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Q&A with ‘More to That’ Creator Lawrence Yeo on Creativity, Storytelling, and Inspiration
"When it comes to writing, I think it’s important to write for yourself every day."
Three years ago, I was browsing the internet when I stumbled upon Lawrence Yeo’s blog More to That. I’m so lucky I did because it’s become one of my favorite places on the internet.
Lawrence has created something special because he allows his curiosity to take the lead. He writes about the different aspects of the human condition — perspectives on death, navigating fear and anxiety, and our struggle with self-doubt — complete with fun and playful illustrations.
On Thursday, Yeo participated in an hour-long, live "Ask Me Anything" with readers who are part of The Profile's members-only Telegram chat. (To join, consider becoming a premium member here.)
We discussed the nuts and bolts of his storytelling process, why he writes about the human condition, and how he finds inspiration on a regular basis.
Below are the highlights of his Q&A with the readers:
Q: Why did you select to write about the human condition? And how do you normally work through topic selection?
YEO: One thing that’s interesting about the classic “variable vs. fixed expenses” concept in business is that it’s applicable to the human condition as well. The variables are technology, culture, etc., while the fixed aspect is good ole human nature. And while the variables might have some definitive answers, I think human nature is all about asking the right questions. The question is far more important than the answer, as they say.
I was listening to Lex Fridman’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg the other day, and one interesting thing that Mark said was that he believes most of the technological problems will be sorted out. That the solutions will inevitably be mapped out. But the problems to sort through will be philosophical, and those are the ones we need to think through most.
I write about the human condition because, in a sense, it’s what matters most. The variables will keep shifting; what’s important today will be forgotten tomorrow. But the questions of what it means to live a good life will be forever pertinent and will endure as long as we don’t blow ourselves up or some other existential risk befalls us.
For topic selection, I write about so many disparate things, and it plays to the notion that I write whatever I’m curious about, but it’s mostly timeless issues. Instead of writing about the latest market crash caused by speculative investing, for example, I’ll instead write about why speculation itself is a game we can’t win because of the moral problem inherent in it (which is an actual post I published). So I think the combo is: Curiosity + Timelessness, and that’s what I end up choosing to write about.
Q: What do you actually read? Books? Newsletters? Where the inspiration comes from?
I think inspiration is one of those things that emerges when you don’t search for it. There’s this Daoist concept called “wu-wei,” which roughly translates to “effortless action,” and it’s about navigating the world with fluidity instead of exerting energy to make something happen. There’s something about inspiration that feels that way — it can’t be conjured up, and it arrives on its own accord.
With that said, I read things that pull on my curiosity, and I try not to do so for any other reason. Sometimes I’ll read because I want to write about the content of that book/newsletter, but it’s not very common.
I lean more toward books than newsletters, mainly because of the depth required to write a book (although a newsletter like The Profile is so great because Polina really does a great job diving deep into the person she’s telling a story about). At the same time, with books, I also try to read things that don’t have inherent utility, like fiction for example. Because then it reminds me that I’m not reading to extract anything for an essay — but just to read because I’m curious about the premise and for the sheer fun of it.
Q: If you would have a sentence to put on a billboard what would it be and why?
“Wisdom is the co-existence of contradictory truths.”
I think one of the great ills of society is our inability to accept that any argument has an equal truth on the other side. Now, I’m not arguing for a kind of relativism, where truth is malleable and it depends on who’s viewing it. My point is that perspective is a powerful thing, and we often don’t consider all the influences that have shaped one’s perspective, and how that’s happening for everyone all around us.
One of the pernicious things about politics, for example (without getting too deep into it), is that you’re not allowed to change your mind on things. You’re supposed to have one position, and hold on to that for however long you’re in office. That’s not something that should be heralded, because that’s a sign of intellectual laziness.
I think we overestimate the power of persuasion and underestimate the power of compassion. Convincing someone of your view sounds sexy, but being compassionate to the “other” is what takes real courage. And the best way to be compassionate is to try and think of what the other person has experienced in their life, and how that’s shaped a worldview that may be different from yours.
Q: How have you approached growing a community of readers as a writer? Can you give practical tips new writers can follow?
I don’t have a strong social media presence, nor do I do SEO or anything of that sort. Admittedly, I haven’t really put much energy into growing an audience on Twitter or any social media platform, and maybe I’ll give this more of a try. But for the time being, much of my time is directed toward creating stories and posts on More To That itself.
I think when it comes to growing a community of readers, it comes down to where you can dedicate your energy, and how you can do it sustainably. For me, I can spend a lot of time writing and drawing, and doing it in a format for my blog. And this was the case before anyone was reading.
