Peeking into the sausage factory


I’ve been reading The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield which is amazing and you should absolutely grab a copy if you care about doing the things which matter most to you.

I’ve also been folding lots of washing, which I can also recommend. It’s not an inspirational or insightful activity, but it’s valuable if you don’t want to get divorced.

Normally while folding, I’ll listen to an audiobook version of whatever I’m reading at that time. That way I can do something I like when I’m also doing something I don’t.

Since it’s not that easy to track down The War of Art as an audio book, I’ve been listening to YouTube interviews with Stephen Pressfield whilst I fold. I thought that since I like the book so much, it would be useful and inspiring to listen to him talk about it in depth. It wasn’t.

And herein lies the challenge of peeking behind the curtains of something. Especially something you love. While you’re hoping for additional insight which takes you to a new level of understanding, it’s possible you can find yourself on a tour of a sausage factory, watching someone sweep up a pile of lips and arseholes which are then crudely mashed into that thing you (used to) love.

This got me thinking about when you should and shouldn’t peek behind the scenes (given the opportunity) and whether or not it’s possible to have some helpful guidelines for navigating the decision.

My (unsupported) intuition is that there fundamentalists on both sides of this argument – those who want to know all at all costs, and those for whom ignorance is bliss.

I can see the arguments for both sides having merit, but circumstantial merit. I don’t think that either approach can be applied universally without sacrificing something important.

In the case of this book and listening to the interviews, the peek didn’t add to my enjoyment or appreciation. It offered a strict(er) interpretation of the work which, if taken, eroded a lot of what I felt made it important. In this instance, the peek wasn’t worth it.

But there are just as many, if not more examples, of times when it’s been helpful to look behind the scenes, even if it’s ruined my appreciation for something. Peeking behind the scenes of factory farming, ruined my appetite for meat, but I’m grateful that I have the information, because now I feel I have a better position on eating meat (I don’t eat it).

After the fact, it’s easy to know if the peek was worth it since you can judge whether or not your position has improved based on what you have learned. Unfortunately, hindsight only works one way.

You could also argue that your position always improves by learning more, it’s just that you might not learn precisely that which you were looking for.

I didn’t get more nuance and insight about the book, but I did get a good lesson in not projecting your feelings about at artwork, onto its creator. You can love a work and dislike the artist. The reverse is also true.

I’ve been trying to find the criteria which might help make the choice not to look behind the scenes in appropriate circumstances, but doesn’t offer a haven to those who, like in the farming example, don’t want to face the grim reality of their own choices.

I think there are some useful questions to ask which might help determine if it’s worth your time, but I don’t think any (with perhaps the exception of the last one), help to really get us closer to a guideline.

  • Will this peek help me make better decisions, regardless of what I see?
  • Is my understanding of this thing nuanced or advanced?
  • How attached am I to my perception of this thing?
  • Is the value purely in my perception, or is it somewhere external?
  • What is the value / cost of having that perception shift?
  • How long will it take to look behind the scenes, and what will I have to sacrifice to do so?
  • Do I have an ethical obligation to understand more about this thing?

Despite where I thought that I might get to when I started writing this, I think that I’m coming down on the side of “always look”. Sure, somethings you’re going to see things you don’t like and which don’t really help you in the short term.

The only exception to this, might be when it’s very costly/time consuming to look, and there is absolutely no ethical obligation of have a peek.

It’s frustrating not to be able to get to a more solid position, but sometimes you just have to recognise there is more value in admitting something is grey than attempting to declare it black and white.

As for The War of Art, you should still get the book – it’s great. But when you’re folding washing, maybe you should just concentrate on what you’re doing. I know I should.

Let me know in the comments which side of the fence you come down on with respect to having a peek.