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In Obscurity (droctothorpe.github.io)
86 points by droctothorpe 3 days ago | flag | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments

Obscurity, in some ways, is more valuable to the creator than fame (although I loved this piece and I'm glad the author shared it here). Guessing what the audience expects, or seeking external validation, can slowly (or quickly) suck the joy out of the creative process. I interviewed author Michelle Kuo about creativity, and her advice:

“The most important thing I can tell you is to relish writing in obscurity. I feel that I was the happiest as a writer when I was in hiding, when I was invisible, when I was secretly writing, stealing away portions of time at work, or writing on scraps of paper, or forming sentences in my head on the commute. That was a time before I had published really anything and before I even thought my writing would become a book, I was just trying to organize or to create order in my emotional life.”

I wrote a book on creativity with Holloway, and I wanted to share two of my favorite prompts:

Ignore the stats: https://www.holloway.com/g/creative-doing/sections/ignore-th...

Make something you won't ever show anyone else: https://www.holloway.com/g/creative-doing/sections/make-some...


Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

“… in an era in which people can’t eat a sandwich, let alone invent Calculus, without tweeting about it. I tweet, therefore I am.”

This is just a bias towards people who make themselves visible. I suspect that self-promoters have existed throughout history and that people laboring on interesting ideas in obscurity exist today.

Indeed. Stopping and reflecting on the perspective reveals it to be nonsensical.

Obviously if someone is toiling away in obscurity for 25 year stretches then they aren't going to be visible on Twitter. Most people aren't on Twitter, and the people who get airplay on Twitter tend not to be the thoughtful types.

> What would you create even if no one ever saw it?

I pretty much do that, every day. I write stuff that I want; whether or not anyone else does, and I don't really bother to don a sandwich board.

The one thing that I did for other folks, has taken off, but it took ten years. One reason was that I didn't spend a whole lot of time, tubthumping.

I too create, but very small things and not very often. Things I never show to anyone else, except, sometimes, to my SO. I'm not on any social media platform except here on HN.

Short poems which I write on my phone, once in a month or two. A small utility that does something new and novel once in a couple of months, which is kept on my hard disk and never uploaded anywhere.

These are not enough for me to feel very creative. I try to limit my passive consumption of HN/tv/movies/dev news/games and keep my FOMO in check, but it's difficult.

I stay off of Twitter, LinkedIN, and Facebook, but need to keep accounts. I'll make a post, every now and then. I don't doomscroll.

HN is pretty much my only e-interaction with others (besides some Slack, Zoom, and messaging, for the project I'm implementing), which explains my rather voluminous activity, hereabouts.

I write ideas for computers down. See my profile. I am obscure but everytime I have an idea I write it down.

It's a muscle, the more you use it the more you get of them. If you want more ideas you have to tease them out.

If you are really creating things no one sees, how come I never see you doing it?

You're not looking?

Was just trying to make a joke about confirmation bias.

I know. I was joking, too. Someone downvoted you, and I upvoted.

It's all good.

In those days the channels of discovery were so few and privileged that a common man couldn't even imagine something like publishing. You didn't have social networks with huge number of followers. You didn't have blogs or dedicated platforms where you could go and broadcast your discoveries. Whatever there was required genuine struggle for years and years.

This changed the important & value of time. Nowadays, we are running after things and very few here could say they worked over a thing for years and years. For us things are fleeting, our attention spans are ridiculous, and we don't have patience.

Moreover, getting fame and recognition is relatively easier in today's world that we can't even imagine doing something just for the sake of doing something because it is so easy to be materialistic about everything, and measure it on the money-made-fame-earned scale.

Even when we are working on that secret project, in our minds we can't help but think about it's materialistic value. I wonder how many of us will leave this world with truly groundbreaking projects behind...

> In those days the channels of discovery were so few and privileged that a common man couldn't even imagine something like publishing.

Isaac Newton was a fellow at Trinity (which required a special exemption by King Charles II concerning legal religious restrictions) and a fellow of the Royal Society for several decades before he published his work. He was not a "common man".

Side note, Max Brod claims to have told Kafka while he was alive that he had no intention of carrying out his instructions. Kafka did not make alternate arrangements.

I interpret Kafka’s statement as a kind of performative self-abnegation.

> Although Kafka stipulated that all of his unpublished works were to be burned, Brod refused. He justified this move by stating that when Kafka personally told him to burn his unpublished work, Brod replied that he would outright refuse, and that "Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instructions should stand."


If he truly wanted them destroyed, there was also no reason it had to wait until after his death. Kafka could have easily done it himself. No need for another executor. It always seemed to me to be something of a legend.

> easily done it himself

No need to dispose of your property until the last moment - when you will probably be impeded.

With the internet, it is now possible for people to find audiences that were effectively unreachable in prior eras. Also note that in many of these cases, the author's self doubt (because of such a lack of audience?) was responsible for the obscurity.

