Give Your Art the A, But Don’t Forget the I

With OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT making not just a splash but a tidal wave in the news in recent months, people have fallen into a pattern as old as humans themselves: proclaiming the death of something tried and true at the expense of a new, utopian future. In this case, writing is the victim, and AI will be the murderer — or so the story goes.

“I just tried an AI-powered writing app, and I am so so so hilariously out of a job,” Nat Eliason says, talking about Lex, an editing tool infused with OpenAI’s GPT-spirit. The use cases are pretty cool: You can ask it to complete a paragraph for you when you run out of steam, generate headline ideas on command, or provide counterarguments to your line of reasoning.

What tools like Lex hint at is that, rather than replace writers altogether, AI will be the their arm extension. Think Thanos’ glove, loaded with an increasing number of infinity stones as AI’s capabilities expand. Lazy writers will use AI to produce a thousand times more drivel than is already out there, and disciplined writers will stand out even more in a sea of mediocrity by putting their creativity on steroids…I mean, AI.

So far, however, AI can’t yet mash its powers together into a creative, metaphor-laden tour de force that will leave you inspired and enlightened. That still is — and always will be — the writer’s job. So no need for Nat to switch careers just yet. As of today, AI writing is still pretty stiff. Everything you ask it to do comes out like a Wikipedia page, and, for most fact-oriented queries, that’s fine.

But for the kind of writing that not just infuses but creates a character like Yoda, AI will have to do a lot more studying. It’s good at rehashing ideas but not expanding on them. In the case of pretending to be Yoda, ChatGPT returned the following quote and advice, for example: “‘Size matters not.’ Don’t let your limitations, whether physical or mental, hold you back. Believe in yourself and your abilities, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.” That’s a good tip and, unlike a lot of writing, grammatically correct, but it’s also nothing seasoned readers haven’t heard a million times before.

Of course, sooner or later, AI will get there. It’ll sound just like an Italian notary’s son born in 1452 who became a famous painter, or the guy writing about that painter 565 years later, or the main actor in that guy’s daughter’s theater play — and yet, none of it will be real. That’s the one thing AI will never be able to do: Tell you a story won from experience. And while in many cases, that won’t matter, there will be purists, nostalgics, and literature fanatics who, at least on occasion, will insist their words come from a human brain, not a synthetic one.

What happens as the world moves to electric cars? Vintage vehicles with naturally aspirated engines become more valuable. Why do people pay more for wine treaded with human feet, unique art painted by hand, and limited edition leather bags assembled manually? Because they value the sacrifice of human time and effort that went into it.

In writing, many people choose to not make that sacrifice even today, or at least short-shifting it. Why come up with your own allegory if you can copy someone else’s? Why reword if you can just quote? Why spend one year on a book if you can hack one together in a month? The answer is a matter of principle, but it also shows on bestseller lists around the world: Because people care how much you care — and while AI can become another building block in your masterpiece, another way of showing you care, it could also be your greatest excuse not to — and thus your demise.

The better AI gets, the more we will learn who really cares about writing. Who always did it for the joy of it, and who used it as a means to an end? Who will leverage AI to reinvent themselves, and who will use it to make a million cheap copies? Who will become a vintage classic, and who will get washed away by a tsunami of text? AI will give us the answers, not through a chat interface but through its growing skills and availability, but none of them will mean you’re out of a job — unless you want to be, and in that case, perhaps your art was already about the A, not the I.

Science-Factum

My dad got a levitating lightbulb for Christmas. Hovering inside a magnetic field above a wooden base, the lamp slowly spins, suspended in midair, fully lit, as if plugged into a socket. Everyone says the same thing when they first see it: “WOW!”

Less than 30 years ago, this was the kind of accessory you might have spotted in the background in a sci-fi movie. I imagine if you had showed this to someone in the 1950s, there’s a reasonable chance they might have passed out or thought you had some kind of telepathic powers. Yet here we are, able to casually buy a floating lightbulb for less than a hundred bucks on Amazon.

