Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Casualties Of Perfection

The key thing about evolution is that everything dies. Ninety-nine percent of species are already extinct; the rest will be eventually.

There is no perfect species, one adapted to everything at all times. The best any species can do is to be good at some things until the things it’s not good at suddenly matter more. And then it dies.

A century ago a Russian biologist named Ivan Schmalhausen described how this works. A species that evolves to become very good at one thing tends to become vulnerable at another. A bigger lion can kill more prey, but it’s also a larger target for hunters to shoot at. A taller tree captures more sunlight but becomes vulnerable to wind damage. There is always some inefficiency.

So species rarely evolve to become perfect at anything, because perfecting one skill comes at the expense of another skill that will eventually be critical to survival. The lion could be bigger; the tree could be taller. But they’re not, because it would backfire.

So they’re all a little imperfect.

Nature’s answer is a lot of good enough, below-potential traits across all species. Biologist Anthony Bradshaw says that evolution’s successes get all the attention, but its failures are equally important. And that’s how it should be: Not maximizing your potential is actually the sweet spot in a world where perfecting one skill compromises another.

Evolution has spent 3.5 billion years testing and proving the idea that some inefficiency is good. We know it’s right.

So maybe the rest of us should pay more attention to that.

So many people strive for efficient lives, where no hour is wasted. But an overlooked skill that doesn’t get enough attention is the idea that wasting time can be a great thing.

Psychologist Amos Tversky once said “the secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

A successful person purposely leaving gaps of free time on their schedule to do nothing in particular can feel inefficient. And it is, so not many people do it.

But Tversky’s point is that if your job is to be creative and think through a tough problem, then time spent wandering around a park or aimlessly lounging on a couch might be your most valuable hours. A little inefficiency is wonderful.

The New York Times once wrote of former Secretary of State George Shultz:

His hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest.

Albert Einstein put it this way:

I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.

Mozart felt the same way:

When I am traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

Someone once asked Charlie Munger what Warren Buffett’s secret was. “I would say half of all the time he spends is sitting on his ass and reading. He has a lot of time to think.”

This is the opposite of “hustle porn,” where people want to look busy at all times because they think it’s noble.

Nassim Taleb says, “My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill.” More than a measure of success, I think it’s a key ingredient. The most efficient calendar in the world – one where every minute is packed with productivity – comes at the expense of curious wandering and uninterrupted thinking, which eventually become the biggest contributors of success.

Another form of helpful inefficiency is a business whose operations have some slack built in.

Just-in-time manufacturing – where companies don’t stock the parts they need to build products, relying instead on last-minute shipments of components – was the epitome of efficient operations over the last 20 years. Then Covid hit, and virtually every manufacturer found itself dreadfully short of what it needs.

Super-efficient supply chains increase vulnerability to any disruption. And history is just a constant chain of disruptions. So you can imagine that we’ll hear stories of companies who increased their earnings by, say, 5% by maximizing supply efficiencies only to see earnings fall 20% or more due to having no slack when trouble hit. We are in the biggest post-WW2 consumer boom and car companies are shutting down production because they’re out of chips. A little inefficiency across the whole supply chain would have been the sweet spot.

Same in investing. Cash is an inefficient drag during bull markets and as valuable as oxygen during bear markets, either because you need it to survive a recession or because it’s the raw material of opportunity. Leverage is the most efficient way to maximize your balance sheet, and the easiest way to lose everything. Concentration is the best way to maximize returns, but diversification is the best way to increase the odds of owning a company capable of delivering returns. On and on, if you’re honest with yourself you’ll see that a little inefficiency is the ideal spot to be in.

Just like evolution, the key is realizing that the more perfect you try to become the more vulnerable you generally are.

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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Doing More Of What Works

Dear friends – sharing an article from bestselling author James Clear on implementing what is already known. Enjoy!!

