Insight Porn

Insight Porn

There exists this category of literature that focuses on illuminating human nature, the fabric of reality, or some complex interaction in between, and this category of “insightful stuff” is incredibly fun to read.

This is insight porn.

Reading these sorts of essays comes with this “high” of holding new concepts in mind that can be addictive— you might start seeing it everywhere for the next few days, and your brain feels like it’s got a new toy concept to fixate itself with.  

When it comes to insight porn, I often find myself completely overwhelmed with the massive amount of writing that is already out there.  Knowing my tendency to binge-read things, I typically just precommit to read none of these collections at all.  

It takes a good amount of time to internalize something.  When there’s an overabundance of information, comprehension and retention suffer.

So I don’t really feel that insight porn is optimized for takeaways for the readers.

(For a collection of the sort of stuff I’m referring to, you may try giving http://insightporn.tumblr.com/about a casual look-over.  It should go without saying that I would strongly recommend you proceed with caution.)

I have nothing against insight porn as a form of entertainment— it’s great to read; insight porn is good for priming different mental concepts, and I can appreciate the value inherent in charting out the world into semblances of order.  But when it comes to actually learning the skills, there’s a link missing between the concepts and actually using them.

For me, there’s an “illusion of comprehension” happening here.  

When channels like Vsauce release content that covers something like the Banach-Tarski paradox, for instance, there is a lot of information that needs to stack together.  And these channels do a great job of explaining them in the moment.

But being able to follow along with reasoning appears to be very different than being able to independently generate the reasoning itself.  And it is the actual reasoning that I want to do more of.

Inspired by many well-known insight pornographers, I’ve so far charted MLU as a midway between offering concrete self-improvement advice paired with rambling investigations of a questionable nature.  Of course, that brings up the (perhaps) more pertinent question of, “Is MLU even necessary?”  

I do believe most people would be better off just reading something like Melting Asphalt if they wanted the sort of high-quality insight porn I’m not optimizing for here.  In which case, where does the value of what I’m writing here lie?  In providing more practical advice?

A large problem I’ve identified in my own case is that it’s far easier to write about something than to actually do it.  If I’ve really found a way to hack my motivational system 100%, why am I writing about instead of solving global coordination problems?

Basically, “If I’m so smart, why ain’t I rich?”.  On some level, I probably have a good mental representation of the stuff I write about.  But if I’m consistently failing to execute these skills in my own life, that’s a good sign that something’s going wrong.

So what sorts of targets do I want to hit, and how can actually I hit those (not necessarily through the use of MLU)?

I’d like to focus on becoming more productive, getting more work done, and maintaining a healthy mindset.  Two meta-concepts keep popping up as I explore these areas:  

Turning Instrumental Values into Terminal Values: The idea of work, I feel, might carry some negative connotations.  Ideally, I’d like to not have to force myself to do things.  Instead, I’d just be the type of person for whom these sorts of actions are a consistent part of my self-image.  Becoming the sort of person who likes doing these things, so to speak.  I’ve come back to this concept over and over again— I’m convinced this is an important idea to act out.

(Nate Soares goes over this idea here).

Reference Class Forecasting: When it comes to actually measuring work, I’m still thinking about taking the outside view.  The best metrics I have for measuring my near-future performance is looking at my near-past performance and not my naive optimistic estimates.  My best guess for what improvement looks like is consistently hitting the upper bounds I’ve set in past performance until becomes the new norm.  

The main point from all this is that the actions I take are a far better indication of future potential than any mental notions or certain signals I give off.  Talk is cheap.  Actions are a much better signal of ability.  (This is all assuming that writing about doing things and really doing them is mutually exclusive, though.)

In the meantime, I think writing about self-improvement techniques faster than I can implement them is probably net-harmful.  I’ll be focusing on doing more actionable things and writing about more domain-specific essays, which hopefully help make the doing part easier.

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8 comments

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. You might as well be describing the story of my own life. It feels gratifying to understand and play with the latest mental model, but it is frustratingly hard to translate that to positive action. I was rueing over that very thing this holiday weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Van!

      Glad you’ve found some value from this post! My current model of “good stuff to do” is focusing on making plans that don’t fail (so trying to counter the planning fallacy), focusing on obvious high-leverage actions (like sleeping, drinking more water, etc.), and trying to operationalize as much of this as possible so it doesn’t require conscious input from me (e.g. imagining myself as a zombie so trying to shape my environment better).

      Like

      • You described this idea better than me: “Ideally… I’d just be the type of person for whom these sorts of actions are a consistent part of my self-image.”
        My whole career is a series of jobs drifting toward the kind of work I’d like to do anyway as part of my self-image.
        I am also looking into System Dynamics as a mental tool to see farther. But, as you pointed out, it’s quite hard to actually use a Cool Idea to benefit oneself.

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        • Yeah, I think self-consistency can become a powerful way of shifting myself towards directions I want to aim for.

          I’m unsure about how to incorporate complex systems into my life, so far. Right now, I’m just focusing on the high-leverage low-hanging fruit, like exercise and journaling, for now.

          Like

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