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a bee reading a book and talking to themself

When you encounter an insight that seems valuable, share it with people in your own words. Why? Let us count the reasons.

1. As a costly signal

I was going to make “costly signal” link to a reference for those who don’t know the concept, but (a) I’m not finding a clean citation and (b) why not explain it in my own words. Dogfood!

Costly signaling is a game theory concept. Imagine you have information to convey to someone who doesn’t necessarily trust you. If you just tell them the information, that’s cheap talk. Suppose we’re playing a game of chicken where we drive our cars on a collision course to see who’s more macho (pretend you really care about being more macho). If I just tell you “I’m not going to swerve, so you sure better” then why should you believe me? That’s just what a chicken who was pretending to be macho would say. If instead I rip the steering wheel out of my car and throw it out the window, I’ve conveyed a true fact (I won’t swerve) at a cost to myself (not being able to swerve) that actually changes your behavior. You do still want to be macho but not as much as you want to survive, so you swerve and I don’t and I win. Yay for costly signals, kind of!

Back to the question of rearticulating insights in your own words, that’s a costly thing to do. Not as costly as removing your ability to steer your car, but still. If you’re trying to persuade people of an insight you’ve learned, giving your own recap proves that it was important enough to take the time to do that. For those you have credibility with, that carries weight.

2. To make it stick in your own brain

Andy Matuschak (who I was very excited to finally meet last month, at Less.Online) has a post called Why Books Don’t Work with the bold thesis that passively reading books doesn’t do you any good. You steadily forget maybe literally everything you briefly learned, possibly including the fact that you ever read the book at all, after enough years.

Matuschak has a lot of thoughts on solving that problem (like using Anki and other spaced-repetition tools) that I haven’t absorbed well enough to put into my own words yet. But for our purposes, the point is that he’s probably totally right, or at least partially right. And restating things you’ve learned helps a ton. Especially if you write it somewhere, like a blog, where your future self can find it.

3. So your audience will grok it better

By “audience” I just mean whoever’s reading what you’re writing. Maybe it’s just a couple friends or colleagues. I sometimes like thinking of my audience as my past self. If you do that and put it out on the internet then anyone similar to your past self has a good chance of getting value out of it.

(That was me rearticulating a point I heard Patrick McKenzie make once.)

So don’t worry that you’re not as good a writer as the original author. Your audience will grok it better hearing it in your voice.

4. To filter out fake insights

The process of recapping might make you realize it was fake insight with no real substance or actionability behind the pretty or wise-sounding words. Surprisingly common!

5. To plumb the depths of real insights

Or the opposite: you might uncover even greater impact of the idea while figuring out how to explain it.

6. Because it’s not as obvious as it seems

If you’re like me, you’re probably too quick to abandon something when it seems like someone else already did it. It’s like the opposite of not-invented-here syndrome (though, ironically, I’m susceptible to that as well). You’ll read something insightful and then immediately assume everyone else already knows it or that there’s no point in you conveying the insight when someone else already did. There’s an example of this buried in a footnote of our blog post about why Beeminder focuses on nerds. Since these are also my own words, I’ll just quote myself:

[Targeting a narrow niche] is very standard startup wisdom. Those who know it don’t think to mention it to us. After all, we seem to be doing it. (Also no one thinks to mention to us that we’re smart to have an API or to have smartphone apps or to, I don’t know, label the axes on our graphs. Also everything is obvious once you know the answer.) So we don’t tend to hear from those who agree that Beeminder should focus on nerds.

And even if something really is obvious to “everyone”, there’s always today’s lucky ten thousand:


7. If it took time to feel obvious, it’s really not obvious

Ironically, when I first started this list (as part of an old series in the daily beemail called Madhack Mondays) I almost stopped because it seemed too obvious. Everyone knows you haven’t really understood something till you can teach it, etc, right? Remember the classic joke about what mathematicians mean by “obvious”? If you gradually or circuitously conclude something’s obvious, it isn’t. Blog that shiznit. And quickly:

The Writing Process: showing that you need to write something up after you've coalesced your understanding but not so much so that it feels obvious to you

(The source for that image seems to have disappeared but I believe it was created by Twitter user @sarahdoingnothing and I found it via Jacob Falkovich)

Does any of this have anything to do with Beeminder?

Thanks for asking! We have two excuses to blog about this. First, we’re using our new group goals feature to experiment with something we’re calling Book Brigades. To quote myself from the forum post about it:

A book brigade is a very small group of very like-minded people collaborating on getting a book read and understood by taking turns reading sections of it and recapping for the others. I expect it to be powerful because (a) you can get a book loaded into your head from only reading a fraction of it, and (b) the part where you have to explain it to others gets it cemented in your own head much better than reading it alone.

Our other excuse is that, by popular demand, we’re experimenting with a safeguard to keep the Beeminder community Discord from cannibalizing the amazing Beeminder Forum. Namely, if you want an invite to the Discord (and thanks to this gatekeeping, it is in fact extremely high quality and not overwhelming) then you need to commit to also contribute to the forum, via a Beeminder goal. Just a token amount, tentatively once a month. Here’s my own more aggressive goal to post at least every other day:

Screenshot of dreev's forum-posting Beeminder graph

You can beemind that automatically thanks to our RSSminder integration. Specifically, go to beeminder.com/rssminder, click “start a goal”, and then paste in https://forum.beeminder.com/u/USERNAME/activity.rss with USERNAME replaced by your username. Et voila. Now you can start putting this post’s advice into practice while contributing to the Beeminder community. Win-win?