#41: Tim Urban [Struggle]
Why the author of Wait But Why focuses on quality over consistency
Tim Urban is the writer of the blog Wait But Why. Tim writes about topics including artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, alien life, the size of the universe, and more.
His articles are often tens of thousands of words – the length of finished novels. The success of his blog has garnered millions of unique page views, thousands of patrons and famous fans like Elon Musk.
In this episode we talk about the beginning of Wait But Why, his research and writing process, how Tim thinks about A+ work, and why he loves the struggle of writing online.
Tim Urban has become one of the Internet’s most popular writers since starting his blog, Wait But Why, in 2013.
His articles are often tens of thousands of words – the length of finished novels.
And Tim’s long-form writing isn’t just informative, it’s easy to read. It’s entertaining. He was also a pioneer in creating simple, colorful illustrations for his blog, juxtaposed against intense topics like artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, alien life, the size of the universe, and more.
The success of his blog has garnered millions of unique page views, thousands of patrons and famous fans like Elon Musk.
In 2016, Tim was invited to give a TED talk called “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator,” which has been viewed nearly 50 million times.
click to view episode transcript
Tim Urban 0:00
If 20% of people are level four, like fully evangelist versus 2% of people, the difference is 100 fold with how viral the article goes. You can't try to like, get everyone on level four. That's not possible. You know, you know, that same article is not going to delight everybody. But if you're doing something that you love that you would love if someone sent you, other people are probably going to feel the same way.
Jay Clouse 0:21
Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show.
Hello, my friend. Welcome back to Creative Elements. It's great to have you here as always, and we have a big episode for you today. But you know, if I'm honest publishing a weekly podcast and a weekly newsletter, it's really intense and can get pretty exhausting. After my interview with Eric Jorgensen, talking about his book, the Almanack of Naval Ravikant, I had an itch to create more long form highly produced work. And I've been writing a lot over the last few months about how conflicted I am when it comes to this idea of consistency. Consistency is one of the most commonly discussed elements on this show. And it's been incredibly important in helping me to get to where I am today. But that same consistency feels like a major constraint on the level of depth that I can invest into any one article or episode of this show. So more and more, I find myself wanting to step back and take more time for my writing specifically. And that brings me to today's guest, Tim Urban, Tim has become one of the internet's most popular writers since starting his blog, Wait But Why in 2013.
Tim Urban 1:50
Like, the initial business premise was that there's tons of writing out there, tons of blogs, tons of other stuff, but there's not that much like really, really great stuff. And so what if I put my full time into it and tried to do something that was better, that was just like a leg up, it stood out, because my other blog was a typical blog, I, you know, I just spent five hours a week on it less. And so the idea was, like, you know, try something really great. And so we didn't know where the hiring a team of writers or whatever. But as it started, I love the craft. I hated the actual doing of the things, but I loved like having produced a post, it was like such a satisfying thing. And it started to take off on its own. So we just kind of kept it like that, that became the thing.
Jay Clouse 2:28
And Tim really puts time into his writing to make it really, really great. His posts are often 10s of 1000s of words. That's like a full length published novel. And Tim's long form writing isn't just informative. It's easy to read, it's entertaining. He was also a pioneer in creating simple, colorful illustrations for his blog, juxtaposed against intense topics like artificial intelligence, brain computer interfaces, alien life, the size of the universe, and more.
Tim Urban 2:55
Because we had this online tutoring company, we had this, these tablets laying around, the tutors are using an online whiteboard to explain something like you know, to a student, like math or whatever. And I like looked at one one night like 2am when I'm like in my office writing a blog post because I'm me, and I see that and I was like, What about like a drawing as I started using it, and people like that post, they read all the friends of mine who were reading it and the readers I had, were like, delighted so I was like, Okay, let me do more. So I realized it was like such a fun addition, like bad stick figure drawings was a fun addition to my style of writing.
Jay Clouse 3:26
The success of his blog has garnered millions of unique pageviews, 1000s of patrons and famous fans like Elon Musk. In 2016, Tim was invited to give a TED talk called inside the mind of a master procrastinator, which has been viewed now nearly 50 million times. Tim talks a lot about procrastination, because it takes a long time to create any one of these pieces. And despite initially promising new posts every week, Tim's new schedule his new posts every sometimes.
Tim Urban 3:54
It feels like it's like birthing a baby a little bit to get one of these things out. But yeah, but it's it's gratifying when it's done.
Jay Clouse 4:00
So in this episode, we talked about the beginning of a Wait But Why, Tim's research and writing process, how he thinks about A+ work, and why he loves the struggle of writing online. I'll be sharing some of my favorite articles from Wait But Why in our Creative Elements, listeners group on Facebook this week, so join us there if you haven't already. And as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram @JayClouse, just take a screenshot let me know that you're listening. But now, let's hear from Tim.
