Margin, in a strict business sense, is the difference between how much you can sell a product for and how much it costs to produce.
In a more general interpretation, margin refers to the edge of something, the amount which something falls short of or surpasses another item.
You can build margin into your day by leaving a gap between your scheduled meeting and tasks so that you have room to be flexible. You can have margin between how much money you earn and how much money you spend so that if something unexpected comes up, you can afford it.
But not all margin is easy to see, and finding previously unseen margin is incredibly valuable.
The huge growth in mobile usage over the past decade has shown that those little pockets of margin, between meetings or commuting, during the day add up to a lot. Smartphones, less than a decade old, are surpassing PCs on their way to 5 billion users.
Why did no other company capitalize on all the time margin that smartphone ecosystems have?
A core reason was that it was illegible, it was hard to measure. Who knew the collective five or fifteen minute chunks of people’s days added up to so much? 1
We live in an incredibly complex world; the territory is too vast for anyone to hold in their head and so we create maps, simplifications of reality to help us function.
However, sometimes a large gap between the map and the territory emerges. The simplified map we are using is no longer accurate, or never was in the first place.
The model or map most people had of the world was that these little chunks of people’s day added up to very little, but the reality, the territory was that it added up to quite a lot.
I’ve come to call this gap between the territory (that people had a lot of free time in their schedules in the case of mobile) and the map (the simplifications we can measure), the illegible margin.
Illegible margins can be immense, as the smartphone boom shows, but they aren’t just limited to smartphones. The discovery of margin in other areas also has a lot of profit potential.
We’ll get to how to find that margin, but first we need to understand what is meant by “legible” and “illegible”
Legibility: The Birth of Big Data
Legibility is a concept from James Scott’s seminal work, Seeing Like a State. It’s not a book that lends itself well to one-sentence summaries, but my attempt is “we assume that only what we can measure is real and everything that is real can be measured.”
The book is titled Seeing Like a State, because the idea of legibility as I’m using it here arose with the modern nation-state in the 17th and 18th centuries, the first gatherers of “big data,” aka the census record. The advent of this “big data” led to the emergence of a group Scott calls “high modernists.”
High modernists think the rational way to organize something is with a geometric aesthetic. That is, they want to make it legible. They lay out their cities on grids, which if you’re like me, you’ve probably always thought was a pretty smart idea.
A map of downtown San Diego is much more legible than a map of London. If I asked you how to get from point A to point B in San Diego, it’s pretty easy to figure out, not so much in London.
However, this legible, geometric aesthetic has some serious drawbacks, which we’ll come back to.
So what happened in the 17 and 18th century was that high modernism provided a world view for how to organize society.
The modern nation-state provided the data, capacity, and authority for large-scale social engineering.
If you were living in feudal France and someone galloped over to your town from Paris and said, “I want you to reorganize your village,” you would tell them to shove off. They didn’t have the authority to do it.
But when you are living in modern France and some central planner comes from Paris to the mayor of your village and says, “we are going to cut off you funding if you don’t reorganize your city,” you have to do it.
The basic recipe for the legibility-focused high modernist (and the failure case) is something like this:
- Someone with authority and power looks at a complex reality (territory)
- They don’t understand how it works because it’s illegible, like the map of London, hard to understand from the outside looking in.
- Rather than looking for other factors that might have caused illegibility, they attribute that failure to you/the system being “irrational.”
- They come up with an idealized map of what it should look like in theory and claimed that it is superior and rational.
- They use their power to impose that idealized map on the actual territory
- They fail miserably and blame it on someone else –– usually the system they were trying to fix.
Nation-states are where this phenomenon started but it’s pretty ubiquitous at this point. If you’ve ever worked in a large corporation, you’ve seen it happen. A new consultant/boss looks at some complex activity, say how a department is organized. It doesn’t make rational sense to them. They redesign an idealized version of what it should look like. They force everyone to work in the way they’ve designed. Everyone’s productivity plummets and they blame it on someone else.
