…and why you might be too…

Jordan Shapiro
Mar 25, 2017 · 5 min read

If you’ve clicked through my Medium writing history, you’ll realize that I’ve been posting less frequently. To some extent, this has been due to personal reasons; over the past months, I’ve moved across the world, gone from a work environment to a hectic school environment, traveled extensively, brainstormed some ambitious new endeavors, and started to chart out the next steps in my life. I think these are valid excuses for not having the time to craft and hone a post.

But it’s more than that. There are fully written or mostly written posts in my Medium “Drafts” folder that would take the click of a button to send live. There have been plenty of plane rides and hours expended in Beijing traffic that I could have been using to put pen to paper (or finger to touch-screen, as the case may be). The truth is that I exhaust inordinate amounts of time in my Medium writing process being too nervous to press “Publish”. And if you’re a writer, or an aspiring one, I’m guessing some of these have been on your mind as well.

Here are a few reasons why I’m scared to post on Medium (and other social platforms), and how I’m working to resolve them:

Nothing New Under the Sun

The world is full of information and ideas. Books, databases, articles, talks, documentaries, etc. When I write, I’m often nervous about repeating something that someone else has already said or written. If I’ve heard of something relevant, I’ll attempt to cite it or differentiate my perspective on the matter. Sometimes I enter a deep spiral of research to prevent redundancy. But given that I will never have an exhaustive list of everything that’s ever been said on every topic I hope to address, there’s no foolproof method to ensure my originality. This also happens to me every time I think about writing a novel or short story (i.e. “Didn’t [insert famous author here] already use that structure/name/plot twist/story element?”).

Solution: I have to accept that I will sometimes step on the toes of other writers and thinkers. No one is perfect and “original” often has more to do with who acted on an idea rather than who first thought about it in a vacuum. Sometimes the best ideas are popularized because they’re thought of and written about redundantly. When it comes to creative writing, we often consider borrowed content as literary allusion or influence. A novelist friend once told me that it’s fine to start with familiar character and story elements — the more you write, the more these similarities will drop away as your creativity is released. And, to be fair, in some cases my thoughts aren’t original at all and I might not need to write an article.

Scared to be Wrong

Psychological safety is defined as “feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”, and is commonly used to describe classroom and meeting environments. In other words, an environment with strong psychological safety is one that has “no stupid questions” and no fear of being wrong. Classes, businesses, and organizations have the advantage of setting deliberate cultural norms to promote risk-taking. The Internet, however, is a Wild West with the most heterogeneous audience possible: the only barrier to entry can be as little as a WiFi connection. Without a strong sense of online psychological safety, it’s only natural that I’m scared to be wrong about an idea or a prediction I’ve made online. Things said online have a tendency to stick around and I, like most, don’t love looking stupid in front of total strangers. The easiest way to never be wrong is to never say anything at all.

Solution: I have three approaches to this problem. The first is to do my homework, making sure that I’ve put some serious research and thought into anything I write before I press “Publish”. The second is to qualify my arguments. By nuancing my reasoning, I can demonstrate the information and intentions I have at the time of writing so that, if I am wrong, I have a reasoning to fall back upon. Lastly, when I am wrong, I have to own up to my errors. I’m human. Mistakes happen.

Offending Someone I Know

I tend to write about things that I know. Since the things I know stem from my experiences, it’s probable that what I write about involves the friends, colleagues, teachers, mentors, family members, and bosses with whom I have shared those experiences. And since I also write about my opinions and ideas, it’s only natural that some disagree with me. On more than one occasion, I’ve refrained from writing or rolled back a post because I have been concerned about how interested parties will perceive it. The last thing I want is to burn a bridge.

Solution: When writing about your own experiences, be cognizant of how the effected parties might perceive your piece.

Offending Someone I Don’t Know

The same Wild West of the internet that detracts from psychological safety also has a habit of going viral with anything that can be taken as particularly offensive. This isn’t a reason NOT to write or to soften opinions, but it certainly necessitates more caution when writing, particularly about sensitive topics. What’s more: things that are not offensive today might become offensive in retrospect. All the more reason to take care in your online presence.

Solution: It’s always a good idea to have an extra pair of eyes on your work. If you’re aware of a particularly controversial statement in your piece or have specific concerns, let that outside pair of eyes know so that they can pay extra attention while reviewing your writing.

Building a Brand

Ultimately, when I write a Medium post, my motivation is not just to avoid controversy. If that were my goal, the logical endpoint would be to just refrain from posting. Like most others, I write because I want to share my ideas publicly, see how they spread, and further develop myself as a writer and thinker. We’ve already discussed several means by which I could easily taint my career with an offensive post, but what about posts that are simply off-brand or could better advance my career by being published in a journal or book instead of on Medium? Should I refrain from using catchy titles that read like click-bait or from posting anything outside my field of study? Should I refrain from publishing this post because it in itself is not very academic?

Solution: I think the simple answer here is that it depends. For the most part, publishing free content online is a great way for me to get feedback and learn how broader audiences view my thinking. By that logic, it is worthwhile to publish shorter thought pieces more casually and to use that data to inform more formal writing. And while catchy titles may occasionally cheapen my readership, they are nevertheless important experiments as I explore which aspects of my writing yield the most interest.


I do not intend this list to be exhaustive or universal (see?…qualifying again!). But I do hope that by identifying and recognizing these mental blocks I — and maybe you — can start to counteract them to bring more ideas into the world.

Liked this article (or want to give me a pat on the back for getting back into the swing of things)? Recommend and share the link! Check out some of the writing I have gotten around to by following me here and stay tuned to other posts coming up in the near future.

Mission.org

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

Jordan Shapiro

Written by

VC at NEA, Schwarzman Scholar (Tsinghua University) ‘17, Proud Stanford grad (BS ’15, MS ‘16), Mayfield Fellow, biotech futurist and theater enthusiast.

Mission.org

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

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