Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing

One of the things I’ve been very confused by for most of my life is why it seems like few people truly care about the things they say they like. That is, they don’t spend their spare time thinking about it; they don’t read Wikipedia about it, let alone subreddits/blogs or actual books on the topic; they don’t practice the thing, or they don’t actively incorporate that thing into their life.

I recently came across an article by Jim Leff that crystallized a lot of thoughts in my mind:

“Everybody dreams of being on stage and singing The Note, or of being elected to high office and giving The Speech. We chase that image, and the specific details hardly matter. You know how Donald Trump loves the trappings of office but has no interest in the actual work of a president, doesn’t think about issues, and skates through by winging it? …While I can’t distill this point any further, I can cite a favorite pithy observation for the umpteenth time: Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. Politicians don’t give The Speech out of a desire to inspire and lead. It’s the antithesis: they become politicians because they want to be the guy giving The Speech.”

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra levels, as I am trying to understand the political discourse around me. Applied here, simulacra levels refer to the idea of the different levels of why one may participate in a hobby/activity:

  • Level 1 is about authentically enjoying this thing. I.e., liking the Grateful Dead because you love the heady jams.
  • Level 2 is to do the thing because it aligns with the type of person you want to identify with, and will help you connect with like-minded people. I.e., liking the Grateful Dead because you are a hippie.
  • Level 3 is when you do the thing simply because you think it will provide a social benefit for doing so. I.e., liking the Grateful Dead because in your circles, it’s cool to like the Grateful Dead.
  • Level 4 is when, for social reasons, you do something connected to the thing itself, but the thing itself is now completely detached from the original context. I.e., wearing a Grateful Dead shirt you bought at Urban Outfitters because it seems cool, even though you will never listen to the Grateful Dead.

While growing up, I was exposed to a lot of skateboarders. I remember at one point being confused as to why all the skateboarders I knew also liked art, clothing, and had a strong sense of aesthetics. Then I realized most skateboarders also shared a number of other traits/interests unrelated to arts or the physical act of skateboarding that didn’t seem to be explained by the underlying demographics.

What I now think is happening is that skateboarding, in this particular instance, and more generally, hobbies or communities, are essentially sorting mechanisms. People are both always on the lookout to find like-minded communities and to help find ways for them to build the identity they want to present to the world.

The sorting mechanism of hobbies is that if you want to present to the world as someone who is slightly adventurous, interested in aesthetics, a bit rebellious, etc., and wants to meet other people who share those traits, you pick up skateboarding to achieve this — the physical sport and recreational benefits are just a bonus.

This aligns with an observation of mine that most effective altruists don’t actually care too much about effective altruism qua effective altruism but really like the opportunity to hang out with other people who share their personality quirks. This fits with my personal experience where I’ve spent endless hours on message boards for Phish fans and Slatestarcodex readers; neither of which ever really discuss Phish or Scott Alexander’s writing, but rather, are just hubs for the types of oddballs who like Phish or Slatestarcodex to talk about stuff that people with these personality traits like to talk about.

To answer my original question, I think depending on which level one is at, their interest in that thing; practicing that thing for hours and hours, or endlessly reading and talking about that thing, will rise or fall. The reason why it appears that nobody actually likes the things they say they like is that most people who have an interest in that thing are on levels 3 or 4, and genuine commitment to those things often only meaningfully exists for people who have a level 1 or 2 interest in the thing. I still don’t understand why some people are more likely to like things at a level 1 vs. 3, but I suspect it has to do with personality traits relating to how socially focused they are. I suspect those at level 2, to the extent that they embody some set of traits that are uncommon enough where they feel the need to distinguish themselves by those traits or form a community around those traits.

This also helps me make sense of a personal struggle I’ve had in my career.

When I was in law school, because I had a background and interest in economics, I thought I would enjoy and excel as an anti-trust lawyer (level 2 interest). I couldn’t get a job in the field because there were a large number of over-achievers who despite not having an interest in either anti-trust or economics, viewed it to be the highest status work available (level 3 interest) and, given their better resumes, outcompeted me for these positions. I noticed this at later stages in my career when lots of lawyers suddenly started to want to work in tech, or become experts in privacy law, and now AI law, despite having no interest or skill for this work. Sadly, despite my self-perception of being very good at being a technology lawyer (and having a level 1 interest in it), I am still outcompeted by lawyers (who I am confident are inferior lawyers) who only want to work in the field because it’s high status but don’t have any underlying interest.

I think this dynamic creates an inefficiency. Due to the benefit of exposure, practice and fit, I think given the benefit of having an underlying interest or connection with the culture of some activity, people at lower interest levels will typically become better at the activity than those at higher interest levels. Except in areas with easily observable metrics to define skill or excellence, I think most people will not hire or be impressed by people operating at lower simulacra levels than them. It’s because for each layer you go down, there are different vocabularies and traits that enable someone to become better/more immersed within that framework but are imperceptible to people operating at higher levels.

As a final clarifying point; I think most things in life are fungible. There are some core qualities like exercise, socialization, something that enables you to feel purposeful/make progress; to the extent you are experiencing these qualities in some capacity, it doesn’t actually matter if you are playing tennis vs squash, or even something quite different like skateboarding. With this in mind, I still believe that people at all simulacra levels do get fulfillment out of the things they “like” — as long as skateboarding provides an outlet to spend time with friends and engage in fitness, it will be enjoyable.