If you want to do interesting work, a great starting point is to work on things you find interesting. Instead of trying to optimize for what you think others are likely to find interesting—chasing the market is a Sisyphean task—just keep digging deeper into what you find interesting.
That way, making your work interesting to others is simply a matter of sharing your enthusiasm. I took a geology class my freshman year of college. It’s easy to imagine how boring a class about rocks could be. But my professor loved rocks. She had contributed to the discovery of plate tectonics. She took us up into the mountains and showed us how you could decode geological layers laid bare by erosion to reveal the violence and wonder of how the Earth took shape. She could forge a path through the entire universe starting from a single grain of sand. Another professor could have taught the same curriculum to no effect. My professor’s love for the material brought it to life. She used her enthusiasm to ignite our curiosity.
But working on things you find interesting is not sufficient to make your work interesting to other people. We’ve all been bored to death by experts who speak in impenetrable acronyms or super-fans who get lost in their own rabbit holes. Their individual interest in the material may be genuine, but it isn’t contagious because they lack empathy. You (probably) wouldn’t tell a dirty joke to your grandmother in the same way you’d tell it to your best friend. Empathy is meeting people where they are so you can take them someplace new. That’s why rock stars shout out the name of the city they happen to be performing in. Despite her academic fame and scientific expertise, my geology professor didn’t get stuck in solipsistic obsession. Instead, she used her enthusiasm as a tool to inspire her students, to pry open new worlds for us. As a result, we found her work tremendously interesting.
So doing interesting work doesn’t require guessing what others might like or a benevolent hiring manager offering you your dream job. Doing interesting work requires working on things you find interesting, and then cultivating sufficient empathy to find effective ways to share your enthusiasm with the right people. Empathy is the catalyst that makes curiosity contagious. You’ll know you’re doing it right when the people you seek to reach find your work at least as interesting as you do.
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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.