The Legible and Illegible Forest in Late 18th Century Germany
Let’s look at an example: early modern German forestry. Legibility is sort of like The Matrix, once you grok/understand how this works in forestry, you’ll start to see it everywhere.
Early modern Germany viewed its forest through the lens of a single number: the revenue yield of the timber that could be extracted annually: timber revenue/year.
This number had large implications in terms of tax revenue, shipbuilding, construction and fuel (read: firewood) for its citizens.
More timber revenue meant more tax revenue, more ships for the military, more new buildings, and warmer homes.
In the eyes of the State then, the forest was simply a certain quantity of wood.
However, to the villagers living around the forest, it was much more. It was a place where the teenagers ran away for afternoons to escape their parents. It was a place where the underbrush provided twigs to start fires in the winter when firewood was scarce.
If you compare the definition of a forest in a state-issued document as opposed to, say, a naturalist’s reference book, you would get very different definitions.
The state’s definition would focus on how to extract the most revenue (via timber). Species that provide a lot of revenue are called “timber” and considered good while trees that don’t provide revenue are called “trash trees” or “underbrush.”
From a naturalist reference book of the same era, the definition of a forest includes far more species: grasses, flowers, lichens, ferns, mosses, shrubs and vines, which all have uses. An entry for elm alone includes dozens of potential uses for the wood, including “water works, mills, the ladles and soles of the wheel, ship planks below the waterline, and coffins.”
However, the naturalist also saw that the “leaves of [the elm], especially the female [will provide] great relief to cattle in the winter and scorching summers … The green leaf of the elms heals a wound or cut, and boiled with the bark, consolidates bone fractures.”
From the State’s point of view, things like leaves and bark are both (1) hard to measure, and (2) not revenue generating. In the more legible “scientific forestry,” the actual tree with its vast number of possible uses was replaced by an abstract tree representing a volume of lumber or firewood.
This gap, between the timber the state measured and all the other resources available in the forest, is the illegible margin.
The arrival of scientific forestry in the late 1700’s was part of a larger movement called cameral science, which sought “to reduce the fiscal management of a kingdom to scientific principles that would allow systematic planning.”
This seems on the surface an altogether reasonable thing to do. The German government wanted to be able to forecast and plan how much timber could be harvested each year to be able to provide enough firewood to their citizens and ships to their sailors.
Many of the old growth forests in Europe by this time had been chopped down and regrowth wasn’t happening as fast as hoped. The state started surveying forests to understand how much timber was in them with the an eye towards “deliver[ing] the greatest possible constant volume of wood.”
Suddenly the State had data, and they could build tables organized by tree size and age and maturation dates. These tables, coupled with basic field tests, let scientific foresters estimate the inventory and yield.
The forest was becoming more legible.
However, the data was messy and hard to gather. They could get estimates for any given acre, but they weren’t precise. Pockets of species popped up at random, and some sections grew faster than others for hundreds of small reasons: the closeness of a stream or the shade of a mountain.
So, the state worked to make forests more legible. They wanted the real forest to conform to the administrative grids and estimates. No naturally occurring forest would grow to fit the tidy spreadsheet, and so through careful seeding, planting and cutting, they created a forest that was easier to count, manipulate and assess.
Instead of trying to shape the map to look like the territory, they tried to make the territory look like the map.
The underbrush was cleared, as it did not fit the spreadsheets. The number of species was reduced, often to one, because it was easier to track. Plantings were done in straight rows and grids on large tracts of land. 2
This had a lot of benefits:
- The workers could use written training protocols for one forest that applied to all other forests: a relatively unskilled and inexperienced crew aided by a handbook could manage the forest.
- Harvesting logs of uniform width and length made it easier to forecast yield and also easier to sell to merchants.
- It was easier to run experiments. With most of the variables held constant, it was easier to test the effects of fertilizer, rainfall, and weeding.
