Chris Zempel

How to Choose What to Read

Any time a human tries solving a problem an interesting and subtle process unfolds. I noticed this when practicing coding problems. First, I'd write the parameters of the problem out. Then, I'd solve a medium-difficulty version of the problem, by hand. Very quickly, I realized actually figuring these things out or not dependend almost exclusively if and how closely I paid attention to this "by hand" approach.

What's the reason this "solving manually by hand" aspect is one of the more sensitive inputs to getting a given question right, or not? Our conscious thoughts are only one form of feedback available to us. Our brains are smarter than we think. Often, we will naturally use the right algorithm for the situation. Always, even if we choose the incorrect one, comprehension of the problem being tackled is souped up, a lot. Enough to solve it, or to know where to look next (which really means knowing the right next question to ask).

Being able to observe all of yourself and see when you're doing something right generalizes. You get it by paying attention to yourself, carefully. This blog post isn't about coding problems, it's about reading. I've recently slid into an extremely nice groove - I'm consistently reading chapters from interesting books, applying them, teasing them over in my head. Life is more meaningful. This is happening against and despite the modern design of the world to fragment and disabuse our attention.

This is the book selection system that's emerged. It's working quite well for me, it's adapted against the stresses of modern day life, and I didn't realize it was happening until it was in full swing. I wanted to share it.

  1. Highly Qualified References & Source Material
  2. Pounce on Unexpected Connections
  3. When in Doubt, return to Your Fundamentals

Highly Qualified References & Source Material #

There's a ton of crap out there. More important than what you pay attention to is what you don't pay attention to. Consider every book you haven't read as sitting in an anti-library. How do you choose what's next? In many ways, what's in this is more important than what's in your actual library.

Consider there are two kinds of material in the world - source material, where truly original thought was first produced and introduced (think Darwin's Origin of Species). You can tell these because of their longevity, and the number of books which are just derivatives of the ideas in the original. These kinds of books are always worth reading. They're how you get to directly interact with the true geniuses of humanity. Your source books might not be everyone's, especially if you encountered a set of ideas in a derivative book first. Recognize this.

Then, there's highly qualified references. If something works, use it. One of my coworker's is married to a woman who reads 300+ books a year. I asked what her #1, all time favorite pick was. It was J.D. Rob's In Death series. I picked it up, and can't put it down. It is that good. When you come across exceptional scenarios, or superbly qualified references, go with it.

If you love a particular author, if some marketing copy just really got you, etc - go with it.

Pounce on Unexpected Connections #

Marketing, reviews, less qualified references, etc will populate your awareness of your anti-library. Your goal here is to effectively filter out attention, suggestions, etc which doesn't matter to you.

Whenever - anywhere, in any context - I see someone make an unexpected connection, and write an otherwise-ignored comment way down a post about a topic, I pay attention. If they're excited to realize something, and rush to write a post sharing what they've just connected, pay attention. If this connection is interesting to you, and references one of the books in your anti-library, get it.

This has the added side benefit of turning your idle internet browsing into a wonderful book referral tactic. In fact, this is the main characteristic which makes this system antifragile to modern day life. It reframes the bad habits into constructive ones, and filters the torrent of information into a purified trickle.

Drop your idea of being a fiction, or nonfiction reader. Drop your categories. Fiction is often better at exploring truth than nonfiction.

When in Doubt, Return to Your Fundamentals #

If you don't know what to read next, go read one of your favorites again. If you're shifting gears (say from being a heavy individual contributor back to a consultant), go read your source books about the fundamentals again. You will find the next step waiting for you inside.

The Mechanism of this System #

Underneath this system the key mechanism is the use of novelty-search. This is the most effective means of arriving somewhere you want to end up, even and especially when you don't know what that is.

To understand more deeply what I'm talking about here, please watch The Myth of the Objective. I've had friends thank me months later for continuing to pester them to watch this. It will connect you, a little bit, with the true shapes hidden beneath our veneer of perception at the root of the world.

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