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1: Deliberate Content Consumption
A paradigm shift in information flow. How controlling content input gives you a bigger advantage than ever before. This month's commitments.
When I was 12, I decided I would learn how to play golf. So the next time my mom went to Walmart, I tagged along and bought a $12 pitching wedge and an 8 pack of golf whiffle balls. Given that no one else in my family played golf, learning the sport was going to be a self-taught adventure. This being 2005, I did what all curious learners with dial-up internet did at the time. I opened a handful of tutorial videos in separate browser tabs and then promptly went to bed, waiting overnight for them to load.
Our 2005 dial-up internet, as slow as it was, made the world feel big and full of opportunity. But it also felt tractable. Like the world was coming to me at my own pace. It’s not that there was anything less going on in the world, just that we were the ones to venture out into new places and find it in our own time.
Dial-up internet was so slow that no one would dare go on it out of boredom. You had to be efficient with your clicks. A wrong click would send your internet reeling to load up a useless page. That first day of learning golf, I remember picking only the most promising 3 or 4 videos to buffer overnight. At the time, everyone on the internet was seeking out specific content - the most relevant pages to read, the best video resources to watch for what interested us. We leveraged the internet as a super powerful library; it was a wealth of information that we could tap into at our choosing. Now the relationship is reversed. We are leveraged by the internet as a set of eyes with a credit card account to tap into.
The sentiment on content has changed from adventure and opportunity to ambushed and overwhelmed. We have increasingly little say in choosing the content we consume. Tik Tok and YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels give us a stream of 15-second videos that their algorithms have picked for us. Even the primary feeds for Twitter and Instagram have changed from a feed of content from people, we chose to follow, to feeds dictated by ads and engagement algorithms.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that slow dial-up internet was a beautiful constraint. It limited the content dopamine hit and enforced us as the masters of our own content selection.
We can all plainly see the effect that fast and convenient internet has had on the kind of content we consume. It’s increasingly short and unfocused. Increasingly politically charged - sometimes to the point where we even feel guilty for not reacting. And for whatever reason, we eat it up. The social media companies and their engagement algorithms have won. Apparently human engagement is not an NP-hard problem. Now, at the first hint of boredom we pull our phones out of our pockets and open up the usual suspects - Twitter, Instagram, Reddit - inviting the world to show us content at random. It’s not pleasant to admit, but most of us have developed addiction-like tendencies for mindlessly checking our phones. Let me be the first to claim mine.
For now, let’s not talk about the wide-reaching societal impact this has. These are discussions well worth having, but I encourage you to be selfish here. For a while, drop the concerns of everyone and everywhere else and let’s focus on making our world smaller.
Seneca’s Thoughts on Twitter
Seneca (4 B.C. to 65 A.D) wrote letters to his mentee, Lucilius. Though written 2,000 years ago (2,000 years ago!), his letters are remarkable relevant for today. It’s been a great source of comfort for me reading about some of the problems with society he was dealing with - realizing that the societal issues we’re dealing with today, the ones that feel so unprecedented, have actually existed for thousands of years. We, as a human species, have gotten through this before. And we will this time, too.
Seneca, along with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, form the Mount Rushmore of Stoic philosophy. In later weeks, we’ll be diving into the details on these three and do some ruminating on the cornerstone mental models of Stoic Philosophy. For now, we’ll start with some of Seneca’s thoughts regarding content consumption.
In his second letter to Lucilius, On Discursiveness in Reading, Seneca writes:
”Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong”
In short, these 15 second videos on Tik Tok, or 200 character Tweets, even if they’re of the “informational” variety, never really take root. We don’t glean anything from them. Real assimilation takes conscious effort and thorough engagement. It’s not fun at first, but it will reward us in the end.
When you crave content, novelty, go back to the authors that you have read before. As Oscar Wilde put it, “if one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all”. Find select sources you get excited when you’re reading, and engage deeply with them. Instead of following someone on Twitter to look at the quick takes, read their book or subscribe to their more in depth email newsletters. Select the best, and thoroughly digest them.
Seneca, in a later letter (VII, On Crowds), writes:
“Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds… I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me”
Seneca is speaking to the groggy sticky feeling that’s brought about after getting sucked into the content rabbit hole for an hour. I know it all too well. It’s too easy to check out and mindlessly scroll through Reddit half in a haze. The resulting feeling sticks in such a stark contrast directly to the excitement and spark of motivation that flows through me when I’m reading a biography or novel.
Seneca continues, “the young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority”
Unfortunately, social media is not the truth-seeking machine it sometimes makes itself out to be. It is a machine for attention; that is to say, easy-to-understand and oversimplified quips. The majority mob does not care for the truth. They care for cognitive ease and affirmation of beliefs. This, more than almost anything else, is a constant source of frustration for me. I often come back to the following from Seneca, regarding human’s built-in mob mentality:
“You must either imitate or loathe the world. But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the crowd”. He continues, “Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.”
