Why I write
Reading about how Leonardo da Vinci journaled so prolifically but only published a tiny fraction made me feel both sad and inspired. I was sad that his incredible observations and discoveries lay dormant in his private collection. For example, he was the first person to document all the kinds of teeth and their exact layout in the human head. If he had published that, he might have been considered the father of dentistry. He was also the first to pith a frog, exploring the details of how nerves control muscles. He could have started a whole movement around neuroscience. Instead it took hundreds of years for his observations to be rediscovered by others. I feel inspired because although there’s still a risk of good knowledge going unshared, publishing is so much easier now. I see the value people get from my writing instantly through their comments and likes; I can measure my impact so much more easily with click and read counts. But there’s much more to gain from writing than stats. In this post I explore the multitude of reasons that drive me to write from most important to least. I hope to inspire you to write, too!
Deepen and clarify thinking
Before I started writing, I didn’t realize just how powerful getting words on a page could be. In school, writing feels artificial. You read some literature or study a period in history, and then try to find cerebral, intellectual patterns that you can support with concrete evidence. You didn’t choose the book. You didn’t choose the period of history. It’s impersonal. When you write for yourself, it can be the opposite. It’s an opportunity to explore something deeply personal at a new level of depth and clarity. Your working memory is tiny. Through writing, you expand your virtual memory using this physical scratch space. You can jump back and forth between points without losing your place. You can proceed down a path without having to backtrack or repeat yourself. You can wait for some time to pass to distance yourself from yourself as a narrator and then objectively critique yourself. Depending on the emotional depth of the topic, writing can help you work through trauma or reinforce triumph.
So many of my interactions now begin with “I read your post on X” and quickly proceed to a deeper level. If I wrote more, it would happen even more. Sometimes, friends will even read a relevant post as soon as I recommend it. I hear them laughing and see them smiling. They tell me, “this part really resonated. This part was hilarious. I can’t believe it!”
When I do my New Year’s review, I try to remember all the peak experiences I can and dump them onto a page. It’s always easier and more vivid when I’ve written about it. Sometimes, it’s not even a clear memory, but instead an agglomeration of conversations on the same topic I’ve had with many people. The year I wrote about poop, it definitely came out quickly during review.
Research and fact checking
I’ll often write about a topic I think I know about. I’ll already have read a book or a few studies on the subject. When I sit down to write the post, I always end up learning more. I look up those studies I think I remember. Sometimes I remember their message wrong. Or I find a more recent study that debunks the one I’d read. In one case, I wrote about an allergy test called RAST that I’d gotten when I was eight. The test changed my life by revealing my milk allergy. Before, I’d sit at my desk in math class, clutching at my gut as it spasmed. After, I knew not to start the day with a bowl of cereal and milk, or come home from school to three scoops of ice cream.
When I read the Wikipedia article 20 years later, I learned that RAST has been replaced by a more accurate test under the category of “allergen-specific serum IgE”. If I hadn’t wanted to share this story with others, I never would have learned that there are new, better tests and may have gone on recommending the outdated RAST to others. And for me, perhaps I’ll learn more if I take the new one. Allergies change over time, after all.
Rarely, my friends will share how reading one of my posts inspired them to change how they live their lives. Sometimes, it’s surface-level, like trying backcountry backpacking for the first time and falling in love with it. Sometimes, it cuts to the core of who they are, like going to a 10 day silent meditation retreat and being inspired to begin a lifelong meditation practice. I myself was inspired to try these things through exposure from others. I wish for more of this life changing exposure. I hope my writing can amplify these sources of adventure and meaning in people’s lives.
After reading my post on Effective Altruism, Yaroslav Bulatov reached out and asked if I wanted to work with him on researching large language models, which I mentioned in the post. We ended up working together for more than a month. In that time he helped me build confidence in my ability to do large research projects, which I had struggled with since I left MIRI two years ago. That was a large and meaningful change in my life that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t written about it.
This is the one most people think of first when they think about publishing their writing. For me it’s the least important. Still, there’s value in it. Sometimes, before I meet someone, they’ve already read a few of my posts. The first time I remember this happening, it was someone I’d been introduced to as a potential cofounder. Soon after we started the call, he said “I read about your meditation retreat on your blog. It sounded intense! I might try it. Funny enough, the next recommended post was about how to poop better. Sounds like you have a wide range of interests!” At first I was embarrassed. Then I realized that seeing those two topics next to each other was a surprisingly accurate representation of who I am. It would’ve been hard for me to communicate that to him as quickly as he had seen it for himself. He also saw that diverse topics wouldn’t faze me, which led to a more open and far-reaching discussion.
Many people think about brand as something intentional. You think about your goals and you craft content in service of those goals. There’s another way: be yourself and see what image arises. Free yourself from your own expectations to discover who you are.
When I started writing, it was for me. I spent hours discussing the same topic with my friends. I thought I’d save myself effort by summarizing these conversations. It has become much more than saving effort. My writing has become a gift to myself that keeps surprising me. I bet I haven’t seen half of the good that will come of it. I hope my notes above have given some indication of what I mean.
While Leonardo da Vinci only published a small fraction of his work, he journaled prolifically. These journals provided the source material for what he did publish. Even in his time he was renowned as an artist, engineer, scientist, philosopher, architect, and more. Without writing and publishing, his life would not have had such richness and depth.
Let’s all learn from Leonardo. Journal. Publish! If you’re uncertain about how you’ll be perceived, start anonymously or on a mailing list with your closest friends and family. Set the bar low. You can always revise later. Lower the friction by using a platform that requires as little configuration as possible like Medium, reading.supply, or tinyletter. What do you want to learn more about? What topics do you evangelize to your friends? What topics are hard to think about and make you feel like you’re going in circles in your head? I can’t wait to read what you come up with!