“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.” - Leonardo da Vinci
I'm not the most voracious reader in the world. I get through ~30 pages per day, or a book every two weeks. Despite getting through a healthy volume of books, they haven't sharpened my thinking to the extent I'd have liked. To combat this, I've started reading in clusters.
The gist: Choose a topic and read ~5 foundational books in the space. Reading 30 pages per day allows for a cluster every 3 months. In that time, you'll have developed a unique and interesting perspective on the topic. Choose topics wisely and in a relatively short amount of time you can develop a store of models and tools to help you navigate life and your work.
Why this approach?
- You can learn more about a field by reading the five foundational books than you can by reading the most recent thirty.
- It allows you to take 5 perspectives and combine them to form your own. This perspective is likely to be unique because while other people have read the books, it's unlikely that they read the same combination in the same order.
- You build connections between books and clusters that wouldn’t otherwise reveal themselves.
I suspect that the time required to work through a cluster will hasten over time. An existing bank of knowledge, stemming from previous books, allows you to grasp concepts quicker and skim, or even skip, parts you already know and understand. You no longer read to find all ideas, you read to find ideas that connect and build upon your existing knowledge, enhancing it in the process.
Slava Akmechet provides a wonderful example of how you can stitch together a perspective of the world based on the history of technology that became ubiquitous. This cluster fascinated me and I dove deep into it, albeit with a few different books: The Victorian Internet, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, The Wikipedia Revolution, Masters of Doom, Revolution in the Valley, Tuxedo Park and What Technology Wants.
Approaching books with questions in mind amplifies the learning process. Reading becomes a hunt for answers. As you parse through different books, stories and essays, you encounter confirmatory and contradictory answers, forcing you to develop an opinion of your own.
I read this cluster trying to understand how different people in different industries build world-class teams and world-changing technologies. These books span many centuries and multiple industries, but, unsurprisingly, certain ideas and lessons continue to emerge. If an idea lay at the heart of ubiquitous technologies centuries ago and remains there today, it’s useful to have an understanding of it if you want to build the ubiquitous technologies of tomorrow.
As an engineer, my career success will depend on my ability to build teams and be a part of teams that create ubiquitous technology. Very few people will have read those books or spent months thinking and writing about the question of ubiquitous technology. This process will put my understanding of how technology becomes ubiquitous in the 95th percentile (and likely higher). No matter the outcome, I’m better positioned to understand and tackle the problems I’ll face and upon which my success will depend. That’s the real benefit of reading in clusters.
The workplace is extremely competitive. A tool that offers a unique perspective and insight into valuable problems, and which only took you 3 months to acquire, seems like a no-brainer.
On Making Connections
I realised upon leaving university that almost all learning up until that point had been done for the sake of testing, with very little regard given to understanding.
Consuming plenty of information provides your brain with a rich pool of information, anecdotes and data from which it will begin to create connections and pick out patterns. One of the major facilitators of human intelligence is our minds’ ability to easily find patterns and connections—a tendency called patternicity by Michael Shermer.
Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. Deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is how reading becomes useful.
Having read more does not automatically mean having more ideas. It often means having fewer ideas to work with, because you know that others have already thought of most of them. Clusters help navigate the idea space and develop an understanding of what's been done and how people arrived there, placing you in the ideal position to understand where we are and what comes next.
A byproduct of reading this way is that you read more biographies and narrative books. Reading history allows you to expand your source of influences through time and space. History is useful for teaching you what happened, but that's not the real power of it. The real benefit comes when you attempt to get inside the heads of people who lived in the past and understand why they made the decisions they made. It allows you to improve your thinking and decision-making before finding yourself in a situation that demands it. The more you do this, the more you realise how difficult those situations were.
You have the benefit of hindsight, the historical figure you're learning about didn't. If they consistently made good decisions, they're somebody you should learn from.
The more you do this, the larger your pool of data, information and anecdotes, grows. You begin to notice patterns and consistencies emerging across different domains and time periods and you form connections between seemingly isolated events. These insights are invaluable.
p.s. The photo was taken in Mumbai, India. A street-corner book store selling almost any book you can think of, for $2.