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Tag Archives: Reading

Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait

German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) influenced some of the more prominent minds in the world. His writings and lessons traverse time and discipline. Schopenhauer confronted similar problems with media to the ones we face.

We live under a constant onslaught of content that is not meant to live beyond the moment in which it appears.

Weaving together two of his essays, “On Authorship” (from The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature) and “On Reading.” we can see that he foresaw the problem of clickbait in terms of its distraction from what’s important and how we can fend it off.

Let’s first turn our attention to Schopenhauer’s beliefs on the two kinds of authors and their motivations:

[T]hose who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

The author has a moral duty to not cheat the reader. You could write about how our media demands this cheating. For example, the 24-hour news cycle broadcasts only for the sake of filling up time and generating pageviews. It has changed our definition of ‘news.’

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing.

(There is an argument to be made that media fragmentation and low barriers drive down the monetary value of success. If this were true, it is possible that people will once again begin to create for the value of the activity and not the dollars.) We should only read good books. More than read them we should re-read them.

What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. … The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

The problem is these bad writers, offering little timeless value, monopolize the time and attention of people that could be otherwise spent on more profitable pursuits.

They are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.

The fact these views consume us underpins why our views are so shallow. Remember, Schopenhauer was writing at a time when people valued deep work and attention in a way we no longer do. As an audience it is easier to skim the surface of the volume that is available.

Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty. And a stupid public reads the worthless trash written by these fellows for no other reason than that is has been printed today, while it leaves the works of the great thinkers undisturbed on the bookshelves.

We often forget the existence of words is no statement on their truth.

Incredible are the folly and perversity of a public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds, of all times and all countries, for the sake of reading the writings of commonplace persons which appear daily and breed every year in countless numbers like flies; merely because these writings have been printed today and are still wet from the press.

This is where the art of not reading comes in. We have a choice, even if we refuse to exercise it. Schopenhauer offers us guidance on what to read.

Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the words of great minds, those who surpass other men of all time and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.

Furthering this notion, he adds:

One can never read too little of bad or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.

Which can equally apply to the websites and articles that consume us. Before we know it, we develop a Pot-Belly of Ignorance.

Inverting the problem Schopenhauer suggests “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.

If you’re looking for ways to filter out the noise consider Peter Kaufman’s idea of the three buckets of knowledge and Nassim Taleb’s lindy effect.

 

The Self Education of Louis L’Amour


“That was Louis’s way – to find something of value from every printed page.”
— Daniel Boorstein

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The author Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) was among America’s most prolific and most beloved. He wrote 105 books, most of which were fiction, and at his death in 1988 they were all still in print. Most still are today. (His prolific nature resembles another great American author, Isaac Asimov.)

Two things drove L’Amour: Adventure and a deep need for self-education. In his memoir, The Education of a Wandering Man, he makes it clear that the two went hand in hand. His travels were his way of learning by direct experience, but he augmented that with a tremendous and voracious appetite for the vicarious learning that comes through reading.

Writing in in the late 1980’s, L’Amour describes his love of the written word, a pursuit he undertook at all cost:

Today you can buy the Dialogues of Plato for less than you would spend on a fifth of whisky, or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the price of a cheap shirt. You can buy a fair beginning of an education in any bookstore with a good stock of paperback books for less than you would spend on a week’s supply of gasoline.

Often I hear people say they do not have the time to read. That’s absolute nonsense. In one year during which I kept that kind of record, I read twenty-five books while waiting for people. In offices, applying for jobs, waiting to see a dentist, waiting in a restaurant for friends, many such places. I read on buses, trains and planes. If one really wants to learn, one has to decide what is important. Spending an evening on the town? Attending a ball game? Or learning something that can be with you your life long?

Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro. In Singapore, I came upon a copy of The Annals and Antiquities of Rajahstan by James Tod.

Many of us think we don’t have the time or the inclination to keep learning, but to L’Amour this was a ridiculous idea. If he didn’t educate himself, who else would do the job? In this sense, all education is self-education.

