What I Learned from Reading 6,000+ Articles in the Last 52 Weeks

One year ago, I started the Sunday Reads newsletter. It’s a short email that goes out once every week (on Sunday, obviously), with “the best articles on business, strategy, entrepreneurship, and everything in between.”

Every week, I share the best articles I read that week. Sometimes they’re organized around a theme. Sometimes not. But there they are, without fail, in your inbox every Sunday.

I realized just last week that over the year, I had shared 600+ articles through that weekly email. And often, I read at least ten times as many articles during the week, to choose these best 10-12 articles.

What have I learned from these 6,000+ articles? Have they made me better at what I do?

No trees were harmed in the making of this post

No trees were harmed in the making of this post

A part of me answers almost immediately – yes, for sure! But how exactly have they helped? Can I tease out the key lessons I’ve learned from the articles? Or is it just a vague sense of achievement and hope – surely I haven’t wasted those hours?


So, over the last 7 days, I went back to those 52 emails. And pulled out the key learnings and principles that I’ve actually tried to use in my life.

Two caveats before we go on:

First, this is a long post. I’ve tried to summarize the key concepts I’ve learned, and it turns out 6,000 articles means a ton of learnings!

Second, I’ve included (several) links for further reading. Every paragraph is a rabbit hole. So, first read through the whole thing without clicking through on any link. Then, come back. Feel free to dive as deep as you want, on the subjects that interest you.

 

1. Goals don’t work. Use systems instead.

This was not a new lesson for me. But across article after article, book after book, this got reinforced. No matter the field, what seems to work is understanding the basic principles and following them. That’s it.

Success is not about choosing an ambitious goal and stretching to reach it. Whether in running your business or trying to win arguments with your spouse, hard work won’t cut it. Instead, you understand the basics, try a lot of different things, learn what works, and iterate or double down.

If you do it right, then no matter whether you succeed or fail in one specific endeavor, you’ll always come out ahead. You’ll always learn something that’ll be useful next time.

This sounds a little hackneyed at this high level, I know. But as you’ll see, it permeates all the other lessons below.

Further reading: Goals vs. Systems. I’ve read this a few times before, but I was still blown away by the simplicity when I read it just now. If you like this, you’ll love Scott Adams’ book.

 

2. Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

There are two types of people – those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset, you think you are at the peak of your skills. You’re the best artist, manager, husband, wife, etc. you can be.

If, on the other hand, you have a growth mindset, then you strongly believe you can grow and improve at whatever you do. Whether in your personal life (you can always become a better husband. OK, that hit too close to home), or in your professional career. There’s always room for improvement.

Your mindset determines how successful you are to a surprising extent. People with growth mindsets are more willing to try new things, learn new skills, and take risks. And those who take risks, get the rewards. Fortune favors the brave, etc.

Further Reading: You can read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which outlines the research on the subject. Or read Maria Popova’s review of the book.

 

3. Deliberate Practice

Let’s say you have a growth mindset. Is that enough to grow and improve your skills over time?

If the goals vs. systems argument tells us anything, it’s that just believing you can improve at something isn’t enough. So, what’s the system for this?

Practice. Not just doing something for 10,000 hours. Deliberate practice. Working at the edge of your abilities, getting immediate feedback (succeeding / failing), learning, and trying again. That’s what builds skills.

If you want to learn business, start a side-business. At every stage – idea generation, building your first product, selling it to your first customer – you’ll fail the first few times. And you’ll learn immensely.

If you want to improve your writing skills, start a blog. It takes 2 minutes on Medium. Write every day, and ask your friends and colleagues for feedback. Rinse, repeat.

Further Reading: Cal Newport’s book on the subject is excellent. This article from his blog is a good summary of the six traits of deliberate practice.


 

These were the three most important learnings for me from my last year of reading.