In 2004, nine hospitals in Michigan began implementing a new procedure in their intensive care units (I.C.U.). Almost overnight, healthcare professionals were stunned with its success.

Three months after it began, the procedure had cut the infection rate of I.C.U. patients by sixty-six percent. Within 18 months, this one method had saved 75 million dollars in healthcare expenses. Best of all, this single intervention saved the lives of more than 1,500 people in just a year and a half. The strategy was immediately published in a blockbuster paper for the New England Journal of Medicine.

This medical miracle was also simpler that you could ever imagine. It was a checklist.


The Power of Never Skipping Steps

The checklist strategy implemented at Michigan hospitals was named the Keystone ICU Project. It was led by a physician named Peter Pronovost and later popularized by writer Atul Gawande.

In Gawande's best-selling book, The Checklist Manifesto he describes how Pronovost's simple checklist could drive such dramatic results. In the following quote, Gawande explains one of the checklists that was used to reduce the risk of infection when installing a central line in a patient (a relatively common procedure).

On a sheet of plain paper, [Pronovost] plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check.

These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

This five-step checklist was the simple solution that Michigan hospitals used to save 1,500 lives. Think about that for a moment. There were no technical innovations. There were no pharmaceutical discoveries or cutting-edge procedures. The physicians just stopped skipping steps. They implemented the answers they already had on a more consistent basis.

New Solutions vs. Old Solutions

We have a tendency to undervalue answers that we have already discovered. We underutilize old solutions—even if they are best practices—because they seem like something we have already considered.

Here’s the problem: “Everybody already knows that” is very different from “Everybody already does that.” Just because a solution is known doesn’t mean it is utilized.

Even more critical, just because a solution is implemented occasionally, doesn't mean it is implemented consistently. Every physician knew the five steps on Peter Pronovost's checklist, but very few did all five steps flawlessly each time. We assume that new solutions are needed if we want to make real progress, but that isn't always the case.

Use What You Already Have

This pattern is just as present in our personal lives as it is in corporations and governments. We waste the resources and ideas at our fingertips because they don’t seem new and exciting.

There are many examples of behaviors, big and small, that have the opportunity to drive progress in our lives if we just did them with more consistency. Flossing every day. Never missing workouts. Performing fundamental business tasks each day, not just when you have time. Apologizing more often. Writing Thank You notes each week.

Of course, these answers are boring. Mastering the fundamentals isn’t sexy, but it works. No matter what task you are working on, there is a simple checklist of steps that you can follow right now—basic fundamentals that you have known about for years—that can immediately yield results if you just practice them more consistently.

Progress often hides behind boring solutions and underused insights. You don’t need more information. You don’t need a better strategy. You just need to do more of what already works.


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Friday, June 4, 2021

The King and his monkey

Sharing a short story this week, enjoy!!

Once upon a time there was a king. Like all kings he was great, powerful and whimsical. He had a pet monkey. His favourite. He was with the king at all times, the king used to enjoy the antics of the monkey and keep himself entertained. Everyone knew about the special position of the monkey in the king’s heart and the monkey basked in his masters attention and the privilege of being the special one.

One day, after a scrumptious lunch, it was nap time for the king. However there was a little problem - a fly. Every time the king started snoozing, the fly would come and sit on the kings nose disturbing his siesta. The fly was very persistent, this happened many times. The king was very irritated. The monkey was even more irritated and decided to teach the fly a lesson. The next time the fly came and sat on the kings face, the monkey hit it with a sword with all his might. End of story, for the king. For us, there are some lessons from this tragic story.

Every king has a monkey. As long as it is for entertainment, it is cool.

Problems arise when the monkey and those around him start taking the monkeys seriously.

Small problems can be ignored if monkeys are not around.

Monkeys with power lead to tragedies, sooner or later.

For all the kings, identify the monkeys and keep them in check.

For all the monkeys, stick to your natural talent of keeping your masters entertained and don’t take yourself too seriously.

