KHS Series Part 1: Bringing In New Knowledge
This is all about input
By definition, to learn, you have to find stuff you don’t already know. This post is all about that step. Clearly that’s not all there is to learning, but it lays the groundwork for the other steps we’ll talk about in this series. For me, the main thing to keep in mind for input is “Garbage In, Garbage Out” - if you don’t start with worthwhile stuff, you won’t learn deep, meaningful things. In this post we’re going to look at ways of working that will help you find, sift, and work through inputs for a wide range of learning undertakings.
Try lots of things
I’m going to talk about a lot of ways to find, sift, and work through input, and there are even more that I won’t be talking about. At this step, and throughout this series, remember that different folks really do think and learn very differently, so the key is to try a lot of things and take heed of what works for you and what doesn’t.
Keep what works for you
Once you’ve given a lot of things a go, keep what works for you and get rid of what doesn’t. You are likely to get fired up by some way of working, go at it hammer and tongs for a while, and then fall off after a bit. If you’re like me, right from word go, you’ll be tempted to build an end-to-end set-up that takes care of every little thing that might ever happen someday. Shove that feeling aside and start with “small” and “good enough”. As Tim Ferriss says, the okay thing you stick with is better than the perfect thing you give up. Let your set-up grow over time by adding a bit here, tweaking a bit there, always keeping in mind what you’ll truly keep up.
Finding Things that Might Be Worthwhile
To bring in new knowledge, we first have to find the raw inputs to learn. I like to think about two main variables in finding knowledge inputs: newness and worth. By newness, I mean new to you. You want to find things that are new enough to help you learn what you don’t already know, but not so new that you can’t understand them. For worth, you want to find things that are not only fun to learn, but that will meaningfully help you in your life - there’s too much stuff out there to learn to spend too much time on stuff that won’t help you. My rules of thumb for finding good stuff are to get trusted folks to recommend things, follow links from works I’ve liked, and to build in the unlooked-for.
This is likely the way I most often find worthwhile inputs. Trusted recommendations can come in a few flavors: getting the name of a book from a friend while talking, reading a review by someone you follow online, or even treating every new work by some writers as a “must read”. I like to rank sources of recommendations like this:
- Very Best: Someone you truly know (like a friend), like well, and share many views with
- Next Best: Someone you “know” (like a blogger you’ve been reading for years), think well of, and share some views with
- Still Pretty Good: Someone whose views are clearly put forth and you know pretty well, but you don’t wholly agree with - you won’t always go with what they recommend, but you’ll have a good idea about whether you’ll like it or not based on your differences with them
- Not So Good: What’s popular, what’s high status, what has a credential attached to it - none of these things are bad, but by themselves they won’t steer you to what’s most helpful for you
For this way of going about things, you need something or someone worthwhile to start with, and then look for what paths it shows you. The old school way is to check out the bibliography of a book (Ryan Holiday has a good article on reading where one of his rules is to try to always read one book from the bibliography of a good book). When you’re really jazzed about a particular topic, it’s easy to want to read every book in a bibliography. Unless you want to make the topic your life’s work, though, you’re likely better off keeping yourself to one or two, maybe a handful at most. You can always come back later, if it does become your life’s work.
Next is to check out author interviews or recommended reading lists. This is a super common question for authors to get, so if you read a book by an author and like how they think, just search for “[author name] book recommendations”. Nassim Taleb has a rather hefty list helpfully put together over at Good Reads. Ryan Holiday sends out a monthly newsletter with his recommendations. This blurs a little bit with “trusted recommendations” above, but I thought was worth calling out on its own.
Next, you can do a “backwards bibliography” with a forward citation/cited by search. Services like Google Scholar can do this for you, though it works better for academic papers than for books. A search like this takes a book or paper and then tells you what later books/papers listed it as a source. This is great not only for following an interesting chain of research or reasoning to see how much farther it’s been taken, but also to see if anyone has found contradictory evidence or failed to replicate research.
Building In the Unlooked-For
The first two ways are your meat and potatoes of finding new knowledge inputs, but you might also want to add a bit of spice. By that I mean that it’s helpful to come up with ways to not fall into a rut of only reading and listening to the same stuff all the time. Not only might you not find out cool things, if you don’t work at it, you won’t ever come across stuff that you disagree with, which will make you dumber than you could be. Farnam street has a great post explaining the author Haruki Murakami’s point of making sure “not to read what everyone else is reading”. The tough bit here is striking a balance between “this input shows me new and interesting stuff I wouldn’t have found otherwise”, and “this input is too far outside of my interests.”
