“That’s bullshit, you’re hiding something. You’re holding back.”
Cheap pendants rattled and glittered around the belly dancer’s waist. A valiant, if perhaps misplaced, attempt at adapting an ancient art form to yet another 90’s song on display at the back of the open air hookah lounge. A thick puff of thick, lemon-infused cloud of smoke drifted through the warm, moist evening air.
“Everyone says that, but it’s not helpful.”
I sat next to a friend as he asked a pair of his mentors about what had made them successful. Frustrated to the point of laughter, everyone, himself included, mostly laughed at the absurdity of trying to answer his question, batting empty platitudes and overly general wisdoms back and forth.
I’ve been on both sides of the situation. Many times, looking up at someone I respected and admire, their path has seemed mired in a fog of illegibility to me.
And a couple of times I’ve been on the other side, being asked how I did something or arrived somewhere and responding in the same vague, empty platitudes and recycled wisdom others had told me.
It’s a situation that scientists, athletes, artists and entrepreneurs can relate to. We’re all seeking the answer to the same question:
What does it take to do great work?
On a crisp March New Jersey morning in 1986, Dr. Richard Hamming, stood in front of an audience of 200 of the brightest minds in research attempting to answer that question in a talk called You and Your Research.
An accomplished researcher looking back over his 3 decades at Bell Laboratories1, he tried to answer the question, “Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?”
He acknowledged the role of luck, but also elaborated on the factors to maximizing your opportunity to do something significant. The most important, standing on mountain tops.
If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem’ must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don’t work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn’t believe that they will lead to important problems.
I spoke earlier about planting acorns so that oaks will grow. You can’t always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. And even if you believe that great science is a matter of luck, you can stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don’t have to hide in the valley where you’re safe. But the average scientist does routine safe work almost all the time and so he (or she) doesn’t produce much. It’s that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.
What Hamming conveyed in 1986 to a group of scientists, rings yet more true today to entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and generally anyone seeking to do great work, however they choose to define “great.”
As more and more people seek to do great work in a world increasingly defined by black swans, attempts to predict success grow more difficult, if not fatuous.
Certainty elusive, the goal worth striving for, as Hamming suggests – plant yourself on mountain tops.
Mountain Top Theory: How to get your blog out there.
You can apply Hammond’s mountain top theory to many different domains.
From research, to athletic excellence, to business, to art, it’s worth considering:
Are you working on an important problem for which you have a reasonable plan of attack? Are you standing on a mountain top?
Hamming tried to implement his own advice by spending every Friday afternoon working on the biggest problem in his field and encouraged other scientists to do the same.
Often advice on questions like “what does it take to do great work?” or “What does it take to be successful?” falls flat because it’s simply too broad to solicit any response other than vague truisms.
The 80/20 path from “OK” to “competent” in most domains is usually fairly legible. If you pick up a couple of books on Chess or marketing and implement the recommendations, you’re likely to get pretty good results if those are novel pursuits.
It’s the route from competent to world class that’s opacity solicits inspiring yet frequently unhelpful advice.
In an attempt to avoid the empty platitudes and over generalizations, I’ll confine my elaboration of Hamming’s Mountain Top Theory to a domain where I have at least a bit of first hand experience and rely on you to abstract it out to whatever your particular domain may be.
How to Write an Impactful Blog Post That Can Change Lives
In a recent interview with Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferriss said “one great blog post can change your life.”
There have been a handful that have changed mine.2
If you’re at all like me and reside near the perverse intersection of ego, self-conceit and delusions of grandeur required to start a blog, at the very least, start a mountain top blog.
You aren’t Buzzfeed or Cracked so you better at least shoot to put out a blog post that might tempt the Olympian king into throwing a bolt your way.
There are 3 characteristics of a Mountain Top Blog Post:
- Optimizes for Impact, not Re-Tweets.
- Follows The Dilbert Strategy
- Performs The Rain Dance
1. Optimize for Impact not Re-Tweets: Is it Important?
Contrarian and Correct
In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel asks,
“What do you believe to be true that is largely considered wrong?”
Most great businesses are founded on a belief that is both contrarian and correct. Thiel founded Paypal because he believed people should be able to make payments over the internet, a contrarian point of view in the last 1990’s.
The foundation for a good business, it’s also the foundation for a good blog post.
As Chris Dixon says, most people’s intuitive reaction is to dismiss it.￼
Ignored by billions and loved by thousands is the perfect recipe for pretty much anything on the internet. You won’t please everyone, but you can deeply impact a handful.
Contains At least 1,000, Dense Words
5 years ago, no one would have said to start another fitness blog.
The market is overcrowded! Pick a different niche!
Instead of listening, Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness wrote mountain top blog posts every 2 weeks for 6 years. Searching for his blog, I realized I had a half dozen of the bookmarked including his hotel workout (which I’ve used) and case studies of Staci who went through a transformation doing powerlifting workouts and Joe who lost 128 pounds in 8 months.
