Why You Should Write and What You Should Write About

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 Pro

Going forward, I’ll be doing a couple things to go from amateur to pro:

  1. Publish evergreen, long-form content on a consistent schedule (for the time being, 1 article per week)
  2. Learn the basics of SEO (search engine optimization) to drive organic–as opposed to word-of-mouth–traffic to my site.
  3. Write guest posts for other publications in order to drive traffic to my site.

 

How to Be a High-Functioning Depressive

depression

Expected reading time: 20 minutes. 

We don’t feel the same every day. Some days we’re happier, some days we’re bluer. At times, it can almost feel as if we’re two completely different people on two different days.

We also vary individually in how we feel over longer stretches of time. Some people have a higher set-point of positive emotion and are nearly always cheery. Others have a lower set-point and always seem a bit blue. Some people have an extremely low set-point of positive emotion. We call these people depressed.

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How to Solve Problems Using Mental Models

We no longer live in a world in which you go to college, get a degree, get a job at a corporation, and work your way up over the course of your “career.” For the majority of fields, the idea of a “career” is quickly becoming antiquated.

The technological landscape shifts and undulates rapidly, and it will only continue to do so faster. You may currently be on a peak of this landscape, but if you don’t know how to ride the waves, in ten years you’ll fall off the peak and be out of work.

So, how should you best prepare yourself for the job market of the future?

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A Brief History of Intelligence Research

The first post in a series on the psychology of intelligence.

Intro

Humans are intelligent in a variety of ways. We communicate abstract ideas through language, recognize patterns in data, and solve novel problems.

However, at its core, what is intelligence? Are there multiple intelligences? Are some people more intelligent than others? Does intelligence even matter in the real world? We’ll explore those questions in this series of posts on intelligence research.

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10 Ways The World Will Change in the Next 20 Years

10 predictions about the future of the Western World, specifically the U.S., along with time-frame (because it’s not a matter of “if” but of “when”), my degree of belief (DOB) in that statement, reasons why I believe it will be true (bullet points) and reasons I could get it wrong.

I don’t necessarily want these things to be true; I simply think they will be.

If you think the time-frames I’ve predicted are too soon, remember that close-up, an exponential growth curve looks linear.

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Why Intelligence Research Matters

I became interested in research on intelligence after listening to Sam Harris’s podcast with Charles Murray, the much-maligned coauthor of The Bell Curve. Before listening to the podcast, like many people, I thought IQ was pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo peddled by eugenicists and white supremacists.

But I was surprised to learn that intelligence research is one of the most well-established areas of research in all of psychology, and many of the statistical techniques fundamental to psychology, such as correlation and factor analysis, came out of early intelligence research. This led me down a rabbit hole, one which I’m still exploring and hope to share with you.

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Embrace Your Suffering and Make Art

Oftentimes when we feel a strong emotion—anger at a friend who stabbed us in the back, pain from the death of a family member, joy from doing well on a test we studied hard for—we let it overwhelm us. Our internal dialogue plays the same track on repeat: I’m so upset at him for cheating on me, how could he…I wonder what I’ll have for lunch today…Oh my god, he’s such as asshole for doing that. Though we can choose to change to another track, we often don’t. We choose to stew in our emotions.

This can be quite enjoyable if we are stewing in positive emotion, and it can cause a great deal of suffering if we are stewing in negative emotion.

However, I think with both types of emotions, it’s better to simply move on. Even if the emotion feels good, don’t ruminate on it. Stop the mental masturbation, which is what stewing in positive emotion is. Don’t get attached to it. Merely observe it and let it pass. In the long run being too attached to fleeting emotions is going to cause you more suffering than joy (a very Buddhist/Stoic principle.)

Why?

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Idea Dump: How Life Began, Groups Formed and Morality Developed

This is an idea dump, a place where you can peek into my mind and toy with the half-baked ideas I’ve been playing with lately. It’s messy, purposely so. 

What I’ve written below is a rough sketch composed of broad theoretical brushstrokes–individual and group selection, the development of norms in order to regulate behavior, signaling, etc.–so the fine detail is lacking. This is intentional. That said, I provide concrete examples which I hope will help you understand what I’m getting at.

I focused on a few limited levels of explanation: that of the individual, the group, and culture. After fleshing these levels of explanation out–which people have been working on for millennia, so it might take a while–the next step is to zoom in and look at how life originally began at the levels of physics and chemistry. An important first step in this direction is explaining the development of self-replicating and error-correcting individuals, as well as the development of metabolism. These evolutionary innovations are intimately tied to the ability to digitally code information via structures such as DNA. All of this is key to explaining how we went from an amorphous prebiotic soup 3.7 billion years ago to the development of roses and humans who can compose poems about said roses. (I point this out because the development of early forms of life is in many ways analogous to the development of more complex forms of life and culture.)

The question of how we went from nothingness and Chaos to complexity and Order fascinates me, and perhaps that fascination might rub off on you too.

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What to Do With Your Twenties

Your twenties are some of the most formative years of your life. You’re unshackled from the chains of adolescence and (most likely) are done with college. How should you make use of this decade?

This is a question I’m personally trying to answer. Life is a game, in a sense, and I’m searching for the principles—that is, the rules of thumb—that make the game as fun and fulfilling as possible. Many of these principles hold true throughout all of life. However, as I’ll get into, I believe that your twenties are a bit different.

(Disclaimer: One might argue that given my age, I have no place giving life advice. This objection is warranted. I’m going to look back in 10 years having learned a lot and I probably won’t agree with some of the things I’ve said here. So, all this advice is provisional and should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, age doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom (if it did, all our parents would be happy and fulfilled) and after a certain point wisdom isn’t necessarily predicated on age, so make of this what you will.)

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