Short Term Content Bias

I admit that the kinds of videos I watch on YouTube and the kinds of books I read tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of self-help genre, where some productivity or business person is giving me a set of systems and protocols to follow to help me “hack” my way to a more fulfilling work and life.  These kinds of content are usually well-made but suffer from a shallowness of insight.  It’s not that the authors are deliberately trying to dupe me (at least I hope not!) but the unfortunate reality is that the incentive structures that lead to engagement online and sale of products means that in order to publish, you need to publish fast and loose.

Books that get published are usually a small essay that gets padded out with animated bibliography research or a year-long experiment where the author tests out the ideas in the short-term and reports back on what they experienced and learned about themselves.  There might be small kernels of originality and insight in there, but the rest of the book is a repackaging and restatement of the research and writing of others.  It is without irony that I wager that the same 20% of landmark examples appear at least once in 80% of the books out there.

YouTube videos run into some similar issues.  Often, I find that the videos are short think pieces and experiments that people run as a blog series or retrospective.  The editing is fast and smooth, and the experiments are reported on based on impressions from the first week, month, and sometimes quarter.

In both of these mediums, we see a presentation of the short-term result with little follow-up on the long term impacts.  On small occasions, a writer might follow-up on some of the ideas in a second book that is a direct result of the first, but by and large we don’t have insight into the impact the changes had over the long-term.

This bias towards short term content make sense.  Authors and content developers need to create products quickly in order to ensure a viable revenue stream, and once you write about your niche and experience, life moves too slowly for you to be able to keep up with that pace.  As a result, they would start to publish on things that are more nebulous and propped up by the work of others (hence, animated bibliography).

The best books with the deepest wisdom are often, as Taleb notes, ones that have been around for more than 50 years.  I’d add to that that books published as the culmination of one’s life work also fall into that category.

This is not to say that content coming out of the short-term process is worthless.  In my opinion, my life and satisfaction has improved in quality over the last 3 years of intentionally reading these books.  The problem is that after a while, very little surprises you and you start to see the same examples getting recycled.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Thinking and Research Habits

You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit.  It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist.  I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.

This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast.  After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book.  It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class.  You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it.  If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.

However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back.  On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process.  They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.

You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.

David Epstein
(promoting his book Range)
The Longform Podcast, episode 348 (starts at 21:08)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62028020

How do you set up the bounds of research?  How do you delineate what you put in the book?  What should I include in the book?

  • There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
  • Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes.  He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage.  Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
  • He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
  • As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together.  When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it.  Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
  • The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
  • It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
  • Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text.  Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on.  It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.

 

Cal Newport
(promoting his book Digital Minimalism)
Love Your Work, episode 183 (starts at 49:30)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62048017

How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?

  • He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles).  He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas.  He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges.  It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
  • He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested.  It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
  • To validate ideas:  1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.”  He asks “Is this working for me?  Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
  • Over time, something will emerge and persist.  It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
  • The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Two Approaches to Intro Phil

By the time this is published, I will have finished my grading for the Winter semester, however as of drafting, I am procrastinating from finishing.  That means it’s time to let my mind wander and to blog about it.

The course I’ve been teaching since Fall 2016 is a light, multidisciplinary romp through philosophy that examines various topics in human experience through multiple lenses.  Often, this is one of the first general education courses the students encounter, and for many it is the first time they are getting into something approximating formalized philosophy.  It’s an online course, so the students work their way through the module material, post to discussion boards, and submit weekly asignments.  The modules are a mix of text, graphics, and embedded videos, and all things considered is a pretty marked departure from my first course in philosophy.

My introduction to philosophy was significantly more old school.  We all had copies of Cahn’s Classics in Western Philosophy (the sixth edition), and we started the semester on Plato.  It was my first class in university, and my first introduction to academic philosophy.  In a small way, that course has dictated how, in my mind, philosophy gets taught.  It is my default template for teaching – the professor stands at the front and pontificates in fifty minute blocks of time.  I never questioned it; I just tried to take notes, not really knowing how one takes notes about the lecture material.

