Breaking Insights

The Loss of Generalizability, Nuance, and Micro-Insights

Hi friends, 

It’s been four weeks since I’ve shared my “weekly” insights. The reality is that I’ve come to appreciate the role of ‘exploration’ in insights. Now, when I develop an intuitive understanding about something, I’m a bit skeptical at first (instead of doubling down on that “insight”). Now, I realize how the understanding is ever so contextual and specific. And this makes it harder to abstract away the contextual insight to broad generalizations. 

In a sense, the above is a way of escaping from sharing something useful this week, but the usefulness is exactly that: Insights should (and do) break down when you think deep about them. 

Think about what an ‘insight’ even is. An ‘insight’ is a novel truth you find out that others don’t see yet. But an insight is subjective. What you see is a culmination of your past experiences and your interpretations of them; it’s not an objective reality. 

Then, to share that insight with others, you try to abstract it away from the specific situation which led to that insight in the first place. Think of it like zooming out in Maps. As you begin to zoom out, you’ll see how your initial location gets tinier progressively. Abstracting away an insight to a generalization is similar. But as we abstract it away, we lose nuance. The contours of that insight fade into a broad topological description of the landscape which does not do justice to the actual terrain. In other words, details matter for a real understanding of something. The forest matters as much as the trees do.

So far, we have discussed two things:

  1. That an insight is subjective and contextual, and

  2. That generalizing an insight reduces nuance. 

Which begs a few questions: What do we do here? How do we operate if insights are subjective? How do we share and receive knowledge when generalizing insights reduce nuance? 

I think a distinction between insights would be useful here. I’ve learned that ‘macro insights’ or “truths of the world” are palliatives, divorced from reality. Instead, ‘micro insights’ that cannot be generalized hold the keys to understanding reality. Micro insights is the stuff you intuitively feel is true, but find hard to articulate; the lessons at work you’ve learned by osmosis that can’t be translated into a business school essay; the things that shape what you do but that you can’t really reason with. In my experience, it is such micro lessons that are the real insights and tools one should ideally work with. 

But I find that these micro insights are difficult to both generate and find. They’re difficult to generate because, often, we’re neck-deep in our own problems that we forget to observe the fine aspects of every experience we undergo. These insights are difficult to find because they’re specific, contextual, and have to be cultured over years of subjective experience and interactions with the world. For example, in a day, there are many points at which you can observe something about yourself you didn’t know previously: How you think when you’re rushed, what you do when you have nothing else to do, how you take a longer break than what you had planned. These are the micro insights we never get a chance to reflect on, precisely because we’re so overwhelmed with everything else that’s going on in our lives, at the same time.

But if one were to, say, journal, or brute-force clear thinking for a few minutes every day, the understanding of these micro insights would develop. 

The point of this week’s issue is both explicit and implicit for a reason. We’ve talked about insights, their generalizability, their nuance, and micro-insights, but what are we getting at here? I want to invoke the understanding that the most meaningful “insights” may not necessarily exist in the abstract. For if a core, novel insight were to exist in a book, blog, or YouTube self-help video, it would cease being a novel insight anymore. 

Instead, my hypothesis is that the core and novel truths of the world are probably in your living room, or always within a three-feet distance from you. If one were to stop worrying about arriving at some “right” version of an insight and suspend judgments on the quality of those insights, perhaps we would be more receptive to arrive at meaningful answers. (It doesn’t matter whether those answers are right or wrong). 

Until next time,

Abhinav