David McRaney’s Blog, You Are Not So Smart, led to a book of the same name, published in October 2011 — a book that became a bestseller in 13 languages (we profiled him here when the book was first announced).
A follow-up volume, aptly titled You Are Now Less Dumb, hit bookshelves yesterday. Learn more about the book, the blog, and how David connects the dots between them — and how being less dumb has affected his life and work.
What was the response to the first book?
It was . . . overwhelming. A whole new audience saw the book in stores from coast to coast and came to the blog. They shared links and started tweeting and putting posts on Facebook. That led to another wave of people checking out the book, and so on, and it kept spiraling.
Soon, I was getting emails from around the world, from high school kids in Kansas to an 80-year-old priest in Ireland. It was amazing, and scary for a while, once I realized that what started as a blog post I wrote during my lunch break had become a book sitting in stores in places that I may never see or visit. Within a few months it was picked up by new publishers, and it’s now an international bestseller in 13 languages.
Did you change your blog at all in light of the first book’s success?
I’ve changed the format to be a mix of longform, researched articles, and podcasts that include lighter posts as accompaniment. I want people who enjoyed the book to keep getting fresh content from me as I try and one-up myself, but I also want to please people looking for short-form content to read while browsing the web, and the podcast is a really fun ongoing experiment into producing something that’s easy to consume on the go.
The overall tone is still the same and the focus hasn’t changed, but I take each post very seriously now knowing my audience has expanded so much.
Tell us about the new book — how will it help us build ourselves back up after the first book revealed our inadequacies?
The common thread in the new book is that the scientific method is a tool that human beings invented to be less dumb, and you don’t need to be a scientist or even be well-versed in scientific knowledge to use it to deal with your biases and fallacies. I showcase different forms of self-delusion and the research that discovered them, but unlike the first book, I offer some advice from scientists on how best to avoid those delusions (or at least live with them in a way that minimizes harm and maximizes happiness).
The title not only mirrors the first book’s title, but suggests that while you can never fully rid yourself of delusional thinking, you can learn to identify it, plan for it, and mitigate its effects in your daily life.
Do you use the blog as a test ground for potential book content?
I definitely still use the blog to write new topics and share them. About half of new book is expanded and re-written material I wrote for the blog after the first book, and the other half is completely new.
Was the second book easier to write?
It was actually much harder to write, because I was determined to make it better than the first book. Writing anything worthwhile gets more difficult each time you attempt it, and I want to always be able to look back at my old work and cringe because that means that I’m getting better. As David Rakoff once said of writing, “it is never easy, and it gets harder.”
(In addition to that, a tornado destroyed our house with us inside it during the editing, so that made finishing the book . . . challenging.)
Despite it being harder to write, it was much easier to organize and research. I learned a lot about how to construct a book and how to prepare beforehand from writing the first one.
Tell us about scoring and negotiating the second book deal.
I had several ideas for a second book, and those might become books in the future, but my publisher, Gotham, was so pleased with the reception of You Are Not So Smart that I was offered a sequel right away. They immediately understood what I was doing with both the blog and the first book, and we have a great relationship now. Proposing the second book, editing it, and promoting it has been painless thanks to their support.
What do you wish you had known before diving into books?
There’s a fallacy I write about in the book called the “sunk cost fallacy,” and it’s the tendency we all have to try and salvage an obviously losing situation by investing deeper instead of just abandoning it and starting over. Wars have been lost because of it. It’s tough to do when the stakes are high.
It’s especially tough to do during a creative pursuit, especially if you are under a deadline, but I finally understood in the middle of writing that if you must be willing to delete, erase, and reboot every aspect of your project or you’ll waste days trying to save something that’s never going to work.
As you see your book come together, about 100 or so pages in, you start to see the themes and threads emerge that will eventually hold it together as a single statement. That’s when you’ll be forced to start over in some places, to rewrite and rearrange and maybe even delete and erase. You’ll resist this, because it was so hard to write everything up to that point, and there are so many awesome sentences here and there that you want people to read, but you must do it.
Any words of wisdom for bloggers aspiring to traditional publishing?
If you want to write a book, go ahead and start writing online about the topic you want to explore. Give people a chance to become fans of your work and style, and give yourself a chance to develop your voice. Publishers are much more likely to give someone a chance if a project already has a following and the person behind it has demonstrated a strong work ethic.
You’ll still need some luck and some savvy when it comes to self-promotion, but if you are making great things, you have a much better chance of getting noticed by someone who can change your life.
How has realizing how not smart you are affected your own life and work?
I’ve learned that there is a lot more to gain from proceeding from a place of humility. When you write about science you can start to believe you’ve become an authority on your subject matter, and I think that’s a dangerous place to be as a journalist — you’ll end up assuming you understand a topic you’ve yet to fully explore.
You should always assume ignorance and work to be a good explainer and interviewer, but remember that you are not an expert; you are communicating the work of experts. Self knowledge gives me the chance to improve my behavior and my work, but it does so by identifying the source of my struggles, not necessarily eliminating the struggle itself.
Look for David’s book on shelves, and get a weekly dose of reality at You Are Not So Smart.
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