  1. Take a systems approach to all your endeavors
  2. There’s always room to become better at what you do
  3. The “system” to become better is deliberate practice

Everything else stems from these key principles. They form the foundation for the rest of the learnings. Get these right, and everything else falls into place. How’s that for a system?

 

As I continued plowing through the articles, I saw that a lot of them were organized around skills essential to succeed in the workplace today. Communication, structured thinking and problem solving, creativity, and focus (especially focus), to name a few.

How do we build these skills?

Learnings from Reading_02

4. How to learn anything

Communication, structured thinking, etc. are critical skills. But there’s one skill that’s a precursor to all this – the ability to pick up new skills quickly.

As Scott Adams says in his book, every new skill you learn doubles your chances of success. To take a simple example – an MBA who knows to code is far more valuable than just an MBA. And if this person also understands, say, cinematography, then the unique opportunities available are far more lucrative.

So, you need to continually build new skills throughout your career, to take advantage of new opportunities. And ideally, you’ll build skills that are themselves useful across a diverse set of sectors (system approach again).

OK, you’re sold. Learning how to learn is key (it’s also the secret moral of Kung Fu Panda, but that’s another story).

But how do you learn? You could join a course at your local university, or hire a teacher online, and do your 10,000 hours.

Or, you could use the Pareto principle to identify the 20% of concepts that have 80% of the importance, and quickly learn and practice those.

Further Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Learning Anything Faster

 

5. How to become smarter

Don’t you want to be that guy, who always sees through to the crux of an issue? Who understands the real problem, which no one else can see? Who always sees the way out of an unresolvable predicament?

I certainly want to be that guy.

Turns out, this is a learnable skill.

a. Don’t be stupid

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner-in-crime, once said, “The best way to be smart is to not be stupid”.

We are not rational beings, as economists would have us believe. Not by a long shot. As I’ve written before, we’re not only not rational, we’re also irrational in consistent and repeatable ways.

We’re subject to several cognitive biases, which predictably warp our judgement.

Anchoring is one example of a pervasive bias. The first number thrown in a negotiation becomes an unconscious anchor to the rest of the bargaining. That’s why both parties fight to shout out the first bid.

Availability bias is another one. We overestimate the probability of an event if we can remember vivid instances of it. We pay more for earthquake insurance than for calamity insurance (even though the latter includes earthquakes!), we overestimate the possibility of winning the lottery if our neighbor just won it last week, and so on.

This site has an extensive list of such biases.

How do you avoid these biases? Here’s the thing – you can’t.

Since these operate at a subliminal level, just knowing them won’t prevent them. Next time someone makes the first offer in a negotiation, you’ll predictably bargain around that.

Instead, counteract these in your decision-making by using a two-track thinking process.

  • First, make a decision rationally (to the best of your abilities)
  • Then, try and recognize the biases you’re subject to, and adjust accordingly

Do this again and again, and you’ll soon become a natural. At not being stupid.

b. Develop a latticework of mental models

This idea also comes from Charlie Munger.

There are several different frameworks that help us understand the world. Understanding and building a repository of these frameworks in our heads can help us become much faster at comprehending the forces at play around us.

For example, knowing about the concept of virtuous cycles can help us understand the remarkable success of Uber. Understanding the power of incentives can help us predict that what gets measured will get managed. Or that what doesn’t get measured, won’t even exist.

Shane Parrish explains the concept of mental models well in this Introduction. He also shares some models from his toolkit.

c. Read actively.

Don’t just read – read actively. Make sure you’re internalizing what you read.

That’s the Buffett formula to get smarter, this time.

 

d. Keep a commonplace notebook

Whenever you read anything interesting or insightful, or see a surprising pattern, put it down in a notebook.

Over time, this will become a repository of the smartest things you’ve read. A surprisingly easy place to go back to whenever you need inspiration, or a way out of a thorny problem.

Here’s how to keep a commonplace notebook, and here’s why you should keep one. This is my commonplace notebook, and I love it!

