No One is Even Trying

This post is about how little work people do, but it starts with stories of unusually high output.

Gory Movies
Quentin Tarantino is the legendary directory of America’s most violent mainstream movies. For a while, he’s been talking about retiring after his 10th film. If you count the Kill Bill franchise as 1, he’s at 9 so far, and now claims the next will be his last.

Meanwhile, Japanese director Takashi Miike has made literally 10 times as many movies, finishing his 100th in 2017. His movies are similarly violent, so he’s been compared to Tarantino, and actually cast the American director in his wacky Sukiyaki Western Django.

Obviously, the movies are not all good. His worst movie has a 0% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (98 reviews). In contrast, Tarantino’s worst movie is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which sits at a relatively illustrious 74%.

But it would be a mistake to write off Miike on that basis. Take a look at their top movies instead. Despite its lows, Miike’s filmography also contains 21 movies with audience scores above 70%, twice as many as Tarantino. Here are each director’s top ten films by Audience Score and Critic Score:

(Taranito’s movies tend to have way more reviewers. Data here.)

There are a couple ranks where each director pulls ahead, but overall it’s pretty even.

The point is, Miike’s managed to keep up with Tarantino’s top 10 while simultaneously churning out another 90 movies. When asked about this output in a recent interview, Miike says:

I never set out to make 100 movies. And I never never have a personal motto to make lots of movies, either. I just started making movies, and kept making them at my pace… But at the same time, I’m lazy.

Online Education
3Blue1Brown is a math education Youtube channel run by Grant Sanderson. It spans interactive livestream lectures, visualizations, and approachable explanations for difficult math concepts.

He also has 161 million views, which is just insanely high for a math teacher.

For context, Khan Academy is at 1,806 million, which is 10x higher, but it also has 600 employees! (Not to mention funding from Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and Google.)

In terms of views per employee, that puts Sanderson ahead by a factor of 60. Of course, Khan Academy does more than just produce videos, they also have a gamified app, problems sets and so on.

But still, 60x is just enormous.

It’s worth noting also that KA videos tend to be short because they break each concept into bite sized pieces, around 4 minutes each. Sanderson tends more towards extended essays on a topic, averaging around 16 minutes per video. So if you care about total learning minutes, it’s more like 240x.

Khan Academy has not always had 600 employees, but it’s also been around 12 years to Sanderson’s 5. So if you assume linear-ish growth and an average of 300, and then account for age, these corrections are a wash.

I don’t even know who the point of comparison is here. There are plenty of low-output writers to go around, I’m not going to call anyone out in particular.

But at the far other end of the spectrum, take a look at Byrne Hobart. He’s published 5 days a week, every single week since he launched his newsletter. His last 5 posts are 1968, 2281, 3352, 2535 and 2586 words, so 12,722/week, times 52 weeks, is 661,544 words each year. But the really impressive thing is that he’s simultaneously writing for Coindesk, Medium and Palladium. No, there isn’t any overlap or self-plagiarization.

And then, as I wrote as an edit to my last post, there are people like Heather Cox Richardson who publish literally every day, including weekends. Her word count comes in at 1600, a bit below Byrne, but that’s still 11,200/week. She’s one of the highest paid authors on Substack, second only to The Dispatch, a 15 person team of professional journalists with decades of experience.

Oh right, and she’s simultaneously a Professor at Boston College, authored How the South Won the Civil War, and co-authored Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections, both of which were published this year. I can’t find any mention of her being on sabbatical, and according to some informal estimates, professors work somewhere in the range of 40-60 hours a week.

What’s the deal? How is Richardson able to compete with 15 journalists while running her newsletter as a side project?

It’s worth briefly playing devil’s advocate about each case’s particulars:

  • Miike makes a ton of movies, but a lot of them are garbage. Maybe as long as you try enough times, you occasionally do exceptionally well. Or maybe “director” doesn’t entail the same workload in Japan, and Miike’s delegating to producers, assistants, cinematographers and so on.
  • Sanderson is unusually popular, but that’s not evidence that he’s actually more productive. Maybe he’s discovered a particularly compelling video format, and he’s milking it for all its worth. That’s still laudable, but it’s a different feat that the ones I’m describing.
  • Richardson’s books published this year were probably written in past years, and her Substack is relatively new so it’s not like she was doing both at once. If you can type 80 words per minute and write stream of consciousness, 11,200 words is just 20 minutes a day.

But still, none of that helps explain why there aren’t way more people like this, or why the contrasts are so stark.

The easy explanation is that they just work harder, but in some cases that just doesn’t add up. Danielle Steel has written 179 books, and she reportedly works 20 hours a day. So she’s basically at the limit of what’s humanly possible. But even then, she’s working maybe 2.5x harder than a normal author, and publishing 10 times as many books. By total sales, she’s now the world’s best selling author.

Why does it feel like no one else is even close?

One explanation is that we’re stuck in a double bind. I wrote in Bus Factor 1 that large companies are designed specifically to ensure that no one has personal responsibility, and in Quitting Won’t Save You, I explained some of the surprising difficulties with setting out on your own. Pretty much everyone I know is in one of those two camps.

Escaping the bind takes more than hard work. You have to actually go out and generate your own sense of meaning. You have to build, often without a surrounding social structure, a way of creating value on your terms.

Here’s Danielle Steel from a recent interview:

I grew up in Europe, where it was not considered polite for a woman to be working, and I was married to two different men who did not like that I worked.

Miike’s movies have been banned, not by repressive regimes, but by Finland and Germany. Responding to initial success he said he had

“no idea what goes on in the minds of people in the West and I don’t pretend to know what their tastes are. And I don’t want to start thinking about that. It’s nice that they liked my movie, but I’m not going to start deliberately worrying about why or what I can do to make it happen again”

What I’m getting at, is neither of them seems to be powered by social validation, but they’ve found a way to work pretty much constantly anyway.

But laboring in obscurity is only half the battle. The other half is continuing to do good things once you’re popular. A normal person’s natural instinct is to do everything in their power to maintain their popularity, cater to their audience, and thus become boring. At some point, you are not even a creator, just a fleshy vessel for an idea that already exists independently, and acts through you only as long as you do not exert too much personal will.

It’s hard to express that sentiment in a way that doesn’t sound trite, so let me end with personal testimony. I think a lot about giving up writing. Every day since I started this blog, I have woken up, and wanted to quit. I find myself scanning job boards, or polishing my resume, even though I’ve told myself a million times that I don’t want to go back.

And then a few days ago, something changed. I was featured in Marginal Revolution, then on Hacker News, then on Marginal Revolution a second time, and then Byrne Hobart’s newsletter twice. Practically overnight, there was an influx of subscribers, and more supportive emails than I’ve had time to reply to. From close to 0, I suddenly found myself with a powerful source of external validation.

And it’s horrible. I check the subscriber count 10 times a day. When I sit down to write, I imagine you all judging my work. I’ve read every comment, including all the totally banal ones.

So in one sense, I’m free from the double mind. I have a sense of personal responsibility for my success, and a sense of social validation to go with it. I just don’t know where I go from here to actually produce great work.

I don’t have a neat ending, but in the spirit of Learning in Public in Real Time, I’m recording these thoughts now, and trust that I’ll figure it out later.