For the others – if you see a king and the monkey together, don’t hesitate to tell the king, if you really love him and want him to be around.

You see, even the best intentions can lead to tragic outcomes.       

Take care, stay safe and enjoy your weekend.

Personal Finance 101

If you have the means to comfortably retire today, well done, this may not be for you. For the other mortals who have some time to go before that happens, read on, there may be some tips that you may find useful.

There are 2 ways to plan for your finances

1 - Bad things happen to other people.

2 - Expect the best but prepare for the worst.

This is for those in camp 2. For those in camp 1 – my best wishes!!

Term Life Insurance is absolutely necessary –

The insurance value should cover your current/ near future loans +5 or 10 years of loss of income. For those of us who live in a metropolis and had the courage to buy a home on loan, this may mean a life cover of 5 cr or more. Good thing is you can discontinue the coverage once the loans have been paid off and one has a retirement egg. It is best not to mix investment and insurance, so plans that mix the both can generally be avoided. Add ons of critical illness and permanent disability should also be taken. Think of it as planning for the untimely in a timely way. The earlier you start the better.

Medical Insurance is absolutely necessary too –

The insurance from your employer does not qualify, sorry. While it is good to have esp if you have co-morbid parents, it may not be available when you need it the most since your company may have different thoughts in the next crisis. So take medical insurance independent of your employer. Amount is also important – 25/50 lcs or higher. While I hope none of us will need to use it, it is an absolute must have. Earlier the better. 

Have liquidity in hand –

3/6 month expenses should be readily available. One can substitute this with credit card limits as well.  Be mindful that banks can also unilaterally reduce your limits when you need them the most.

Savings and investments –

Step 1 is savings. This should be a % of your total income and not some fixed absolute amount. Higher the better. Anything below 20% of your post EMI income is insufficient. Only home loan EMI’s count – depreciating assets and EMI’s for holidays etc don’t. Consistency is critical.

Step 2 is investing that saving. Take advise from someone you can trust, educate yourself and invest what you can understand and are comfortable with. Don’t get too comfortable though – it comes in the way of growth. Equities are absolutely essential if you want to save for retirement and have 20 years or more to get there. Earlier the better here too.

Risk Management –

Don’t try to get rich quickly. It’s a trap.

If it’s too good to be true, it generally isn’t.

Always think about the motive of your counter party. If it is clear, then good. It will help you make better decisions.

Verify the background of the advisor and speak with some of their clients before taking and implementing advise.

Keep a margin of error. Larger the better.

Concentration creates wealth. Diversification protects wealth.

There are many ways to get rich. There are only few ways to lose it – greed, leverage, ignoring risks, copying others without understanding what they are doing and (generally) bad financial decisions.  

Involve your partner –

Keep your partner updated on financial matters. At least once a year, make a balance sheet to list all assets and liabilities with details of bank accounts/fund statements/policy nos. If you owe someone some money or vice versa, your partner should know. Keep your policy documents and statements of investments secured and let your partner know. Create nominees and have joint accounts.

Keep your advisors close –

Advisors are very important – for your major life, career and financial decisions. Once you find people who really care about you, keep them close. People will make mistakes and not all decisions will turn out well, that is part of life. As long as it is not life threatening and an act of commission, it is ok. They will be around to hand hold your family in your absence.      

Give back –

It may be time, your attention, your money, a good advise or just a shoulder to cry on – pay it forward.

Invest in yourself –

Some of us are uncomfortable to manage money. It is important skill to work on it and can be acquired, just like you may work on your fear of water and inability to swim or your public speaking skills. As we upgrade our lifestyles as we progress through our careers, we need to upgrade ourselves too. Also take good care of your health, it is the best investment you would possibly make. 

Your financial plan is as unique as your DNA so there are no rules that apply to all. A principles based approach works best – understand the rules and apply the same to your situation. Why start with financial advise and end with advise on life? Because better finances lead to better lives, not vice versa. Please take good care and stay safe.