On a day-to-day basis, technology always seems to progress slowly. The new iPhone is only slightly better than the last one. The next car looks almost like the last. On a life-to-life basis, however, technological progress is incomprehensibly fast. Science-fiction becomes science-factum faster than we can digest it.

My grandparents both learned stenography. You might know it as shorthand. In essence, they had to learn another language, complete with its own alphabet and symbols, to be able to write down everything someone says in real-time. “But that’s all gone,” my grandma said. There’s no need for it anymore.

Nowadays, you can record any conversation on your phone. If you upload it to Youtube, they’ll even automatically generate a transcript for you. No note-taking needed. No typing. No stenography. From someone’s mouth to readable text in a matter of minutes — and that’s just one of thousands inventions my grandparents have witnessed in their lifetime.

My grandparents do fairly well with new technology. My grandma now sends voice messages. My grandpa uses Word to write his newspaper articles. But it’s easy to see — and, honestly, totally understandable — that some things have passed right by them. Like floating lightbulbs, perhaps.

Look around your living room. Think about the history of some of the items you now take for granted. Think about what it took to turn them from science-fiction into science-fact. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and it’s okay if, sometimes, the height makes us feel dizzy.

A Different Kind of Luck

In Bullet Train, Brad Pitt plays a rather unlucky assassin. From freak accidents spoiling his jobs to getting chased, stabbed, and shot for all the wrong reasons, code name “Ladybug” seems to stumble from one mess into the next.

When he tries to explain the irony of being named after a supposedly lucky animal to an old man on his Shinkansen train, the elder offers a different perspective: “Do you know what they call a ladybug in Japan? ‘Tentoumushi.’ As a boy, I was told there is a spot on its back for each of the seven sorrows of the world.”

The Japanese kanji for “tentou” spell “heaven path.” It is an allusion to the path traveled by the gods — fate. “You see,” the old man continues, “tentoumushi is not lucky. It holds all the bad luck so that others may live in peace.”

What if your good luck is just bad luck avoided? What if your bad luck is a service to someone else? Perhaps it’s all destined to unfold exactly as it does. That’s the lesson Ladybug learns from the stranger on the train: “Maybe it is just about how we frame it. Like, how do you know it’s a bad thing?”

If you think you’re having bad luck, give it a day, a month, or a year. What seems like a tragedy at one point might prove to be a blessing at another. What feels like being a beetle stuck on its back might prove to be a disaster averted.

As for Ladybug, chaos may ensue wherever he goes, but in the end, he usually comes out unscathed. “Maybe there’s no bad luck or good luck,” he eventually concludes. “Maybe we’re all just agents of fate.”

In Praise of Praise

When I talked to my friend Brian about 2-Minute Pep Talks, one theme that kept coming up was knowing your value and standing up for it. Brian mentioned that the Irish have a saying for taking someone down a peg when they’re trying to get credit for something, a saying often used in a derogatory way. In Germany, we have a similar expression: “No criticism is praise enough.”

If you wandered the hallways of nearly any company, however, within a single day, you would see that, clearly, a lack of admonition does not equal inspiration. Long faces in search of a compliment, starved of appreciation for months at a time, do not make for a workforce that likes to come in again on Monday.

Germans often overthink praise. They believe it must be substantial and, therefore, about something substantial. Better to only hand it out once a year, ideally along with a raise. No! The contents of your compliment almost don’t matter. If you tell me I’m wearing nice shoes, that might make my day — and while that has nothing to do with my performance at all, it might inspire me to perform well regardless.

Kindness is the lubricant that makes societal interactions run smoothly. Praise does the same for business. When people run on small doses of positive feedback, they are more inclined to try harder, more likely to tackle challenges with vigor, and more willing to go out of their way to help one another.

Be generous with your praise, and don’t stay silent when you think someone did something good. You never know what your compliment might inspire someone else to do, and you’ll gladly receive the return karma when you next need to hear something better than “no criticism is praise enough.”

