The importance (and unimportance) of the conceptual breakthrough

three-pillarsSo, when you listen to people who give life advice, it’s always the same old horseshit: follow your dreams, take risks, live every day like it’s your last, etc. Has anyone ever gotten anything they could use out of a commencement address, for instance? And because of that, I had long assumed that all true wisdom was ineffable: it could not be spoken–in fact, it could barely be formulated in words. And that still might be true! But I have come to realize that frequently when I make a breakthrough and hit a new level in any of my activities, I am able to distill the essence of that breakthrough into words.

For instance, I’ve recently started thinking about my stories in a completely different way. It’s become a kind of architectural process. Now whenever I am writing a story, the moment I can sense weakness, I stop, pull back, and see which element is the weak one. In most cases, the element is weak because I haven’t thought it out very well, so I can phrase my issue in the form of an unanswered question. For instance, one of the unanswered questions from a recently completed story was: “What exactly happens in the novel that the characters are reading inside the book?”

After I went through and thought about that for a long time (usually by trying out a bunch of things and going through some false starts), then I could solve it and keep writing. And then, almost immediately, I’d have to stop again. At each moment in the story-writing process, the weight is on one particular element: the weakest one. But the moment that I strengthen that element, the weight falls onto the next weakest one. This means that I can frequently only write a few hundred words farther before I have to stop again. Then, finally, when most of the questions are answered, I can blaze through to the end and finish it.

Now, that is an extremely comprehensible explanation of my (current) process. And it’s good that I’ve explained it, because now I can put it into practice in a more clear-minded way. It also prevents me from being frustrated when I work for days on a story and only make minimal progress. Because I realize that all those days of doing some hard thinking and writing just a few hundred words are just as much work as the days of breezing through and writing 3000 words.

But if someone had told me about this before I had figured it out myself, would I have been able to take advantage of it?


I know that for a fact, because I realized, while writing this blog post, that this is exactly the same metaphor and method (well, she calls it a wall instead of a bunch of columns) that Annie Dillard uses in her writing book. And I read that four years ago. At the time, it struck me, but I didn’t do anything with it. I had to figure it out myself in order for it to be of use.

I think that’s the nature of the conceptual breakthrough. You attach words to the process, but the words don’t fully describe the process. The reason it works has something to do with the specifics of the way you apply it: there’s something about it that’s uniquely suited to you.


Comments (



  1. xan

    When people give advice to big audiences, they tend to devote too much time to making it sound generally applicable, and too little time to making it clear whom the advice really applies to.

    The problem with specific advice is that people are different, and the same advice will typically not work across the board. Those who have useful advice *for me* will be lost in the sea of people claiming to have useful advice, unless they convince me that their advice actually applies to me in particular. But you can’t convince me that it applies to me without convincing most everyone else that it *doesn’t* apply to them…which is actually a good thing to communicate if true…but of course people try to hide that fact from their audience…which necessarily entails hiding it from me.

    You can try to fix this by making your advice super-general and arguing that it applies to everyone. However, this is self-defeating for another reason: you have to be unbelievably explicit with people to get them to actually take your advice. If you want people to *do* something, you have to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it (and when!).

    Most useful advice is actionable and specific and, relatedly, applicable to a very specific subset of people. General advice, even when “true,” is seldom useful.

    Actually, our default is that we just aren’t good at acting on advice. Changing your own behavior takes deliberate practice. It is entirely possible to hear bits and pieces of advice, keep track of them, and deliberately work on putting them into practice. But for most people, a good piece of advice becomes a nice but fleeting thought they half-plan to implement at an indefinite future date, which means never.

    You have a feeling that before you’ve come to a bit of wisdom on your own, it’s inaccessible to you. But an alternative explanation — which I think has some truth, along with the story you’re telling above — is that wisdom is only useful if it’s internalized, and that there are *two* ways to internalize it. First, if you come to it on your own, then it naturally becomes internalized. Second, if someone tells it to you, it requires deliberate attention to internalize it; otherwise it is easily forgotten before it has been fully internalized.


    You could, for instance, take this comment as a piece of advice on how to maximize the impact of advice you give.

    Of course, maximizing impact is not the only worthy goal. But assuming it is the goal for illustrative purposes at least, it isn’t hard to list some actionable exercises you could do to better internalize it.

    1. You could go back to the Dillard text and ask yourself if there’s anything she could have done differently, to convince you to take action and better absorb the message. You could also ask if there was anything *you* could have done that would have resulted in you internalizing it before. (Possibly the answer is “no” on both counts, but who knows?)

    2. You could revisit a piece of advice which you wrote in the past, and try to rewrite it in a way that increases its impact. Actually, just the act of revisiting all the advice you once gave, and seeing how you would approach it differently now, could make for a fascinating blog post (or series) in its own right.

    3. Or deliberately write about a new bit-of-wisdom post with the above in mind. If your goal was actually to maximize the impact of the advice, what would you have to do to get people to add it to a list of things they go through when they are trying to improve their writing? (Telling them to have such a list, and telling them exactly what sentence to add, could have a big effect.)

    Maybe if you did some of these things, it would become as natural as if you came to the same conclusion by more “organic” means.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I don’t know if you _can_ internalize something that someone tells you. Something doesn’t become really true for me until I’ve thought it through on my own.

      Also, I’ve done a fair amount of self-improvement, and my best results have always come from immersing myself in the conventional wisdom and then disregarding it and doing what works for me. As I’ve gotten a better and better idea of what works for me, this has become much easier. However, I’ve noticed that when most people disregard the conventional wisdom and do what works for them, they tend to fail–for them, “doing what works for me” is just an excuse to rationalize the same old self-defeating behaviors that never got them anywhere in the first place. So even this “do what works for you” advice isn’t particularly applicable to other people.