Content-as-a-Homework-Assignment Needs to Die (and maybe AI will help kill it)

CaaHA (Content-as-a-Homework-Assignment) is the dominant form of online creation for most companies. And it can’t die soon enough.

I’m a bit of an education radical, so I have no problem saying homework is generally stupid and trains people in bad habits. Writing assignments are particularly egregious for their forced criteria and demands of feigned interest.

I once helped my friend who was a grad assistant to an undergraduate philosophy course grade essays. To call them “bad” would be an insult to Michael Jackson. They were anti-life.

Nearly all of them hit the stated criteria – arbitrary number of pages, number of citations, specific concepts mentioned, and arguments made. But they were made with soul-sucking disinterest. The kind so intense it lacks all intensity.

Outright disdain would’ve been better, because at least the papers would’ve had some kind of substance or emotion! Instead, they clinically forged interest to placate an equally disinterested professor (who handed them off to a TA who had to also pretend to be interested. He, in turn, handed half of them off to me, who was immensely interested in the same way one would be drawn to gaze at a flaming dumpster floating in a vat of sewage).

When you’re forced to write to avoid bad grades and calls from your parents, you pump out empty flotsam. Sure, it might check all the boxes technically, but it makes all of us worse for having endured it. Just ask teachers during grading season. Or anytime.

Sadly, this habit continues into professional life. Many marketing teams feel the pressure to have an Inbound strategy, thanks to the successes of pioneers of internet marketing who created a whole new approach. Those pioneers mostly made good stuff. So good that it became the new standard. It became a requirement. It became a homework assignment.

The effective stuff got broken into formulas and checklists, and these got handed down from CMOs who mostly didn’t care about content to assistants who were paid to follow orders, and the proliferation of CaaHA began.

The voluminous collection of CaaHA has changed in particulars as SEO and social media engagement have morphed and been turned into sciences, but one thing has remained: CaaHA’s complete lack of soul.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all about feeling. Creation as a discipline is paramount. You can’t sit around and wait for the Muses to inspire you. You’ve gotta create consistently, no matter the mood. But those daily, habitual acts of creation all don’t need to go on the company blog.

(This is why I love personal daily blogging so much, because you get to develop the creativity-as-a-discipline muscle, but then only choose the best posts or themes to expound into something worth posting elsewhere.)

So yes, create on command. Create consistently. Form a habit. But for the love of all that is lovely, don’t let your company crank out droopy-eyed shite in a panicked attempt to check the content boxes!

This is why telling personal stories is so great. It’s hard to be detached from your writing when it’s about your own life and experiences! And you don’t need to be an expert or appeal to your own authority to do this. Just keep it real, and learn out loud.

OK, so here’s a white pill I’m pondering.

All this new AI generated content seems to have perfectly nailed CaaHA writing. I guess it took a soulless rule-following bot pretending to be human to really capture the style.

At first, this might sound like bad news. Even MORE of this slop splashed across our screens!

But really, it’s good news. The cost of generating CaaHA just dropped to near-zero. This means the supply will inflate so far and fast as to cause the value to drop to near-zero as well. Whatever small, sad part of our brains is still giving this stuff a chance will finally tune it out completely. (Fingers crossed)

That means our brains will be even hungrier for and more attuned to writing with feeling. Halellujah!

That’s bullish for those of us with a heartbeat.

So I, for one, welcome our soul-dead CaaHA generating replacements.

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AI Search

I’ve been seeing a lot of examples recently of an AI chatbot that answers your questions with lengthy replies, vs Google which pulls up the most relevant webpages. Many people feel this is the future of search.

It may be. And a new future for search is not unwelcome. Google has gotten progressively less useful and more paternalistic in recent years, so more options sound great.

When I see the responses from this bot, it makes me wonder what the reference material is, and who writes the code that determines how this information is treated. Results may be faster, and presented in a easier to digest plain English (or at least the uncanny valley AI attempt at it), but is it better or worse when it comes to propaganda, censorship, and social engineering through exclusion and framing?

It seems a world with a single robot-delivered result is more fraught with potential abuse than a world with a bunch of (mostly) human created results a human has to sort through. Both can be manipulated, both require human coders to set parameters, but the messier, less precise results of the latter seems to at least provide some opportunity for unlikely or even unwanted findings.

As the internet gets eaten by AI generated content, perhaps the distinction between these two types of search blurs anyway. I’m not opposed to any of this, but I have a heightened sense of awareness that the internet is not the free-flowing place it once seemed to be.

All of these tools can be useful and wonderful if they are understood for what they are and not mistaken for something else. Treating an AI search tool as the source of truth would be unwise. Treating it as an interesting way to get one presentation of ideas or facts could be useful.

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Throw the First Dart

I saw this image in an issue of the FLUX Review yesterday:

It’s a great visualization of the difference between accuracy and precision.