Since then, I’ve seen a few different pedagogical approaches to teaching an intro phil course.  You can teach the material chronologically, topically, using ancient sources, using modern case studies, you can approach the different branches of philosophy thematically, or you could teach the material historically.

But there is another axiom I’ve been thinking about when teaching philosophy (or any topic for that matter):

Should I require the students to read the text before or after the lecture?

On first glance, this seems like a silly question.  Afterall, the lecture is about exploring ideas, clarifying thought, and demonstrating how to extend the ideas.  Students should grapple with the text and work to come to an understanding.  If there are problems with the text, they can bring their questions to class for rich discussions.  After reading the text, the students can teach the concepts to each other and have fruitful conversations about the ideas.  Why would you want to let the students not read the text?

On the other hand, it depends on what your goals are.  You see, the problem with requiring the students to read the text prior to the lecture, at least at an introductory level, is that the students often don’t possess the vocabulary or the historical schema’s to truly understand the work in front of them.  In an introductory philosophy course, I’m not looking for students to master the material.  Often times, I’m not even looking for them to be right in their arguments.  Instead, I’m looking for other skills, like close reading, comprehension, and (most importantly) the ability to read text charitably.  The hardest thing for students to grapple with in intro phil is that they are seeking to be right and rarely allow themselves to explore ideas.

Plato wrote more than 2000 years ago – what could he possibly have to say in his silly dialogues that helps me today?  Given the current political climate, I’d say his Republic has a lot to say (I’m looking at you, Thrasymachus).

If I give students a text, they don’t have the benefit of a historical view.  They don’t understand the context in which the author is writing.  They don’t understand the conventions of language and allusions.  They don’t see the historical dialogue that is unfolding on the page, where the author is addressing thinkers who came before them.  For instance, in my experience, the vast majority of students who read Descartes for the first time end up thinking Descartes literally believes an evil genius is out to deceive him.  They get so fixated on trying to keep up with what Descartes is doing that they lose sight of the argument being laid out before their eyes.

Reading the text before class is a great way to have students develop critical thinking skills, but if you want the students to understand what they are reading, it might be worth your time to consider helping them to explore the text together.  At least for an intro phil course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

A Really Good Day

I was reflecting on a day I had last week that I would classify as a “really good” day.  I’m not saying it was perfect, but when I think about it from a personal level, I was very happy with it.

And by a really good day, I mean it was a really good professional day.  It was a day where I went to bed, and I felt professionally and creatively satisfied.  Most days, I feel like I’ve wasted my day with either pointless tasks or active procrastination.  I look back over the day and think that I’ve let it slip away, never to be recovered, and I have nothing to show for it – no movement on any projects, I haven’t grown in any significant way, and I’ve let my base instincts drag me away from what’s important.

I’ve had many good days with friends and family, but I find good professional days to be rare – possibly because I spend so much time at work relatively to anything else in my life.

When thinking about this really good day, I suppose this is what Simon Sinek gets at when he talks about finding your “why,” or your purpose.  I still can’t articulate my “why,” but I feel like the elements that made up my good day somehow speak to what fulfills me.

Anyway, I’ve talked around the topic enough.  What was this day?

Here is a list of things I did that I felt fulfilled by:

  • I took a phone call to consult with a client about some ethics questions related to their project.
  • I secured some consent from industry partners on a development project I’m working on to create a new engineering degree.
  • I had a meta-discussion about working at the college with a boss.
  • I went home and got exercise by shoveling the driveway.
  • My normally scheduled board meeting was cancelled due to the weather, and I took the night off from working at the bar, which meant I had a free night that I’d normally not have in the week.
  • I watched some videos from a Udemy course I’m taking on how to record videos better (I enrolled to help me make better vlogs and possibly future courses).
  • I spent an hour or so reading 40-50 pages of a book on professional/career development while listening to ambient white noise.
  • I spend 30-45 minutes reading book about literary structure for fun.

