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Spiky opinions?

This post is a response to an article a friend, Adeline Amar sent to me: Spiky point of view: Let’s get a little controversial by Wes Cao.

I found the article intriguing: lots of good stuff in it, but wrapped in language that didn't really fit the core arguments and examples. I want to dig into what 'spiky' is doing here, try and extract Cao's main point, and look at the value it brings.

Before I start, I want to be clear that I liked this article: I believe there's real value in Cao's core point, and I think her tips for exploring your own opinions can be helpful. I'm not just arguing over terminology for the sake of it either: the choice of the word 'spiky' in this article feels worth exploring.

Wes Cao's spiky opinions

Wes Cao starts by describing the "noisy world" most of us live in, and how hard it is to stand out. She suggests:

To stand out, you need to develop what I call a "spiky" point of view.

She then defines a spiky point of view:

A spiky point of view is a perspective others can disagree with. It’s a belief you feel strongly about and are willing to advocate for. It's your thesis about topics in your realm of expertise.

And lists the key elements of a spiky point of view. Note that I've cut out the longer explanations of each point:

  1. A spiky point of view can be debated.
  2. A spiky point of view isn't controversial for the sake of it.
  3. A spiky point of view teaches your audience something relevant they don't already know.
  4. A spiky point of view is rooted in evidence, but it doesn’t have to be a proven fact or universal truth.
  5. A spiky point of view requires conviction.

The article then gives examples of Cao's spiky points of view, looks at some factors that can hold people back from developing their own, and provides a five-step process to start developing your spiky opinions.

Spiky? Really?

Wes Cao's opening paragraphs made me think I was about to read a really controversial. Her first few sentences focus heavily on the individualistic aspect of spiky opinions, and how they can help you stand out. I was fully prepared to read a post advocating for a practice of super-individual and super-controversial opinion-forming. This first impression was reinforced by the term 'spiky'. To my mind, 'spiky' is sharp, maybe violent (weapons?), definitely painful. Something edgy, and difficult. A 'spiky' opinion would surely, at minimum, create a massive viral-going row on social media.

Instead, the introduction is followed by a thoughtful set of criteria: a spiky opinion must be open to debate, must have some reasons behind it, and some evidence. It should be individual, and some people will likely disagree with it.

In Adeline's words:

Isn't that what an opinion is, generally?

I agree with my friend. So let's look at the core of Cao's argument, and then investigate where the spikyness comes from.

What is Cao's core proposal?

I'd suggest that Cao's article can be simplified as follows.

The article recommends:

  • Thinking critically about your profession
  • Developing your own opinions on important topics in your domain
  • Expressing your thoughts and opinions

And it argues that the effects of doing this include:

  • Standing out from the crowd
  • Demonstrating your domain expertise and intellect
  • Contributing your own unique perspective to the discourse around your profession

Given this summary, where does the spikyness come from?

An underyling assumption of consensus

There's an underlying assumption at work in the article: that there exists, in any profession, a consensus opinion or set of norms, and that deviating from these norms is controversial.

In extreme cases, this is probably true. Given the medical profession's commitment to healing, a doctor showing up at a hospital recommending dosing all the patients with poison is going to be controversial.

But Cao's examples are nowhere near as extreme. She focuses on topics in content creation and marketing. Her examples of spiky opinions include things like:

Launches aren't a one-time event. Most companies do a ton of work for the launch, but don’t spend enough time on what happens after. A successful launch means sustaining the momentum once the confetti settles.

Is there a consensus opinion that launches are a one-time event? Is there a norm of one-and-done launches that the majority of marketing professionals agrees with?

I think Cao's point is excellent, and she's recognised a genuine challenge in marketing. But I don't see the spikyness, because I don't see 100% (or even close to 100%) consensus in the marketing industry around how to handle product launches. Enough people are likely to agree with Cao that her opinion doesn't feel spiky.

