I dropped my keys - no, I mean bouncy balls - no, I mean information - in the light and learned to stop looking for it in the dark: An information-seeking parable
River, literally wtf? I thought this was a dev blog
Yes, shh. Hush. This post makes a relevant point that’s useful to developers, but I’m going to be ridiculously self-indulgent about how I make it this one time. Pretend I was an English major or something (I was not). (Fun fact: The English major at Caltech requires “54 additional units of science, mathematics, and engineering courses” (see page 308) (yes, I looked it up just so I could cite this).)
You know that story about how a guy is looking for his keys? He dropped them, and he can’t find them anywhere. His wife comes home and asks, “what are you looking for?” He says, “My keys.” She says, “Where did you drop them? I’ll help you look.” He points across the room, all the way across, to the deepest, darkest corner. “Over there.” She gives him That Look. “Why are you looking over here?” And he says, “Because I can see over here. I won’t hit my shins on the couch like I would over there.”
The moral being that Guys Are Dumb And Don’t Know How To Look For Keys. But let’s hold on a sec. Replace “Keys” in that story with “Five Transparent Bouncy Balls.” Not lookin’ so dumb now, is he? (Also, he totally tricked his wife into finding his keys for him when she got home. He should cook her dinner.)
The moral of MY story is that optimal object-seeking behavior depends on context, like “what is the object.” When “the object” becomes “information,” our information-seeking behavior becomes WILD.
There’s an entire field of scientific research that almost no one’s heard of called Information Science that studies how we look for & consume information. I read and reviewed a fantastic literature review of the field a couple years ago, and it BLEW MY MIND how complex this stuff can be. And……that book is over 6 years old now. The past SIX MONTHS have changed this COMPLETELY with the advent of ChatGPT and other LLMs. Do we trust them? When do we use them? What’s easiest for us to use? What will help us get an answer that “satisfices” our needs the quickest?
This is probably enough background that we can now begin my story. That’s right, my story hasn’t even started.
The story begins
Once upon a time, there was the Big Bang. And then, it was March 27th, 2023. I wanted books about writing marketing content that’s interesting for developers. I have a lot of experience writing content that’s interesting for developers (see: this blog) (at least I hope so), but none of this is marketing content per se, so I wanted books to help me bridge that gap so that I can improve at this very quickly.
So how did I seek the information I was looking for? I consider dev writing to be adjacent to technical writing, so I did the most natural thing I thought of: I wrote a post on /r/technicalwriting and hoped that someone similar to me would see it and say, “yes I am here! I can solve your problem!” and then recommend me some books. Then all would be good in the world.
That did not happen.
I thought, “okay! Not a problem! I am also a developer! I will ask on /r/ExperiencedDevs! Maybe some people there are dev writers or Developer Advocates and can help me with my problem!”
That also did not happen.
Let us, for a moment, pause and look at Past Me. She is waiting for someone exactly like herself to show up and give her The Answer. That is not impossible to happen; the internet is full of people similar to us but better than us in several overlapping skills (but not all) (and we ignore the “but not all,” leading to debilitating Impostor Syndrome). However, is it….likely? Someone who overlaps development AND writing AND marketing has to be actively frequenting one of these communities and notice the post and feel like commenting. Meanwhile, this post is of little interest to anyone else, so no one will upvote it, leading to very little chance anyone will see it.
Here I start using variables
I’ll abandon my storytime mode now and speak plainly. The strategy I’d been employing felt safe. Information seekers tend to go for strategies that feel safe. But safe strategies do not mean efficient strategies, and in this case, my strategy was, frankly, terrible.
Say there are
n areas of study, and you are an expert (relatively speaking) in the intersection of
n-k of them. Not necessarily an expert in each of those individually, but in their intersection. You want to extend your knowledge to encompass all
n, which means that you have to learn about the remaining
k. Consider this as an
n-dimensional graph of independent axes. In order to increase your knowledge the most rapidly, you should study information about these
k fields independently of the
n-k areas that you already understand so that you can increase the volume of the
n-dimensional solid representing “your knowledge space” the most rapidly.
If that somewhat math-heavy metaphor is missing you: You can increase your “total volume of knowledge” the most quickly by learning about the topic that you can learn new things about the most easily, or in other words, the topic with the most “low-hanging fruit.”
You might be nervous to do this; you want to contextualize the new information in terms of what you already know. The thing is, you are currently an expert in your unique intersection. You are completely capable of synthesizing the new information in the context of what you already know yourself; you don’t need the source to do that handhold for you. The new information you’re encountering in the
k directions will ALL be immediately useful to you; you aren’t relearning anything that you already know. You can very quickly consume 80% of the relevant information here. It’s a beautiful opportunity!
On the other hand, attempting to find a resource that tells you exactly what you need to know (the safe option) would result in relearning a lot of things that you already know, wasting a lot of time and only learning a couple new things, just so that you don’t have to do any synthesis yourself. But you are an expert! You are capable of doing this synthesis yourself! Do not look for intersection topics. Brave the new subject on your own.
k for the sake of generality because I was a math major not an English major. Realistically,
n is between
4. To add some words, in my case,
k represents “marketing,” and
n-k is generally “development” and “writing,” although I realize these topics are both enormous and my experience within each is miniscule compared to their totality (and also I am only looking for a small subset of marketing content, specifically copywriting). Maybe for you
k is design, and
n-k is frontend development (so
n=2); depending on context, it can be more or less specific.
So what should I have done? If you said, “go to a marketing subreddit and look at literally anything about writing marketing copy AKA copywriting,” you get a gold star. Fortunately, a commenter in /r/ExperiencedDevs recognized this, because they said, “this sounds like a marketing question,” and at first I was like, “wait but no,” and then I realized, “oh but yes….oh, it really is.”
And then I realized this could literally be a case study in finding the information you are looking for, so I then wrote up this blog post with all its obnoxious storytelling and metaphor before even a single one of the books arrived, although I’m editing it about a week later. I hope you have enjoyed it, and even better would be if you could apply it the next time something like this happens to you. Because I’m sure it will; we interact with SO MUCH information so frequently, and our instinct is to try to find something that feels safe, but often the easiest thing to do is to enter a domain where we don’t feel at home. I don’t think of myself as a marketer (at least not yet), but marketing is what I want to learn, so of course that’s where I should go.
By the way, in case you are wondering what books I bought, here’s the list. That’s available from the /r/marketing sidebar. It’s /r/marketing, what do you expect, the sidebar is amazing. Note however that Everybody Writes has a new edition out, so if you are interested in that one, follow my link and not theirs. I’ve started reading that book now, and it’s been helpful. If you aren’t a confident writer (as in, do you believe in your own ability to write/need motivation), the first 30 pages will be incredibly helpful for you; if you are a confident writer, start at page 31 or so.