Musing on Being in the World

I’m wondering how often this happens to you:

You pick up a book and start reading it only to find it uninteresting and so abandon it. Years later you pick up the same book and are blown away by it. Maybe you’ve had the same thing happen with music or movies. Also, there's the opposite experience, where you re-experience something you formerly loved after much time, only to find it to now be shallow or flawed.

While I think these experiences are relatively common they are nonetheless jarring.

We often conceptualize insight as something out there in the external world to be extracted like some sort of gem in the mountainside. In other words, an object’s measure of insightfulness is purely an inherent attribute of the thing itself.

Driven by this conceptualization we invest great amounts of energy in searching out and consuming content. We think that the road to understanding is hunting down the right materials, studying these materials and absorbing their insights. We say that a wise person is one that is well-read.

Undoubtedly there is a lot of truth in this conceptualization. We are of course greatly influenced by what we surround ourselves with, and it’s hard to sincerely believe that all objects are equal in terms of their degree of insightfulness.

However what I find problematic about this conceptualization is that it minimizes our role to simply that of a consumer. Namely that a person’s insight can be represented as some summation of the things they have consumed. Said more dramatically it treats a person as an undifferentiated blob, some sort of insight storage drive.

I think we play a much more active role than this. Insight is not simply something that is out there fully-formed in the world. Insight is an interplay of our inner world with the external world. In other words, your internal orientation is just as much involved in insight as the object you are attending to.

To be clear I’m not simply saying that you have to prepare yourself to extract insight. This conceptualization still places the insight fully in the object and treats the problem more as one of technique in accessing the insight. I don’t think this goes far enough. Here we are still insight storage devices but ones where the ordering of insights matter.

Rather, I am saying registering an insight is a creative act that arises from the relation between a person and object and is neither solely out in the world or in the mind. You yourself are a part of any insight you have.

I believe this framing helps explain why many insights can’t effectively be articulated or transmitted. There is a level of insight that only comes from direct experience.

So read and obsess over what you consume. Media may be some of the most insight-rich experiences you can have. But be wary because so much of modern life these days is just consumption.

You must make time to work with your hands, wrestle with words, and create things in the world. This can feel ridiculous because we have advanced as a society to the point that we can instantly access the very best makers in the world. The best music, the best books, the best products. So why bother doing anything yourself? Well among other reasons, because if you’re not mixing in some actual doing into your life you can only advance so far in your quest for insight.

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