For anyone who writes or creates content, this last proclamation alludes to a critical mindset shift. It is natural to feel an increasing pressure to create for the many. Shallow, flashy content which appeals to the less than thoughtful mobs and drives in more views. Instead, create for the perceptive. Compose for the patient. Write for the thoughtful.
An (unknown) artist, in response to questioning about why he creates though his work reaches so few:
“I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”
The Attention Span Advantage
Most recently, I’ve been reading The Code Breaker (Walter Isaacson) which has put me into a nervous excitement about what the future holds for neuroscience research. I know reading longer form content like this engages my mind in a deeper way, and I ultimately get more enjoyment out of it - so why would I ever run to 15 second content? For one, its quicker to the dopamine. We are prolifically short-sighted and engrained to run to whatever provides the fastest gratification. But, interestingly, phone scrolling has also become a way for us to switch off. The easy-to-understand, funny videos are way to take your mind off of other “real life” stresses you may be feeling. A hypnotic trance of shallow engagement which has taken the place of boredom, as is far more effective at distracting you from your problems at work. This combination of quick pleasure and pain reduction is too tempting a cocktail.
Simply put, if we are not consciously selective of who and what we engage with, our outdated lizard brains will run to Tik Tok every time. Like a kid comparing Coco Pops to oatmeal, we stand little chance against artificially appealing content that has been algorithmically optimized for a quick dopamine hit. It’s 2022 and Skynet doesn’t look how we imagined it, but the computers have figured us out.
Those of us who gain back control of their content intake will wield a tremendous advantage over those who cannot. More than ever, we have the world’s resources at our fingertips. We can create globally reaching products and companies from our kitchen tables with only a laptop. Yet the vast majority are happy to play the role of consumer. Fewer and fewer people are willing to try to do the hard things. And even fewer people are willing to stick with it long enough to see results.
Combine this with an increasingly winner-take-all world. Nassim Taleb (who can be arrogant to the point of being almost unreadable, but has some great things to say), does an excellent job outlining how we are shifting from a world of normal distributions to a world of power distributions. Concretely, 200 years ago, two people could grow crops and if one grew 30% more, they would make 30% more revenue. Now, a 30% difference in quality, whether it be a product or a YouTube channel, can be the difference between millions in revenue and next to nothing. Why watch a 30% worse YouTube channel given the choice? Sure, personal preferences won’t create a 100 to 0 split, but the economy of choice dictates that it will be far from equal.
This is all to say, there is no better time to double down on your projects. While everyone else is sipping dopamine infused water from the content river, be especially focused on building. Most recently, I’ve seen this happen personally with PerThirtySix, a data-driven sports analytics site I built with my friend, Shri.
If you follow sports, you’ve had the unfortunate experience of seeing millions of fans babble on their nonsense on social media every day, offseason or not. They all love to talk, regardless of if it makes any sense. And if you want to join the conversation, it feels impossible to be heard. Shri and I put our heads down on nights and weekends for a few weeks and created the first iteration of PerThirtySix. Emphasis on a few weeks. This was not a long time. The branding was good and visualizations interesting, but it wasn’t anything that took a ton of work. But, compared with everyone else talking, we looked lightyears ahead whenever we would post content. While everyone was talking and speculating and day-to-day happenings, we ignored the noise and started building. Within a few more weeks of work, we both had offers to work for the NBA or to work directly with some of the league’s best independent analysts. That’s how quickly it can happen in a world where everyone’s attention is lost to consuming.
When it comes to content consumption, we’re not in nearly as much control as we think we are. A quick fact check sends us onto Reddit and off we go down the rabbit hole. Our minds are step-by-step machines that, for the most part, simply follow the easiest path to the next most obvious breadcrumb. If we want to take back control of the content firehose, we have to be deliberate about it.
When it comes to content, we need to be honest with ourselves and treat our addictive tendencies seriously. I want to bring back some of the constraints of the early internet years. The easiest way to do that is to make it harder for yourself - turn off your phone. In its stead, I want to focus on learning one major new thing + constrain my reading to three choices (I’m terribly guilty of jumping between two handfuls of books at any given time). Finally, I want to make a more deliberate point of journaling in the evenings. Quitting the content addiction for a day or week won’t yield results. But 2 hours a day for a month is 60 hours. That’s a week and a half of extra work time and its important to reflect and recognize where this leads.
What I’m committing to this month (I’ll be honest about how it goes in a month’s time):
When going to bed, turn off phone and put it in another room. Don’t turn it back on until after breakfast.
Setting myself something new to learn, so when I have an urge to “consume content”, I’ll have something more productive to take my attention. For me, this is learning classical guitar.
Read at most three books at once (a fiction + two non-fictions). Choices: Seneca, David Hume, Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry).
Writing down what I learn and build every evening.
For those interested, I highly recommend Seneca’s Letter VII, On Crowds. You can hop in and out of his letters to Lucilius as you please (there are 124); there’s no order to them. They are short reads and the translation freely available on Wikisource (by Richard Gummere) is excellent.
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