Saturday, May 22, 2021

Zanshin: Learning the Art of Attention and Focus From a Legendary Samurai Archer

Sharing a brilliant article from the bestselling author James Clear on focus and attention.

In the 1920s, a German professor named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan. He came to teach philosophy at a university a few hours northeast of Tokyo, in a city called Sendai.

To deepen his understanding of Japanese culture, Herrigel began training in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. He was taught by a legendary archer named Awa Kenzo. Kenzo was convinced that beginners should master the fundamentals of archery before attempting to shoot at a real target, and he took this method to the extreme. For the first four years of his training, Herrigel was only allowed to shoot at a roll of straw just seven feet away.

When Herrigel complained of the incredibly slow pace, his teacher replied “The way to the goal is not to be measured! Of what importance are weeks, months, years?”

When he was finally permitted to shoot at more distant targets, Herrigel’s performance was dismal. The arrows flew off course and he became more discouraged with each wayward shot. During a particularly humbling session, Herrigel stated that his problem must be poor aim.

Kenzo, however, looked at his student and replied that it was not whether one aimed, but how one approached the task that determined the outcome. Frustrated with this reply, Herrigel blurted out, “Then you ought to be able to hit it blindfolded.” Kenzo paused for a moment and then said, “Come to see me this evening.”

Archery in the Dark

After night had fallen, the two men returned to the courtyard where the practice hall was located. Kenzo walked to his usual shooting location, now with the target hidden in the dark. The archery master proceeded through his normal routine, settled into his firing stance, drew the bow string tight, and released the first arrow into the darkness.

Recalling the event later, Herrigel wrote, “I knew from the sound that it had hit the target.”

Immediately, Kenzo drew a second arrow and again fired into the night.

Herrigel jumped up and ran across the courtyard to inspect the target. In his book, Zen in the Art of Archery, he wrote, “When I switched on the light over the target stand, I discovered to my amazement that the first arrow was lodged full in the middle of the black, while the second arrow had splintered the butt of the first and ploughed through the shaft before embedding itself beside it.”

Kenzo had hit a double bullseye without being able to see the target.

Everything Is Aiming

Great archery masters often teach that “everything is aiming.” Where you place your feet, how you hold the bow, the way you breathe during the release of the arrow—it all determines the end result.

In the case of Awa Kenzo, the master archer was so mindful of the process that led to an accurate shot that he was able to replicate the exact series of internal movements even without seeing the external target. This complete awareness of the body and mind in relation to the goal is known as zanshin.

Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness. Literally translated, zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” In other words, the mind completely focused on action and fixated on the task at hand. Zanshin is being constantly aware of your body, mind, and surroundings without stressing yourself. It is an effortless vigilance.

In practice, though, zanshin has an even deeper meaning. Zanshin is choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way.

The Enemy of Improvement

There is a famous Japanese proverb that says, “After winning the battle, tighten your helmet.”

In other words, the battle does not end when you win. The battle only ends when you get lazy, when you lose your sense of commitment, and when you stop paying attention. This is zanshin as well: the act of living with alertness regardless of whether the goal has already been achieved.

We can carry this philosophy into many areas of life.

·         Writing: The battle does not end when you publish a book. It ends when you consider yourself a finished product, when you lose the vigilance needed to continue improving your craft.

·         Fitness: The battle does not end when you hit a PR. It ends when you lose concentration and skip workouts or when you lose perspective and overtrain.

·         Entrepreneurship: The battle does not end when you make a big sale. It ends when you get cocky and complacent.

The enemy of improvement is neither failure nor success. The enemy of improvement is boredom, fatigue, and lack of concentration. The enemy of improvement is a lack of commitment to the process because the process is everything. 

The Art of Zanshin in Everday Life

We live in a world obsessed with results. Like Herrigel, we have a tendency to put so much emphasis on whether or not the arrow hits the target. If, however, we put that intensity and focus and sincerity into the process—where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe during the release of the arrow—then hitting the bullseye is simply a side effect.