For me, the very best sources are idiosyncratic polymaths with wide interests. Folks like Eric S. Raymond, Tyler Cowen and Scott Alexander. Eric S. Raymond is mainly a hacker, Tyler Cowen an economist, and Scott Alexander a psychiatrist, but my best-loved posts from each have little to do with their day job. Raymond is an insightful and provocative commentator on society and politics, Cowen has rather refined tastes in art, and Alexander has written some of the best history book reviews I’ve ever read - and this list is far from exhaustive.
Next best is to find some kind of outlet, like a blog or a podcast or a youtube channel, that brings in folks from many fields, but that you find interesting, even when you don’t care about whatever field they’re talking about that day. For me, Tim Ferriss was my first taste of this in podcast form, Farnam Street’s Knowledge Project is another great one, and Unmistakable Creative grabs my interest a bit less often, but is shorter, which is great for “I just want to find names and titles to follow up on”.
The last is less of a specific tool and more of a mindset: make it a habit to every once and a while pick up something you wouldn’t normally. Read nothing but business books and practical psychology? Give biology a try. Are you all STEM, all the time? Try a novel. One of the most gratifying books I’ve read in the past few years was The Hidden Life of Trees
- it cured me of a lifetime boredom with botany and helped me to better understand concepts I thought I had a good handle on, like systems thinking and evolution.
Sifting Out What to Work On
Okay, so you’ve got a reading list several pages long, and RSS feeds of great blogs out the yin-yang, so what do you do with all this stuff? Unluckily, none of us can read/listen to/watch/learn everything we find interesting, so we have to find the stuff worth digging into and set aside the rest (for now, at least). I have a few rules of thumb to deal with my own tendency to want to LEARN ALL THE THINGS: ask whether a source is for information or understanding, choose something you find interesting over something you feel obliged to read/listen to/watch, pick long over short, go for old over new, and strike the right balance between depth and breadth.
Does This Work Build Your Information or Understanding?
I picked up a handy way to split up your reading from How to Read a Book - are you reading something for information or for understanding? Reading for information is when you only try to put more facts into your head. Reading for understanding, on the other hand, has the goal of learning to think about new things and in new ways than you could before reading. It’s ready enough to grasp what each of these mean, but it can be a little tough to sort out in practice, and sometimes the same book will blend the two.
For example, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language links together archaeological, linguistic, and historical evidence to make a case for the start, growth, and spread of the folks who spoke Proto-Indo-European and its daughter languages. Since this is a topic that I like and know something about, for me, much of the book was information - I knew most of the broad strokes, but I learned a lot more of the nitty-gritty of where and when developments like the domestication of the horse or the invention of the wheel took place and what archaeological techniques let us figure that out. So all of that was information. On the other hand, I came to have a greater understanding of how archaeology could be applied and some of the questions that can and can’t be answered by it with modern methods, and how other fields can give greater confidence to archaeological interpretations, all of which was understanding.
Learn Out of Interest, Not Since You “Ought To”
The next thing to keep in mind is that it’s better to learn things you find interesting than things you think you “should” learn. Of course, there’s a place for pushing yourself to learn things that don’t grab you right away, but that’s much harder to do when you’re learning on your own than it is with some kind of help, like a class or book club. Even though sometimes you’ll have to slog, in the long haul, keeping up the inner drive to learn means more than any one thing you might learn, no matter how worthwhile.
If you’re still thinking of something weighty that you want to learn but so far hasn’t grabbed you, I’ve got good news. Sometimes you only need to learn a few things before the rest of the field becomes interesting. For me, I knew that there must be something to classic literature for so many folks to speak well of it, but I found it wholly boring. I could see that it was well-written, but I didn’t care - it was just a bunch of normal folks having feelings and doing dumb things. Who wants that when you can read about amazing futures or fantastic worlds that never were? Well, after reading some Carl Jung and listening to/reading a fair amount of Jordan Peterson, I learned enough about the psychology being explored in literary fiction to feel like giving it a shot. Surprising no one more than me, I found myself not only appreciating, but genuinely enjoying works like Crime and Punishment. So, if you have banged your head against some field that you believe is worthwhile, but you can’t help but find it boring, don’t beat yourself up. You might just need to learn a handful of other things before it opens itself up to you as something you truly want to learn.
Besides keeping your drive to learn going, following your interest gives you a pretty finely tuned tool for “what my whole brain thinks will be worthwhile”. I learned this from Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned. It turns out that what we feel as “interest” is the blended output of our brain’s motivational systems, both conscious and subconscious, which take in a lot information we might not be aware of and point us toward things that seem likely to be worthwhile. Following your interest is most worthwhile when you are trying to get to truly new insights - since you don’t even know what end of your path looks like, you can’t set a goal and shoot for it. Instead, you can take heed of what grabs you, learn more about that, and then see what new things to learn that opens up. You keep following these “stepping stones” until they take you somewhere you couldn’t have foreseen, and that’s how you come up with new insights.