No man or woman has a greater appreciation for schools than I, although few have spent less time in them. No matter how much I admire our schools, I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself.

What is the point of an education? Steven Pinker would define it more precisely years later, but to L’Amour it was pretty simple, and closely aligned with our ethos at Farnam Street: To enable one to live a better life.

Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness.

L’Amour was clearly a proponent of direct life experience, and he had more than most. As his memoir details, his young life saw him take on the role of a traveling hobo, sailor, amateur boxer, miner, and ranch hand, jobs that took him all around the world in search of work and adventure.

But throughout, L’Amour knew that his destiny was to become a storyteller, and he also knew that to avoid a lot of misery in life would require a massive amount of experience he couldn’t obtain directly.

So he did it through books.

It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

So it was with me. I saved myself much hardship by learning from the experiences of others, learning what to expect and what to avoid. I have no doubt that my vicarious experience saved me from mistakes I might otherwise have made—not to say I did not make many along the way.

Although he didn’t set out to learn for this reason, L’Amour also discovered an important lesson in associative pattern-matching and creativity: The brain needs to be stocked full to make interesting and useful connections.

A love of learning for its own sake creates a massive ancillary benefit. What L’Amour says about writers goes for all of us, in any profession:

I have never had to strive to graduate, never to earn a degree. The only degrees I have are honorary, and I am proud to have them. I studied purely for the love of learning, wanting to know and understand. For a writer, of course, everything is grist for the mill, and a writer cannot know too much. Sooner or later everything he does know will find its uses.

A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.

I have studied a thousand things I never expected to find use in a story, yet every once in a while these things will find a place.

People who read a lot, people like L’Amour, are often asked about what should be read. Is there some program or direction to take?

The answer we give at Farnam Street and the answer L’Amour gave are about the same: You must follow your passions, follow your curiosities. Why does this work? Nassim Taleb once hit it on the head by saying that “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction it is magnified by attempts to satisfy it.”

Down the line, as those curiosities are pursued, the course tends to become quite clear. Trying to pursue some difficult course of study is not the way to get your engines going.

Says L’Amour:

For those who have not been readers, my advice is to read what entertains you. Reading is fun. Reading is adventure. It is not important what you read at first, only that you read.

Many would advise the great books first, but often readers are not prepared for them. If you want to study the country from which you came, there are atlases with maps and there are good books on all countries, books of history, of travel, of current affairs.

Our libraries are not cloisters for an elite. They are for the people, and if they are not used, the fault belongs to those who do not take advantage of their wealth. If one does not move on from what merely amuses to what interests, the fault lies in the reader, for everything is there.

One mistake made by would-be learners it to think that they need guidance or permission to do so. That they must take a class on Shakespeare to enjoy Shakespeare or take a guided tour of the classics in order to enjoy those.

The great works of the world are there to be enjoyed by all. (Of course, we have some recommendations for how to read books in general.) But as L’Amour guides, you must learn and read what you like, unless there is an important extenuating circumstance. Boredom creates a shut-off valve in the brain. And if you’re always reading something of even moderate depth, you simply can’t avoid learning. A continually curious mind ends up at the classics one way or another anyways.

In the end, in a thought later echoed by the technology great Andrew Ng, L’Amour believed the human mind was capable of incredible creativity, perhaps beyond what we currently believe:

Personally, I do not believe the human mind has any limits but those we impose ourselves. I believe that creativity and inventiveness are there for anybody willing to apply himself. I do not believe that man has even begun to realize who he is or what he can become. So far he has been playing it by ear, following paths of least resistance, getting by — because most others were just getting by too. I believe that man has been living in a Neanderthal state of mind. Mentally, we are still flaking rocks for scraping stones or chipping them for arrowheads. […]

We simply must free the mind from its fetters and permit it to function without restraint. Many of us have learned to supply ourselves with the raw materials and then allow the subconscious to take over. This is what creativity is. One must condition oneself for the process and then let it proceed.

