The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why People Don’t Learn: You Can’t Look It Up and You Can’t Give It Away

I have a friend who is a serious meditator. For many years, when someone asked him to help them become enlightened, he would teach them a simple meditation, then instruct: “Do that for six months, every day, for one hour. Then return.” He called it “the very minimum required.”

Over the years, people have come to me wanting some of what I have, intellectually. Not a lot of people, more than five, less than ten.

In every case, I have given them a list of books to read, and said: “As you read each book, get back to me, and we’ll discuss them.”

Only one person ever did, he is the only person I ever charged money for teaching.

You can’t give the good stuff, the actually valuable stuff, away.

He read five books or so, we talked about them, and I gave him assignments and we discussed the assignments. He then stopped, because he had what he wanted, which was to learn how to learn more effectively, and he had proved this to himself by using the skills he was taught, and I was charging him enough money that it mattered to him (not a lot, but he wasn’t rich).

Back when I did some consulting, in the 2000s, I noticed something similar: When I didn’t charge people enough, or said, “Oh, I’ll help you for free,” they never took my advice. If I made them bleed, they did what I said and benefited.

You can’t give it away. I really wish you could.

Anyway, this is a winding intro to my point, which is that if you want to actually understand certain topics, you have to read. A lot.

Let’s run some numbers. From the time I was eight through to age 12, I read at least two books a day. I know this because I went to the library once a week and took out the limit, and I also checked books out of the school library, and I read my father’s books. Actually, I read more than two books a day. Call it 700 a year, so 3,500 books.

From age thirteen to thirty-five, we’ll count it at a book a day. 7,700 books.

From 35 to the end of 45 (11 years), I read two books a week, because I was blogging and reading online articles (they are not a substitute, online content is mostly trash). So 1,100 books, though the proportion of non-fiction books was higher than before.

And for the last four years, I’ve been back to one or more a day, but we’ll count it as one a day. Add another 1,400.

Total? Thirteen thousand, seven hundred books. Put it at 90 percent fiction, and 10 percent non fiction, so about 1,370 non-fiction books.

This is an understatement, at every point I have gone with the lowest estimate. It is not unusual, even today, for me to read three books in a day. Sometimes I read four. The real number is probably close to twenty thousand.

This is not meant as a brag and should not be taken as such. By most people’s standards, my life is trash and I didn’t read so much because “discipline,” I did it because I like reading books and thinking about ideas. If I enjoyed making money, working out, meditating, and eating healthy as much as I liked books and games, well, I’d have a rather different life.

But I have read a lot of books. I have thought about what I read. I have discussed what I read with other people.

Because I have read those books, I can think using the knowledge they contained. You cannot think with knowledge you do not know, and you cannot even look up most Knowledge, because you have to know what you don’t know. The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know.

If you want to engage in the life of ideas, you have to read. You have to read a lot.

Yes, someone like me can make it easier. I’ve read a lot of not very useful books. I can say: “These are the most useful ones!” But you still have to go read them, think about them, and integrate them into your worldview. You need to be able to restate their arguments, and you need to understand the model they are using, and you need to know the assumptions upon which they are based, and you need to know the problems with all of those things, and why it matters and doesn’t matter.

There are shorter roads, but there are no shortcuts, if you really want to know. You just have to read, and then you have to work with what you read. (If this means math, you’ve got to do the math until it integrates. If it’s about human body movements, you’ve got to do the movements. If it’s about “spirituality” you have to actually meditate enough to get the basic insights.)

Discipline is shit. Discipline is only the main tool at the start. If you don’t start enjoying what you’re doing, why the hell are you doing it? The biggest mistake I made intellectually was spending years trying to figure out how economies work because I thought, “Shit, these people (economists, policy makers) are making things worse. I’d better figure it out!”

I did, but it was a lot less fun than the topics I really cared about. (Though it all came around in the end, because it turned out that the technical details were secondary to things like identity, ideology, organization, and all the stuff I write about in “Construction of Reality.”)

Most people have the curiosity and joy of reading and learning beaten out of them by our school system, which seems designed to be one of the most anti-intellectual, anti-wonder ways of “learning” one can imagine. It makes people into machines; spewing out the answer teach wants, talking only when allowed, sitting, and hating.

I mostly ignored school and would even read books in class when I could. My grades were middling, but I was learning.

You want to learn? Find the wonder in it. Find what’s cool and interesting. Yeah, you’ll have to power through some shit, but it’s worth it if you care.

But don’t think you can skip the actual work. Reading for intellectual work is like drills for athletic work, or whatever.

Just figure out why it’s worth doing.

Again, you can’t think with information you don’t know. You cannot look information up you don’t know you don’t know. Any system for which you do not understand the underlying axioms and assumptions, which you try to use, is actually using you. You are just a machine, doing what the creator(s) wanted.

So read and think.

And find it fun!

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  1. Joan

    At least in my experience, fiction was a bridge between the perils of overcrowded schools and enjoyment of learning. Reading fun genre fiction didn’t trigger the negative remnants of public schooling: destructive self-talk like “I am afraid to think,” “I cannot learn anything unless someone explains it to me,” “I have no self discipline or agency,” “I cannot pick up a skill unless I pay someone to scare me with tests and consequences.”

    Instead, good fiction is pure fun, but it also gets you reading whole books, and that makes the idea of reading an entire non-fiction book to learn something far less scary. You can tell yourself “Well, I read a dozen fun stories last year that were the length of entire books. Maybe I can read this book on (subject) and get through it.”

    I know that sounds like a low bar, but at the school I went to, people didn’t read the books assigned. They read the Spark Notes to pass the test, and once the internet became a thing, they looked up the quick tricks and cheats. I sat in the same classroom with students who had never actually read an entire book on their own. I’d wager at least half of my generation in the US is only somewhat literate.

