Drowning in the How
“Sorry mate. You ‘erd of TikTok?”
The following article was written by Craig Burgess, the mind behind the publication Craig’s Cabinet of Meagre Offerings, and a fellow philosopher, colleague, flaneur, and bohemian, in the Soaring Twenties Social Club with me. In his publication Craig writes iconoclastic fiction and essays about being on (and around) the internet. If you want to escape the BS and learn some real truths, I highly recommend you subscribe to Craig’s publication here.
This article originally appeared here. I’m sharing it with Sovereign Artists because Craig has explored some interesting truths about being an artist in the modern age, and he has graciously agreed to let us republish it for Sovereign Artist newsletter subscribers. We’ve made today’s post, and comments open to all members, including our free members.
Editor’s Note: In two days, this post will be locked and is available only to paid members because we don’t want this duplicate content on the open web in a way that might draw traffic away from the original post. If you are not a sovereign artist club member, you can still read the entire post here.
I’m sick of smelling paint fumes. Every morning, I get into the lift at work, and it smells of paint. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the casual paint fume as much as anybody1, but I’m just about at the end of my tether now. I’d like to say I’m at the end of the line with it, but they haven’t painted the line yet.
It’s that time of year. The time of redecoration. The time for reflection and renewal. The time for whitewashing, both literally and metaphorically. It’s time for us all to reflect on the year that’s passed to make plans for the year that’s about to arrive. It’s time for us to say ‘let’s leave that until after Christmas’. It’s that time of year for me to moan about paint fumes.
Amongst these paint fumes—rather expectantly—is a painter. A man who’s professional purpose in life is to transfer the paint from the pot to the wall via the medium of a brush. From the outside, it seems like a simpler existence. One that I’m secretly jealous of. No computers or sitting on your arse all day long. You’re doing real work. Your progress is visible in front of you on the wall you’re painting, like a real-time loading bar. Progress is black and white, not shades of grey. Unless of course, you’re painting in grey.
I’ve seen this painter several times over the last couple of weeks and we’ve shared pleasantries. He always seems to be on a cig break when I turn up to work, so we’ll have a little conversation moaning about the weather or our relative distance to the weekend. The last time I saw him, he was entranced by his phone. He didn’t seem to be blinking, as if somebody had hit the pause button on his existence. As I got closer, he seemed to snap out of it, slightly embarrassed. He started mumbling to me.
“Sorry mate. You ‘erd of TikTok?”
I smiled at him. Just the usual pleasantries. I sensed this wasn’t the time or place to launch into a tirade about how TikTok and all social media is killing our attention spans with their mind-rotting content. And, what even is content anyway?
“Yeah. I’ve heard of it. I deleted the app though. I found it too addictive.”
My words ‘addictive’ seemed to make his eyes open wider than they ever had done. As if he’d just found the exact word to describe his current situation.
“Yeah... My mate told me to download it. Now I can’t stop watching the videos. It’s like it knows me as well. I love making oil paintings. Now all I seem to do is watch people making oil paintings.”
Forget James Clear and the other Wisdom Influencers. The RealWisdom in this world is found amongst the people working ordinary jobs doing ordinary things. They know exactly how the world works. They know what they’re doing wrong (and right). They’re just deciding—at that time—to continue doing it. Conveniently for this piece—the painter had proffered some wisdom for us to explore today. Just why are we all watching people make oil paintings, instead of making our own?
I know why, because I work in marketing. I tell my clients at least every few days to non-ironically ‘provide more value’ and ‘become a resource’ and ‘write useful content’. I say this genuinely. Lots of my clients have deep knowledge of subjects that aren’t widely covered on the web. They’re getting drowned out by the have-a-go value-adders who know nothing about nothing, but they spotted a ‘niche’.
And if you’re attempting to ‘spot a niche’, you’re one of those people who has decided you want to be a ‘content creator’. In my experience, most people who have decided to become content creators have nothing interesting to say, but an intense desire to say something. An intense desire to collect ‘followers’ of their generic work. And crudely, to turn those followers into money.