If you liked this post, you might like these too:

Schopenhauer on Reading and Books – One of the most timeless and beautiful meditations on reading comes from the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Reading a Book is a Conversation Between You and the Author – Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

A Short List of Books for Doing New Things

Andrew Ng has quite the modern resume.

He founded Coursera, a wonderful website that gives anyone with Internet access the ability to take high level university courses on almost any topic. He founded the Google Brain project at Google, their deep learning research project intended to help bring about better artificial intelligence. Now he’s the Chief Scientist at Baidu Research.

Ng is, unsurprisingly, devoted to reading and learning. As he puts it,

In my own life, I found that whenever I wasn’t sure what to do next, I would go and learn a lot, read a lot, talk to experts. I don’t know how the human brain works but it’s almost magical: when you read enough or talk to enough experts, when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing. This seems to happen for a lot of people that I know.

When you become sufficiently expert in the state of the art, you stop picking ideas at random. You are thoughtful in how to select ideas, and how to combine ideas. You are thoughtful about when you should be generating many ideas versus pruning down ideas.

[…]

I read a lot and I also spend time talking to people a fair amount. I think two of the most efficient ways to learn, to get information, are reading and talking to experts. So I spend quite a bit of time doing both of them. I think I have just shy of a thousand books on my Kindle. And I’ve probably read about two-thirds of them.

Ng thinks innovation and creativity can be learned — that they are pattern-recognition and combinatorial creativity exercises which can be performed by an intelligent and devoted practitioner with the right approach.

He also encourages the creation of new things; new businesses, new technologies. And on that topic, Ng has a few book recommendations. Given his list of accomplishments, the quality of his mind, and his admitted devotion to reading the printed word, it seems worth our time to check out the list.

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Zero to One

The first is “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel, a very good book that gives an overview of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Crossing the Chasm / The Lean Startup

We often break down entrepreneurship into B2B (“business to business,” i.e., businesses whose customers are other businesses) and B2C (“business to consumer”).

For B2B, I recommend “Crossing the Chasm.” For B2C, one of my favorite books is “The Lean Startup,” which takes a narrower view but it gives one specific tactic for innovating quickly. It’s a little narrow but it’s very good in the area that it covers.

Talking to Humans

Then to break B2C down even further, two of my favorites are “Talking to Humans,” which is a very short book that teaches you how to develop empathy for users you want to serve by talking to them.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Also, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy.” If you want to build products that are important, that users care about, this teaches you different tactics for learning about users, either through user studies or by interviews.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things

Then finally there is “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” It’s a bit dark but it does cover a lot of useful territory on what building an organization is like.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

For people who are trying to figure out career decisions, there’s a very interesting one: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” That gives a valuable perspective on how to select a path for one’s career.

The Knowledge Project: Morgan Housel on Reading, Writing, Filtering Information

On this episode, I’m happy to have Morgan Housel (@morganhousel)

Morgan works at Collaborative Fund. He’s a former columnist at the Motley Fool, and a former columnist of the Wall Street Journal. His work has also been published in Time, USA Today, World Affairs, and Business Insider.
You name it, he’s been there. Simply put, he’s one of the shining lights of the business press.

More than that, though, he’s one of the few people that I read all the time. As I’ve gotten to know him over the years, I can also tell you he’s an exceptional person. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

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Listen

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Transcript:
A complete transcript is available for members.

Ask Farnam Street #1

Welcome to the first incarnation of Ask Farnam Streetwhere we’ll be taking and answering questions on anything you’re curious about that we feel we can answer competently and honestly. This first batch of questions comes straight from our Members.

If you’d like to submit a question for our next Q&A, please send it to us at [email protected] with the title “Ask Farnam Street.” We will choose a group of the most thoughtful questions and answer them right here on the site. 

