No One is Even Trying

This post is about how little work people do, but it starts with stories of unusually high output.

Gory Movies
Quentin Tarantino is the legendary directory of America’s most violent mainstream movies. For a while, he’s been talking about retiring after his 10th film. If you count the Kill Bill franchise as 1, he’s at 9 so far, and now claims the next will be his last.

Meanwhile, Japanese director Takashi Miike has made literally 10 times as many movies, finishing his 100th in 2017. His movies are similarly violent, so he’s been compared to Tarantino, and actually cast the American director in his wacky Sukiyaki Western Django.

Obviously, the movies are not all good. His worst movie has a 0% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (98 reviews). In contrast, Tarantino’s worst movie is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which sits at a relatively illustrious 74%.

But it would be a mistake to write off Miike on that basis. Take a look at their top movies instead. Despite its lows, Miike’s filmography also contains 21 movies with audience scores above 70%, twice as many as Tarantino. Here are each director’s top ten films by Audience Score and Critic Score:

(Taranito’s movies tend to have way more reviewers. Data here.)

There are a couple ranks where each director pulls ahead, but overall it’s pretty even.

The point is, Miike’s managed to keep up with Tarantino’s top 10 while simultaneously churning out another 90 movies. When asked about this output in a recent interview, Miike says:

I never set out to make 100 movies. And I never never have a personal motto to make lots of movies, either. I just started making movies, and kept making them at my pace… But at the same time, I’m lazy.

Online Education
3Blue1Brown is a math education Youtube channel run by Grant Sanderson. It spans interactive livestream lectures, visualizations, and approachable explanations for difficult math concepts.

He also has 161 million views, which is just insanely high for a math teacher.

For context, Khan Academy is at 1,806 million, which is 10x higher, but it also has 600 employees! (Not to mention funding from Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and Google.)

In terms of views per employee, that puts Sanderson ahead by a factor of 60. Of course, Khan Academy does more than just produce videos, they also have a gamified app, problems sets and so on.

But still, 60x is just enormous.

It’s worth noting also that KA videos tend to be short because they break each concept into bite sized pieces, around 4 minutes each. Sanderson tends more towards extended essays on a topic, averaging around 16 minutes per video. So if you care about total learning minutes, it’s more like 240x.

Khan Academy has not always had 600 employees, but it’s also been around 12 years to Sanderson’s 5. So if you assume linear-ish growth and an average of 300, and then account for age, these corrections are a wash.

I don’t even know who the point of comparison is here. There are plenty of low-output writers to go around, I’m not going to call anyone out in particular.

But at the far other end of the spectrum, take a look at Byrne Hobart. He’s published 5 days a week, every single week since he launched his newsletter. His last 5 posts are 1968, 2281, 3352, 2535 and 2586 words, so 12,722/week, times 52 weeks, is 661,544 words each year. But the really impressive thing is that he’s simultaneously writing for Coindesk, Medium and Palladium. No, there isn’t any overlap or self-plagiarization.

And then, as I wrote as an edit to my last post, there are people like Heather Cox Richardson who publish literally every day, including weekends. Her word count comes in at 1600, a bit below Byrne, but that’s still 11,200/week. She’s one of the highest paid authors on Substack, second only to The Dispatch, a 15 person team of professional journalists with decades of experience.

Oh right, and she’s simultaneously a Professor at Boston College, authored How the South Won the Civil War, and co-authored Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections, both of which were published this year. I can’t find any mention of her being on sabbatical, and according to some informal estimates, professors work somewhere in the range of 40-60 hours a week.

What’s the deal? How is Richardson able to compete with 15 journalists while running her newsletter as a side project?

