Transmissionism, Mastery and Rainman Memory 🧠
Books Don't Work
I recently shared my favourite article of the year: The Myth of the Well Read Person. In summary, with 25–40 hours of reading — you can reach top-centile knowledge on a topic.
A few days later, I grabbed a coffee with a friend and we talked about Factfulness by Hans Rosling.
"Bro I love that book".
"What did you like about it?".
I couldn't come up with a single fact.
Why Books Don't Work
Books are designed to store information — but they lack a coherent cognitive model for downloading that information into our brains.
The belief that you can learn something by just reading about it, or by listening to a lecture — called transmissionism — is falling out of favour in educational theory. Active learning methods and spaced repetition are hot right now.
But even when using more legitimate reading methods, like reading content, applying it to problem sets and then regularly testing yourself on it — I'm not convinced you can really reach the 'well read' aura in a field.
How Books Can Work
But books can work in the right setting. A popular learning model is just-in-time vs just-in-case learning.
Just-in-case learning is like reading about investment theory because you think you should — but having no money to invest. You probably won't absorb much.
But say the well-timed death of a relative leaves you with £100,000, and you want to put this into the markets — you'd unlock just-in-time learning, and quite reasonably devour three investment books in a week.
You'd attack the books like a starved rat, which is difficult to manufacture in just-in-case learning 🧀🐀
So books solving real life problems you have right now really can work.
But the expectation shouldn't be to become a quant from a couple of investment books — rather, even a nugget of good information that leads to a 0.1% course correction should be considered a win.
Books' Real Purpose
Fundamentally, I think the real value of books is not in transmitting knowledge, but 1) parsing through large volumes of information and 2) thinking about something for a really long time.
At it's best, a non-fiction book is a subject-expert's attempt to condense decades of expertise into a few hundred pages.
Nothing else can boast this much information density.
Sidenote: What About Podcasts?
(Or, I don't like reading but I'm going listen to a Joe Rogan episode on it bro).
When making a podcast, you work through transcripts which are a bit if a mindf**k. You notice how inefficient speech is for information transfer (disregarding the tonnes of other benefits it has).
This is a transcript from one of my interviews. Everything he said could be condensed down into two or three lines of writing — or 5 seconds of reading vs 60 seconds of audio.
Good writing is like dialogue, but has been filtered and compressed for you.
I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
I think it's virtually impossible to gain competency/mastery in a topic using podcasts, but they excel as a low investment discovery tool. Or less pretentiously, as a way to skim over many different topics — and dive into written content on what interests you.
Thinking About Something For a Really Long Time
I think books are a nice way to spend 6–10 hours of focused effort on a topic. The information is almost secondary.
I think if you spent 6–10 hours of focused effort Googling and reading articles on a topic, you could probably gain a similar understanding as reading a book.
But a book is a conveniently packaged version of that. Mostly, the knowledge gains (💪 📕 ) are coming from the focused effort and battling with the ideas presented, not particularly from the content itself.
The Real Hack to a Photographic Memory
I'm learning that the truth to a Rainman-style memory, hyper-cognition and a Picasso-creativity muscle is...
Just genuinely giving a shit about the topic.
There are things I want to be interested in. I'd love to really understand statistics, physics — heck, even human physiology. But deep down, I don't care enough.
If Personality is Revealed During Weekends is to be believed, our true interests are revealed in our downtime. Like when we're daydreaming in the shower. Or the audiobook you devour on the way to work.
I think our interests are pretty fatalistic. Partly innate. And part mimesis. I don't think you can manufacture real interest.
Unashamedly following our interests is the only strategy that can really lead to mastery. Because then you're swimming with the tide (or have star power activated on Guitar Hero) — everything is easy.
Interestingly, I think even 'low brow' interests lead to a cascading of information quality.
For me, this started with junk success guru books, or worse — how to be successful Twitter threads 🧵
But these get really boring. And slowly, my interest morphed into more legit books — following cues from the barbell strategy.
Instead of reading mid-wit pop-sci books which just offer vague metaphors or irrelevant anecdotes, read books that are either pure fun (fantasy, sci-fi, manga, etc), or actual hardcore science (textbooks and review papers).
In summary, my current thoughts on achieving mastery/being 'well read' on a topic:
1️⃣ Unashamedly pursuing what you're actually interested in (not what you think you should be interested in).
2️⃣ Starting out with reading content you actually can't put down vs what you think you should be reading.
3️⃣ As you get bored of 'low brow' content, prioritising content higher up the information hierarchy (e.g. original research papers > pop science books > Twitter threads).
With warmest wishes,