The Insight Epidemic

Information overload is not a real problem. Information is just prettified data and only slightly less boring. Hence, almost no one really cares about information and whether or not there’s too much of it.

Instead, what gets people really excited are insights. And what is a real problem in our modern hyperconnected world is insight overload.

Insights are extremely addicting and this what makes billions of people spend hours of their life doom scrolling through Twitter, reading blog posts, and listening to podcasts. While people feel guilty if they watch something that’s purely funny or entertaining, reading or watching insightful things feels like productive work. It has become an epidemic no one has seen coming.

Anatomy of the Epidemic

Until recently, I fell prey to it myself. I was always on the hunt for insights. There wasn’t a single break I wasn’t browsing Twitter, reading blog posts or googling for new fodder for my brain. And whenever I wasn’t able to read, for example during workouts or when I went grocery shopping, I listened to podcasts or audiobooks.

There wasn’t any reason I could articulate why I did this. Maybe I was hoping for that one piece of insight that would finally make everything fall into place, that would solve my problems and make me rich. Looking at it from the outside this is completely insane. I didn’t have any major problems I needed to solve. I had enough money to live a comfortable life. And there wasn’t any big questions I was pondering that needed further insights to move forward. So what exactly was I doing?

I now know that having insights gives us humans a sense of meaning in our life. Since the quest for meaning is such an important part of the human condition it’s extremely easy to develop an insight addiction.

Until recently this hasn’t been an issue. To have insights, you had to read big books which were hard to get and expensive. You had to attend long lectures and have long discussions. Insights were rare until the internet changed everything.

To understand why this is problematic, it make sense to recall two similar developments that took place recently.

We nowadays know that sex addiction and sugar addiction are serious issues that can lead to all kinds of problems. And while it was, of course, always possible for humans to become addicted to sex or sugar, these problems only recently became epidemic through the industrial revolution and the advent of apps like Tinder and porn websites. Since people like sex and sugar, savvy entrepreneurs started to sell them in isolated form. However, stripped off of all the things that usually surround them, they became a lot more addicting and harmful.

Exactly the same thing recently happened to our desire for insights. Apps like Twitter deliver insights in isolated form, while podcasts, blog posts and modern non-fiction books package them into tasty, readily available formats. A tweet is for insight what refined sugar is for nutrition. Similarly, podcasts, blog posts and modern non-fiction books are analogous to snack bars and gummy bears.

Only at a superficial level it seems reasonable that:

  • more sugar = more energy = good,
  • more sex = more descendants = good.

And most people still believe that:

  • more insight = more success = good.

But this equation is just as false as the other two.

“The information we consume matters just as much as the food we put in our body. It affects our thinking, our behavior, how we understand our place in the world. And how we understand others.” — Evan Williams, Co-Founder of Twitter”

Truth without Relevance

In all three equations the problem is the first equal sign (whereas the second equal sign is debatable). More sugar certainly doesn’t lead to higher energy levels, at least not over longer periods of time and sustainably. And of course, thanks to modern contraception methods “more sex = more descendants” is equally false.

What is less obvious is why “more insight = more success” should be false.

Derek Sivers once observed that:

“If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

I would change it to:

“If more insights was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

But the basic message, of course, stays the same. Insights are in itself not that useful. Already Socrates ridiculed the Natural Philosophers by saying that they were merely providing truth without relevance. What good is it to discover lots of facts about Nature if they don’t teach us anything useful about how to live a good life or improve our lives in any other tangible way?

While in the past this was an issue that was only relevant for specialized groups, nowadays we are all in danger of falling into the truth-without-relevance trap. Just as sugar consumption is not only useless but actually harmful unless you do something with all the extra energy, excessive insight consumption can lead to all kinds of problems.

People have so many insights at their hands. But since they aren’t intentional, they get overwhelmed and paralyzed. As a result, they end up broke, stressed, and confused.

Being bombarded by insights is stressfull because you’re not giving your brain enough time to process them all properly. As Maria Popova observes:

“The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations.”

