Pyramidal ideas; ASSes and PEONs, book bans; AI crushes everything: Newsletter 21 February 2024

Newsletter week 32. How to think about ideas, book bans, AI killing everything, plus three people to follow and three books to read.

Full-stack idea development: don’t be an ASS or a PEON

Authors have ideas. Authors have expertise. But unless those ideas and expertise reinforce each other properly, you can’t build a good book on them — and just as important, you can’t promote them.

Think of your idea as a pyramid.

At the top of the idea pyramid is the idea written as a single short sentence. It should be novel, differentiated, timely, and relevant to your audience. Here are some examples:

  • Talk Triggers (by Jay Baer): Deliberately build startling elements into your business that are easy to talk about.
  • Writing Without Bullshit (by me): When writing, you should treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
  • Atomic Habits (by James Clear): Changing your habits is powerful, but accomplishing those changes takes a systematic approach.

Just below the tip of the pyramid is some sort of structure that lets you see the main elements of the idea. For example, in Atomic Habits, the structure is as follows:

To create a good habit:

  1. Identify the cue: make it obvious.
  2. Tap into the craving: make it attractive.
  3. Define the response: make it easy.
  4. Leverage the reward: make it satisfying.

(He has similar rules for breaking a bad habit, which is another dimension of the structure.)

What’s below that? A whole lot of detail. Stories, proof points, statistics, examples, strategies, rubrics, and so on.

That detail is important. In fact, that detail is the everyday work of the person building expertise. Every time you work in your field, you learn something new. That’s thousands of points of learning. It’s why experienced people are so valuable: no matter what is happening, they’ve probably seen and addressed something similar before, so they know what works and how to think about it.

Now let’s talk about two kinds of failures of people working on and spreading ideas.

The first failure is the person who jumps immediately to the big, powerful, sexy idea. You know, like “AI will destroy all of our jobs.” Or “Media is doomed.” Or “The solution to climate change is to abolish cars.” It is easy to make these huge pronouncements, and it attracts attention. But if you have not done the research to build a solid and credible framework of facts and analysis, you are just trafficking in attention and shock value. You’re certainly not ready to write a book, since your book would just be a screed.

Call this first type of failure the attention-seeking showoff (ASS, for short).

The second failure is the person who works diligently and accumulates knowledge, but fails to find a pattern in the knowledge that leads to a big idea. This person may be an incredible expert. If they know about, say, web design, you can come to them with any web design question and they’ll have an answer: “This is how you deal with that.” But in the absence of any overarching principles that drive that accumulation of knowledge, they are just an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are not known for their ability to inspire or share insight. This type of expert may be able to write a long, poorly organized book, but no one will want to read it.

Call this second type of failure the plodding, expert, omniscient nobody (PEON, for short).

Neither the ASS nor the PEON can succeed in the marketplace of ideas. The ASS will soon be revealed as a fraud, and the PEON will be never be noticed at all.

To build an idea that captures the imagination, you need both the top and the bottom of the pyramid. You need the single shining insight, the supporting structure, and the detail.

This tells you what you must do if you aspire to inspire.

First, every day, you must learn. You must accumulate knowledge. You must broaden your expertise. In the case of Atomic Habits, that knowledge includes how to start a new habit, how to manipulate your environment, how to avoid procrastination, how to connect your habit with your family, how to build in accountability, and a hundred other details. You can bet that James Clear spent years accumulating these details to apply his insights in different situations.

Details alone are insufficient. You must go beyond the work of the PEON to think, every day, how does this fuel a big idea?

What is the real, crystalline insight here?

If you have a provisional version of that insight, how must you adjust it based on what you’ve seen?

Is there a way to describe it that resonates better?

Is there a structure to it? Is it better to talk in terms of stages, elements, or dimensions?

Unlike the ASS, you don’t just traffic in sexy ideas — you develop them. You examine evidence for and against them. You connect them to experience.

The true author and, dare I say, thought leader is constantly accumulating knowledge and constantly refining their idea. And it is that communication between the top and bottom of the pyramid that makes you into a leader. You know how to share what you know, plus, you’re capable of answering any question about the details, because of your experience.

If you’re interested in powerful ideas, you must work at both the top and bottom of the pyramid.

That won’t just make you successful. It will make you powerful and fulfilled. You won’t be a pompous ASS or a worn-out PEON. You’ll be solving problems and working on new ideas every day. To me, that seems like a good career and a good life. What do you think?

News for authors and others who think

In the provocatively titled Wall Street Journal article “The End of the Web as We Know It,” Christopher Mims analyzes the AI threat to search engines and media (gift link). If you’re using search tools like perplexity.ai, you certainly are getting more efficient answers — but they’re not always right.

A slew of tech companies including Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Meta, OpenAI, and X have agreed to work together to manage risks from deceptive AI in the 2024 presidential election. My take: it’s very unlikely that a group this unwieldy will be able to solve a problem this big in a timeframe this short.

Ron DeSantis says (free link) the book banning in Florida has gone off the rails, and he has “directed the Department of Education to take the appropriate action to prohibit bad actors in school leadership positions from intentionally depriving students of an education by politicizing the book review process.” Translation: ban books my way, not that way. That’s the problem with all book banning: deciding who gets to decide is inherently political.

Three people to follow

Debbie Weil, who every day reveals that us “mature” people still make huge and innovative contributions to the world.

Martin Lindstrom, nomadic influencer at the bleeding edge of marketing.

Sean Corcoran, ad wizard leading the US piece of challenger agency Mediahub Worldwide.

Three books to read

Burn Book: A Tech Love Story by Kara Swisher (Simon & Shuster, 2024). Judging from the excerpt in New York Magazine, this is going to be a hell of a read from a reporter who had a ringside seat for the drama of technology murdering media over the last 20 years.

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin (Back Bay Books, 2018). Pretty damn prescient description of the bad behavior of tech CEOs.

Magazine by Jeff Jarvis (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023). A media veteran analyzes what made magazines great and what will become of them.

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  1. I’ll have to check out Kara’s book. Right now, I’m in the middle of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford. I think you’d like it.

  2. This may seem like a small detail, but it’s a big deal to me: THANK YOU for the gift links in your newsletter. What a delight to just click and read more! I appreciate your generosity.