In Defense of the Obvious

In Defense of the Obvious:

My brain does this thing where it shuts off when I experience some warning signs.  A lot of these have to do with my identity or personal beliefs, which go off when I believe my ingroup is being attacked.  I don’t think I’ll go as far as to say that all brain shutoffs are bad (which feels like a Cleaving Statement), but there’s another type of warning sign I’ve recently noticed: dismissing the Obvious.

Just because a statement is tautological or obvious does not mean it is useless.

Example 1:

“If you want to get all of your tasks done everyday, be sure to make a to-do list and a schedule!  That way, you can keep track of what you’ve done!”

My brain’s response: <doesn’t even quite register the points> “Whatever, this doesn’t sound interesting.” .

In actuality: The advice still stands, even if it’s self-evident and obvious.  People who make to-do lists have a better idea of what they need to get done.  It’s still useful to know, if you care about getting stuff done!

Example 2:

“If you want to exercise more, you should probably exercise more.  Then, you’d become the type of person who exercises more, and then you’d exercise more.”


“If you have more energy, then you’re more energetic, which means you have more energy to do things.”

My brain’s response: “Those conclusions follow each other, by definition!  There’s nothing here that I don’t know!”

In actuality: Just because two things are logically equivalent doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn.  In my head, the nodes for “energetic” and “energy = increased doing-stuff capacity” are not the same nodes.  Consequently, bringing the two together can still link previously unconnected ideas, or allow you to see the connection, which is still beneficial.

What my brain is doing here is tuning out information simply because “it sounds like the kind of obvious information that everyone knows”.  I’m not actually considering the point’s merits itself.  More than that, obvious tips tend to be low-hanging fruit.  That’s probably why they’re obvious or commonly seen in the first place.

If anything, the fact that I see some advice show up in lots of places is increased reason I should probably actually try it out.  In optimizing terms, if I just did the top five things on any “how to be productive” list, I’d probably already be doing very well on the efficiency curve that represents productivity.  

A related problem is when smart, experienced people give me advice that my brain pattern-matches to “boring advice”.  When their advice sounds so “mundane”, it can be easy to forget that the “boring advice” is what their brain thought was the best thing to give me.  They tried to distill all of their wisdom into a simple adage, I should probably at least try it out.

To that end, I’ve been thinking about counterfactuals.  “Given this piece of advice X, how do I see myself doing things differently because of it?” appears to be a really strong way to think about incorporating advice.

In fact, I suspect that my brain’s aversion to Obvious/Boring Advice may be because I’ve become acclimated to normal self-improvement ideas.  I’m stuck on the hedonic treadmill of insight porn, or as someone put it, I’m a rationality junkie.

Overwhelmed by the sort of ideas found in insight porn, it looks like I actually crave more and more obscure forms of insight.  And it’s this type of dangerous conditioning that I think causes people to dismiss normal helpful ideas— simply because they’re not paradigm-crushing, mind-blowing, or stimulating enough.

So, in an effort to fight back, I’m trying to get myself hooked on the meta-contrarian idea that, despite my addiction to obscure ideas, the Obvious is still usually what has the most-leverage.  Often, the best thing to do is merely the obvious one.  Some things in life are simple.

Take that, hedonic treadmill.



  1. Hi Owen,

    Interesting. I’ve never seen this idea articulated this way before.

    As a personal anecdote, presentation can make a difference when it comes to ‘obvious’ advice. I had received such oft-repeated advice all the time, but I usually consider it more when it’s prefixed with “I know this sounds obvious, but really, people only keep saying this because it works…” As such, I’ve prefixed much of my ‘obvious’ advice with this.


    • Yes! This is so true! I’ve found that you need to give specific background of your thought processes, acknowledging the “obvious nature” of the advice. Really good tip to preface stuff of this nature with that phrase.

      (although overuse of that may eventually also eat up all the public commons that such a term consumes– e.g. if everyone used such a preface, I suspect we’d also become numb_


  2. “To that end, I’ve been thinking about counterfactuals. “Given this piece of advice X, how do I see myself doing things differently because of it?” appears to be a really strong way to think about incorporating advice.”

    Personal perspective which may lend some more tips:

    A friend of mine described my thinking as ‘revelative’. [Black box this word and see how I use it.]

    I have a history of asking people obvious questions which provoke obvious answers, just in case there’s something more to it. That’s great for driving the point to for my revelative inner compass (which keeps trying to learn something new/unusual) that more often than not, *simple=good*.

    On the other hand, I try hard to get takeaways from most obvious of ideas. This [] and this [] doesn’t tell you much new, but my intuition does say at times like this that there is in fact much to learn from
    – the way these are phrased,
    – from the nuances of the models they talk about, or
    – simply from gaining a very strong memory of the ideas.

    What I’d also like to add is the emotional aspect. ‘Revelative’ means that when my intuition says that a concept could be highly useful to remember, all my experiences with using similar concepts in the past come to mind (which each are intensely joyful, as they not only reflect local success but satisfaction with my learning process as well). These pattern-match with what I envision the new concept helping me with, hence creating a revelation.


    • Hi Kada,
      Nice way of putting it! I think the thing you describe is a useful (albeit maybe a little unique?) way of countering the sort of humdrum dullness that familarity and obviousness can snare us into.


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