Now, if you’re like me, and your natural inclination is already to leap from one interest to the next all nimbly-bimbly, you might have the opposite problem: you have too many things that grab you. If you follow too many interests, you might never learn anything deep about any of them. We’ll talk more below about striking a balance between breadth and depth, but when it comes to picking what specific things to learn and which to set aside, I find it helpful to focus on what I’m getting to learn more about rather than what I ought to learn.
Pick Longer Works Over Shorter
If you want to settle between two things you might read/listen to/watch, one good rule of thumb is to pick the longer work over the shorter. Read a book before a blog, a blog before a stand-alone article, an article before a short clip, and anything before twitter. It’s not that more words make something better. Rather, it’s that longer things take more time and work, which helps to weed out the lazier and less thought-through ideas. In the past, longer stuff also had to pass through more gatekeepers, which meant that somebody thought it was worthwhile. There are fewer and fewer gatekeepers these days (for good and ill), but as readily as anyone can put out a book, it’s still harder than throwing up a post on Facebook. Keep in mind, though, that this rule works like Occam’s Razor - don’t follow this rule when other evidence overrides it. Pithiness is the strength of some short works, and some works are longer than they ought to be - I’m looking at you, business books.
Old Works Are Likely Better Than New
All other things being the same, something old that folks still think and talk about is more likely to be worthwhile than new stuff. The “The Lindy Effect” sums up why, which says that for non-living things like books or ideas, the longer they’ve been around so far, the longer they’re likely to still be around going forward. This seems backwards until you think about it a bit. The Iliad was likely written down sometime in the 700s BCE (after an oral tradition stretching even farther back). Since then, there have been a lot of new things to read, and yet we still read it. In the roughly 2,700 years in between, every time someone said “should I copy the Iliad or Ye Newwe Hotnesse", they went with the Iliad. Every time someone could only grab a few precious handfuls of books as their library burned down, the Iliad was on that list. In other words, the Iliad (and other old works) have lived through a lot of evolutionary selection to make it to today. There’s been a lot of time to find what’s wrong with it, to get bored with it, or to move on to something new. The very fact that those things haven’t happened makes it more likely that you too will find something worthwhile in that work. Clearly there are limits to this rule - for one, some interesting stuff won’t have old works about it (like like blockchain or nanotechnology), but even where old works are not specifically about the topic, you might be surprised how often the insights and understanding old works bring you can be brought to bear on very new things.
Know When to Seek Depth and When Breadth
You may have seen that unlike the last few bits, this one does not say that either depth or breadth is better than the other. Instead, you need to strike a good balance between them. You may have heard the thought of “T-Shaped Folks”, which says it is best to have some breadth of skills, but to have deep knowledge in one or a few. Though I like this framework and believe in it, I have to say that I struggle a lot with this one. By nature, I lean pretty strongly toward breadth, as every time I hear out about some new field, it becomes the thing that grips me for awhile. Breadth has much going for it: it lets you make links between fields, bring over insights from one field to another, and see things from more than one point of view. Further, knowledge that you can use across many fields is more often helpful than knowledge that only works in one field.
That being said, we have a word for someone who’s all breadth and no depth: “dilettante”. If you never take the time to get some depth somewhere, you won’t learn anything truly worthwhile, and you won’t have anything new or weighty to say about any field. If you can make yourself (and I know it’s hard!), you’re better off going deep in one field at a time, then on to the next to go deep there, and so on, rather than shallowly flitting from one field to the next.
Working Over the Stuff You Pick
You’ve carefully picked out a work to build your knowledge, one that’s likely to grab you but still push you a bit, and it’s the right age, length, and depth - so what do you do with it? As you read, listen, or watch, you need to do more than sit there and enjoy the ride. You need to think about it, find links to other things you know, and bring it to bear on your life. I tend to do most of my learning through reading, as that’s what works for me, so that’s what I mostly talk about below. That being said, if you have thoughts about how to get more out of podcasts, videos, or other kinds of works, I would love to hear about it.
