Quite a few of you have asked us over emails, Twitter DMs, and in person as well about the writing process for the Stoa Daily. Most people ask us how we whip up topics to write about. It would be easy to bask in the glory of this recognition, but there's more to it.
The kind of tweets above is easy to come by on all our timelines. On Linkedin, we constantly see individuals distilling learning from any mundane activity they partake in. If you're a content strategist, you'll say that this type of content sells. Maybe.
Twitter thread writers and Linkedin influencers have amassed a large following by curating thoughts and learning as nuggets of information (read - insight). YouTube Vlogging is no longer a form of content dominated by established creators.
Everyone is a content creator, a Twitter thread writer or a vlogger. We wish to squeeze as much learning as possible from all the content consumption because the guilt of time spent on these platforms is difficult to justify otherwise.
One can no longer differentiate between a skilled expert and a person who blindly apes.
Why am I going out on this full-blown attack?
I fear that we are 'insight-simping'. We are commenting on posts that read "10 things I learned from reading Atomic Habits" to get a summary. We comment on every second post that promises a productivity hack or a notion template with little consideration of if it fits our context.
I imagine insight, the kind that is shared online, is consumed in the following way:
When we simp for insights and knowledge from all quarters of the internet, we are falling back on a behaviour that isn't as novel.
Do you remember having classmates who ask the teacher to mark "important" questions right before an exam? Insight simping is an extension of that behaviour.
We treat content creators the way we did our teachers - as providers of a cheat code. We are ambitious about bagging the top role in an organisation whose work we're following but feel that gathering those viral guidelines published by an expert will help. We hope they'll get us started on the path. But there is a downside to such behaviour.
Where does insight-simping lead you?
Delusion. It leads you to delusion.
You feel that reading that book summary, devouring endless reels on excel tricks and religiously following all product managers will magically transfer their specific know-how to you. Ironically, what ends up happening is people running with the words without knowing what they mean or what context they originally inhabited.
"Take words, graphs, maps and symbols general. They are never objects of our attention in themselves, but pointers towards the things they mean. If you shift your attention from the meaning of a symbol to the symbol as an object viewed in itself, you destroy its meaning. Repeat the word 'table' twenty times over and it becomes a mere empty sound.”
— Michael Polanyi
This is a problem of tacit knowledge that Polanyi — a chemist turned philosopher — coined in the 1960s.
To simplify, Polanyi explains that tacit knowledge is acquired through the trial and error process of the individual who performs the task. The learning, therefore, is personal and cannot be used based on the principles distilled from that trial and error.
So, today we could reveal the writing process for the Stoa Daily and it would still not help you in any significant way — in the sense that some tips and tricks will not automatically help you deliver the same output.
Tacit knowledge, in essence, is not transferable.
Because you gather such knowledge by personal curiosity, drive and bias for action, learnings from it are subjective. It is our folly to mistake tacit knowledge for insight and blindly apply it to our context.
Think back to the time you were part of a group project and contributed nothing to it.
Only during the viva did you realise that merely bearing witness to someone else doing all the work robbed you of the confidence to answer the questions asked by the examiner. Replace the examiner with an interview panel, which can call your bluff when you pass off generic insights from the internet during a job interview.
Do you see how the impact now can be very negative?
Expertise and Mastery lies in the details, and you miss out on the details if you’re just a passive consumer of insights.
On starter packs
Insight-simping also makes us dependent on templates. But what exactly do I mean here? Let's take a few examples.
The Personal Brand starter pack
If you've tried job changes in the last few years, you'll consume a lot of content around personal branding. Honestly, in the kind of events we do at Stoa, we speak about the topic too. And there is merit to the idea of a personal brand. It helps you stand out among a sea of similar candidates.
But while building our brand, we tend to ape what has already been done and dusted. There is advice thrown at you about writing threads on the function you're most keen to work in. There is advice about taking up projects that will get you noticed for a job interview. But what happens when everyone does the same three tricks?
The personal brand, which was supposed to be original and exclusive to you gets gamed.
