The Pot-Belly of Ignorance

What you eat makes a huge difference in how optimally your body operates. And what you spend time reading and learning equally affects how effectively your mind operates.

Increasingly, we’re filling our heads with soundbites, the mental equivalent of junk. Over a day or even a week, the changes, like those to our belly, are barely noticeable. However, if we extend the timeline to months and years, we face a worrying reality and may find ourselves looking down at the pot-belly of ignorance.

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 take a look at what you put into your mind.

At Farnam Street, we feel this is massively misunderstood, resulting in people failing to discriminate what you’re feeding the “library of your mind”. As the saying goes, “Garbage-in equals garbage-out.”

If your mental library is inaccurate or plain wrong, you’re going to struggle. You probably won’t be very productive. Generally speaking, you’ll muddle through things and you’ll spend a lot of time correcting your own mistakes.

Our minds, like any tool, need to be optimized.

Clickbait media is not a nutritious diet. Most people brush this off and say that it doesn’t matter … that it’s just harmless entertainment.

But it’s not harmless at all. Worse, it’s 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 cycle.

Our brain isn’t stupid. It doesn’t want this crap, so while it’s giving you a mild dopamine rush, there’s also very little to add to your library. Like alcohol, it’s just empty calories. You cannot subsist on a diet of alcohol alone.

Clickbait does not carry much meaning. 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. And that comes at a high opportunity cost –time is limited, you could have spent it more wisely than on an endless chain of mindless soundbites (more on that below).

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 accrual of accurate, relevant information, and gets in the way of effective and efficient use our of brains — it causes us to seek out more rubbish instead. We lose our ability to discern.

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

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

There are filters everywhere.

Consider the CEO with 6 layers of management below them. 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, the 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 soundbites. 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, most 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 (because people fear that we’ll call them out on theirs.)

The result is that this surface, illusory, knowledge is later retrieved and applied with overconfidence when we’re making decisions (often driven by the subconscious) in a variety of contexts, with terrible results.

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 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. They are the small but powerful vitamins of your reading diet.

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 deep, accurate fluency in their area of expertise: The best filter is an intelligent human brain, find someone who has considerately prepared, processed and neatly presented a palatable meal of thought –Michelin over McDonalds.

One of the ways you can assess expertise is through the details people 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! Referenced work also shows you the author is aware of the filters their information came through too. It’s like knowing the vegetables on your plate are organic and responsibly sourced.

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 subscribe to websites like Farnam Street and read documents by people like Richard Feynman or Charlie Munger is that it gets you used to what really clear thought looks like. To the point that you’ll develop a discerning palate so you will spot quality in a heartbeat and learn to know what you can rely on to make decisions that really matter.

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

If you want to work smarter and not harder, I recommend subscribing to The Brain Food Newsletter.

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