Kinds of Reading
So, funny story about me and reading. When my folks were teaching me how to read, I was not into it at all. I had a very reasonable objection: “why should I learn to read when Mom reads to me?” Well, as you might be able to tell, I got over that way of thinking pretty quick, and ever since, I’ve been what you might politely call “a pretty big reader.” For most of my life, though, I didn’t use any kind of frameworks or ways of working when I read, other than scattered notes every now and again - instead, I leaned on having a pretty good memory and reading a lot. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve found that some things I once knew have grown fuzzy or wholly fallen out of my head. So, in the last few years, I’ve gotten into, some might say “obsessed by”, frameworks and ways of reading meant to help you get more out of it.
Mindful Reading is the Key to Getting More Out of Books
First off, all of these ways of reading are mindful. They ask you to think and do things as you go, not to sit idly by and let the words wash over you. So, even if none of the below grab you, you can still read better by finding ways to be more mindful that work for you. That might be as quick as jotting down any questions or other books a passage makes you think of. With only a bit more work, you can remember much more of what you read by writing a rundown of each chapter as you finish reading it.
Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical Reading Let You Work at Different Levels
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren is one of those books that I deeply wish I had known about when I was younger, yet I wonder if I would have gotten as much out of it then as I have now. The key insight of the book is that “reading” is an overly broad word. It covers everything from merely knowing what sounds squiggles on paper make all the way up to working through a pile of weighty works, understanding the threads between them, and coming up with new insights therefrom.
Adler and Van Doren put forth a framework for reading that splits it into “Elementary”, “Inspectional”, “Analytical”, and “Syntopical”. “Elementary Reading” is what you learned to do in elementary school - look at symbols on a page or screen and understand them as language. We won’t go further into that here, as you clearly have it down if you are reading a blog post. Instead, let’s dive into the more helpful bits of their framework.
Inspectional Reading Gets the Most You Can in a Short Time
You might call inspectional reading “smart skimming”, or “skimming with an end in mind”. Skimming gets a bad rap. I know that for years I looked down my oh-so-well-read nose at “mere” skimming as something for dummies and book-hating monsters. Thankfully, How to Read a Book smacked that dim-witted thought right out of my head. Yes, if you only skim, you’re never going to learn much, but skimming when you should and doing it well adds so much to your reading.
Some books only need to be skimmed - you pick up the outline of the argument, some key facts, and you have what you need (see above about reading for interest vs information). Skimming others will tell you that it might be great for you one day, but you’re not ready for it today. Or you might find you only truly need to read one chapter in great depth right now. Sometimes you’ll skim and find yourself getting pulled in, and you’ll know “I need to read this in depth right now!” The key is that there is no “one size fits all” answer for which books to skim and when - it will depend on you, your needs, and your current knowledge.
Skimming is the tool that lets you make smarter decisions about what to read and how much work to put into it. If you stick with “I read every book word-for-word and cover-to-cover” like I did for so long (and honestly still slip into sometimes), you’ll find yourself reading stuff that bores you, or worse, putting down a book when you could have gotten something from it with a skim.
So, how do you do it? Go through the following steps, and if at any of them you feel you’ve gotten what you want/need out of this book, or like it’s not for you, then stop. You can always come back later. Don’t keep going if you think a book is a waste of time, boring, or unhelpful, but also don’t keep going if you feel like you’ve “got it”. Even if you go through all the steps, once you know how to do it, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour or so.
- First, read everything on the cover and in the jacket (or its equivalent in the Amazon description) - title, subtitle, advertising blurb, summary, and so forth. All of this gives you an overall look at what the book is about. Don’t be shy about reading summaries on Good Reads or the like - spoilers only count for fiction.
- Next, read the foreword/preface/introduction. This gives you a better idea about whether the book does what you hope it does, and often gives you a summary of the overall argument and conclusion.
- After that, read the table of contents to get a look at the shape of the overall argument in more detail. You might also skim through the index to get a feel for what words and folks come up in the book.
- Finally, skim through the book, stopping at the bits most likely to be useful - the opening and closing paragraphs of chapters, beginning and endings of paragraphs, and the closing chapter. You can dip in here and there in more detail if something grabs you, but try to keep it quick.
Again, if after any of the steps above (even the first one) you find either that the book doesn’t grab you or that you’ve learned what you wanted out of it, stop. You’re through, mission accomplished. On the other hand, if you get through all four steps and feel like there’s more you want to grapple with, you can go onto an analytical reading (see below).
I have also found a middle way, when my skimming has shown me that a book has some worthwhile stuff, but I don’t want to dig in to a full analytical reading. When I find myself with such a book, I’ll write a one to two sentence rundown for each chapter (as far as I can tell from the skim). This way, if I ever come back, or if I need to refresh myself on something this book says, I can pick and choose the bits that will help me the most.
