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What to read when you don't have time

Photo by Daniel on Unsplash

"In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn't read all the time – none, zero."

- Charlie Munger

A primary benefit of reading is that it allows us to be exposed to, learn from and start mastering the best of what other people have already got to the bottom of.

This only works if:

  1. We have a system to aid recall and to remember more of the insights and lessons from what we consume, and

  2. We filter out the noise so that we only read books that are worth the investment of our scarce time.

I previously covered #1 in my article on how to remember more of what we read - where we explored the forgetting curve and building a system to capture book notes.

This article will delve into why time is a powerful filtering heuristic that we should use to reduce the distraction and noise all around us.

How time can be your noise-cancelling headphones in a world full of distraction

As I wrote about in my January newsletter [subscribe here] there is very little that is truly new in most self-help genres. Worse still the early literature on topics such as neuroscience comes with a dispiriting range of scientific inaccuracies, anecdotes masquerading as evidence and hilarious misquotes and misdirection.

If like me, you devoured "The Female Brain" by Louann Brizendine back in 2006/2007, we wasted our time. It is now infamous because many of the author's factual assertions were either contradicted by research she did cite or would have been by research she didn't. As Gina Rippon, the author of the Gendered Brain states

"There's a technical term that philosophers use to describe the practice of asserting things without caring much about whether they're actually true or not: they call this bullshit."

- Gina Rippon

These books are not Lindy (effect) safe.

The Lindy Effect

The Lindy effect is a theory that the future life expectancy of some non-perishable thing like a technology or an idea is proportional to their current age. So that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy. So a book that has been ten years in print is likely to stay in print another ten years.

Therefore the best filtering heuristic (as stated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the book - Antifragile) consists of taking into account the age of books. "Books that are one year old are usually not worth reading, no matter the hype and how earth-shattering they may seem to be." I am therefore in 2021 using the Lindy effect as a guide in selecting what to read.

So far, during 2021, I have read two books that I hadn't read before "Naked Statistics" (2013) and "The Third Door" (2018). And then reread classics such as "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" (2008) by Marshall Goldsmith's. My book notes for the later came to three thousand words. This book is a classic, and the content is evergreen, staying relevant over a long period rather than only the next few weeks and months.

Evergreen content and the classics

David Perell refers to the "Netflix Principle" when he helps people learn to write on the internet.

"For years, people were surprised that Netflix didn't buy rights to awards shows like the Oscars and sporting events like the Super Bowl. Instead, every show on Netflix has a long shelf-life. They stay relevant for years after they're produced." News shows, most sports and the latest shiny gadget, hack or idea go stale very quickly. David says we should "Focus on timeless principles instead of what's happening in the news." or what is currently hot right now.

For example, in leadership development - put neuro in front of anything and voila, a groundbreaking new framework is ready to be marketed. Authentic is another popular buzz word. Yet the underlying ideas have rarely changed - "The 8th Habit" (2004) by Stephen Covey described authentic leadership at great depth without the need for the added label.

To be clear, I am not saying new books can't be great. They can. They just haven't stood the test of time.

"Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old."

- C.S Lewis

I discovered this quote while researching this article. In a world full of distraction, reading classic works is an excellent way to gain perspective.

Marketers push us to focus on the new movie, the new crisis, or the latest technology. The new thing attracts our gaze and our attention. The media is in the business of new things. That's what they get paid for, to maximise our addiction to it. Yet there is real worth if we can stay away from what they want us to focus on.

Time can act as a cleanser of noise.

What do some of the smartest people around (today) do?

Ok, we all know about Bill Gates prodigious reading habit. If you haven't already watched the Netflix series "Inside Bill's brain" then I highly recommend you do. I aim to read anywhere between 20-30 books a year, excluding the sci-fi fiction books that I read as part of my nighttime routine. The reality is that most people don't have the distraction-free time to read so much. Since our reading time is limited, we should direct it at the knowledge that endures.

Marc Andreessen, one of the founders of the legendary Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm, writes on the a16z blog when asked: "how do you read so much?"

"The thing I've tried to do the last few years is really "barbell" the inputs. I basically read things that are either up to this minute or things that are timeless.
I'm trying to strip out all the stuff in the middle.
What I've discovered is the number of people who can write something in the middle zone — when they're trying to explain something that happened last week, month, a year or even a decade — and who I trust to actually give me an objective read on the situation is just a really, really shortlist. There's a handful, but there aren't very many.
We have one situation currently — what's literally happening right now [with COVID-19]. Coronavirus is one where I'm looking at all the science and all the economics every day because these are critical issues. And I'm trying to avoid all the commentary and all of the interpretation.
Then there's just a very large amount of timeless stuff that has been proven right over time. You could spend your entire life only reading timeless works which is what smart people used to do."

My recommendations

  • Identify the classics for the genre - the ones that have stood the test of time. As I found with reading on neuroscience a decade ago, this isn't a foolproof heuristic. The fact is that cutting edge topics will likely be filled with content that is not Lindy effect safe. Be mindful of this and accept that the "shiny object syndrome" is probably hard at work.

  • After reading a new book (something published in the past two years), don't allow yourself to read another new one until you have read an old one in between.


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