Where Have All the Humble Writers Gone?

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

When I was growing up, I had a bit of an attitude problem. I wasn’t violent or unruly. I didn’t swear in class or bully fellow students. The comment that teachers were leaving on my report card was less common: I was haughty.

I was also twelve, so I neither knew what haughty meant nor really cared. However, as I grew older I started realizing that my attitude was a barrier to having healthy social interactions. I decided to work on it, try to show more empathy and compassion, assign high moral value to displays of humility and integrity.

This began taking an opposite and insidious toll on my personality — one I wouldn’t notice until many years later. My unhealthy attitude toward humility meant that I was constantly being hard on myself, putting myself down. My failures were mountains, my achievements were molehills. I began to feel like I had nothing interesting to say, nothing worthwhile to contribute.

This became a real issue when searching for a career path. Morally, I felt driven to find a job where I could help others. But my true passion is writing.

Digital media discourages humility

Self-publishing is in its very essence an act of pretension. Even here, in putting out this piece, at some level I’m claiming “I have something worthy to say, and you should listen.”

This attitude toward writing is made worse by trends in digital media. We are encouraged to keep our texts short and simple. We should refrain from prefacing our assertions with “I think,” “I believe,” “in my opinion,” “I could be wrong.” The reader should assume that we are capable of nuance and self-awareness — that indeed everything we write is implicitly prefaced by “This is my opinion, but I recognize I may be wrong.”

Now, I may be wrong, but in my opinion that way of thinking has had some toxic consequences. First of all, not all writers are self-aware. From from it. Many get angry at the mere suggestion that they may be wrong — especially on social media, where everybody is right, all the time, always. This instinctive defensiveness is one of the reasons many of us retreat into our own bubbles of consumed content, where we reject any information that challenges our fundamental world views.

One top of that, in our interconnected world, audiences have become more diverse than ever. It is beyond humanly possible for a writer to understand the perspectives of all their readers. What we write will always sound stupid, disconnected or wrong to someone, which can be hard to accept when we pour our hearts into our work. In response, too many writers have abandoned any attempt to integrate nuance into their work. Which leads me to my next point.

Five AMAZING ways to write catchier subtitles!

Because of how complex audiences have become, it feels like professional writing has turned into an act of self-marketing. We know we can’t appeal to everyone, so we have to dissect the market, find our target reader (yes you, the 25-to-35-year-old urban working professional middle-class college-educated female), understand their echo chamber, and pretend to be an expert in what they want to hear.

Then, the algorithms will go to work, cleverly selecting the articles they’re mostly likely to read. Nothing too long — people are busy. Also the best articles containt simple recommendations for action, because thinking is mentally taxing and we like our content pre-masticated.

Through this process of industrialized production, our content shelves become stacked with self-help pieces and listicles. To illustrate, here are a few headlines that I’m certain you’ve seen before on almost every online media website:

“3 SIMPLE Steps to Make 6 Figures as a Writer”

(Step one, pander. Step two, get corporate sponsors. Step three, quantity over quality.)

“I Left My Job, And Now I’m Extremely Happy and Successful”

(You’re obviously not recommending we all leave our jobs, which means you’re just bragging)

“12 Ways to Be More Productive”

(№ 9 will surprise you! It’s “Stop wasting time reading listicles”)

“4 Ways to Boost your Creativity”

(We weren’t creative enough to come up with more than four)

In the era of mass content, writers have veered away from applying even a veneer of humility, preferring the raw aesthetic of unpolished braggadocio. Nuance is doubt and doubt is weakness. Presenting a counterargument is seen as negative, and in these dark times audiences are desperate for a win-win.

Does having thought leaders make us thought sheep?

This trend toward content creators posing as savants has led to the proliferation of a new qualification: Thought Leader. These are the discount philosophers of the digital age. They observe the world around them, come up with an interesting idea, and use modern marketing and communication techniques to turn that idea into a lucrative career.

I’m not talking about genuine academics and researchers who have done the work to make sure their claims are backed by science and data. I mean the common-sense gurus. Those who think that because an idea is new to them, it must be new to world. The gifted salespeople who can shut out all criticism and find the self-confidence to sell their ideas as revolutionary. They make their money not because their ideas actually are revolutionary, but rather because the packaging is appealing and there are no negative side-effects listed on the label.

There as an extent to which I’m jealous of the thought leaders. I wish I could think as highly of the ideas I come up with. I wish I could flip a switch to turn off all hesitation and sell myself as star-spangled awesome. But their modus operandi comes with a major risk: There is no such thing as a perfect idea. Every way anyone has ever come up with to bring happiness to a large number of people has had trade-offs. There are no complete win-wins, and readers should be skeptical of anyone selling their ideas as one.

A healthy dose of humility and skepticism

I obviously don’t encourage anyone to be like I was; shying away from public scrutiny due to a pathological and self-inflicted lack of confidence. Disseminating ideas is important — in fact, it’s the only way we can make progress as a civilization. Fear shouldn’t be a barrier to us interacting with one another, especially now that we have the technology to do so on an unprecedented scale.

However, when it comes to writing, I would like to advocate for a healthy dose of humility. Not every article has to read like a sales pitch from a mid-afternoon infomercial — every story has hardships and downsides that readers are entitled to know about. Not every sentence should begin with “in my opinion,” but there should be room to showcase doubt and uncertainty in writing. Not every piece has to be written by a Harvard professor or Fortune 500 CEO to have credibility, but we should have the intellectual honesty to recognize our own limitations and write with integrity.

And when it comes to readers, I know this is going to seem self-evident to many, but critical thinking is essential to content consumption. Reading is not passively downloading content into the brain. It falls upon the reader to sort the gems from the duds — to go beyond the nicely packaged ideas and look into the author, the context, the sources and the quality of the information being presented. As our societies are becoming polarized and algorithms isolate us into neat content bubbles, it is more important than ever that we be active and skeptical readers.

I recognize a hint of irony in that I myself am not a researcher or academic, and that my writings reflect ideas that are based on my own limited experience. Nevertheless, if I can play even a small part in reducing the volume of self-help articles and listicles that stack the shelves of the digital media market, I will feel at least somewhat satisfied. I hereby invite you to join me on my quest. Let’s make the digital landscape fertile for humble writers to thrive once more.

Mostly thinker, sometimes writer. Aspiring author. Polyglot. Background in Human Rights Law. Find me on twitter @alexstwrites or at www.theforeignrational.com

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