To give you context, the first piece I published on More To That (which was called “Travel Is No Cure for the Mind”) took me ~100 hours to create, and I had no idea if people would like it. I just did it because I enjoyed the process. Now, it just so happened that it was well-received, but that didn’t really guide the direction of me putting it out there.
Since creating stories is something that’s intrinsically motivating for me, I can put a lot of energy into that, and have the audience grow as a byproduct of that. But if the requirement of external validation is high for you, then I might suggest you use a social media platform like Twitter that benefits from network effects, and you can see your following grow in turn. But since that’s not my forte, I don’t really have too many practical tips on that!
Q: When considering feedback on your creative work, how do you discern between conflicting criticisms, and do you have a method whereby you ultimately decide whether to implement it or not moving forward?
For the most part, I let my intuition guide me when it comes to deciding what to go with from a topical nature. But when there’s criticism, I like to ask myself:
'Is this criticism in good faith?'
If so, then I know that this dialogue will be constructive. So I’ll take it in and internalize it, and see how it’ll help me uncover my blind spots.
If not, then I largely ignore it. I feel that any attack never really goes anywhere from a clarity perspective, and leaves both parties worse off. In this case, I continue forward using my intuition as the compass, because that's really the origin of any creative endeavor.
Q: I’m curious about your general writing process and writing habits. For example, do you have a specific time you dedicate to writing every day? Do you use a note-taking system? Do you write, then illustrate your ideas, or the other way around?
I think there are two kinds of writing:
(1) Writing-for-yourself, and
When I hear the advice of “Write every day,” I don’t think it’s nuanced enough. While I do think it’s helpful to write every day, I don’t necessarily think you need to write-to-publish every day. Because the intentions of why you write change depending on which one you’re doing.
When it comes to writing, I think it’s important to write for yourself every day. Because it’s important to keep that muscle trained. But what I mean by this is that you can write in a journal each day, fill out a page of thoughts that no one will necessarily read. And because you’re approaching it without the pressure of other eyes checking it out, it’s much easier to write and put your thoughts down on the page. So this is the kind I do every single day.
Now, if you’re “writing to publish,” it’s different because you’re putting your ideas out there in the world. And to do that, sometimes you need to sit with them to ensure you’re presenting them right. You might need to outline things a bit, and take time to structure them before you even write a single word.
So I don’t “write to publish” every day because the question of presentation and inspiration is more of a factor. However! I have been trying out doing this for two hours each weekday, and it’s been interesting. There is something to sitting in front of a blank page and typing out whatever comes to mind, while also knowing that you want it to be comprehensible. But I’m yet to see if this is something that I want to continue doing.
For note-taking systems, I have Roam Research, but admittedly, I don’t use it much. And much of it is because I’m not a huge note-taker in general. Call me old-fashioned, but I find that the things that resonate with me most don’t need to be recalled through a system, and they find their way to the page somehow. I actually wrote a piece called “The Problem With Note-Taking” that addresses this, but I totally understand the power of note-taking as well. I just think that there’s something a little utilitarian about treating knowledge as bits of information to serve your goals, instead of sitting with it and appreciating it just for what it is.
And for my writing / illustration process! I write first, and then in brackets, I put what I need to illustrate. I think it’s important to not break the flow of writing when you’re in it and to minimize context switching. One tool that’s been a game-changer for me is Cold Turkey Writer, because it effectively turns your computer into a typewriter for a set period of time (or a word count). So I treat my writing and illustrating as two separate creative processes.
With writing, you have to be completely focused and present. But with illustrating, I can throw on a podcast and just draw. It’s like using different parts of the brain, which is also quite nice because I’m not in one mode the entire time!
Q: What’s one of the more memorable stories you’ve read and why?
So I’m somewhat of a fiction nerd, mainly because there’s no inherent utility in it. I read it just for the sake of fun; not to discover any ideas. And one of the more memorable stories I’ve read is Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” It’s from his anthology of stories in Exhalation.
In it, he builds a world where you could record your memories, and replay them back at any given moment. I think Black Mirror did an episode on this premise, but Chiang’s point of this world is far more interesting in my opinion.
He points out that having accurate memory recall won’t stop our desire to create narratives about those memories. That we will even attempt to falsify our own memories so that they match a storyline we believe in. And the parallel he draws to this is writing, which at one point was a revolutionary technology as well. I highly recommend this story, it’s incredible.
Q: Who’s one of your favorite storytellers and why?