But that’s where it all goes wrong. If you have nothing interesting to say, but you want to say something, what do you choose to say? If you’re not creative but you’d like to create, where do you begin?
With the ‘How’.
Let’s pluck a fatuous niche out of the air right now. Say you’re a baby faced content creator, desperate to start talking about something online. You’ve got no particular interests. In fact, you’re not particularly interesting. You’ve spotted a rising trend of people discussing wooden shelves online though, so you’ve decided to become The Wooden Shelves Guy.
Now, wooden shelves is a...wooden topic. It’s boring. But there’s 1.2 million monthly searches for wooden shelves. People buy books and trinkets and candles and other shit that they want to put on shelves. So you decide you’d like to become an influencer in this area. But first, you have to build influence. To build influence you have to show knowledge—that you’re an expert in the field of wooden shelves.
To do that, you’d start making content about wooden shelves2, the easy and non-creative way to build expertise is to begin to talk about The How.
How can I find the perfect wooden shelf?
How can I build the perfect wooden shelf?
How do I sand a wooden shelf?
How do I paint a wooden shelf?
How do I source wood for a wooden shelf?
This goes on, ad nauseam, until you have sufficiently built expertise. You are now a Wooden Shelf Influencer. How exciting. You have successfully utilised The How.
But there’s a big elephant in the room. I’ve just discussed how to do this in one extremely specific niche. Don’t forget: this is the same tactic that everyone is using in every niche everwhere across the entire web. Millions of new Hows every single day. Millions of new tweets, facebook posts, instagrams, snapchats, YouTubes, TikToks, podcasts, emails, blog posts, books, ebooks. Every. Single. Day. All telling you how to do something. But not letting you get on with it.
Just like the painter I see every morning, we’re all spending our time watching other people do the hobbies that we really want to do. Every second we spend watching somebody else do our hobby is a second taken away from us experiencing it.
The problem with The How is that it’s addictive. If I want to learn how to play the guitar, I will go to YouTube and look at some videos about howto get started with playing the guitar. Before I know it, I’ve spent three months watching YouTube videos, buying (and consuming) courses without ever even picking up a guitar. It’s addictive to learn and acquire knowledge. It’s less sexy to just pick up the guitar and play the guitar.
The How is delaying us, distracting us, muddying our brains. It’s allowing us to put off starting at the expense of watching somebody else do the thing. The whole market of edutainment—entertainment that masquerades as education—has exploded to a level where some have forgotten that just going out and experimenting with a new hobby without reading a tutorialis even possible.
One of the most depressing examples I can think of is the amount of people I talk to that watch YouTube videos of people playing video games. Just three hours ago I had a conversation with two grown adults who told me they ‘don’t have enough time to play video games anymore’. Fair enough. Most people don’t. But in the next breath, they told me they spend hours watching people play them on YouTube because ‘it’s easier’. Let’s face it. Video games isn’t a high brow activity. It’s entertainment. Something to do to help you unwind. But to claim it’s too much effort to play a video game vs watching one...that’s a level of drowning in The How I never hope to experience.
I don’t want this to devolve into a simple argument of There’s Too Much Stuff. I don’t see the fact that there’s more as a bad thing. More of everything means more choice. Some may argue more choice is debilitating. I’m not one of them. The internet is a magical thing: you can find and enjoy content that is specifically tailored to your tastes. This is a good thing.
But what’s not a good thing—at least I don’t think—is spending extended time with The How. By all means enjoy your time in our endless abyss of creative and interesting content out there. Books. Games. Movies. Articles. Videos. Podcasts. Whatever takes your fancy. But please don’t spend too much of your time with The How. Acquiring more knowledge leads to acquiring more knowledge. Acquiring more experiences: I think that’s where the real magic is.
1 I’m aware this sounds like I’m a man that enjoys sniffing solvent. I can assure you that I’m not. Just building context through a semi-factual story.
As they say: everything in moderation. Paint fumes are no different.
2 I’ve said the words wooden shelves so many times now that I’m starting to contemplate whether wooden shelves even exist.