follow the friction

Federico Viticci and John Voorhees of MacStories recently launched Dialog, a podcast about creativity and technology. The first season features professional writers working across various genres: screenwriting, songwriting, etc. Since I love learning about niche writing apps, this show should be pure catnip.

In the first full episode, Viticci and Voorhees discuss blogging with John Gruber, creator of Markdown and founder of Daring Fireball, a site I’ve read for years and years.

At one point in the conversation, Gruber talks about his desire “to fight against the human, natural tendency to want to reduce everything to a single variable, whereas almost everything that’s interesting and worth considering and worth writing about in depth or talking about in depth is multivariate [emphasis mine], and once you get into multi-variate scenarios, it’s complicated, and it’s really, really hard in a multi-variate situation to prove anything.”

(You don’t hear “multivariate” thrown around in too many podcasts interviews, but that’s part of Gruber’s off-the-cuff, nerdy charm.)

This philosophy sums up my motivation in writing the Maven Game. In the field of creative success, everyone promises easy answers: six steps to build an audience, nine to make your book go viral, fourteen to take a long walk off a short pier. Meanwhile, my lived experience working with authors and books for all these years tells me that popularity isn’t a goal you can seek—it’s a phenomenon, like ball lightning. It happens, rarely. Then the people it happens to—and the people who manufacture the appearance that it’s happened to them when it hasn’t—tell the rest of us why.

Do they know why? No. They have theories, just like us bystanders. From an infinite array, they’ve selected a handful of factors to highlight, factors they want to highlight—for whatever reason. If they fancy themselves humble and self-deprecating, they might point to luck and good, old-fashioned hard work. If they pride themselves on their strategic acumen, they’ll dismiss talent and luck—”Anyone could have made the thing I made!”—and point instead to the step-by-step plan for success that they totally, absolutely laid out in advance.

In the end, the secrets to success people choose to share say far more about the successful people themselves than they do about how success is achieved.

It reminds me of that perennial interview with the salty nonagenarian who proudly attributes his longevity to a diet of cigarettes, black coffee, and fried chicken. It’s just survivorship bias, guys. As Goldman said, nobody knows anything.

Yes, we can study the phenomenon of success, but as writers I’m not sure we should be taking prescriptions from the apparently successful. Grandma may love her fried chicken at 92, but I’m still going to see a doctor about my cholesterol. Success is extraordinarily rare relative to the number of people seeking it, and it is more multivariate than the weather. (We can predict the weather pretty well, actually.) In the end, there are no easy answers, only best practices and common-sense principles.

In A Mind at Play, authors Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman explore the life of Claude Shannon, architect of the Information Age. (I recently wrote about Shannon and information theory, remember? I cover this sort of thing so we can both feel smart. You’re welcome.)

In the process of researching the book, they unearthed a 1952 speech Shannon gave to his fellow engineers at Bell Labs. In it, Shannon laid out two basic requirements for an effective engineer, inventor or, as I interpret it, writer:

The first one is obvious—training and experience. You don’t expect a lawyer, however bright he may be, to give you a new theory of physics … mathematics or engineering. The second thing is a certain amount of intelligence or talent.

Yes, to write a book you need to learn how to write a book, the craft. And yes, you need a “a certain amount of intelligence or talent”—this aligns with what I wrote about bare-minimum brilliance.

To be clear, Shannon is not talking about earth-shattering genius as a requirement here. He simply believes, as I do, that you need a degree of intelligence and talent appropriate for the work at hand. Training only goes so far when dealing with complex processes like designing circuits or writing books. In my career, I’ve seen nothing to suggest this is anything other than the truth. Anyone can cook, but not everyone can write a good book, and that’s OK. We’re all special snowflakes.

Training and talent together aren’t enough, however, according to Shannon. You also need a certain amount of dissatisfaction:

By this I don’t mean a pessimistic dissatisfaction of the world—we don’t like the way things are—I mean a constructive dissatisfaction. The idea could be expressed in the words, This is OK, but I think things could be done better. I think there is a neater way to do this. I think things could be improved a little. In other words, there is continually a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right.

(“A slight irritation”—guess who found the perfect title for his debut acid trance EP?)

Constructive dissatisfaction. Maybe this is why so many best-selling authors encounter a sophomore slump. It’s one thing to write a paradigm-shattering book when you’re at the bottom of the pile, and a very different thing to mess with the paradigm once you’re straddling it.

(“Straddling the paradigm”—guess who found the perfect subtitle for his debut acid trance EP?)

I’ve witnessed the sheer motive power of dissatisfaction in other authors and I’ve seen it in my own work. I’ve also seen what happens when it’s lacking: nada. The “slight irritation” I feel when reading what others believe about success fuels this newsletter, and my ambivalence about other things hampers my progress in those areas.

It’s a reminder to myself that I should follow the friction if I expect to catch fire.

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