This essay is intended for both my future self and others who struggle to keep a regular writing habit. By sharing this publicly, I hope to heighten my commitment to publish regularly, and provide the occasional boost of motivation as I embark on this multi-decade project.
This essay is a collection of motivations for writing regularly, most of which are not obvious, particularly if your view on writing was motivated by grades (as I was). My goal is to update this piece as I learn more about the craft of writing.
Writing makes you formidable
The main reason to write is for the writer to articulate a set of ideas about something important, in a coherent and compelling manner. What's the point of developing important ideas? Or for that matter, why does it need to be coherent or compelling? For starters, writing is no different from thinking or speech. Our ideas and the way we communicate them, defines how we interface with the rest of society. And in the vast majority of cases, the person who can articulate the most compelling argument wins. If you want a job, you must make a compelling case for yourself. If you want to sell your product, you have to convince customers that yours is the best solution. If you want to recruit or fundraise, you have to evangelize your vision to prospective employees and investors. As the chairman of Y-Combinator, Sam Altman, observes,
“All great careers, to some degree, become sales jobs... Getting good at communication—particularly written communication—is an investment worth making.”
There is no better way to improve communication than to write. This is because writing enhances all other forms of communication. By getting your ideas out onto the page, you externalize your working memory, and free up your cognitive capacity to tackle more challenging ideas and at a deeper level of analysis. Unlike verbal communications, you aren't put "on the spot," but free to constantly edit, revise, and filter your stream of consciousness. With practice, you hone your ability to sniff out bad ideas, and learn to refine the diamonds in the rough, until all you are left with are good ideas. Then you'll have easy access to good ideas and be able to convey them with confidence.
Writing is the best way to learn
Creation is the most valuable part of learning. In this golden age of podcasts and audiobooks on 2x, however, content consumption has never been more popular; the information firehose is only a couple taps away. But when you only consume without producing anything of your own, you're taking the easy way out. You don't expose your ideas to criticism or failure, but you're also forgoing the most valuable opportunity of all: the opportunity to transform what you've consumed into wisdom you can apply.
Merely consuming content is like trying to learn material from a book or lecture by simply re-reading or re-watching it. On its surface, re-reading material, actively taking notes, or even highlighting important points appear productive, but as psychologist Jeffrey Karpicke demonstrated, this is merely an "illusion of competence in learning." Practicing retrieval is by far the most effective way to learn. In his experiment, students who practiced recalling as much information as possible after studying a scientific text were able to learn more and at a deeper level than students who used any other approach. By writing regularly, you practice active recall, and learn to communicate ideas in your own words. This is how you make an idea yours, and effectively transform content that you've consumed into concrete knowledge you can apply.
Writing gets you lucky
Writing (and producing content more generally) is the highest leverage activity you can do to grow your network. While I’ve developed many treasured friendships from chance encounters at conferences and events, nothing beats the speed and scale of the internet. Online, the audience your ideas can reach is unconstrained by geographic boundaries, only by the quality of the content you produce. Reflecting on the early days of his career in Silicon Valley, Andrew Chen, general partner at the VC firm A16Z gives this advice:
“Writing is the most scalable professional networking activity — stay home, don’t go to events/conferences, and just put ideas down.”
In many fast growing industries such as Silicon Valley, successful founders, perhaps due to their sudden rise from middle-class backgrounds into members of the wealthy, are often keenly aware of their luck, and the serendipitous encounters that guided their path to success. Whether out of modesty or a genuine acknowledgement of the role of luck, truth is, it’s immensely difficult to even try to disentangle luck, skill, and mental fortitude.
Despite our limitations in measuring something as amorphous as ‘luck’, marketer and host of the North Star podcast, David Perell posits serendipity as a skill that can be learned. And fundamental to developing serendipity is to first build a “serendipity vehicle” — a personal website or distribution channel where you can broadcast your ideas to the world. On the days when you might be drained of motivation, you can also call on your serendipity vehicle to help leverage social accountability you have to your audience to muster some “activation energy”.
A regular writing and publishing habit harnesses the Flywheel Effect. Producing quality content expands the SEO surface area where people can discover your work; as readership grows, you’ll receive invaluable feedback to refine your ideas; through the accumulation of these interactions, intellectual relationships start to develop, and overtime, may flourish into a vibrant community. This is the formula for ramping up the momentum of your personal flywheel. Spin the flywheel enough times, who knows what opportunities may come knocking. If you’re lucky.
For each compelling argument to practice a writing habit, why didn’t I start writing sooner? As David Perell suggests, “most people don’t write because they’d rather consume.” I was certainly guilty of this mistake (and often still am), and taking consumption for progress.
Now fully cognizant of the necessity and opportunities of writing regularly, I hope this inaugural post serves as a reminder for my future self of my dedication towards lifelong learning and lifelong writing.
Bias towards action. Bias towards writing.
Jordan Peterson on Why Bother Writing an Essay:
If you sharpen your capacity to think and to communicate as a consequence of writing, you are better armed. The pen is mightier than the sword, as the saying goes. This is no cheap cliché. Ideas change the world, particularly when they are written. The Romans built buildings, and the Romans and the buildings are both gone. The Jews wrote a book, and they are still here, and so is the book. So it turns out that words may well last longer than stone, and have more impact than whole empires.
Those who can think and communicate are simply more powerful than those who cannot, and powerful in the good way, the way that means “able to do a wide range of things competently and efficiently.” Furthermore, the further up the ladder of competence you climb, with your well-formulated thoughts, the more important thinking and communicating become. At the very top of the most complex hierarchies (law, medicine, academia, business, theology, politics) nothing is more necessary and valuable. If you can think and communicate, you can also defend yourself, and your friends and family, when that becomes necessary, and it will become necessary at various points in your life.
Writing, Briefly by Paul Graham:
I think it's far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.
Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now by Alexey Guzey:
This fact is very frequently lost when discussing writing: writing not only helps you to understand what’s going on and to crystallize your thoughts, it actually makes you think of new ideas and come up with solutions to your problems.
But this only applies to “essay-like” writing where you pretend to write for someone else and think about narrative and exposition and not just write down a few bullets for yourself. This is actually why you should not only write blog posts but also have a private journal with coherent text about what’s going on in your life and in your head.
Even more reasons to write (WIP)
- Writing inspires generative (prolific) thinking — writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them
- Writing makes you a clearer thinker — why Amazon banned power points in favour of 6-page memos
- Writing protects you from the dangers of bad ideas