If you don’t pick up anything else from the How to Read a Book way of doing things, please settle on some way of making smart skimming one of the tools in your toolbox. It not only helps you better pick which books to read more deeply, it makes that deeper reading better by showing you the overall shape of the book and how its bits fit together.
Analytical Reading Takes the Time You Need to Get Everything You Can
When you need to call in the big guns, like when you’re wrestling with the western canon and you want to truly understand them and squeeze them for all they’re worth, that’s when you go to “analytical reading”. This is likely the kind of thing that comes to mind when you see a huge nerdy post about ways to learn better.
- Step one is to do an inspectional read like we talked about above.
- After you have the overall structure, try to identify key terms - concepts that seem core to the main idea of the book.
- Then look for the author’s main propositions - what is he or she putting forth as being true?
- Then look for how these propositions are linked together and built out by arguments.
- Once you feel like you understand what the author is asking you to believe is true, and have a fair idea of how they’ve backed that up, ask yourself if they’ve done enough, and why or why not. You need to be very careful here, and to keep in mind our inborn leaning to not change our minds readily, but this will really help you work out if you’ve understood what you read.
Syntopical Reading Gets What No Lone Book Can Give You
Most folks who aren't academics never truly get into this kind of reading, but it is rewarding when you stick with it. It very much takes time and thinking, though, so it's more of a tool for depth than for breadth. 1. First, you work out a rough shape of what it is you want to learn more about. If you already have a very specific idea, awesome, but if not, no worries, that will take shape as you work through the next steps. 2. Next you come up with a draft list of books and articles that you think *might* help you learn more about your chosen topic. Err on the side of going wide with this list, as it will be easier to take things off than put them on. 3. Then, do an inspectional read of each work on the list to see which ones are helpful, which aren't, and which have bits that might be helpful. You'll likely take off many books and articles from the list at this point, but you might also add a few that your inspectional read has helped you find. From the helpful ones, work up your final list. 4. After that, work out the key terms from each of the works on your list. Where you can see that different authors use different words to mean the same thing, settle on one term to use to translate between them. If you're not sure, dig in to learn what the distinctions between terms might be. 5. From there, look for what questions are common between all or most of the authors - what are they trying to answer? What concerns do all of them talk about? What areas of life do they write about? 6. Then work out what answers they put forward, looking most of all where different writers give different answers to the same questions. Hold off as long as you can from picking any side and lay out each answer and what the authors use to get to them. At this point, your goal is not to discover whether one side or the other is right, but to build up a true picture of the field and its debate. You may at some point find one set of arguments more convincing, but hold off on making judgment as long as you can stand it. This makes for a great excuse to work on some [probabilistic thinking](https://fs.blog/2018/05/probabilistic-thinking/) - give each position a weight based on its evidence, and if that doesn't agree with your intuition, ask yourself why.
“Reading Fat” Grounds a Work
"Reading Fat" is a thought I came across in [*The Creative Habit*](https://smile.amazon.com/Creative-Habit-Learn-Use-Life-ebook/dp/B000SEOWBG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1596215137&sr=8-4) by Twyla Tharpe. In some ways it is like syntopical reading, but in others it is its inverse. As with syntopical reading, you read many works with a common thread between them. Unlike syntopical reading, where the thing holding together the works is a topic or field, in "reading fat", the link is a main work that you want to understand deeply. Twyla Tharpe is a playwright and choreographer, so it makes sense that she wants to get to know that one work *very* well to make a show based on it. For most of us, I'm not sure how many works will truly call for this approach, but it seems to meet the needs of creative endeavors rather well, such as if you were drawing insight for writing a book or making art. If you've ever sought out books since a favorite author recommended them or named them as inspirations, then you have read "fat". Set beside the other methods, though it is a lot of work, this one is pretty easy to lay out. 1. First, pick a book, movie, play, piece of music, or whatever other work. 2. Then try to find as much stuff linked to it as you can and check it out yourself. This might take some digging - not everyone has given a helpful talk where they list influences or best-loved works. Look for things the maker alluded to in their work. Was the maker part of a "scene" or "movement" or "subgenre"? Check out other works from that grouping. Look for stuff from the same time. Look for stuff that they might have been reacting *against*. Look for reviews, commentaries, and critiques on the work, look for folks who were themselves influenced by the work. If you play "telephone" long enough, you could likely link about anything to your starting work, so you'll have to use some wisdom on where to stop. It can be very helpful to have some end you're working toward - *why* do you want to get to know this work so deeply? Are you making something of your own with it? Do you want to understand its influence on others? Your answer will help you know when you're still digging up worthwhile stuff and when you're just linking things for the sake linking them.
