I get a kick when I design a system or build a framework of something and someone else arrives at the same conclusion.
It’s a particular kick if it’s someone I respect or admire. That someone is Tim Urban, the founder of Wait But Why.
Wait but why is really a novel disguised as a blog. You’ll see funny cartoons, ridiculous titles and an annoying popup that asks you to subscribe.
But underneath it is a a work of art presented by one of the most insightful education distillers we have today.
Tim Urban began writing a blog called Underneath the Turban (T Urban) where he often wrote really funny stories for his friends which evolved into Wait but Why. I did something similar, wrote a lot of funny essays about trips that I hope would be funnier with the way I wrote. This was on pine email and no social media (wow year 2000 hello).
There are 2 essays I highly recommend from WBW
The Tail End
This is a powerful essay about the time we have left and why it’s important to keep in touch with your parents. Yes you. I know you have been ignoring that but you shouldn’t. Read the essay and enjoy the silly drawings he made too. Here are my favourite parts.
Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life.
and the most powerful line.
It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.
The Elon Musk series
This will get many to roll their eyes. That’s okay. It still makes for good reading. Not counting Steve Jobs who was certainly the flashiest and most charismatic entrepreneur in our recent times, a lot of people know my affinity for Elon Musk. Many years ago, I knew he was on to something when he started SpaceX. It might have been because I was a kid that wanted to be an astronaut and there’s some affinity for space since the beginning or the fact that Steve Jobs is dead and there has to be a hero we can be inspired by. It talks about how Elon’s chances are to forward humanity with the bets he’s taking on sustainable energy, space, traffic, solar harnessing and neurobiology. I don’t know of anyone doing so much across so many fields.
Tim’s series are very interesting. I wanted to know how he compiles, distills and publishes these essays so I went digging into his process and was delighted to see there are lot of similarities.
The first concept is to understand the idea fog. When you begin a topic there’s a fog around your knowledge and understanding and the more you learn and read the more the fog starts clearing and you start orienting yourself in a particular direction. You start to recognise that what knowledge you hold is like a leaf of the tree but you want to really build the tree trunk of knowledge first (what Elon calls the first principle thinking) and then branch out not the other way around.
The first interview is with Tim Urban at YCombinator. The process of the craft starts in the middle of the interview talks about how he goes about tackling a topic like Cryonics.
Here are my notes.
- If you consider knowledge as a 1-10 rating where 10 is the world’s leading expert on something then Tim aim’s to be at 6 with his writing. Most people start at 2.
- He starts with wikipedia and google. He googles the basics like what is Cryonics, cryonics scams, peter thiel cryonics etc and has about 8-10 tabs open on links of this topic.
- The aim of these group articles is to give a foundational understanding, agreements and disagreements of the topic and get an orientation or “clearing the fog”
- There are 2 documents in the start created on Text Edit. 1
- Document 1 is collecting everything relevant: Facts, stats, opinions, counter opinions all bunched together.
- Document 2 is a structure of the story and metaphor that’s forming in his head and sections of the blog post outlining itself
- To understand more he talks to friends and takes a measure of how insecure he is about his knowledge. Once he identifies he then goes and digs deeper into a specifc topic.
- After about a week of all the reading and many re-runs he is at a position to explain to any layman the topic and cover, broadly, all the questions and general doubts that people might have in that area while posing the argument and counter arguments that are popular in the narrative
- This takes about a week and he then distills it into an article that he then adds flesh, cartoons etc to it.
But it’s in this excellent series called the Creator Lab Podcast with Bilal Zaidi that he really breaks down the mechanics of the tools of the craft
There are 3 Phases of learning: Intaking, Processing and Outputting (IPO! get it?).
If I’m having fun ill do more research and learn more about it and write more about it. I take a measure of whether I’m feeling oriented or not. One driver is do I feel foggy and what do I feel foggy about? A topic is very icky at the beginning because my understanding is low and i don’t want to feel like a speaker because it’s not very interesting if you don’t know too much. As you learn the basics of something it suddenly becomes exciting and the ickiness goes away and you go oh i totally get this. You have to have the tree trunk first. You want to feel like oh you kinda get it but you can’t talk about it authoritatively because you don’t have the trunk you are grasping on a leaf or branch
He starts with TextEdit 1992 computer interface. It’s a white square and rectangle you can do stuff with. Something is bolded . Something is italics. Each means something different. Using colours a lot. CAPS, italics, bolds, colours are what he uses. He has 2 big documents.
1 - Collecting links, YouTube, general articles, academics Post link and then post stuff under it. Becomes a giant big document that you come and edit later and put into sections and ideas. About 7-8 runs later. You’re starting to get an idea of what needs to be done. Always start with youtube wikipedia and articles (look at the references) you’ll read all the long explainers as it is happening
2 - The idea doc. Beginnings of outlines. Idea of an outline is trying to form. You start getting a section 12 or so things in a tight outline.
The fog is starting to clear from there you’ll start filling in the gaps and find out the gaps. Now you are starting to orient yourself a lot better as the fog is clearing, at this time theres knowledge and there’s a story that’s starting to form. He starts getting ideas like What is a CPU? Is it a magical city? What’s neuralink it’s a wizard’s hat!
He then goes to the beginning of the original huge doc and go through them and start putting them into buckets. At the end of this you start to have an outline and you have the notes that go through it. You go through this exercise 7 rounds and then you are staring to clarify
At this point the first doc is really huge. But it’s the second one that’s he’s now assembled with a really tight outline. He takes another document and another doc that has the section heading and all the notes and links below it. He creates a Word document on one half of the screen and in the other half he’s got all the notes lined up with the sections and then starts writing the blog post. He adds the cartoons and illustrations and metaphors here to flesh it all up.
I found this process very similar to mine where I read a lot and then assemble it all together in TEXTEDIT files! which particularly thrilled me.
The breakdown is further down with the Creator Lab interview. ↩