Listening notes: Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen on reading

A form of confidence I would like to impart more generally is the willingness to say what you think is worth saying, without embedding it in a larger or more detailed context. Potentially great podcasts die because their hosts choose formats that are too constraining. I suspect many people think that "I'm going to talk about food with reference to the geography of current events every week" justifies itself in a way that "Let's talk about food for a while" does not. But almost any project that could be started under the first description could be started better under the second. (And if it's a podcast, "I'm going to talk for a while every week, and I happen to know a lot about food" is probably better yet.)

Happily, Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen do not lack the confidence necessary to simply get on a call and talk about reading for a while. Some notes from the show:

  1. Tyler's admonition to read more is important. I view it as an instance of a general fact about productivity: avoiding zero output is harder than is generally acknowledged and is a great way to increase productivity generally. This is counterintuitive, because a lot of us are focused on maximizing the value we get for our time. But in a domain where (i) it's easy to get zero return and (ii) it's very hard to predict where the very highest intellectual returns will come, you can often maximize your expected return by ensuring you're doing something. (You can think of it as power-law investing for your mind.)
  2. I'd say rereading is better than Tyler thinks it is. This is probably related to a broader disagreement, which could simply be a difference in temperament or life stage.
  3. Related to (1) and also to confidence: it's healthy to admit that there are great books that just don't work for you. The best response by far in this situation is to put the book down and read something else. This is hard, because the book's fans are often right that it contains something special you won't get anywhere else. But: (i) many books are like that (more than you can read in a lifetime), so you're only sacrificing this special element, not your ability to consume uniquely special things in general; and (ii) trying to shame yourself into appreciating something tends to work about as well as trying to shame someone else into appreciating something. Just keep reading (something else).
  4. Relatedly: an underrated way to grow intellectually is by learning more about your profession, or some other thing you care deeply about. Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen don't mention this here; each of them is by now explicitly a sort of professional student of everything. But think back to Tyler's claim that a great way to understand modern India is to study textiles. I think he's right, but that it's less to do with textiles and more to do with the way in which focused study of any meaty topic will teach you a lot, and broadly. A lot of us have talked to strikingly well-informed people who got that way by knowing some craft and adding layers of related knowledge to it. And this gets to a point Tyler does make in this episode (and has often made over the last few years): if what you really care about is welding, don't feel bad about reading the hundredth book about welding! Reading deeply on a subject gets you super-linear returns (or so I think).

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