Intentionally Unoptimized
Buster Benson

How to distinguish between a “real thing” and a proxy?

This is a response to a question on Buster’s original post, copied below:

The way I think about differentiating between the “real thing” — the thing of ultimate value, and a proxy of that thing, is the degree to which the thing is an external validation. Or to put it more extremely, how much do I still care about this thing in the absence of other people?

To apply this litmus test to the examples in the original post:

When I write, the “real thing” is the content. Page views are an external validation that the content is popular, but has no bearing on the content itself. In the absence of other people, I would still care about the content of my writing, the lucidity of my thoughts, how I feel reading something I wrote, but page views wouldn’t matter, because page views wouldn’t exist without other people.

When building product, do I enjoy what I’ve built? Do I think the world is better because this product exists? Does the product bring some tangible benefit to people who use it? (And selfishly, is it fun for me to build?) Of course I do build the product for other people to use, but in the absence of other people, I can still make these judgments myself, but MAUs wouldn’t exist. MAUs are a lagging indicator.

In education, if there were no teachers or college admissions officers, do I still care about what I’m learning? Without relying on external validation, all learning would be driven by self-interest. One might object that following this path would mean not getting into a good school, but a good school is just another example of external validation. If there were no other people to judge me based on where I went on school, would it matter that I learned the material in an expensive classroom?

Finally, my example of money versus wealth. If there were no other people to transact with (or to impress), sitting on a giant pile of money is as useful as sitting on a pile of waste paper, which is what that cash would be. Walter White learned the hard way that having millions in a storage locker did him no good. If I was hungry, I can’t eat money. If I was sick, money alone could not heal me. I have to exchange the money for something to make it real. It seems obvious, but worth stating, it’s what you do with money that matters, not the money in and of itself.

If we only chase external validation, we will always be wanting, because being external, it’s fickle and outside of our control. An essay that I labored over for months was barely read, while a timely post I wrote in an afternoon garnered over 100K page views. But I know if I tried to write for page views that the page views may not come, and moreover, I’m certain I won’t like what I write. It’s the difference between writing what I think needs to be said, versus writing what I think people want to hear. If the latter is not in alignment with the former, then it’s the difference between truth and a lie. This is ultimately why most politicians, corporations, and anything that’s supposed to be a blockbuster cannot convincingly convey authenticity, because they only chase the latter.

What’s insidious about external validation is that it often looks so much like the “real thing.” We can easily be fooled into happily chasing an illusion, thinking we’re getting the real thing, when we’re not. By its nature, external validation is fleeting. When one day it goes away, we will be lost, holding nothing. If, however, my goal is a “real thing,” then achieving it is its own reward. Any external validation is just a nice bonus.

Questions to help determine how real something is:

  • Would I do this if no one will be impressed by it?
  • Would I wear this if no one saw me?
  • Would I buy this if no one will know I have it?
  • Would I listen to this if no one told me it was cool?
  • Would I hold this person in high esteem if they were a “nobody”?
  • Would I value this just as highly if I could not share it on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram?
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