On Being a Loser, or Should you Start a Blog?


Social media is just the market’s answer to a generation that demands to perform. So the market said “Here: perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.”

It’s prison, it’s horrific… If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.

– Bo Burnham, Make Happy

Alexey Guzey wants to persuade you to start a blog. He doesn’t care who you are or what your credentials. You, random internet stranger, should get out there and start sharing your thoughts.

What?

That’s sounds unjustifiably naive, but in his defense, there is a filter. Alexey’s advice is only transmitted to the kinds of people who read his blog, and thus demonstrate themselves to be the kinds of smart contrarians capable of generating insight. I guess that’s something, I’m just not sure it’s enough.

Let’s try this again. Should you start a blog? Here’s the statistical-quirk-insight-porn version: the blogs you read are, almost by definition, among the most popular. You are systematically exposed to success stories while the failures slither silently in the shadows. It’s all selection bias.

If you like writing and you want to write, do it privately. Share it with a few friends. If those friends insist on sending your writing to their friends, and if those friends-of-friends do the same, then maybe you have something good going on. Otherwise, you’d better keep your day job. Quitting isn’t going to turn you into a creative genius capable of churning out the daily intellectual labor that Substack demands.

Or as Byrne Hobart put it, “Writing: Good Career Move, Terrible Career“. [1]

Having said that, the problem is not even you’ll be unsuccessful and waste a bit of time. It’s that you’ll be moderately successful and waste a ton of time. The US median income is $36,000. That’s $28,000 after taxes, which isn’t a horrible opportunity cost… until you compound 10% annual returns less 2% inflation for 50 years, and realize you’re paying $1,300,000 for the privilege of pretending to be a writer.


But of course I don’t really believe any of that. Here I am writing. And honestly, I quite enjoy it!

With those qualifications out of the way, here is the much more optimistic angle: you probably have no idea before you start writing if it’s going to be any good. Other indicators of success are not good proxies, and it’s very hard to tell ahead of time how good you could be with a little bit of effort, practice and editing. [2]

This somewhat contradicts what I said earlier about top Substack authors attending very good schools and having very good jobs. But that’s just one data set. Here are some biographical notes of popular authors you might actually care about:

These are three of my favorite writers. And with all due respect, they’re all massive losers. You could argue that Scott at least had a medical degree (even if it was from a 3rd-tier university). But I’m sorry, if your career plans include the phrase “going back to Japan and seeing if my old English teaching job is still available and whether I can just do that for the rest of my life“, something has gone wrong.

There are a few interpretations.

The first is something to do with growth mindset. Scott, Byrne and Alexey were losers, but then they became smart, capable and hardworking. If true, this implies that you can do great things with your life, no matter how it seems to be doing at the moment.

This sounds nice, but it strikes me as implausible. Sure, you can get better at math and learn new skills, but I don’t think you can just “growth mindset” your way from a community college dropout to world-class writer and financial analyst.

The alternative is much more disturbing, but it’s closer to what I actually believe. The world is filled with deep structural inefficiencies, and there is no guarantee that at this moment, some of our greatest geniuses are not rotting in gutters or trapped in poor institutions. In some ways these writers had difficult lives, but it could have been much worse. For every Wilbur Wright struck down by lawsuits, there may be a hundred Byrne Hobarts toiling away at ASU.

Finally, you might argue that only losers become bloggers, because everyone else is busy working actual jobs and making money. So Scott Alexander looks like a genius, but he’s really just the lord of the flies, or the one-eyed man leading the blind, or whatever your favorite ableist/speciest metaphor is for a winner who’s actually a loser.

That might have been a fair argument before Substack, but these days top authors are so wealthy that it must be a competitive market. It’s possible the non-losers are still catching up and 5 years from now all the top Substack authors will be Harvard-educated ex-Googlers, but I doubt it.

I think it’s just that being successful in real life is genuinely not well correlated with being a successful blogger.

Scott Alexander (presumably) did poorly on his MCAT, but it turns out that had nothing to do with his potential as a writer. Byrne Hobart did poorly in high school, but only along the axis that matters to college admissions officers. Arguably, high school GPA proxies for intelligence, but also for not having anything more interesting going on in your life. Alexey Guzey was addicted to video games, but now he’s addicted to building scientific institutions. It seems to be working out okay.

I still don’t think you should start a blog, but you definitely shouldn’t not start a blog just because you expect it to go poorly.

Think hard, write words, get an audience, find out for yourself.



Footnotes
[1] Disclosure: Byrne Hobart is now a popular and prosperous full-time writer.

[2] More importantly: the upside is so massive that even a 7-figure opportunity cost is easily justified. It’s easy to make fun of hypothetical want-to-be writers for the same reason it’s easy to mock failed entrepreneurs and geniuses. “If I can’t have it, neither can you.” Get back in the fucking bucket. Get back in the fucking box. In the words of Kanye West:

If the slave gets too strong, then the other slaves will feel too proud. So what we’re gonna is take this slave and put him in front of the crowd. And we’re gonna whip his ass every motherfucking day! And tell him “What’s up now??

So when you see the media talk shit about me…