It’s worth briefly playing devil’s advocate about each case’s particulars:

  • Miike makes a ton of movies, but a lot of them are garbage. Maybe as long as you try enough times, you occasionally do exceptionally well. Or maybe “director” doesn’t entail the same workload in Japan, and Miike’s delegating to producers, assistants, cinematographers and so on.
  • Sanderson is unusually popular, but that’s not evidence that he’s actually more productive. Maybe he’s discovered a particularly compelling video format, and he’s milking it for all its worth. That’s still laudable, but it’s a different feat that the ones I’m describing.
  • Richardson’s books published this year were probably written in past years, and her Substack is relatively new so it’s not like she was doing both at once. If you can type 80 words per minute and write stream of consciousness, 11,200 words is just 20 minutes a day.

But still, none of that helps explain why there aren’t way more people like this, or why the contrasts are so stark.

The easy explanation is that they just work harder, but in some cases that just doesn’t add up. Danielle Steel has written 179 books, and she reportedly works 20 hours a day. So she’s basically at the limit of what’s humanly possible. But even then, she’s working maybe 2.5x harder than a normal author, and publishing 10 times as many books. By total sales, she’s now the world’s best selling author.

Why does it feel like no one else is even close?

One explanation is that we’re stuck in a double bind. I wrote in Bus Factor 1 that large companies are designed specifically to ensure that no one has personal responsibility, and in Quitting Won’t Save You, I explained some of the surprising difficulties with setting out on your own. Pretty much everyone I know is in one of those two camps.

Escaping the bind takes more than hard work. You have to actually go out and generate your own sense of meaning. You have to build, often without a surrounding social structure, a way of creating value on your terms.

Here’s Danielle Steel from a recent interview:

I grew up in Europe, where it was not considered polite for a woman to be working, and I was married to two different men who did not like that I worked.

Miike’s movies have been banned, not by repressive regimes, but by Finland and Germany. Responding to initial success he said he had

“no idea what goes on in the minds of people in the West and I don’t pretend to know what their tastes are. And I don’t want to start thinking about that. It’s nice that they liked my movie, but I’m not going to start deliberately worrying about why or what I can do to make it happen again”

What I’m getting at, is neither of them seems to be powered by social validation, but they’ve found a way to work pretty much constantly anyway.

But laboring in obscurity is only half the battle. The other half is continuing to do good things once you’re popular. A normal person’s natural instinct is to do everything in their power to maintain their popularity, cater to their audience, and thus become boring. At some point, you are not even a creator, just a fleshy vessel for an idea that already exists independently, and acts through you only as long as you do not exert too much personal will.

It’s hard to express that sentiment in a way that doesn’t sound trite, so let me end with personal testimony. I think a lot about giving up writing. Every day since I started this blog, I have woken up, and wanted to quit. I find myself scanning job boards, or polishing my resume, even though I’ve told myself a million times that I don’t want to go back.

And then a few days ago, something changed. I was featured in Marginal Revolution, then on Hacker News, then on Marginal Revolution a second time, and then Byrne Hobart’s newsletter twice. Practically overnight, there was an influx of subscribers, and more supportive emails than I’ve had time to reply to. From close to 0, I suddenly found myself with a powerful source of external validation.

And it’s horrible. I check the subscriber count 10 times a day. When I sit down to write, I imagine you all judging my work. I’ve read every comment, including all the totally banal ones.

So in one sense, I’m free from the double mind. I have a sense of personal responsibility for my success, and a sense of social validation to go with it. I just don’t know where I go from here to actually produce great work.

I don’t have a neat ending, but in the spirit of Learning in Public in Real Time, I’m recording these thoughts now, and trust that I’ll figure it out later.

A Vote for Jo Is at Most Half a Vote for Trump

I’m embarrassed to even say this out loud, but here it is: A vote for Jo is not a vote for Trump.

I get that this is dumb and pedantic, but here it is:
If you vote for Biden, he’s up one point. If you vote for Trump, Biden’s down one point. So your vote creates a 2 point differential. If you abstain or vote third party, neither Trump nor Biden gets a point. So even if voting for Biden is the default behavior, voting third party is only half as bad as voting for Trump.

