Most of consuming the news is us letting other people think for us,” he says. “Somebody else giving us an opinion that we take as our own. We forget that we get it from somebody else, somebody who’s paid to come up with hundreds of opinions a year on a variety of subjects.”
We’re outsourcing our thinking, reading watered-down news summaries of a complex issue, or parroting the thoughts of our favorite op-ed columnist as if it were our own.
“Then you go talk about this thing, but you really have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Parrish. “You don’t know the nuances of the law. You’ve never read it. You don’t know the second- and third-order impact. You know what this person in this newspaper or mainstream media wrote about it. That’s the extent of your knowledge. That is the illusion of knowledge. I think I just get tired of being that guy.”
Instead of getting lost in a sea of hot takes, Parrish advocates approaching reading material with the same uber-consciousness we approach our diet these days. Where is this sourced from? Can I trust that it’s high quality? Will putting it in my body (or brain, really) be good for me? Then, instead of getting lost in the timely churn of bad opinions, focus on consuming timeless materials that will give “you different databases that you can put in your head, different lenses that you can use on the world to make better decisions, have better relationships, live a more meaningful, conscious life.”
For instance, knowing about the importance of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” (believing you can improve) or Howard Marks’s “second-level thinking” (learning to think beyond immediate consequences) might serve you better than getting mad on Twitter about whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich (it’s obviously a sandwich).
Develop a system of note-taking.
Parrish calls his system The Blank Sheet: Before he begins reading a new book, he takes a blank sheet and writes down what he knows about the subject. Then, as he’s reading, he uses a different color pen to write down new ideas and connect them to what he had originally written, hanging the new knowledge on the old knowledge.
“Use a different color every time, so you can visualize what you’re learning as you’re reading,” says Parrish. “Then before you start your next reading session, to ease your brain into it, you just review the mind map. That gives you the context of where you left off… Then when you’re done with the book, you have this summary of the book.”
Say, for example, that you’re about to read Annie’s Duke’s Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (which made it onto his 2018 recommended reads). Make a sheet detailing what you know about decision-making, even if it’s just the stages of making a decision: narrowing, analyzing, and evaluating your options; avoiding cognitive biases; making a commitment to whatever you ultimately choose. Then, as you read, fill in those stages as you learn Duke’s insights.
But, really, it doesn’t matter how your system works. It only matters that you have a system. Why? So that you can have a catalog of ideas that you can revisit. Parrish organizes his blank sheets by putting them into topic binders (the notes on Duke’s book would go in a “decision-making” binder), and then sits down to look at his binders about once every two months. Over time, he finds himself remembering things and making connections he may not have otherwise, mastering these various subjects.
“Not only do you understand the book at a different level, but you’re writing it down. It’s tangible. Instead of rereading all these books, you can just pick up this binder. ‘Oh, this is great. I want to go back to this story. Maybe I missed something [here].’ You’re connecting things across different domains or different situations. That’s effectively how we improve our thinking.”
Don’t treat your reading as background noise.
Parrish has an analogy he likes to use to describe the way many of us read. Remember when you were younger and you’d have the television on while you were playing with something else? It was just background noise. Then, when your parents would ask you what you were watching, you’d realize: Wow, I have no idea what’s been playing for the last twenty minutes. Often, that’s how we’re reading.