April 23, 2022

Finding Your Sun

In yesterday’s email, you learned about my “Solar System Content Model” and how it has helped me to write every day for years without getting bored or feeling repetitive.

The magic of the model comes from defining a “sun” (i.e., your central theme) at the center of the solar system. The sun provides the gravitational pull needed to hold the “planets” (i.e., your various topics) in orbit around the center.

But how do you find your sun?

In my experience, this can be pretty hard to just nail out of the gate. The approach that I recommend is to start with the planets.

There are probably lots of different areas inside of your expertise that you talk about; things where you feel like you’ve got something useful to add to the conversation.

Whatever your planets are, just start a list. Don’t worry about organizing it or deduping or grouping topics or if a given idea is too big or too small compared to the others... just brain dump anything and everything that you might like to write about.

ASIDE: If you’ve been blogging or emailing for a while, you can pull some themes out of there and include those in the list.

Keep your list in a handy place so you can add to it over time. A text file on your desktop, or a notes app on your phone. When a new idea occurs to you, quickly add it to the bottom of the list and close the file.

Once you’ve got a couple dozen ideas, read over the list and see if a sun pops out at you. It’ll usually be something sort of grand or philosophical or visionary or revolutionary. A big idea. The kind of thing that would make for a good TED talk. It might even be a little intimidating, like “Who am I to write about something so grandiose?!”

If a sun doesn’t jump out and you can’t figure out what your central organizing theme is, share your list with a friend, ideally a big thinker who is creative and optimistic. Ask them which of the ideas seems the biggest or most important.

Have a conversation with your friend about the different ideas so they can tease out more detail about each. Notice if one of them seems to contain a bottomless pit of sub-topics or facets or angles. Also notice how you feel as you discuss each idea... does one light you up or get you super excited? That might be your sun.

Okay, but...

What if none of your planets feels like a sun?

It’s possible that your sun isn’t explicitly on the list, but instead is implied by the planets. Sometimes your sun is so obvious to you that you don’t even think of it as a thing. You’re too close to it to see it. It’s blind spot for you.

For example...

If you’re a software developer, you might have a bunch of planets for things like agile, DRY, TDD, CI/CD, etc. None of them feel like a sun to me, but they are all topics related to productivity and automation.

So maybe productivity is your central theme?

Or maybe that humans shouldn’t compete with computers?

Or maybe your contrarian stance is that laziness is good?

They say the best programmers are lazy because they automate everything so they don’t have to do any work. This feels like a possible sun to me.

You could spin a “be lazier” sun in a way that is interesting and maybe a little bit funny and that tweaks people and gets them interested.

And, it would support a huge number of otherwise seemingly unrelated topics. You could write about “being lazy for fun and profit” every day for years without ever repeating yourself.

Final note:

It can take a while to figure out what your sun is. If you’re having a hard time with it, just start writing about your planets anyway and your sun will eventually reveal itself. Once it does, your writing will get better, easier, and more effective.