There is a tendency to tailor all sorts of learning into a listicle of some sort and replicate it en-masse. Do you still think you'll stand out in the sea of applicants for that job?
We also wrote here about templatised job descriptions and how hurtful they can be for a business in the long term. There is an ongoing debate about the fatigue induced by similar-looking Canva posters plastered across social media.
The Cold Email starter pack
You’re quite excited to try cold emailing when you’re job hunting and wish to work at a startup, collaborate with a content creator online, or land that sales call.But the moment there is a recipe shared around how to write the perfect cold email, everyone is using the same template. And now all you get is a cookie-cutter email, which drastically reduces all hope of getting a response.
The CV starter pack
CVs were written to offer a quick idea of your work experience so far and check alignment with the job you apply to. Now, they’re written to get past the ATS machine. The templated way of organising the content and writing bullet point descriptions like one would a math formula only add to the task of a hiring manager or a founder.
Only through a conversation can the hiring manager and founder discern the difference between a candidate who mechanically got the CV right from the one who can back the claims made on the CV.
The Community starter pack
If you’re a regular on Twitter, you will notice how community-building is now part of every other startup starter pack. Regardless of the service and product, there is an unspoken rule about “building a community before you launch your product.”
Communities were originally meant to deliver a more human experience and know your customers better. But now that it has gotten reduced to a distribution strategy, communities seem to be purely transactional and lacking any selfless touch.It is almost as if as long as one person cracks the code, everyone other person has a reason to justify doing the same and replicate it to a point of redundancy.
The Podcaster starter pack
I’m sure you’ve noticed how commonplace podcasting has become. Once Joe Rogan and a handful of others developed a positive proof of concept, it got adopted so widely that now it is also a running joke about how overdone they are.
Talk is cheap, and so are starter packs.
Here’s the simple thing — if a person based on their experiences and interests connects any dots and arrives at an interesting way of doing a task, only they will reap the benefits of it being a good qualifier of their capability.
Any other founder who does something similar will not get a chance to stand out. You would’ve noticed the same when Avkash Shah’s CV for a design internship at Cred went viral. Here’s Miten Sampat again talking about someone cutting through the clutter. But imagine what would happen now if everyone started applying the same hack. It would lose its novelty and charm.
When you create from your context using the experiences and learning unique to you it is the truest reflection of your capability. Another person jumping ship to stand out in the same way will sink because the templatized version is a bad signal.
Experts can quickly discern if the method is unique to you or borrowed from someone else.
But when do templates make sense?
In the organisational context, teams reach tacit knowledge as a group and then iron out inefficiencies that arise from trial and error to deliver products and services consistently. Templates that create a consistent output specific to the business and help it unlock benefits are valuable. These templates are still very endemic to a company and cannot be copied by another.
From a broader perspective, insights, jargon and aphorisms make sense to use when the person you’re talking to knows your context completely.
For instance, two founders or a founder and a VC talking about churn rate, NPS/NPA, TAM, SAM, and SOM use the terminology as a way to have an easier, clutter-free conversation. But an excitable person blindly using these terms after reading about them once casts a naive impression.
Templates make it easier to categorize and save cognitive bandwidth, making work more efficient.
Then, what can you do?
As a beginner, who is exploring their likes and interests, it is necessary to be aware of the fundamental attribution error(FAE). Wait, what?
The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to a logical fallacy: our belief that the way people behave in one area carries consistently over to the way they behave in other situations. We tend to assume that the way people behave is the result of their innate characteristics and overrate the influence of their personality. We underrate the influence of circumstances and how they can impact people’s behaviour.
We tend to forget that circumstances and the past choices of that person play a big role in enabling them to get good at something. By elevating a person we create heroes and it is easy to get stuck in the loop of simping after their every insight and forget to find things out for ourselves.
To end this essay, here’s another quote from Polanyi hinting in the same direction:
"It is true that the traveller, equipped with a detailed map of a region across which he plans his itinerary, enjoys a striking intellectual superiority over the explorer who first enters a new region-yet the explorer's fumbling progress is a much finer achievement than the well-briefed traveller's journey.”