Writing, practice, and change
A ramble. Footnotes are not important, links highly optional
I want to publish more. Why don't I?
The first and most obvious answer is I lack incentive to do so. I don't use pavlovian conditioning to make myself publish. Most of the personal reward of writing for me is thinking through an idea. Once I have done that, transmitting that idea to others is not intrinsically motivating.
The second answer is that I don't prioritize writing and publishing. In principle, a blog that showcases my ability to write and think clearly is a large asset. Having well explained versions of my ideas that I can point to for others is also useful. However, right now what I would publish about is rarely the thing I am the most curious about (that's my research!). In the future my research will be communicated through blog posts, but for now I have enough eyes on it and am incentivized to write research papers when the ideas come to fruition.
Neither of these answers is satisfying to me. The third, and I think most true answer, is that by the time I finish writing something I feel like it is either obvious or incomplete. This makes the resulting product somewhat hard for me to send to others.
There are many reasons why I write: to think clearly, to remember ways of thinking, or to do something that feels relaxing and useful. As it stands, none of those goals require communication of my ideas. The only reason I would is if I think I have something worth sharing, and after I finish writing something I am a terrible judge of that.
However, I believe that improving at a skill requires volume, feedback, and deliberate practice. Writing is probably the skill I care about improving most after research. As a result, I want to publish more.
Meta distinction: what you want vs what you want to want
Paul graham has a nice essay about what you (want to*) want. In summary, you have more ability to control what you do than what you want, and more ability to control what you want than what you want to want. Eating a melon is easy, but convincing yourself melon is better than cantaloupe is hard. However, you could probably do it with a camera, some image recognition software, and a taser. Harder still would be to make yourself thinking that melon preference is worth pursuing. How you act is the tip of the pyramid / iceberg, built atop more fundamental and harder to change building blocks beneath the surface.
In my mind, I think of actions, desires, beliefs, and values as various levels of this pyramid. Change is easy when all of the levels are there. Its easy for me to get back into weightlifting when I have the time because I value fitness, believe it is good for my health, desire a toned bodyand have a time I like to go to the gym. Publishing is hard because while I believe that it is important, I don't desire any result of it, am not used to acting on it, and I don't value it; I don't think airing out my thoughts is good unless I can see how it generates value.
The last point is interesting to me: part of the experiment of writing this piece is to see if full stream of consciousness writing can be useful for me, fresh enough that I find it easier to publish, and readable. To that effort, lets discuss the value of publishing with my values.
My values: a reformist theologian. Believes in things greater than themself but few things real. Henceforth V
My beliefs: a comparison shopper. Tries on half the clothes in the store and every flavor of ice cream. Henceforth B
B: I'm bored. Its 10:47 PM on a Tuesday and I believe we should publish this tonight and sleep by 11:30. State your case, and make it quick.
V: If you truly 'believed' all that you wrote, you wouldn't try to convince me to publish this half-baked idea. I value spending the time to understand something.
B: Incomplete ideas are valuable. They promote movement in the rightdirection. Don't you also value impact? If you want your work to have reach in the future, its best to build an audience now.
V: I also value the public commons. One should send out their best work. Otherwise, they fill the world with cacaphony
B: In the future, when you have work you are proud of, we could split off the gems from the duds. For now, let's think on the margins. You value practicing skills, including writing, and you value feedback on practice. You value giving people what they asked for, and multiple people have expressed enjoyment from reading your writing. You value reach for your ideas when they are complete, and that journey has to start somewhere. On the margin this is positive.
I: No one likes reading your work! They all just say they do.
V: I hate you with passion.
B: Eh. Some of them would get a kick out of this. Some of them have used what you wrote as a jumping point when you talked to them next. Some people might just be saying they like it, but anyone who knows you well knows you won't care if they don't read it or like it. They know you would even prefer quality feedback. Some would get value from it, and the rest would not be negatively effected.
V: This practice is not deliberate. You are just spewing words out. How can that be valuable?
B: I'm not saying its super valuable, just more valuable than not existing. Its also hard to do deliberate practice if you don't know what you struggle at. To that end, you need feedback. For feedback, you need to publish.
V: At least edit it thoroughly!
B: Edit it I will, but you have not published anything in two (almost three) months. You wrote a nontrivial amount in that period. One of the gaps between writing and publishing was that the ideas you were developing were not 'ready'. Our primary disagreement is the value of a very half baked idea: I think such a thing is marginally positive to the world, and you think it negative despite giving no evidence for that point.
V: Fine. I will speak your language. I believe in taste. I believe in reputation. I believe that great work is far more valuable than good work, and that others will recognize it. I believe that you hurt our reputation.
B: Have you ever seen someone spew content and thought less of them for it? You value great and monthly more than good and daily, sure. You think that most people's values are tilted heavily in the other direction in the age of instant engagement and endless content. But you do value quality content, and you do believe that improvement comes from practice. Remember how shocked you were when people saw Caroline Ellison's tumblr? It was an average blog but people were impressed. Your standards are too high, and as a result you will not improve. Stop being a perfectionist, and go in the court and play ball.
B: Hold on ye who decides on dialogue splits, I am not done yet. You aren't a ghost on the internet, but you are close to it. You don't post anything. You have nothing to lose. In fact, it is arrogance to believe that your reputation would be hurt: none who do not know you personally care what you have to say. Where do you have to go but up?
V: I value humility. I value practice. I value reason, though I never bind myself to it. For now, you are free to publish.
B: And next time you doubt, I will show you this conversation, now etched in digital stone for eternity. Your step along the gradient will not wither, for your learning is permanently remembered. Even when this computer dies, when obsidian dies, and when substack dies, a machine learning model hungry for data will eat a thousand odd words more of introspection from common crawl because of our actions. Rejoice, for the miracle of the internet. Rejoice, for the miracle of writing. Rejoice, for you qualify.
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I thought I already linked to this essay but I never published that post. lol
You don't need an IRB if you are the subject
Initially I used the metaphor of a ladder and called them "components of change", which contributed nothing. As a replacement, I mixed metaphors. Is it better? Who knows, its 11:28 PM, I'm supposed to be doing "light editing", and this makes more sense to me now. Maybe I should do deliberate practice on good usage of metaphors? That sentence is schrodinger's sarcasm
my solution to body positivity was a barbell and narcissism.
I wrote 'write' instead of 'right' and vice-versa while righting this peace.
I want to link to this piece but its not strictly relevant
I'm sorry on ending this on a questionable reference but if you get it send me an email. We would be friends.