Commenting vs. making

The biggest change in my professional maturity came when I became Actually Responsible for things. Not in the sense of “if there’s a mix of dashes and em-dashes in this powerpoint deck someone will get mad”, which characterized my early career, but “if someone doesn’t fix this problem soon, we’ll get to go looking for new jobs”.

I gained a lot of appreciation for people who make things, and lost a lot of tolerance for people who only pontificate.1 I found myself especially frustrated with my past self, whose default was to complain and/or comment, then wonder why things didn’t magically get better.2

It is, of course, much easier to complain about how things are bad rather than do anything about it, which is why people prefer to complain. 1/100th the satisfaction, but 1/1000000000000th3 the effort. Plus, when someone eventually fixes the problem you can pat yourself on the back for having brought attention to it. You can even complain about multiple things in the time it would’ve taken to fix one thing.

If it’s that bad and it would be so easy for people to just fix it, why don’t you?

It’s also easy to confuse being “helpful” with being helpful. A lot of people think they’re “adding value” by nitpicking, or supplying unsolicited takes, when they’re actually just draining energy and momentum. Even the legendary VC phrase “let me know how I can be helpful” is a meme precisely because it’s generally not helpful, vs. “I will connect you to five potential customers tomorrow”, which is helpful.

Making is so much harder.

One of the things they teach you in lifeguard / surf camp is that people who are drowning will attempt to climb on top of their rescuers, killing both. Simply try to do something about a problem, and many people will think you are responsible for the problem’s existence.4

At internet scale, simply by doing anything, you expose attackable surface area to furor you never imagined.5 Most people are shocked and drop out of making things, preferring to stay safe. Those who make it through often look like startup founders, battle-scarred and tone-deaf from being attacked for so many years.

Even if you learn to appropriately weigh complaints, it’s entirely possible to get DDOSed by attempts to help.

“Have you ever thought of X?” “Cool! Yes, but there’s 12 other things we thought should come first. You’re welcome to go and do it. We’ve got a big tent and a lot of shit to clean underneath.”“Actually, can’t help, gotta take my dog to therapy, bye!”6

This type of casual drive-by advice is astonishingly common. I’ve mostly learned to ignore it when received. I do still love to provide it. It’s well-meaning, and you get to feel smart without actually needing to do any work.7

I’ve come to believe that working through something is the only way to explore the idea maze. Everything else is commentary. I’ve mostly stopped sharing unsolicited “helpful” just-a-thoughts and comments at work. I save them for Twitter, the primordial soup of commentary from which living things8 occasionally emerge.

Now, when I get the urge to comment, I try to be on the maker’s side and ask,

“So, what are we going to do about it?”


if you work in media, or you’re a coach or teacher or similar, you’re making something by pontificating, so I still respect you :)