 

6. How to become creative

Turns out creativity is a learnable skill too! Here’s how you become an Idea Machine.

[Aside: if you want to learn how to have great startup ideas, read this guide. But be warned, you’ll sometimes come up with ideas that seem to have a lot of potential, but are actually bad. Here’s how to recognize bad ideas that look good.]

 

7. How to communicate better

Learnings from Reading_03

a. How to write better

Just two rules: (1) Never use passive voice; and (2) Keep it simple. Don’t use two words where one will do. Don’t use a long sentence where two shorter ones will do. That’s it. Nothing more.

Further Reading: The day you became a better writer. And if you need help, check out the Hemingway app.

 

b. How to argue better

Before you even begin to argue:

(1) First, understand whether your opponent’s opinion is changeable at all. Ask: “What specific data points, if true, would convince you to change your mind?” If nothing will, you might as well not waste your time arguing. [Aside: yes, the similarity to the scientific method is not incidental].

(2) Then, as Daniel Dennett says here, first restate your opponent’s view so clearly and succinctly that they wish they could have put it that way themselves.

(3) Then, call out the specific areas on which you agree with your opponent, and what you’ve learnt from their view.

Then, and only then, should you say even one word of criticism.

 

How do you argue after that? Using the Ten Golden Rules of Argument.

And yes, remember Miller’s Law. “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”

Before you say some statement is wrong or silly, first challenge yourself to think of a scenario where that statement actually makes sense. [The same principle applies for criticizing political decisions, competitors’ moves, etc.]

 

Finally, be happy to be proven wrong, like Darwin. Remember, you only learn when you lose arguments.

c. How to give feedback better

There’s no playbook here.

Actually there is one – sandwich your feedback between two appreciative comments. It’s also known as The Shit Sandwich, and no, it doesn’t work. People see it coming a mile away. You start by saying “Your emails are always so well formatted”, and the opposite person immediately thinks, “God! How have I screwed up now?”

Instead, be authentic.

And come from the right place. Remember, you’re giving feedback so that the person succeeds going forward. And give constructive feedback frequently – don’t wait for review cycles, or the end of the week, etc.

That’s how you give feedback.

Further Reading: Making yourself a CEO, by Ben Horowitz. And Roger Fisher on How to Provide Feedback.

 

d. How to negotiate better

Nothing I say here will be as valuable as reading this excellent summary of Roger Fisher’s book, Getting to Yes.

 

In addition to all these, there’s one more important tenet to interpersonal communication. Always respond positively when someone says something to you. Negative / sarcastic reactions, or even no reaction at all, can be very damaging to relationships, as this article from Farnam Street recounts.

 

8. How to focus

Learnings from Sunday Reads_04

This is an important one. Between emailing all day, getting pings on Whatsapp, and checking what’s new on Twitter, it’s a wonder we get any work done.

Even as I type this, my hand continually reaches out to check my phone. Maybe there’s a new message since I last checked 2 minutes ago?

As this article from the NYT argues, focus is a critical skill. And it’s incredibly hard in this age of digital distraction. But as Cal Newport shows in his book Deep Work, it can be learned.

How do we learn it? By practicing it:

  1. First, use the Pareto principle. Take your to-do list, and remove the 80% of tasks that are unimportant.
  2. Then, use Parkinson’s Law (“work expands / contracts to fill the time available to it”). Give yourself slightly less time than needed for each of the 20% important tasks. This will force you to focus – if you get distracted, you won’t be able to finish in the given time.
  3. Of course, you’ll have to do the less important tasks at some point. For this, use a shallow work checklist that you tick things off when taking a break from the important tasks.

 

9. How to become a better manager

Read this FAQ from Henry Ward, CEO of eShares. Enough said.

 

10. How to get lucky

The last and final lesson I learned, and arguably the most important one. Building all those skills is great – it sets you up for success. But getting all the firewood together in one pile is not enough. Something has to light the fire. And luck is that matchstick.

