Doing things on purpose


[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

Veering off the list again today. This is a quick post and I’m not trying to make a very coherent point, just chuck out some thoughts. I read two things this morning that were about, more or less, ‘doing things’, and now I want to talk about that.

The first was Venkatesh Rao’s latest post on his Art of Gig newsletter, talking about bad questions newbies waste time on to put off actually having to act:

Here are some examples of bad questions.

LLC or S-corp? (or equivalent question in other countries). The right answer is “probably LLC,” but if you don’t trust me, sure, go with S-corp. It’s not too costly to fix this if you get this wrong.

Blogging to attract inbound leads, or proactive email pitches? The obvious answer is the right one: try both, see what works, double down. Cheap effort.

Targeted, researched pitches versus spray-and-pray? Targeted, obviously. But sure, waste your time on spray-and-pray for a while. Maybe you’re one of the exceptions.

These all have similar ‘answers’: make a cursory stab at researching the problem to rule out obvious dumb ideas, then try one of the remaining options and see what happens. Then you’ll have more information:

They’re bad questions because you’re trying to fix an information deficit (which calls for trial and error) by over-analyzing information you do have.

The second was T. Greer at The Scholar’s Stage, talking about cultures that build:

The Americans of 1918 had carved towns, cities, and states out of the wilderness, and had practical experience building the school boards, sheriff departments, and the county, city, and state governments needed to manage them. Also within the realm of lived experience was the expansion of small towns into (unprecedentedly large) metropolises and the invention of the America’s first multi-national conglomerates. The progressive movement had spent the last three decades experimenting with new forms of government and administration at first the state and then the federal level, while American civic society saw a similar explosion in new social organizations. These include some famous names: the NRA, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the American Bar Association, the Sierra Club, 4-H, the VFW, Big Brothers, the NAACP, the Boys Scouts, the PTA, the United Way, the American Legion, and the ACLU. [3] To a large extent we wander in the ruins of the world this generation built.

Greer argues that this kind of local civic action provides an education in doing things on purpose that then bubbles up to the larger scale:

I understand that the self-organizing neighborhood committee that removes a tree that blocks their street does not go on to build the Empire State Building. My argument is slightly different. To consistently create brilliant poets, you need a society awash in mediocre, even tawdry poetry. Brilliant minds will find their way towards poem writing when poem writing and poem reading is the thing that people do.

Now, I’m some nerd who likes to read a lot of text on the internet. I’m not actually very good at doing things. But I’ve slowly been pushing up my ability to just try things quickly, and that’s going well for me. I guess this notebook blog month thing is one example. I think I want some kind of extra writing discipline on the days-to-weeks level, and this is an easy experiment, so I might as well just try it and see what happens. I don’t think it quite fits what I want, but I’ve learned a whole lot more from doing it than I would have done by abstractly thinking about what I might want. Next month I can do something different.

I got a big one-time boost in my ability to do things on purpose from a single week-long physics workshop I went to a few years ago. It took me from ‘vaguely trying to keep learning physics in my spare time’ to ‘actually focussing on a topic and pushing towards doing serious work outside of academia’. Part of that was findng a community of people with similar interests. Part of it was that the workshop was built from the ground up to encourage agency, in a way that matches Greer’s start-from-everyday-decisions pattern. We were in a beautiful mountain cabin in the middle of nowhere in the Austrian Alps (if you were wondering what the picture is about this time, that’s my attempt at drawing the side of the cabin). So all cooking and cleaning had to be done by us. There was a rota for meals, but everything else was on a whoever-notices-it-fixes-it basis, with no distinction between the organisers and the rest of us. If the bin is overflowing or you need more firewood from the barn, sort it out yourself.

This low-level agency flowed up into higher-level decisions about the workshop. Everyone had to give a talk, and anyone could suggest discussion sessions for the afternoons based on questions that came up. Everybody took turns at moderating discussions and taking notes. If somebody had an idea for a good topic while putting the plates away, they could just gather some interested people and try it.

It also flowed out beyond the workshop, into the small society that runs it. I ended up joining this and it works the same way: anybody can suggest an event, get together some organisers and start running it. Or start some other new initiative, like a newsletter. People are already used to making decisions themselves from the workshop, so new members actually do this. We take turns to go on the board that ‘runs the society’ each year, but this is really just dealing with any admin that comes up and organising a general meeting once a year. Everything else seems to… just happen.

There are obvious downsides to this setup as well. It’s hard to scale; if you’re not fussy enough about entry you get taken over by cranks; if you’re too fussy about entry you turn into an old boys’ club that won’t listen to anybody with slightly different ideas. But it’s definitely good at solving the problem of getting people to do interesting stuff on purpose.

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