This is a topic that fascinates me. Some of it is maybe me wrestling with some of my own frustrations, but this general issue of the pressures of popular demand versus going your own way, and how society attributes credit and value to ideas and discoveries is fascinating to me. Issues like unacknowledged contributions, discoverers, people who withdraw from society and produce contributions that go unknown for a long time, people and institutions ahead of their time, lost books, and so forth.

I think the model western society often collectively adopts for intellectual contributions, credit, how it should all work, and how it actually currently does is fundamentally flawed. Then there's the issue of what motives, incentives, and so forth might be best or most healthy, whether that varies across people and what we might do about it.

The Z List Dead List podcast (https://zlistdeadlist.libsyn.com/) doesn't always focus on the same form of obscurity mentioned by the targeted article but deals with overlapping and similar themes.

Then there's Stigler's Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler%27s_law_of_eponymy) which is important to keep in mind, among others.

The fact that Stigler's Law adheres to Stigler's Law is hilarious. Thanks for sharing!

What miracles and wonders have been worked out by lone wolves, and never recognized by their survivors?

What miracles of computation have been bought and buried by bigger companies who didn't care to compete with smaller fry?

Ultimately it's not relevant until it's realized. Newton may have been 500 years late to the party; but we'll never know and it doesn't matter what others knew the things he explained before him.

It's only a curiosity if you believe in stereotypical and enormously simplified model of “history” as “progress”, some machine-like movement that has a goal. If you exclude this from your model, no wonder that it is seen as some kind of malfunction, something that shouldn't happen.

In other words, status quo, the world we have around us now, is retroactively set as a meaningful target for everything that has happened before.

A lot of people who are not at all as notable as Newton should be able to look back at their histories, and see how many random turns have happened, how many random things they've read set the direction of their thoughts, and so on.

On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was not published until a month before Copernicus died.

On the Origin of Species was not published until 1859 - Darwin had the basic ideas down in 1839, but did not start thinking to publish until Alfred Russel Wallace started to publish in the mid/late 1850s, which is probably what pushed him into finally publishing. Also, Darwin only alluded to humans in the work, and didn't publish the Descent of Man until 1871.

Thanks for sharing these examples. I feel like stories like this, collectively, could constitute an interesting book.

"What would you create even if no one ever saw it?" Deeply meditative question.

> That got me thinking about other creatives who withheld the fruits of their labor from the world at large.

Big difference between the world and a small group of people.

One is about money, the second is about personal relationships.

Newton told people in correspondence, same with Kafka and both also did the world option. Henry Darger was mad....perhaps not for everyone.

I think don't be afraid to do things a really small amount of people might see.

I will get down voted for saying it. But Newton most likely didn't invent Calculus. Circumstantial evidence suggest that Kerala School of mathematics passed the knowledge to the Jesuit missionaries who in turn might have passed it on to the Newton. Link to the research on this topic[0].

[0] https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/indians-predated-...

I was going to say: "I'm torn, because usually I have a policy of downvoting every HN comment I see that says 'I'm going to get downvoted for this', but this looks really interesting".

But then I checked your link, and in fact it doesn't at all say that Newton's work on calculus wasn't original. The thing it claims Keralan mathematicians might have done first was infinite series. So I can downvote you for pre-emptive complaining about downvotes with a clear conscience :-).

But then I checked (so far as I easily could using Amazon's "look inside" feature) the book referenced there, and in fact it does mention that a guy called Bhaskaracharya had something like the notion of derivative a couple of centuries before Newton and Leibniz. (It looks to me as if what he had was a special case rather than the general concept, though; if I'm right about that, it's an important distinction.) So now I'm conflicted again.

[EDITED to add:] The book in question is called "The crest of the peacock: Non-European roots of mathematics".

Well, it seems to me that the most that can credibly be true here is that Newton's discovery of calculus was influenced by closely related prior work by the likes of Bhaskaracharya. I don't think this is enough grounds for saying that "Newton most likely didn't invent Calculus". So, downvote it is. (For complaining about getting downvoted, not for the hyperbole about Newton.)

Thanks for investing so much energy. I regret to be the source of emotional conflict. :)

What an emotional roller coaster!

In Newton's case, even if there were hints in existing literature available to him at the time of concepts like limit and derivative, which is arguable, he would still have had to connect all the dots and create a workable new mathematics largely on his own, which he did. What's also clear through the examples in his Principia, he was using his Calculus to solve problems no one had solved before.

So, no downvote here, but what's the point? Even if someone had previously invented the Calculus at some point in ancient history, they didn't do anything noteworthy with it, and/or, some catastrophe erased the evidence of their work. Does this in any way diminish Newton's invention?

I'll just let Newton and Leibniz argue it out. And I'll go re-read Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy.

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