Knowledge Consumption

I’m a big fan of Paul Graham’s essays like Great Hackers, and I recently was intrigued by Ben Casnocha’s post about Aaron Swartz inspiring him to think in public. The following is an essay I wrote last summer. It sat in my email inbox as a draft for 6 months. Seeing it today, I thought I’d let the thoughts go out loud:

“The last 3 hours of my Thursday night after work and working out, I spent trolling my usual sources of information. Google news, google reader, Facebook, wall street journal, etc. After that, I got on a roll responding to emails, which pulled me deeper into the information stores dispersed around the data universe.  At the culmination of this, I pulled out my smartphone once again and ran though an email subscription newsletters prior to going to bed.

Consider that all of this content consumption was predicated by 8 hours of work at a company dedicated to information transfer. I took in emails, watched a 90 min podcast (in high speed), skimmed websites about how to dismantle a piece of electronics, listened to music, and reseached engineering topics that I need to master for my internship at Microsoft.

The collective result was a massive hair ball of somehow related information that I consumed in a 24 hour period. While this schedule is not exact typical, I wouldn’t say it outside of the range of becoming typical if I stay at company A for a longer duration of time.

Despite my intake of information, I was struck by how dissatisfied I was with how much I created today and that I semiconsciously relegated the blame to the amount of time I spent consuming content.

My mindset going in was that I should just keep digging while I have a few free minutes after dinner, a few minutes which quickly turned into hours. The problem with this is my techno-informational ADHD. Once I get going, I go (I blame this on having dial up Internet until going to college. I have to make up for lost time now). I find myself connecting with several good sources of information, but then feeling obligated to consume every bit. This is massively time consuming and definitely inefficient.

Now what if I take a different perspective on information consumption, as instead of info binge, a place of creation. What if I approach a project, then research the specific topics that I need to know I proceed. That would give me a more dense, practical base of knowledge and give me something to show for my consumption.

One concern for this is the unconscious incompetence, the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ factor. To a degree, this is why I like consumption in the first model, because it feels like a better way to learn a broad range of topics. You never know when you are missing the boat, especially when conventional wisdom – which is usually erroneous – is close to common sense.

Perhaps the only difference between my two paradigms is that in one the information is the objective, and in the other, creation and disciplined search for information is. The internet does a great job catering first. The latter takes more research maturity.

Another impression from my info binge was that the Internet is by necessity pushing people toward specialization. The amount of information on a given topic is so dense and available, that in Darwinist sense, anyone who tries to consume a generalist’s smorgasbord of content will be unlikely to have derived anything new, novel, and useful in the global marketplace, and he or she will not intellectually stand out or be significantly rewarded.

Those who succeed big are those who recognize the potential of specializing in an area before they rest of the market, to such an extent that he or she can develop pointed skills that can be leveraged as valuable to the public before the public knows what they want from the area.

How does one find this areas? Through random finds or piles of content? Through people? Through pursuing projects in the areas they know into areas in which they have previously no experience? That will be the million, maybe billion, dollar question in the next 30 years. How does one harness the power of globalized information transfer enough to make a marketable asset out of their knowledge. And this will fall to the individual, not corporations or educational entities. Physical, geographical, infrastructural, and informational barriers that once protected the workers may disappear with technological availability of information and workers. So if the modern worker is going to succeed, he must know what he is good at and how he can continue to hone his craft, which makes how he consumes his information all the more circularly important.

As I proceed in a rapidly changing, post-information-generation era, I must decide for myself the best mix of content consumption vs content creation and exploration. To make an impact, I am deeply interested to know how I should generalize and specialize in such a way as to find those infant opportunities, the model T, airplane, Internet, windows, google, Facebook-scale impacts. As some say, those who are crazy enough think they can change the world are those who do. I’m beginning to realize that my consumption of knowledge will be the most important factor in determining if I succeed.”

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