On Writing

I’ve always been insecure about my writing. This isn’t some falsely modest claim. Growing up, I was much better at math classes than my English and history classes. My grades and SAT scores reflected that. I wasn’t “better” in the sense of getting an “A” in AP Calculus and a “B+” in AP English. I mean “better” in the sense of taking AP Calculus and not even qualifying for AP English. I wasn’t a voracious reader, to say the least. “Mouth reader” is probably more accurate.

After a break from studying engineering in my mid-20s, I was deciding between going to law school and business school. I decided on law school partly because it would help dispel some of my personal insecurities towards reading and writing. But that’s why I value getting my JD degree more than other putative accomplishments. Seems silly and a waste of $120K, but whatever.

In law school, I learned how to write for the first time. I learned the technical basics - write short sentences, avoid the passive voice, avoid long words if you can use a short one. We were taught that the models for this type of writing are the New York Times and Ernest Hemingway.

But even though I learned - but did not master - the technical basics, I never thought of myself as a great writer. (And I’m not fishing for compliments, either. One’s insecurities can’t be dispelled entirely by external feedback.) Part of the reason why I write this blog is to improve my writing which in turn hopefully clarifies my thoughts. I think writing (and reading) are still the second-most most useful skills for a kid to master. (Thinking logically and critically is the most useful skill, in my opinion. And one can learn this skill through different disciplines - engineering, science, math, philosophy, law.)

For entrepreneurs and other leaders, writing can also be a powerful tool. I have a theory that many people share many of (but not all) the same ideas, thoughts and visions - but very few are able to communicate and share those thoughts in compelling, captivating ways or narratives. It’s a spin on what Clayton Christenson says about questions. And to be able to communicate forcefully, articulately and uniquely is an unbelievable skill for leading, recruiting, managing, etc. Jeff Bezos reportedly (and famously) starts certain business meetings with total silence where attendees read a 6 page written memo written by the meeting leader. [“There’s no way to write a six-page, narrative structured memo and not have clear thinking,”](Jeff Bezos reportedly (and famously) starts certain business meetings with total silence where attendees read a 6 page written memo written by the meeting leader. “There’s no way to write a six-page, narrative structured memo and not have clear thinking,” Bezos said. ) Bezos said.

Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit. -Clayton Christenson

In other words, the right and insightful questions and answers are all there. It just takes an active mind to find them. Similarly, in some cases, the same insights, thoughts and visions are all there - it just takes someone to phrase it correctly or tell the right story in order to persuade and inspire.

One thing I’ve learned over my (excessive) years of school is that some of the best writers are scientists and engineers. Science and engineering require clear and precise thinking. And there are very few who combine this thinking with compelling and sometimes colorful writing and hold a special place and influence. Today, if you look at the writings by folks like Paul Graham, Chris Dixon, Michael Moritz, Horace Dediu and Mike Arrington, their thoughts are not only engaging but their writing is clear and sometimes colorful as well.

Here’s a concrete example. In a a not-so-subtle self-aggrandizing reference, consider these two pieces by me and Michael Moritz on Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Both articulate the over-arching message that (1) Bezos’s approach is a role model for tech companies, and (2) it’s all there in his Amazon shareholder letters. And as they say in the law - “Res ipsa loquitur” - or, “the thing speaks for itself.”

 
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