You Become What You Write About

Image: Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash

No matter how fast digital software evolves, there are some habits and objects ground in the physical world that draw me towards them. One of these is physical notebooks, usually a Moleskine. I’ve filled out three of them the past couple of years, and brought a fourth half-filled with me halfway across the world. It goes everywhere with me, usually within arm’s length. I used to use Google Docs to take my meeting notes and weekly reviews, and it just didn’t feel as good, which affected my enthusiasm for writing.

The physical act of putting pen to paper, with or without the aid of a computer, makes me feel like I’m actually transforming swirls of exciting thoughts into words, which always are much more ordinary than they felt in my brain. I’m forced to go slower, and more importantly, to think through what I’m actually writing. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog, from which I’d first become mindful of the advantages of analog.

I’d written before about how reading a book was a decision to change. It occurred to me, of course, that the other end of the page—writing it—was actually just as strong, if not even stronger, a medium for changing your own worldview. While I’m certainly no academic—I did my undergraduate studies in consumer behavior—I’ve stitched together a couple of psychological and economic concepts to propose a working theory as to what’s going on:

Enter the Frequency Illusion

The Frequency Illusion or Frequency Bias, known informally as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, is the perception that something you’ve been thinking about or recently learned about suddenly appears more frequently in your environment. Think about the last time you bought a new brand, or a car of a certain color, and suddenly noticed how many freaking people made the same decision. (As I bought Moleskines, I “suddenly” observed how many people also used them!)

Or consider how after reading a book, in which an author introduces new terms and a new worldview, all of a sudden you can’t stop seeing it everywhere. In God, Human, Animal, Machine, author Meghan O’Gieblyn calls this a “doubling,” echoes of an idea, image, or motif that makes the world seem like there’s a discernible pattern or rich with meaning. (In this case, I started noticing Frequency Bias through conversations or in some articles that I was reading.)

When you choose to write and research a topic, you are also making a choice to start paying attention to—and filtering your worldview through—the topic. Author James Clear writes in an interview with Superorganizers, “When you have a big concept in the back of your mind, it becomes a filter that everything you experience runs through.” I didn’t fully appreciate that when I was writing a book on creativity, that it would eventually come to be one of the main lenses through which I saw the world. 

Stack It with Reflexivity

When the Frequency Illusion contributes to how we perceive experiences and reality, it then influences how we behave. Investor George Soros has called this the Human Uncertainty Principle, which consists of two components: fallibility is the human incapability to understand the true complexity of the world, and Soros describes reflexivity, “If investors believe that markets are efficient then that belief will change the way they invest, and that in turn will change the nature of the markets they are observing.”

Similarly, our Frequency Illusion kicks off a cycle of worldview adjustment. It starts causing us to omit other fields and aspects from facts (which consist of observation, omission, and trust). 

In this case, I started seeing creativity everywhere and how this human skill could be used to solve problems, express a deeper shared truth, and to rediscover the joy of hobbies. I also wrote a book about the topic, which will—hopefully!—persuade readers that this is, indeed, worth their time to read and to pursue.

An Exercise In Frequency

This is something I’m pleased to say that I have a bit of firsthand experience with now, having written and revised Creative Doing. There’s no shortage of the benefits and insights I’ve come to on writing this book. I’ll share one example here:

One of the first prompts in the book is, “Relinquish results.” Here’s an excerpt:

Throughout the years, we are conditioned to do things well and to constantly improve. If we’re not doing that, we’re led to believe we’re getting worse. If we regress, we are failures. These beliefs are all based on a flawed assumption: that progress is linear.

At an extreme, this could lead us to chase perfection. If something isn’t absolutely perfect, we believe it’s not worth doing. But perfectionism creates an impossible standard for us to meet. This is just one of many reasons we start procrastinating and get blocked.

Think of the person whose goal in life is to write and release a masterpiece, but isn’t interested in publishing a blog post. Publishing a smaller version first, or a serialized version of the work, might make publishing the larger work easier. In reality, the only failure is to not try, out of fear of making something bad.

I follow it up with an example of physicist Richard Feynman learning to loosen up by drawing with his eyes closed. Of course, there’s no shortage of examples here—the Frequency Bias kicks in—music producer Rick Rubin talks about this constantly, as do many other artists, there’s also Bill Walsh’s The Score Takes Care of Itself: forget about the results, and focus on the process, and the results will counterintuitively turn out better.

This was something I’d known inherently for years, though I really only came to internalize and appreciate it after I wrote the book. I also started noticing this tendency in many other people, and how it crept up in myself in my full-time work or even as I was writing the book. As I started letting go of what I’d expected the outcomes to be, I still saw the same—sometimes even better!—outcomes from situations. 

You Choose What You Write, then What You Write Chooses You

As you research and write, you’ll start seeing your topic everywhere. That’s the whole point: you are learning what you should omit, what you shouldn’t, and why. Eventually, as you spend years researching and writing the topic, and subsequently rehearsing and refining your own worldview, it becomes the starting point for the next work and for how you give back and teach other people. 

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