Accuracy is how close to reality a measurement is, precision is how close measurements are to each other.

Both are valuable, but there is a distinct order of operations needed.

Get accurate first. Then get precise.

If you go for precision first, you’ll spend a lot of time dialing in your measurements, ensuring there’s a logic to them in relation to each other, ensuring you can accurately capture data down to the decimal, and setting up systems to do so.

The scope of your activities will get restricted and locked in based on the needs of the measurements.

Then you go out into the real world and experience a really tight grouping far away from the target, like the second image above.

Better is to just throw the first dart.

Now you’ve got a baseline. You can see how accurate or inaccurate your efforts are. You can adjust the efforts to increase accuracy. After you’ve gotten close to enough the target, you can start to work on precision and tighten your grouping.

The other way around just doesn’t work.

So rather than plotting out detailed OKRs and KPIs and hoping they’re relevant before you get out into the market, go do some stuff first. Throw some darts and base your plans and goals and measurements around the baseline of what you find.

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Feasts

I don’t know why I’ve always loved Christmas and all of its traditions so much.

Every other holiday, birthday, and memorial occasion never meant much to me. Until recently.

I’m a forward looking person, a believer in free will and the power to make any circumstances into something great. So the idea of special days never had much appeal. Why not make every day what you want it to be? Why be hemmed in by someone else’s calendar?

There’s something I still like about my instinctive lack of sentimentalist, but for the most part it has faded away.

Time has worn on and life has brought the concomitant pains and joys – births, deaths, big wins and tragic losses. Each cycle has further opened my eyes to the inescapable reality of the calendar and seasons, with their patterns and purpose. I’ve come to long for the changes in atmosphere, focus, and meaning throughout the year.

Diving into the celebrations of ancient cultures, and especially the ancient Christian church’s calendar of feasts has helped me appreciate the depth of these cycles and the power of embracing and connecting to them all, not just Christmas.

When you get acquainted with the Orthodox or Catholic calendar, you realize something: there are no “normal” days.

That’s when it hit me. The very idea that made me not care about holidays is the one that has these ancient Christians celebrating them constantly: Every day is the most important day of your life.

The difference is they ascribe unique kinds of importance to them on a consistent cadence, where I was sort of just letting it emerge or imposing whatever importance I wanted on each day.

The power of tapping into cosmic and historical realities around each day to focus its importance is immense.

Every day is part of history. Every day is connected to every other. The procession is holy and worthy of observance.

Bring on the feasts.

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Language as Litmus Test

I went to audition for the worship team at my local church and they handed me a sheet of paper that was entirely illegible to me. I realized I was in over my head.

We’ll come back to that.

Everyone praises the use of plain language and decries too much jargon. But, annoying and overused as it may be, insider language serves a vital purpose. It simultaneously divides and binds to maintain cohesion.

The beautiful thing is that language is not (usually) imposed at the point of a gun, but emerges freely and evolves naturally. Its power to both expand and protect groups is peaceful and usually subtle, unlike most other social cohesion mechanisms which have a political or military bent.

Language is one of the 16 kinds of network effects described in one of my favorite works about startups. A network effect is something that increases in value for all current users every time a new person adopts it (Metcalfe’s Law). Language obviously fills this role. The more people speak your language, the more valuable your language is to you and everyone else.

But, counterintuitively, insider jargon doesn’t quite follow Metcalfe’s law. It does at first. Groups that form around shared ideas or pursuits develop their own technical or cultural words or variations on their root language as a way to better communicate with each other. The nomenclature increases in value as more people learn it.

But then it doesn’t. It hits a peak at some point where the other function of jargon takes over. The exclusion of phonies, outsiders, or those who don’t belong.

This exclusion is usually seen (by outsiders) as wholly negative, but it serves a positive function as well. To continue existing, groups require cohesion. There is some minimum proximity to whatever the group is centered on that must be kept or the whole thing falls apart.

Consider a group of musicians. They don’t want total uniformity, otherwise there’s no point in expanding beyond a soloist. But they have to all be close enough to the central theme around which they orbit – a rhythm, melody, or progression.

Back to the worship team.

The exclusionary role of language among musicians is what put me in a bind when I decided to record an audition video.

Though I’m by no means a highly skilled musician, I’ve played on many worship teams over the last few decades. I usually strum my guitar looking at a piece of paper with chords written above the lyrics. “G”, “D”, “Em”, “C”, and so on.

So when I printed off the audition sheet and saw no lyrics or chords, but just a string of numbers, I was flummoxed. “1 2 1 2 – 1 5 4 1”. I thought maybe my computer accidentally spit the whole thing out in Wingdings or something.

Turns out, this church uses something called Nashville Notation. It’s a numerical music system I’d never heard of, but that is apparently popular with studio musicians in the business.