Tim Urban 4:35
I was running a test prep company that I started with my oldest friend Andrew Finn and yeah, and he and I were just growing and running this, this kind of tutoring Test Prep company that became an online, you know, through an online medium eventually. And I always had always it's hard to remember what I actually wanted to do when I was 17, 18, 19. But you know, for a few years, at least before I came out of college, I always wanted to do something creative, you know, music, writing, whatever, that was just kind of what was, you know, the arts is what was my goal. And I moved to LA to kind of get started on maybe like a movie scoring career, I wasn't quite sure. But it might be tendency is to really, I have like a, like a fear self defeating monster in me that wants to procrastinate and like push off anything that is important. And I've gotten better at controlling that a little bit at the time, I was just like a total amateur. I was like, in Year Zero of my real life, and like, had absolutely no idea how to manage my own issues. And so I ended up basically the, the side job I had was tutoring, and I ended up spending all my time, like growing this tutoring company, which is classically a procrastinator thing to do, then, you know, partner with Andrew, and we, and we started actually turning into a real company. And the reason I knew that, you know, cuz for a while, I was like, This is so fun working with my best friend on a big strategy game. And we have, we hire people we like so we have this like fun team and like, dream job, right? Um, I was just so excited about everything. And yet like, as the years went on, I started just this creative impulse started to creep in, I was like, I need this isn't the isn't the right thing for me. And I knew at that point, that it wasn't some kind of delusion, because my job was so fun. There was no excuses. I'm like, this is such a great, fun situation. And if I'm still dying to do something else, gotta do something else, you know, but I think it's, I really liked working with Andrew, and we didn't, that was such a bummer to stop that. So basically, the goal was to figure out a way for you to do something I wanted to be doing, but still be kind of partnered with Andrew. And the idea we came up with was to start kind of some kind of media platform writing platform, you know, and and because that's something that because Andrews interest would be in it as a business idea. And as a, just building something that that was an important thing, and could be a lucrative thing to be a useful thing for us. In addition, if I was just going to sit there and like write poetry and put it into a drawer, that's not really a great partnership for him. So this was a nice, like, it kind of fit the middle of the Venn diagram where it's like, we can both be excited about it. And so that started in 2013. While Andrew kept growing the other company, it's more of his, like an advisor role. And him is kind of an advisor role for what I was doing.
Jay Clouse 7:18
Did you try to push him towards the film scoring career as a joint venture?
Tim Urban 7:24
No, because there were a few things I was interested in, like, I wanted to write a musical and I had been on the side like kind of writing one, the problem there is that like, unless it's Hamilton, or Book of Mormon, or these, like ones that become international sensations, it's not a great business venture, it takes five years to do it, there's a good chance it never sees a stage. So that's not great. The point was that he was going to be growing our company while I was doing this, if it wasn't going to be something that was going to be cool for him to kind of own half of down the road, then it was I would have felt really bad and wouldn't have been so. So that was and then film scoring. It's just, it's there's nothing for him to own there really, it's like I'm doing I'm providing my services to directors for something. And so plus, I didn't really like film scoring anymore, it was to my creative ego couldn't handle it, because you like write this music, and you're so proud of it. And then they put like this bad dialogue over it. And it's like an insult. And I was like, This is not the right career for me. I'm an I'm a crazy person, and I won't be able to handle this stuff. But I'd been blogging on the side, I really liked that too. This was an idea. I was like, okay, you know that this, this could be a cool kind of thing. Because if we didn't know, maybe we'd be hiring a team of writers. And I think it has managed to do what it was supposed to do. Like Andrew likes being involved. And I get to still be involved in the other company and wait, but why is a nice big platform now that we can use for a lot of stuff. And I am doing what I wanted. And I like it.
Jay Clouse 8:53
I'm thinking back to circa 2013. And I think that was about like, you know, when BuzzFeed was starting to happen, and sort of the content sites that were just like, several posts a day all the time, like the the game was just being incredibly short form and prolific. So when you were starting this, and you guys were thinking about this as a business. How did you think about the role of consistency and cadence.
Tim Urban 9:20
I was kind of basing my initial ideas off of my old blog, which was pretty much short form, and actually had a lot of lists. And I'm annoyed because I was doing the list before they were cool like that. I had an ongoing thing called 19 things I don't understand. And it was like volume six of it eventually. And that was before BuzzFeed started. So I was very annoyed when BuzzFeed comes around and starts doing lists for everything and just burns out this great medium. I mean, they did so many because it's a good medium. I mean, it's a good medium for a writer to good for a reader. It's a catchy headline. And they just burnt it out and they cheapened it and it made it seem like it was like the definition now of like a cheap article. So that annoyed me but my very first post was seven ways to be insufferable on Facebook and that wasn't emulating BuzzFeed it was stubbornly doing the thing I like to do in spite of BuzzFeed, he had the initial idea was, you know, I'd like to be like, Oh, we want to, like do these, like, long, deep, great, you know, long form things. And that wasn't the plan, the plan was to try to, you know, go viral and make this a thing. You know, we didn't really now. And it was anonymous for a while, which was intentional, because it was like, who knows, maybe it goes go public, but kind of fun to be anonymous, and just makes, you know, leaves it wide open to what you can do, and kind of fun if no one knows who you are. And for the first, you know, bunch of posts, it was anonymous. And so that was just towards the end of the old blog. But then when the new ones started, wait, but why they started kind of short form, with the intention of being high quality, that was the thing we want, the whole premise was like, a plus quality, because that's not that's what's rare. We're not going out BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed, not gonna have quantity, these companies, but we can maybe out quality them. And so it got going from there, no rules, just kind of very, you know, whatever I wanted to write about basically, I just wrote about, and I just tried to do stuff that could be kind of catchy. And then some, some were infographics, some were longer things, but it was about post 10 or 12. That one post I did. And at the time, I will fully admit I was like trying to go viral. I was like, What is like, you know, what, what are topics that are that could catch fire. And so the this one topic about like millennials and why they're like the perfect storm of millennial and the happiness that the world is right now, in my opinion, or back in 2013. So I wrote that and it worked it like went viral. And it you know, it totally put the site on the map still was anonymous, but the like, the email list went from 300 people at the beginning of that week to 30,000. A week later, we were totally game changer. And so that point that that changes everything right now, because now you have readers, I also can't I also decided to because people were contacting us about going to an interview and I was like you I don't want to never be able to do an interview. I know. It's not I'm not like a private person, really. So I'm like, I'm not like I this is something that's important to me. So I started just putting putting my name out there and put a little like about page about me and Andrew whenever and then as I got good feedback, and that, you know, people were really into it, and it kept growing. I started to like, get a little bit more. I'm like, okay, you know, maybe because at the beginning, I was like, you know, I'm not gonna do something serious, because who am I? Who am I doing anything serious? I don't have a degree in this stuff. I'm just a dude. But as I started going, I was like, Okay, I think people like care about what I think about stuff, or at least the people that are coming back to this site. So my confidence, like slowly grew that I can like, take on anything, and it's fine. And the the the fact that there would be readers was like this adrenaline rush. And I think adrenaline like, it's like, puts me into another gear. So so for that first like six months or eight months, like I just wrote at once a week. First, it was twice a week, and then that was not working and that my best things were the ones that took a full week. So once a week, and they started to get a little longer and a little more serious. And I did one post on like the Fermi paradox, which is why we haven't seen aliens.