- It was easy for one or a few foresters working in central planning office to supervise and harvest according to long-range plans which let them achieve (at least initially) their goal of “deliver[ing] the greatest possible constant volume of wood.”
The geometric aesthetic of the forest came to symbolize progress and modernism.
It was not perfect. Fires, storms, blights, and insect populations could not be perfectly controlled, but on the whole it seemed like progress.
And in the short run, making the forests legible was a resounding success: The new forests produced more timber which Germany needed and that timber was more uniform, and thus usable by manufacturers.
However, the exact step which created all these benefits, the simplification of the forest into a timber machine, ignored everything which did not lead directly to timber yields. Yet, those aspects of reality remained: the unseen but important processes, the need for elm leaves to treat cattle.
The negative consequences of forcing the forests to become legible to their planners didn’t become obvious until after second rotation of trees to be planted, about a century later. This is important to note: the first-order effects, what happens right away, are often beneficial; it’s the second and third-order effects of forcing legibility onto an illegible system that cause problems.
It turns out there was a complex process going on in the illegible forests involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relationships between fungi, insects, mammals and flora, which were not fully understood.
The result was Waldersterben, AKA forest death. If your goal is to “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood,” forest death is, speaking technically, no bueno. Muy no bueno.
The clearing of the underbrush reduced the diversity of insect, mammal and bird populations which were essential to the soil building process. The first legible plantings had done so well because they were sucking up the nutrients that had taken centuries to accumulate in the illegible forests.
Because the legible forests were all a single species, pests could spread easily from tree to tree; whereas, in an illegible forest, the species tended to grow in groves so while a pest might kill a grove or two, it did not spread to the whole forest.
Lest you think, “well no worries, some fertilizer and some pest control will sort those two problems out, right?” No. This is a massive simplification of an incredibly complex process, which two hundred years later ecologists still don’t fully understand.
The reason I’ve just made you read a thousand words about trees (bet you didn’t think you were going to do that today) is that it illustrates the problems of taking a complex system and applying a simple process to it in order to optimize a single metric.
Which brings us back to business: there are a huge number of complex systems in a business, which people apply simple processes to in order to optimize for a single metric. The results are typically on par with Waldersterben.
Why is Legibility Important to You?
The forestry example is useful because it contains all the elements critical for understanding legibility:
Well-intentioned outsiders looks at a complex system, finds it confusing (because it’s illegible), and thinks they can improve it. They come up with an idealized way that the system should work, and then use their power and authority to impose that simple, idealized vision on a complex reality. In the short term, everything seems to get better as a result 3, they are widely praised, and then down the line catastrophe strikes and everything comes crashing down.
Let’s take a look at a couple modern examples in different domains.
1. CEO performance-based compensation.
Stock options for CEOs and executives emerged when marginal tax rates in the U.S. were extremely high (70%+) as a way to compensate executives at a lower tax rate. They were designed to help align incentives: If the company did well, then the executive did well. CEO stock options make sense if you see business as being highly legible.
How has this worked out in practice over the long run? Here’s a fictional but true to life example.
Doug, the CEO of an oil company, decides in Q1 to launch a new marketing campaign that explains why his company’s gas is better for your car’s engine and will decrease your maintenance costs over time. In Q2, profits soar. If you assume a legible, cause and effect relationship whereby Doug created more profits, he should be compensated.
However, rarely is this scenario the case. A Harvard Study concluded that 90 cents of every “pay-for-performance” dollar is attributable to luck. The far more likely case is that a number of factors outside the CEO’s control came together to increase oil prices in Q2, and his marketing played little or no role (or even a negative one which was overcome by other factors).
Doug receives a raise and a boost of confidence that he is the uber-CEO and proceeds to re-organize the whole company. The immediate effects are another increase in profits. Doug appears on magazines and is heralded as visionary. He leaves for another, more prestigious role. The company collapses shortly after his leaving and it’s blamed on the incompetence of his successor.
