Here’s a trifecta for evaluating writing, or in some cases, creative work in general. It’s composed of three parts: interestingness, truth and importance. Posed as questions, we could ask:
Achieving positive answers to two of the three makes for good work. Interesting and true. Interesting and important. True and important. Any of those combinations is a good use of your time.
But how do we rank them? Which matters most? I recently completed the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging course, and their methodology weights interestingness more heavily than truth and importance. Which is something, in the past, I would’ve argued against. I would’ve said that we should spend time on only the True and the Important. But I don’t think that anymore. More specifically: I don’t have a problem with searching for truth or aiming for interesting. What I’ve really begun to rail against is the search for, or emphasis on, importance.
Firstly, evaluating our activity according only to importance or societal impact does two things; it severely narrows the activities on offer, often to the least fun, and it inhibits our creativity. Regarding the latter, it’s worth keeping in mind that importance is a filter that picks out anything that appears to have little impact. But it is often these seemingly unimportant things that act as a gateway to meaningful contribution—whatever that phrase means.
As well as these two consequences of emphasising importance, there’s a dangerous assumption such emphasis makes; that we know, a priori, what is important. Newsflash. We don’t. No one does.
Look back through history and one of the themes you’ll repeatedly encounter is our astounding inability to consider higher order effects. As humans, we play well with direct cause and effect, but we’re not equipped to figure out the consequences of the consequences of the consequences.
So if we can’t play well with higher order effects, who are we to say what will be important further down the line? Sure, helping to solve the issue of social housing by proposing new methodologies could have an impact. But whose to say that your writing of a limerick online might not inspire someone to do something that makes another person do something that matters to someone who then makes a meaningful contribution?
Human nature, as well as the culture that predominates in the West right now, compels us to ignore the trivial in favor of the important. Which makes sense if we only consider first order effects. But considering chains of consequences, it’s hard not to admit that we underestimate the importance of the trivial.
Allow me to give an example. A while ago I pitched an essay to Venkat for Ribbonfarm. I wanted to explore the ideas of status and rationality as they relate to investing. The impetus behind the piece was to be a 2 x 2:
From there I wanted to apply the ideas of status and rationality to the domain of investing.
“Rational Investing” is defined as investments which offer a high ROI to the investor. “Irrational Investing” is defined as investments which offer low ROI to the investor, or a high ROI that occura to parties other than the investor.
The idea of status is a concept poached from Keith Johnstone’s Impro. A king is high status. A joker is low status for the king’s entertainment. Applied to investing, it translates to the following: high status investing bets on things that could change the world or make a large societal impact, and low status investing bets on things that will have a limited, local impact. Google’s “X” is a “moonshot factory”; most of the projects on Kickstarter are not moonshots. The former makes high status investments, the latter is a service for low status and irrational investments
The point of exploring status and rationality in investing was to articulate an idea about innovation, which is related to importance:
Innovation requires a willingness to play low status and act irrationally.
It requires trial and error, bricolage, playfulness and seemingly meaningless experiments. My hypothesis was to be that by investing in low status, irrational things, we could unlock more progress than by focusing exclusively on high status, highly rational investments. Essentially, it’s betting on important higher effects arising from investments in seemingly trivial things.
This strategy, investing in the trivial, turns out to be great for writing. Look at some of the ideas Ribbonfarm has birthed. I’m sure there are other examples of blogs and books that focus on trivial things that have changed your life. And it could be a great strategy for investing—but only if you measure performance by higher order effects, not returns.
But the point is moot. I don’t have a stash of cash that I can experiment with, and as far as I’m aware, I’ve seen no-one do and measure the impact of such a strategy. All I can do is devote more of my own time and energy to the seemingly trivial and hope that it leads to something that matters, somewhere, for someone.