Learning and the Red Queen Effect

Image by Jerry Miller
“The game of life is the game of everlasting learnings. At least it is if you want to win.” — Charlie Munger

Two hundred thousand years ago our ancestors were roaming the savannahs, relying on observations, mimicry, and facial expressions to communicate and learn from one another. Then came language, and our ancestors were able to communicate verbally. Knowledge could be transferred from one to many through stories. Around 3500 BC writing was created and knowledge could be stored in a physical format, allowing it to be consumed in the future. In 1450 the printing press was invented, and for the first time writing (knowledge) could be mass produced and distributed. Today we have the internet, a tool that our ancestors would have found inconceivable. With a click of a button we have access to an incredible amount of information, but how many people are taking advantage of this?

The majority of people see their lives as two acts. Act I is going to school and learning, and Act II is going to work and making money.

Contrast this with those who have achieved massive success in life, and you’ll find that they all share one key trait. They are all lifelong learners, and they all have developed a sophisticated reading habit.

When Elon Musk was asked how he learned to build rockets, he responded by saying, “I read books.”

When Warren Buffet was questioned about the key to success, he pointed to a stack of nearby books and said:

“Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Now perhaps you may be thinking, “that’s great, but I don’t want to be a billionaire like Elon Musk or Warren Buffet. Why do I need to develop the habit of lifelong learning?”

To answer that question, we need to turn to a fascinating concept in biology, The Red Queen Effect.

The Red Queen Effect is an evolutionary concept that claims that organisms must constantly evolve not only to gain an advantage but to merely survive against competing organisms and the constantly changing environment.

In the famous novel, Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen gives Alice an important life lesson:

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’ but Alice felt she could not go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.
The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’

The Red Queen eventually stops and tells Alice to catch her breath:

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’
‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’
‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’
‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

The “Red Queen” effect: do nothing and fall behind, or run hard to stay where you are.

The separation of life into two acts worked at one point in time because the environment wasn’t changing as fast as it is today.

In the old world, you could go to school and learn skills that would serve you for the rest of your life. The idea of working one job for your entire life was shared among many people.

A recent PwC study estimates that roughly 38% of US jobs could be lost to automation. The new world presents us with the challenge of learning new skills in order to merely survive in the workforce

Our environment is changing at such a frantic pace that those who choose to not grow will be left behind. In the 21st century, everyone needs to become a lifelong learner.

“There are many skills and gifts that people have in life and the great thing about reading is you can use that to pick up any new skill. Learning how to learn is the ultimate meta-skill.” — Naval Ravikant

I’d like to share some of my favorite books, blogs and newsletters, podcasts, and other tools/resources I use to learn a little every day. In return, I hope you will recommend some of your favorites.

Books:

📖 Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind

In a conversation between Reid Hoffman and Sam Altman, Reid points out that anyone who is interested in building products should be able to articulate a robust theory of human nature and humanity. Once I graduate school, my goal is to work in a product role at a technology company, so I naturally took great interest in that insight. Sapiens is possibly the best book I’ve read on human history, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this important, yet rarely considered topic.

📖 Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Written by Yuval Noah Harari (same author as Sapiens), Homo Deus is an inquiry into where humankind might be headed. It combines a range of fields including philosophy, computer science, and biology, in order to get a holistic view of where our species may end up in the future. To say it’s a thought provoking read would be an understatement.

📖 Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to build the Future

Zero to One is by far the best business book I’ve ever read. I’m sure you’ve heard a business idea that sounds something like: “we’re the Uber for X.” These sort of derivative ideas take the world from 1 to n. When something truly innovative comes along, it takes the world from 0 to 1. Peter Thiel shows how one might go about identifying and building the future. Read it, then read it again.

📖 More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places

This book is a collection of short essays that cover topics such as investment philosophy and psychology, probability, innovation and competitive strategy, and science and complexity theory. Each section supports the central premise of the book: you will be a better investor and thinker if you approach problems from a multidisciplinary perspective.

📖 Chimpanzee Politics

I ordered this book immediately after hearing Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens and Homo Deus) recommend it on a podcast. The book follows a group of chimpanzees and documents their social organizations and power struggles. The similarities between us and our chimpanzee relatives were made stunningly clear when reading this book. Chimpanzee Politics is a shocking reminder that the roots of politics are older than humanity. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Blogs / Newsletters:

📄 Stratechery by Ben Thompson is a must read for me whenever it hits my inbox. Ben consistently provides unique insights by deconstructing the technology industry into a set of competing strategies and incentive structures.

📄 Farnam Street is all about “thinking about thinking.” Shane Parrish covers topics such as mental models, decision making, learning, and reading. Farnam Street has helped me become a clearer thinker and better person.

📄 The Exponential View is a fascinated blend of technology, politics, and economics. A must read for anyone trying to make sense of the changes happening in society.

📄 Wait But Why is a collection of long-form blog posts covering various topics and are sprinkled with a unique blend humor and profanity. Tim Urban is a fantastic writer and can present complicated topics in a simple and entertaining manner.

📄 Snippets is a newsletter from Social Capital, a venture capital firm that describes themselves as “a partnership of philanthropists, technologists and capitalists utilizing venture capital as a force to create value and change on a global scale.” Anything released by a group people trying to use capital to change the world for the better is worth reading.

📄 Melting Asphalt is the most recent blog I’ve become fascinated with. Kevin Simler’s beautifully written essays on philosophy and human behavior are truly a pleasure to read.

Podcasts:

🎙️a16z podcast is hosted by Sonal Chokshi of Andreesen Horowitz, and the podcast covers a broad range of topics related to the technology industry. The conversations are highly informative and entertaining.

🎙️Exponent is a podcast about technology and society and is hosted by Ben Thompson (author of Stratechery) and James Allworth. It’s by far my favorite podcast. 🔥🔥

🎙️Waking Up by Sam Harris dives into current events, society, and the inner workings of the mind. Sam’s clarity of thought is always refreshing and insightful.

🎙️Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is a masterpiece. Anyone interested in history needs to give it a listen. Episodes will have you captivated for hours.

Other Tools / Resources:

“The person you will be in 5 years is decided by the people you spend time with and the books you read today.” However, there’s no reason those people need to be in the same physical space as you. Twitter is by far my favorite tool for connecting with and learning from interesting people.

Remember when your high school teach told you Wikipedia is a bad source, and that any retrieval of information from that website is a mortal sin? They were wrong. Wikipedia is a phenomenal source of information. A page I frequently go back to is this list of cognitive biases.

I used to organize articles I would like to read into different folders on my browsers. This proved to be quite messy. Pocket is a great tool that allows you to save digital content in an organized way. You can also follow people and see what others have recommended.

I often don’t have time to scroll through my Twitter feed in order to find that one piece of content I need to read. Nuzzel shows the top stories the people you follow have shared and recommended. I still can’t figure out why Twitter hasn’t built this fantastic product themselves.


I hope you’ve learned something from this post and I kindly ask you to share your favorite books, blogs, podcasts, or magical scrolls! 📚📘📜🤔


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You can follow me on twitter @dalexandruignat 🔎🔎🔎🔎

(Note: This post is merely a reflection of what goes on in my weird little head)🤓

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