Making Survival First: Part 19 - Style & Voice
This is Part 19 of the Making Survival First book series. For the previous sections click here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18
You did it! You nailed it! my editor AJ, explained. I can hear your voice! She was ecstatic. So was I. This was our last meeting before officially locking in Survival First's manuscript.
Voice, AJ explains, is the toughest thing for authors to nail. It’s my #1 feedback when editing.
I did not have this problem. I never "tried" for voice. I wrote how I like to communicate and my voice happened to come through.
This is critical. I can't afford to write a bad book. I can't even afford to write a good book. I don't have the blessing/curse of a big audience that will buy my book no matter how good/bad it is. For my book to have any chance at success it has to be really good.
It’s not enough if the ideas in the book are good. I have to communicate them in a compelling way. For that, my voice has to come through. Otherwise people will ignore the book, won’t finish it or won’t tell others about it after they’re done.
It's too early to tell, but based on feedback from editors like AJ and the few people who've read it so far, I may have pulled it off.
It got me thinking. Why do I write the way I do? Where does my voice come from? Why does some writing make me cringe while other writing ricochet in my head long after I've read it? How can "technically good" writing feel so empty and soulless?
I sent this question to the super intelligence in the back of my head whom I call Alexander GPT to thinker on it. It took a while to process, but I think I figured it out in a way that makes sense to me.
In this piece I'll explain how I understand style, voice, and how it impacted how I approached Survival First. Along the way I may or may not execute some personal vendettas against modern writing.
I’ll refer to this first part as Soil. Soil is our unique cocktail of experiences, education, upbringing, entertainment, capacity for emotional depth and personality.
Soil, like garden soil, is what we draw from. The same way richer soil leads to richer healthier plants, richer personal soil creates the potential for richer writing. People with more education, richer experiences, deeper emotional depth, and those that consume higher quality entertainment (books, podcasts, etc) tend to write better than those with less.
Going to business school was useful to understand classical business lingo and the basic mechanics of big corporations. But more important than that, business school helped me see something more important - what wasn’t there.
Business school helped me see how little academic business overlapped with my small-entrepreneur reality. It was like seeing a giant hole that needed to be filled.
I filled a lot of that gap with business books after college. Some of the obvious ones like Rich Dad Poor Dad, Four Hour Workweek, Anything You Want, and pretty much anything by Seth Godin. These were all was helpful in understanding business in a more holistically human way.
Eventually, after countless books and hundreds of podcast hours, I burnt out. I found myself trekking the same trails and learning the same lessons over and over. I got tired of self congratulatory success stories and empty-fluff books written by clever marketers. I stopped reading business books years ago.
Like before, this journey helped me see what wasn’t there. I never saw anybody talk about risk in the way I was imagining it. As a result, Survival First became a quest to fill that hole.
I'm all over the place with it comes to books, podcasts and shows. In a day I can surf from history to anime to high fantasy to business, politics and philosophy.
I’ll focus on the two relevant to the book.
First is history. Through podcasts like Hardcore History and art history channels like Great Art Explained I’ve become a full blown history junkie. It’s fun and satiating and that’s enough for me. But over time I’ve realized history contains the blueprints of ancient ever-repeating civilizational patterns. Inspired by the Nassim Taleb’s description of the Lindy Effect, my bet is that these old archetypes are always worth exploring and building upon.
What has been will likely always be.
It was surprising and ridiculous discovering how much I was influenced by the Italian Renaissance. This is how I found a direct thematic overlap between Survival First and Dante’s Divine Comedy Learning to appreciate art is why I approached the book as an art project first and foremost. I’m betting creating beautiful art will last longer than “business content”.
Next is….South Park. Yes…that South Park. I've been watching South Park since I was way too young to be watching South Park. I watch it because it’s hilarious which needs no justification. However, funny is also functional.
Humor is a great way to not only tell the truth, but have the truth stick. This is why South Park is still around decades after launching while other "funny" shows have gone away.