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How do we cultivate a good balance between thinking for ourselves and building our own systems to suit our unique personalities, and learning from what other people have already discovered about the world and the systems they’ve built and shared?

This is a pretty common question in a lot of fields. Almost anyone who goes deep on trying to study the success and advice of others eventually wonders if they’ll just become a clone of someone else. But the truth of the matter is that most do eventually “find their way” – where everything you’ve learned coalesces into a system of your own. Purely aping someone else doesn’t work very well and is harder than it sounds anyway.

Here’s an exercise for anyone who likes music: Pick a musical artist you like and find out who influenced them. Then listen to those influences. Does your favorite really sound like those influences? Like, really? Almost never.

You might hear an “echo” of Robert Johnson in the Rolling Stones, but the differences between the two are night and day – the difference between country blues and rock ‘n roll!

Yet if you were to ask Keith Richards, he’d tell you the Stones started out basically doing a poor imitation of old American blues artists. But what they really did was take the soul of that music (and, I might add, early rock and rollers like Elvis and Chuck Berry), added their own spice and reality, and created something entirely new. That’s how creativity works. You don’t just create new things out of the clear blue sky – you have to start with something. Making new connections and associations is creativity.

Even Sam Walton used to say that he basically stole all of the ideas that became Wal-Mart. But what other company was really anything like Wal-Mart? It was completely unique. And why should anyone else have been like Wal-Mart – they were missing the key ingredient…Walton himself!

In these stories lies your answer. Cultivating that balance will happen naturally if you simply break down what you learn to its essence and take what is useful from it. You don’t need to outright copy anyone else, and contrary to popular belief, success isn’t simple imitation. It’s learning the principles behind what made others successful, the underlying reality being demonstrated by that success, and incorporating that reality into your worldview.

Farnam Street is about pursuing an understanding of “the way the world works.” As long as you use those systems you learn from others as a way of getting at the underlying reality – going beyond pure imitation — you will have the opportunity to “make them your own.”

Two quotes sum this up:

Take what is useful, discard what is not, add what is specifically your own.
Bruce Lee

Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.
Seneca

When Charlie [Munger] talks about knowledge across a wide range of disciplines, what are those disciplines, and which does he appear to favor?

Charlie address this a little bit in a speech called “A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business”.

He’s talking about the basic disciplines that would make up a really good broad undergraduate curriculum: Math/Statistics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Complex Systems, Psychology, Business/Economics, Law, with the more fundamental ones being generally most reliable. (1+1 always seems to come out to 2.)

Charlie seems to have made use of models across all disciplines. He probably uses psychology and biology more than most, which is a great lesson. And clearly he and Buffett have made wise use of probabilistic thinking.

But remember, in his own words, “80 or 90 models carry most of the freight” – in other words, you’re looking for the Big Ideas. Something like compound interest from mathematics or incentives from psychology explain a large fraction of what you see around you. And you always have the ability to generate new models that you think are explanatory, accurate, and memorable — that’s part of the fun.

An accurate and fluent understanding of the big models of the world should be your “first principles” — the large trunk and branches on which all of the “leaves” of your knowledge will hang. Without a big solid trunk with big solid branches, what kind of tree do you expect to have?

From there, it’s about synthesizing across the disciplines — understanding where they overlap, conflict, and combine. What do the models in biology and business have in common? What does the concept of entropy have to do with practical life? Well, a great deal. But you have to reach a bit to figure it all out. And as we talk a lot about here, you eventually find that everything seems to be connected to everything else.

Remember, all models are abstractions of reality. George Box put it that “All models are false. Some are useful.”

Reality itself is simply one continuous, flowing entity, but we as humans have to work with our natural apparatus to understand it. Dividing things into little sub-disciplines is one of the ways we go about doing that. Just remember that your end-goal is to understand reality as best as possible; unfiltered and unadulterated. Any way you decide to organize your search for reality must take into account the way humans learn, but always remember that you’re abstracting reality.