2. Brooklyn vs. Brasilia
In 1956, Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek, promised Brazilians “fifty years of progress in five.” The flagship project was the construction of a brand new capital, Brasilia, to be built on a completely empty site on the Central Plateau. Compared to Rio and Sao Paulo which had to make compromises because of existing infrastructure and geography, Brazilia was a blank slate that could be scientifically designed from the ground up.
It was meant to be an example for the rest of Brazil; the city’s design would transform the lives of Brazilians who lived there: from personal habits to social lives, leisure, and work.
And transform their lives it did, though not in the way Kubitschek had hoped.
The city, looking at it on a map, from a central planner’s point of view, made perfect sense. It was legible: geometrically organized into commercial, residential, and shopping districts.
Compare this to a late nineteenth-century map of Brooklyn:
By comparison, Brooklyn looks like a complete mess. You can’t label residential vs. commercial vs. shopping vs. government areas because they are so illegible. A single building might have a shop in the front, a manufacturing shop in the back, and apartments on top.
From a central planner’s perspective, this seemed like a nightmare, an illegible mess. Instead of shaping the map to fit the territory, they shaped the territory to fit their map. They designed a perfectly legible residential area:
The problem is that what looks legible on a map, is not a place you would want to live. Which of these two streets would you prefer to live on?
The complex, illegible one or the simple, legible one?
Brooklyn evolved organically into an illegible entity, whereas Brasilia was planned top down into a legible city. The reason Brooklyn is far more livable than Brasilia is because Brooklyn preserved the illegible margin.
It’s important to note that Brasilia’s planners had the best of intentions. They truly wanted to create the world’s greatest city that benefited its citizens, but they were high modernists that sought to do that through taking a very complex, messy system (a city) and applying a simple, legible template to it.
The result was a city where the lived experience felt barren and isolating.
This is equally true of businesses. The most successful businesses start as small projects in garages and not as grand designs in R&D labs not because they got lucky, but because for a company to grow into a large business, it has to do so through a process that looks from the outside like organic, messy, illegible evolution.
Whatever is Legible Improves?
In the high modernist world we live in, we can adapt Drucker’s dictum that “whatever is measured improves” to a more true-to-reality, but less elegant “whatever is legible improves, unless there are second-order consequences which undermine or destroy the original intention.”
The quantity of lumber improved, until the second-order consequences showed up and made planners realize that not only had they not improved the system, they had made it worse.
If you can make something legible, people will compete for it. Authors compete to be on the New York Times Bestseller list because it’s a legible measure of success. The extent to which a book moved a person to shift their life and the way they viewed the world is hard to measure. And so, many books are optimized for the former rather than latter.
Here’s the thing, you must have a simplified version of reality to function. The phrase “the map and the territory” was elegantly illustrated in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges :
“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. “
Any complex system, be it a nation-state, your life, or your business, is far too complex to fully comprehend. In order for the map to be 100 percent accurate, it would have to be as large as the territory, detailing every stick and stone. This would, of course, make it unusable.
The danger is when you believe the simplified version is the full reality and not a simplification. If you know it’s a simplification, you can then ask whether it is the best simplification or whether a different simplification might be better for your purposes.
Simplifying a forest down to how much timber it has is not inherently good or bad. But it is a simplified model that has real implications.
Tracking business key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics is not inherently good or bad, but it is a simplification. The danger comes when you confuse the legible KPIs with illegible reality that is a business.
This is made more difficult by the fact that many of the most important things are hard to measure. Would you rather have a million people with no money to spend read your blog, or a thousand people each with net worths of over $10 million read your blog?
Clearly the latter, and yet, most blogs are written as if the former were true because, while it’s possible to measure site visits, it’s (not yet) possible to know the trading account balance of each visitor.
One way to deal with the problems raised by legibility is to bemoan them, complain to the high modernists, and hope they see the error of their ways. From what I can tell, this never works.