Jay Clouse 13:00
One of my favorite topics of yours.
Tim Urban 13:02
Oh, good. Yeah. It's a it's it's really, really fascinating topic. And I remember talking to Andrew and we were like, kind of like, Okay, well, this is like one of those like, Tim nerd posts, it's not gonna go viral. But the people who like this kind of thing will love it. We were wrong. Like it was one of the most popular posts. Turns out, I mean, I think it is for nerds, just a lot of them out there. And so I started to realize that goes like, okay, but my like weird interests, like a lot of people have those same interests, you know, this isn't. And so this is like the beginning of me being like, Okay, if I, if I find something fascinating, I'm going to assume there's 100 Stadium of Tim's out there who are going to agree Exactly. And I just started doing exactly what I wanted to write about, like, what I was interested in, regardless of viral. Stop, stop thinking about going viral stuff that was just trying to delight the current people that were there. And I was just trying to do that by following my own interests.
Jay Clouse 13:50
Something you brought up that I'm so glad you brought up because I hadn't thought to ask you about this. One of the first episodes of the show was talking with our mutual friend James Clear. And he referenced you and talking about how he thinks about the quality of work and the difference of doing a plus work versus a minus work.
James Clear 14:07
One thing I'm really glad about now is that I took the time to get it right, Tim Urban and I have talked about this the difference between doing a plus work and a minus work. And it sounds like a fairly small thing. And it's like hey, and a minus or B plus, like that's pretty good, good, you know, nice job. But actually in any sort of media, books, podcasts, YouTube, social media, the infinite the internet provides Infinite Leverage. And so all the returns are at the tail end. And so doing a plus work is it's not like one x or two x or even five x better. It's like 100 x 1000 x better. And so I think it's worth it to take the time to do that.
Jay Clouse 14:48
Could you talk a little bit more about what a plus work means to you?
Tim Urban 14:51
Yeah. So okay, so you know, if you think about like, sometimes grades correlate to numbers, one through 100. So like, maybe a 97 to 100 is an A plus whatever, you can never try to go for the 100. In writing, it doesn't work, there's no such thing. Mark Twain always would have done it better than you. I'm saying this because like, I have a perfectionist personality. And if I think something could be better, it drives me insane. And I have to try to make it better. And that's a trap. And often trying to obsessively make something better and better makes it worse, it makes it longer makes more convoluted, you know, you get all the ideas in but now it's not that fun to read. So it can be a trap is kind of the first disclaimer about this topic. But then, if you can, we have that few pushing back against that instinct, then it can be a good rule against a different instinct we have on the other side, which is laziness, or, or just like, it's okay, this is fine, this is good. Versus like I did six hours of research, I could add one paragraph here, that would be really good. But I need to understand that topic. So well to write just that one paragraph, I don't ever write something where I could, in a Q&A, get asked about it, and not actually have something to say don't be like, Oh, I know exactly what I wrote there. And I don't really understand what it is. So don't do that. Plus, it's just in general, like, you end up just writing. You know, whatever's in that paragraph, the specific words will be more nuanced and more informed. So it's like, that paragraph is important, for whatever reason, just say it's like, it's something that really, it's a, it's the perfect analogy that really crystallizes this, by making you realize that this thing is analogous to Hitler's rise, or this thing is analogous to the advent of cars, whatever. And so something like that, and like, in an important way, from like, adding in this metaphor, could like, crystallize this at the end in everyone's heads in a way that like, really, whatever. I mean, you know, this is never not based on a specific example. But putting that six hours in for that paragraph, I would do almost every time or for me if drawings is just takes me forever, I'm truly a non talented artist, like anything I do, I have to look online at Google Images, try to see how that would look. And then, but sometimes I'm like, you know, adding this little drawing here, it's not actually necessary. But it would be this little moment of delight, it would be a little funny extra, and it would just be a little, and it's gonna take me four hours to do that drawing. I'll probably put that time in, because I'm like, what the four hours is temporary, the drawing is permanent. And it's funny, because it's the exact opposite instinct of a procrastinator, which is, Let me treat my present self at the expense of future me. And then it's like when when I'm doing this post, like that instinct is now fighting with this totally opposite mode, which is screw over present me get this drawing done. It's torture right now, it seems to keep you up late. But forever, that thing will be there. So I don't know. It's a bunch of battling internal things. But the A plus part of it is, once you've done this, and you've crystallized these ideas, do all this extra research, and you put these drawings in and you know, you've you've reworked it, and you've cut it down, and you've, you know, really kind of tried to make it this special package. That's not just an article that's here for three days. But it's an evergreen kind of art sculpture in a in an art gallery that's just there forever. Now, that's going to stand out, because it's just like most people, it's not the business model of most writing sites. And it's not the business model. Most writers who are doing something that high quality, they're doing a book. So just a super high quality article online that took like, hundreds of hours is not a common thing. And that's kind of became our model.