It may be possible to come up with a statement that has near-100% consensus if you wrap everything in caveats. For example: "In software development, it's usually a good idea to do at least some testing in most circumstances." Even then, I'm sure there are people out there who would insist on carefully defining 'usually', and the intended circumstances, before agreeing.

In practice, I don't think there is enough consensus in any profession for opinions of the type the article describes (reasoned, with evidence, drawn from expertise) to really be 'spiky'.

Why does voicing opinions feel spiky?

So far, I've argued that the article is really just suggesting we should develop opinions, and then articulate them, and that there's rarely enough consensus on any topic for this to be a 'spiky' exercise. So let's ask again: where does the spikyness come from?

I can't be sure why Cao chose the label of 'spiky opinions'. Maybe she and I simply have different understandings of the word, different mental associations with spikyness. But I suspect it's more than that.

Here's a few ways that devloping and voicing opinions can feel spiky to me:

  • When I'm not confident in my expertise: it feels a lot less spiky to develop an opinion based on 10 years experience in a domain, versus one formed after reading a handful of news articles. This is why I will always be more confident expressing my opinions on tech writing than on economics.
  • When I don't have psychological safety: if I anticipate a strongly hostile reaction, expressing an opinion feels spiky.
  • When I'm reminded that I'm in a demographic that isn't meant to be too argumentative: I don't want to presume that Cao's sense that her opinions are spiky comes from her being a woman, but I have to admit it was the first thought I had. From women being perceived as dominating conversation if they speak 30% of the time (and obviously a woman dominating a conversation is a terrible thing), to the viscious reactions and comments that women face even when doing seemingly non-controversial things in public spaces (being really good at football, for example - and yes, we all know this is 'controversial', but I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason that doesn't boil down to misogyny).

So let's stop thinking of the articles recommendations as being about 'spiky' opinions, and instead look at the value of developing your own critical opinions within our profession, and the value of articulating those opinions, however spiky that may feel.

The value of thinking critically about your profession

Thinking critically about your profession and your domains of expertise has multiple benefits.

As the article states in its introduction, it helps you stand out and get noticed in your field. Cao writes:

Your spiky point of view showcases how you approach your craft. It shows why you make the decisions you make. It shows you're thinking rigorously and interpreting what's going on around you.

A spiky point of view is almost impossible to imitate. It's unique to each person, which is why it's such a powerful competitive advantage. It's rooted in your conviction and authenticity.

It also helps you develop. Reflecting on your work, and your opinions about your work, can help you grow and improve. In fact, I'd say it's essential: an iterative process of forming opinions, testing them, and correcting them, is a key part of growing as a professional. Without that curiosity, you risk becoming a machine: you may be great at following the guidelines someone else sets for you, and produce acceptable work, but you'll stumble as soon as you're faced with adapting yourself to a new situation, or when you hit the inevitable exceptions to the rules.

The value of articulating your opinions

In addition to developing and testing your opinions, it's important to express them.

Cao's focus is on how your indidual opinions can help you stand out. That doesn't really work if you keep your thoughts to yourself.

By sharing your opinions, you also give back to your professional discipline, so long as you're following Cao's standards for a good 'spiky' opinion: open to debate, reasoned, with some evidence.

The exercise of articulating your opinion also helps you examine it. To give one example: the process of writing this article has taken me from a gut feeling that 'spiky' wasn't quite the right term, to a list of potential reasons underlying the word choice, and a deeper engagement with Cao's main point. If I'd just read the article and thought about it a bit, I wouldn't have had to think as thoroughly (I probably also wouldn't have retained the information I read).

Wrap up

Although I think the term 'spiky' doesn't really work to describe the type of opinion-forming that Cao is advocating, I agree with her that this reflective and critical thinking is important as professionals.

My next step is to try Cao's short exercise, and see if I can articulate a few tech writing opinions. I'd suggest giving it a try, whatever profession you're in.