Insights Over Frameworks

Once some­one has made sev­eral in­sight­ful self-help ob­ser­va­tions, I think it’s of­ten tempt­ing to then go and find some sort of co­her­ing frame­work which can ex­plain all of those ob­ser­va­tions. In this es­say, I’ll ar­gue for why I think it can be bet­ter to skip the post-hoc the­o­riz­ing al­to­gether and just pre­sent the in­sights in a mod­u­lar way.

First, let me be clear about defi­ni­tions for the terms I’m us­ing.

By “in­sight”, I mean some sort of ob­ser­va­tion about how the world works. For ex­am­ple, some­one try­ing to figure out how to do bet­ter in so­cial situ­a­tions might re­al­ize that finish­ing their thoughts be­fore speak­ing aloud helps them be more elo­quent. Of course this doesn’t mean that in­sights are free from an un­der­ly­ing frame­work, but no at­tempt is made to bring the as­sump­tions and mod­els into the fore­ground. The fo­cus is on some small mechanism or model.

By “frame­work”, I mean some sort of set of be­liefs that form an over­ar­ch­ing model about how the world works. For ex­am­ple, some peo­ple have tried to model all of so­cial in­ter­ac­tions as an in­tel­li­gent so­cial web. In­sights about so­cial in­ter­ac­tions are then con­tex­tu­al­ized un­der this frame­work. Per­haps, un­der this frame­work, finish­ing your thoughts help with elo­quence be­cause they give off the im­pres­sion that you are thought­ful, which co­heres with the frame­work’s claims about in­ter­ac­tions be­ing similar to a the­atri­cal perfor­mance. The fo­cus is on the frame­work, and the in­sights are corol­laries.

As I men­tioned above, I think peo­ple like com­ing up with frame­works. I think peo­ple like hav­ing neat ex­pla­na­tions that can ex­plain all of the neat things they’ve been ob­serv­ing. I am also guilty of this. There is some­thing satis­fy­ing about find­ing some crys­tal­liza­tion of all your past thoughts, like putting them through a strainer.

How­ever, re­cently, I’ve bowed to prag­ma­tism, and I think that frame­works are not as use­ful as I’d pre­vi­ously thought.

Firstly, there are too many frame­works. Most pieces of self-help con­tent do not just promise a few (po­ten­tially) helpful ob­ser­va­tions, but rather an en­tire sys­tem. Sure, the sys­tem might have some good parts, but it’s difficult to eval­u­ate an en­tire frame­work with­out putting in the men­tal effort to re­ally in­habit it for a while. And this is costly; you can’t ex­pect to do this each time a new self-help guru comes out with an­other new anal­ogy or metaphor for the world.

Se­condly, frame­works are of­ten post-hoc. In self-help, the ex­pla­na­tions ba­si­cally have to come af­ter the ob­ser­va­tions. This isn’t nec­es­sar­ily bad. After all, if your goal is to max­i­mize per­sonal effec­tive­ness (or effec­tive­ness for a group of peo­ple similar to you), it seems prob­a­bly bet­ter to just go out and try a bunch of things in­stead of arm­chair the­o­riz­ing about what would or wouldn’t work. You are the source of em­piri­cal data, which can be cheap to col­lect.

What this means is that the frame­work it­self is likely the least in­ter­est­ing part of what you have to say! If I’m read­ing your self-help guide, I re­ally just want to know about the places where it can ex­cel for me lo­cally, or what sorts of effects you saw in your­self. All of that in­for­ma­tion is in the in­sights, not in the frame­work it­self, which could be non­sense for all I know.

Thirdly, I think it’s im­por­tant to re­spect your au­di­ence. By that, I mean that they likely already have their own self-help sys­tems and frame­works com­ing into your con­tent; most peo­ple are not im­pres­sion­able blank slates. And, as the say­ing goes, the best self-help is the one that works for you. If your au­di­ence already has some sys­tem that’s 70% op­ti­mal, it’s pos­si­bly not worth their effort to try and re­learn your sys­tem to get to 75% op­ti­mal­ity. (As­sum­ing for the mo­ment that per­centages like these even make sense.)

In­sights, how­ever, can be much more eas­ily in­cor­po­rated into any ex­ist­ing wor­ld­view. Fur­ther­more, if the au­di­ence finds many of your in­sights com­pel­ling, they may come up with some sort of co­her­ent frame­work them­selves (as our brains are wont to do), which could end up look­ing similar to the frame­work you wanted to give them. Ex­cept in this case they’ll likely ap­pre­ci­ate it much more, as they’ve done the messy work of the­o­riz­ing them­selves.

Thus, in­stead of giv­ing your au­di­ence some sort of grand the­ory, I think it can be bet­ter to just give the dis­parate list of in­sights. This al­lows your au­di­ence to pick and choose which ob­ser­va­tions they think can be use­ful for them, and it puts the fo­cus back where I think it should be. There’s also some­thing to be said for grad­u­ally chang­ing your wor­ld­view to sub­sume many in­sights, rather than always do­ing a hard switch.

As a part­ing note of cau­tion, this ap­proach also runs into its own type of per­verse se­lec­tion pres­sure. While a fo­cus on large frame­works can lead to sprawl­ing es­says re­quiring ma­jor in­tel­lec­tual buy-in, mod­u­lar in­sights can go the way of Buz­zfeed lis­ti­cles, of­ten too trite and reg­u­larly doled out in small dopamine hits that can lead to a false sense of illu­mi­na­tion.