The Living Room Inside Your Mind

There’s a great interview with Ryan Leslie that I keep coming back to. The only problem? The interviewer. Ryan wants to talk about technology, about business, and about how young people can do something good with their lives. In other words, Ryan wants to talk about the future.

Host Charlamagne, meanwhile, keeps prodding him about the past. Why did he disappear from the music industry? How does he feel about a love triangle that ended years ago? What exactly “threw him off his game?” To Ryan’s credit, he stays cool as a cucumber. He answers all questions but keeps returning to the topics that matter, like the very thing he is doing: defending his mental space.

When asked whether he feels happy that his former girlfriend broke up with the man she left him for — P. Diddy — Ryan says: “There’s always a cost of everything. There’s a cost of time. There’s a cost of space. If you have a house, and you got a nice living room, and you decide, ‘Hey, I want to put this massive sculpture in the middle,’ there’s a cost of that space.”

“I think of my mind in the same way. I don’t want to put some massive sculpture of pettiness or anything in there. I want to always make sure that I have as much mental space to be a visionary as possible.”

When you’re trying to do something important — and you’re always trying to do something important — you can’t afford to clog your mental attic. You need open space up there. Room to think. Whatever — or whoever — wants to get you to erect a massive sculpture of anything in the middle, they’re the one trying to throw you off your game.

Protect your mental space. Keep your inner living room clean, and you’ll always have headway to deal with the stretch of road that’s most important: the one that lies ahead, not behind.

How Clean Is Your Vest?

Seven years ago, I won a lifetime account for an online course platform. I was extremely happy to use it to sell my writing course, and I have recommended it countless times over the years. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m one of their best “salespeople.”

Some weeks ago, as part of a platform upgrade, my account stopped working. I went back and forth with customer support for a while, until, eventually, someone informed me in their best “corporate speak” that I would soon have to pay like everyone else.

I spent the next few days being angry. “Lifetime, pah! Seven years, and they’re already breaking their promise! I will never recommend this place again! I should pull all my content! What a morally bankrupt company!” The situation still isn’t resolved, and my relationship with the platform has probably changed forever, but a few days into the dilemma, I asked myself: “Am I doing the same thing somewhere?”

As of right now, I haven’t — but one day, I might. On Four Minute Books, we, too, offer a lifetime membership, and I have no idea whether that’ll last forever. What happens if I have to shut down one day? Or sell the company? Those people might also end up in front of a broken promise, and in that case, I’d be the one doing the breaking.

It’s easy to get outraged about something when your vest is squeaky clean, but the truth is we often choose outrage regardless of how our outfit looks. Once we regain our composure, at least enough to straighten our jacket in front of the mirror, we might spot a stain that looks oddly similar, and if we do, we get to offer ourselves several new options, such as forgiveness, compromise, and a more rational way of looking at the situation.

The next time you find yourself pointing at someone’s dirty clothes, take a second to check: How clean is your vest? You might not like what you find, but you may find a way forward you like better because of it.

Say No Before You’re Ready

The word “no” has many benefits: More time, more energy, more attention. Less misery and better focus. It also compounds over time. The more nos we accumulate, the more space for randomness we create — and it’s often in that randomness that we find happiness.

However, since we don’t know what we’ll find in our pockets of freedom, there’s no guaranteed replacement for each thing we say no to, and if there was, well, then we wouldn’t really be saying no, would we? We’d just say yes to something else.

Saying no before you’re ready can be scary. It’s hard to turn down something with no backup plan. Ask anyone who’s ever quit their job without their next gig lined up. Even if it turned out fine, in the moment, it likely felt terrifying. That terror hints at something else we gain from saying no: courage. There is no courage without fear, and where there’s fear, usually, some form of courage is required.

Sometimes, one of the many platforms and software tools I use makes an unacceptable change. Do they ever happen at a convenient time? Rarely. But do I say, “No. This is not okay. I am going to leave and find another solution,” regardless? Absolutely.

Say no before you’re ready. You’re more creative, adaptable, and resilient than you think. Every now and then, it’s nice to use this two-letter word and find out just how much.