The use of this foreign (to me) musical language served as a valuable and efficient litmus test for the church. They want a certain caliber of player. Those who, like me, are out of their depth with Nashville notation, would pull the band too far from their shared center. It immediately signaled to me that this worship team is for pros. If I want to join, I’ve got to learn a new language and prove it.

The efficiency gained by using insider language as a litmus test is hard to overstate. The cohesion among the group for having gone through the rigors necessary to learn it is also powerful.

Memes serve a similar function in niche online communities. Technical speak in scientific communities. Religious lingo, sports lingo, and foodie lingo all have both the binding and separating function.

Yes, these can be used condescendingly. Yes, people can become cultists unable to communicate outside of their echo chambers. Those are easy criticisms. But the beneficial, peaceful, cohesive properties of insider jargon shouldn’t be overlooked.

I’d rather people bond and exclude with language than with walls or guns.

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Humility is Harder (and Better) than it Sounds

Humility is not about thinking little of yourself. That’s usually a type of pride.

Humility is more about allowing the spotlight to shine on others, and shining it there yourself when given the chance.

It’s about putting your energy towards things that matter, even (and especially) when you won’t get credit for their success.

It’s not about lying or refusing credit when others give it. It’s about the willingness to allow the focus to be on others, and to encourage and take joy in others getting credit.

It’s about ignoring the social balance sheet. Completely letting go of the need to get the credit you feel you’re due. Doing so without pride or pomp, but a genuine joy for others, however the chips and spotlight may fall.

It’s hard because if you’re doing life well, you’ll pour yourself into things with abandon. You’ll spill blood, sweat, toil, and tears. And darn it, the last thing you want is to not get the full credit for your efforts, or worse, see someone else take it.

Humility doesn’t care a wit about all that.

Humility enjoys the effort and results with confidence, doesn’t require applause, and applauds others for their efforts.

Humility knows that keeping score never works, never ends well, and is a lot less fun than keeping joy whether or not you’re recognized for your full contributions.

Humility requires tremendous inner peace. Humility is demanding, but much more fulfilling. It naturally attracts others. Humility adds energy to all who come in contact with it.

It’s not always realized or acknowledged, but humility always wins.

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Could You Take it with You to the Desert?

Would the things you’re spending time on help you if you were alone in the wilderness living the life of a hermit?

I heard something like this question recently and loved it.

It may sound extreme to measure the worth of your actions by whether or not they’d be beneficial if you lived alone. Most of us live surrounded by family and friends and community and commerce, so why not measure the value of activities by how much they help us with these?

Because at the end of the day, one precedes the other. Everything you are and everything you do ultimately comes from the health of your inner life. The point of the hermit thought experiment (or the actual hermit life) is to strip all else away so you’re left with nothing but the company of your own inner life. This is the quickest way to see your true health.

If activities don’t contribute to improving the health of your heart, soul, mind, and spirit, whatever fruits they appear to have will fade fast. If activities improve your inner life and how well aligned you are with spiritual realities, they will yield manifold other benefits externally as well.

This is a penetrating question. It reveals not only how many activities are empty calories for the soul, but how many are actively destructive of a healthy and whole spirit. A heart filled with reactionary anger, or fueled only on the suffering of one’s enemies will struggle mightily in the absence of such external stimuli.

It is also a humbling question, even for the highly spiritual or disciplined self-help practitioner.

Many simple pleasures nourish the soul. Enjoyment of good food, laughter, making a fool of oneself to entertain a child, lavish generosity – these aren’t associated with stoical discipline, yet each adds richness and health to the heart. Other high-status activities like working for picture-perfect muscle tone or praise from strangers for intellectual depth turn out to be pretty useless to the hermit.

The point of this exercise isn’t to condemn, but to open the world up.

How many things that you feel you have to do to be a good person turn out to be making you nothing of the sort? This question frees you from so many cultural and political battles you feel pressured into taking a side on.

It also brings peace.

How many activities does your soul long for that you feel are just not useful enough to your daily life? Asking whether they’d make you someone better able to survive in solitude reveals their value and removes the guilt you feel for spending time there.

Try it out.

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The Antichrist Idea

Movies and propagandistic history have taught us that bad guys are an almost unrecognizable species. They appeal to the bad desires in humans, and only bad people support them.

Heroes, we are taught, are eminently understandable and relatable. They want what’s best not for themselves, but for everyone. Good people instantly recognize and support them.

The idea of an Antichrist is important because it strips away this easy narrative and reminds us the true nature of good and evil.

An Antichrist isn’t some kind of obvious monster gaining power by crushing the weak. They gain power by appealing to the common good, compassion, and progress. They appear heroic. They command devotion. They are a role model.

The danger is that just below the surface, the promises conceal vices.

