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    Are you suffering from incentive drag?

    By Kieran Drew

    Today, I’m in a creative slump.

    I’ve been in one for a while now. But I’m going to face it with you in this email. Why with you? Because I’ve been suffering in silence, which is crazy considering the writing I enjoy most comes from being open and honest.

    The problem began six weeks ago.

    You know the expression, ‘if you don’t cringe at what you’ve written 6 months ago, you’re not growing’?

    Well, I thought it would be fun to dive into my first blogging attempts from back in 2020 — perhaps take a little joy at how much I used to suck. So I brushed the dust off my old laptop, poured myself a steaming cup of tea, and began reading.

    But instead of cringe, I felt surprise. I opened another post. And another post. An hour later, I’d read them all.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, the writing was poor.

    The hooks were awful. The transitions were choppy. The titles sounded like ChatGPT had hijacked my keyboard.

    But the ideas?

    They were bold — and I didn’t recognise them.

    I shared studies from psychology, told stories from ancient Zen philosophy, deep-dived into Stoicism, and explored ideas around purpose, meaning, mental models, and building a creative career.

    If I were to sum up Kieran Drew back then, it would be ‘bad but brave’.

    The next morning, I sat to write and hit what I hadn’t in a long time:

    A creative block.

    It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas — I had plenty — it was that, by comparison, I didn’t think they were any good. They felt flat and uninspiring. And as I tried to write about similar stuff to before, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head.

    Over the past four years, I’d made decent progress as an entrepreneur, but not as much as I thought as a thinker — something I value highly.

    It was a healthy serving of humble pie.

    If you’ve ever lost sight of your mission, you know the discomfort that arrives with uncertainty. You doubt your direction and question every decision. You lose that spark that drives you every morning. But I’m not one to wallow in misery. So I slapped on my dentist hat to search for a diagnosis.

    I needed to know what went wrong.

    The problem of incentive drag

    Charlie Munger once said that incentives are the most powerful force in the world. Even in his wisdom, he was always surprised by their power.

    What's an incentive?

    They're things that shape our behaviour.

    Take a box of cookies for example. You know you shouldn’t eat the whole thing. But if it’s in the kitchen and you’re anything like me (who has the food willpower of a dustbin truck), you will munch through it in no time.

    Munger speaks about incentives through the lens of extreme behaviour in events like the financial crises.

    But there’s another part of incentives that I don’t see discussed enough:

    Incentive drag.

    Let me explain. We all want the same thing: great relationships, a meaningful career, a creative skill — peace, purpose, and wisdom.

    Let’s call it the good life.

    In pursuit of the good life, you’ll make thousands of decisions — each influenced by incentives (not all bad). We try to pick well, but we’re just monkeys with mobile phones. It’s hard for us to understand the long-term consequences of our choices.

    Say your boss offers you more shifts.

    You accept because the pay is better, and stop reading so much because you’re tired and busy.

    But you don’t realise that in three years, you’d have stumbled across several ideas buried in books that spur you into taking the glorious and somewhat painful leap into entrepreneurship.

    The short-term incentive of more money stopped — or at least delayed — you from walking the path you wanted.

    Tim Urban has visualised this cause-and-effect relationship of decisions perfectly:

    You might be thinking, well, great: make better choices. No sh*t. But where does writing come into this?

    I’m glad you asked.

    The algorithm trap

    My first attempts at blogging failed — wasting months on a website only my mum and girlfriend (pretended to) read.

    This was understandable.

    I sucked at writing, and ‘build it and they will come’ is a lie. To get initial attention, you gotta go where it flows — social media.

    Social is one of the best and worst things to happen to humanity. We’ve never been more connected or distracted. The big problem with these platforms is that the ‘like’ button has created a cesspool of incentive-based behaviour.


    Because you and I crave approval like drug addicts crave crack cocaine.

    Even the most stoic struggle to resist the allure of thousands of strangers applauding their ideas. As we post, the joy of engagement tells us what to do more of, and the sting of rejection tells us what to bury.

    Repeat this process for several years and you can see how incentives might drag you away from your original direction.

    It may even happen so slowly that you don’t notice.

    You tell yourself you’re giving the people what they want, but it’s not the people who control the incentives.

    It’s algorithms.

    An algorithm is an artificial prediction of a population’s taste decided by a computer that couldn’t care less about your insights and ideas.

    It has one job: to keep people scrolling.

    Often this means catering to the lowest common denominator of attention. Why write about a difficult topic when you can follow what’s working?

    If you’re not careful, algorithms will rub out the rough edges of your character and stop you from pursuing your curiosity without limit. Even though these are the biggest influencers on online success.

    Don’t believe me?

    Check out LinkedIn.

    The algorithm is ‘hot right now’. Which is code for ‘the algorithm is predictable’.

    …Which is code for the people are predictable.

    Everyone looks and sounds the same. Same format post. Same pointless ‘personal’ pictures. Same AI-generated comments.

    Incentives, meet behaviour.

    We're about to see a wave of this on 𝕏, too:

    That’s not to judge those playing the game.

    2020 Twitter was the same sh*t with a different format.

    But when algorithms calm, and the party draws to an end, what’s left is a group of adults sucking dummies, holding glow sticks, and nursing a hangover from a binge that they’d rather not speak about.

    A warning about how the party ends

    Munger also said that mimicking the herd invites regression to the mean.

    Put differently, doing the same thing as everyone else will get you average results.

    These days, that’s a digital death sentence.

    AI can do average. The crowd can do average.

    Even if you’re one of the few that build a big audience, you’re still not saying anything unique.

    When there’s so much choice — so much noise — audiences gravitate toward the writers who make them think and feel the most. People aren't stupid.

    They know when content is boring.

    So you’re left with three choices.

    First, delete your social media account and disappear into the woods to write a book. Not my recommendation. Attention’s valuable and betting on an audience in 2024 is like betting on Apple in the 1980s.

    Second, keep playing the same game as everyone else.

    You’ll get engagement. But you’ll also churn through followers like I do cookies. And you’ll be a slave to algorithms and trends and tactics for the next few decades — a recipe for directional disaster.

    Third, change the game.

    If you want to create something unique and useful, social media cannot be the end goal.

    It’s a tool for distribution and connection. This may mean sacrificing shorter-term engagement as you take on ‘less hot topics,’ but you must have faith in the internet:

    How you grow is more important than how fast.

    And quality rises to the top.

    My advice is to be honest:

    Would you be a raving fan of what you're about to publish? If not, rewrite it until you are.

    Share what fascinates you, and I guarantee your audience will be fascinated too.

    Writing online to grow your business? Two ways I can help:

    1.⁠ ⁠Get a step-by-step blueprint for attracting an engaged audience with High Impact Writing

    2.⁠ ⁠⁠Join a weekly masterclass and get 5 content ideas delivered to your inbox every Thursday

    Kieran Drew

    About Kieran

    Ex dentist, current writer, future Onlyfans star · Sharing what I learn about writing well, thinking clearly, and building an online business