How do you choose what next to read? Do you randomly pick a book off the shelf or do you let what you just read pull you towards something that it referenced so you can go deeper into a topic? Do you just wake up in the morning and say I feel like learning about.. this! and go for it? 

It’s a combination of a lot of things, but basically the underlying principle is always to follow what interests you, right now. We discuss this a few times in our course on reading.

The thing about curiosity, in the words of Nassim Taleb, is that it’s “Antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it.” When you go down the curious path on a particular topic, you have to keep letting it pull you down. Don’t just stop because you feel like you should — if you want to keep going, keep going! Learn! Go deep! Trust us on this one: Ride the wave when it’s taking you. It may be a while before you get back up there.

When you decide to get off the path is really going to be an individual judgment, based on how curious you are, how competent you feel you are, and what you plan to do with that information. If you’re going to be a doctor, you have to go “all the way down the path” on the current and most up-to-date understanding of how the human body works, in great detail. Lives depend on it.

But if you’re a lawyer, you might be (rightfully) content to simply try to understand at a high-level how all the main bodily systems work and interact, without being able to do a detailed dissection of the heart. The doctor and the lawyer need not pursue their understanding of human anatomy in anywhere near the same level of detail, but they should both know the Big Ideas. Make sense?

So, long story short, what we’re reading at any given time is simply what currently grabs our curiosity; and there are innumerable ways to get it grabbed. Sometimes we will see a book on the shelf and pull it down, but more frequently it’s connected to something else we’ve read recently and decided to pursue further. Recently we recommended a biography of Will Rogers in Brain Food. Why that one, and why now? Because someone I respect recommended studying his life, and when the book came in, the time “felt right” almost right then and there. (Which is actually unusual — most of our books sit for a while before we read them.)

Did we know much about memory before starting the four-part series? No. But we had studied human personality and social psychology quite a bit, and memory is a logical extension of that. In this case, the book we discussed came straight from the bibliography of another one.

Once your anti-library is sufficiently stocked, finding the next book to read will always be the last of your worries. We always have many “on deck” and recommend you do too.

For the mailbag, this isn’t really a question maybe more of a post request, but I’d love to see a follow up or update on how your media consumption habits have evolved/changed. The post from Shane a few years back is a personal favorite, and something I’ve found myself revisiting often: 

I’m going to go in a slightly different direction than the question you asked, but hang with me.

We’ve been thinking a lot on this recently, with increasing concern that we’re filling our heads with junk. This, we believe, is not only a poor use of our time and causes more mistakes than are necessary but it also reduces our capacity to find the relevant variables in any given situation.

If you think of your mind as a library, three things should concern you.

  1. The information you store in there — its accuracy and relevance;
  2. Your ability to find/retrieve that information on demand; and
  3. Finally your ability to put that information to use when you need it – that is, you want to apply it.

There is no point having a repository of knowledge in your mind if you can’t find and apply its contents (see multiplicative systems).

Let’s talk about the first part today, which is the information you put into your mind.

We feel this is massively misunderstood, resulting in people failing to filter things from entering the “library of the mind.”

If your library is full of crap and falsehoods, you’re going to struggle and spend a lot of time correcting mistakes. You won’t be very productive and you’ll generally muddle through things.

Our minds are like any tool, and needs to be optimized in building this library. Clickbait media is not the stuff we want to put into our mind library. However, this crap is like cocaine — it causes our brains to light up and feel good. The more of it we consume, the more of it we want. It’s a vicious flywheel, like eating sugar.

Our brain isn’t stupid. It doesn’t want this crap, so while it’s giving you a mild dopamine rush, it’s also working very hard to make sure this junk doesn’t make it into your library. This is one reason that people re-read an article and don’t remember having read it. Their brains determined it was trash and subsequently got rid of it rather than storing it.  Sounds good right?