The point is not to worry about hitting the target. The point is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace each piece of the process. The point is to take that moment of zanshin, that moment of complete awareness and focus, and carry it with you everywhere in life.

It is not the target that matters. It is not the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming. Zanshin.


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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Sports Psychology for Top Performers

Sharing an interesting article this week on peak performance, the link for the full article is at the end of the mail.

There are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from athletes, and vice versa. Sports psychology, and ideas like mental imagery, performance routines, and focus, for example, can transfer over perfectly to business.

If you’re an entrepreneur, a peak performer, a businessman, or someone interested in becoming one, you will most likely be familiar with a certain phenomenon that is popular in the business world: the connection between business, sports, and war.

The works from Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, Napoleon, etc. are discussed in the business world. Quotes from Mike Tyson, Mohamed Ali, Rafael Nadal, Pele, etc. are often used as motivation. Strategies used in the business world by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Amancio Ortega, etc. end with the total destruction of rivals…

There are many connections, similarities, and common underlying principles between sports, war, and business. More than we could ever write in one single essay.

The main connection between the three is that they represent instances of peak human competition and rivalry. And when there is competition, there are winners and losers.

One of the key aspects that differentiate winners from losers, and one we can learn from, is mentality and psychology. Specifically, to how peak performers across different fields learn from each other and apply mental models from each field to their skill stack.

However, athletes are some of the greatest peak performers in the world, and they are both alive and have made many mistakes we can learn from. They have many more opportunities for iteration and feedback loops than the rest, which is why sports psychology is highly interesting.

The main lesson we can gain from them and that we can emulate is their mentality and psychology, which is what this essay will expand on.

According to Foster, there are five major skills related to sport psychology that transfer from sport to business. Some of these sport psychology principles and techniques can be applied in a large variety of business settings, leadership, and teamwork. These skills she identified in regards to mental training are:

  1. Mental imagery
  2. Performance routines
  3. Positive self-talk
  4. Activation control strategies
  5. Focus and sustaining attention

Mental Imagery in Sports Psychology

Athletes are not only physical beings, half of their work is mental. Mental imagery, also known as visualization, is mental rehearse of practice routines or different scenarios one can be subject to during the competition.

The greatest of athletes all have experiences with mental imagery as a key part of their mental training. In fact, visualization and mental imagery have their scientific explanation as to why they work and why we should incorporate them into our skill stack as athletes do.

The purposeful practice and rehearsal of different mental situations applied in sports and in learning skills transfer perfectly well into the business world and entrepreneurial settings.

Instead of rehearsing for your pre-game walk-through, you rehearse your meetings with VCs for potential funding. Instead of mentally going through different scenarios of the game, you go through different scenarios for your business and team.

The fact is, visualizing the process (not the result) in our minds helps fire the neurons that are fired when actually engaging in the process. The possibilities of rehearsing and practicing mentally, every day, should be part of the self-mastered individual’s skill stack.

Performance Routines

A key mental aspect that athletes engage in that entrepreneurs can learn is related to performance and pre-performance routines. Pre-performance routines consist of personal routines that serve the purpose to optimize preparation for performance.

Performance routines shouldn’t be confused with superstitions, like entering the football field and touching the goal post for better luck. But they can include exactly that: entering the field and touching the goal post.

The main point behind performance routines is to add familiarity and a sense of control before engaging in the event. The sequence of steps and actions followed to allow for the athlete to enter the right mindset and focus on the activity at hand, something that is key in regards to sports psychology.

For the entrepreneur, entering a football field and touching the goal post doesn’t apply. However, the entrepreneurs and peak performers can have a checklist to go over before starting work, or mental rehearsing and breathing, or whatever personalized routine which works for them to add familiarity and focus.