Survival First is a dark and serious book. It's also a hilarious book. For selfish reasons I wanted to have fun writing the book. More practically, the more fun I have, the more fun the reader will have, the more likely they will finish the book, tell others about it, and the stickier my ideas will be. Funny ideas are more memorable than boring ideas.
Survival First isn't an autobiography, but it does have a lot of my story in it. If my personal part of the book was going to resonate with readers I needed to be able to go deep into myself. Otherwise it will come out like most business books - flat and unrelatable.
Luckily, I have plenty of emotional depth. Sometimes too much. Layering therapy and psychedelics on top of high emotional sensitivity and an overly introspective baseline gave me a lot to depth to bring to the book.
My writing reflects that I am indeed my parent's child.
Dad is a world class attorney. He's a verbal mathematician whose been architecting brilliant arguments with pristine strings of logic for more than forty years. Growing up with him taught me to relentlessly ask questions, think critically, and always ask why.
Survival First too is built on meticulously constructed thought architecture bound with logic and reason.
Where my Dad is rational and serious, Mom is intuitive, ridiculous, and silly. Survival First is all those things too. Logic has it’s role, but I make ample space for the less-rational and more-human realities of what it's actually like be an entrepreneur.
The above soil-ingredients are all external forces. But this wouldn’t explain why one of the greatest poets of all time, Emily Dickenson, was a life-long recluce who rarely left her home, or why one of the greatest memoirs ever written was done by somebody who barely made it to puberty.
This is where personality, the X-Factor, impacts Soil. Understanding personality and how it affects writing is a topic too big for this post.
Personality is the complex internal ecosystem of thoughts, feelings and unique markers we all have. As Anne Frank and Emily Dickinson prove, you don’t need a rich external world (caveat: both were fanatical readers) if you have a vibrant internal world to play in.
So that’s Soil. However, Soil doesn’t explain why people with rich soil can still put out garbage work.
Audience is the second half of my equation.
We all speak differently based on who we’re talking to. We speak to our parents differently than we do kids, friends, and business partners.
My suspicion is that so much writing falls flat because writers either aren’t conscious of who they’re writing to, or are writing to the wrong people.
This explains a lot of internet writing. In one bucket you have high status people with big internet clout writing watered-down mass-market verbal junk food with the tone of a preacher delivering their holy scripture to flocks of peasant worshippers.
On the inverse are their lower status followers sycophantically remixing their idols’ messaging say so they may be noticed and rewarded with trickle down status.
On quick-form platforms like Instagram, Threads and X you read wisdom signalers hoping to impress anonymous peers with bite-sized motivation porn. This explains why almost everything "spiritual" “mindset” or “wealth” related makes you cringe.
In your inbox you read marketers writing manipulative sales copy to "consumers" instead of humans.
For most non professionals you have people unconsciously writing to their high school English teachers or corporate bosses who they're afraid will judge/fire them. This explains all of the bland verbal-boiled-chicken you see on LinkedIn.
So where does the good stuff - the stuff that nourishes the mind and stirs the soul come from? How do people write in a way where it feels not like I’m reading, but hearing them?
My suspicion is simple. These people write to...people. Usually close friends. This writing is personal, human, and intimate. People who write to people are relatable, unpretentious, and so that they can be understood.
If my writing has any secret sauce, special UMPH or anything resonant it’s because I’m writing to close friends that know and love me.
This is the most important element for my writing.
These friends know exactly who I am. I’m not afraid of them and know they won’t judge me. These are the people that want me cranked up to 12. Writing to them let’s me bring my full self to my writing. I can be sincere, ridiculous, fun, and border-line delusionally confident.
This is why the most important thing that I’ve done for my writing isn’t so much the writing itself, surround myself with people that know me and love me. This way I always feel connected to who I’m writing to. How I show up with them is how I show up in my writing, and is how I show up in the book.
My writing isn’t perfect, but it is me, and it is fun.
Summing it all up: Soil is how I connect to myself. Relationships are how I connect to others.