Well, sort of. As hard as our brains work to ensure this crap doesn’t make it into our library, if we keep feeding it junk, we will overwhelm that natural filter. Over days and weeks this isn’t a big problem, but over years and decades it becomes a huge one.

Junk in the library messes with accuracy, relevance, and gets in the way of effective and efficient use our of brains – it causes issues with retrieving and applying. (Which is most often done by our subconscious. Ever had a great idea in the shower, as you were falling asleep, or while driving? Exactly.)

And while we probably agree that the quality of what enters our head matters, it’s easier said than done.

Consider the CEO with 6 layers of management below him. Something that happens “on the ground floor” of the business, say an interaction between a salesperson and a customer, usually goes through six filters. There is almost no way that information is as accurate as it should be for a good decision after all that filtering.

Now, the CEO might recognize this, but then they have to do something psychologically hard, which is basically say to their direct reports, “I’m not sure I got the right information from you.” They have to go out of their way to seek out more detailed, relevant, independent information from the people close to the problem. (A good assistant will do this for you, but in a political organization they will also be hung out to dry by all parties, CEO included.)

So not only do we need to filter, but we need to be aware of what filters our information has already been through.

Let’s hit on one more related thought.

In our search for wisdom and high quality information to put into our library, we often turn to knowledge nuggets called sound-bytes. These deceptive fellows, also called surface knowledge, make us sound clever and feel good about ourselves. They are also easy to add to our “mind library.”

The problem is surface knowledge is blown away easily, like topsoil. However, we reason, most other people are operating on the same level of surface knowledge! So, in a twisted bout of game theory, we are rarely if ever called out on our bullshit.

The result is that this surface, illusory, knowledge is later retrieved and applied when we’re making decisions (again, often driven by the subconscious) in a variety of contexts, with terrible results. As the saying goes, “Garbage-in equals garbage-out.”

If you’re looking for a quick heuristic you can use for information you’re putting into your library, try the two-pronged approach of:

A. Time
B. Detail.

Time meaning – how relevant is this historically? How long will it be accurate — what will it look like in ten minutes, ten months, ten years? If it’s going to change that soon, you can probably filter it out right here.

One way to determine if the information will stand the test of time is by gauging its accuracy by examining the details. Details are so important that Elon Musk uses them to tell if people are lying during interviews. You want to learn from people with a deepaccurate fluency in their area of expertise: One of the ways you can assess that is through the details they provide. Surface skimming articles are sometimes meant to be readable by the lay public, but more frequently it indicates simply that the author only has surface knowledge! 

So be careful. We’d guess that 99.9% of click-bait articles fail both these filters. They’re neither detailed nor lasting in importance.

The good thing is that you can raise your standards over time. One major reason to read documents by people like Richard Feynman or Charlie Munger is that it gets you used to what really clear thought looks like. If you’re reading shallow, quickly irrelevant media all the time, when will you read Feynman?

For now let’s leave it at that – we’ll have more to say on this in the future. It’s important.

So many people always ask what’s the best book for word-for-word wisdom, or spend hours working out the most efficient means of doing something, which is all great, but in the spirit of a Munger-like avoiding of mistakes, I’d like to hear you and Shane answer what you’ve done in the sphere of learning about the world that’s been the biggest waste of time: the least bang for your mental-investment buck?

Interesting question. It’s hard to answer because everything seems to have some value or another – often it’s in the “what not to do” or “what doesn’t work” sphere, but that is still a useful sphere, so it’s not really a waste.

One thing that does come to mind is speed reading. That is a waste of time and totally counter-productive when you get down to it. If anything, we’ve tried to slow down our reading so we can savor and recall more of what we read. Speed reading is a snare and a delusion, and not worth the time.

Woody Allen had it right: “I took a course on speed reading…and was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”

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George Washington’s Practical Self-Education

Washington was a practical reader. He clearly valued useful knowledge that made many of his tasks easier. He was and still is the quintessential American success story because he applied his mind to achieving success. He was relentless in pursuing his goals, and his reading is an applied demonstration of it. 

