Learning but not reading

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

In 2017 I bought 100+ books on Amazon. In 2018 I haven’t bought any books from anywhere. In October of 2018, I didn’t even read a book.

Instead, I binged on YouTube and podcasts.

Books are great because they encapsulate an idea. As a kid, the library was the chocolate factory and the librarian a Willy ‘Booka.’ Want to learn about something? Read this. Want to go somewhere? Read that. Thanks to the durability of language and paper, books are a perfect vesicle.

But books are also static. They’re limited in their pages. They’re not great for people with a visual perspective. Neil Gaiman articulated this idea in a May 2017 talk in Boston:

“Sometimes things turn up with a format and then you’re lucky. Sometimes they turn up with a format and you’re wrong and then the idea sits around for a while. Anansi Boys I originally thought was a movie and I remember trying to write it as a film script several times and going, ‘this isn’t right.’”

The same idea applies to learning. Some things you have to learn by doing. No book can teach someone how to ride a bike. No bike can teach someone physics.

I watched Rory Sutherland’s Nudgestock 2018 talk this month. Sutherland said that while the replication crisis in academia may be a problem for them, it hasn’t been one for him. “My argument is that, as marketers and practitioners, it’s the failure to replicate we’re really interested in.” Things working (or not) in one area may be different for things working (or not) in another.

Maybe learning is like that too.

Not only should people follow their curiosity in subjects but also their curiosity in forms. Shane Parrish spoke about tutors. David Perell and Tyler Cowen tout travel. Ariana Simpson reads white papers now. Malcolm Gladwell digs around SSRN. Patrick O’Shaughnessy sends out a monthly book list that’s gotten lighter on books. We call these types ‘voracious readers’ but they’re really learners.

The internet is the new perfect package. It’s always there and there’s something always new. Books used to have a monopoly. Now anyone can set up a blog and share their notes, links, and ideas.

Getting Started.

Want to try this? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find a conference you’re interested in and search for it on YouTube. My favorites are Nudgestock and Sloan Sports.
  • Find a channel up your alley. Talks at Google is good, so is WGBH Forum and Santa Fe Institute.
  • Find an author you wanted to read and watch them instead.


Our design ‘world’ influences our behavior. YouTube will be more distracting but it will also allow variable speeds. Get ready to take notes, capture screenshots, pause and search Wikipedia (Who is Paul Erdos anyway?), turn on transcript and dive in. This is what mine looked like one morning.

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 3.50.03 PM.png

For this blog, I’ll get exact quotes for about one-fourth of the talk and then take short-hand notes for the rest.

Then, because writing is a form of thinking, I’ll add ‘narrative notes’. An example from Steve Krug’s 2014 talk:

Steve Krug wants people to be less busy, more lazy, yet more effective. That means regular small steps toward the most important problems. Much like how dollar cost averaging in a low-cost target date fund helps financial health and regular exercise improves physical health, regular usability testing improves a site’s design health.

Krug suggests “starting earlier than you think.” One morninga month with a few people – who were promised a good lunch – is all it takes. The most important thing is  to prioritize and execute, and focus on immediate tweaks.

Sites will always have usability problems, “get over it.” Just improve some things the remove the problem for some users and make it less for others.

The audience questions circled around resource allocation, mainly from the boss. They need educated about this problem, either through first hand experience at testing meetings or by seeing/knowing/thinking about how usability affects the goals of the organization.

Aim for proximity, not perfection and just keep learning.

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