  2. Was asked not too long ago “Grand-Uncle Ten, are you a Master?” Noooo… students.

    Can’t keep it till you give it away.

  3. nihil obstet

    We’re social animals. Most people need others to talk with about what they’re doing. A few will find the fun in reading and thinking alone, the many in reading, thinking, discussing, and then thinking again. The loss of real interactive discussion has contributed to the dumbing down of our public life. It’s not just “Bowling Alone”; it’s also “Thinking Alone”.

  4. “Discipline is shit. Discipline is only the main tool at the start. If you don’t start enjoying what you’re doing, why the hell are you doing it?”

    This is probably suitable for framing!

    Relevant to the post discipline phase is this talk by Alan Watts, “Alan Watts – The Principle Of Not Forcing”

  5. Willy

    I like people who ask “Is this what you’re thinking?” better than those who tell “This is what you should be thinking”. Then I learned that I was doing the latter as much as the former. It seemed to depending on how much power the other had over me. Still, most of my teachers tolerated my snarky one liners from the back. Unless they were dour control freaks of course. One told me that if can’t control compulsive outbursts, then at least be entertaining, with “entertaining” being defined by the teacher. Sometimes food chains are a bitch.

  6. Stirling S Newberry

    Roder Stone proves that being on the inside will set you free.

  7. Joe

    I love reading. I try to read several books a week. Sometimes I fail and end up reading tons of internet bullshit. Some technical info and tribal memories are really only accessed on old social media content (forums and stuff for gun wisdom). I love reading and I read often and with gusto (also mostly fiction, but it’s fun).

    When I was a professor, I had so much more rich of an intellectual life, I could find smart people easily and talk about smart topics and rely on colleagues having read or willing to read the same things I wanted to read. We could share that experience!

    But I made $15,000 a year as an adjunct…and now I’m in sales and terribly fucking lonely, especially intellectually. I only have a couple of close friends who will talk about “smart people stuff,” only one of whom I can try on to read at all. The rest of my intellectual stimulation must be places like this blog, so thank Ian et al.

    Oh, and please go read something folks.

  8. StewartM

    Discipline is shit. Discipline is only the main tool at the start. If you don’t start enjoying what you’re doing, why the hell are you doing it?

    I dunno, there are some things I just can’t make myself do–like read Nietzsche, or even books *about* Nietzsche’s philosophy, because I get frustrated from the get-go about what I think are wrongheaded assumptions followed by even more wrongheaded conclusions based on said assumptions, that I just shake my head and toss the thing aside without finishing. I’m sure that there are many who claim that I should, for my own self-betterment, force myself to continue reading.

    (I’m also that way with movies and art, I couldn’t make myself watch the newer Batman movies, just because I found them unbelievable (in ‘the world doesn’t work this way’). I am also keenly aware that art has always been one of the most salient forms of propaganda, usually for conservative causes, and I resist someone trying to play my emotions to get me to their point of view).

    However, I do agree with your general observation, you learn by continue to dig ever-deeper into any subject, and when you truly enjoy the digging you’ll be most productive.

  9. bruce wilder

    Any system you do not understand the axioms and assumptions of, which you use, is actually using you.

    Would civilization have evolved differently had Aristotle discovered hypnosis instead of the syllogism?

  10. bruce wilder

    A lot of people apparently confuse “thinking” with having an attitude. Taking a pose and using your attitude as a machine to spin out rhetoric is not thinking.

  11. > I’d wager at least half of my generation in the US is only somewhat literate.

    This is the one good argument for national service. The military has a very effective training culture (because it is untouched by civilian academic culture) and really could pound some letters into those poorly served by their child warehouses.

  12. just_kate

    lifelong reader here, the library is one of the first places i go to when moving to a new home. i read every day – i need it to sustain my intellect and it helps me to feel human right now as a balm against my shitty stressful job that i need to survive plus all the worldly troubles of the day. i am 50 yrs old and don’t know anyone who reads books anymore, i find this disturbing and sad. everyone in my circle prefers tv and the internet above all – even socializing now includes tv + simultaneous tablet or phone device capture, this includes the children. i feel like an idiot sitting there being present.

    i want to be optimistic but it is so depressing being surrounded by this culture thats determined to suffocate actual life with this all consuming digital connectedness. or maybe its just me – perhaps im too boring to interact with because i dont give a crap about whats trending. my mother read alllll the time – that’s how it passed to me i think – but my neighbors with kids say they wish they had time to read. mission accomplished overlords!

  13. Steve Ruis

    As is said “Advice is worth every penny you pay for it.”

    I, too, used to “give it away.” When a colleague convinced me that I should no longer work for free, no one even asked for freebies from that point forward. I wonder if the cheapskates have a global coordination center where these things are tracked.

    Am looking forward to your book!

  14. Gaianne

    Thank you, Ian, for a very good essay.


  15. realitychecker

    @ Ian

    All sympathy to you, good sir.

    Every person of exceptional learning knows well the utility of the phrase, “Pearls before swine.”

    Welcome to the Age of Idiocracy!

    First day of law school orientation, they told us, “Nobody can make you a lawyer. You have to make yourself a lawyer, and you do it by reading and thinking.”

    IMO, that good advice applies to any complex subject matter.

    I have given away many millions of dollars of free advice, about law and about markets. Many, many millions.

    Nothing more frustrating than watching someone you care about suffer needlessly because they could not imagine that your educated advice was a better guide than their uneducated ignorance.

    But this is the world we now live in. Technology is your friend? No, it helps you have a lazy mind.

    Only quibble with your fine post–do not sell discipline short!!!!!!

    Chin up, amigo–there are still a few who cherish continuous learning, and appreciate that personal growth ceases without it. And we few must also cherish you, and this venue you provide.

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