie game development. This would mark the start of a lifelong habit of creating websites about my interests instead of practicing them. A Google search for after free blog services took me to WordPress.com. The service was only a little more than a year old at the time.
I published my first blog post with WordPress on January 14, 2007. I can tell you the date with certainty because I’m looking at the post right now, but no, I won’t share it here. I have already told you about my moody Photoshop illustrations, and there are limits to how much I will embarrass myself in public. Despite the WordPress.com domain name and bad English, I somehow managed to trick a handful of game developers to be interviewed for the blog. Most notably, Doom and Quake co-creator John Romero. My final question was ”Pizza or hamburger?”. Maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t end up a journalist.
My delusions about indie game development soon faded, but I hadn’t lost my interest in blogging. I had grown used to working with WordPress from my WordPress.com blog, so when it came time to register my own domain name and sign up for a proper host, the choice of CMS was an easy one. I dusted off my old HTML and CSS skills to make some small visual tweaks to the theme I was running, and I started to pick up a little bit of PHP as well. I soon realized that tinkering with the code was as much fun as writing blog posts.
A career built on themes
Two years later, I was sitting in my student apartment in Umeå, thinking about building premium WordPress themes to help pay the bills. Having nothing to lose and spare time on my hands, I decided to give it a go. My first theme was a simple blog theme called Lasseter, named after former Pixar director John Lasseter, and it was released on Mojo Themes in August 2013 for $49. Realizing I needed some way to market my premium themes, I decided to develop free themes for the WordPress.org theme directory as well. Visitors would come to my site for the free themes, and hopefully decide to pay a couple of bucks for a premium theme instead. That was the plan. Things didn’t work out that way.
The blessing and the curse
In the years that followed, I worked remotely for two years before I moved to Stockholm, went through a breakup, made friends for life and grew both as a person and as a theme developer, experienced a company merger and the implosion of said company, and became a freelancer in November 2019 just months before the pandemic hit. All the while, I kept on releasing free WordPress themes.
I also felt lost. Anyone who has been allowed to turn their hobby into a career – and there are a lot of us in the WordPress community – know that it is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you’re allowed to spend your nine to five working on something that you’re truly passionate about. A curse because working on your passion from nine to five will result in that passion wearing out and, in periods, be extinguished altogether. This is when a hobby comes in handy. It’s a shame you’ve turned your hobby into a job, isn’t it?
The pandemic was a turning point for me, as it was for so many others. I had increasingly started to feel like a WordPress website generator with legs, and after months of isolation in my studio apartment in Stockholm, I realized I needed a change. I needed something that could give me a sense of purpose and sense of self that isn’t rendered with pixels on a screen.
Hike your own hike
The seed was planted during a family trip to Scotland in August 2019. Me, my parents and my siblings were exploring the country by train, and our first stop after leaving Edinburgh was a little town in the Scottish Highlands called Fort William. Fort William lies at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. It is the end point for the West Highland Way hiking trail to the south and the starting point for the Great Glen Way hiking trail to the north. Early August is peak hiking season, and Fort William was filled with long-distance hikers either finishing their hike or just about to start it. The sight of excited hikers getting ready to head out on the trail stuck with me.
When I got back to Sweden, I saw that I had received an email asking me whether I’d like to take part in designing the Twenty Twenty default theme in WordPress 5.3. It’s the sort of offer you would kick yourself for life for turning down, so I swallowed all of my anxieties and said yes. The next couple of months were intense. In addition to a hectic work schedule and contributing to Twenty Twenty in the evenings and weekends, me and my partner were separating, I was buying an apartment, and I was transitioning from full-time employment to freelance work. I would watch hiking videos on YouTube to decompress. I watched a lot of hiking videos that fall.
The next spring, as the pandemic shutdown began, I put on my hiking backpack for the first time and headed out for my first night in the wild. Despite a heavy backpack, aching muscles and chafing in all the wrong places, it was love at first sight. That August, a year after the Scotland trip, I did my first long-distance hike in the Swedish mountains. Nine days on the Dag Hammarskjöld trail from Abisko to Nikkaluokta. Hiking had me properly hooked.
The missing puzzle piece
Balance. That’s what I lost when I turned my hobby into a career. When I was a student, I could turn to side projects and theme development for a creative outlet and a change of pace. When I started to work full-time as a theme developer, I still tried to use my themes as that creative outlet, and it only worked to a point. When I finally reached that point, I came very close to burning out on theme development altogether. I started to question my decisions at every fork in the road that had brought me to that chapter in my life. Maybe I should have been a media relations person after all?
None of us can be all work, all of the time. Finding something that we’re passionate about outside of our day job is key to maintaining balance in our lives. I think that’s especially true for those of us lucky enough to get to turn our hobby into a career. For me, that something turned out to be hiking. Every time I come back from a hike I feel rejuvenated and inspired, with my passion for theme development burning a little bit brighter than when I left. None would have been more surprised than my twelve year old self, with his nose buried in books about C++ and QBasic.
It is an immense privilege to be able to go on adventures like this one, and I likely wouldn’t have had that opportunity without the strange career path the WordPress community has given me. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.