Looking back over his posts, every single one of them has the same dense, multi-thousand word format. So granular and detailed you can see every single step in your mind and envision yourself going through the transformation or workout.
I remember meeting WP Curve co-founder Dan Norris 2 years ago in Bangkok and hearing him say, “I want to create better content than Kissmetrics”.
“Uhh, yea, good luck with that dude.”
I haven’t read Kissmetrics in a year, but Dan’s WPCurve blog, full of insight, tactics strategy, and gratuitous screenshots in posts like this one is at the top of my RSS Reader.
As more and more blogs and media sites focus on pumping out more and more 200-500 word articles, I believe the future of the internet is long form. It’s impossible to communicate and explain a contrarian and correct idea in 500 words.
I can’t remember the last time I bookmarked a Huffington Post article, but I’ve bookmarked a lot of Paul Graham essays. Mountain Tops are created from tectonic impact, not retweets.
“Would someone bookmark this post?” is a good heuristic for a mountain top blog post.
Written to Solve the Acute Pain of One Person
I’m certainly as guilty as anyone of having fallen into the fallacy of thinking I was special. Holding back on issues and problems that seemed so deeply personal and profound, I couldn’t imagine anyone else being able to relate. Invariably, I always find out that a lot of other people have the same problem I do. As it turns out, I was not the only shy, self-conscious 19 year old around pretty girls. Go figure.
If you or someone you know has a deep problem, thousands if not millions more people do too. The nature of the human condition is that we’re more alike than we tend to believe and the deep insight you have into a specific pain through personal experience can make a deep impact on others.
I usually have a specific person in mind for every post I write. More often than not, it’s myself.
2. The Dilbert Strategy: Do you Have a Reasonable Plan of Attack?
What most people resonate with in blog posts is some sort of unique point of view or insight.
While that means you don’t want to recycle the same old crap news feed sites do, that doesn’t mean you have to come up with the most unique concept on Earth either.
If you look back over any writer’s body of work, their style and approach evolved into something increasingly unique and remarkable over a long period of time.
Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and now worth a cool $75 million shares his success formula for crafting a unique point of view:
“Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.” Adams says you can raise your market value by being “merely good—not extraordinary—at more than one skill.” Adams told me his career is an example of the success formula in action. “I’m a poor artist. Through brute force I brought myself up to mediocre. I’ve never taken a writing class, but I can write okay. If I have a party at my house, I’m not the funniest person in the room, but I’m a little bit funny, I can write a little bit, I can draw a little bit, and you put those three together and you’ve got Dilbert, a fairly powerful force.”
Take a few elements that have been successful and that you admire and mash them up together. Most of my writing is a mish-mash of writers I look up to. The first draft of this post was structured like Dan Andrew’s Cambodia Cash and written in Tim Ferriss’s style. Then I layered on some narrative on the front end and tried to add a Legal Nomad’s style narrative Arc through the body.
3. The Rain Dance: Will People Notice?
Unlike the scientists working at Bell Laboratories, not everyone is paying attention to your blog.
The internet is big. Really, really big to be more precise.
If Ted Stevens, an Alaska Senator who believed explaining the internet to his colleagues as “not a big truck, but a series of tubes” is correct, we’re likely all going to spend the future living in a post-apocalyptic Earth covered in internet tubes.3
Standing on the mountaintop is step 1.
Step 2 is doing the rain dance.
Focuses on Headlines and Hooks
Headlines matter. CTR matters. Hooks matter.
They’re not reading your post because it’s not good. They’re not reading it because you spent 20 hours pouring your soul into a post then 2 minutes on the Headline.
They’re not reading the whole post, not because the content isn’t good, but because your first paragraph was boring.
I know people that spend four hours just on their headlines for each post.
The content has to be good, but you’ve got to get them to the page and past the intro for them to figure that out.
Spends as Many Resources Promoting as Writing
The content is good, the hook is engaging, and the headline is clickable, now someone has to see it.
I’ve done a poor job of this in the past, but here’s my current promotion process:
1. Publish Immediately to:
- Use any relevant hashtags
- Add a twitter image
- Update the headline to be more clickable
- Make sure the image is set up right
- Add a short description of the post with highlights of what it’s about
LinkedIn – Just share it
2. Copy a notable phrase and Buffer it to add to the queue on LinkedIn, FB and Twitter
3. Capture link on bit.ly and schedule it on Tweetdeck 2-3 times throughout the week with original anchor text and a cc or h/t @anyone mentioned in the post.
4. Email/Tweet anyone that you think would like the post or anyone well known that’s mentioned
“Hey XYZ, Just mentioned you in this blog post: http://www.xyz.com.
5. Copy Post to Medium and add Blurb at bottom “I write about location independence, business philosophy and mindset. For more, check out TaylorPearson.me.”
