This article will give a brief overview of “analysis paralysis”, its solution, and a more appropriate method for analysis of self-improvement frameworks.
In the context of self-improvement, analysis paralysis refers to a state of overthinking which prevents one from actually acting to improve their life, and serves as a barrier to experiencing positive emotions and self-esteem in general. The bloke sitting at the bar constantly wondering what the best pickup line is might never actually approach a girl to find out, for example. People get caught in analysis paralysis because they correctly realise that introspection and thought are incredibly useful for improving their quality of life, but incorrectly extrapolate that more of these components will always produce a positive effect.
Critically, though, this concept doesn’t just apply to individual decisions and thoughts. It also applies just as well to the search for a unifying framework for self-improvement. You can ask questions like “what makes people happy?” on a regular basis, find good reasons to reject any answer you generate as a complete description, and fail to see the utility that answer could possibly have offered you.
This is still fairly generic advice, but it’s necessary setup for the second half of this article, so I’ll give a few examples to make sure we’re on the same page:
- You want to make more friends at school, and start asking yourself what makes people popular. The bulk of the “popular kids” all seem to have some common traits – athleticism, extroversion, enthusiasm, etc. If people placed value on those traits, that would explain most of the social hierarchy, but there are a few enigmas. What about that asshole bully who’s still popular? What about one of the nerdier kids who still manages to fit into the jock crowd? How the hell do they fit in? Clearly, those traits aren’t the complete solution to social status, so you don’t take any action to develop them further… even though those traits would probably have made you better off than you currently are.
- You’re wondering how to attract guys, and start asking yourself what guys are looking for in a girl. All your friends that are constantly taken seem to be “hot”, friendly, and social… so naturally you wonder if you should work on those traits. Yet you recall another of your friends who happens to be a little plain, aloof, and mousy, but still attracts a fair amount of male interest anyway. How does she fit in? You’re so unsure of what move to make on the guy you like that you don’t spend any extra effort to be friendly to him, which probably would have made you more attractive than you currently are.
- You want to start a business, but don’t know whether to price your products high or low. You’ve seen businesses in the same market charge a ridiculous premium and get away with it, but all your survey data from your interested customers say they have a limited budget and interest (especially since you have so many competitors). What do your customers really want? You spend so much time trying to figure out how much to charge that you never actually launch a product, which might not sell at all if you got the price wrong but would definitely give you better information to make a decision with, improving your future mental business frameworks.
I’m sure you get the picture by now – simply taking action is often more valuable than more thought. This isn’t to say that action is always better than inaction and that you should become totally reckless in your self-improvement. Rather, the solution seems to be acknowledging that your frameworks are likely incomplete solutions, assessing the potential utility they could have to you anyway, and deciding if they are worth the risk of implementation to you. Or as the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of good”.
Sure, there’s an incredibly attractive bloke at your school that everyone hates anyway – but that doesn’t stop you making the assessment that attractiveness still seems to be correlated to social status and that it will cost you relatively little to pursue it, making it probably worthwhile.
Once you find or develop a framework that explains the possession and development of confidence in general, use that framework and push it as far as you can until it breaks.
Alright, that’s the “stock advice” out of the way… now let’s move on to the more interesting question (in my mind, anyway) of what to do with a framework of self-improvement once we’ve broken it.
Let’s extrapolate from an example we’ve used earlier – let’s say you’ve decided to become more popular in school, and spent a few months in the gym improving your body, coupled with some more care and thought put into your hygiene, fashion, etc. People notice, and you get plenty of compliments… you feel great about yourself… but for some reason you’re still an outsider. What’s going on?
You finally figure it out – you’ve gotten so obsessed with your appearance that you’re actively arrogant, seeking compliments, and generally being a bit of an asshole. People have noticed that too, and they still don’t like you. Furthermore, some of your past friends seem to be jealous of your improved attractiveness, and resent you for it. Well, fuck, you think. All that effort into my appearance was for nothing, looks don’t really count at all and have even hurt me – it’s all personality instead.
Hold on! Leaping from one extreme to another is tempting, but fallacious. All you’ve demonstrated is that attractiveness alone isn’t good enough to guarantee popularity, and that it can hurt you if coupled with arrogance… both reasonable observations.
What you don’t know is how attractiveness would couple with a better personality. If you were simultaneously an incredibly pleasant and humble person, would people still resent you for your body? Probably not. You’re also forgetting that at one stage, people indicated to you that attractiveness actually does have utility by giving you compliments, which you weren’t getting before. Finally, you’re forgetting your initial observation that attractiveness was correlated with popularity, which is probably still true, though you might now be an outlier in that result.
Accordingly, the lesson you should draw from this is not that your framework was totally broken and useless… rather, your framework was an approximation of an even more nuanced and useful framework. Here’s an example of how attractiveness might fit into your mental framework of developing confidence as you test more options and refine it further:
|1||Attractiveness makes people popular|
|2||Attractiveness and friendliness makes people popular|
|3||Attractiveness and friendliness makes you popular with those who won't feel insecure or jealous in your presence|
I’m not saying any of these frameworks are correct – the point is that each framework is progressively more nuanced, and the previous frameworks become approximations of the next.
Phrased another way, you can think of personal development as starting with a “base” premise about the way the world works, and adding ever more disclaimers and exceptions and edge cases to make it more accurate… then constantly living according to this – eventually incredibly lengthy – premise.
Interestingly, sometimes a less nuanced framework will actually be more useful. A demonstration of this principle that I particularly love is Newtonian mechanics, which we believe to be a very good approximation of relativistic mechanics at velocities much lower than the velocity of light. When you’re dealing with such velocities (such as a ball rolling off a table, in a standard human reference frame), you never actually touch relativistic mechanics at all. It would chew up too much time, effort, or computational power. Instead, you recognise that the approximation is good enough to produce an accurate answer, and so much faster and easier that it justifies its use basically 100% of the time in such situations.
