“Nerds do NOT understand #skininthegame. “Life is not about winning an argument [with a nerd like you] but about winning.”
This was a tweet from Nassim Taleb that I had saved in my “to write” list, with the prompt “what does this mean for me?”
Earlier today I also re-read a Paul Graham essay about how life is short, and so you should avoid bullshit. And arguing with idiots on the internet is an example of a bullshitty waste of time.
I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with idiots on the internet. It’s a little scary to think about. It’s probably my dominant pursuit. I persuade myself into thinking that it’s not so bad, because…
1. I want to be a writer, and arguing with people is good writing practice
2. I want to be a writer, and to write well I need to understand all sorts of people, including idiots on the internet
3. If I get good at arguing with idiots on the internet, I can use those specific instances to distill insights to write good essays that will then solve the general arguments – i.e. by arguing with a few, you can then generalise and argue with all (by providing the tools people would need in those arguments)
And yet. I obviously saved the tweet because it resonated with me in some way. And I thought about the PG essay for the same reason. I don’t WANT to spend my time arguing with idiots. I justify it, but I shouldn’t have to. These are instances of reactionary behaviour. I shouldn’t be reacting to the world. I should set a course for myself and stick to it, for the most part at least. Yeah, yeah, there’s some amount of improvisation and serendipity and so on. But why must serendipity so often lead to arguing with idiots? It shouldn’t have to. Serendipity should be interesting, enriching, fun, heartening, wholesome. It shouldn’t make you frustrated and annoyed. As PG pointed out, life is too short.
So what do I do instead? What does winning mean?
I think a good and useful thing to do is to make sure that each time I feel like arguing with someone, I should ask myself if I would want to turn that into an essay immediately. If yes, then I should write that essay, and maybe share it with the person if I feel like it. If not, then I shouldn’t bother. I think that’s sort of the best of both worlds. It’s about choosing the context in which I want to operate in. I wrote a couple of decent-ish essays or essay-fragments from things that pissed me off on Facebook. It makes me a little annoyed to think of all the times that somebody pissed me off enough to get me to write an essay in response, and then that essay basically gets lost into the ether. This will not do, not any more. I have to expand my body of work. I don’t write for free. I either write for good money, or I write to build my body of work in a way that I personally deem fit. The “I deem fit” bit is critical. I cannot simply respond to everything and then hope that things work out. I’m too old for that shit. Life is too short.
So… what’s next? Can we be more clear together about how we’re going to do things? It’s currently 9pm on a Wednesday night, and I’m sitting in bed in my hotel room in Krabi. I’m writing this vomit because it was on my todo list in my Things app. That’s okay. I’ll write it out, and then schedule it for publishing. And then go on to write more things in that list. That’s a gratifying thing to do. I’m not arguing with idiots, I’m following my bliss. Kinda. I’m fulfilling promises I made to myself. That surely has subconscious benefits that I can’t even begin to conceive of.
I want to be able to rely on my own word. Right now, I can’t. A man’s word is supposed to be his bond. My word is more like a sort of speculative bet. It often fails. In fact, it fails more often than not. And the general strategy truly has been – it will fail 9 out of 10 times, maybe more, but when it succeeds it will really pay off. Because I make big-ish bets. Or maybe just really vague bets. Either way, no more. I’m too old, too tired for this shit, life is too short. I need to increase my probability of success in fulfilling what I say I’m going to do. I’m an adult male, not a child anymore, not a teen, not a young adult. I’m a full grown adult. I need to mean what I say. I need to stop making vague, empty promises. I need to schedule my shit. I need to stop getting distracted by arguing with idiots.
If I want to argue with an idiot, I need to schedule it for later. Now that’s a good thought! I tend to get a little excited at the prospect of giving an idiot a thorough smackdown, partially because I imagine that there’s an audience when there’s something current and relevant. But I need to appeal to my longer term interests. If an idiot is posting something timelessly idiotic, I an count on a future idiot posting the same thing within a year or two. So there’s really no rush. I think a big part of getting good at life is about learning to see things at a slightly longer time scale than most people are comfortable doing. If you’re willing to plan 10, 20, 30 years ahead, then you’re going to outmanoeuvre the short-termist competition. I don’t mean ‘have a specific step-by-step plan’ because that shit doesn’t work, things go out of date embarrassingly quickly. I mean simply something like, plan to be around in 30 years, in the same space, with 30 years of insight, experience, expertise. Just commit for the long haul, and you’ll eventually begin to have seemingly magical insights just by harking to your own experience. You were there the last time these things happened. You have a personal history, a repository. You’ll seem awfully well-informed. But you aren’t magical. You just happened to be there, and you took some notes.
Don’t argue with idiots. Don’t react on the spot. Pick your battles, pick your contexts. Do what YOU want. That’s what winning is.