The intellectual world is like a map. Whenever you share an idea, you improve the map of knowledge either by clarifying ideas that have already been mapped or by expanding the map with new information. If you want to create new knowledge, you need an earned secret.
Earned secrets are ideas that only you can write about. They’re valuable because they can only be acquired via circumstance or hard work. The world is filled with secrets waiting to be found, but by definition, I don’t know what they are. As Peter Thiel wrote in Zero to One: “The big secret is that there are many secrets left to uncover. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them.”
Earned secrets come in two flavors: access and revelation. Access helps you find ideas that other people couldn’t have discovered, while revelation opens your eyes to the secrets hidden in plain sight.
Access comes from a unique perspective. They’re valuable because they’re rare. Often, they’re also confidential which makes them off-limits to write about. It happens when you have exclusive information that yields never-before-shared ideas that nobody’s ever written before. One example is the OKCupid blog which used proprietary data to explain the biology of online dating. In one article, they shared the three questions that best determine long-term compatibility between two romantic partners: “Do you like horror movies?” “Have you ever traveled around another country alone?” and “Wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?” The more similar people’s responses, the more compatible they were likely to be as partners. OkCupid was the only company with access to the information they published, so all the articles contain statistics I’ve never seen before.
Revelation happens when you synthesize public information in new ways, either because of obsessive research or a unique eye. Obsessive research works best when you write about ideas outside the spotlight. The media only covers a fraction of what happens in the world, so you can find new ideas by venturing beyond its narrow gaze and into the expansive realm of forgotten stories. Usually, the information will be public but scattered. That’s what happened with my Peter Thiel essay. Only after reading every word he’s ever published did I have an intellectual phase transition. Though all the information in the essay was public, nobody had read between the lines and written at-length about his Christian worldview.
A unique eye is usually a byproduct of expertise. Perhaps, you’ve had the experience of reading about a subject you don’t understand, where you can only understand 10-20% of what’s being communicated. Experts have the opposite experience though. They pick up on more than 100% of the text because years of experience help them make connections beyond the words themselves. My favorite example is Stratechery’s Ben Thompson. In reading about technology for the past three decades, he’s developed a series of frameworks that help him interpret technology-related news. With a unique eye, he communicates what even the other experts miss about industry happenings.
The secrets of access and revelation may be hidden, but they exist in abundance. As a writer, it’s your job to find them. You may even be unaware of the earned secrets you already have. If so, talking about your ideas will help you find them.
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