The (Critical) Daily Job You Don’t Do Well
If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time online. You probably have go-to sites or social media feeds or podcasts or newsletters. You are constantly ingesting new information, sometimes from multiple sources at once. One screen is for amateurs…give me two or three at least!
This data addiction is making us miserable while undermining our careers and relationships. Each and every day, we are all falling victim to the same temptation. We consume all the information we possibly can, and we give away our lives, one day at a time.
The result is a steady drip drip drip of lost energy, time, satisfaction, and money. All because we don’t curate sources of information.
Thoughtful people have been saying this for years. The digital world contains an endless supply of entertaining and/or useful information. But this constant stream of data overwhelms us if we don’t put systems in place to moderate our exposure. In other words, we must curate our sources of information to ensure quality while reducing quantity.
Why is this a big deal? Because — like with food — we will tend to consume way past the point where it’s good for us. We can’t effectively process everything we “eat” and over time that changes us. For the worst.
Ask yourself “Am I mentally obese?” and seriously consider the question. Do you uncritically swallow everything that comes your way: the emails, tweets, tags, DMs, GMs, notifications, and assortment of other e-crap?
Can you even read a single 3 sentence paragraph without checking your phone or (if you’re on your phone) switching to another app?
I wish I could simply blame technology companies. Of course, they deserve some of the blame (Nir Eyal explains why). But ultimately we did it to ourselves with a critical piece of sloppy thinking.
Most of us have confused two important concepts. One is the creation and distribution of data. The other is the acquisition of knowledge.
Creation and Distribution of Data
This is what computers do. It’s perfectly efficient, repetitive, and predictable.
Beep boop boop. — Computer
Acquisition of Knowledge
This is what people do. It’s sloppy, confusing, and redundant.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) — Walt Whitman
Data is easy to create and distribute. Knowledge is incredibly hard to acquire — think months, years, and even decades. The former is exponential. The latter is linear. The growing chasm between the two explains our inability to remain focused, nevermind satisfied. We are the dog from Up.
This is the dichotomy we have to address if we hope to claim any real sense of satisfaction as citizens of the digital world.
A Brief Tour of Bias-Town
You and I hate to change our minds about anything. We cherry-pick the data supporting what we already think, and ignore the rest. We seek out the most visible or recent examples of something without considering whether it’s representative of the larger dataset.
And we aren’t even aware we’re doing it! These are cognitive biases. They are rooted in the structure of our brains, not in culture. Conscious biases — such as racial stereotypes — are the next level up from a bewildering assortment of cognitive biases undermining our rationality.
Why does this matter? Because these biases are there to help our brains be efficient. And being efficient means not learning anything new! As soon as possible, our brains are trying to sit back and relax like a sitcom dad.
Science advances one funeral at a time. — Max Planck
What’s the implication of these biases? That acquiring new knowledge — and its application in our lives — takes many years. It is a slow, painstaking process that can easily result in frustration and abandonment.
Ask yourself: How many times have you had the exact same argument with a parent, sibling, spouse, or child?
Still, there is hope. While it doesn’t happen quickly, each of us can (and should) improve our daily lives. And that improvement begins with the information we’re feeding our brains on a daily basis.
Curate, Don’t Hate
Let’s go back to the nutritional analogy. Consider these three sources of calories: steak; broccoli; and cotton candy. Instinctively we know that the first two are good sources of energy, and while the third is not.
Most of us can also accept the idea that eating cotton candy for many days is worse than eating cotton candy once. There is a cumulative effect in the form of increases in fat, decreases in muscle, and any number of other negative health outcomes.
In other words, someone eating steak and/or broccoli every day for years will be healthier physically than someone consuming a similar amount of calories in cotton candy.
Now apply this idea to information. Someone consuming high quality information will be better off mentally than someone reading “Grade F” sources (e.g. Facebook fake news).
We can apply this simple principle in many ways. Here are two that could make a big difference in your daily life. Run through your current reading list and see if the people and organizations stack up.
And drop them if they don’t make the cut.
The 3 Beers Test (for Curators)
I love Tim Ferriss (Platonically). My wife can testify to this. He’s one of several folks who I trust to deliver high-quality content. I would like to have a beer or three with Tim at some point. That’s the litmus test for curators. You should not necessarily agree with them, but you should find them engaging and interesting enough to warrant your attention.
Just as important as my predicted level of social enjoyment, Tim is clear about his biases. He isn’t trying to be more than a normal human being, full of biases, fears, and hopes.
News sites like to present themselves as neutral, “fourth estate” types. That’s obviously BS. Journalists, writers, and editors have biases. So does the larger company for which they work. But they like to pretend that they represent some objective truth.
Not so with great content curators. They are explicit about their views, making it easier to discount information based on the source.
Tim Ferriss is one of these curators. I also like Cal Newport (distraction-free work), Maria Popova (collector of wisdom), Tim Urban (deep dives on interesting topics), and the incomparable Venkatesh Rao (future-proofing your mind).
These curators are attempting to have a conversation with their audience, not dictate how the world is. I like to think of them as friends, although Venkat would say “sparring partners”.
Each of us should have a list of 5–10 people who regularly capture and distribute their thoughts. And the litmus test for you should be whether you would want to sit down and have three drinks and just talk to this person. Not about their work, but random stuff in life.
Life is too short to learn from assholes. There are a lot of smart folks out there. Find the ones you like and listen to them. Read what they read, start to absorb their mental models, and then apply them to your life.
The 3 Reads Test (for Content)
Curators aren’t for everyone, though. You may be the kind of person who still needs the polish that only comes from a full-blown media company. In this case, you can apply another filter against every piece of content.
Ask yourself “Is this worth reading three times over to make sure I understand it?” and if the answer is no, they close the window. Or swipe right. Or put down your phone.
Why does this work? Because almost all “news” out there is absolute drek. You aren’t smarter or more informed because you read it.
Remember that your brain isn’t interested in learning anything new. You have to force it to pick up new patterns, habits, and models. That means you must grapple with new information to see how it slots into your current worldview. What changes, if anything? How were you wrong about something in the past? What does this imply for the future? Who else should you tell about this important news?
Daily Mistakes → Daily Successes
The information you consume changes the way you view the world, and yourself. Find the right types of content, and curators of content. This will transform your life over time.