Positive Self-talk

Positive self-talk is a tricky subject to write about, mainly due to how easy it is to go off-topic and ignore reality. Correctly seeing the reality of a situation and being slight “irrationally confident” with yourself is a hard balance to strike.

Athletes’ self-talk is powerful. The conversation and dialogue that you have with yourself greatly determine your chances of success. In regards to sports psychology, any athlete that creates pre-emptive excuses about why they won’t make their shot successfully will most likely not make the shot correctly.

Listen to an interview by successful athletes and they all are confident in themselves, their skill, and their preparation. And they are confident precisely because of their preparation and their will to succeed, which allows them to train hard, smart, and pursue smart goals.

In fact, their self-belief and self-talk are so overly confident that it borders irrationality. They all have stories of many who doubted them while they were training, only to be finally redeemed once they win.

However, we all know of people who are extremely confident and have positive self-talk that has no tie to reality and is based on nothing, just delusion. The athlete is confident due to the training and preparation. Without it, their belief is not true to anything real or tangible.

For the entrepreneur, positive self-talk and self-belief need to be similar to athletes’ self-talk: based on preparation, talent, skill, and determination. The entrepreneur who believes in himself has to work hard to make the rest of the world believe in him just as much as he does.

When we adopt positive self-talk, we can properly start to set the systems in place to achieve all the goals we desire. For the athlete, the positive self-talk leads to training, because the athlete believes that he or she can achieve success, setting the systems needed to achieve said success.

For the entrepreneur, positive self-talk leads to trying things out, setting up a business, to learning new skills, etc. This positive self-talk and self-belief lead to the creation of various systems and routines, which can lead to eventual success.

Activation Control Strategies In Sports Psychology

As mentioned above, one of the core benefits of visualization or mental imagery is related to performance readiness plans.

Performance readiness plans consist of planning for various different scenarios that can occur during a match, performance, duel, competition, etc. of an athlete. To quote Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” (didn’t we mention above that athlete were being quoted in many different settings?).

Athletes who have mastered sports psychology prepare for many different scenarios because nothing ever goes to plan. Whoever plans and trains for the scenario that ends up happening on the playing field has a higher chance at success than who doesn’t.

For the athlete, this means to train for in situations of disadvantage, to plan for offensive and defensive strategies, to study the rival or the competition and create counter plans, etc. For the entrepreneur, performance readiness plans can be applied to a wide array of situations.

Entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of playing a game with defined rules and a closed environment like athletes do, which means their performance readiness plans cannot be as detailed or specific.

No one can have a plan for every value the stock market will have, nor a plan for every price of every component of your business, etc.

While we cannot have a plan for every price of the stock market, we can have a plan or two of worst-case scenarios of the economy. Or a plan for when a pandemic occurs and we have to be locked inside for a few months. We can even also have a plan for when things do not go according to plan…

The point is, the entrepreneur does not have a set of rules for the game, but the entrepreneur can plan, get ready, and prepare for different scenarios as the athlete does. If for the athlete almost nothing ever goes to plan, why should it be different for the entrepreneur?

Focus & Sustaining Attention

Athletes are masters of focus and sustaining attention, as well as achieving long-term goals. How they approach every training session determines how they will perform on the day of competition. How they maintain the discipline to not miss a day of training, to not miss a day of proper diet, or to not miss a night or enough sleep and recovery are examples of the sacrifices they make to achieve their goals.

Motivation is not something that lasts for long. Discipline does. For athletes to keep sight and not lose focus on their long-term goals they need discipline and systems. For the entrepreneur, it is no different.

An entrepreneur needs just as much discipline and focuses as the athlete, if not even more. Way too many projects end up in failures due to lack of focus. Way too many talented people end up wasting their potential due to lack of focus and direction.

There are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from athletes, and vice versa. Being some of the top peak performers in the world, athletes train both their body and mind to excel and perform at the highest level for long periods of time.

For entrepreneurs, every slight edge over the competition can become crucial at the later stages of the game. Applying mental models and systems from athletes can be just that difference that makes or breaks a business.