Incremental Reading Brings In Spaced Repetition
If you're ready to go *full reading dork*, "Incremental Reading" is here for you. We're going to talk a lot about ["Spaced Repetition"](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition) in the next bit of this series, but the short version is that you can use software that will take a flashcard of something you're trying to learn (like a foreign word or historical date) and then calculate how long it should wait before it shows you the same card again to best build long-term memory. Well, the guy who pioneered spaced repetition systems for learning, [Piotr Wozniak](https://supermemo.guru/wiki/Piotr_Wozniak) came up with a way to apply the same algorithm to reading, and he calls it [Incremental Reading](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incremental_reading). When I first read about this, the thought of giving it a try gripped me strongly. It turns out that the only fully built-out way to do incremental reading is with Wozniak's own program [SuperMemo](https://super-memo.com/supermemo84.html), so I decided to give it a try. I ended up not really being able to get the hang of it. For one, SuperMemo runs only on Windows, so I had to put a new partition on my Mac to install Windows. Then I bought the program and fired it up, and well, I just couldn't make it work for me. I could look past "closed source", I could look past "design from the Windows XP era", I could even look past "hard to learn", but I couldn't handle all of those put together. So I threw in the towel and looked for other options. That led me to learn [Emacs](https://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/), which is a whole rabbit hole of its own, but one that's been more helpful. I still haven't gotten a set up for incremental reading working the way I want it to, but I'm getting close. I share all this as a bit of a warning: incremental reading has a high barrier to entry even just to try it out. Okay, so how do you actually do incremental reading? 1. The main idea is that you read a little bit of a book or article at a time, whenever the spaced repetition algorithm brings it up. 2. Each time it pops up, you read a little bit, and you look for what you most want to learn. You mark the important stuff, like with a highlight, and then that highlighted stuff becomes its own "flashcard" to be shown by the spaced repetition system. 3. Over time, you can archive stuff that you don't need any more, and it will only show you the highlighted excerpts, which you can further break down as you go. 4. If something ever pops up that you don't recognize, you can trace back where it came from to get the context you need. Supermemo has a lot of other little features that make it work better, and it integrates very cleanly into using spaced repetition for flashcards (see the next post). It's a bit hard to get a grip on what it is from a brief description, so if you'd like to read more, Wozniak has a lengthy [write up](https://help.supermemo.org/wiki/Incremental_learning) and lots of [videos](https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqmYtieCc3liSTYxLwk_MLw) demonstrating how it works. For me, incremental reading still grips me as something that I think will be very helpful once I'm able to get it working, but it might be that it's not worth the up-front outlay of time and work to get it going - my non-fiction reading has slowed to a crawl the past six months or so as I've been hung up on trying to get an incremental reading system working, so check it out at your own risk.
Speed Reading is a Narrow Tool
Lastly, I wanted to say a quick word on speed reading. In college, I taught myself to speed read to get through a class that handed out a book a week of primary sources from Anglo-Saxon England (translated into Modern English, thank goodness\!). While I held onto enough to do well in the class, it never truly felt like it "stuck" and it always felt like a chore. So I didn't keep it up. Well, a few years on and I'm getting into the learning stuff we're talking about in this series and I come across some [different](https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2019/03/13/reading-faster/) [opinions](https://markmanson.net/read-faster) on [speed reading](http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/why-how-we-read-sucks-and-how-to-fix-it-part-1/). My current thinking is that speed reading can be helpful, but only in one or two fairly narrow ways. For one, the techniques of speed reading, like eliminating subvocalizations or using a finger/pointer to keep pace, can help you to read a *little* faster without going full-on "speed reading". For two, something closer to true speed reading can be helpful when doing a smart skim, as laid out above - it's definitely better than only reading some of the words you skim through, and almost as fast. So, instead of trying to make speed reading "the way you read", you can decide to use speed reading techniques as one tool in your toolbox.
Kinds of Note Taking
Whatever way you read/listen/watch something, if you want to get the most out of it, you’ll need to take some notes. I long put off adding this skill to my toolbox, for I thought I could get away with having a pretty good memory. Going back to stuff that I “learned” without notes, though, has been a harsh lesson. I am shocked by how little I recall, most of all when I set that beside how much comes back to me from books where I took even a few notes. Good notes really let you make a work your own, and you’ll get more out of it in the long run.