Similarly, if you went to a house party and wanted to be as likable as possible… it would be ludicrous to be constantly thinking “I have to be attractive, social, easygoing, kind, enthusiastic, funny, empathetic…”. It’s just too much. It might be a complete description of what makes people likable, and a useful one for personal development in general (you can work on all those traits), but it’s not a useful one for staying confident at a party… especially because you’ll never score full marks on all those traits, which opens the door to constant doubt.*
Instead, what you should be doing is recognising which lower-level frameworks strike the best balance of accurate approximation and ease / utility of use, and adopting those as needed.
Maybe one of your earlier frameworks was that being an enthusiastic and kind party guest is enough to make you popular. Will that be enough to make you the most popular guy there, or score the hot girl you’re after? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s probably not going to do you much harm, and it’s a lot easier to focus on than your more “complete” framework of likability, so you choose to roll with that instead. If the technically best paintbrush in the world blisters you so badly that you lose hand control and fuck up your paintings, you should probably use the second best paintbrush instead. It will never have the same potential, but you’ll get more out of it in practice.
So, exactly how do you recognise which route to take?
Simple – you take those lower-level frameworks, wear them out until they break, and make a mental note of how much utility they gave you in the meantime.
Maybe you wear that “enthusiastic and kind” persona for a month. It serves you fine at parties, it serves you fine at work, it serves you fine basically everywhere… but you just can’t get that hot girl. What’s missing? Well, you decide you have to be interesting as well, and maybe you were a little too enthusiastic which came off needy. You’ve found a location where this approximation breaks, and another approximation (“be interesting and kind”) might serve you better. So you try that approximation on instead when you’re trying to attract girls, and you wear that approximation out until it breaks.
Notice what we’re doing here, as well – we’re not just returning to an earlier approximation, we’re deliberately generating broken approximations from our higher-level frameworks. Here’s how that process might play out:
- You start with “attraction makes people popular” as your low-level framework
- You realise more is needed, so you shift to “attraction and friendliness makes people popular” as a higher-level framework
- This then suggests another possible lower-level framework of “friendliness makes people popular”
This process can obviously extend up as many levels as need be. You might have worked on being attractive, extroverted, interesting, kind, and funny for years, when suddenly you come into a small fortune and realise that has given you a particular brand of confidence… so you now possess the low-level framework of “money makes people confident”, as well as any number of slightly higher-level frameworks involving limited combinations of those traits (e.g. “money and attractiveness makes people confident”).
It would be very strange and time consuming to test every possible low-level approximation you could think of. You will have to do your own thinking about which are most worth testing, by thinking about how well those low-level approximations are likely to perform overall, and in which situations. There is little point in testing multiple approximations of a personal development framework if they’re all likely to be useful for staying confident at a party; it’s probably much better to have one good approximation for party environments, then find good approximations for other situations.
By this stage, I think we’ve discussed all the necessary recursion and utility mechanics to get value out of this post – there’s plenty more to be drawn out of the subject, but the reader will hopefully now have an additional mental framework to explore that thought territory fairly autonomously and reach similar epiphanies ot my own.
(For some light entertainment, try nesting the utility of approximations into your frameworks on confidence! You might start with “Personal development makes people confident as long as they don’t overthink it”, which is partially the subject of this article… but what about the low-level approximation of “Personal development makes people confident”? Surely that’s easier to focus on, since you don’t have to worry about evaluating when you’re overthinking a situation…. but doesn’t that just return us to the original framework? What’s going on here, and what’s the “final” framework we should be using?)
Such interesting thought experiments are not the primary point of this post, however. Instead, the summary is thus:
Don’t be scared of having an incomplete map of the road to inner confidence. Incomplete maps can still be useful, and you may even keep using them after you find a better map. It is far more important to actually start exploring the landscape and find out the accuracy, limits, and utility of that map, than to sit in the shop wondering if you should buy a different one.**
The best explorers probably don’t have a pristine map. Their maps are torn and broken because they’ve actually traveled with them.
* Evaluating yourself on many factors during an interaction doesn’t actually have to inspire doubt – with confidence comes an increasing ability to fully live up to your expectations. I regularly find myself scoring an interaction as imperfect but good enough, for example; I’ll recognise that one joke I made was a bit awkward, or I didn’t know how to keep the conversation about football going, but overall I am being pretty charming and interesting and nice, so overall I’m okay with it… which gives me the confidence to keep maintaining the interaction even further.
As with all personal development, there is no clear answer on whether evaluating yourself on many factors is useful; you will have to evaluate the usefulness of your evaluations yourself. Then bear in mind that this further evaluation is more time spent in introversion rather than acting or just living in the moment – are you going to evaluate the utility of your evaluation of your evaluations now? The chain can go back forever, and it will always be up to you to decide where to snip it off. Your end decision will probably be intuitive or even entirely irrational or unsubstantiated. Is this a problem? Does it matter?
** This also obviously applies to any personal development resource, including this website. I won’t have all the answers for you – at best, I’ll have a useful approximation. Since I can’t write perfectly and you probably won’t read or understand everything I write (this isn’t a slight on you – there is inevitable inefficiency in all communication), you will therefore be working with an incomplete understanding of what are already my approximations of truths about personal development. Trying to maximise your understanding of that approximation is enviable (and I appreciate it, as an author!), but it will have diminishing returns. Don’t ever feel like you have to “finish” reading or learning about a brand of personal development before you can start trying it on.