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Saturday, April 24, 2021

Becoming A Better Reader

Sharing a good article on becoming a better reader. I have taken the liberty of shortening the original piece and still keeping its essence, the link to the original is at the end of the mail.

Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book?

The answer is simple but not easy.

It’s not what they read. It’s how they read. Good reading habits not only help you read more but help you read better.

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Active Vs. Passive Readers

Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read. Another difference between these two types of readers is how the quantity of reading affects them differently. Passive readers who read a lot are not much further ahead than passive readers who read a little. If you’re an active reader, however, things are different.

The more that active readers read, the better they get. They develop a latticework of mental models to hang ideas on, further increasing retention. Active readers learn to differentiate good arguments and structures from bad ones. Active readers make better decisions because they know how to get the world to do the bulk of the work for them. Active readers avoid problems. Active readers have another advantage: The more they read the faster they read.

Effective Reading Habits

To get the most out of each book we read it is vital to have a plan for recording, reflecting on, and putting into action the conclusions we draw from the information we consume. In this article, we will show you how to get maximum benefit from every single page you read.

First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions about reading. Here’s what I know:

·         Quality matters more than quantity. If you read just one book a week but fully appreciate and absorb it, you’ll be far better off than someone who skims through half the library without paying much attention.

·         Speedreading is bullshit. The only way to read faster is to actually read more.

·         Book summary services miss the point. A lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to summaries written by some 22-year-old with exactly zero experience in the subject matter of the book. This misses the point of not only reading but how we learn.

·         Fancy apps and tools are not needed. A notebook, index cards, and a pen will do just fine. (For those of you wanting a simple and searchable online tool to help, Evernote is the answer.)

·         Don’t read stuff we find boring. 

·         Finishing the book is optional. You should start a lot of books and only finish a few of them.

A lot of success in reading boils down to preparation. What you do before you read matters way more than you think.

Filter Your Reading

There are no rules when it comes to choosing books. We don’t have to read bestsellers, or classics, or books everyone else raves about. In fact, there’s an advantage to be gained from reading things other people are not reading. This isn’t school and there are no required reading lists. Focus on some combination of books that: (1) stand the test of time; (2) pique your interest; or (3) resonate with your current situation.

The more interesting and relevant we find a book, the more likely we are to remember its contents in the future.

Know Your Why

What are you reading this book for? Entertainment? To understand something or someone you don’t know? To get better at your job? To improve your health? To learn a skill? To help build a business? You have to have some idea of what you want to get from the book. You don’t just want to collect endless amounts of useless information. That will never stick.

Intelligent Skimming

Before starting to read a book (particularly non-fiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside the jacket to get an idea of the subject matter.  (This article on how to read a book is a brilliant introduction to skimming.) The bibliography can also indicate the tone of a book. The best authors often read hundreds of books for each one they write, so a well-researched book should have a bibliography full of interesting texts. After you’ve read the book, peruse the bibliography and make a note of any books you want to read next.

Take Notes

Making notes is an important foundation for reflecting and integrating what you read into your mind. As you are reading a book, write your chapter summary right at the end of the chapter. If your reading session is over, this helps synthesize what you just read. When you pick up the book tomorrow start by reading the previous two chapter summaries to help prime your mind to where you are in the book.

Stay Focused

Decide that for the time you will be reading, you will focus on the book and nothing else. No quick Twitter checks. No emails. No cell phone. No TV. No staring into midair. Understanding and absorbing a book requires deep focus, especially if the subject matter is dense or complex. Remember, we are aiming for active reading. Active reading requires focus and the ability to engage with the author.

Mark Up the Book

Most of us were taught as children to treat books as something sacred – no folding the page corners, and no writing in the margins, ever. However, if you want to remember what you read, forget about keeping books pristine. I’ve spent a lot of time helping my kids unlearn the rule that books are not to be written in.

