How to Avoid the Bullshit Industrial Complex

I wanted to cheer after reading Sean Blanda’s post about The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex. His main point: “Don’t fall into the trap of being an expert before you’re ready. We have enough of those.”

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As editor of 99u, Sean gets pitches from people who want to write for the website or speak at company’s conferences for creative professionals. In the worst of these pitches, he says:

…there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.

Sean also presents a continuum that goes from credibility to bullshit. He identifies four levels:

Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.

Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.

[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]

Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.

Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.

Our path to freedom from the Bullshit Industrial Complex is to remember that Group 1 sources exist in every field. And, our job is to find them.

If you’re a critical reader of self-help material, for example, Group 1 includes researchers who write well—academics who stay close to the data and have a source of income beyond speaking fees and book royalties.

Notable examples include Martin Seligman, Richard Wiseman, Sojna Lyubomirsky, Tal Ben-Shahar, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Timothy Wilson, BJ Fogg, Orin Davis, and creators of evidence-based psychotherapies.

I trust such people because they abide by the ethics of responsible scholarship.

They go beyond anecdotes to test their ideas with well-designed studies.

They know the professional literature and cite their sources.

They distinguish between hunches and statements that are supported by evidence.

Most of all, Group 1 sources openly acknowledge the possible objections to their ideas and state the limitations in applying them.

This gets to the heart of the scientific method, which includes a deliberate search for evidence that refutes your hypothesis—and an admission that nothing is ever proven.

Our constant challenge as writers and speakers to dwell above the “line of bullshit demarcation.” Our daily job is to create original work that goes beyond aggregating the content of other aggregators—even when mindless aggregation wins shares, likes, and other hollow dings of social approval.

This is hard work. It means cultivating the timeless virtues of honesty and humility—qualities that easily go down the toilet when there’s a book to promote or a mailing list to build.

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Avoiding bullshit is one of my favorite topics. For starters, see the only-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek Anecdotes Are Sexy But Not Conclusive. Also check out:

Using a Commonplace Book to Incubate Ideas—The Power of “Zero Drafts”

Of the many benefits of keeping a commonplace book, the one I find most powerful is allowing ideas to simmer, develop, and build  over time.

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In a masterful post, Tony Schwartz describes this as incubation—a crucial stage in creative thinking:

The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can’t seem to solve it. Incubation involves mulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions. After writing for 90 minutes, for example, the best thing I can do to jog my brain, is take a run.

I recommend that you do more than take an exercise break. When you set up your commonplace book, create a section for zero drafts that you incubate over time.

How to create a zero draft

I got the term zero draft from Christian Tietze, coauthor of a wonderful blog about commonplacing. “This draft isn’t meant for reading,” he notes. It’s even worse than the shitty first draft we all need to embrace. This is Frankenstein’s monster turned into text.”

A zero draft is midway between a collection of random notes and the first draft of an article or book on a specific topic. More precisely, it is a growing collection of notes about a single topic grouped into a flat outline.

By flat, I mean just two levels of content:

  • The title of an article, blog post, presentation, or book chapter that you might create
  • Subheadings—one for each major point you could make or story that you could tell to flesh out the title

To create a zero draft, simply “dump” (copy and paste) any relevant notes (facts, anecdotes, quotes, examples, and other information) under the most appropriate subheading. (To get ideas for subheadings, consider some common frameworks for nonfiction writers.)

Note: This process of dumping notes is much harder when you have a “deep” outline with two or more levels of headings: Each level adds another layer of decisions to make about where to place an individual note. By keeping your outline flat, you eliminate all those extra decisions.

Always be researching, always be writing 

Always have several zero drafts in process. Each one might start simply as a note with a working title for something you’d like to publish or present in the future. Add subheadings as they occur to you. When you run across a relevant fact or quote, paste it under the appropriate subheading.

To get the most benefit from this process:

  • Allow plenty of time for adding notes to your zero draft.
  • Review your zero drafts weekly, revising them as you see fit.
  • Remember that zero drafts are not even “shitty first drafts.” They’re simply collections of notes without introductions, transitions, or conclusions. Zero drafts acquired their name because they come before any draft, even the first one.
  • Allow your evolving creations to slowly shape themselves. Some zero drafts naturally fall away and fade into your archives. Others will flourish and expand into projects that you commit to finish. In either case, your zero drafts will speak to you and tell you how they want to be developed. It’s as if your notes have a mind of their own.

Two benefits of zero drafts

This approach allows for incubation, as Tiago Forte explains:

Too often, we force ourselves to take an idea from blue sky ideation to practical execution in 48 hours flat. We call it a “rapid prototyping sprint,” and pride ourselves on how little time was spent, as if a new idea is something to be excreted and moved on from as quickly as possible.

But again, this is not how our mind works. I don’t need to tell you anecdotes about how the brain continues working on problems through the night, or as you do household chores, or take a shower, or do grocery shopping.

The post from which I took the above quote offers an example of incubation. Tiago describes it as the product of a “slow burn”—a process of collecting notes from more than 25 sources over the period of a year.

