Intellectual Gluttony

by Venkat on May 19, 2010

An Einstein quote that I disagree with is the following:

Much reading after a certain age diverts the mind from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking, just as the man who spends too much time in the theaters is apt to be content with living vicariously instead of living his own life.

It is the best known of various cautions against “intellectual greed.” I once interviewed at a university where there seemed to be a particularly strong fear of intellectual over-reach. Every faculty member I talked to had a word of caution about young researchers and “intellectual greed” — taking on too many, too big, or too wide-ranging a set of intellectual interests. If this is a sin — and it sort of sounds like one, which is why the biblical word “gluttony” seems more appropriate to me — I am certainly guilty. But if I am going to hell anyway, I might as well know why in a little more detail.

Einstein’s own take can actually be dismissed fairly quickly. He was speaking from the perspective of a particularly original guy in a field that especially rewarded, even demanded, originality at that particular time in history (I am pretty sure it was his originality that saved him from having to read too much, not the other way around). If you look at the work of people who actually study creativity (such as the books of Dean Simonton, who has written extensively on the subject) in broader ways, two things become clear:

  1. There is very systematic variation in the age of significant achievement in different fields, and the correlation is predictable. Historians and literary scholars achieve their greatest works later in life than mathematicians and physicists. Literature and Physics Nobel prizes also reflect this.
  2. There is a big difference between low-paradigm and high-paradigm fields of knowledge. Roughly, the latter are those (such as physics), where there is a lot of agreement about foundational ideas and basic methodologies. The former are those, such as political science, where 10 different scholars will give you 1o different answers if you ask them what the three most important ideas in their field are.

People study this quite a lot. I forget the reference, but it turns out, for instance, that in high-paradigm fields, peer reviewers are more likely to err on the side of caution and accept work that is potentially of low importance, but seems correct. In low-paradigm fields, when in doubt, peer-reviewers reject rather than accept.

What does this have to do with intellectual gluttony?

In certain fields, it takes a lot more reading and thinking through others’ contributions before you can make a credible one of your own. Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi smartly defines creativity as the relationship between an individual, a field and a “symbolic domain” and argues that  good researchers internalize the standards of their fields, to the point where they know how work will be perceived even before others review it. Obviously it takes more time to develop that level of internalization in low-paradigm fields.

In other fields, you can get going after a relatively short time. In mathematics, you can find reputation-making problems that you can actually attack after just a couple of years of college. It is very unlikely that you will make a significant contribution to Shakespeare scholarship before 30. And you’ll read a lot more.

Which brings me to the question, once you know what your interests are, how much should you read? How much should you slow down your reading as you age? What is the most fertile ratio of reading to creating?

The answer can be tricky. As fields mature, and apparently unsolvable controversies start to dominate (such as has happened at the edge of physics, around superstring theory), a high-paradigm field can become low-paradigm. Subfields can differ: “systems engineering” is lower-paradigm than electrical or mechanical engineering.

But Einstein is right about one thing: the “living vicariously” part. That, rather than sheer quantity of reading, is actually the critical part. Depending on what problem you are trying to understand or solve, your reading may take you the rest of your life, or be done in two years. But how you read can determine whether you become a pedantic bore who contributes nothing, or somebody who makes new contributions.

The dangerous, mind-freezing approach to reading has a very good word to describe it: erudition. My biggest fear is that I might one day become erudite. Somebody who reads and collects knowledge for the hell of it, rather than with interesting and specific questions and unknowns driving the reading. Too much reading is only “too much” if it teeters towards erudition.

For me, the struggle is endless. My interests tend towards questions which are of the “100 years of reading” variety, whether it is a question in world history I am thinking about, or technology/mathematics. So I am constantly on guard against erudition.  One of the best defenses is to always start all your intellectual journeys with very small questions, growing them into big, ambitious, projects.

If you ask “What is the fate of human civilization,” you are doomed to erudition. If, on the other hand, you ask, “Why did Obama pick that particular phrase to make that point in his speech on healthcare,” typically you will go on a creative, active-mind journey.  Even if takes you through thousands of years of world history, that question will keep you intellectually alive in a way the first question will not.

(I’ll be out of town when this post is published, so I may be a day or two late in responding to comments).

Daniel May 20, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Interesting post, but I think it misses two important things:

1) The non “practical” creative fields. IE Art. I think a fiction writer, a musical composer, and a painter should never stop reading, watching movies, and living, even if it is non directional. They will take whatever is in their mind, from experience, reading, movies, etc and plumb it with subtle depth and maybe, without consciously knowing where the thought comes from, integrate it to their art. So then knowledge for an artist becomes like a phone network, where each new added node is useful because it connects each new piece to the whole, and the whole to that piece. It allows the artist to make artwork that is a fuller representation of life.

