Three or Four or Five Purposes

I just checked the RW archive for a quotation that has been rattling around in my head for a while now. It came from an interview with Aswath Damodaran, and it turns out, it’s been collecting digital dust in a file called “cutting room floor.” Never published anywhere, it has still been an operating principle for me since I heard it.

Here’s some background. As we (Reshan and I) were winding down our interview, we asked Professor Damodaran a question he probably didn’t love.

We only have time for one more question, so I’ve got to ask you: how you have been so prolific? Eleven books, I lost count of all the articles you’ve had published, a massive online presence, trying to get ideas and valuation techniques democratized, and hundreds of thousands of people reading and watching your teaching. And then on top of it, being a professor and getting all these awards for best professor at NYU… Can you share any tips for people trying to be more productive?

And here’s Professor Damodaran, gracefully and humbly sharing some very practical advice:

I have to tell you, I’m a pretty lazy person, I don’t work more than 40 hours per week. What I’ve discovered helps me is to not compartmentalize – because if I thought of my life as, “there’s teaching, there’s research, there’s writing on my blog, there’s X, Y and Z…” then you very quickly run out of hours in the day. But almost everything I do spills over into almost everything else I do. So I’m constantly looking for ways to take whatever I do and get it to serve three or four or five purposes.

I’ll give you an example: about five years ago I read The Wall Street Journal post on Uber. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I said, “This will be an interesting company to value.” I did a very rudimentary valuation, because I knew very little about ride sharing; it took me about three hours to do the valuation, about three hours to write the blog post. I put it up on Friday afternoon. That blog post took a day and a half of work, but it essentially became part of my classes, it became an entire seminar that I do on valuing young and startup companies, it became a book called Narrative in Numbers.

Plenty of “content creators” (sorry!) start each day or each project by trying to guess what their audiences will react to or at least click. And plenty of publishers encourage this practice by trying to figure out if a proposed book will connect with the clickers and the reactors and the influencers. Damodaran speaks of a different, and I think better, way. Start by making the single best thing you can make. One thing at a time. And give that one thing the effort and attention it requires. Then figure out how it can be of use. Better yet, two uses. If it’s still rattling around in your head in a day or a week or a month, return to it. Add something to it. Make it more useful or differently useful. Share it again, perhaps in a new place or way.

As a teacher and learner, I see this method, too, as simply trying to create in a multimodal way — which is great for helping others to understand something that matters to you or just sticks around and won’t let go.

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