Ping (zestyping) wrote,

Guru maxims.

Every once in a while i come across a set of pithy maxims written by some well-known personality. For example, Jakob Nielsen has his heuristics for user interface design and Adi Shamir has his three laws of security. Usually i read these things and think to myself, "Sure, i accept that. But it's obvious. Anyone could have said it. You don't have to be a genius or an expert to realize these things. Why are these people considered gurus?"

On the other hand, a number of times in my life i have gone around trying to convince people of something i deeply believe to be right. These are typically ideas i've thought long and hard about, which leads me to present them with great pride, believing them to contain precious new insight. But this often doesn't get very far. People don't get it. They ask the same questions over and over — the very questions i anticipated — and my carefully prepared answers don't satisfy them.

I used to think that people like Nielsen and Shamir could get away with saying obvious things because they were already celebrities. In particular, in a field like human-computer interaction where there is so little generally applicable experimental evidence, i think people often adopt principles just because they sound right, or are stated forcefully, or are promoted by someone that seems to be important. But one reason people seem important is that they say things that sound wise, and one of the reasons that things sound wise is that they are said by someone who seems to be important. So it's circular.

It occurred to me that perhaps i've got it backwards. Maybe it's not that you're allowed to say obvious things because you're well-known; it's that people become well-known because they say obvious things. Perhaps every idea has its time. If most people are ready for an idea because, deep down, they already believe it, then when you present the idea, most of the audience will agree with you. And by peer pressure, most of the rest of the audience will come to agree with you too. Then 95% of the audience comes to believe that you are wise and speak the truth. On the other hand, if you are trying to convince the audience of something new, and the loudest 5% of the audience immediately rejects the idea as too different, most of the rest will come to dismiss you as well (except for the few who have the will and the patience to independently think through all your reasoning and happen to make the same choice you did at every fork in the road).

So now i am going to state my own pithy maxim. Here it is:
To become famous, state the obvious.
This isn't intended to be advice for anyone in particular. It isn't even advice for me, unless i happen to decide one day that being famous is a priority. I was just curious what you thought of it.

(I know it's oversimplified. Maybe it would be a more practical maxim to make 90% of the things you say be obvious and use only the remaining 10% to introduce novel ideas connected to the obvious ones. Too many new ideas, and no one will listen to you.)

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