Not necessarily on the part of the Antichrist figure, but those enthralled by him. The virtues they praise in him are cover for destructive impulses they wish to justify in themselves. The common good is a hiding place for envy; compassion for vengeance; progress for conquest.

Real world villains of the really dangerous sort do not appear uniquely evil, antisocial, or psychotic. They appear heroic, but not because of genuine courage or self-sacrifice, but because they enable us to justify evil impulses in our own hearts by presenting them as positive programs.

It is usually feigned concern for Theoretical Man that causes the greatest harm to actual men.

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Coming at it Fresh

I think about my work all the time. Evenings, weekends, holidays, etc.

This is mostly a good thing. It helps me work better and it’s fulfilling to be connected to what I do.

Sometimes it’s not good. Sometimes my brain gets overcooked on work stuff and I get in mental ruts. I need to come at it like an outsider again.

This requires some effort. I have to create conditions that make it easier to not think about work, and stay disciplined about it. Usually that means finding something else to focus on. Another challenge or project.

When done right, I return to work mode as a new person.

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Solutions vs Problems

A lot of really smart ambitious people love solutions. They get excited about amazing solutions and start building with them. Most of them fail to accomplish anything meaningful.

Why?

Because problems determine the success of a venture, not solutions.

The size, scope, intensity, definability and cost of a problem matters more than the cleverness of a solution. If you find an intensely felt problem in a sufficiently large market that is clear enough to understand, how you solve it isn’t that important.

I remember when I was pitching venture capitalists for the first time and I boned up on all kinds of engineering details of a platform we were building. I’m no a coder myself, but I thought they’d be grilling me about the nature of the solution we were building.

They didn’t. At all.

They didn’t care in the least about the specs of the solution. They cared about my ability to identify and define a clear problem and the provable value in solving it. Then they cared about whether I seemed like the type of guy who could rally some good tech talent to decide the details of how.

They had it right.

Most endeavors fail because someone stumbles upon a really cool solution to a vague problem of unknown size and value, and never really wants to commit to paring it down to something clear.

The problemification process is painful.

Asking things like: What problem is this solving? Who is this a problem for? How many of them are there? How big of a problem is it? How common is the problem? How much would they pay to have it solved? And repeating these questions until you get down to something tangible is annoying.

If you’re never allowed to talk about or explain solutions, how far can you get? Can you paint a problem picture that is so compelling it’s a no-brainer for someone to say, “Oh wow, if someone solved THAT, they’d have a huge business”?

If not, keep trying.

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Be Weirder in Business

“Bring it down to earth” they say. “Land the plane” they say.

Then you write on economic theory from the 1800’s and C-suite from massive companies DM you to tell you they loved it.

There is no shortage of nuts and bolts how-tos and tactics. These are great and often needed.

But people will tell you all the time how much they love and long for more practical application. Just like they’ll tell you they want access to post-event recordings. In both cases, they’re lying.

Practical application can be more fantastical than theories or first principles, because it’s post hoc systemization of things that worked for often unknown reasons.

First principles and abstract theories don’t pretend to perfectly solve your situation. As such, they are flexible, adaptable, and you are in control of how and when to use them.

And they’re refreshing in business! They’re different. They’re interesting.

Don’t be afraid to share ideas on the level most interesting to you. Don’t get lulled into the belief that you’ve got to bend everything into a bullet-list.

Feel free to get weird with your writing!

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Musical Truth

There’s an interesting tension between music for the listener and music for the performer.

How many times have you loved every detail about the album version of a song, then heard a band play it live and change it up? If you’re like me, your first reaction is annoyance. You came to hear and sing the version you know by heart, not indulge some variation meant to subvert your expectations.

That’s the listener-centric view anyway. Peak experience for a listener is something that perfectly meets the longing and expectation they have for each part of the song they know is coming.

Peak experience for a performer is different. It’s more about being in the zone synchronously with yourself and other performers. It’s more about the beauty of surprise, when a choice goes in an unexpected direction, or comes out with a surprisingly perfect sound for the moment.

True transcendence happens when these perspectives meet.

If listeners are totally in charge, music starts to devolve to the least common denominator and ceases to progress. We get nothing but the audio version of Henry Ford’s “Faster horse”.

If the performers are totally in charge, music starts to revolve around ego in a regressive inward spiral. It becomes weird, self-indulgent, and pathological.

The tension between what pleases listeners and what pleases performers is the fulcrum on which musical truth rests.

When the listener is getting enough of what they expect and want, their delight feeding into and challenging the performers, who in turn give the audience more and challenge them with something new, yet not too far off the path. Both challenge and constrain each other. Both want to be pushed to the point where it feels they almost lose control, but never entirely.

The act of writing, performing, and listening to music is on some level always the pursuit of this musical truth.

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