The other alternative is to utilize what they are missing and hope they eventually catch on.4
What they are missing, the gap between what can be measured and made legible and what cannot, is the illegible margin.
The Illegible Margin
There is a gap between what is legible and what actually constitutes reality.
An example from sports: the Oakland A’s, a franchise that only spent $80 million on player salaries, was able to out compete teams like the Yankees who spent $213 million –– almost triple.
The market for baseball players was rife with inefficiencies: why? The Oakland front office had talked about “biases” in the marketplace: Foot speed was overrated because it was so easy to see, for instance, and a hitter’s ability to draw walks was undervalued in part because walks were so forgettable— they seemed to require the hitter mainly to do nothing at all.
Foot speed was overrated because it was legible: easy to see and remember and measure.
A hitter’s ability to draw walks was by contrast illegible, no one really etched walks into their memories.
Fat or misshapen players were more likely to be undervalued; handsome, fit players were more likely to be overvalued.5
In the same way cities looked aesthetically pleasing (legible) or unpleasing (illegible) on a map, fit players were more aesthetically pleasing (legible) and ugly players were less aesthetically pleasing (illegible).
The Oakland A’s were able to compete with the Yankees by seeing and leveraging the legibility margin.
All the other teams were looking at players using one particular simplified model of reality that privileged foot speed and good looks. By looking at less legible factors, the Oakland A’s found margin: under priced assets.
Another example of the legibility margin is online publishers. Take Facebook as an example. If I told you that you had to start paying $50/year to use Facebook, would you give it up?
Many people probably would, or they never would have joined in the first place. Yet, that’s how much Facebook earns from your account.
They make around $48.76 per year per user in the U.S. Instead of charging you, they take your data and sell it. Charging has a legible cost that you see on your credit card. On the other hand, your data and activity has an illegible cost to you, but is a very legible asset in the eyes of advertisers.
You don’t see the downsides and so you, because they are illegible, are more likely to ignore them.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the illegible margin I’ve seen personally is from Zack Kanter, who recently raised a seed round for his EDI startup.
His primary source of investors? His Twitter following.
He spent years studying and doing interesting work and putting it out in public and he amassed a modest but very valuable Twitter following of about 3,000.
He made a conscious decision to create a Twitter feed more likely to attract a few (legible) followers with a lot of (illegible) capital6 and influence.
This is a common failure case for direct marketers. Most direct marketers I know don’t like Twitter because “the click through rates are low.” If you measure an email list or Twitter following only by how much cash it can generate in 90 days, you are fixated on legibility and probably leaving a lot of margin.
Again, this is not to say you shouldn’t measure cash-on-cash ROI on marketing campaigns or investments. It is to say that when you look at those KPIs, don’t forget that they are a simplified measure of reality and not the whole thing.
Those measures necessarily leave out the illegible margin.
Places to Look for The Illegible Margin
Where do you find the Illegible Margin? It’s hard to say. If it was easy to explain where to find it, it would, by definition, be more legible and thus not exist. Here are a few examples to get you thinking. Once you get the idea, you’ll start to see them yourself.
In the Fat Tails
A fat tail event is something which happens very infrequently but which is so “big” that it ends up being more impactful than more frequent events. The financial collapse in 2008 was a fat tail event, many people made money every day for decades leading up to it and then lost everything in a period of days or weeks.
Fat tails are all around you once you learn to see them and you can take advantage of them. I outlined this strategy in Focus on the Fat Tails. Here’s another example from that essay:
Growing a Business: Let’s say you have $500 to spend to help grow your business. What’s a better investment: would you spend it on pay-per-click ads driving everyone to your products, or buying a group of people in your industry dinner?
Ads is bell curve thinking, hosting dinner is [fat tail] thinking.
Your return on ads is linear. You spend $500 and you get $1,000. That’s the bell curve. Linear.