6. (Optional) If it was a book review, submit a review to amazon and Goodreads and link back to blog post.
Note: Suggestions to improve on the above are welcomed and appreciated!
Just Keep Dancing
Be it blogging, research, or entrepreneurship, the hidden variable is usually time and compound interest. The difference between you and the person you want to be in 5 years may just be 5 years. For all the advice I’ve gotten over the years, the best has been: don’t get off the bus.
Even on a mountain top, in a thunderstorm, lightning only strikes so often.
Looking back, that’s usually the fun part anyway.
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson
- Hamming’s talk is a fascinating look into the culture and environment at Bell Laboratories which was perhaps the greatest source of innovation in the 20th century, responsible for the laser, information theory and 6 other Nobel prizes.
- Some of my Mountain Top Blog Posts (and Podcasts) –The Million Dollar Question – Sebastian Marshall, Where the Wild Thoughts Are – Venkatesh Rao, The Drama Denominator – Dan Andrews and Ian Schoen, The Great American Bubble Machine – Matt Taibbi, Preference – Tynan, Geek to Freak – Tim Ferriss, There’s No Speed Limit – Derek Sivers, Wealth – Paul Graham, The Helsinki Bus Station Theory
- Hopefully connecting play ball pits! If we’re doomed to be living in tubes, at the very least it should have Chuckie Cheese-esque appeal.
Corey McMahon says
Well-written and full of great ideas.
Also particularly relevant for me as I’m trying to write more regularly, and so trying to answer questions like “what should I write about,” “who should I write for” and (most importantly) “WHY am I writing” on a daily basis.
Taylor Pearson says
Haha, still working on those questions as well! “Write what you know” seems to be a good heuristic. The close I am to the subject material (intellectually and emotionally), the better the posts seem to come out.
Jodi E. says
When I struggle with an angle or how to write a piece, I usually try to rethink as if I am the reader. Perhaps not best to scale out writing, but that’s not why I’m writing. It has helped refocus on tone or story that works best for what has come before.
Enjoyed the structure and cohesion of the piece, and appreciate the shoutout.
Jonathan Baillie Strong says
I like the idea of rethinking as the reader – sounds close to user centred design and UX. Have you considered going further and sitting down with a reader to understand their entire user journey?
Jodi E. says
I have sat down with a few readers at separate points, one who had been reading since I began 7 years ago, and another who started reading more recently. Both were instructive, with the net takeaway for each relating to an appreciation for narrative, for the increased use of photography over the years, and for longform pieces. Both said I ought to write more frequently 🙂
Is this something you’ve done in your podcasting work?
Jonathan Baillie Strong says
Cool, interesting to hear! Great that you got 2 different perspectives there – long term and new readers.
Re: podcasting – not yet, most of my work has been purely for client shows.
However I’m soon to launch one of my own (with support from tyba.com) on startup stories across Europe.. will be looking at identifying a listener persona and getting feedback on pilot episodes…
Jonathan Baillie Strong says
Love how you break everything down the whole process… bookmarked for future use!
Taylor Pearson says
Mission Accomplished 🙂
Kyle Gray says
Brilliant post Taylor! We are going to take these ideas and apply them to our content creation heuristics/processes for the WP Curve blog.
Taylor Pearson says
Woah, thanks Kyle. As previously noted, WP Curve content is outstanding and an inspiration.
As a scientist and entrepreneur, this post was particularly thought-provoking and relevant to my work experience. My 2c…
To nascent entrepreneurs (myself included), I would give one piece of advice: STOP TRYING TO SOLVE ‘IMPORTANT’ PROBLEMS.
“The great scientists often make this error… they try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. ”
The — “If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems” — mentality is so dramatized at this point I’m jaded to it. The most successful scientists and entrepreneurs attack seemingly-insignificant problems, over and over and over again. It’s hardly ever sexy, certainly not “are-you-solving-big-enough-problems?-worthy”, and probably wouldn’t initially qualify as “great work” in Richard Hamming’s eyes. But in almost all cases, great research addresses a basic science problem in a very simple way.
“A good job isn’t something you go out and find, it’s something you discover while you’re working.” – Jack Ma
Taylor Pearson says
Great metaphor for “think big, act small is a video Sebastian Marshall has called “The Castle is a Bunch of Rocks” to your point that I go back to periodically – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sw0xvuv_H7U
in my mind. It’s a tight rope similar to the Martyr/Charlatan distinction I think.
Owen Cook talks about this as well:
“When you make a goal, you have to ask yourself: is there a way that I could align that higher self, day-to-day middle self, and lower self all towards that same goal?”
Derek Szeto says
Thank you. One of the things I took away was assets (build a castle, do the work). I like the mountain top heuristic and your blog is an excellent example to learn from. Well done.
Taylor Pearson says
Don’t overlook the assets you’ve already built in the form of a skillset though. A pleasure as always.
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