Jay Clouse 18:16
After a quick break, Tim and I talked about his approach to writing and his take on the quality versus consistency trade off. So stick around, and we'll be right back.Welcome back to my conversation with Tim Urban of Wait But Why, as Tim referenced earlier, he's affectionately known for publishing incredible long form pieces, but struggling to publish them on time or consistently, and despite that lack of consistency, Wait But Why is one of the most popular blogs on the internet, and Tim has had a ton of success. creatives will often tell me that they hate the idea of being consistent. They just can't get themselves to publish on a regular basis. They run out of ideas, and they just want to be like Tim Urban. So I asked him what he would say to aspiring creators who just want to be like Tim Urban.
Tim Urban 19:04
I'm not sure I would have known this at the beginning. But I think I think I have more insight now which is that a regular is not nothing right? Like if you're doing something and you have readers that like what you're doing obviously not doing anything for a long time, they will forget you putting out regular stuff is really important and Wait But Why was built on that actually even though the kind of joke became I was always like a little late, at least for the first year. It was first really more like first. Yeah, my first year and a half. It was new post every Tuesday. And so sometimes that was Wednesday, sometimes even Thursday, but there was a new post every week. I think that was very helpful to building an audience at some point that audience had I'd won them over to the extent that I could take longer and they'd still come back but I think the beginning regular is good. That said the far more important thing is quality and and so the way I would describe that is if you think different reactions. Obviously, if a reader is bored doesn't like it, that they're gone, right. And I'm sure a lot of people have had that experience on my site, because it's not for everyone, right? I mean, it's, it's never gonna, some people are going to dislike what you do either hate it or just be bored by it, or dislike your sense of humor or whatever. But so so there's those people who read it, and they're just like, Okay, then there's people who read it in there, like, they liked it, it was fine. Right? They're gone to that everything back, then there's people who read it. And they are like pleasantly surprised. And they like it, right? They, they might come back, they might not remember your first battles to have even look at what the site is they got a link, someone shared this on social media. they clicked it, they read the article, the amount of times I've done that, and then clicked out, I never even looked at the name of the site or the author. So they might at that point, if you're lucky, they might look at the site, or what might happen is they might leave and forget about you, and then somehow end up on a second article of yours and be like, Oh, this thing again, isn't this and then you see on the sidebars? Well, I read that other article, and that's when they start to click for them. And they start to say, What is this, right, and then they might do this as the this is the promised land for all online writers is they might subscribe to your email list. Social media fine, but social media, you can't trust those companies. You know, they might let you see those followers. Again, they might not see emails safer. So they sign up for your email list. Now you've got them, because now you can reach them anytime you want regular or not regular writing, right? So that that's a huge reason that regular becomes less important once you have an email list. So there's that level, but that then there's a level beyond that, which is they read it and they fucking loved it. Like they read it. And they're like, and they're just like sitting there and they're, they're crying at the end, or they're laughing. And they're and and so now Now you've won yourself a salesman, they are going to probably subscribe, bookmark it, whatever they're gonna be back. But even more importantly, they're gonna start evangelizing this. And I know this because I do this when I love something. I will text you know, for text threads. And just each one be like, you know, this is like a must read or like, this is great, or like you would love this particular I'm thinking who would like it, like, what's a better salesperson. And this is what I'm talking about the A plus thing, like the difference between, if you call those like level 1, 2, 3, and 4, the difference between three and four is massive. If If 20% of people are level four, like fully evangelist versus 2% of people, the difference is 100 fold with how viral the article goes, You can't try to like get everyone on level four. That's not possible. You know, you know, the same article is not going to delight everybody. But if you're doing something that you love that you would love if someone sent you, other people are probably going to feel the same way.
Jay Clouse 22:31
I love that perspective. So if you're, if you're imagining a stadium full of Tim's and you found a topic that, you know, Tim would be into this, how do you know throughout the course of this thing, that often takes you a very long time you get very close to how do you know when Okay, this this stadium full of Tim's would fucking love this. They're at a level four. How do you know when you've reached that? I don't.
Tim Urban 22:54
You know, and this is the thing about articles which is cooler than books, which is that it's okay if it's if I'm wrong. It's kind of like the the game becomes. And this is, by the way, look at like, all your favorite musical artists. A lot of times what you really know is their greatest hits. Right? Unless you're like a super fan. And you realize that you got to go to the album's there's a lot of bad songs on those albums. Right? This goes for most creative, creative things, movies, and movies and books is a little different, cuz it's more like someone who's going to do 10 of those in their life. But articles, songs, you know, podcast episodes, you know, things like this, you might do 1000. And if 80 are great, you're, you've crushed it, right? Like, that's, you're gonna you're gonna have a huge great career. So it's more than because it's articles. This helps perfectionism a little too, because you can just be like, you know, I've done what I can here. I think it's pretty good. It probably could change this or that, but like, I'm gonna put it out and move on. And this is when the week deadline is helpful for the creator. Because it there's that it provides that counter force against endless perfectionism. So yeah, and, and I've had some where I thought this one's gonna be people are gonna love this. And it didn't really work like it was fine. Some people liked it got some more criticism than I thought never really took off. Other times when I was correct, I predicted something would be big. And it was and other times when I was pleasantly surprised when I thought I think this is pretty good. But I like you know, that I something about it is putting is making me feel not so great about it. And I've already kind of like, given up on it before I've been I posted it and trying to move on to the next thing And surprisingly, you know, ends up having a lot of life. So I'm getting better. Maybe I'm figuring that out. And, you know, a lot of the time it's also luck in that I think millennials article I don't think it's the greatest thing ever, by any means. I think it's catchy, you know, fun article. I think if I put that out a year later or today, it might not do anything and might have a little you know, I really think that that was happened to be, you know, and that's just by pure luck, the exact right like moment for it and it blew up on Facebook and I don't even know what the news was the week before. Maybe there was some news story that primed everyone for that. I don't know. So that's another reason you know, writing every week is good, because sometimes you're just going to get lucky. But you don't give yourself a chance to get lucky if you're not writing very often. So I think there's some balance there. But the you know, coming back to the bigger point and doing a pretty good article every week, is far less likely to build a big career, then build it then writing a great article sporadically, because the great article will stand out and, and people will forget it.
