Today’s topic is all about how we take in information. And if there is a point where you start to see diminishing returns. I am a little paranoid about this subject since I always feel like I don’t retain as much as I should when I read, listen, watch, anything basically. I don’t have a photographic memory. So I’m kind of a leaky bucket. Which reminds me of my days working on games. We were always hesitant to invest more into a leaky bucket because of the lack of efficiency. But I don’t practice what I preach in my personal life, where the investment is time taking in more information. I just keep pouring more water in, more and more to try and keep the bucket full. Is it worth it? What’s the point? I’m starting to feel like nihilism and or fatalism are persistent themes in my writing. I need to cheer up! Let’s get started.
For most of my life I focused on learning things purely for practical purposes. This information can help me get something else. Usually it was tied to inclusion into a social group I wanted acceptance from or for some type of professional gain. Although just thinking about it now, I am sure there were scenarios were both of those motivations had strong overlap. And I did go deep into certain topics based on my own interest. Sports comes to mind right away. That is the first area where I spent a ton of time through a lot of different mediums. Watching games, listening and reading analysis, collecting memorabilia. It was pretty all-encompassing for me as a kid and well into early-adulthood. I wonder how this investment guided me towards working in sports later on in life, there must be some connection. I would contrast what I was doing with sports against the learning I was doing through my academics. I would classify that type of leaning (academic learning) as being purely transactional in my mind. I was learning for the sole reason to achieve a good grade in the course, which would get me into college, then a degree, then a high paying job. I can’t remember any subject throughout my studies including college that captivated me to the point of leading me to put in effort beyond the bare minimum. Kind of sad in hindsight! But it kind of work I guess, since I graduated, and technically got a job in the field I studied. When I started working, I was forced to learn skills that I needed to perform, and keep my job in effect. That pressure gave me sufficient motivation to get going, and with the help of a couple really strong (and forgiving) mentors, I was able to plod along. The motivation for that type of learning was still based on me having to do it for a very specific and real purpose. – not getting fired. I wasn’t doing it for any intrinsic reasons.
I’ll fast forward a few years, maybe 10 or so. I continued to work, learning new skills within that context. And I learned a couple other things too based on necessity – personal finance related topics come to mind there. And I continued to spend a lot of time on my hobby, which was following professional sports. I was interested in travel and went to visit many countries over the years, but anything I learned about those places I would have to say in hindsight was superficial, surface level stuff. I was the classic tourist going to exotic places and looking for the experiences exactly like the place I had come from, ie not-authentic. I was skating by, knew enough to rationalize what I was doing to myself. I should also mention that I always have been a newspaper reader, going back to college I have subscribed to the New York Times. But I am not sure if I was reading it to learn about the world, or if I liked the association of being a New York Times reader more than the information itself.
Something changed within the last 5-7 years though. And it lines up when I started to read books again. The first book that I read that really shook me to the core was Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I wish I could remember what caused me to buy and read this book. I am not sure, but would guess I thought reading it would again provide me with some type of edge in the professional environment. My motives are never very clean if I’m being honest with myself! It’s hyperbole, but the book blew my mind, giving me ideas I had never ever dreamt of before. More hyperbole, it expanded my understanding of what was possible. I remember being affected by the book long after I read it. Beyond the ideas it contained, it also made me wonder what other types of books I could read that might have a profound effect on me. I wanted to have more experiences like Thinking Fast and Slow gave me. So I started to read more, and with purpose. The next book that I know affected me was the Autobiography of Malcom X by Alex Haley. What got me about this one was the example. A person who was able to completely turn their life around through self-education. If Malcolm could do it, I could too! And I was off to the races. Over the subsequent years I’ve read a lot, focused on history, philosophy, science, and a little bit of fiction. And I am hugely better off because of it. It would be silly to even think about comparing the gains I achieved from reading against consuming a different form of media. What do I mean by gains? I learned about specific ideas, history, how people use language and persuasion, and how to build up arguments. I have also learned how to self-discipline myself – putting in the time and focus required to get through monster books.
As my intake of information grew through books, I also started to take in more through other channels. And I should clarify as to the reason why I was taking in this info – it was for general life. That is, it was not for any one specific reason, but to give me perspective that should benefit me in all facets of my life. Read about the lives of great historical figures to see what lessons I can learn and apply to my own. Read great philosophers to understand the questions they asked themselves. Read about science to understand how the world really works. But even though my motives were cleaner, I wouldn’t say I was doing this all in the interest of self-improvement. I was encouraged by some other people who I follow and have achieved success strongly encouraging the idea of being a life-long learner, and sometimes making stronger statements like not knowing anyone successful who isn’t an avid reader (Munger?). This is strange, I’m also reminded of the fact that one of the tenets of my family’s religion is being a life-long learner, but this was never really emphasized to me or maybe I wasn’t able to pick-up on it if it was. So I was still reading and learning with the expectation that it would lead to something else, but more indirectly now.
Going back to the added channels, the internet, podcasts, and most recently newsletters. The fire-hose of very specific, niche content was becoming more readily available over the last five years or so. And I sucked a lot of it down! Some of the subjects better than others. I have taken a few detours to be sure, most notably politics from around the time of the 2016 Presidential Election. I have consumed more political news and coverage than at any time in my life over the last 3 years or so, with the majority coming through cable news. I would regrettably have to say most of that was time wasted, and I feel like I got caught up in the hysteria of the moment and also cable’s self-interest with over-blowing stories to keep you watching. Everything is not breaking news. But there is some really good content available through audio, and on boards too, so when I compare my information intake now to what it was ten years ago, it’s not even close.
But am I still gaining the way I was when I read Kahneman that first time? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s just an inevitability when you are trying to grow off a larger base of knowledge. Much easier to grow when you starting point is almost zero! So it makes me wonder if I should just keep going with my general approach of trying to learn whatever catches my interest, or if I need to try to reign it in a little bit and get more focused. Maybe a little optimization is needed. Or what would happen if I stopped altogether? I don’t think this is a good idea, or even possible, but just want to play devil’s advocate for a minute. Have I amassed enough knowledge to carry me through the rest of my life? I’m already roughly half-way through after-all. I would be afraid that I would become obsolete pretty quickly, but then again, the writing that has had the biggest effects on me is from several hundred years ago anyway (Stoics), so maybe not? One thing about staying too current is that you can get dragged into trends. But I can’t let that fear lead to a halt of info intake, just need to watch myself.
Wow, I think this is very sloppy. I’m sorry. Let me try to summarize. I never cared to learn for self-improvement until fairly recently, say within the last ten years. I have found it to be extremely useful, and not have firmly implanted reading habits. But now, there is so much information available, and we’re all taking in so much, I don’t think I am retaining the same amount. This makes me wonder if I should change my approach, and narrow the scope of what I’m doing. So all I need to think about next is what the right scope is. Early vote for building relationships and allowing myself to be more emotionally available!
Thanks for reading and I will speak with you again tomorrow. 50 Minutes. 1791 Words.