It’s tinkering, luck, and action that led to discoveries like penicillin, fire, and better recipes for hummus.
Indeed, few of the great discoveries and inventions that have increased human flourishing were the product of a complex plan.
Likewise, the best opportunities in life are often things we trip into, byproducts of chance or a fortuitous connection.
We need more doing and experimentation to solve valuable problems and stepping away from action and into the comforting arms of education decreases the likelihood that we’ll stumble onto something important.
The best way to learn a new skill, achieve a goal, or solve a problem isn’t to research the entire domain, check out all the books from the most authoritative authors, or sign up for a certification.
These bad habits make up what’s called the preparation mindset.
Action and learning by doing are how you position yourself to take advantage of the opportunity that exists everywhere but is often invisible from your present viewpoint.
However, there’s a risk of stumbling around in circles and making no progress if you detach yourself completely from the community of practitioners who have mastered the skills you’re interested in pursuing.
That’s why I’m introducing a concept called anti-reading inspired by the trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
To be clear, anti-reading is not zero reading. In fact, those who embark on such a course will probably read far more than the average person.
However, instead of falling victim to “CEO’s read 5,000 books a year” click bait that’s saturating the personal development landscape anti-readers participate in creation informed reading.
What they’re making or the problem they’re solving is why they read not because they have nothing better to do.
To explore this more let’s visit the library of the Italian novelist Umberto Eco.
Umberto Eco’s Anti-Library
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
The logic behind Eco’s massive collection of books can be challenging to comprehend.
Eco knew he would write dozens of novels, but he could have never planned the vast amount of subject matter and research he’d cover during his illustrious career.
Because of his massive library, he’d never have to go far if he stumbled into an idea that he wanted to explore further.
We can interpret this strategy symbolically during the internet age. There’s a vast library of digital books, internet encyclopedias, podcasts, videos, and all kinds of media that are easily accessible.
Instead of running to the bookstore and buying 5 books that you’ll never read before you take action, begin now.
Rare and Valuable Skills
So, you’re sold on taking action. At this point, many will have one of two common obstacles.
First, having no idea what to take action on. Secondly, some will have too many ideas and have trouble focusing.
In either instance, a heuristic I picked up from the computer scientist Cal Newport is helpful.
If you drill down to the underlying reasons people want to accomplish something or get a particular job it almost always has something to do with creative fulfillment, autonomy, or money.
The best way to position yourself for these opportunities is developing skills that are worth a lot and not very common.
Newport lists the following as skills that are particularly rare and valuable:
- The ability to focus deeply for long period of time. Specifically, he mentions Ric Furrer who specializes in constructing metal swords through a long and grueling process
- Modifying what he calls “Ever changing modern machines” and how to extract data from them
- The skill of building complex software programs
- The skill to produce a fascinating and entertaining story like Harry Potter
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s important to face down FOMO and start shipping. The 30-day personal development project is a great tool to get the process of building rare and valuable skills started.
During the process of the 30 day PDP you may fall in love with the skill you selected or you may stumble into a new way to create value that was invisible to you before you started.
I recently coached someone who started off wanting to make an awesome vlog who then fell in love with video editing and now helps people on the back end of podcasts.
At the beginning of our work together they would have never thought of audio engineering as a dream opportunity, but through 60 days of doing (not daydreaming), their priorities crystalized.
Reflecting in the Anti-Library
Now that we’ve explored why to commit to action and how you can get started we can return to what I earlier called creation informed reading.
Undoubtedly, during a 30 day PDP or through whatever process you decide on to develop rare and valuable skills you will encounter obstacles.
This is a fantastic time to consult the vast anti-library available at our disposal.
The great thing about starting to act before you research is that your questions will tend to lead you to other practitioners who have overcome similar problems.
Once you’ve found them you’ll often find that they’ve created many interesting things of value that you wouldn’t have thought to seek out.
There’s a great example of this from my own career. I began in marketing through helping local plumbers appear in the map section of Google.
Most of the popular advice that I read a didn’t go any further than Google’s own instructions.
When I started actually implementing I got stuck on a technical question about website structure that led me to the wonderful blog IFTF.
It would have been nearly impossible to ask the right questions and find IFTF before I failed at technical SEO.
The upshot is that through reading their entire blog I ended up implementing more successful SEO experiments that in turn led to broader marketing opportunities that I enjoy more.
There are similar examples abound from creative and athletic pursuits to all manners of career development.
By embracing anti-reading and creation informed reading you can stumble into invisible opportunities and avoid the dreaded procrastination by self-improvement.