The Missing Step in Giving Advice

“Don’t monetize with ads,” he said. “Everybody hates ads. Do affiliate marketing instead! Recommend useful products to your audience, and you’ll do just fine.”

The blogger whose advice I was reading ran a very successful blog. It looked super clean. It got hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. And it made multiple five figures every month.

Running a similar, though not as successful website, I thought I might learn a thing or two, but for some reason, I couldn’t wrap my head around the advice. “I tried all this. So why isn’t it working?”

After some reflection, I realized: The guy missed a step in handing out recommendations. He forgot to take off his glasses, and, as a result, it was your typical, one-size-fits-all kind of advice — and for me, despite running a similar business, it already didn’t fit.

As it happens, he mostly covered finance, an industry in which affiliate payouts are extremely high. Finance companies pay a lot of money for referrals because if even just one out of 1,000 leads invests $10,000 into their product or service, that’s still a great deal for them. Meanwhile, in terms of eroding trust, ads might do more damage on a finance website than any other.

My site, on the other hand, offers free book summaries. We get traffic from all over the world, but a lot of people are students, young professionals, and from lower-income countries. For the first four years or so, we did have affiliate links on every page — yet we only made around $200 per month from hundreds of thousands of visitors. At the same time, ever since we introduced them, ads have done great!

If you have a big audience that doesn’t like to spend money, ads allow you to monetize each visitor, even if only few click the ads. Affiliate links only work when you make a sale, and if not enough people are willing to buy, you can plaster as many links on your site as you want — you won’t make a dime.

Most people give advice in two steps:

  1. “These are the steps I took, and they worked for me.”
  2. “You should take these same steps.”

This framework glosses over the fact that just one little variable change might render the whole template moot. What these people are missing is a crucial second step. Here’s how we should actually give advice:

  1. “These are the steps I took, and they worked for me.”
  2. “This is the situation I was in before I took those steps, and these are some of the reasons why I think those steps worked for me at that time.”
  3. “If you’re in the same situation I was in and want the same outcome, you should try to take these same steps.”

What works for a finance website will be very different from what works for a book summary blog. What works in 2009 is unlikely to work in 2018. And what works for a white woman in her 30s might not be of use to a Black man of 54.

It’s great to share your wisdom. You’ve worked hard for it, and a lot of us will benefit. Just try to give us the full picture instead of a flattened, 2D-version of your story. It’s not just more fun; it’ll also be more helpful — and, graciously, if affiliate marketing doesn’t work for us, it gives us permission to turn on the ads.

Fake It Till You Get Caught

Sometime this year, I set up an email referral program on Four Minute Books. Every subscriber gets a unique referral link which they can use to invite friends and family, in exchange for which they’ll receive a bunch of rewards.

The more people you refer, the better rewards you’ll get. In this case, the ladder begins with a $10 reading guide for four referrals and ends with a full-on lifetime membership worth $80 for 44 successful invitations.

I think it’s a good deal. Our products aren’t that expensive to begin with, but if you can’t afford them, now, you have an alternative path to attain them, not for free but through a different kind of work.

The day I first announced the program, I received a whole bunch of referrals, and the first set of rewards went out. Unfortunately, as soon as I looked at my dashboard, I realized something was off. “Why are all these email addresses weird strings of letters and numbers? Why do none of them sound like names?”

Naturally, within about ten minutes, the first person had figured out they could send a bunch of fake email addresses my way and cash in their reward. As it should, however, that cheat code only worked once — and not for long.

I banned that person and removed them from all lists, including their fake referrals. I put manual approval checks in place for every reward before it goes out. And now, before anyone gets anything, I take a look at all the data.

Sadly, many people still try to cheat. They don’t know they’re not the first, and so instead of doing it the right way, they run right into the embarrassment getting caught red-handed. Today, someone was even so brazen as to ask, “Hey, where’s my reward?” knowing full well they had made zero real referrals.

