The Open Default Principle

How sharing everything helps me beat the gatekeepers

While it’s clear you didn’t do any of the required reading, the depth of your research and your level of understanding of the topic was impressive. B+

Proud as I was of my blatant disregard for the syllabus, that comment, scrawled below the text of an economics paper, still stung. Skilled regurgitation, it implied, was more valuable than any original contribution.

We’re trained in school to do the former—to regurgitate. We assess students on their ability to restate information on an exam which will likely fade out of memory within days. The one-teacher-to-many-students model transforms teachers from facilitators into gatekeepers. The most efficient path to good grades is to exploit the biases and preferences of the gatekeeper. This principles holds equally true when you replace “student” with “employee” and “teacher” with “boss.”

Seeking Validation

Dependence on a single source of validation and direction is more destructive than we realize. I’m reminded of this daily as both boss and employee. I set goals and tasks for myself and struggle to adjust course when things don’t go as planned. I make mistakes because I’m fatigued. I’m stymied by problems that would be trivial to a fresh set of eyes.

The todo list I write each morning—what the “boss” wanted—doesn’t hold the answer. It is the problem. The only way around this kind of roadblock is to ask where the manager in me went wrong. What obstacle had I underestimated, and how do I get past it? Is this even the right project for me to be working on right now? These questions are hard enough to pose between two different sides of my own brain. It’s near impossible for two different people.

That dysfunctional feedback mechanism sends toxic ripples that extend far beyond the office or the classroom. The anxiety of constantly trying to please a single person saps our desire to share ideas—the desire that makes us human. We start to hide our ideas—our art—from other people, for fear they will not approve.

Jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.” —Ray Bradbury

Creation Must Embrace Risk

That fear erodes our willingness to take creative risks. We develop a habit of unwittingly describing risks not yet taken as guaranteed failures, in disturbingly casual acts of self-deprecation. I started recognizing this tendancy when talking to friends and family about blogging. Publishing reflections on very personal challenges has been hugely rewarding during a turbulent part of my personal and professional life. But their response is usually, “I don’t have anything to say,” or worse, “No one cares about anything I’d have to say.”

My response to them: “I don’t believe you, but so what if I’m wrong?” When our work is judged by a superior, non-recognition is tantamount to failure. That is not true for creations shared on the open Internet, where all links are created equal, and we are all peers on a level playing field. Recognition still feels good and criticism still hurts. But for every one person who validates your creation, one hundred will benefit in silence. That’s the nature of open exchange. Embrace it at every chance and you take all the power away from the gatekeepers.

The Open Default Principle

I’ve adopted a principle I’m calling The Open Default Principle: 1

Anything that I create that is not proprietary will be openly accessible for free on the Internet.

That means that a lot of the code I write for and some of my photography will remain private. But proprietary content does not include content that others would prefer remained private, like all of my essays and problem sets from Columbia which I’ve entered into the public domain.

You may wish to set a different privacy threshold than I have. That’s certainly in keeping with the principle. Don’t do anything that makes you especially uncomfortable, but don’t shy from the mild discomfort that might be caused by lingering validation anxiety. The only stipulation is that you change your default setting to “Open.” Ask “does this need to be private?” instead of “is there a reason to share?” Don’t worry that any one shared idea might not resonate. Listen to every voice but your own—it’s your most vocal critic.

  1. I seem to enjoy creating principles. I wrote about another one for finding the time for creativity called The 5 a.m. Principle.