An ambitious entrepreneurial friend of mine noted that the people he looks up to all share a commonality: they don’t write about what they’re doing. People aiming for real, impactful disruption like Nick Pinkston (automating manufacturing), Matt De Silva (curing brain cancer), and Jonathan Siegel (butt computing) – none of these guys have significant online presences. Even the big famous problem-oriented game changers like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Naval Ravikant, and Joe Lonsdale have no personal website – just Twitter accounts and Wikipedia pages. Presumably they’re too busy dealing with monumental world obstacles to stop and tell the rest of the world what they’re doing.
This stands in direct contrast to people like Sebastian Marshall and Andrew Chen, who have massive blogs with equally large amounts of followers. Yet the problems they solve (personal productivity and viral marketing, we could say) are nowhere near as monumental on the scale of those other guys.
After looking at the writers accomplishing little in the absolute scheme of things and the doers tackling big meaningful problems, my friend told me he’s probably going to stop writing sometime in order to try and become a better executor. As if accomplishment and content were exclusive!
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write?
When you write something down, it’s easier to scrutinize outside of the confines of your own mind. You can build upon it without having to hold space for it in your head. Plus you can infect others with it, inspiring them to greater thoughts and allowing them to weigh in on the idea with their own unique experience. Public writing has remained the best way to get to the core of a concept for centuries – from Marcus Aurelius to Benjamin Franklin. Private writing may crystallize your own thinking, but it will never allow others to challenge or build upon your beliefs, nor will it allow you to amass a following of people who like your ideas. (Paul Graham covers the benefits of the essay much more eloquently than I can, partly because he’s written more)
It’s true that the disruptors may be writing in private, through diaries or personal logs that they’d rather not share with the world. That’s all well and good, but I’ve noticed that the more open and transparent the idea, the quicker it spreads and the more powerful it becomes. Subject to the cruel eyes of the world, it reaches its potential faster through group feedback and has the chance to impact more people. Buffer is a classic startup example of transparency taken to the extreme, and look how well that’s worked out for them – they’re almost known more for that than their product. Unless something contains confidential or proprietary information, one has only to gain by putting it in public. Even Tesla knows this, when releasing the Hyperloop’s information publicly (albeit only after they had decided they wouldn’t pursue it themselves). Look at how many experts have come out of the woodwork to improve upon the concept since, even without backing.
Yet that’s company writing, not the personal thoughts of Elon Musk (although the two likely overlap almost 100%). Why aren’t Elon and other game-changers sharing more?
Popular Brands Can Still Benefit
It doesn’t take much time to put the thoughts you’re already thinking about down on paper. Founder Blogs are so widespread that they’ve become a genre – Joseph Walla of Hellofax, Dan Shipper of Firefly, Danielle Morrill of Mattermark, the list goes on. Why do they do it? Same reasons as before – it’s fantastic marketing (Jason Freedman of 42 floors has a great response to someone who told him to blog less and focus on the startup ), exposes their current challenge to others who could help, and it helps them think through the problems better If fledging upstart companies find it useful to write about the challenges they’re facing, why wouldn’t it be the same for bigger more established ones?
Perhaps because they already have users, and if they have questions about a challenge they’re facing they can go to smart advisors instead of asking the world at large. No enterprise company is going to find some client or thought leader through blogging that they didn’t already know about, the argument would go. But you never know, and if you’re already having these thoughts it’s negligible extra effort to share them with the world, with limitless benefits. Once you’re a public company you probably couldn’t talk about anything truly negative in fear of it affecting your stock, but you could talk about all the ways you’ve solved problems and are doing well.
The more you do, the more helpful it is to write. George Plimpton’s participatory journalism (where the reporter goes and actually does whatever it is he’s covering, like sports or acting) yields far more perspective than that of any desk jockey assigned to the story. Such writing is far more engaging due to authenticity and the ability to bring the reader into experience, and founder blogs are all reminiscent of the style. It’s the different between a history textbook on the Civil War and the gripping narrative of the present writer Ambrose Bierce. Recalling Theodore Roosevelt’s famous Man in the Arena quote, the former is told by a spectator and the latter by the man in the arena, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”. Whose perspective do you really want on the issue, some journalist’s or the guy being reported on?
It’s not Writing vs Doing, It’s Public vs Private
I think there’s no such thing as a doing/sharing dichotomy. Sharing your thoughts through writing or some other medium has never been easier, thanks to dictation software and the flat Internet, so lack of time is no excuse. The more you do, the more helpful your writing is to you and others, so lack of an upside is no excuse. Others may disagree with my belief in transparency as the best way, but that simply converts the dichotomy to a debate about public versus private.
I’m not talking to Elon or any of these guys, so I don’t know why they choose not to share their thoughts. It is quite easy to neatly divide the world into private doers attacking worthy problems versus public writers shared how they convinced millions to download their app. But upon closer inspection there are many people crossing that division line -Peter Thiel with Zero to One, Bill Gates with his stellar blog – and the less I believe in a ‘Those who can’t do; write” ethos.
But what do I know, I’m a writer!