Jay Clouse 25:26
Let's jump off from that point into a quick follow up. Let's say I'm starting with no audience. And I've written something that I think is a great article. What do you think is my next steps for starting to get that in front of anybody?
Tim Urban 25:38
This answer is always changing. And I think the best thing you can do is to try to have your finger on the pulse of what the answer is, at any given point. So in 2013, this is another way I think we got a little bit lucky 2013. Facebook was like a, I think they were trying to show, they were just starting like paid ads, allowing content creators to pay to have their stuff put on new season target targeting, you know, and all that. And I think they realize, like we have a goldmine here, because the amount of inferred data we have on the targeting, we can do like there's never been anything like this for creators. And that's true. And they're like, we want to make a splash. I just my guess I don't know that I haven't confirmed this. But for small, you know, three or four, six months, they made it so cheap. And so this is when BuzzFeed was really blowing up. This is when Upworthy came out of nowhere blew up viral nova, there were all these sites that blew up and wait for what happened to be starting at the same time. So we would pay something like 500 bucks. And it would go to like half a million newsfeeds. Like some crazy thing just for a small amount of time. And it was like, wow. And so it brought all these people in, who wouldn't have seen it. And I put this like drawing on. So Facebook was by far our biggest engine. That's not true anymore. We don't even pay anymore because it does it doesn't you know, we also have our email list now. And then once you have an email list, like, you know, you're gonna reach those people. And for me, that's actually what I carry going viral has become way less important to me. What I care about is the audience's they're like, giving them something like so. If I was starting it today, I would definitely still try. I would. Obviously I would I would try to put it all over social media and grow those followings for sure. But I don't think it's like a silver bullet. Like it was. But But like, okay, so but like maybe TikTok is today in a weird way. And maybe, you know, I don't I don't know how to treat this. I haven't because I haven't been in the zone for a while, like, how can we get attention for something new? I'm not as much of an expert on it as I became in 2013. But the answer in 2013 was Facebook. So I think in general, just like the big broader advice would be for sure have the first call of action be sign up for our email list. That's how you capture someone, right? It becomes a floating audience, it's always there when you're ready for you snap, and there they are, which is so valuable. And then the second call to action at the end of every post would be Follow us on XYZ. And then I would be posting regularly on those social media sites. One thing that's happened since the beginning is actually none of the social media sites that I know anymore. When you put links, like on Twitter or on Facebook, it doesn't go viral, because they analyze you because you're taking people off their site. So I think it's as simple I don't know this, but it seems to me the simple the an algorithm tweak that says if the post is taking people off Twitter, don't show it to people, which have links do. So what can get you a big following on Twitter separately, is by doing kind of mini posts, like actually putting a plus content on Twitter. And that can get you a following pretty quickly. Same with Instagram, Facebook, and then you can use that to promote your stuff. And again, it's hard to just you can't talk to links, you almost want to do that like Lincoln bio thing on Twitter now and say, you know, a little fun thing and then say, check it out on the site. I don't know, or maybe that still lets people leave. I don't know how the algorithm works. But the point is that, you know, you got to adapt to whatever changes have been made back then they weren't penalizing links, which was awesome for content creators. And so the you know, grow those followings. But um, but but I think the bigger advice I would say is I'm giving kind of old man advice 2013 that's how we did it back in my day is kind of what I'd say. I would say be kind of the awesome, fresh young person who is smarter than me. So that's what everyone thinks is the right advice. Get your social media followings and your email list No, but what now what's what can you do that is clever that that is the 2021 way to do it. There's some new opportunities somewhere waiting to be discovered. Exactly. Maybe it's picked up and wherever that is, people are just figuring it out so you can explode there because it's not saturated yet.
Jay Clouse 29:44
When we come back, Tim and I dive deep into his writing and research process, right after this.
Jay Clouse 29:51
Welcome back. In order for Tim to write these incredible in depth pieces on subjects like aliens, brain computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, and more he has to do a lot of research so that he can understand the topics himself. So I asked him how he approaches that research process.
Tim Urban 30:08
It depends on the article, like, if I'm writing about procrastination, it's gonna be less research, more writing, because it's basically from my head, my own ideas about my own theories about why we do certain things. With those posts site, sometimes we'll make them research posts and get until actual site science. Often I'm trying to, like, express a common experience that I know a lot of people have, in which case, if that's more my own thoughts, and then sometimes I'm writing about brain machine interfaces, and I need to learn, I need to learn everything about that. So it varies, but either way, the time actually typing words, writing is very small. Because even if it's a post without much research, there's a huge stage of vomiting every idea I have onto some document and then tried to organize it into what's the story here? What's the, you know, what is the journey, I want to take people down? It's not fun for me to just list a bunch of thoughts I have, right, it has to be some kind of beginning middle end journey. And that to me takes you know, I'm sure some people are just naturals at immediately having that, but for me, I will I will play around with that for a long time before I feel like Okay, oh, this is now it's you know, it's always like, when the outline is ready, you'll know if I don't know yet. And like I think this might be it's I'm not ready for a research post. Now, there's still all that. And there's this whole phase of learning, the way I think about researches is more like bringing myself up to a certain level. So like, the scale I like to talk about is like a one through 10. 10 is the most the world's leading expert on something and nine has a PhD, you know, down to a one's ever heard of the topic. So if I started a two or three, right, and depending on the topic. Three, three is not nothing It means like you know, I can have a conversation about this. I have some initial thoughts, but I'm in that peak of the Dunning Kruger thing, that thing I call childs hill. Well, you really think you get it actually. And you're in your you're at a two or three and you feel like you're at like a six or seven.
