Advice and indignation
I saw something recently about how there are two paths to gaining an online following: advice and indignation.
With indignation you simply take a position on whatever the “current thing” is and shout about how the opposite position is a moral atrocity that, left unchecked, will destroy the fabric of society. You can probably think of (and maybe even follow) a few people taking this route. It’s a strategy rooted in fear.
The advice-focused approach to gaining followers is about entertaining readers with inspirational ideas to make their lives better. The key word being “entertaining”, since the advice is rarely acted upon—it’s merely something to be read and enjoyed in the moment. A more positive approach, but not entirely harmless.
Both paths sound horrible to me.
I meticulously cull negativity and outrage from my own media diet, and could never go the indignation route myself, despite its effectiveness. I suppose my writing is closer to the advice route, but the thought of each piece being enjoyed and immediately discarded is rather dispiriting. I understand that the vast majority of spilled digital ink is ephemeral, but I’d like to make some impact along the way.
So what to do?
I should first clarify that I don’t care in the slightest about accumulating a massive online following. Sure, seeing the newsletter grow would be cool, but only if that meant more people were benefitting from it or if it opened up exciting new opportunities for myself and readers. I see no value in growth for growth’s sake.
Back to the paths. Perhaps there is a third, less obvious option: writing as exploration.
I think the tendency when writing (or Tweeting, posting, etc.) is to try to come across as knowledgeable and authoritative; to present yourself as having already figured out some thing. And while I certainly see the value in rigorous thinking and being decisive (especially in a professional setting), this feels like a precarious way to exist as a writer.
If I only write about things where I’m an expert or have certainty, I’m going to run out of topics pretty quickly. But mostly this just sounds really boring to me. I’d much rather write about things while actively exploring them.
Paul Graham says that you can know a great deal about something without writing about it, but you can never know so much that you wouldn't learn more from trying to explain it in writing. I’ve found this to be true. Writing is a forcing mechanism that helps me crystallize incomplete ideas and thoughts in my own brain.
The path of exploration means posing questions in your writing without knowing the answers. It means leaning into uncertainty. It means doing the weirdest thing that feels right.
I relish the freedom to do all of those things, so the path of exploration makes the most sense for me. I recognize this might limit growth, but that’s a tradeoff I’m more than happy to make.
Exploration isn’t for everybody, and that’s okay. There’s plenty of advice and indignation out there if that’s your thing—seriously, no shame!
But if exploration is for you, I’m thrilled to have you.