2) The average individual. (The “looser” or the “clueless” I guess you would say?). Admittedly this turns knowledge into a commodity to consume like so much chocolate candy or bottles of wine, but I think with more long term value to the consumer. It may spark some latent interest to push them to solve a problem, or peruse a hobby. It may also add to personal enlightenment and broadening of the consumer’s horizon.

Daniel May 27, 2010 at 4:39 pm

If I can reply with a new argument in regards to the “looser” or as I would say, the common man who does not endevor to make an “origional contribution” but just live.

I actually brought this up with my brother who is a Freelance IT database contractor. We were talking about the value of the internet and he mused about he could find out the answer to questions that 25 years ago he would just idly wonder and then have to forget about because there was no way to find out (easily). Now, quick wikipedia/google search and clicking around, the idle question is solved, but often leads to some additional uncovering of the foundational work on which the answer is based (or at least it should) and other tendrils and links on a Wikipedia page.

We argued if this was really that valuable and what we came to was that, in today’s world the power of the internet is so well known that memorizing facts in a field is mostly worthless (assuming you will always have a computer nearby). Instead these little knots of knowledge that people get curious about, unwind with a little light web-searching (or maybe a random quick read of a book) create constellations in reality that one can gut-check against when faced with new situations not in their normal field of expertise. Basically a way to dead recon a close approximation of fact or theory based on other knowledge-knots nearby. This helps for specific facts as well as to get general context that the foundations of serious intellectual edifices can get bootstrapped into later.

The context part also pays into this theory of knowledge… and given the scale of things one might encounter in “normal” life (by which I assume some slight level of intellectual involvement) you can never get enough cases that demonstrate how much you know you don’t know.

Daniel May 27, 2010 at 4:39 pm

If I can reply with a new argument in regards to the “looser” or as I would say, the common man who does not endeavor to make an “original contribution” but just live.

I actually brought this up with my brother who is a Freelance IT database contractor. We were talking about the value of the internet and he mused about he could find out the answer to questions that 25 years ago he would just idly wonder and then have to forget about because there was no way to find out (easily). Now, quick wikipedia/google search and clicking around, the idle question is solved, but often leads to some additional uncovering of the foundational work on which the answer is based (or at least it should) and other tendrils and links on a Wikipedia page.

We argued if this was really that valuable and what we came to was that, in today’s world the power of the internet is so well known that memorizing facts in a field is mostly worthless (assuming you will always have a computer nearby). Instead these little knots of knowledge that people get curious about, unwind with a little light web-searching (or maybe a random quick read of a book) create constellations in reality that one can gut-check against when faced with new situations not in their normal field of expertise. Basically a way to dead recon a close approximation of fact or theory based on other knowledge-knots nearby. This helps for specific facts as well as to get general context that the foundations of serious intellectual edifices can get bootstrapped into later.

The context part also pays into this theory of knowledge… and given the scale of things one might encounter in “normal” life (by which I assume some slight level of intellectual involvement) you can never get enough cases that demonstrate how much you know you don’t know.

Venkat May 28, 2010 at 4:47 am

Not sure I entirely understand your point, but it sounds like you are saying that idle questions are symptoms of larger categories of known-unknowns, and asking them makes you aware of larger categories of known-unknowns. That makes sense.

The post you linked to also makes sense of course, the whole 3 types of knowledge part is very well known, but his interesting new idea is that moving stuff from category 3 to category 2 makes you less ‘dangerous’ somehow. Not sure I completely buy that argument, but it is an interesting way to think about knowledge, that you should put a lot in your known-unknown bucket.

Stéphane May 21, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Creativity lies in making connections. This can be accomplished either by taking the time to work things out by yourself, or by letting other people come up with original ideas in your place. Culture is the lazy way out, but it’s also a shortcut to pre-packaged connections, which also makes it food for thinking. Considering the vast amount of thinking people and intricate algorithms out there spitting out new results all the time, it’s probably a good bet to let some of them do the really nasty parts and keep the exciting ones for your bus ride home.

Damien May 26, 2010 at 9:45 am

Hi there,

I suggest you reconsider just how ‘original’ Einstein was. For instance, either read alot of Poincaré and plagiarised him, or he didn’t read Poincaré and kind of re-invented the wheel.

Dave May 27, 2010 at 12:38 am

To me, it’s impossible to predict where valuable ideas come from. I remember watching a documentary about a woman who basically developed artificial kidneys by etching microscopic channels in a slide to line up the cells. I don’t know where she got the skills to even attempt that, but it wasn’t in biology curriculum.

I work in computers, and have tons of examples where something I picked up seemingly randomly from a dalliance in programming or security or another area of computers that I just play around with, and it wound up serving a very useful purpose.