Tim Urban of Wait But Why is a masterful storyteller, and is one of my inspirations. I feel that great storytellers have a strong capacity for empathy; to put themselves in the audience’s shoes as they craft the story. They have a keen understanding of what might be confusing, what could be simplified further, and how it’d make them feel. Tim Urban does this across so many topics, and I love how his curiosity is the guiding light post.
Polina is also one of my favorite storytellers, but since you’re all familiar with the quality of her work, no need to go into that too deeply here.
Oh! And one storyteller that I feel people don’t talk about enough is Allie Brosh from Hyperbole and a Half. She draws almost solely upon personal experience, and does it in a way that’s funny, heartening, and inspiring all at once. Highly recommend her work as well.
Q: What gets you energized these days?
All kinds of things energize me! But for one, the fact that I get to do this work energizes me each day. I love connecting with others and talking about creativity, philosophy, and all the other things that get my mind going. And what’s beautiful about the internet is that I’m in constant contact with folks who also have similar interests.
The other thing that energizes me is the knowledge that everyone we love and care about is in this tiny window of time together. I don’t know, some might think it’s a morbid thought, but I think it’s incredibly empowering. It’s wild to me that all the people we’re fortunate enough to know and love are here in this short window of time, and whenever I remind myself of that, I can’t help but to want to make the most out of the time we have here together. It’s an amazing gift.
Q: How do you think your project will develop in the future?
Hard to say, but one thing I’ve realized over the past year is how much I love teaching. I started a course called Thinking In Stories 6 months ago, where I teach storytelling in a very More To That-way: building worlds like a campground where we hang out for 4 weeks, using lots of illustrations to convey points, etc. I’m going to lean into this more, and develop this further because students are getting a lot out of the experience.
I also think that there will be a more dialogue-rich version of More To That, whether it’s in the form of a podcast or YouTube videos. One thing folks don’t know is that I was a professional musician for a number of years ( in case you’re curious about my music, you can check it out on Spotify here), and one thing about music was that people were everywhere! Traveling together, doing shows, and that was great.
The thing about writing is that it’s more of a solitary endeavor, which is okay, but the interactivity element is a bit lacking. While the course is my way of interacting live with people, perhaps I’ll extend things out more so there’s more of a communal vibe going on. Not sure yet, but just some thoughts for now!
Q: Who are your idols? Who do you look up to?
As I age, I’m realizing that the people I look up to aren’t defined by what they’ve achieved, but rather by their kindness. A common question people wonder is if you could separate a person’s art from the person itself. Whether you could appreciate the art of someone that was a crappy individual.
I feel that you can appreciate their art, but you can no longer look up to that person. In short, they’re not deserving of that stature. And given that we often don’t know what our favorite actors, musicians, writers, etc. are actually like as people, I don’t feel comfortable saying that I look up to this person or that person.
With that said, the people that I look up to most will have names that no one here will recognize because they don’t have a public persona. They’re loved ones that I’ve known for years, which gives me the confidence I need to assert that they are lighthouses for kindness and compassion. Because that, ultimately, is what will positively impact your life the most.
Q: What are the top 3 things you've learned about parenting so far in your journey?
(1) The most important thing is to consistently check in with your partner. One thing my wife said to me that really stuck with me is: “The greatest gift we could give to our child is a happy marriage.” The thing about parenting is that it introduces a whole new dynamic with you and your partner, and the key is to navigate those shifts together in a way where you are aligned in your values as parents.
(2) The poverty of language to describe the texture of love that emerges as a parent. It really is indescribable, and any attempt to do so for someone that’s not a parent will seem like a tired cliche. It really reminds me that words have limits, and to let the strength of emotion act as a guide to fill in the gap.
(3) Parenting is both hard and beautiful. It’s tiring and rewarding. It’s frustrating and amazing. I’m a firm believer that wisdom is the co-existence of contradictory truths, and parenting shows you that in its fullest. And I think that’s why being a parent helps you find clarity in who you are; because you have to learn to wrestle with these opposing truths, and constantly grow as a human being — with your family — throughout it all.
Q: What are some of your favorite pieces?
I’ll just list out some topics, and then the piece I’m quite proud of for that topic:
On money: The Nothingness of Money
On living mindfully: Travel Is No Cure for the Mind
On creativity and practicality: The Arc of the Practical Creator
On the finiteness of life: The Finality of Everything
On writing: Write for Yourself, and Wisdom Will Follow
On overcoming anxiety: You Are Not Your Anxiety: A Journey Into the Anxious Brain
On the self: The Staircase of the Self