Yes, I understands that this is missing the point. I understand that we’re supposed to resist in every capacity such that actions which don’t actively hurt Trump are equivalent to helping him.
I am actually morally sympathetic to that view. I don’t see a distinction between doing good and preventing harm. But even then, let’s not lie. Voting third party is (at most) half as bad as voting for Trump.

Now that I’ve baited you in with non-conformist politics, here’s the punchline:

I voted for Joe Biden, and you should too.

In an earlier post, I quoted the Andrew Gelman / Nate Silver analysis that the average voter has a 1 in 60 million chance of deciding the election. It ranges from 1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state, up to around 1 in 100 billion if your state is hyper partisan.

But that analysis is based on the landslide 2008 election. Obama ended up winning by 9.5 million popular votes and 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173. In the current election, Predictit has Biden winning 290 to 248, a much smaller margin.

In the original model, Gelman et al. write: “for voters in states such as New York, California, and Texas, where the probability of a decisive vote is closer to 1 in a billion, any reasons for voting must go beyond any instrumental rationality.”

But that just isn’t obvious to me at all. There are all kinds of nightmare scenarios where even very low probabilities multiply out to super high utility. What are the odds of one candidate causing a nuclear fallout or second civil war?

I am not an alarmist, but if you put a gun to my head I would put the odds of civil war at around 1.5%. Another analysis has nuclear war at 1.1% annual, so 4.3% over 4 years, assuming independence.

I don’t know what the actual cost of nuclear or civil war is, but it’s worth making up some numbers anyway. Let’s say it’s the US GDP for a generation. That’s 20 trillion dollars, over 30 years with a 2% growth rate, so 800 trillion. (Analysis by same author estimates 5.5B deaths from nuclear winter induced famine.)

That gives us:
$800 trillion / 1 in a billion chance of influencing the outcome * (0.043 chance of nuclear war + .015 chance of civil war) = $46,400.

But of course, it’s not as if one candidate totally obviates these risks. How much better will Biden be at preventing catastrophe? Hardcore democrats might say 50%, or 90%, but let’s say 10%.

Even then, the resulting impact of your vote is estimated at $4,640 which is not bad for 30 minutes of paperwork. And then add on all the non-speculative short term harm, and incorporate the fact that this election is likely to be much closer than 2008.

I don’t know what that all comes out to, but the burden is on you to figure it out. And if you think it’s going to take more than 30 minutes to do the math, you should probably just use that time to vote instead.

How to Become Famous on Substack Overnight (in Ten Years)

Also see How Substack Became Milquetoast.

So go ahead and buy that Java/Ruby/Javascript/PHP book; you’ll probably get some use out of it. But you won’t change your life, or your real overall expertise as a programmer in 24 hours or 21 days. How about working hard to continually improve over 24 months? Well, now you’re starting to get somewhere._

Peter Norvig, Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

That right there is what it’s all about. Laboring in obscurity. Starving and struggling. The man who embraces his mediocre nothingness shines greater than any.

Keanu Reeves, Always By My Maybe

Top Substack authors are known equally for their prolific writing and meteoric success.

Take a look at the top 25 free publications. The median author joined just 12 months ago (average 17), with The Net Paper (#18) just 4 months old, and Big Technology (#16) just 5 months old. ParentData (#3) launched just 8 months ago. According to legend, Sinocism (#5 Paid) hit six figures of revenue it’s first day. Data here.

Part of this is that Substack itself is young. It’s been around for 3.5 years, so on a normal distribution, the average account would be just 21 months old. Except it’s not normal since the user base is growing quickly, skewing the distribution towards new accounts. If you double every 6 months, the median account will always be just 6 months old.

This is great news if you want to be famous overnight, with one catch: most of the top authors had a decade of experience before starting their newsletters. It’s an overnight success, 10 years in the making.

The Dispatch (#1 Paid) founding editor Jonah Goldberg has been a political pundit so long that he covered the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Even before that, he had been doing political research since at least 1992.