The Techniques Below Build on Overall Note-Taking Principles
All of the methods below share some common principles. The first is to get everything down first and worry about what to keep from it later. This follows the Getting Things Done (GTD) way of separating input from processing. The next rule is to write in your own words. Thinking of your own way to say a thought pushes you to better understand it and make it your own. Even when using electronic methods, be careful with copying and pasting. Third, find links with things you already know. Making these links is how your knowledge grows into a framework you can use in many ways and in many fields. Lastly, write down the date. This one is a bit more tactical, but it helps you put the thing in context and understand what you knew and were thinking at the time.
“Thoughts After Reading” is a Lightweight 80/20 Habit
If you’ve had trouble either starting or keeping a habit of taking notes on what you read, “Thoughts After Reading” is a lightweight, easy-to-stick-with technique. I learned this from a mentor of mine, and I’m not sure if it’s his own or from somewhere else. The way to do it is straightforward: when you get to the end of a book (or article or podcast, if you like), write down a paragraph of so about it: the main point, what you got out of it, and what other works it brought to mind. Some folks will find it helpful to put this somewhere they can share with others, like Goodreads. This may not be the most thorough way to work over a book, but it is one that you can keep doing readily. As Tim Ferriss has said many time, it’s better to do the okay thing you stick with than the great thing you don’t.
End of Chapter/Section Summaries Help You Hold Onto What You Read
This method is recommended by Farnam Street, and is also easy to do. At the end of every chapter (or section, if you’re feeling thorough), write down a summary in your own words. Try to do it from memory first, then skim through the chapter to see if you missed anything. You can highlight or write in the margins, but you don’t have to. I like this way of note taking best as a way to strengthen inspectional reading. When I read for information, a brief summary of each chapter based on a skim is often all I will ever need. If I do decide to come back and dig deeper, the summaries point me right where I need to go.
Progressive Summarization Gives “Just In Time” Analysis
Thiago Forte has a course on building your own knowledge set up called “Building a Second Brain”. I have not checked out the course, but I have learned a lot from his articles, and the concept I have found most interesting is “progressive summarization”. The thought is that you read something interesting or helpful, store it somewhere you can find it (like Ever note), and then each time you go back to it, you do a little more work. The main thing to keep in mind is that you don’t follow the steps below on a schedule or on every thing you ever read - you only go to the next step when you have some reason to come back to the reading. Here’s an example of what that might look like with an article:
- On the first pass, save it somewhere like Evernote, and then as you read, bold all the bits that seem interesting or useful
- Next time you come back to the article , highlight the most important parts in the bolded stuff
- On a third pass, you summarize the article in your own words
- On a fourth pass, incorporate the thoughts from the article into some work of your own (like a blog post)
The key thought is that you only do each step as needed, when you come back to the material naturally. You don’t ever highlight or summarize “just in case”. This makes sure that you don’t waste any work and that you do your summarization in the context of a real project or problem that you’re thinking through.
Whether you follow the above step-by-step or not, I think the two most useful concepts are the idea of keeping your “notes” withing their context (you can always read the not-bold bits, they’re right there), and having a “just in time” or “on demand” approach to working through your notes. This last one is most helpful if, like me, you find yourself organizing and categorizing for its own sake, rather than staying focused on the true output of projects.
The Cornell Method is Great for Lectures and Meetings
The Cornell Method was, unsurprisingly, thought up at the university of the same name. They worked it out to help struggling college students get a handle on lecture-based teaching instead of the textbook focus they knew from high school. You can find handy templates online, or just draw some lines on paper. I find it most helpful for things that are mostly listening and where the structure isn’t clear ahead of time, like a meeting, lecture, or youtube video. Here’s how you do it.
First, at the top of the page, write the name/topic and any other administrative details (like date, client, project, class, or what have you). Put a line across the whole page under this to mark off the header.
Next, divide most of the page into two columns: a narrower one on the left, and a wider one on the right. a. The one on the right is where you’ll write your “raw” notes as you go. Write down whatever you think might be important, questions you might want to ask, follow-ups, actions, and so forth. Most of the time, I don’t recommend trying to get a verbatim transcript - it’s not hard to do and not helpful most of the time. b. If your notes go for more than one page, leave room for the top portion (and add page numbers), and keep up with the two columns. c. Also think about putting in sketches and diagrams to help you understand things. d. The smaller left column is for after the lecture/video/meeting. Go back and look through the notes in the right column, and as you go, add labels and summaries to mark what’s important, show links between sections, highlight open questions or action items, and make clear the structure of how things fit together.
Lastly, on the last page of your notes, put another line across the page and use the bottom of the page for a rundown of what’s covered above. Here, you can put things in a new order, make terms more consistent, use your own language to get things to make sense, and boil down to what matters most. Once you have this rundown, when you are looking over your notes, you only need to go back to the body of your notes if something in the rundown confuses you. Then you can use the labels in the left hand column to find the full notes in the right column that will help.