-Adrienne Harrison

Our first President and Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, is not known as an intellectual, the way Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and some of his other Revolutionary counterparts were. Washington had little formal education — he was not a university man and he did not occupy the intellectual circles when was young. He didn’t hope to make any contribution to political philosophy or the scientific understanding.

Washington grew up in Virginia into a landowning family, and his education didn’t continue beyond the equivalent of elementary school. He developed a trade — surveying — and would eventually inherit his family’s land and become a farmer and plantation owner. Washington couldn’t speak or read any language but English, living in a time when it was considered necessary and desirable to know French and Latin, at a minimum. (Ben Franklin learned English, Italian, Spanish, Latin, French, and German.) Unlike others we’ve written about before, Washington wasn’t very bookish.

And yet, this poorly educated man with seemingly little interest in literature, classics, or reading at all, became one of the seminal leaders in American history, and as Adrienne Harrison details in her book A Powerful Mind, he did it in large part by reading. Even a man with little interest in high-brow intellect, a man with very little time to spare, felt that sitting on his ass with a book was a useful thing indeed. He was a lifelong learner.

Practical Self-Education

As judged by the library he left behind, his diaries, and the investigations into his life, Washington did not carry much interest in theoretical or classical reading or learning. It seems unlikely that he read for pleasure. But Washington used reading as a means to an end — he wanted to know how to farm better, how to lead an army, how to lead a country, how to conduct himself civilly. There wasn’t any other way but to read and combine it with his direct experience.

Says Harrison in her book:

Washington was a practical reader … While the purpose of this book is not to remake Washington’s image into a sort of closeted scholar, it does argue that reading was a key component behind Washington’s success. The real contribution that this volume makes is that it takes one step closer to understanding how Washington’s mind worked. While his self-directed reading was not anywhere near that of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, Washington outshone them all by combining the knowledge he gained from his reading with his natural talent for leadership into a masterful performance.

Washington’s lack of education and culture certainly bothered him as a youngster. He was ambitious — he wanted to serve as a high-level British military officer and operate in government. He wanted to be a somebody. But he knew his formal education was going to be lacking, and he knew it wouldn’t all happen by accident. So he set out to do some of the hard work.

In a story that eventually became well-known, Washington first spent time as a teenager copying over a French manual for conducting yourself in high circles:

As his younger brothers Samuel and John Augustine still lay sleeping nearby and the first of the sun’s rays stretched through the neatly curtained windows and across the small table, the future father of his country busily copied word for word a translation of an old guidebook for princely behavior that a French Jesuit priest wrote called The Rules of Civility. 

Such a project was no small undertaking for the boy, but little by little he was determined to press on to the end; so he kept scratching at the paper with his quill, careful to keep his ink-stained fingers off the paper. By the time he was finished, young Washington’s manuscript consisted of 110 rules for how to properly conduct himself as a respectable member of society. He took pride in his work, for he would rely on these maxims to guide him throughout a long career in the public light.

This tells you a lot of Washington: He was a climber, he had discipline, and he could apply himself when needed. Even in the 18th century, not too many wealthy southern teenagers would have taken on that kind of task.

Learning the rules of civilized social behavior in this way, Washington started a pattern he’d carry on his entire life: Gaining knowledge from books that he couldn’t get through experience, or that he needed before he had the right experience. He did it again when he was put in charge of the Virginia Regiment, the first dedicated military unit in the colonies.

Washington hoped that leading this ragtag group of frontier soldiers against the French and the Natives would eventually lead to his becoming a full British military officer (which never happened). And although he was not actually part of the British military, as with his study of the Rules of Civility Washington took it upon himself to read the most influential book in British military circles, and instructed his officers to study it with him:

With specific regard to training, Washington was responsible for training not only raw recruits but also officers. Washington pushed his officers to study, particularly the latest in British military texts such as Humphrey Bland’s A Treatise on Military Discipline. Washington wrote that “having no opportunity to improve from example, let us read”; for he recognized that it was not possible for an ambitious officer to obtain the requisite expertise “without application, nor any merit or applause to be achieved without certain knowledge thereof.”

