I posted my first essay on this blog 1 year ago. Since then, I’ve written 35 posts of varying quality, touching upon many subjects: neuroscience, philosophy of mind, evolutionary biology, mental health and psychology, physics, education, and more.
You may be asking yourself (I know I am): Why? What’s the point of all this writing?
What Are First Principles?
Before we can answer why I write First Principles, we must first define the term “first principles.”
First Principles—the name of the blog, if you haven’t caught on yet—is named after an idea in physics called “first principles thinking” or “reasoning from first principles.” Most people typically reason from analogy: Problem A is similar to Problem B, so Solution B will probably be like Solution A. Conversely, first principles thinking means stripping away all assumptions until you’re at fundamental axioms (e.g. the laws of thermodynamics) and then trying to solve a problem. Elon Musk sums it up well here:
I named the blog First Principles because I believe it encapsulates my approach to problem-solving and life in general: question all assumptions and start from the ground up. In philosophy, for example, this approach has led me to counter-intuitive conclusions like consciousness doesn’t exist/isn’t a special property or truth doesn’t exist in an objective sense; in evolutionary theory, it’s led me to question the mechanisms behind natural selection and see everything in terms of information.
The Past Purposes of First Principles
The purpose of this blog has changed over time. In retrospect, I believe its main functions have been:
- a) improving my writing ability
- b) refining my beliefs and improving my thinking (via first principles)
- c) giving me a place to express myself creatively
In other words, this past year, with few exceptions, I wrote for myself. I was the audience. I wrote about what interested me. Sure, sometimes I’d share a post and I’d get praise from others, but this wasn’t my intent: I was simply throwing shit at the wall and some of it just happened to stick.
The Future of First Principles
I’m no longer going to just throw shit at the wall (or use fecal metaphors.) Rather than write for myself, I’m going to write with an audience in mind. This means constantly asking myself who my audience is, what they find interesting, and what value they get out of my writing.
However, this doesn’t mean I’m writing for everyone. No, I actually don’t want everyone to enjoy my writing. Just as we don’t get along with everyone, not everyone is going to like what I write about or how I do it. I want a good portion of people to come to my site and never visit it again. To paraphrase Ryan Holiday in Perennial Seller, great art divides the audience.
That said, I don’t want to alienate my whole entire audience (which happens when I write about information theory or squirrel alarm-calling behavior, for example). Most people don’t care about these topics. Yes, there’s an audience for them but it’s composed solely of academics who expect a much more technical treatment of these issues (and therefore aren’t coming to my site to learn about them).
People won’t read you’re writing if you don’t show them how it’s relevant. You writing could drastically improve their life, but if you don’t grab their attention and make it relevant, they aren’t going to read it.
What’s the Value Proposition?
To make your writing relevant, you need to have a clear value proposition: what are you writing about and what your audience will get out of it. This could range from pure entertainment–your audience gets some laughs and positive emotion–to mere statistics–you help your audience make better-informed decisions.
Here’s the crux of the issue: I’m not sure who my audience is or what my value proposition is.
At times I often feel like what I write about is too esoteric. I ask myself, what sort of value do other people get from reading this? Do I have anything of value to say? This is especially true of philosophy, which often just feels like mental masturbation. Sure, maybe consciousness isn’t real, but who cares?
At other times, I feel like I have stuff to say, but it’s already been said by others. Self-improvement and productivity tips come to mind. Why write about these things when I could direct people to great resources that already exist? There are plenty of really shitty blogs out there that just rehash things others have said; we don’t need one more.
To combat this, I’ve had to revise my definition of value. Previously my definition was pragmatic and utilitarian: value is something that directly improves your quality of life. For example, productivity tips improve people’s productivity. Under this definition, if I wanted to write something people would find valuable, it would have to improve their life directly and be concrete advice.
But then I looked at all the media I consumed and realized that most of what I read/listen to/watch doesn’t offer any real value, per se. It usually just entertains or inspires me; at best, it helps me learn new things and build mental models. Yet I consume this media anyway.
The bar is pretty low. Sure, I’m still trying to make what I write relevant to my audience, but it need not be super actionable or direct.
Going forward, I’ll be doing a couple things to go from amateur to pro:
- Publish evergreen, long-form content on a consistent schedule (for the time being, 1 article per week)
- Learn the basics of SEO (search engine optimization) to drive organic–as opposed to word-of-mouth–traffic to my site.
- Write guest posts for other publications in order to drive traffic to my site.