As I said, this is a flexible way to work, but I find it most helpful when the structure isn’t very clear from the start. Since books have tables of contents and section headers and such, I don’t often need the Cornell Method for them, but for meetings or presentations, it is very helpful.
The Slipbox Gives You Building Blocks for Writing
One of the most exciting note-taking methods I’ve come across has been the “Slipbox”. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann came up with it to help him write more than 70 books and over 400 scholarly articles (no, those aren’t extra zeroes). The slipbox helps folks put down their thoughts on what they read and finding insights by putting those thoughts together, with the end goal of sharing those insights through writing. In other words, it is most helpful for writers and academics.
The overall thought is to do a little bit of reading, thinking, and writing every day. You break out getting things down, working them over, and finding links between them into their own steps. All of this happens on “slips”, so called because the original method was literally postcard-sized slips of paper in a box. Later, when you want to write, you find the notes that work, put them together, and edit.
I learned about this way of working from the book How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens. Of all the ways of taking notes in this post, I’ve worked with this one the most. There is a lot of wisdom in how it’s put together, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it, but my current way of doing it has a bit more friction than would be best. I’m hoping that by setting forth how it works below, I’ll get a better understanding of what makes it tick, and how best to tune it.
Get Down Whatever Grabs You on Fleeting Slips
As you read, take notes in whatever way is quick and easy for you - paper notebook, note-taking app on your phone, super-fast plain text program, or what have you. These are called fleeting slips, and they live in your inbox (another GTD-inspired method). Right now, I’m using Emacs with the extension Org Mode, but as I said above, that’s it’s own can of worms, so I can’t truly recommend it only for a slipbox. Anyhow, the main thing for these fleeting slips is that it’s fast and easy to get them down and you can find them when you come back to do more with them.
Lasting Slips Build Emergent Structure
Speaking of doing more with those fleeting slips, the next step is to go through your fleeting thoughts and work them into lasting slips. Look through the slips in your inbox and ask whether each ought to get more time and thought. Sometimes the stuff we write down seems weighty at the time, but with hindsight turns out not to be so helpful. You can get rid of those. The ones that are worthwhile, though, you work up into lasting slips. Give each slip a unique ID of some kind. Luhmann alternated between numbers and letters, something like 12a3b2. In this set up, switching between numbers and letters showed the level of nesting of linked topics. Many electronic set ups recommend using a date-time string (like 202006121014) since they are sure to be unique and can be readily created by your computer. I find the organization of Luhmann’s method helpful, so I follow that for my Slip ID, but I use the date string for my fleeting thoughts, so that they’ll sort cleanly.
In writing out your slip, write down the thought in your own words, as if someone else about it so that they understand. You try to keep to “one thought, one slip”, and you note any links to other slips already in your slip box. If you’re working electronically, you can use a tagging system and/or put in hyperlinks to the other slips, but as long as you have the unique ID of the other slip, you’ll be able to find your way to it.
As we went along, you may have marked the lack of any talk about categorization or organization. Instead, an emergent structure makes itself known to you as you go along. I very much like this way of going about things, as it makes the slipbox outstanding for finding links between unalike fields and drawing insights therefrom.
Put Lasting Slips Together to Write
Once you have a number of lasting slips, you will hopefully start to see threads running through them that spur your own insights. These threads give you the bones of your own writing. To turn slips into a paper or blog post or the like, you make a project folder or file and then copy the slips that have bearing on the main idea into it. With these slips in the project file, you’re never dealing with the “blank page” problem, which makes it much easier to deal with writer’s block. You put the slips in a rough order, write anything needed to link them together, and then start editing. By keeping up the habit of reading and writing a bit every day, you never have to sit down and write everything for a big paper, article, or blog post. Instead it’s only one more incremental, manageable step.
This has been a long post and we’ve gone over a lot of stuff - how to find sources of interesting stuff, how to sift through to find what will help you most, and how to work through the stuff you do pick. If you’re like me, you might be fired up by all these cool ideas. Or maybe it all looks daunting, and you’re feeling overwhelmed. However you’re feeling, the best thing to do is to start small, try one or two new things at a time, and keep whatever works. I’ve been messing around with this learning stuff for years, and I’m still working it all out - hence this series. The other thing to keep in mind is that as we go through the rest of the series is that all of the bits work on and with each other. For example, what you want to do with the knowledge you learn will shape how you hold on to it and how to bring it in. Next time, we’ll talk about the ways you might hang on to the knowledge you’ve brought in and how to pull it up.
Last modified on 2020-08-06