It’s not always this clear cut. Emily Oster (#3 Free) writes about pregnancy and parenting data. She published a book on the same subject in 2013, but completed her Ph.D dissertation in health economics in 2005, and was presumably working on it for a couple years before that. Depending on how you count it, Oster’s been working on her Substack for between 7 and 17 years.

Sometimes it’s more explicit. Bill Bishop joined Substack with 30,000 subscribers on his existing email list, Casey Newton joined with 100k Twitter Followers (historial) and 20,000 subscribers on his previous newsletter.

That’s not to say that every popular Substack author literally migrates an audience. Petition (#8 Paid) was started anonymously, so presumably there was no email list, and I have no idea how many years of expertise they had going in.

Since it’s so ambiguous, you shouldn’t take these numbers too literally, but here’s a first attempt at estimating how many years of experience top authors have, counting writing, research, and media.

Newsletter Years in writing, media or research
BIG 11
Margins 9
ParentData 7 - 17
¡Hola Papi! 6
JoeBlogs 24
The Objective 2 - 5
The Signorile Report 27
Nicole Knows 19
Alex Danco’s Newsletter 7
State of Network N/A

A lot of the numbers feel very hand-wavy, so I’m not going to take an average. Sources here.

Even accounting for the ambiguity, I’m pretty confident saying that these overnight successes tend to take ballpark 10 years, either in building a mailing list, gaining expertise, or struggling in obscurity writing words no one will ever see.

A few takeaways:

You don’t need to be in the top 25 to make a living.
Substack doesn’t share subscriber counts for free newsletters, but the top paid ones are in the thousands and tens of thousands. I’m fairly confident they’re counting only the paid subscribers. Some of these are $5/month, but others are as much as $49!

I don’t know what the drop off curve looks like or what the corresponding ranking is, but if you have relatively humble 500 subscribers paying you $10/month, that’s still $60,000/year, plus significant growth potential.

Substack is probably not the harbinger of end times.
I honestly think this weakens some of my other criticism, and strengthens Substack’s argument that it is genuinely a place for writers to achieve financial stability and own their relationship with readers. This isn’t some horrible new wave distinct from all previous media, it’s just a better format for the same authors.

Tangential experience goes a long way.
The top 10 authors all had substantial experience, but it often wasn’t literally writing a previous newsletter. A lot of Matt Stoller’s work was in policy advising and research. The most inspirational example is The Objective (#6 Free) started by Gabe Schneider. He is a professional journalist, but graduated from college just 2 years ago! When I say he has “5 years” of experience, 3 of those are from editing his school newspaper.

But of course, no matter where you’re writing, the biggest takeaway is to set realistic expectations. You probably won’t became famous overnight, and if you do, it will probably be for a bad reason.

[EDIT 10/17/2020]

In retrospect, here’s the most notable thing I neglected to mention:

  • #1 Paid is The Dispatch, a 15 person full-time publication run by people with decades of experience.
  • #2 Paid is Heather Cox Richardson, a Professor of History who also came out with a new book this year, and is, as far as I can tell, running this $600k+ ARR newsletter as a side project.

That’s mind blowing to me.

I didn’t look into every author’s employment status, but two others jump to mind:

  • Emily Oyster (#3 Free) is also a professor, actively publishes research, and had a new book published last year.
  • Alex Danco (#9 Free) works full-time at Shopify.

The obvious objection is that their full-time roles actually enhance their popularity, but I have a hard time beliving that. If you’re optimizing for newsletter success, I don’t think the distinction between Professor and Former Professor is worth 40+ hours a week.

You could convince me that Oster is just a very alturistic person, but what about Danco? The Dispatch is reportedly doing $2M ARR, and I’m sure it’s growing very quickly. I would be surprised if Danco couldn’t quit his job, write full-time, monetize, and come out ahead within a year.

So either he intrinsically prefers working to writing, or he’s being paid very very well at his day job, or he believes, as I described in Quitting Won’t Save You, that quitting won’t make him much more productive at writing.