So they don't try to get myself to an actual six or seven, which is the humbling process of digging in realizing how simplistic your previous ideas were realizing how much there is the topic, getting daunted feeling despair, feeling dumb, and, and then starting to feel smart again, as you you know, read enough that it starts to some wires start to get untangled, and he starts to crystallize. And you start to connect some dots, and then it becomes like exhilarating, you start to actually be learning more. And I tried to get myself from like that three to like maybe a six and a six is somewhere where it's not just that I could have a conversation, but I could do a Q&A of for laymen. So I could do a q&a for it. In other words, every question a layman might have about this a two or three, I can give not just like an answer, but a pretty like nuanced answer. And I really know you know what I'm talking about, I would not be on a panel of experts on this, that would not at that level, right. And I'm not doing anything original, I'm not doing any. I haven't contributed any original ideas to the field. Like I'm like an actual expert might. And I'm not going to teach like a college course on it. Right? So I'm not there, but I could do a q&a. I could sit around with the group of smart friends were asking me about this for two hours, and I could teach them the shit out of it. So I'm gonna try to get there. And then comes the second thing which is okay, I know this now now that took me three weeks to get there maybe took me three months. How can I in two hours or one hour, bring people where I just got you know, now that I know everything I know. So that's the outlining, organizing process. And then there's the writing itself, which is you know, not nothing but I'll write you know, between 2000 and 4000 words on a good writing day and then there's drawings and revisions and everything else.
Jay Clouse 32:01
I wanted to jump in here quickly in case you're not familiar with the Dunning Kruger effect, because it's a really fascinating concept that I think is important to understand. The Dunning Kruger effect is named after social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. It's a cognitive bias in which people with low knowledge or ability overestimate their ability. And similarly, people with high knowledge or ability tend to underestimate themselves. If you look at a graph, imagine the vertical y axis as confidence. While the horizontal x axis is knowledge. When you have just a shred of knowledge about something, we're prone to be overconfident in what we do know, because we're actually so unknowledgeable that we don't understand how much there really is to know about a topic. And as we learn more about a topic, we realize how deep the rabbit hole goes. And we lose a ton of confidence that we know anything at all about that topic. This is why very smart people often suffer from imposter syndrome, because they actually know a lot. But they also realize how much they don't know, while they're ignorant peers who know very little are steeped in overconfidence. That peak of complete overconfidence right before you lose confidence in yourself, is what Tim has referred to as the child's hill.
Something I really love about your writing that you've kind of alluded to, you know, you use you use the images, you use the visuals, you also use metaphors and you use these different devices to help get points across. Can you talk about why you do that? And how you know, it's appropriate to bring those out?
Tim Urban 35:07
Yeah, I love metaphors as a teaching style and is just a thinking style for myself for a few reasons. First, is it just the obvious like, okay, one metaphor that actually wasn't even mine, but I put it in, I think the post, it was the neuro link, one of the neural link engineers mentioned this to me, neuro link is Elon Musk, some brain machine interfaces company, it's kind of his least talked about, but what maybe his most ambitious company, the metaphor is that the brain is our understanding of the brain is a lot like our understanding of the economy. Meaning that on the micro level, we understand supply and demand of an individual consumer, right, and how that works, which is like understanding a neuron and what that neuron does, and how it functions and how it fires and what it's doing. We also understand the really, really big picture, we understand macro economic forces, and how they fit together as these puzzle pieces. Likewise, we understand the lobes of the brain, we understand this is the frontal lobe, it does this and this and this, we understand that the occipital lobe in the back is where your visual stuff is processed, right. But everything in the middle of those two layers we don't understand very well, if we don't understand exactly, you know, memories are here, but we don't really know. And we know that the neurons are firing, but we don't really understand how all those firing neurons turns into a memory. And likewise, with the economy, if you actually dig in between those two layers, it's a mess. It's in these conflicting theories. And it's just, you know, it's super complicated. So for me, I understood the economy thing pretty well. And I understood the economy point pretty well. And so now I could take my understanding of that, and leverage that. And photocopy that understanding over here. There's another kind of metaphor, like, I use characters sometimes. So when I procrastinate, I there's these two characters in my brain, the rational decision maker, and the instant gratification monkey, and these, these two fighting, and that that was actually initially kind of a more of a vague concept of like, there's this, like, I know, I should do this, but I don't wanna I realize, like, there's two things. And then creating these characters, helps kind of take something that is harder to define and a little bit more vague. And it brings clarity to it, and makes it more memorable. So if you know, if I describe these two forces with a bunch of words, in a week, you're not going to really probably remember exactly what I said in a year, you're definitely not. But if I had these two characters, you might be able to remember it forever. So it's both like stickier, and more memorable, clearer to understand. But also a lot of the time, it leverages something you do understand. And taking that some of you don't one other example I just thought of is like, sometimes it's just like a concept, like the concept of the day, I would call it like the digitization spectrum. So on one end of the spectrum, you're in ones and zeros. And on the other end, you're in total analog reality, like an analog wave, like so this, to me, always pops into my head when I'm trying to simplify something about the world you're trying to talk about Republicans, Democrats. Right? The ones and zeros. Description of them is that the republicans are old white Christian, people who care about X, Y, and Z. And the democrats are young, diverse, college educated people who care about a, b, and c. And then you can get more and more nuanced. The analog reality is that these groups are made up of millions of complex, nuanced, individual, unique brains, each with their own complete different conception of the world, right? So you're never going to describe these groups in the full analog way, right? Because that would take forever, you could describe one person's outlook for 1000 pages. The question is how if you're trying to write about these, the two parties what's going on as an example, it's something that writers or any kind of like, people who are expressing ideas should be thinking about, at least like, Where do I want to be on that spectrum? It's not that you know, nuance is good, well, not too much nuance, or, again, you're describing one person's brain for 1000 years. So how much nuance and this is an important concept that then when I bring in this analog digital thing, and the spectrum and showing how an actual wave gets digitized, and gets simpler and simpler as you compress a file, that to me is, then I can use that as shorthand and refer again and again to analog, digital, analog, digital and post after post, and readers. No, okay. Ah, it's triggering. When I say that thing. It's triggering this whole other thought process. So there's a lot of reasons to use a metaphor, I think, but they're just they're incredibly useful for so many things.
