“Only someone who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk—and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life. Mere gossip anticipates real talk and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it.” Søren Kierkegaard
It’s never been easier to talk, to distract ourselves, to puff ourselves up.
We can brag about our goals online to our fans and followers—things only rock stars and cult leaders used to have. We can chat with our idols on Twitter, we can name ourselves CEO of our exists-only-on-LinkedIn company. The empty text box sits there. “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks. “Connect,” Twitter beckons, “Compose a new tweet.” Tumblr, Linkedin, our inbox, our iPhones, the comments section on the bottom of this article.
Blank spaces, begging to be filled in. With thoughts, with photos, with stories. With what we’re going to do, on everything that’s happened, with what things should or could be like. We can announce big plans on social media and let the congratulations and well-wishes roll in.
We can talk, talk, talk.
We tell ourselves that this is productive, that it’s a form of accountability, that it’s building our personal branding or adding to our follower count, but deep down, we know this is a lie.
The writer and former Gawker blogger Emily Gould—a real-life Hannah Horvath —realized this during her two-year struggle to get a novel published. Though she had a six-figure book deal, she was stuck. Why? She was too busy “spending a lot of time on the Internet,” that’s why.
In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted, and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money but it felt like work. I justified my habits to myself in various ways. I was building my brand. Blogging was a creative act—even “curating” by reblogging someone else’s post was a creative act, if you squinted. It was also the only creative thing I was doing.
Like a lot of us, she was tempted to choose talking about her work over doing it. It’s common and easy: I get stuck on this article, do I stick with it? Or do I pull up Facebook and get into an argument about politics? Sitting with this piece, I feel shitty, condescending to some Trump supporter, I feel superior. Which do you chose? Which gets you closer to finishing?
A few years ago someone published a book called Working On My Novel, filled with social media posts from writers who are clearly not working on their novels. Writing is hard. Social media is easy. Talking about writing on social media is the easiest. (For “writing,” insert anything that one is trying to do with their life).
Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Edgar Degas once complained to his friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, about his trouble writing. “I can’t manage to say what I want, and yet I’m full of ideas.” Mallarmé’s response cuts to the bone. “It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.”
We only have so many words. How will we use them? For work or for pity parties? For bragging or for building? The poet Hesiod had this in mind when he said, “A man’s best treasure is a thrift tongue.”
The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther we run from actual accountability. It’s sapped us of the energy desperately needed to conquer what Steven Pressfield calls the “Resistance”—the hurdle that stands between us and creative expression. Success requires a full 100 percent of our effort, and talk flitters part of that effort away before we can use it.
The more difficult the task, the more our ego will resist it. It would much rather subsist on the comfort and validation of talk than facing the necessary struggle of doing great work. Sitting there, staring, mad at yourself, mad at the material because it doesn’t seem good enough and you don’t seem good enough. But talking, talking is always easy. This is what I mean when I say that ego is the enemy and why I have the title of the book tattooed on my forearm as a reminder.
My rule is that I don’t talk about projects until they are almost entirely done (except to my collaborators of course). It’s not because people might discourage me—but rather because I deliberately do not want anyone’s validation or encouragement. Not that early on anyway. It’s like a payday advance. You’re getting the cash sooner, but at very high interest—and most of the time, people default on it. I want to find the satisfaction in the work itself, I want to find the internal motivation. I don’t want to mortgage and be in debt.
The result of this strategy for me has been 5 books in 5 years, with another on the way. I’ve also been able to run my own company, write multiple articles a week and ghostwrite several other books. With plenty of time to enjoy life in between. I’m not superhuman. I just waste as little time as I can on talking and spend more of what I can on doing.
I can tell you from experience: the true relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
There is a line about media and technology products that has become almost cliche. It says that if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product that’s being sold. That’s what I think about when I feel the urge to chatter online. That I’m helping someone else, that I’m padding someone else’s bottom line instead of my own—perhaps even at the expense of my own.
“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do,” was how Henry Ford put it. You can’t build a reputation on what you tell people you are in the middle of doing either. Only on what you’ve done. And even talking about it once it is done—what we’d call marketing—one begins to realize, comes at the expense of starting the next project.
I’ll leave you with a verse from Longfellow, because I think it describes the world well.
The heights by great men reached and kept,
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
The only thing I’d add to that is that they were probably toiling quietly in the night. Because there was no one to talk to. And they were too busy to talk even if there had been.