Fake it till you make it” only works in a limited number of situations. Sometimes, a little boost of confidence can give you the courage you need to level up your game. Usually, however, it is much better to “practice until you make it.” If you know you’ve earned the right to be on a big stage, you’re less likely to implode in public.

Most of the time, faking it is something we can only do until we get caught, and that’s not a good thing. Stay honest. Put in the work. Sooner or later, you’ll get what you deserve.

Forced Focus

Stripe is one of history’s greatest startup success stories. Launched in 2010 by two brothers, the payment processor became a unicorn in just four years, with its valuation peaking at $95 billion in 2021. It also solves just one problem: It allows businesses to accept money online.

At its core, Stripe is a few lines of code, but it’s code anyone can use to get paid from a customer, for anything whatsoever, right on their own website. Stripe has solved this same problem billions of times for millions of people, and that’s why, on top of growing very big very fast, it is — and that’s unusual for startups — also profitable to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yesterday, I talked to a group of fellow writers. I asked if anyone else struggled in sticking to their plans. Most of them confirmed. “Shiny object syndrome is real,” my friend Ayo said. Jon Brosio related Ship 30 for 30, a 30-day writing challenge that has produced millions in revenue: “They just do the same thing, over and over and over again. ‘Write one post a day for 30 days.’ That’s it. They get you from zero to writing every day for 30 days. Cohort after cohort after cohort. And that’s why it works.”

In theory, I understand that focus works. I’ve understood it since 2015. In practice, like most people, I struggle with it. For almost eight years, I’ve been writing almost every day, but in hopping from platform to platform, I’ve wasted a lot of my audience-building potential. The same with Four Minute Books vs. my other income streams. The thing that I paid the least attention to is the also the one thing that consistently made money.

As I was wondering about what Ayo and Jon had said, about the difference between startups and creators that lets one party focus more easily than the other, I came up with a theory: In growing their teams from one to ten to hundreds, eventually thousands of people, startups must constantly justify their existence to new employees. Every time you hire someone, you have to explain your mission to them — and you better sound convincing. Therefore, each hire is a chance to zone in on that vision. To get clear on it and remember: “Oh, yeah, this is what we’re trying to do.”

Of course, the more employees you have, the more structures you must create to hold everyone accountable to that same mission on an everyday basis as well. But for you as the founder, a constant barrage of new employees and customers will make sure you keep solving that same problem, because that’s what everyone wants you to do.

In the case of Ship 30 for 30, it’s the cohort-based system that does the same thing, Jon pointed out. When you’ve got a group of people chomping at the bit to start writing as soon as you’ve closed the door behind the last one, there’s not a lot of time to think, to brainstorm, to get lost in shiny object syndrome. “Help us write! Here we are!” Nothing keeps your attention in the present like clamoring customers.

Meanwhile, a writer, or any solo creator, really, will forever remain at the whim of their own brain, including its countless biases and fallacies. If you’re selling books on Amazon, you’ll likely never even talk to your customer, let alone do you have any employees. It’s a free-for-all up there, and your mind is more than happy to send you in all kinds of creatively exciting but economically unfruitful directions — and that is our challenge.

Startups have problems too, of course. They might hire too much or too little, fail to get funding or run out of cash, or, like the individual creator, get distracted and lose their customers along with their focus on the problem they initially so brilliantly solved.

But there is something about this forced focus that comes with external accountability that, to me, as someone who’s only ever suffered from distraction, sounds liberating, almost soothing. And I now realize my Trello board with milestones won’t cut it. Paper plans are cheap. My mind has tossed thousands of those out the window.

I don’t yet know what I’ll do about this, but I know it’s worth thinking about. Where are you hurting your progress on your main goal by dedicating too much time and energy to secondary, not-really-necessary endeavors? Where can you do less instead of more? And how can you build some forced focus around the big mission once you’ve settled on it?

I’m not sure it’s as big a problem as online payments, but these questions pose a challenge for many of us. Who knows? If you can solve them for people again and again, perhaps you’ll build the next unicorn — but of course, that’ll require some serious focus.