- The media portrayal of intelligence often shows smart people reading books to get smarter. This seems to be one of the common depictions of intelligence.
- We're often told to "just read" as a way to get smarter, but no amount of reading will make you smarter if you're reading books that aren't relevant to your goals and aren't teaching you any new skills.
- In a reversal of the common belief, I think that it's actually that smart people tend to read as a way of expressing their natural intelligence, not as a way of improving their intelligence.
- ~700 words, about a 5 minute read.
When you’re young and somewhat intelligent, there’s a certain "culture of intelligence" that you’re expected to buy into: You've got to love watching TED talks and documentaries, with their bite-sized and easily digestible knowledge. You’ve got to fucking love science. You’ve got to read, constantly, everything you can get your hands on. You’ve got to worship and idealize scientists, and depictions of intelligence in popular entertainment media. You've got to love obscure movies or bands to be better than the common person.
The culture of people who want to be intelligent may not, after all, be all that intelligent.
Before we go any further, I'd like to stress that I'm not anti-intellectual, by any stretch of the definition. I believe that a good life involves being smart and learning as much as you can from your experiences, so you can be as adaptable as possible. At the same time, I reject the premise of the mainstream intellectual culture: that everything can be solved with intelligence, and therefore we need to be as intelligent and widely read as possible.
Since I’m a relatively entrepreneurial person (I do run my own business, and write about it, after all), I get a lot of ads targeted at “entrepreneurs”. Recently, this has included a subscription service to receive books in a bundle every month, primarily books related to business and entrepreneurship.
Their advertising copy includes the claim that “most CEO’s read a book every week”. This commonly repeated rule claims that CEO’s read, on average, about 52 books a year. The clear emphasis is that you need to read as many books as possible if you want to succeed, and that reading will make you smarter and more successful.
In many depictions in popular media, characters are shown reading books as a way to demonstrate their intelligence. For example, the character of Tyrion in Game of Thrones:
I think this reflects the common opinion: that we need books to be intelligent: person + books = intelligence. But I would like to reverse that equation and make the claim that person + intelligence = books.
Intelligence is the ability to quickly and accurately process and understand information. While we can get information from books (and they’re one of the most common methods), we can still get information from many other places as well: television, social interaction, social media, blogs, news sites, personal experiences, and more.
Certain types of people tend to gravitate towards certain sources of information, and I would argue that yes, certain types of information sources are more likely to be biased, and thus are less likely to attract intelligent people. But that doesn’t mean that an intelligent person couldn’t also appreciate traditionally “less intelligent” media like bad television, biased blogs, and B-movies, if in different ways.
The point is that books are not the ONLY way to get information, and that many intelligent people have done well without a lot of reading.
Can you imagine Genghis Khan reading a lot of books constantly? Probably not, he was too busy running around killing people. Even if he did, in fact, read a lot of books, that probably didn't have much impact on his ability to kill people.
Likewise, “just read” is bad advice. Prioritizing quantity over quality won’t necessarily mean that you’re learning anything new. I could spend the rest of my life reading cheap, old school used book store sci-fi books, and it wouldn’t necessarily help me be a better weightlifter, or a better businessperson.
There would be some carryover in terms of reading ability. Reading makes you better at reading, and that would be useful if I switched over to books that are more useful to my goals. Reading unrelated material can be a fun diversion or way to relieve stress in your off time, but shouldn’t be considered valuable for its own sake.
Instead, you should learn to focus on directing your energy in the right ways: reading books that are relevant to your goals, and which are likely to teach you new skills or information that you need.
In my Smarter and Wiser books, I argue that people don’t need to be endlessly intelligent: they only need to be intelligent enough to accomplish the things that they want in life.
Knowing the difference between the two, and knowing how to find relevant work that helps you accomplish your life goals, is more important than just reading. It's also a difficult distinction that can take time to figure out. It's a messy, imperfect process.
Here’s what I think: I think intelligent people read and write as a kind of a way of expressing an existing intelligence, but books are probably not making you much smarter, unless your goal is to be really good at reading books. I believe in the exercise science principle of specificity, but applied to intellectual and skill-based pursuits as well: that the more similar your practice is to the actual skill you want to practice, the greater the effect will be.
Succeeding in any skill, even intelligence-based ones, boils down to a combination of natural talent, regular practice, and luck or privileged circumstances.
Everything else is probably just - showing off.
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