Bland’s Treatise was the fundamental textbook for all British officers. Known throughout the army as “the bible,” the 360-page manual spelled out everything a new officer needed to know about how to form and operate a regiment both in garrison and in the field. Bland outlined what an officer’s duties were and what officers could reasonably expect from their subordinates.

Studying for Success

Washington didn’t stop his self education upon completion of his duties as a frontier officer — he just changed course:

He therefore turned his attention to doing his duty to his country, Virginia, and shifted his focus to becoming a leader in that provincial society, which did actually appreciate his achievements…Washington abandoned his study of the military arts that he had begun some four years earlier, for that reading no longer served a practical purpose for him. He instead devoted his energies in the coming years to increasing his wealth and status in Virginia society.

[…]

To successfully mix in the best social circles, Washington had to learn more about the science of agriculture, history, politics, and religion, for he had to balance being a planter, a member of the House of Burgesses, and a parish vestryman. After he returned to Mount Vernon and began assembling a library, those subjects that had the practical purpose of advancing his social stature dominated his burgeoning collection.

Washington took it upon himself to delve deeply into agriculture, acquiring scores of books on how to improve the productivity of his farms and manage the soil more effectively. He read religious tracts to understand the mood of the people around him, and history books to understand the history of English people.

It’s important to note what Washington didn’t do. He didn’t try to achieve a classical education on his own. Some of his contemporaries were educated in England and became legal scholars, classicists, and composers of belles lettres. They wanted the mind of a European intellectual.

Washington didn’t do this — he wanted to learn things he could use, and given a limited amount of time, focused his attention where it was most profitable to him. (An opportunity cost problem which we hit on in our How to Read a Book course earlier this year.)

Having made his mental break with his Englishness after Lord Loudon harshly dealt him a very personal affront, Washington in that key moment was forced to confront his academic shortcomings. This realization, when coupled with his extreme sensitivity to criticism, drove Washington intellectually inward and toward the subjects that he felt most comfortable with and that, more important, could meet his immediate needs at the time. He was fortunate to have already made his public reputation in Virginia based on his natural propensities for physical bravery and on his leadership experience. Learning to read Latin or becoming an amateur scientist would not sustain that hard-won reputation in the planter-dominated high society; earning money and being a dedicated public servant would. Consequently, Washington focused his reading and intellectual pursuits accordingly, and reading remained an intensely private activity. For example, when in residence at Mount Vernon, he spent on average two hours in the morning and all afternoon alone in his library.

Washington would keep these habits the rest of his life, although during the Revolution and his presidency, he had a lot less time to devote to reading than at Mount Vernon. But he still did it, even in the midst of the great upheaval he led against the British:

With these military treatises and drill manuals that he acquired during the first two years of the Revolution, we see Washington applying the same diligent study method he had used previously with Duhamel’s Practical Treatise of Husbandry when he sought to make his plantations profitable. In other words, he read these military books for the sake of immediate practical problem solving. There is nothing philosophical or reflective about them. They are tactical field manuals, not massive theoretical tomes on the art of command as it evolved over the centuries.

This is not to recommend avoiding such reflective, theoretical tomes, if such reading interests you. But Washington does provide a good example to those who don’t take an inherent pleasure in deep reflection. The process of reading can be intensely practical as well as enjoyable for its own sake. Never think that reading is a mere luxury. Even the busiest man of the 18th century, who did not enjoy reading as an end itself, felt a duty to allocate his time to the written word. It was simply that important.

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Still Interested? Check out the rest of Adrienne Harrison’s A Powerful Mind, or for a better and more thorough treatment, try the wonderful biography written by Ron Chernow, now the standard and most modern bio of the fascinating GW.