cobbler, stick to your last

If you like the Maven Game, you’ll love Doug Rushkoff—assuming you aren’t already familiar with his work. The world is a scary place and increasingly I prefer Doug’s lens for making sense of it.

Read Doug’s most recent book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, if you haven’t already. Next, subscribe to his podcast: Team Human. I’m on Team Human and you should be, too. Team Human, being Team Human, can’t find its audience through “growth hacking.” To quote Doug’s most recent newsletter, “I’m loathe to employ social media, and I’ve always had faith in the organic spread of good things.” Should he? Let’s show him.

On a related note, a joke made by several late night hosts recently: Somebody quits Facebook only to post about it on Facebook.

Yep. I’m still off social media. I can’t say I’m any wiser for it. I am less wired, less stressed. (Not that much less. I still watch late night TV.) When the occasional crazy-thing-that-happened-in-the-world filters through, I realize that not having known about it the moment it happened made no difference. It’s a good feeling.

This gets me thinking about the lures of social media specific to expert-writers and those adjacent.

Facebook has gotten pernicious, hard-to-eradicate, cockroachy. It offers myriad things to myriad people. (My use of “myriad” is one of myriad ways I annoy myriad readers.) Facebook weaves little threads of value throughout the fabric of your day-to-day life so that there’s never just one cord to cut. If I leave Facebook for good, what about shared photos from Thanksgiving? What about FarmVille with friends? What about posting to that exclusive private group I got to join? Whatever it takes to bait the hook. (Yes, bait. Facebook is a fisher of men. Unlike Jesus, it plans to eat its catch.)

For writers, one last wriggly piece of worm-bait makes Facebook irresistible.

In a presentation to the sales force, the head of a publishing company where I used to work tacitly acknowledged Goldman’s adage that “nobody knows anything.” Editors did their best to pick good books, she admitted, but ultimately there is no telling where lightning will strike next. All we could do, she explained, was plant as many lightning rods as possible.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this exposure to positive Black Swans. (If you haven’t actually read The Black Swan, please do so. It explains 2017. It will explain 2018. I’d say it will explain 2019, but let’s be honest. What are the odds we see 2019 at this rate?) There’s no predicting big, life-changing surprises, so all you can do is “get out there” where something really good—no knowing what—is more likely to happen.

So for writers, Facebook, and social media in general, seems like a perfect lightning-rod planter. When you post on Facebook, you’re planting a lightning rod, right? Same with every tweet. You’re getting yourself out there. Sure, much of it is ignored, but you never know. What if Soleil Moon Frye happens to retweet your tweet to her 1.49 million “followers”? (Hint: nothing. I’ve seen it happen.) 

But still, stuff does “go viral.” Doesn’t it? I mean, people were nobodies, and then they were somebodies, and social media was involved, somehow. Right?

This, right here, is the rack on which writers are currently stretched.

At one publishing house where I worked, an unknown author wrote a book. Nothing happened. It came out in paperback. Nothing happened. A few years later, he filled in on a TV panel at the last minute. Right panel, right moment, right message. The paperback hit the list and made a mint, as well as the author’s career. Does that mean spend all your time trying to be a substitute panel guest for any show that will have you?

I’ve got examples from back when blogs existed where a single post on a brand-new blog got mentioned by a popular blogger. Boom. Right audience, right time, right recommendation: bestseller, career, etc.

What are you supposed to do with information like this?

I can tell you what not to do: scurry away in your hamster-wheel, posting and tweeting and sharing, slurping at little oxytocin hits where you can get them, trying to make lightning strike the spot it struck last time.

I’m all with Taleb that we want to expose ourselves to positive Black Swans. He’d be the first to say that this does not mean doing the thing that got the last person some attention. Taleb points to our absurd response to terrorist attacks, where we put all of our efforts into preventing the exact same attack in the future. Guy had a shoe bomb? Everyone takes off their shoes to go through security. Terrorism: solved.

For the umpteenth time I’ll quote from Robert Henri in The Art SpiritHis advice is more than a hundred years old yet perfectly apt. Here’s a letter Henri wrote in response to a friend’s request:

I understand from your letter that you would like me to write an article. This brings up, however, the matter that we have several times discussed—whether the cobbler should stick to his last—whether the artist should paint, and put all his energies, his whole heart and mind in what he is best at, both from inclination and experience, instead of lecturing, writing, going to meetings, or going into society.

(“Going into society” is old-timey for “regram @selenagomez,” by the way.) It breaks my heart to think of all the writers—and filmmakers, musicians, designers, inventors—who created even one less thing because of time, effort, and emotional bandwidth invested in the work of social media. Sure, Henri wrote articles and lectured, but through discipline he was able to “spend six to eight hours a day in actual painting.” Could he have done the same today?

Imagine if Beethoven only wrote 8 symphonies because he was too busy composing tweetstorms?

There’s a word for this: ultracrepidarianism, defined as what happens when the cobbler puts the shoe down to publish an old blog post on Medium, just in case.

I’m not going to tell you to get off social media. I will ask you to consider designing and implementing a positive Black Swan strategy. Consider all the effort you can potentially invest in planting lightning rods, not just on the internet, but everywhere: professional networking, outreach, and, above all, publishing your stuff in lots and lots of different ways, online and off.

Then, invest that time strategically.

When you invest money, you start with a limited quantity. Lots of people got rich on lucky bets, but if you invest in a handful of lucky-looking stocks to imitate that success, you will have no more money.

Time is different. We can keep making the same mistakes with our time and energy and, sadly, we just run out of life, eventually. We don’t get better at our work and we don’t create as much stuff as we could have, all because we squander our precious resources chasing someone else’s path to success.