I think what made these events so meaningful is I felt like I was either learning/developing through the process, or I was able to get good, positive reinforcement on tasks I was initiating.  It’s not about “winning” or succeeding, but in this case, it’s about drawing a line that connects an intentional effort to find a certain outcome, and reaching that outcome precisely how you intended to do it.

In other word, I think the day felt so great because it felt intentional.  I felt those elements that lead to professional satisfaction – I felt autonomous, a sense of control, and I was working towards mastery.

Now the trick will be to do that more regularly.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

A Solution to the Animated Bibliography

First off, I didn’t realize it, but last week was my 150th post!  It snuck up on me, unlike my 100th post in March of last year.  If all goes well, I should hit my 200th post in February of next year.

I was listening to a recent podcast episode from the Tim Ferriss Show where he interviewed author Jim Collins.  In the latter half of the episode, they discuss Collins’s latest publication, a monograph that expands on his flywheel concept that he introduced in an earlier publication, Good to Great.

What I found most interesting was his reason for releasing a monograph (which comes to a total of around 45-pages).  He stated that one option was to release it as an appendix to a future edition of Good to Great since it was material that has been expanded since the original publication.  However, he decided against this idea since it would force anyone who already purchased Good to Great to buy a second copy of it, which seemed unnecessary.

A second option would be to release it as an article, either in a magazine publication or online.  His reasoning against this, however, is that articles and blog posts are too ephemeral, and would likely not get the traction he was seeking.  He wanted something that wouldn’t be forgotten immediately in the wash of news and opinions that are put out there for consumption multiple times per day.

Instead, he opted for a somewhat outdated option of releasing a monograph.

What struck me most was his comments concerning idea mediums, which reminded me of a few of my rants on animated bibliographies.  His reason to avoid writing a separate book to expand on the flywheel idea is that he doesn’t see value in taking a relatively small idea and working to inflate it to 300 pages.

[Collins] “A piece of writing has a natural length. A symphony has a length. “Gimme Shelter” by the Stones has a length. You wouldn’t say, “Well we should make ‘Gimme Shelter’ a 72-minute piece.” It’s the wrong length for “Gimme Shelter,” and writing is like music. It has an appropriate length for what the music is trying to do, to be. What I realized back in 2005 was sometimes you could have something that is a powerful extension idea or an ideal, it really shouldn’t be a book. It’s not enough to be a book.”

~From the show’s transcript.

This is a good comment on the self-help book publishing industry’s trend to push out books that have a few novel insights and a huge amount of commonly-cited research studies that fit the narrative (and confirmation bias).  In fact, it reminds me of a video essay I watched recently which articulates (better than I) the problems with the self-help genre overall.

This certainly won’t stop me from reading self-help books, and I’m still knee-deep in many other animated bibliographies – I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment.

However, I think this insight is fantastic and expresses why some ideas don’t deserve to be turned into books (unless it’s a book of essays).  It makes sense that some ideas have a natural size, and the size should be commensurate with the number of pages devoted to explaining it.  While the industry does not incentivize these examples of smaller publications, I think it’s a great solution to the need to pad out books with the same sources and the same studies.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2018

Here it is, my yearly update on what I read over the last 12-months.  Overall, I far exceeded my 2016 and 2017 lists in terms of the number of books (42 in 2016, 44 in 2017, and now 57 in 2018) and even the number of pages (4,600 pages more over 2017’s total).