Curiosity, to me, is still the best reason to explore and learn. It’s great to have a direction/goal/question/pursuit too, but I think it’s a good idea to always make time for pure discovery for no apparent reason.

otoburb May 27, 2010 at 5:15 am

I’m an intellectual glutton. I love to read, often for the sake of slaking my wide-ranging curiosity. The problem with a state of child-like wonder about the world is that there are literally endless micro and macro topics to absorb and make connections between; this doesn’t include the regrets of a mis-spent youth not paying attention in class and wishing that I knew the higher mathematics that were taught to me.

There are many burning questions that I need to know more about, but I find that I don’t have the necessary foundational knowledge to know where to get started. Once again, Veknat is able to put in words what I only vaguely understood about low- and high-paradigm fields of knowledge.

I would love to be able to contribute original and noteworthy that pushes the outer edge of human understanding and knowledge, but to do that would require mastery of at least 2 (high-paradigm) fields. My only hope is that I can shift and make such contributions later in life when time and circumstances are more amenable.

This post would be a great read for folks who are just about to start a graduate degree of some type, since it would seem to apply most to those who may not realize the sheer amount of reading they need to tackle before being able to contribute in peer-reviewed journals.

Venkat May 27, 2010 at 5:57 am

Dave: Good point about agenda-free exploration, but that’s harder to achieve than it might seem, since subconscious drives are usually at work, and there is always an agenda, whether you know it or not. I think the utility of a motivating question isn’t so much that it takes you to the answer, but that it puts your mind in the right gear/level for fruitful exploration. A ‘small’ question takes you on richer journeys than a big one, in my experience.

Stephane: I used to think creativity=making connections too, now I am not so sure. It is at least as much, if not more, about breaking connections and isolating focal areas of interest. I’ve met too many people who get addicted to making connections and leap around all over the place. As in, “oh, programming is really like DNA mutation, and oh, that’s really basically the same as how the Roman empire collapsed, and Google today is like Rome 2000 years ago, and Google vs. Apple is like Rome vs. Persia…” All potentially true and fascinating, but ultimately a path of frenetic exploration leading to dissipated exhaustion. If you don’t know how to cut/slash connections as brutally as you make them, you are doomed.

otoburb: What you say is true of low-paradigm fields. I wouldn’t even attempt to write an essay on Middle Eastern peace without reading a dozen books. Max Weber reportedly locked himself up in a study for 7 years to read before he felt prepared enough to write ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.’ Closer to home, I’d say I’d read about 100+ management books before I had the confidence to write something like the Gervais Principle and stand behind it.

But in high-paradigm fields OR totally new fields, you only need to read enough to find the first piece of unclaimed territory. I wrote my first journal paper after my first year of grad school (so about 6 courses) and reading maybe 1-2 papers. For my PhD and postdoc work, I read very little. Just enough to find unclaimed territories and stake my claims. Blogging works the same way, and since the boundaries are more fluid than journals, it is far easier to find unclaimed territory, whether high or low paradigm.

I think you are going down a potentially dangerous path of giving up, by underestimating what you already know. I think it is not ‘foundational knowledge’ that you need, but simply a “what the hell attitude” needed to jump off the deep end and risk looking foolish :). Turning gluttony-acquired “fat deposits” knowledge into muscle through thinking and writing is an ongoing process IMO.

Daniel: I agree about art, but there, any sort of stimulation can serve as inspiration, not just reading. Is there a case for ‘losers’ just being passive consumers? I don’t know. It would frustrate the hell out of me. But I do know people with (for instance) no science/engineering training who passively consume a lot of discovery channel information without doing anything with it. Non-fiction entertainment. I can’t do that, except with fiction.

Venkat

anthony gonzalvez May 29, 2010 at 5:11 am

good post. and daniel made a point that came to my mind at once. fiction writers read all the time, but they read differently than non-writers.

you must also pencil ramanujam in your theory somewhere.

Nathan May 31, 2010 at 10:12 am

Congrats on over thinking this one.

He’s saying that after a certain point of experience you should be able to actually contribute (produce) something. Any minute you’re busy reading about other people’s productions (be it intellectual or otherwise) is a minute you’re not making your own contributions.

Surely it’s always important to read, but what he’s saying is that you’re not part of the action if you’re not active. He’s defining two modes, active and passive. If you’re reading, you’re passive and you’re not doing anything. If you’re active then you’re exercising some generic sort of creativity aren’t you?

Greg Bell June 1, 2010 at 4:27 am

I read voraciously, but mostly because I’m addicted to new and interesting ideas, and I’m more impressed by others’ efforts at this than my own.

When I discover a new idea – peak oil, permaculture, the influence of hallucinogens on religion, the trivium – the buzz is huge and I find my life changes in positive ways.

