What I Learned By Not Reading 100 Books In 2017

At the beginning of the year 2017, I made a New Year resolution. Actually, a couple of them. You know the story.

One of those resolutions was reading 100 books in a year. I have tried to do that for quite some time, and this time I got quite close before my laziness took over, where “my laziness” means my boss requesting that I actually work during the day. Fair request, I understand him. The count ended at 82 books, and I was 20 books behind schedule for the most of the journey. Being on the backfoot makes me frisky.

(If you want to see the books I read, they are here — https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/6913864.)

What is different from other years, is that I read a lot of non-fiction. Reading about vikings bashing each other’s skulls in shieldwalls is engaging, but will it make you smarter? Not a whole lot. What I discovered was that there are a lot of wonderful books out there. And at the evening before New Year’s celebration, I sat down by the fireplace, put on my favorite slippers and tried to extract some knowledge from them. These tips are not necessarily helpful, but could provide some oomph to a discussion in a social gathering, especially if you accompany them with powerful hand gestures.

First about reading. It’s in the quality, not quantity.

Devil is in the details — you should read books to absorb the writer’s viewpoint and mental models, not just gloss over for cool one-liners. For a lot of books, the first thought after finishing was to read them again. About 30 of the books I could re-read next year and learn a lot, but at least 10 of them I could have thrown out before reading. I might never attempt to read 100 books again, and so shouldn’t you, unless you are quite devoted. Also, speedreading is for children. If you want to read more, spend more time reading.

Be present.

I recently saw this blogpost (https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/life-weeks.html) that showed one’s remaining weeks/months/years as blocks. I can say one thing — there are not a lot of them — and it’s a crime to waste them meandering about. A lot of talk in the town is about expanding human lifespan, but what people don’t talk about enough is “expanding their lifespan” by increasing the amount of time they are present. “ …if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been. ” said Tolstoy, and I don’t know a lot of sharper guys than him.

Pursue excellence.

“To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.” (Sun Tzu, “Art of War”).

I wanted to put this one as my Facebook short description, but it was too long, and nobody knows wtf an autumn hair is. Still, I keep repeating it both to myself and other people, mostly to their annoyance. I hate mediocrity. Mediocrity killed the cat, the dog, the whole family and the little kid who was driving round the suburb on his bicycle.

If you feel unhappy, or you feel that you do not have a purpose in your life, try being good at something. It’s exhilarating. Nothing connects you to the present more than being the master of it. Doesn’t matter what it is — you can be passionate about doing dishes or cutting grass. Some people are extremely passionate about breathing and go to monasteries to become excellent at it, we call them Buddhist monks.

And if you feel that you could never be good at something, it’s a lie.

You’re not bad, you’re just inexperienced.

Being good at a particular thing is easy. Being excellent at it — a bit harder. What I can tell you for sure is that nobody was born a genius. Talent is a lie. What it takes to be good, is proper, structured and engaged practice. As long as you practice regularly, are humble about your skills and don’t multitask social networks while practicing, you can move mountains. Or climb them, whatever you prefer.

Domain dependence is your enemy.

As much as I am surprised about what people don’t know, I am more surprised about what people know, but don’t use. It’s very hard for us to transfer knowledge from one context to another.

A lot of mental models have several applications. When you learn a skill thoroughly, you learn a lot of things that are applicable to learning other skills. It is important to break down the model/skill into abstract interactions, see the patterns and where these patterns could be used. For example, being good at design might help you in a lot of fields, like writing, marketing, engineering.

Then again, don’t lose connection with the reality and draw similarities where there are none.

Don’t get trapped in mental models.

A lot of people spend their lives trapped in their heads. Reality is always more complex than we think. All models are wrong, some are deadly and some bring down whole financial systems. World is not as we imagine it, and even if we are never able to see it in its full glory, it pays to take a look. Literally.

Furthermore, be pragmatic. Everytime your models don’t correspond with reality, realize that they are wrong. It’s tough to fight with reality, because it can slap you in your face so hard you won’t go out in public for a week.

Nobody is rational. Not even you.

If you want to see a lovely example of extremely complicated models that are quite wrong, look at economic models that assume that everybody participating in the markets has a Ph.D. in economics. In reality, we are quite irrational, and that famous hand that guides everyone, well, sometimes it seems like the owner of that hand has had one too many.

What is more interesting, is the scale of our irrationality. I am scared to trust myself, like, ever. People can easily be anchored, manipulated, they are prone to biases and mental shortcuts, and all of that kinda makes sense — evolution likes to be lazy, so she made us good enough. We are not rational, we are rationalizing. Our brain makes a lot of decisions before we reason about them, and after that we rationalize them to keep our ego nice and healthy.

Actions are more important than objects.

Heraclitus said that you cannot step into the same river twice. The river will be different, and so will be you. A lot of objects in our surroundings are unchanging, the table won’t grow a fifth leg overnight, and when you wake up, the bed is where you left it. Only thing that miraculously disappears is the food in the fridge. It gives an illusion of there existing only solid, unchanging objects that we can reason about. It’s false. The reality of our world is volatile and ferocious. Everything changes and is connected. All objects are in the process of becoming other objects, and are impacted both by environment and your subjective view.

In a system, the actions between various objects of the system are more important than the objects themselves. You can replace the objects and get a similar system. For example, if you think you are a good person, it usually means that you have been lucky enough to be in the right circumstances where you don’t have to engage your “shitty part”. You don’t have to fight other humans for survival, you are not in a war, etc. According to the Stanford prison experiment, it takes just putting some students as prisoners and some as guards in a closed area, and they start abusing each other quite nicely.

Another example where actions are more important than objects — a lot of people concentrate on the amount of money in their bank account, not their actual income/outcome flows. If they thought about flows, they would realize that sometimes it is easier to spend less, not earn more.

You are an action as well, ever changing, ever metamorphosing. You might not turn to a bug overnight, but you go to the bed a little different than you woke up at the morning. You are the sum of all your actions, not a never changing object. What this implies, is that by just changing your actions, you change yourself. Go to gym more, and you will feel like a superhuman, lead more, and you will become a leader, fulfill at least one of your New Year resolutions, and one day you might end up a person that does all of them.