Saturday, February 13, 2010

Subsdize Earnestness

Incentives today pressure people to drastically downplay how hard they've worked on a given project. For example, I bet Malcolm Gladwell is vexed about telling FT columnist Gideon Rachman that he memorizes all of his speeches. It hurts his free-wheeling, effortless speaking persona. Another is example is how Jack Kerouac's supporters love to play up how he wrote up On The Road in just three caffeine-fueled weeks, even though that spontaneity is probably overstated.

But man, how counter-productive is all of this posturing? It confuses people, making their estimates of how long a given project will take less accurate. And it places an unruly emphasis on intrinsic qualities like intelligence, instead of controllable things like the total number of focused minutes spent.

So to get away from our counter-productive status quo, let's subsidize earnestness, at the expense of mysteriousness. I see two paths towards a more earnest culture:

1) Glorify the revision process. The goal would be to illuminate the messy middle steps that underly successful endeavors. For example, in his interview with Ben Casnocha, Colin Marshall suggested a museum of rough drafts that would emphasize how most everyone's first draft sucks. This applies particularly well to art but generalizes, as we could include first business plans, first lines of code, and first experimental designs. If these messy middle steps are glorified then people will be more willing to share them.

2) Shun those who act mysteriously. Mysteriousness is cool because it emphasizes the short run over the long run. In the short run your onlookers will think of your success as effortless, which will raise your status. But in the long run, nobody knows how to help you or whether they can offer you advice, because you haven't made your plans transparent. So we should punish mysteriousness and unabashedly pressure people to open up.