Is this intellectual laziness? Letting smarter people do the heavy lifting for me? Or is it smart to recognize ones’ weaknesses, and use one’s own brain not as a generator but as a filter of ideas…

Venkat June 1, 2010 at 6:19 am

I think “addiction” is exactly right. I can’t think of an immediate dangerous consequence, but I tend to believe that all addictions, if indulged in to an extreme, are dangerous.

RG June 1, 2010 at 8:24 am

Whether it is Einstein’s quote or Anthony De Mello’s “The fellow reads so much I don’t see how he could ever find the time to know anything!”, they seems to appeal to people who probably feel guilt in not reading much. Instead we could say, “No one knows so much to not gain from reading.” Incidentally I am a fan of most books by De Mello, who obviously read a lot on Buddhism, Sufism etc.

Innocent creativity without knowledge (did someone mention Srinivasa Ramanjunan?) is dead in this wiki-ed world (Help, Google unknowingly captured my thoughts).

I stopped worrying long ago about “too much” reading of whatever interested me, after discovering two things:

-There seems to be a wave pattern of narrowing and broadening of interests as I keep reading new stuff that ensures a balance between depth and breadth

-I seem to need some immersion before forming thoughts on a subject. Other than trivial subjects, skimming may work for new material on a subject where I already have opinions and ideas.

Making connections and isolating one question to explore are not either/or propositions in creativity.

One way I check my addiction is to have a “no book reading or web surfing” day once in a while.

Edwin Shao August 14, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I find an interesting parallel between this post and the article at . The idea of “intellectual gluttony” runs parallel to the theme of pursuing risk.

I’m interested in background motivation. Venkat doesn’t push a theory for _why_ he is intellectually greedy. The risk article posits that we are biased towards short-term maximization over long-term planning. That strikes me as intuitively wrong.

The key thread in both ideas, I believe, is that we tend towards an irrational amount of preparation. It’s easier to keep preparing (save up interest or read more) than to spring into action.

Why is this? My theory is that it is difficult and energy-intensive to create a model for the marginal rate of return for action vs preparation. I’m sure this drops into some branch of behavior economics.

But basically, there should be functions that calculate:
1- the payoff for action (over one time period) as a function of preparation;
2- the increase of preparation as a function of time (decreases over time)
The trick is to maximize payoff from action over some period of time. Of course, you can complicate this model, e.g. payoff for preparation, random preparation wipeout points, confidence intervals for variables, etc, but the basic idea stands.

Bottom-line: it’s easier to keep being an intellectual glutton / accumulating interest than thinking through how to model your own preparation/action/payoff curve and to change course.

Edwin Shao August 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

The comment scrubber wiped out the URL. It’s at http://bit.ly/rf-risk — Venkat, feel free to edit my original comment to put the URL back in and delete this one.

dybydx August 26, 2010 at 10:17 am

My question may be on a slight tangent so, bear with me. Intellectual Gluttony aside, how does one even know what to spend their time on these days? In the past, information had more value in comparison since access to information was not democratized. Now, that information is everywhere, time is precious than ever and information has become cheaper.

So, in these interesting times, how does one (1) prioritize what to consume (2) consume in a manner that one can recall and use it in an appropriate context.

You mentioned that you read 5 or 6 books a month and consume about 80 RSS feeds. When you read these books, do you ever feel the need to take notes? I have this almost compulsive obsession to take notes and I cannot proceed without doing so. I also read carefully and this is a real handicap in this world of information overload we live in today. I am unable to consume information at the rate I want to.

How do you decide which RSS feeds to consume? To me RSS feeds have this junk-food quality where there is variety in every post but little or no nutrition. The signal/noise ratio analogy comes to mind. If you zero-in, it may not be worth spending time in accordance with your long term goals. Time flies and before you know it, you are surfing 10 hyperlinks away from the RSS post that got you started. Also, this browsing may not be contextual at all, it could just be mindless drifting. It is this nature of browsing that I feel is most detrimental or useless.

Do you happen to know or are there studies done on how many links a normal person browses as he/she searches for information before he/she is satiated with the amount of information that answers the question one started with in the first place? How many browsed links were tangents? How many were related to the question at hand?

Google’s technique to search for information may be too tempting for humans as we procure information. Machines are probably more efficient at procuring information even though they may not be able to decipher as well as humans do. They stray less than we do, they aren’t as curious as we are.

(sorry for the re-post in case this appears twice)

Idnod May 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Key words…

“Much reading after a certain age diverts the mind from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads TOO MUCH and uses his own brain TOO LITLLE falls into lazy habits of thinking, just as the man who spends TOO MUCH time in the theaters is apt to be content with living vicariously instead of living his own life.”

Enjoy life.

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