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The Important List

On the week his Substack newsletter turned one year old, journalist Matt Yglesias devoted a column to summarize the “really important” issues — those he thinks “genuinely matter globally over the long term…what might look most consequential from 2021 [from the perspective of people in 2100].”

On the face of it, it’s a rather conventional list:

  • continuing to bend the curve on climate change through innovation;
  • addressing the high child poverty rate in the US;
  • relaunching US economic growth (and science funding’s role in that relaunch);
  • preparing adequately for the next pandemic and the threats from AI; and
  • US competition with China and the threat of a China-Taiwan war.

But the important thing for our purposes is: Yglesias has an important list.

Why is an important list important?

  • The list creates focus. For Yglesias, all the issues on his important list have “largely tangible consequences” and are thus “more amenable to compromises and win-win solutions,” unlike so much of our symbolic, polarized, zero-sum online discourse. The important list is a reminder — to us, but to himself as well — of the kind of problem he wants to focus on as a thinker and the solution dynamic he thinks can matter for the most people.
  • The list creates POVs. It crystallizes Yglesias’ belief in the primacy of issues with material impacts as well as the centrality of US economic growth, policy and security to the fate of the world. You can agree or disagree with these arguments — but the list makes their outlines clear.
  • The list creates identity. The list distills Yglesias as public expert ; no one else would have chosen these important issues thought through in this idiosyncratic style. Done well, an important list reinforces the identity of the public expert.
  • The list creates conversation. Are these the right issues? Addressed correctly? Prioritized in the right way? All matters of debate. And that’s what’s happening: Yglesias’ important list has 240 comments, last time I checked.

For many researchers, an important list feels off-mission, off-brand. Let the data tell us what’s important. Don’t prejudge.

Relax. An important list isn’t a prison sentence. You can always update it. You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t. But it’s important to realize: You already have this list. You just haven’t written it out.

Every public expert should have an important list they’ve made public — the list of issues or questions you think matter most, made public to reap all of its benefits. Send me yours when you do; I’d love to see it.