In addition, zero drafts help you separate the tasks of researching and writing. Every time I try to combine those tasks during one sitting, I end up frustrated and ready to quit. The mental effort required to switch tasks between gathering notes and crafting notes into a first draft is just too great.

Above all, approach zero drafts with a sense of play. See them as mini-experiments and works in progress. Create them to have fun and guide your learning—independent of any deadline. Allow the slow burn to sizzle and then explode into your next big creation.

For more on this topic, see:

Tiago Forte on Taking Notes for Creative Thinking

f1iNbCx4_400x400Tiago Forte is head of Forte Labs, a firm that trains knowledge workers to “use design and technology to improve their productivity.”

Your eyes might roll at the thought of more posts about productivity, but please stick around. Tiago is rethinking the whole field based on recent research in cognitive psychology and behavior change. His posts offer the most sophisticated treatment of workflows for idea entrepreneurs that I’ve ever seen.

Tiago’s posts are dense, substantial, and worth close reading. I’m still absorbing them, but I want to highlight some suggestions that excite me right now.

(Note that Tiago often refers to Evernote as a tool for personal information management and keeping a commonplace book. However, you can apply his core ideas with any tool, paper-based or digital.)

Take notes for creative thinking, not just for storage

It’s possible to use a commonplace book simply for storing mundane notes—receipts, recipes, tax records, contact information, to-do lists, and the like.

But where a commonplace book really shines, Tiago says, is setting up the conditions for creative thinking:

  • Promoting unusual associations. Creativity means connecting things that don’t seem to be connected. Collecting notes in a central place—a commonplace book—helps you make those connections by storing notes from many sources (online and offline) in many formats (digital and analog) on many topics. When you see those notes in one place, you might find that unexpected connections leap out by surprise. It’s almost as if your notes have mind of their own—an “emergent intelligence.”
  • Creating artifacts of ideas. “Essentially, it’s easier for us to interact with physical objects in the environment than with abstract ideas in our heads,” Tiago writes. “By externalizing your ideas in a variety of formats — text, sketches, photos, videos, documents, diagrams, webclips, hyperlinks — you create a system of distributed cognition across ‘artifacts’ that can be moved, edited, rearranged, and combined.”
  • Incubating ideas over long periods of time. No doubt you’ve had the experience of struggling with a problem until you reach a stalemate. Then, while taking a shower or doing chores, the heavens part and the solution suddenly appears. This demonstrates that your brain continues to work on problems during periods of unrelated activity. If you want to be more creative, allow plenty of time for such “incubation” periods. Also take notes to document the steps in your thinking.
  • Providing the raw material for unique interpretations. Your job is less likely to be outsourced if it involves creating a unique viewpoint or plan of action and convincing other people to adopt it. This is essentially what sales people, project planners, researchers, and managers do. All of them can benefit from deep reserves of supporting material—facts, anecdotes, quotations, examples, scientific studies, and the like. By capturing that supporting material in a commonplace book, your notes turn into “information weapons.”
  • Creating opportunities for resonance. How do you choose when to take a note? Tiago’s answer is to hit a midpoint between the extremes of capturing too much information and too little. That midpoint is resonance, as in “that fact, anecdote, or quote resonates with me.” Just remember that you might be surprised at what resonates. The value of the information that you capture might only become clear after an incubation period.

Don’t worry about creating the perfect system

“Misdirected optimization is the root of all evil.” Tiago writes.

This is especially true of elaborate systems for tagging, titling, grouping, or cross-referencing notes so that you can retrieve them with total accuracy. Such systems are time-consuming to use, hard to remember, and inevitably flawed. In addition, they actually make it harder for you to spot new connections between notes by locking you into your past thinking.

Instead, group notes in a shallow hierarchy of categories. Then use an app with good search features to find information in the future. With search capability, every word in every note in effect becomes a tag or title. Your notes organize themselves with minimal effort on your part.

Design your notes to document “Return On Attention” (ROA)

Your commonplace book gains value when it reveals how much attention you pay to individual notes. The notes that you retrieve and revise the most are potent clues to the topics, projects, and people that interest you most right now.

According to Tiago, such notes are high on return on attention (ROA): “In an economy where attention really is currency, the value of a note is based on how much attention has been invested in it.”

How do you measure ROA? By designing notes in layers that instantly reveal how much attention you’ve paid to them. Tiago’s system is simple and powerful:

  • Layer 1 is saving a note from any source.
  • Layer 2 is boldfacing the key points in a note.
  • Layer 3 is highlighting the key boldfaced passages.
  • Layer 4 is summarizing the note in his own words and stating how he will personally apply the key points.

Build a knowledge base that grows in value over time

Tiago describes his Evernote database in glowing terms. It is a “Cliff’s Notes” to everything valuable that he’s learned in that past, a “business asset,” a “knowledge base that appreciates over time,” a record of his best thinking, and “a personal Wikipedia of learnings I can selectively share to create value for others, while preserving the highest value (the connections to other notes) for myself.”

You can gain the same benefits by keeping a commonplace book in any digital or analog form that works for you.

For more details on all the above points, see Tiago’s blog, especially How to Use Evernote for Your Creative Workflow and Evernote and the Brain: Designing Creativity Workflows.