Analogies apart (you can tell they’re my weak spot), you can acquire all the skills you want and work as hard as you can. But to win really big, you also need Lady Luck to favor you. And luck can be as capricious as they come.

But, like everything else above, you can engineer luck as well. You can expose yourself to positive luck, while limiting the downside from negative luck.

In the words of Nassim Taleb, you can be antifragile.

How do you do that?

a. Employ a barbell strategy – maintain a portfolio of low-risk / low-reward and high-risk / high-reward strategies.

Keep your day job, and try and build a side-business on the weekends. Quit your job only after the startup starts to scale. Even Craigslist was built in Craig’s spare time.

[Extra marks if you build your side business in a Power Law market. In such markets, if you do win, you’ll win huge.]

 

b. Build a strong network of ‘weak’ links – the best opportunities are at the edges of the status quo in every field. If you know people at the cutting edge in every industry, you’ll be better placed to spot and capitalize on big opportunities. Spend time with A+ people from other industries. [Note: This is also evidently the no. 1 predictor of career success].

 

c. Develop an “abundance mindset”. Look around and notice things. Be open to serendipity.

Nat Eliason has written a great primer on getting exposure to positive luck. You can also read this excellent book.


 

That’s it. Those were the lessons I learned from the 6,000+ articles I read in the last 52 weeks.

Oh, and I also learned that we’re living in a simulation. Probably. Quantum theory certainly seems to suggest so. Elon Musk thinks so. So do Scott Adams, Nick Bostrom, and a host of other tech leaders.

Oh well – hope someone’s writing a subroutine to guarantee success if we learn all these skills!

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Your brain is a muscle. Here’s how you give it a workout.

Exercise

I asked this question on Facebook last week, and got a lot of suggestions (thanks a lot, folks!). There were several great ideas for exercising the brain, but I also got one saying, “The brain is not a muscle. It’s an organ!”. So let me be the first one to say it here – of course the brain is an organ. But it does have some properties of a muscle – for instance, it can be trained and made more powerful, more agile, and sharper.

So, assuming you’re with me on the muscle metaphor, how can you exercise your brain every day?

 

Before we go on, let’s talk about the different facets of the brain – the different skills that you can hone. Now, scientifically, there are many different ways to look at this. One article lists five different brain-skills, and Wikipedia’s page on Cognitive Development lists seven! But for all practical purposes, I think of three distinct skills to exercise:

  1. Agility – the speed and nimbleness of your brain. I’m sure you have those days, every once in a while, when it feels like your brain is fogged up, and you’re sleepwalking through your day. On those days, your brain is the opposite of agile. And you can fix that (unless it’s due to a hangover; everything has limits).
  2. Creativity – The thinking brain, at its most basic, is a pattern recognition device (I’m really going with the metaphors here). Even its primary function of building and retrieving memories is built on pattern recognition – that’s why, when you’re thinking of something and you let your mind wander, you find you’ve reached quite somewhere else. Most of the time, these seemingly random connections happen at the subliminal level, and you suddenly realize you’ve answered the very question you’re grappling with – that’s what Eureka moments are. This kind of creativity can be manufactured as well. You can train your brain to see patterns where others don’t, and come up with insightful ideas – which is what creativity really is.
  3. Memory: This is the biggest bugbear for our overburdened minds today. In this age of hyper-information, how do we remember everything of consequence, and extract it from our brains at the right time?

 

Let’s take these three areas one by one:

1. Agility:

Agility

The adage “Healthy mind in a healthy body” rings perfectly true. If you’re not sleeping well and exercising regularly, then that’s what you should do first to make your mind more agile. Nevertheless, the different exercises below help quite significantly.

a. Learn a new skill

Whenever you learn a new skill, you create new neural pathways in your brain – making it fresher and more active. That’s why you feel more energetic whenever you learn something new. When you learn to play a musical instrument or dance, you are learning physical skills; but they have an impact on your brain as well. You’re learning a new way to use your limbs, so to speak, and that creates new routines in your brain.