Or to quote Julian Jaynes:

“A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly while he was shaving that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise. And a well-known physicist in Britain once told Wolfgang Köhler, “We often talk about the three B’s, the Bus, the Bath, and the Bed. That is where the great discoveries are made in our science.”””

You brain needs time and space to function properly. A constant DDoS attack with insights will prevent it from functioning properly. You won’t be able to implement the most important ideas properly and won’t produce novel insights. After all, it’s not the quantity but the quality that counts and whether or not the insights have a meaninful impact on your life.

Most importantly, it’s not what you know that has an impact on the world or your life but what you do with it. To move forward, you have to stop consuming and start creating.

Unfortunately, many people who realize this fall into a particularly insidious trap: excessive note-taking. Note-taking feels like meaninful work and gives you the illusion that you’re creating stuff. But it’s just a convenient excuse to bath a bit more on the sea of insights you’ve amassed. Always keep in mind that there’s a difference between being busy and being productive.

By jotting down every single piece of insight you come across, the effect of the DDos attack on your brain is only magnified. Your time is better spent on a small number of highly relevant insights that you explore in greater depth.

Otherwise, it’s far too easy to get a superficial sense of understanding. Only if you spend a certain amount of time with a given idea of concept, you’ll be able to see it properly in “high resolution”. A mantra I find repeatedly useful in this context is:

“My role in life is not to be on top of things but to get to the bottom of things.”

Ask yourself: What’s the point of hunting for insights if it doesn’t sharpen your perspective or improve your results?

Nobody has ever eaten their way to becoming a Michelin Star chef. - George Mack

The Cure

“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.”—Jim Collins

We need insight just as we need sugar to lead a happy life. What, however, is problematic is excessive consumption of them in refined form without a clear purpose.

For example, if you’re playing soccer and need an extra boost of energy for the last 5 minutes then please go ahead and eat a sugary snack. You need to understand what kind of effect sugar has on your body, how much of it you really need, and what the best ways to consume it are.

Similarly, the first step to overcoming insight addiction is clarity on what you really want and need.

Ask yourself: What am I really trying to achieve here? What are my goals? And what do I need to understand to achieve them?

Yes, to build wealth, stay healthy and have satisfying relationships, you need a wealth of insights. You need new insights, to level up in any area of your life. However, what is far more important is how well you can implement the right insights into your life. The right insights are only part of the equation. The real power lies in implementation.

Certainly not all forms insights are equally good from this perspective. Isolated insights as they’re offered on Twitter, no matter how great they are, are usually as quickly forgotten as they appeared in your feed. They’re rarely implemented in any way. Just as with sugar, insights are better if they aren’t consumed in isolation.

Sugar appears in Nature typically in combination with fiber, proteins and fats. Analogously, insights historically were always supplemented by stories, examples, and analogies. This is what our human brain needs to truly internalize them. We need to spend a certain amount of time with a given insight and look at it from multiple perspectives before it fits into our mental framework.

A final thing we haven’t talked about is that not only the number of insights, whether or not they’re congruent to your end results and goals, and how they’re consumed is important but also that not all insights are equally valuable. You’ll never be able to consume all the insights that are out there. Hence you need to make choices and become very deliberate with what you study and put in your mind. The least valuable insights are those about recent events as they’re offered by newspapers. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have timeless fundamentals. Whenever possible, you should therefore try to focus on insights related to fundamentals.

“There are no new fundamentals. Truth is not new; it’s old. You’ve got to be a little suspicious of the guy who says, ‘Come over here, I want to show you my manufactured antiques!’ No, you can’t manufacture antiques.” - Jim Rohn

In summary, to overcome insight addiction:

  • You need to get clarity on what you want and who you are.
  • Focus on at most three areas simultaneously where you feel you need further insights to level up.
  • Then search deliberately for insights, preferably by reading old books that contain timeless fundamentals and where they appear properly surrounded by stories, analogies and examples.
  • Only allow yourself to hunt for further insights once you’ve implemented what you learned.
Written on July 28, 2020
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