On contrarianism, serendipity, intention and overcoming information anxiety.
I suffer from information anxiety. At the time of writing, my Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf is at 124 books. And counting. Rapidly. My goal is to read 24 books in 2019. If I don’t add a single book to this list (which isn’t going to happen), it’ll still take me five years to get through it if I read 24 books a year.
I read mostly nonfiction. And I read explicitly to learn. So far, I’ve employed various tactics with relative success in an attempt to increase my reading productivity. Inspired by the infamous Charlie Munger story — where, as a young lawyer, he sold himself an hour of his time each day to invest in himself, as he was his most important client — I am taking one hour in the middle of the day to invest in myself and read nonfiction.
I recently downloaded the audiobook app Audible, and am reading along while listening to the audiobook on 2.5x speed, in an attempt to read faster. I’m generally choosing to read as my leisure and entertainment activity (versus television) and have done a pretty good job filling in gaps of time by picking up a book rather than mindlessly scrolling on my phone.
Yet, I’m not making a dent. And I never will.
Sometimes, I feel like like I know and understand the general concept of a book before picking it up. Similarly, I don’t necessarily need all of the background arguments or relevant stories to understand or be convinced of the book’s main thesis.
Given my ever-growing “Want to Read” book list, I find myself asking with increasing frequency: do I need to read that book?
On Summaries and Shortcuts
Enter Blinkist. Blinkist is an app that gives its readers key ideas from bestselling nonfiction books, distilled into 15-minute text and audio. Their website boasts that they have a library of over 3,000 titles, adding 40 new titles each month, as well as a staggering 9 million users.
I’ve been considering Blinkist for some time — their value proposition purports to solve my information anxiety issues and allow me to breeze through my “Want to Read” list a quick 15 minutes at a time.
Problem solved, right?
Apart from Blinkist, there are many other ways to get relevant and quality book summaries. Wikipedia and YouTube can be great. Two of my favorite sources for book summaries are Derek Sivers’ and Sam Thomas Davies’ blogs.
Yet, in spite of Blinkist and others attempting to give me back my time — and presumably doing a great job for other high volume learners — and increase my reading output, I remain skeptical and reluctant.
I’m still choosing to read that book.
I recently wrote on How To Process Information Like A Contrarian, highlighting an amazing podcast interview of Josh Wolfe on The Knowledge Project. Josh, like me, has severe information anxiety — and he seems to overcome simply through effort and grit.
Part of what makes Josh’s information consumption so remarkable — and anxiety-inducing — is his objectives for reading. He’s reading what everyone else is reading and also looking for white spaces where people aren’t reading or seeing, in an effort to make contrarian investment decisions.
[I read] not just for what it says on page one, but for what the editor puts on C22 of the newspaper, that they decree to be less important, and I have a different weighting of the magnitude of its importance. That to me is the meta insight.
Josh doesn’t merely read what everyone else is reading, nor does he let some editor decide what is important — he does his own thinking and decides for himself.
Famed author Haruki Murakami agrees. A few years ago, he tweeted:
If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
And if we’re only reading the summaries that other people are writing, on the books that everyone else is reading, that’s got to be even worse!
I value contrarianism. My decision to read that book is because I don’t want some third party deciding what are the important and unimportant aspects of the books that I am reading. I also don’t want to merely get the same value out of a book that everyone else on Blinkist or reading book summaries gets out of it.
I need to read that book, to give myself the opportunity to derive some value that only I can derive, given my worldview and relevant content consumption. Only I know what is relevant to me, and only I can decide if some seemingly inconsequential piece of information on page 284 is an important piece of the puzzle of some hypothesis I’m developing.
I also value serendipity. To enable and facilitate serendipity, I actually need to read page 284. There may be just a one percent chance there’s anything relevant or thought-provoking on page 284. However, not reading page 284 gives me a zero percent chance of extracting value from that page.
Valuing contrarianism and serendipity does not reduce my information anxiety. In fact, it enhances it. Significantly. So, I must act deliberately and with intention.
Why do I read? Why do I want to read that book?
In the past, I have viewed reading and the act of acquiring knowledge as a perpetual arms race. And that’s where Blinkist and book summary blogs find their sweetspots — with the FOMO readers.
But really, why do we read?
What of the fun of reading? Of the benefits and enjoyment of leisure? Of the serendipity of discovery?
And, of the cognitive benefit of allowing us to pause and reflect on what we’ve read after we’ve read it? Research shows, in order to learn something well, you need to study it for a while and then take a break.
As we come to value experiential learning and the “How” as much, if not more than the “What”, implementing the “How” also means taking the time to work through the process discussed, as opposed to racing to start (and finish) the next book on the list.
In the age of information, it has become increasingly important to answer these questions above. I read to learn. But for me, I’ve learned that reading is not about knowing everything or about extracting maximal value. Rather, it’s about extracting relevant value and facilitating the connection of disparate ideas, through an enjoyable, leisurely activity.
Reframing my mindset accordingly helps with my information anxiety, and it provides a positive feedback loop in which I am excited to check more books off of my ever-growing “Want to Read” list. It may also facilitate the innovation process significantly more than does racing through book summaries.
I’m never going to be able to read everything. I’m never going to zero out my book list. So, I might as well enjoy the process.