Remember that friend that’s always arguing over this week’s enlightening news story? You know the one. The buddy that skims the headlines and offers opinions based on the scantiest of facts. Feel bad for her. She’s fattening her brain up on literary junk food.
The Power of Knowledge
I read a lot. During which I observe certain things. Recently, I noticed a stark contrast between the usefulness of different types of writing. My synthesis of “news-oriented” (Type 1) and “knowledge-oriented” (Type 2) articles differed widely. For Type 1 writing, it feels like I’m discovering a whole new world of information. Inevitably though, I forget I ever read the damn thing. By contrast, Type 2 writing seem moderately important when reading. The full extent of its literary merit only reveals itself when I notice and apply concepts in the real world (e.g. when I used Chris Voss’s negotiation techniques to get my friend out of a ticket).
In other words, current news consistently exaggerates its importance and underdelivers on content, while older books like Deep Simplicity radically alter my worldview.
The Power of Timely Information
Until last week, I dismissed news-based writing as manipulative and fleetingly useful. I’ve changed my mind. This realization followed something Charlie Munger said during Berkshire Hathaway’s 2003 annual shareholder meeting. Basically, Munger described his habit of reading the Wall Street Journal everyday as fundamental knowledge. I thought Type 1 knowledge was useless…so which fundamental assumption did I overlook? After a few days of reflection, I decrypted Munger’s message. Mark Cuban describes it better than me:
“The people walking in the door [knew] as little as I [did], so if I just started doing what I told my boss I would do—read the manuals—I would be ahead of the curve. That’s what I did. Every night I would take home a different software manual, and I would read it. Of course the reading was captivating. Peachtree Accounting. Wordstar, Harvard Graphics, PFS, dBASE, Lotus, Accpac … I couldn’t put them down. Every night I would read some after getting home, no matter how late…It worked. Turns out not a lot of people ever bothered to RTFM (read the frickin’ manual), so people started really thinking I knew my stuff…Everything I read was public. Anyone could buy the same books and magazines. The same information was available to anyone who wanted it [emphasis added]. Turns out most people didn’t want it.”
The fact that nobody else closely reads news-oriented material makes it so valuable. Everybody has interacted with Excel or the New York Times before. Very few dive into the technical details like Cuban, or read a paper daily for seventy years straight like Munger. In the long-run, these sources yield hidden-in-plain-sight information that empowers loyal readers to take contrarian, correct bets on macro-trends.
Some may argue that technical manuals can hardly qualify as current news. I disagree. The rapid alteration of coding languages and system specs makes the manual’s information time sensitive just like a newspaper article. Think of it like this: how much has introductory calculus changed in the past 300 years? How about introductory statistics? They’re obviously Type 2. Contrast that with the proliferation of coding languages in the past ten years alone.
How to Balance the two
The problem is getting a “balanced diet” of Type 1 and Type 2 information. News provides an opportunity to apply the knowledge you’ve learned. Acquiring long-term information expands your circle of competence.
Like I said before, I started off with a healthy distaste for Type 1 information. I love Nassim Taleb’s quote:
“To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.”
Unfortunately, his statement is incomplete. There are two redeeming characteristics to Type 1 sources. First, an erroneous opinion is incredibly useful to the trained mind, as it forces the intellectual to understand why he disagrees. Also, time-sensitive information like an announced merger or attempted hostile takeover can provide profitable business opportunities.
I don’t know the perfect blend of news consumption and knowledge consumption. It varies based on your temperament, the demands of your job, and your interest in the subject being discussed. It’s up to you to experiment with various proportions.
I recommend starting with only books for a week (or a month), simply because people usually lean towards Type I sources. This means deleting Facebook, ignoring the TV’s breaking news, and visiting your local library. After the allotted time, try a 1:1 ratio, and work from there.
Beware of Mimics When Learning
The most dangerous writing you can consume is a Type 1 article masquerading as a Type II. Here are a few breakdowns of pure Type 1 and 2 sources versus a mimic:
Recently, I watched “2018 Best Marketing Strategies” by Noah. Although he’s a great marketer that usually produces quality content, this is a news article masquerading as a Type 2 article. The best practices in marketing don’t change that much from year to year. So Noah’s actually describing the most promising marketing developments in the past year instead of the best strategies. This would be most useful to a professional keeping a pulse on industry trends.
Contrast this with Avinash, who underlines that marketing is hard. In one article, he gives readers a data playground to learn marketing analysis. The article emphasizes problem solving as much more important than fluency in any particular marketing channel. Thus, this is a Type 2 article, offering sustainable and lasting advice. Following the steps in it prepares a novice for a career in marketing.
More to the point, Avinash’s article is relevant almost two years later. Avinash, however, will only craft a follow-up post after a major market shift (e.g. Google bankruptcy). With Noah, I can already hear his “2019 Best Marketing Strategies” youtube video in the distance.
Institutional Clash: Medium’s Weekly Newsletters vs. MIT’s Tech Review Newsletter
Here are screenshots of the layouts of both newsletters.
As you can see, the Medium article is longer and more clickbait-y. I don’t see a “cognitive hypnotherapist” profoundly changing my worldview, and if I see one more article on “being confident” I might throw up.
I’m being unfair. It’s too easy to nitpick specific articles. The real reason why Medium’s newsletter is a Type I source is because it doesn’t produce the required results. When I read books by Steve Covey, Charlie Munger, or Steven Pressfield, it changes the way I interact with the world. Reading Medium-curated articles had no such effect.
MIT’s newsletter, on the other hand, helps me view profound technological and political developments. It’s concise, minimalist, and less manipulative. Its titles don’t try to entice a click, they simply state the subject at hand. I’m a fairly new subscriber to the newsletter, so I could be wrong. However, I already find myself more aware of macro-trends (and the potential consequences).
MIT’s newsletter contains the kind of Type 1 information we should be exposed to. It focuses on content, not clicks.
I’m subscribed to people, not companies now. I unsubscribed from all my curated Medium feeds (as their titles consistently overpromise and underdeliver). The only newsfeeds I follow are Tim, Avinash, Seth, Shane, Zat Rana, Eric and MIT (based off of Reid Hoffman‘s advice). Every other feed I’ve followed has disappointed me. More importantly, they waste my time.
This paradigm shift will also affect this blog. After I finish this blog year challenge, I’m going to switch to a biweekly post schedule. Besides the time commitment in daily posting, I want to craft Type 2 content. The rest of the world covers Type 1 pretty extensively.
This gels with the ethos of all the bloggers I mentioned above. Only Seth blogs daily. Everyone else usually writes once or twice a week.
If my blog could die, I would want the death certificate to say: “COD: Type II Writing.”