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on low effort
there's probably a correlation between effort and results, but it's an annoying one ⬛️
i guess i did kind of expect my last post, on weather and happiness, to do poorly. it’s a long post, full of references to scientific papers about a question that i thought might be interesting but is ultimately quite niche. still, i tried to make it a fun read, and i poured quite a bit of work and energy into it and — well, it’s just clearly my least popular post of 2023.
to use substack “likes” as a metric (not that they matter much, but they’re a comparison point if nothing else), i got more than 20 likes on each other post i wrote in the last two months and a half, except for that one. it got 4.
it would be unbecoming to complain, though, and that’s not what I want to do here. instead i want to discuss this impression that many of us who write, or make art, or devote themselves to other creative pursuits, can’t shake: that the correlation between effort and results is just… not there.
i think of how making a long, well-researched thread on twitter seems far less likely to become viral than a stupid joke that went from your brain to the feed in 5 seconds and a half. i think of how an artist’s most popular comics are those that felt “just okay” when posting them online, while those that required weeks of tinkering go ignored. i think of how writing a novel is an immense, long-term project that is also approximately the hugest waste of time one can do, considering how very few people care about novels. write a short story, at most. a reddit post. a haiku.
earlier i wrote a post (a popular one!) asking, is hard work virtuous? sometimes it feels that hard work is the opposite of virtuous. hard work is just plain stupid. the more effort you make, the less likely you are to achieve anything.
but of course, that’s not true either. there’s plenty of stuff that would never have come into existence without hard work and effort. my most viral tweet of all time was actually a somewhat well-researched thread. i was a finalist to the astral codex ten book review contest last year because i spent a lot of time working on my book review, and got feedback from about 10 people. occasionally, something i make has success, and it feels like i knew it was going to, because i had put in the necessary effort.
so, sometimes, it feels like there’s a positive correlation between effort and results. sometimes, it feels like there is a negative correlation. add these two sometimes together, and we could conclude that there just isn’t any correlation. it’s just random.
the most probable answer is that the correlation is actually real and positive, but weak. it’s the pale blue picture in that figure. usually, if you put in effort, you have a higher chance of success. but there’s still a chance of failure. usually, if you go for the low effort route, you have a higher chance of failure. but you can still get lucky.
if that’s true, it sounds like you should generally pick high effort to increase your chances. the problem is: this comes at a cost! high effort is, by definition, more difficult and time-consuming than low effort. you can’t put high effort into everything you do. worse, it’s often true that you can make several low-effort attempts for every high-effort one. if the correlation is weak, it may be worth writing 10 low-effort posts and hoping to get lucky instead of taking the same time to write 1 high-effort post that will, on its own, have a higher chance of success than a single low-effort post, but still less than 10 of those.
and hence we drown the world in a lot of low-quality work. the only thing that rescues us is our innate, aesthetic preference for quality. except that then you spend days writing a well-researched, quality post that satisfies your inner critic, and nobody cares.
ultimately i always reach the same conclusion: effort, hard work, technical skill, etc. is never what truly matters. what matters is being interesting. you see it in art, where modern abstract works that consist of simple shapes, like some of the paintings by kazimir malevich, are considered significant: they probably didn’t require a lot of effort, but they were interesting for other reasons. high effort is a way to be interesting, and it’s a good one as these things go — but it’s not the only one, and it’s not always sufficient.
in practice, there are times when it’s best to strive for high effort, and times when it’s better to go the low effort route. my weather post was just a bit miscalibrated. i don’t regret writing it — it got a few good comments! and i learned a lot writing it! — but it just wasn’t as interesting as a shorter post with less scientific evidence would have been. so it goes.
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