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The Tremendous Value of The Long Form

Consider the difference between Edward Norton appearing on a late night talk show for 6 minutes to his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss that went on for 2 hours.

One gives you a flavor about some snippet of his work and personality. The other gives you a deep dive into one of his most ambitious projects, a sense of the wide range of his accomplishments, and a clearer picture of his creativity and business savvy.

In the full story of his most recent project we learn how Norton met a young writer named Jonathan Lethem who gave Norton a draft of his new book. Norton was captivated by the novel about a tourettic detective with an obsessive compulsive disorder who is trying to solve the mystery of the murder of his boss.

From the interview, we learn how that chance event at a New York City party in 1999 led to—over the course of two decades—several fits and starts in screenplay writing, a convergence of an intricate array of business deals to provide funding, and the working and re-working of an enormous amount of details to bring the movie Motherless Brooklyn to life. 

That long interview gives us a sense of Edward Norton as a person, a creative force, and a business person. We also learn the when, where, how, and why he came to write, produce, direct, and star in this massive project. It’s a mesmerizing real-life journey that contains so many lessons and insights that we may not even really care if we ever see the movie that the whole discussion is about.

When we get immersed in something like this, we get a chance to think with more focus and depth. And that’s how we learn best. It’s the pathway to a level of understanding that just can’t ever be matched by taking shortcuts.

It’s true that a summary can sometimes be both compelling and informative. The news headline that SpaceX teamed with NASA to launch the first private space flight carrying astronauts to the International Space Station tells us a lot. But it leaves a lot out. 

Tim Urban’s 40,000 word, 4-part blog post over at waitbutwhy.com paints a more complete picture—one that explains the motivation, the thinking, the innovation, the hopes, and the vision in a way that can help us not only have a deeper understanding of what is going on. It helps us to more fully grasp some of the lessons of science, technology, leadership, and business that are happening at SpaceX and driven by its founder Elon Musk.

Here we learn more about the thinking behind the actions, the motivations and interplay of different forces, and the implications for the future. It gives us a deeper understanding and lessons that we might apply to our own endeavors.

My work has always benefitted by reading about the latest technology, new business developments, and the science of human behavior in one of my favorite long forms–books.

Dan Pink’s Drive is a management manifesto whose ideas and insights have upped my game and increased my success. That book led me to another one called Flow which explained personal motivation more deeply and seriously upgraded my own self-management. Bitcoin for the Befuddled helped me to understand the fundamentals of the math and technology behind a novel approach to the security and integrity of data. Crushing It explained the elusive world of social media branding in a way that was compelling and practical. And AI Superpowers opened up the worlds of artificial intelligence, global economics, innovation, and competition for me with astonishing clarity. You probably have your own favorites too.

Books are amazing. We stand conveniently at the end of a long line that starts with the author and works its way through a quality review process that includes a book proposal, research, drafting and editing and includes all the inputs to that process from all those people mentioned in the acknowledgements. The author commits huge amounts of time and energy to drive a book project and to create something high quality and worthwhile. All we have to do is throw down twenty bucks and read it. 

But why would someone do all that work? It’s because the act of immersion in a process of thinking and understanding an idea pays big dividends in the long run. Maybe we won’t go so far as to write a book, but the act of immersion can provide the same type of payoff for our own work and career.

We’ve been conditioned to do our work on a slide deck, to speak in bullet points, and to persuade over email. People don’t have a lot of time to absorb what we have to say—but that only means that we need to invest more effort if we want to make an impact. Clear thinking is required. And there is no clearer thinking than writing things out in long form. 

Even if the document we write does not reach a wide audience, the results of this work will serve us well as we spread the ideas in other forms because we will have gained a much better grasp of the ideas ourselves. Writing in the long form forces us to take a look at ideas from multiple angles, to more completely consider their implications, to see more obstacles—and therefore to develop better strategies and more persuasive arguments.

Explaining things to ourselves and others in full prose forces a level of understanding that makes our bullet points and summaries all the more powerful. But it also helps improve our entire trajectory. Because each project that is undertaken with care and deep thinking gives us knowledge, experience, and lessons that we take with us forever, whether those lessons come from the work itself or the process of struggling to create the work. 

By tackling things deeply we understand the complex world a little more clearly. We understand ourselves a little more completely. And we understand how problems and opportunities that are examined in greater detail and nuance lead us to improved outcomes. That effort causes us to grow more, and as a result, we improve the long form that is our careers and our lives.