Whether you’re dealing with bulging computer models that forecast financial risks, developing a mobile app, or designing the space shuttle’s successor, the fruits of your work will rot on the vine if you can’t translate your work into understandable terms. I’ve spent most of my adult life slogging through quantitative complexity as an actuary. As I’ve matured in my numbers-centric world, however, it’s become decidedly clear that the value I add comes not from how I derive numbers; it comes from my ability to make complicated information digestible to others.
I could not agree more with Paul Glen’s thoughts on the value of writing in a technical career:
You cannot write about something without first thinking about it clearly. For me, writing is the process of being confronted by my own ignorance. It forces me to think carefully about my subject. A first draft is primarily an exercise in exposing the limits of my understanding of my own ideas. And editing that first draft involves far more than fixing typos; it is an exercise in clarifying thoughts. In a world full of half-baked, hype-infused concepts, clear thinking is a rare and valuable commodity.
Repeat that last bit to yourself on a regular basis.
Our world is becoming more complex by the second. It’s scary. It’s unpredictable.
It’s great: complexity is a symptom of forward progress. As a civilization advances, its participants become more specialized, more niche. People and companies that do one or two things really well produce the sweetest fruit. Those who attempt to do everything well simply wilt.
The value of communication in a “one thing well” world
The consequence of a one thing well society is that fewer people understand how the objects in their daily workflow work.
A century ago, it’s much more likely that you would know how to build or repair every object in your life. Today, few of us can be mechanics for anything we own. We rely on technologies that just work. And when things fail, we rely on people that know how to fix them.
This crazy complex economy of technologies and information we’ve amassed works as long as people communicate well at the nodes. Ideas must be translated into products, and products must be translated into needs. Feedback, repeat.
The very first audience
There’s a very important audience that you should always explain complicated ideas to first: yourself. Once you truly understand, you can convey that understanding to others. But never before.
Writing is the purest form of intra-self communication I’ve ever discovered.
Writing and wealth
Regular writing and regular recognition of other writers is a way of building social wealth or “capital.”
Rather than exchanging physical currency, people who publish words have the opportunity to pay others with attention. In this way, writing encourages one to reach out beyond normal boundaries, build connections, and regularly brush the adjacent possible.
Writing encourages discovery. It inspires thinking and informal research that wouldn’t occur without the impetus writing creates.
Over time, networks of writers have (and will) turn into social conglomerates that wouldn’t exist otherwise. In much the same way wealth happens in the conventional economy, social wealth is created as each person incrementally adds value – and importance – to the ideas of and others.
Of course, people also make real money from writing. But that can only come after building a solid social wealth platform founded on importance.
So, should you write?
Writing may or may not be the one thing you do well. That’s fine. Even if you have no ability or desire to write publicly as I and many others do, you should at least try writing to yourself on a regular basis. You might be amazed where that takes you – even if you never click the publish button.
A few tips for writing to yourself:
- Journal. Use any medium you like. Just try it.
- Email yourself. Add your email address to your contacts list. Before sending an important idea to someone else, write it to your own email address and pretend that it’s going to someone else. Send it, walk away, and read it later.
- Speak your idea. Forget the pen and keyboard. Just dictate. Find a quiet room and talk out loud to yourself. Give a presentation. Speaking an idea is much like writing. It forces you to refine the ore in your brain into a state that’s useful to others.