Like many people, from time to time I look at Seth Godin’s blog, which often contains a few insights, typically about marketing—a dreary but oddly compelling subject, sort of like torture. The other day he posted something, though, that didn’t just fail to be insightful; it was so obvious as to merit a different name entirely. I’ll call it a “nonsight.”
Nonsights are observations that appear at first blush to be insightful but really aren’t. On his blog, Godin recounted an anecdote about Richard Feynman and then, Aesop-like, gave us readers the moral of the story:
“just because you copy the elements that apparently made something work before doesn’t mean that you’re going to be guaranteed that it will work again.”
Like, duh. This is a bit like saying “the future might not be like the past” or “past performance is no guarantee of future success.”
I know, I know. I’m being a bit of a dick. It’s a blog after all, it’s not Ecclesiastes or The Republic, right? Well, yeah, but there’s a difference between an insight that you recognize as such (with which Godin is usually overflowing) and a nonsight. A nonsight is very unlikely to be considered insightful by the majority of your audience. That’s the difference.
I’m not sure there are any truly new insights. Human beings have been thinking about stuff for a long, long time. I have a feeling that insights are much like the future, as described by William Gibson: all insights are out there; it’s just that they aren’t widely distributed (yet). But Google will probably change that.
I would almost make the following conjecture: All putative insights you come across have been grasped by someone in the past. Just not by you. This is sort of like saying that there is a fact of the matter—you just don’t know it. This, to me, seems true.
So where does this leave “wisdom writing,” which currently seems to survive in syndicated columns and, now, blogs? It leaves it in fine shape, actually, because these distribution mechanisms (newspapers, blogs) spread insights to the users who value them most.
Insights are relative, which is why I sort of choked when I read Lionel Shriver’s review of Black Swan Green in the Financial Times, in which she said the protagonist’s insights fell flat, adducing the following passage from the book:
“The world’s a headmaster who works on your faults. I don’t mean in a mystical or Jesus way. More how you’ll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step!”
Since I don’t really get anything out of that passage, I’ll take her word for it. Or does that mean she’s right?
I say I choked a bit, and yet I’m doing exactly the same thing here, mutatis mutandis. And whether this post in insightful or nonsightful, I leave to you. Such is the relativity of insights.