Sunday, November 20, 2016

Rare and Valuable

"Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It." Oooh... this could be interesting. And, unsurprisingly, it's beginning to make the rounds of social media. Let's see what it has to say.

In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.
Okay, I can understand this point. Let's see where it goes next.
Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated. The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about. This is a philosophy perhaps best summarized by the advice Steve Martin used to give aspiring entertainers: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you do that, the rest will work itself out, regardless of the size of your Instagram following.
Aha. And now we arrive at the crux of the matter. The idea that there is no way to use social media such that it becomes a useful craft that can be applied to things that people are about in ways that are rare and valuable. Right. Now that we have that sorted, let's see what his arguments are in favor of that premise.

None, apparently. And this is where this piece falls down. Because it never takes up the idea except in passing, that using social media cannot be, in and of itself, a useful craft and/or a way of applying a craft to things that people care about. In reality, almost no field of human endeavor qualifies as decidedly rare or valuable on its own. Talking to people is neither rare nor valuable. Neither is playing sports, painting pictures or playing poker. Just about everyone can do these things with some basic level of skill, and can learn to do them better. I've done each of them at least once in my life. But certain people, like Hillary Clinton and Rudolf Giuliani have earned millions of dollars for nothing more than getting up on stage and reading a speech that they likely prepared in advance. Likewise, top athletes in certain sports are making seven or eight figures annually, doing more less the same thing that grade and high-school kids do on the field next door to my apartment complex. I once watched a documentary on an artist who threw paint into jet engine exhaust, and allowed it to splash onto a canvas, and could pull down more than $10,000 for a piece - and people are still making art this way. And I suspect that we all know that winning the World Series of Poker can result in some pretty big prizes.

What makes the way people speak to audiences, play sports, create paintings or play poker into a useful craft that is applied to things that people care about in a way that makes them rare and valuable is not baked into the activity itself. Like I said, almost anyone can do them, to the degree that being unable to do any of them would likely be counted as a serious handicap. And what the author of the Op-ed, Cal Newport, never does is differentiate the use of social media from these other things - or any other things. Social media is a tool. To say that it is not possible to be skilled enough at using that tool to create "things that matter," is to place it into a very small category.

In the end, what Mr. Newport is really inveighing against is allowing unimportant things to distract us from putting in the 10,000 or however many hours it takes to become really skilled at something, and making sure that you're directing that towards things that other people value enough to pay for. Which is fine; it's perfectly sound advice. But the unique conflation of "social media" with "unproductive distraction" is an assertion that requires more than being stated to be proven. His New York Times piece is simply the latest entry in a long history of people looking down their noses at those who have the temerity to do something that they don't understand, and can't figure out how they themselves would make a living at. And they can't be bothered to find someone who is doing it, and ask them.

Mr. Newport has never had a social media account. Given that he tends to see them as merely gateways to professional ruin, that makes sense. But that doesn't then give one permission to claim that this understanding of social media is based on objective truth, rather than anecdote or personal experience. Because I can find countless stories about people who put everything they had into a particular endeavor, and because they were unable to separate their need to keep themselves entertained from what they hoped would be a lucrative career, they crashed and burned. But that was due to a lack of focus on their part. And while it may have been aided and abetted by their choice of entertainment/career, other people have taken that same paths and succeeded.

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