Build a Vivid Mental Picture

Building vivid mental pictures is one of the most effective techniques for remembering anything, not least what we read. When you come across an important passage or concept, pause and visualize it. Make the picture as salient and distinctive as possible.

Make Mental Links

Books do not exist in a vacuum. Every concept or fact can be linked to countless others. Making an effort to form our own links is a fruitful way to better remember what we read.

Keep Mental Models in Mind

Mental models enable us to better understand and synthesize books. Some of the key ways we can use them include:

·         Confirmation bias: Which parts of this book am I ignoring? Does this book confirm my opinions? (Okay, but does it actually affirm your beliefs or are you just seeing what you want to see? If you cannot think of a single point in the book that you disagreed with, confirmation bias is perchance distorting your reasoning.)

·         Bayesian updating: What opinions should I change in light of this book? How can I update my worldview using the information in it? Keep in mind the words of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

·         Pareto principle: Which parts of this book are most important and contain the most information? If I had to cut 99% of the words in this book, what would I leave? Many authors have to reach a certain word or page count, resulting in pages (or even entire chapters) containing fluff and padding. Even the best non-fiction books are often longer than is imperative to convey their ideas. (Note that the Pareto principle is less applicable for fiction books.)

·         Leverage: How can I use lessons from this book to gain a disproportionate advantage? Can I leverage this new knowledge in a tangible way?

·         Incentives: What motivates the characters or the author? What are they seeking? What is their purpose? Here’s how Kurt Vonnegut described the importance of incentives in books: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

·         Availability bias: Are the books I have recently read affecting how I perceive this one? How are my neoteric experiences shaping my reading? Am I assigning undue importance to parts of this book because they are salient and memorable?

·         Stereotyping tendency: Am I unconsciously fitting the author, characters, or book in general into a particular category? Or is the author stereotyping their characters? Remember, there is no such thing as a good stereotype.

·         Social proofHow is social proof — the number of copies sold, bestseller status, the opinions of others — affecting my perception of this book? Is the author using social proof to manipulate readers? It is not unusual for authors to buy their way onto bestseller lists, providing social proof which then leads to substantial sales. As a result, mediocre books can end up becoming popular. It’s a classic case of the emperor having no clothes, which smart readers know to look out for.

·         Narrative instinctIs the author distorting real events to form a coherent narrative? This is common in biographies, memoirs, and historical texts.

·         Survivorship bias: Is this (non-fiction) book a representation of reality or is the author failing to account for base rates? Survivorship bias is abundant in business, self-help, and biographical books. A particular case of a successful individual or business might be held as the rule, rather than the exception.

·         Utility: If a book offers advice, does it have practical applications? At what point do diminishing returns set in?

Stop When Bored

As a general rule, people who love reading never, ever finish a crappy book.

Nassim Taleb also emphasizes the importance of never finishing a substandard book:

The minute I was bored with a book or a subject, I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether – when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of the pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.

The Learning Process

Most people think that consuming information is the same as learning information. No idea could be further from the truth.

The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn ideas gained through experiences – ours or others – that remain unchallenged unless we make the time to reflect on them. If you read something and you don’t make time to think about what you’ve read, your conclusions will be shaky.

Apply What You’ve Learned

So, you’ve finished the book. Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Don’t just go away with a vague sense of “oh yeah, I should totally do what that author says.” Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book.

The Feynman Technique

The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning. There are four simple steps: choose a concept; teach it to a toddler; identify gaps and go back to the source material; and review and simplify.

Make Your Notes Searchable

Reread (If Necessary)

Great books should be read more than once. While rereading them can seem like a waste of time because there are so many other books to read, this is a misunderstanding of the learning process. The best time to start rereading a great book is right after finishing. The goal is not to read as many books as possible; I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. The goal is to gain as much wisdom as you can.

Rereading good books is of tremendous importance if we want to form lasting memories of the contents. Repetition is crucial for building memories. As Seneca wrote: “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

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