Ryan Holiday tells this story about a finance blogger with more than 100,000 email subscribers and a seven figure business. He wanted Ryan’s help to write a book:
As I sat down and read the emails and articles that this site created, looking for the bones we’d build a book around, I quickly ran into a problem: this person was not actually saying anything at all.
The emails were very compelling, don’t misunderstand. They sucked me from sentence to sentence, paragraph break to paragraph break, and then from one article to the next. They were in fact brilliantly written. I just could not figure out what this person was actually selling. The best I could come up with, after really digging into it, for hours and hours, was that the entire premise of this person’s pitch was: Buy options on stocks that go up in value.
This guy was a brilliant copywriter with nothing of value to sell. He knew how to open loops, keep the suspense, and release the tension it at the right time. He made money selling snake oil with flair.
But if you want to do meaningful and important work you have to push yourself toward substance, stretch your capacities until they are no longer such a stretch. If you want to be a person who people respect, you have to stand for something. Not everyone will like it, but if it’s sincere, they will respect it.
This essay haunted me when I first read it a few years ago. I wondered if it was true of me. I had enough skills to start and sustain a business but was I stretching myself? Was I standing for something? There may have been a bit of imposter’s syndrome seeping into the worry but there was a truth to it.
But rereading this essay now, I’m not as concerned about skill and mastery as I am about standing for something. A reason why we are creating, building, and sharing. The answer to that why has to flow out of somewhere deep within us: the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.
We need skill but more than that, a north star.
The internet has made it easier than ever to learn whatever we are interested in. What the world needs more than mastery is people who care enough to risk being on the hook for someone else.
Putting ourselves out there for someone specific, in a specific way, for a specific cause is scary. But that’s the way we can change things for the better.