Title Author Date Completed Pages
1 Saga, Volume One Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples 12-Feb 160
2 Witches Abroad Terry Pratchett 23-Feb 288
3 12 Rules for Life Jordan Peterson 5-Mar 448
4 Skin in the Game Nassim Nicholas Taleb 10-Mar 304
5 Proust and the Squid Maryanne Wolf 11-Mar 336
6 Small Gods Terry Pratchett 16-Mar 384
7 Conspiracy Ryan Holiday 21-Mar 336
8 Lords and Ladies Terry Pratchett 7-Apr 384
9 Thinking in Bets Annie Duke 7-Apr 288
10 Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari 13-May 464
11 Career Manifesto Mike Steib 4-Jun 288
12 This Is The Year I Put My Financial Life in Order John Schwartz 5-Jun 320
13 Men at Arms Terry Pratchett 12-Jun 384
14 Soul Music Terry Pratchett 24-Jun 384
15 Interesting Times Terry Pratchett 8-Jul 352
16 The Achievement Habit Bernard Roth 21-Jul 288
17 Discover Your Inner Economist Tyler Cowen 26-Jul 256
18 Maskerade Terry Pratchett 30-Jul 384
19 The Five Love Languages: Men’s Edition Gary Chapman 31-Jul 208
20 David and Goliath Malcolm Gladwell 3-Aug 320
21 Feet of Clay Terry Pratchett 10-Aug 416
22 Originals Adam Grant 13-Aug 336
23 Own the Day, Own your Life Aubrey Marcus 17-Aug 448
24 Hogfather Terry Pratchett 17-Aug 352
25 Tribe of Mentors Timothy Ferriss 20-Aug 624
26 Better than Before Gretchen Rubin 21-Aug 320
27 Jingo Terry Pratchett 25-Aug 416
28 Books for Living Will Schwalbe 27-Aug 288
29 The Last Continent Terry Pratchett 6-Sep 416
30 Unshakeable Tony Robbins 17-Sep 256
31 Shoe Dog Phil Knight 17-Sep 400
32 What Happened Hillary Rodham Clinton 26-Sep 512
33 When Daniel H. Pink 28-Sep 272
34 A Higher Loyalty James Comey 30-Sep 312
35 Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull 2-Oct 368
36 Why Buddhism is True Robert Wright 15-Oct 336
37 The Element Ken Robinson 19-Oct 320
38 Elon Musk (Biography) Ashlee Vance 24-Oct 400
39 Reinventing You Dorie Clark 26-Oct 240
40 What the Dog Saw Malcolm Gladwell 4-Nov 448
41 The Daily Show: An Oral History Chris Smith 12-Nov 480
42 Waking Up Sam Harris 15-Nov 256
43 If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late James J. Sexton 24-Nov 288
44 A Life in Parts Bryan Cranston 24-Nov 288
45 5 Love Languages Gary Chapman 27-Nov 208
46 The Perfectionists Simon Winchester 1-Dec 416
47 Entrepreneurial You Dorie Clark 3-Dec 272
48 The Dip Seth Godin 3-Dec 96
49 The Last Man Who Knew Everything David N. Schwartz 7-Dec 480
50 Ikigai Hector Garcia and Francesc Mirales 20-Dec 208
51 The One Thing Gary Keller and Jay Papasan 20-Dec 240
52 This Is Marketing Seth Godin 21-Dec 288
53 The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois 23-Dec 272
54 The Artist’s Journey Steven Pressfield 27-Dec 192
55 Running Down a Dream Tim Grahl 28-Dec 198
56 Zen to Done Leo Babauta 28-Dec 114
57 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Haruki Murakami 31-Dec/1-Jan 192
Total: 18544

As I mentioned last week, I have some thoughts and reflections while reviewing the list.  First, when I was selecting my best 5 for the year, I noticed that the books in the latter part of the year were ones I felt resonate with me the most.  I think this is for two, related reasons.  First, this was a huge year for my wife and I.  We renovated our old house, sold it, bought a new house, renovated the new one, moved cities, got married, and got me a new car.  We had so much packed into one year on top of work and family, that the year seemed to have flown by without me realizing it.  Someone pointed out to me that there was a Winter Olympics at the start of last year – I couldn’t believe it and had forgotten all about it.