I started learning Krav Maga, a self-defense technique, last year. For a pacifist like me, this is as new a skill as one can imagine. And over the last 15 months, whether or not I’ve become better at protecting myself (I still get beaten up by the wife), I definitely feel a lot more energetic, both physically and mentally.

b. Use Elevate

If you use an iPhone / Android smartphone, you must try Elevate. It’s an app that gives you a few brain exercises every day, across several areas – math, reading comprehension and agility, speaking precision, listening, etc. It takes just 5 minutes every day, and you’ll feel the difference in a matter of days.

I’ve been using Elevate for a few months now, and swear by it. Doing such thinking exercises every day sharpens your brain – builds a muscle memory, as it were (yes, I know the brain is not a muscle). And the best thing about the app is that it always challenges you. As you get better at these exercises, so do they get harder. And this constant effort at the boundary of your abilities is what makes you stronger – again, just like building muscles at a gym (OK, I’ll try to stop with the analogies now).

In summary, this is an excellent app to use. If there’s one thing you do after reading this post (apart from sleeping well and exercising) – download Elevate.

c. Meditate / Practise Mindfulness:

In our rush to get the most out of life, we tend to optimize away our time (I know I do). Do this for too long, and you face burnout.

Sometimes, you need to simplify, slow down, and clear your head. And meditation is a great way to recapture your energy. But you don’t have to sit in one place in padmasana and try and blank your mind. Rather, meditation is more about concentrating – concentrating on your breath, your limbs, etc. And meditation is closely related to mindfulness, or paying close attention to what you’re doing and thinking. And you don’t have to sit down to be mindful – focus when you’re doing even mundane tasks (like folding clothes). You’ll find that by the time you’re done (unless you’re doing laundry after a very long time), you’re the fresher for it.

I try this sometimes when I’m stuck in traffic on the way home – I keep my phone aside, and pay attention to what’s going on around me. That way, when I get home, I’m rested rather than frustrated, and rearing to get to work again. As they say, when life deals you lemons…

As an aside, if you want to learn meditation, Headspace and Calm come highly recommended. I’ve never tried them, but do give them a spin. And tell me whether you like them.

d. Daily writing:

I strongly recommend this as well. Every day, maybe just before going to sleep, write 500 words. You can write about anything – your day, a funny incident, an observation, anything. Putting your thoughts down helps you structure them and clear your head. And there’s nothing like a clear mind to dump more thoughts and information into.

Incidentally, this is why I started this blog – as an outlet for all my thoughts. Writing forces me to make sense of them, and draw out coherent implications. It also forces me to be rational – if I write about the different ways of being more productive, I HAVE to practise them myself. Can’t just keep giving gyaan (if the wife were to read my blog, she would roll her eyes here).

 

2. Creativity

Creativity

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve heard people talk about the left brain-right brain framework. People who are more analytical, logical and deductive are “left-brained”, and those who are more intuitive, subjective and creative are “right-brained”. I was always “left-brained” – good at math, computer engineer. People with liberal arts backgrounds are considered more creative, and “right-brained”.

However, not only is this left brain-right brain belief a myth, creativity is also something that can be learnt and cultivated. How do you do it? By strengthening the pattern recognition machine in your head. And how do you do that?

a. Creativity exercises:

A number of exercises help you train your brain’s creativity and improve your ability to come up with ideas. These may or may not have any real-world application, but each of them make you focus your mind on a particular problem and work at the boundary of your creative ability – thereby extending those boundaries too.