Your return on dinner is [fat tail]. You spend $500, someone introduces you to a friend who eventually becomes your business partner, and you sell the company for $10 million dollars five years later. Sounds unlikely, but the nature of fat tails is that any individual one is unlikely, but done systematically, very likely.
Though highly unlikely, the outcome is worth it. You only need it to happen once in a career. Would you organize a hundred dinners for an 80 percent chance of making $10 million?
What rare, but impactful fat tails could you find illegible margin in?
In the Long-term
Because it’s very difficult to draw cause and effect over long periods of time, anything with long time frames usually has some illegible margin.
I spend a lot of time reading older books because, by studying them, I gain a valuable breadth and depth of context, which can only be gained through books that have been around a while.
There’s always a pressure to not read these books because they are less practical than more recent books.
You always have acute problems that need immediate treatment: how to communicate better with a colleague, how to negotiate or how to get in shape. There’s never a pressing need to read Nietzsche or an epic biography. Yet, these are the books which have made the biggest impact on my life, just in a very illegible way over a long time. 7
Reading is a personal strength, one of the things that I find easy, that others find hard. What do you enjoy doing that is likely to be valuable in the long-term? What strengths or assets does your business have that have long-term ROI?
Where you have Fingerspitzengefuhl
Fingerspitzengefühl is a German word that translates literally to “finger tips feeling.” It’s probably easier to understand as “intuitive feel” or “having one’s finger on the pulse.”
Fingerspitzengefühl was considered the key attribute that led to the early success of German tank commanders in World War II. In the North African campaign, the British soldiers ascribed an almost god-like quality to the German tank commander Erwin Rommel. Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, seemed to always know what the British were going to do and was one step ahead of them.
Rommel was so experienced at tank warfare that he had an intuition for what was going to happen –– something that others could not see.
One of the reasons I published my book, The End of Jobs, was because two people who had been in the space for almost a decade told me that it “was in the zeitgeist.”
They had been writing and podcasting about similar topics for a long time and could intuitively feel that it was a good time to publish the book. There are no legible metrics for “what is in the zeitgeist” but you individuals with deep domain experience can tell.
If you start to study history, both broadly and of your industry, you will start to see patterns which may not be legible.
The Practicalities of Inhabiting the Illegible
This is a difficult line to tread because, by definition, most people can’t see the line. Once everyone see the line, all the margin gets sucked right out of it.
I’ve had lots of conversations with people who were working in jobs they didn’t like and that clearly had bleak futures but no one else around them saw that. If you were a switchboard operator in 1960, that looked from the outside like a stable career. You can imagine the conversation with friends or relatives: “There have been switchboard operators around for 50 years, it’s a great job and you want to go learn some thing called Fortran to work on computers. I don’t even know what a computer is!?”
The rule seems to be that you should seem crazy to almost everyone, but not everyone. There were certainly some people in the computer industry in 1960 that thought learning Fortran to program computers was a great idea, but most people probably thought it was a waste. When Amazon started, most people scoffed at the idea of “putting their credit card on the internet” but a few people saw how it could be done safely and securely.
How do you know if the leap you’re making is a brilliant insight into an illegible margin or a wrongheaded turn? You don’t.
That’s why you always hedge and manage risk. Instead of burning the boats, swing like Tarzan.
You can learn Fortran on nights and weekends and keep your telephone operator day job. Or you could save up money, leave on good terms, and if nothing pans out, come back in six months. If you’re wrong and there isn’t any margin, you’ve still got a fallback.
If it turns out you’re wrong about the new, hot marketing channel, then you’ve still got SEO and PPC running.
If it turns out I’m wrong and that reading a lot of old books isn’t very valuable, I still keep up with online marketing, productivity and other areas that I know are proven for me.
Perhaps the key to finding the illegible margin is captured in Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Amos Tversky’s quip: “the secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
Because you’re looking for something which is hard to see, you have to have some sort of “tinkering budget” that is spent on doing things which don’t seem to directly connect to KPIs.
