I wrote for The Umlaut for a little less than two years, January 2013 – October 2014. My perspective on many of the topics I wrote about then has changed so much that I rarely revisit any of the posts there. One that I do find myself going back to again and again is a May 2013 piece called The Option Value of Satisfying Work. The argument of that piece is straightforward: you will almost never be able to do what you love in order to support yourself financially. So do what you love because you love it, and put it online so that there is a chance, however small, that your work will be discovered.
[T]he perfect balance is committing to only those crafts that you can perform with satisfaction even if you have to do so in utter obscurity. Then, put your work out in public as part of the process itself — if you’re making homebrew beer or an Arduino hack, make a video or write about the process as a means to think harder about the details of it. If you’re a writer, think of putting it online as simply having the work backed up in one more place.
In this way, you open yourself up to the spectrum of possibilities, ranging from utter obscurity at one end to global fame at the other. Far more likely is something closer to the obscurity end but much more satisfying — that you will draw the attention of a relative few who share your interests.
The last remark about drawing the attention of other enthusiasts was parenthetical, an aside. But I’ve come to think that it is the point.
Romantic notions of the lone artistic genius aside, it is hard to become good at something and harder still to find satisfaction in it without a community. But if you fix your gaze upon the Prize, the slim chance that this craft will turn into your livelihood (or the much slimmer chance that it will bring you fame or fortune), satisfaction and community are likely to elude you. Odds are, you will also miss your chance to develop skills of the first rate.
Community is not simply a nice word for mutual exploitation. A friend who you associate with primarily because they are useful to you is no friend at all; or rather, you are no friend to them, and your friendship is a sham.
And yet, there is no shame in being ambitious. There is no shame in wanting good work to be acknowledged. It is not healthy to obsess over what is not likely to come to pass, but it isn’t bad to wish there was a way to make your living doing what you love.
Over the years, I’ve connected with many young people who yearn to be successful public intellectuals in some capacity. I see it as my role in that situation to disenchant them, to make the odds of achieving such a station clear. But disenchanting does not mean discouraging. A chapter of my long-abandoned book encouraged people to be imaginative when considering their options but clear-eyed about the trade-offs; are you willing to make some serious sacrifices in order to make a real go at the career you want? Or does it make more sense to assume you will never get that career, and try to get jobs which leave you with enough freedom the rest of the time to do what you love?
But on the whole, the healthiest expression of ambition is internal to a community. To work to make friends and find peers who you are not afraid to make mistakes in front of, but whose respect and praise you value. To strive to become skilled enough at the craft you love to earn their respect, and continue earning it with each new creation. To be able to keep on growing, rather than hitting a comfortable plateau and staying there. Such growth is not possible in the first place without finding a community of this kind.
I love to write. I have always loved to write. For a long time, writing was the point, the main thing in itself. That is part of why engaging in the craft itself is the main focus of that Umlaut post from seven years ago.
After The Umlaut began to wind down, as such communities do, some friends and I launched a little group blog called Sweet Talk. The first post was in May of 2014. It lasted a little longer than The Umlaut, winding down at the end of 2016 (with some dribs and drabs being posted thereafter). Sweet Talk was loads of fun, and many of my dearest friends that I have today I first connected with during that time. I operated it on a fairly promiscuous basis; I invited people to write for us and if they said yes, I gave them carte blanche to post whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. It worked remarkably well for a remarkably long time, until, predictably, it did not.
Liberal Currents, launched in March of 2017 and still ongoing (as it will continue to be for the foreseeable future, thank you very much!) is an actual publication. We greenlight articles on a submission-by-submission basis; no one has an open invitation to publish whatever they want whenever they want. In theory I do, but in practice I never publish anything that our editors have serious reservations about, at least without a frank conversation and revisions.
Somewhere along the way, my writing has become a secondary priority to community-building. I learned some hard lessons from Sweet Talk, but I also wouldn’t change a thing about that experience. I’m also rather older now than when I began. The thing I enjoy most about Liberal Currents is the chance it provides to engage in a bit of mentorship; to be a voice that young writers will listen to and to help promote their work. Getting published by us also means access to our Discord, where several dozen writers and patrons can be found in conversation every day.
There’s a certain irony to all this, too, because I have never taken the quality of my writing more seriously than I do now. At The Umlaut I would run with half-baked ideas and see where they led me, usually applying something from cognitive science or a Nassim Taleb book or some other mediocre foundation. At Sweet Talk I was really engaging in a process of public learning; I don’t regret it, and in fact gained a great deal from it, but most of the 200 or so posts I wrote there are not worth much beyond the exercise of writing them. Towards the end I began to take each individual piece of writing more seriously. While I’m not proud of every one of the 34 articles and essays I have written at Liberal Currents, I have worked quite hard on each of them. To take a recent example, I read hundreds of articles and constructed a timeline of events in order to write my evaluation of the media ecosystem’s performance during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak. Less concretely, I tried very hard to make my article on Mohamed Bouazizi good from a writing perspective. I am proud of the result but I leave it to the reader to determine if that pride is merited.
But I do not think it is coincidental that I have worked harder at the quality of what I write even as community has become a larger priority. When you are out there writing on your own, it is very easy to become solipsistic and, to put it bluntly, blow smoke up your own ass. The first draft of my article on the media ecosystem was a hit piece on the conservative media’s response. But as I wrote it, I anticipated the criticisms of several people I respect who I know were likely to comment on it. And so I dug deeper and tried to provide more evidence. Only it became clear that my whole argument was simply wrong. So I threw out that draft and started performing a more serious survey of coverage across a lot of different outlets.
One of those people whose response I anticipated, Adam Elkus, once said that whether or not you are capable of becoming a lifelong learner, on the one hand, or stagnate and even see your horizons shrink, on the other, has everything to do with your friendships and your community. I still cultivate the “option value” of my work, leaving open the possibility of really taking off. But I spend much more time cultivating my community, and the rewards have been immeasurable.