In Defense of Knowing Less

Learn and do more by letting go of your impulse to know everything

I can’t remember the last time I picked up a newspaper, either physically or digitally. But at its peak (maybe two years ago) my media glut consisted of two newspapers, eight magazines, and at least fifty RSS feeds. Add in email newsletters, NPR, and daily visits to the likes of TechCrunch, and I was spending hours a day filtering and consuming news.

The shutdown of Google Reader alerted me to how little I actually valued any of that information. A two week failed experiment with Prismatic was enough of a hiatus to break a deeply-ingrained RSS habit. I didn’t miss any of the content my feeds would have delivered. One by one I slimmed down my daily reading, cancelling subscriptions until I’d successfully habituated my current information diet: I don’t read a single newspaper, magazine, RSS feed, and I’ve permanently sworn off TechCrunch. I’m borrowing the idea for such an extreme media purge from Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Workweek, where he argues:

Increased output necessitates decreased input. Most information is time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside your influence.

Tim says he reads one business magazine (Inc) and skims an industry magazine. That’s it. No newspapers, no CNN, no information of any kind unless it’s necessary for work or life. He stays informed on truly important issues by asking a diverse group of trusted friends and will only make exceptions for the most information-dense media (e.g. presidential debates).

My instinct was to dismiss the “media fast” as a luxury for well-connected celebrities like Tim. It’s easy to construct a high-functioning filter between you and an ocean of digital content if every person in that layer is smart, accomplished, and worldly in their own right. The media fast sounds like a justification for being an ignorant and narrow-minded workaholic—unless you have the network that Tim does. That rang true when 4HWW was published in 2007, but since then the capacity to build a network of experts has been extended to anyone with an Internet connection—using Twitter. The barriers to drawing on the information filters of brilliant and accomplished people have dropped precipitously in the past five years. Your knowledge network is no longer limited to your peers.

If you keep your knowledge stream slim, it will be easy to identify the content which is truly worth consuming. I read a great post yesterday because two people whose opinions I value—Charlie O’Donnell and Mark Suster—both called it a “must read.” You can take advantage of the same curation mechanism for any subject. Resist the temptation to follow the news organizations themselves in an attempt to create a social RSS reader. Listen to the experts and cut out the middlemen.

By advocating “knowing less” I’m not promoting anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m asking you to take stock of all the information you pack into your head every day and question how much of it is directly actionable or intellectually meaningful. Poring through every page of the New York Times doesn’t have nearly the value (or rigor) of knowing enough about a single issue to teach, advocate, and organize people around it. For every snippet that affects what you work on, who you work with, and how you work—the slivers of precious signal—you’ll slog through page after page of usesless noise.

I felt surrounded by this kind of noise in academia. I was developing a cursory knowledge of a lot of subjects in school, but retaining or developing almost none of it. You should never stop learning, but adopt a narrow definition of learning. If the information you consume is not helping you move towards the next level of subject mastery, you’re not learning anything. More importantly, while indiscriminately stuffing information into your head fulfills a base urge to appear knowledgable, it won’t deliver much intellectual satisfaction. The knowledge sprint that a four year college education demands is a recipe for burnout. Life is like a startup—no matter how important and difficult that first 5 percent of adult life seems, the work you do over the following 95 percent is immeasurably more significant.

Don’t just measure the cost of consuming information against the payoff of producing output (work). Measure consuming a particular snippet of information against consuming another piece of potentially more relevant or concise information. It doesn’t matter that the average quality of a New York Times article is high and its pages contain a lot of knowledge in the aggregate. What matters is whether you can actually mobilize all that knowledge. You can’t. It’s just not possible.

You have the power, using Twitter, Google Alerts, or whatever mechanism suits your habits and interests, to source curated content from across the Internet. The name on the cover is one of the weakest indicators of whether content is worth your time. I think you’ll find that, by sourcing better, you’ll consume far less. It’s not about how much you know, but rather how efficiently you can extract value and promote learning.