The second, somewhat related reason is because of the sheer volume of books finished, I don’t think I gave the material time to properly settle in my mind.  Fifty-seven books is a huge amount, and I think that by the end of the year, I couldn’t really remember what I had read during the first half of the year.  Instead, most of the impact was felt in the readings from the latter half of the year.  That’s not to say that the books from the start of the year are forgotten, because I feel that lessons taken from Skin in the Game and from Sapeins, for example, are prominent in my mind.  It’s just that they didn’t really stick out in my mind at the end of the year when I was picking my top reads of the year.

Another reason why I think I have a hard time remembering what I read from the start of the year is because the vast majority of the books finished this year were audiobooks.  Thanks to Audible and the Libby app, I was flushed with books to go through.  And because I listen to books at a minimum of 1.5x speed, I can get through the books at a far faster rate than if I were carving out time to read physical books.  This has its advantages, such as being exposed more rapidly to new ideas.  However, this advantage comes at the cost of little overall integration of the information and general lowered retention of information over time. The speed at which I’m listening to books is more like skimming than true reading.

Nevertheless, I’m very satisfied with my accomplishment for the year.  I’m not really interested in trying to top this list intentionally next year.  I will keep reading/listening/consuming books at whatever rate I happen to finish them, but I will go with whatever pace I happen to settle in, rather than trying to hit weekly or monthly targets.

For the upcoming year, I’d like to try and move away from the self-help, business, and animated bibliography genres of books, and instead tackle more books on history, biographies, and fiction that’s not just Terry Pratchett (though I will still keep ploughing through the Discworld series – that’s not changing any time soon).  If you have any book recommendations, feel free to let me know!  I’ve already got “Educated” by Tara Westover and “When They Call You A Terrorist” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele on my bookshelf as recommended by friends.  I’m always on the lookout for the next book to read.

Have a great new year and happy reading!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Top 5 Books Read in 2018

As of writing, I have powered through 55 books this year.  I choose the word “powered” deliberately, and I’ll have more to say about that next week when I list all the books I read for the year.  But in the meantime, I’ve been doing some reflecting on the year that is about to close, and I thought about the books that stuck with me the most.

In no order, here are the top 5 books I read this year.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Shoe Dog details the early history of Nike’s founding and the struggle of getting the company off the ground.  While there are things that Knight did that had questionable ethics, you can’t deny that he and his team worked incredibly hard to secure their place in the world of shoes.  The story was compelling and hooked me in from the outset.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Another founder’s story, Catmull relates the history of Pixar’s founding and eventual merge with Disney.  If I was going to use one book to teach me leadership (especially when leading creative teams), this would be the bible to follow.

The Daily Show: An Oral History by Chris Smith

I loved the Stewart years of the Daily show, but if I regret one thing, it was that I didn’t watch it sooner.  I didn’t have the understanding of politics and history to get the show’s message while I was in high school.  In fact, I only came to the Daily Show after getting into the Colbert Report midway through undergrad.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with the show under Trevor Noah’s leadership, but it hasn’t been the same for me.  This book helped me catch up on the early history of the show and gain some context of the show while I was a viewer.  Finally, it answered my burning question of why Stewart decided to step away from the desk.

The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester

This book was so good, I gave it to my grandfather as a Christmas gift.  Maybe I’m biased because I work in an office full of engineers, but the history of precision engineering was amazing.  Winchester tells a compelling story of the various leaps forward in precision engineering, from machining and designing systems in entirely new ways.  While you might not think a history lesson of machining would be interesting, I urge you to check this book out.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything by David N. Schwrtz

The biography of Enrico Fermi’s life was a thrilling ride.  I like reading about the education and early development of brilliant thinkers, and Fermi didn’t disappoint.  Fermi is known for his uncanny ability to derive equations from first principles, and to understand systems almost intuitively.  Combine that with his ability to “eyeball” problems and create stunningly accurate approximations, it’s no wonder that he’s considered the father of the atomic age.  While it’s a shame that his work did create such devastating destruction during the war, the man himself was charming and well-worth getting introduced to.

Next week, I’ll list all the books I’ve read in 2018.  In the meantime, have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and I’ll see you in 2019.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan