I have a lot of really smart friends, but I have few friends that read.
Most of my friends watch TV. And when I say “TV”, I mean all its modern forms—actual broadcast television, DVR’d shows, Netflix, whatever. They watch lots of it. Probably 10-30 hours a week, if I had to guess, which ends up being hundreds or thousands of hours per year.
But they don’t read.
And I’ve started to notice a yawning gap between their understanding of the world and my own. When we talk they offer me little clips of wisdom that were interesting five years ago when they first came out, but they have no awareness of the actual research behind it. The only reason they know the story is because it went viral on Facebook, or hit CNN.
So when we hang out, I hear about the inane TV shows they’re watching, and I tell them about the remarkably interesting concepts I’m learning about on a weekly basis through reading.
It makes me feel we’re sparring while I’m in a futuristic, 28-foot battle mech, and they’re naked after being malnourished for a week.
It’s not a fair fight, and that’s what’s frustrating me. They’re choosing to fight—not against me—but against the world, without upgrading themselves.
It’s not me, it’s the upgrades
Then I hear from others how smart I am. Or how productive I am. Or how I’m always doing interesting projects, and writing, and creating things. And I get questions about how I do it.
Well, that’s the thing: I didn’t do anything. I just happen to be in a 28-foot battle mech called reading.
Reading is a genetic upgrade. Every book I read enhances me, like a battle mech, like a smart drug, like an IQ implant, or like a CRISPR upgrade of my creativity. I am so vastly superior to my 10-years-ago-self that I can barely remember being that limited and ignorant.
And it’s all because of reading.
Reading makes you creative, just like exercise gives you energy. When I stop reading, I stop having ideas. It’s a very simple causal relationship described by numerous other people (which you would know if you read more). In short, I’m not smart. Reading makes me smart.
And because I know this, I make choices to keep this IQ & Creativity engine working consistently. I haven’t watched a TV show in months. I spend all that time reading instead. I read on planes. I read in the car (Audible). I read in bed. I go to coffee shops on nights and weekends and read. I read everywhere, constantly.
The Concentration of Wisdom
It’s true that there is good TV out there. John Oliver’s show is quality. Bill Maher has some solid discussion on a frequent basis. VICE is spectacular. And I’m sure there are many others.
But I don’t think they compare to reading books because reading has a naturally higher Quality Density, or Wisdom Concentration.
I honestly believe that reading a good book is ten to twenty times as useful as watching a quality show. I think it’s something about the purity of the thought that’s coming into the brain, and how much work your brain does to consume, model, and structure that input.
It’s almost as if reading is working out in a gym with weights, and watching TV (even good TV) is like watching someone else work out.
I think the “weight” in this metaphor is the creation of the world that’s being described, the placement of characters and concepts within it, and the maintaining of that world in your mind as the story progresses. With reading, your mind is doing all this work itself. It’s engaging in terraforming and world-building on its own, every moment of every book. With TV, all that work is done for you, and you’re just watching from the outside.
Making the switch from TV to reading
So what I recommend for everyone—and especially my friends—is that you consciously make the choice to exchange some of your TV time for reading time.
You might think you don’t have any time to read, but that’s because you’re probably spending close to 100 hours a month watching 11 different shows. And let me just say again: every hour of reading you swap will likely give you the value of 5, 10, 20, or even 100 times as much TV.
So it’s not a matter of not having the time; it’s a matter of making the time.
A side note about video games, by the way. They should be treated much like TV, and not the good kind of TV either. I like video games, and play a few myself, just like I watch a few TV shows. But I never treat either of those as my primary inputs, as they both equate to entertainment as opposed to enrichment.
So bottom line there is this: add up all your TV and video game time that you spend per week. That’s your enrichment / upgrade time budget. That’s the time you have to spend on improving yourself.
You can literally go to the gym. You can engage in some sort of physical activity like running, or walking, or whatever your sport of choice is. You can read. Or you can watch TV and play video games.
My recommendation is that you spend 80% of your time reading, 10% of your time exercising, and 10% of your time on video games or watching TV. Maybe that’s too extreme. Maybe you want to get to 70/15/15. Or 60/20/20. I don’t know what the best mix is, but what I’m arguing is that the more reading you add the better off you’ll be.
And just to be clear, I know this will be harder. Watching TV is extremely easy. And so is playing video games. They provide all the hooks and incentives themselves, so you basically just eat fistfuls of M&Ms until you can’t feel your face anymore.
Reading is harder to start because of the cognitive load I talked about earlier. For those who don’t read, or who aren’t currently reading, it’s harder to pick up the book and get started than it is to sit on a couch and stare at something.
I get it, and I’m asking you to push through it, for your benefit.
My Plea to You
So rather than a summary I’m going to make a plea.
This is not a matter of changing entertainment types—it’s a matter of upgrading yourself, your creativity, your imagination, and your intelligence.
It will make you more prolific in your own personal projects, it’ll make you more effective at work, and more interesting to talk to with strangers and at social events.
But let’s not be ephemeral about it. Let’s make it practical. I recommend you do the following starting next week.
- Pick a book from my Unsupervised Learning book list.
- Spend an hour a day reading it.
That’s it. An hour a day.
No matter what, you keep reading. It’ll be hard to get into the schedule at first, because your mind will rebel. It’ll say:
Um, this is hard. Why are you making me concentrate? Can’t we do something fun? Let’s watch TV instead. Let’s play a video game.
No. We’re reading this book right now. That’s what we’re doing.
After a week of doing this, and possibly much sooner, it’s no longer going to feel like work to make yourself read. It’ll com naturally, and it’ll become just as enjoyable (if not more) as watching TV or playing a video game.
And I’ll take it a step further. If you want to read a fantasy book, go and download The Name of the Wind and read/listen to that. For sci-fi, get The Three Body Problem. And if you’d prefer non-fiction, start with Homo Deus.
An hour a day.
Make the change.
You’ll love it.
- I have another group of friends, much smaller in number, that read maybe 1-5 books a year, mostly fiction, which almost counts as being a non-reader.
- “Reading” also includes other types of high-quality content, such as the the Waking Up, Intelligence Squared, and a16z podcasts, for example.
- I’m purposely being a bit of a dick in this post because I think it’s worth it to get you to read. It’s a trick called “being an asshole”. I hope it’s working.
- I make T.V. exceptions for Game of Thrones, Black Mirror, and a couple other shows, but in an average month out of a year I watch virtually no media. It’s all binging of a few top-quality shows or nothing at all.
- The Wisdom Concentration, or Quality Density of non-fiction books is also extraordinarily high because content is often dense and concise in good non-fiction books.
- It’s also worth mentioning that this isn’t about people who are already readers and just have lots of other positive activities going on, and who don’t watch much TV. This is for people who have lots of free time but spend it watching TV or playing video games instead of reading.