Jay Clouse 39:25
Totally. I also like, you know, sometimes you describe things in terms of like aliens, so that we take ourselves and a lot of our biases out of it and try to think about things like a little bit more objectively. I think that's really useful too.
Tim Urban 39:36
Yeah, like, you know, I remember I was in seventh grade and teacher did this thing where she gave us this thing to read it was about this like crazy barbaric tribe, who like you know, went into the shrine every night and like, Did this like weird ritual with these things? It's so distinct in your mouth and then like, you know, describe this like very barbaric tribe and all these weird like, very, very foreign rituals. turns out of course, they're describing us and the shrine is the bathroom. The thing in your mouth is the toothbrush and the different words that stuck with me as like, if you can, it's a tool if you can step out and view yourself from a third party angle. Without all of the normal assumptions, you have all this pressure, you have this insight. So taking that and trying to be like, like comparing, like, I think, again, to bring up politics, like political bigotry, I think is a real thing. I think we're like, right now, that's the one acceptable kind of bigotry, you can just be like, you know, conservatives are a bunch of like, dumb, like ignorant, you know, racist idiots. Like, that's a really big thing to say about, you know, 100 million people, right. But we do it because it's acceptable. And so to try to like, say, Okay, well, what if you heard about another country, and there were two races, or two religions, and they were talking about each other, the way that we talk about each other's politics or politics, you'd be really concerned about that country, it's a way to like, see us in a different way, and be like, Oh, god, this is really bad. So yeah, I think it's a ton of use for that.
Jay Clouse 40:55
One more thing that I you know, is obvious about your resource process, and how much time you put into your writing. As you're learning and you're going from a two to a six, you are probably discovering some truths that later you put into a fantastic article and helps us understand things that in the moment of discovering them is probably kind of emotionally taxing. Do you ever experienced that?
Tim Urban 41:14
Yes. The emotions I'm having, as I'm researching? Well, there's, there's two sets of emotions, there's the emotions about the content, just I think what you're asking about, which is, you know, like, if there's times when I literally will, like, my eyes will physically open wide, as I'm reading about, like AI or something. And I'm like, my eyes open wide, because I'm, like, so fascinated, or there's some metaphor that clicks in my head, and I'm like, ah, and if I have if this is again, thinking about the stadium of Tim's like, I'm like, okay, that's, that's going to make the readers open their eyes wide. So this is good, right? This is gonna make because a lot of the readers at this point have been, you know, they're they, they're fascinated by the same kind of stuff that fascinates me. That's why they're readers. So a lot of times that the emotions I'm having will are good gauge for the reader experience down the road, like, sometimes I'm bored. And that is really important. I'm like, this is a slog, I can't get through this resource, because I'm so uninterested in, I keep tuning out while I'm reading, if I'm interested in something I'm not tuning out while I'm reading, I'm, like, glued to it. And so I'm like, okay, maybe this is important to put in there. But it better be short, or I've got to figure out some way, some maybe metaphor or something to make it more interesting, a better way to tell this story, then, I can't just slog through this or it's going to be torture for readers. Then the second whole set of emotions is my own emotions as like a struggling writer wanting to kill myself, like trying to slog through these days, I feel like I'm in college, like writing a research paper, which was my least favorite thing to do then, and I'm like, how is this my job right now? This is I hate that sometimes. Other times, it's just like, I don't, it's just that I feels like, this isn't gonna be good. And I'm in despair about that, or I don't know how to do this. Why don't how do I take this topic on? So there's, and then there's exhilarating moments. I'm like, Oh, no, this is going to be good. Okay. Now I've clicked you know, so there's a whole roller coaster for every writer, every creator, I'm sure that I go through. And then there's the emotions about the topic itself.
Jay Clouse 43:01
What about the emotions of like, you know, your posts, the tail end, where you talk about this life calendar and you break down like, we have this many weeks left in our life, as you're realizing that you're making that visualization, and you're seeing it for the first time, or, you know, some of these existential things we're talking about. There's like some potentially bad outcomes that can come from where we are in the point in history right now. And as you're writing about this, Does that ever just like derail you?
