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Colin Wright
Colin Wright
Current location: Milwaukee, WI, USA
Reading: Rationality by Steven Pinker
Listening: 76:14 by Global Communication
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The word “productivity” has its origins in the 19th century, back when industrialization and scaling-up everything was becoming the dominant approach to, and philosophy of, labor.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the word literally refers to the rate of output per unit of input: how many widgets a worker can make each hour, for instance.
In recent decades, this word has sprawled to encompass other aspects of life.
There are productive and unproductive uses of our time, the former ostensibly bringing us closer to some goal, while the latter is ideally avoided, optimized away, or concealed from the world—shamefully hidden behind speed-read stacks of Getting Things Done-style tomes that claim to help us winnow away all non-widget-generating efforts in our pursuit of an idealized, ultra-prolific, omni-generative version of ourselves.
While there’s something to be said for having the capacity to create, the idea that we must focus and steer all of our time and attention toward the making of profitable things (or things which may someday be profitable) can both sap the magic from the act of creation and make us less competent creators, over time.
I experience this socially reinforced near-compulsion as much as anyone, but I’ve found that by mentally deputizing consistent dabbling as a productive activity—rather than a pointless lark or waste of time and energy—I’m able to soften my sense that all effort must result in profitable output.
The way I frame it, internally, dabbling is a maintenance task that helps me stay psychologically healthy, while also helping me avoid cognitive or habitual rigidity.
In addition to just being fun and interesting, dabbling provides the dual-benefit of de-stressing the process of making things, because I regularly make stuff just to make stuff: there’s no required outcome beyond doodling or playing with music or experimenting with some unfamiliar medium for the sake of exploration.
I can learn and try and play and discover, in other words, without any pre-defined outcome shaping my perception of the experience.
It’s remarkable, the degree to which such expectations can contort our impression of things.
If you play a game and expect to win, and you don’t, that expectation can dilute or dim the fun you might have otherwise had simply playing the game, spending time with friends, and immersing yourself in the ups and downs of the shared challenge.
Likewise, if you pick up a musical instrument and decide you must be good at it, there’s a nonzero chance that if you don’t show any immediate propensity for it, you’ll discard both the idea and the instrument to pursue something that better lines up with your sense of what sort of output you want to achieve for each unit of input: my time needs to result in x quantity of money, product, or prestige, and this pursuit doesn’t seem like it will get me any of these things, at least not in the near-future, so I’ll move on to something that will.
Persistent dabbling can lead us to a new hobby, a pastime, or even, potentially, something we do for work or as a side-hustle—but it needn’t do so to be valuable.
The main value of dabbling, in my mind at least, is that it allows us to try and fail, but also to try and not have a set standard for failure; to engage in activities for their own sake, following them wherever they lead us rather than locking-in the shape we want them to take before we’ve had the chance to experience them from a neutral, non-judgmental perspective.
Over time this becomes easier, and the stress and sense of laziness you might feel when just doodling or painting or playing frisbee or boardgaming or puttering around on a drum set or learning about Incan culture or trying out some new recipes or starting a shell collection dissipates; most of the time, at least.
This mindset-retraining process will be easier for some than others—it’s been an extended journey, for me—but I do anecdotally find that folks who have portions of their time, energy, and resources set aside for such “unproductive” undertakings tend to be happier and more fulfilled, both in the work they do, and in their lives, overall.
If you found some value in this essay, consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee :)
St. Louis, Missouri, USA (2018)
St. Louis, Missouri, USA (2018)
Select, recent works from across my project portfolio.
Aspiring Generalist: Randomization
Brain Lenses: The Johari Window & Bulverism
Let’s Know Things: Chain of Command
Never Not Curious: September 28, 2021
One Sentence News: September 29, 2021
Understandary Lab: Info / Subscribe
Interesting & Useful
Some things to click.
St. Louis, Missouri, USA (2018)
St. Louis, Missouri, USA (2018)
A huge thanks to everyone who’s already checked out / signed up for one of my recently announced projects, and to the folks who became Understandary members right out of the gate: I truly appreciate your support and your input about how all of this is coming together—it’s a lot of fun and very educational.
The rest of this week I’ll be going through my project portfolio and making a slew of updates to “about” pages and links and such, and I’ll be publishing the first missives on the Understandary Lab mailing list, talking a bit about the project, why it’s done the way it is, and other such details.
I’m also planning to release a new version of my Some Thoughts About Relationships audiobook (using my snazzy new audio setup; the older version was done ages ago, and this new version will be of a much higher-quality) in the next week or so, and will be re-recording my other books over the next few months, as well.
Importantly, I’m also making plenty of time for futzing about with random things that catch my attention, reading a whole lot, and enjoying the increasingly autumnal weather here in Milwaukee.
If you’ve got a moment, consider sending me a quick hello and telling me something about yourself. I respond to every message I receive and would love to hear from you :)
You can reach me by replying directly to this newsletter, or at
You can also communicate via the typical methods: InstagramTwitterFacebook, or vintage London imagery.
If you’re finding some value in what I’m doing here, consider supporting my work via one of these methods: Become a supporter / Become an Understandary member / Buy a book / Buy me a coffee
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Colin Wright
Colin Wright @colinismyname

Essays and updates from author and podcaster Colin Wright.

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