Clearer Words, Clearer Minds
Writing well, committing to a challenge, and see your world shift.
Sen. Barbara Boxer: “Mr. Epstein, are you a scientist?”
Alex Epstein: “No. Philosopher”
Sen. Boxer: “Philosopher? Ah, this is the Environmental and Public Works Committee. I think it’s interesting that we have a philosopher here talking about an issue — ”
Epstein: “ — it’s to teach you how to think more clearly.”
— U.S. Senate committee hearing in 2016.
I watch Joe Rogan.
Yeah, in these unenlightened times, admitting that you watch the most watched podcast on the planet is radical. It’s radical because you’re marking yourself for dissent, you’re broadcasting to everyone that you’re willing to question established narratives and investigate whether the words and edicts shoved down your throat make much sense.
And yeah, I watched the show with Jordan Peterson recently that had all The Guardian-reading establishment up in arms. He’s another pariah that boils the blood of most right-thinking people: these two, t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e white, sexist, racist, misogynist men, the anti-Christ in double form — enemies of the woke revolution.
You’re damn right I’m watching that. Several times.
What’s so fascinating about Joe Rogan’s conversations isn’t just that they’re honest, as JBP says in the show, but that they’re so long. They’re usually 3 hours — over 4 hours this time — yet millions of people still tune in and follow through. In an age where we struggle to get people to pay attention to anything more than a soundbite, a tweet, or a funky TikTok dance — or god forbid an entire book — people sit down (or work out, or go walking) and listen to high-level conversation for hours on end. That’s amazing. And a testimony to how poorly public schooling works, and how brainlessly asinine incumbent media is. Nobody wants to hear you guys, and it’s not because we’re every -ism in the woke toolbox. It’s because you guys are scripted and fake, rather than honest and flawed. It’s because you drown out inconvenient voices and pretend the Overton window is this narrow space between the only two positions you can imagine — both incredibly left-wing, woke and depressingly authoritarian.
How the Coddled Kids Graduated But Never Grew Up
"The coddled kids didn't grow up, and now they're in positions of authority everywhere. The madness of crowds had long…
Sometimes clients that I work with also wonder if their pieces are too long — especially if they’re young, unfamiliar with writing or have been too used to the “x-words essay” task of higher education. That’s missing the point. Length does not matter. I often point to Lyn Alden’s research pieces or Warren Buffets’ shareholder letters. They’re long — thousands and thousands of words — and very technical. Yet nobody cares, and all who reads them want more. In fact, those of us who read them make time for them. Why? Because they’re that good.
Good enough quality can carry any quantity. The corollary holds too: bad quality deserves no quantity. So don’t fuss around with word limits or targets: just write well, and say interesting stuff.
A little after the 3-hour mark, JBP talks about his upcoming essay software, his big pitch for teaching people to write. (I haven’t used this software, but judging from what I’ve heard him say about the writing process over the years, I imagine it includes many crucial components).
He says (3:23:45) that kids — by extension, I imagine, university students — are never taught to pick something important to write about, such that the writing endeavour is genuine. If you don’t care about the topic, or the answer, the reader can usually tell:
“what do you do when you’re writing? You’re choosing words… forming phrases…organising them into sentences… sequencing the sentences into paragraphs and then into chapters — so it’s a hierarchical enterprise.
When you write, you have to get the word right and the phrase right and the sentence right and the sentence order right, and you shouldn’t do all that at once — because you can’t and because it’s too hard. Instead, you write a rough first draft that’s twice as long as the thing you’re trying to write. And then you edit: You shorten the sentences, you pick the right words, you pick the right phrases, you re-write the sentences.”
Why Most People Can’t Write
Frankly: Nobody ever told them how to. If you’re struggling with writing, here are some rules that can help you.
Words are power. Words are responsibility. They’re there to facilitate the capacity to communicate: “There’s no difference between writing and thinking”, says JBP, at the same time revolutionary and mundane:
“Most people come through university now without learning how to write. And that means they don’t know how to think. And that means they don’t know how to talk.” (3:27:54)
It’s a massive problem that people can’t write. But it’s even worse that the very same people can’t think.
I’ve said before: people don’t write well (and in extension, think well) because nobody taught them how to. They showed up at university, got thrown into the deep end and everyone just hoped they would pick it up. Most don’t. Most just put words onto a document, hoping for a passing grade. And no insider has much time to sit down with a newbie undergrad and show them the ropes.
The other route available is the proof-of-work route, which I’m sure my Bitcoiner friends will appreciate:
Like Bitcoin, Everything Important Is Proof-of-Work
In a moment of balance and strength, I felt my muscles stiffen, the pressure against my right triceps increasing…
You can become good at writing by writing a lot, for a long time. And read even more. By reading people you admire and whose writing style you wish to acquire, you’re not just taking in their meaning but the way they structure they phrases and construct their arguments. Writing well is proof-of-work.
Ashley Stahl at Forbes has a remarkably simple trick: just try.
And don’t just scribble some thoughts here and there, never fully flushing them out, never being responsible for what you put out. Run a writing challenge, regardless of how hard they are to follow through. Make a commitment — an hour every day or every week; 30 minutes a day for 30 days, whatever. And have somebody, or some community of others, to whom you’re answerable. Tell everyone, loud and clear, that you’re doing this; that makes it so much harder for you to back out, to give up, to cheat yourself out of just one day. Stahl writes:
“Try an experiment with your writing for 30 days! Commit to practicing your writing every single day. It is a muscle and skill that you can build over time. Set aside 30 minutes each day and write something related to your line of work, be it an opinion you have or a draft of something you know you’ll need to say or write.”
Sean Culkin, of NFL-Bitcoin fame, has some valuable insights into this too: “that proof-of-work lifestyle yields wellness”. Don’t cheat. Don’t stray, don’t take that rest day.
“Don’t do it… it’s a war of attrition. ‘Ah, I’ll skip this one workout’, ‘Ah, the bag of Pringles, that’s fine’,”
Just don’t. “Don’t hit snooze”
All I heard was “don’t, don’t-don’t, don’t.”
The problem — knows everyone who’s ever tried to commit to a diet, to a habit, to a workout routine — is that even if you make it through those first difficult days, around the 2-week mark, it doesn’t feel so incredible anymore. It’s not novel and exciting. You’ve exhausted the easy pickings, run into a few obstacles: your body is aching, your desire for sweets is killing you, your ideas are running dry.
To achieve a major change you must, like Culkin says in the interview, stay with it. But few of us can, realistically, stay with anything for longer than novelty carries us.
I see two solution, none of them unique or original:
- Attach a reward to it: make it fun, reward yourself for complying, have a friend do it with you. When you do overcome the obstacles, don’t cheat yourself out of the reward.
- Second, like JBP says: pick something that you’ll actually do. There’s no point going for targets that are so outrageously outside of your abilities that you’ll never make it. Pick something that you could do, that you will do, and that you’ll realistically succeed at.
Culkin is not wrong when he says: “go walk up and down the beach, and see your world shift.”
And it’s not from merely walking, but from committing to a hard task and doing it — over and over and over again.
Writing is thinking. And writing, on repeat, makes you a better writer.
Now, go do it.