Tim Urban 43:25
No, it doesn't derail me? Honestly, if I have a strong emotion, again, side by side with that strong emotion is excitement. Because I'm like, this is the right topic, or this is important. This is the worst feeling I can have is like, why am I Why did I pick this topic? Like, what? does this matter? Does anyone care? And when something I'm like, Oh, that's so sad, oh, my God, that that that, like, drawing is so sad. I'm thinking that's good. Because the sadness is real. It's not like, I'm in venting this sadness, it's there. And it's gonna have it hit home in a way that I mean, I'm only going to do it in the first place. I think it's productive. I'm not going to just try to make people depressed for the sacred. But I'm like, if the emotion is like, this is so sad, and it's making me want to do something like see my parents more, or whatever. Even if it's not as clearly productive. If I'm tapping into some deep emotion. It's almost not my job, like readers will figure out how to make it productive for themselves. But there's something there that we should be feeling for whatever reason. So I think that that, the more the really intense moments are almost always like, I feel like I'm doing the right thing as a writer, which is, you know, that moment, I'm so centered on like, the craft and this is the right thing to be doing and like what am I you know, is this a good thing I'm making, that that's probably more powerful than even like, I am more likely to be excited to keep going than I am to, like, want to stop because I'm sad.
Jay Clouse 44:47
You've been very vocal about the existence of perfectionism and procrastination in your life. And these are terms that are often used pretty negatively, but it seems like you know, you found a way to use them or weaponize them or at least curb them. So do you think about those as inherently negative traits? Are there a way? Because everyone listening to this probably has those tendencies to some degree? How do you how do you recommend they wrestle with them and make them productive?
Tim Urban 45:12
Yeah, I think when I started to I think that everyone, I think this is that almost a universal thing, self defeats in some way, in a way that makes no sense. There's an irrational fear that that just holds them back from all this stuff that could be doing or could be, like, in an irrational stubbornness, that they don't have all these life experiences, they could have whatever it is, or it's procrastination, or it's they, they they eat unhealthily, or they don't exercise or they, I don't want to say, you know, drugs is a, you know, can be in this pit. But that's, that gets to even a second thing, which is, you know, there's also like legit neurological addiction that can happen. But you know, I think it's a slippery, I think it's actually like, I don't think it's a totally different thing. I think a lot of these things are neurological addictions, they're just maybe not like, you know, drugs might be on the end of the spectrum of like, heroin addiction, where you know, you it's physically dangerous to go through withdrawal. But I think these things are all on some spectrum of, we can become addicted to self defeating. And we end and it's this tendency we have, and I think the reason probably we have it is that I don't think people in 10,000 BC, or 100,000 BC, were self defeating. Exactly, because their brain which is just a tool, your hand is, is crafted by evolution to be good at what human hands needed to do and 50,000 BC. Same with your eyes, you know, our eyes were actually better at seeing under the ocean than they ever are on land because their ocean eyes, first their fish eyes, and our brain is the same thing. Our brain is a tool that's been crafted by evolution to be good at what living in New York City and 2020. No, our brain has been crafted to be really good at living in 50,000 BC, socially, productively and whatever else, the fears then the dangers, the things you needed to do that to your brains meant to do. So flashed it today, you take that brain out of its environment, and it brains repressive, it's plastic, it can say, well, I'll try to handle this new environment, but it's not my natural thing. So when you're self defeating, what I think it is, is I think it's that the brain's natural programming, trying to do its thing, misinterpreting this world as the old world and trying to do its thing and it's misfiring. So an irrational fear that was not that based on a real fear back then is now irrational today, and it's holding you back. So I think that this is the problem is that we just our brains are kind of in the wrong place. And it's doing its best, but it's best is often not so great. So when I procrastinate like, yeah, I'm, you know, because our my brain is not meant to be doing long term projects where the dopamine isn't right around the corner. It's meant to be doing long term projects only out of desperation, like hunting, or short term things where the dopamine hit is right. As soon as you start doing it, I realized I meant to be working on this long thing. That's the dopamine hit is three weeks away, and there's not like desperation, my brains, just like why would I ever do this? This is not what I want to do. So I'll self defeat. So that's what I think it comes from. And so I think we all have something like this, maybe multiple things. And I think it's just about understanding why being easier on your brain not being so mad at yourself, you're trying your best, it's trying its best, and then trying to learn to tricky because the brain is not that smart, actually. And you can trick it, you know, you can, sometimes I'll procrastinate on like, you know, the less important things like email by doing the important things like writing, and I'll kind of trick my brain and I'm like, Oh, god, this inbox. I just can't, I can't. And then I'll like, be like, ooh, what if I just skip it? And I go, and like work on my outline, which is way more fun. And then suddenly, I'm working on my real important things. I tricked my dumb brain because he's so excited to not do the email. So that's the thing is you can trick it if you understand it's like a dog. You can train it if you understand it, but it's not naturally going to be doing everything the right way you have to work on.
Jay Clouse 48:55
This conversation with Tim really had me thinking for weeks afterwards, when I asked him what he would say to people who just want to be like Tim Urban, I thought for sure he would talk about how important consistency is. But what I really heard in this interview is a very strongly held belief and the power of doing phenomenal a plus work that stands out. Just as James Clear said the compounding results apply the winners at the head of the growth curve, and doing incredible work is how you stand out. I also really appreciated Tim's careful balance with nuance. Nuance, while important is nearly infinite and how deeply you can dive into a topic. And so even though it's important, it can quickly overwhelm the scope of an idea and make things too convoluted to be useful. I feel fortunate to have had him on the show. And if you want to learn more about his writing go to waitbutwhy.com or follow Tim @waitbutwhy on Twitter. Thanks to Tim for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. I want to hear what you thought about this episode. So you can tweet at me @JayClouse, and let me know. If you really want to say thank you, please leave a review on Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening, and I'll talk to you next week.