  1. Make lists: I first read about this on James Altucher’s Blog. In a post with the most over the top title ever (The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine), Altucher lays out a simple thesis for becoming more creative. Make lists of 10 ideas every day. But ideas for what? Whatever you want – 10 books that changed your life, 10 startup ideas in education, 10 blog posts to write, 10 knock-knock jokes, anything. This sounds random, but it works. Let’s say you try and make a list of 10 things you learnt from the last book you read – you’d probably be able to think of 3-4 very quickly. The next 2-3 will make you sweat a little. And the last 3 will tax your brain – the proverbial heavy lifting where muscles get made. Make these lists every day, and your idea muscle will, slowly but surely, grow stronger.
    And every once in a while, you’ll come across a great idea that you cannot but follow through on. Starting my blog, creating the Startup Weekly newsletter, many of my blog posts (including this one!) are all, in one way or another, the result of this simple exercise that I do every morning on my train ride to work.
  2. Logical Puzzles: Logical puzzles, or lateral thinking problems, are a great way to practise thinking ‘out-of-the-box’. Doing such puzzles every so often, whether you get them right or you peek at the solution (I am an inveterate peeker), introduces you to different mental models or approaches to problem-solving, which will definitely stand you in good stead in real life (if only to amaze job interviewers who give you a puzzle you’ve seen before). There is a reason that ‘thinking out of the box’ has become such a cliché – it works, and while it can’t be taught, it can certainly be cultivated.
    As a sample, try out this exam question that has taken the Internet by storm. And you can find many more online – just search for ‘logical thinking puzzles’ on Google.

b. Read books:

Books are a great way to expand your horizons, broaden your thinking, and build new patterns in your brain. Everyone should read. Whether you read 10, 20 or 50 books a year, you should read. They say experience is the best teacher, but you can only experience one life. Why not learn vicariously from the experiences of others – stand on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s words?

Some people I know read only fiction, and others can’t bring themselves to read anything other than non-fiction. I read both. Fiction, especially science fiction, helps expand your idea of the possible. And non-fiction grounds you, so you can apply these patterns to the real world. That sounds either way too abstruse or too fluffy, but you hopefully get the idea.

 

3. Memory

Memory

Memory is strongly related to Agility – the same things you do to improve your agility also improve your memory. So, sleeping well, exercising, clearing your mind from time to time, using Elevate – all help improve your attention and your memory. In addition:

a. Take notes. And review them:

I’ve written before about the advantages of making notes. Using a software like OneNote or Evernote to capture your thoughts helps you remove the open loops from your brain and free your mind to make more memories. I also use these to capture notes from books I read, interesting articles, etc.

But taking notes actually takes stuff OUT of your memory. How then is it strengthening it? For that, you need to review your notes from time to time. What we hear / read goes into our short-term memories. Reviewing these periodically gradually puts them into long-term memory (I’m sure the real process is far more complicated, but this is a simple working understanding).

I do this for every book I read, and I go through my notes from time to time. Done right, this is as good as re-reading the book – you refresh your memory of the key learnings from the book. Of course, making notes is slightly tedious. But think of it as just taking 10% longer to read a book.

b. Learn a new language:

Learning a new language has many advantages. A key one is that it helps you improve your memory. As you try and establish new patterns in your head to remember the new words you’ve learnt, you also evidently reengage old patterns. I strongly recommend Duolingo and Memrise for this. While Duolingo is the more popular one, Memrise helps you build more sticky memories – it encourages you to associate an image with every word, so that you can leverage not just your memory, but your brain’s pattern recognition machine as well (if there’s one term I’ve overused in this blog post apart from the muscle metaphor, it’s pattern recognition).


So there you are. To summarize (TL:DR): To strengthen your brain – sleep well, exercise, learn new skills, read a lot, write a lot, and use Elevate. And yes, take a break and clear your mind once in a while.

I was hoping this post would be shorter than my usual fare, but well, I hope that every time. Maybe next week. In the meantime, would love your thoughts on this post. Do especially tell me if there are any other things you do to exercise your brain. Comment here, email me at gt.jithamithra@gmail.com, or tweet at @jithamithra.

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