This is the idea behind policies like 20% time that Google and Facebook which resulted in products which are now core parts of their business: Gmail and the Like Button, respectively.
I typically advise companies to have an 80/20 marketing spend split. Spend 80 percent of your resources on stuff that is highly likely to work or already working and then spend 20 percent probing and tinkering.
We all grew up and were socialized in a high modernist world which deceives us into thinking that only what can be measured is real. There is only the map.
That means when we look at complex, illegible realities, we often think we can “fix” them by applying simple, legible solutions.
In the best case, this works well in the short term and badly in the long run like the German forest. In the worse case, it’s a disaster right from the start, like in Brasilia.
For those willing to wade into messy, illegible reality and consider what exists outside their simplified maps, there is a reward awaiting you: the illegible margin.
Acknowledgements: Venkatesh Rao’s Review of Seeing like a State inspired much of this thinking and got me to read the book.
Corrections: The original article stated that the phrase the map is not the territory came from a Borges short story. In fact, it was from scientist Alfred Korzybsksi [Source]
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson
- Of course, there were many more factors than this that went into rise of mobile, but had any company had any idea how much usage would be, I suspect that we would have seen a lot more products and services targeting that time margin a lot earlier than we did.
- From above, a legible/scientific forest would look much like Downtown San Diego
- Usually. Sometimes it goes sideways in the short term too
- My attempts to convince people they should start a blog now are much more successful than they were five years ago. It’s not because I’ve gotten more persuasive, it’s because my site has gotten more successful. No one was convinced by my arguments but when they started to see the concrete benefits I was getting from it, they were convinced. In the same way, I’ve little hope that the high modernists will be talked out of their POV, and so we are left to take advantage of the illegible margin and hope they catch on.
- Lewis, Michael (2016-12-06). The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (p. 18). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
- One reason I prefer Twitter over all other social networks is that you must, at least intuitively, grasp the concept of the illegible margin to like Twitter.
- Tim Ferriss has commented that philosophy was the most common major of people on his podcast.
Camille Benoit says
I was hoping you’d work a political angle into your thesis, about how our current administration is dangerously oversimplifying the limited reality they perceive as the truth.
Taylor Pearson says
I would argue that in the context of legibility, every administration of every country of the last few centuries has dangerously oversimplified the limited reality they perceive as truth. Some more than others certainly.
Very interesting and thought provoking. As an artist, this reminded me of the general principle underlying Betty Edward’s “Drawing on The Right Side of The Brain”. In that book, you are taught to look past the limiting symbols, labels and names that your analytic brain wants to place on everything. You learn to look from a more holistic view, to see shadow, light, angles, and relationships. When you can set aside your symbols and see those illegible relationships, students make instantaneous breakthroughs in drawing ability.
Taylor Pearson says
Fascinating. That’s a great analogy.
Andrés Doppler says
Well, another example of trying to use one metric for a complex system is the GDP for Wellness of a nation. Generally, is the main value people think of when measuring how well a state is doing. Unfortunately, the “territory” suffers, as the case of the German forest
Matthew Newton says
‘Spend 80 percent of your resources on stuff that is highly likely to work or already working and then spend 20 percent probing and tinkering.’
Nice one Taylor and this article touched upon two major things in our biz – we call this 20% above the ‘fuzz’ and try to allocate time to it.
”Charging has a legible cost that you see on your credit card. On the other hand, your data and activity has an illegible cost to you, but is a very legible asset in the eyes of advertisers.’
And this is how Visa and Mastercard themselves can charge 2% with very little pushback — the money comes out before it hits your account. I’ve spent the last months at TT hemming and hawing about the same thing, which we call the spigot — it’s become clear.. participating in my industry.. that the closer you are to the spigot, the more cash is available to you out of any transaction.
Taylor Pearson says
Have been thinking a lot about getting closer to the spigot as well. It’s so much easier to charge more when you’re closer.