One of my favorite Tyler Cowen posts is The High-Return Activity of Raising Others’ Aspirations. In it, he writes:
At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.
This is a great tip. But I think there’s more to say about this general subject. Encouraging other people can take many forms. I try to encourage others a lot—I want the bright, interesting people around me to do good work that fulfills them. And I’d encourage you to do the same, provided there are people around you who aren’t totally confident about what they’re doing yet.
Point Out What People Are Good At
Often, people have little insight into their gifts. It makes sense: when you’re good at something, it can be because difficulties that are visible to other people are transparent to you. Also, leaning into your gifts can feel like cheating, because it makes things easier, not harder. This can be especially true in creative expression, where people often do best when they’re closest to their instinctive vernacular, whether that’s linguistic, melodic, or otherwise. So it can be really helpful to point out what someone is good at.
This doesn’t have to take the form of coaching or intense feedback sessions, although if you have a relationship with someone such that you can give them detailed feedback, that can be a real gift. Often, the best way to do it is to issue a very specific compliment. People love specific compliments. Something like, say, “I really love how naturalistic and easygoing your writing is. You’re really great at capturing mundane emotions—you make common human experiences come alive in a way that’s unusual.” One thing worth remembering, here, is that people never receive feedback on their work. Even people with a seemingly large number of friends, colleagues, Twitter followers, etcetera, might be receiving a paucity of feedback, and might be totally in the dark about what they’re doing unusually well.
Suggest What Seems Obvious to You
Sometimes it can seem obvious to you that someone might consider trying some project, obvious enough that it’s not necessarily even worth suggesting. But they might have no idea, so it’s worth asking. Typically, people will not mind if you say something like this: “hey, have you considered trying x thing? I think you’d be great at it.” This is something that others have done for me repeatedly and it’s made a large difference. For example, my agent, upon hearing me say I was too obsessed with chess to write anything, asked me whether I should maybe write a chess book. Ben Kuhn told me that I should write more advice posts, and they have typically done very well for me. My friend Hormeze asked me to write about the art of conversation, which I hadn’t considered doing, even though that’s a subject I’d thought about a lot—the resulting post was pretty widely read.
This List of Questions Is Very Good
This list, by Chana Messinger.
Just Do Simple Shit
Almost nobody is beyond feeling good when you say “good job” or “I love this” or “nice work” or give them an upvote on some social media platform or share their stuff. This is a free way to sculpt the world in the ways you’d like it to be sculpted. Do this liberally. If you think this is too elementary for you, or that it would harm the veneer of sophistication that your social media account tries to project, get over yourself.
Be Willing to Be Slightly Annoying, Sometimes
Annoying people a lot isn’t productive, most of the time. Being willing to annoy other people a little bit at the right times, on the other hand, is a useful social skill. Sometimes, annoying people a bit is the cost of being vehement, and the benefits can outweigh the downsides. For example: I have heard that, occasionally, Alexey Guzey will essentially show up at someone’s house and refuse to leave unless they finish something they’ve been postponing. I have heard this from people who were extremely grateful to Alexey for doing this, although at the time they were slightly annoyed.
There are a few talented writers who are internet acquaintances of mine, who don’t always produce work at the volume they say they want to. So, I make a point of harassing them about it on WhatsApp or email now and again. I am sure that this has annoyed some of them at least slightly. On the other hand, they are now producing more work. This is a tradeoff that I’m happy with. Sometimes people need affirmation, even if they don’t like that they need affirmation. There are surprising examples of this. Karl Ove Knausgaard needed a friend to tell him, continuously, through the writing of My Struggle, one of the most celebrated literary works of the last few decades, that it was good and interesting.
Create a Simple Mutual Accountability System
People don’t do this, because they think accountability systems have to be complicated. They don’t. Simple accountability systems can be enough. For example, I have a Facebook messenger thread with some other people who share fitness goals. The default emoji is set to a flexing bicep, so we can hit one button to offer each other affirmation when we post our workout results. It has increased my adherence to my workout plan, and I’d imagine it’s true of the other people in the group as well.
You Can Be On About Something, Repeatedly
If there’s one self-improvement action you really believe in, like one thing you think people should commonly do, but don’t, there is nothing stopping you from just recommending it a lot, and this can be really effective. For example, I’m a big believer in strength training—I think a huge number of people would benefit from doing a few months of basic strength training, even if they don’t continue afterward. The number of positive health implications of noob gains is enormous, even weighed against the (modest) risk of injury and the (relatively modest) difficulty. I’ve written about it repeatedly, I tweet about it semi-regularly, and I talk about it a fair amount. (I just did, one more time! Oh, and I now recommend GZCLP over Stronglifts. )
Probably someone is tired of hearing about this, from me. However, as a result, maybe a dozen people I know are significantly stronger and healthier, and I’ve probably influenced more people who I don’t know about in this way. Given the extremely positive externalities of increased physical health, this is probably one of the more beneficial things I’ve ever done.
Visakan has made an art of posting a few dictums, like “joke about the outcomes you want” and “focus your time and energy on what you want to see more of” one million, billion times. These are interesting, good pieces of advice that I didn’t take seriously initially. But then I saw them a bunch more, and now I do. Advertisers take advantage of the fact that repetition creates familiarity—why don’t you, if you’re suggesting genuinely good things that you have some faith in? I will probably post about strength training at least ten more times in my life.
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great post - you are excellent at this.
also love the point about being slightly annoying - ive done this with a few people and they always appreciate it after - sometimes people just realize they dont wanna do the thing too, which can be sad for both sides
hm, doing this assumes that you know exactly what the other person wants, and i think that's usually a very difficult boundary to navigate