The chicken smoothie approach to learning - and the alternative

Estimated reading time: 4.5 minutes

This is a really old one, but I like it.

I recently watched a documentary about female bodybuilders and a bizarre habit of one stuck with me.

It is doubtless common in the industry, although to an outsider it feels intrinsically wrong. Three times a day, for most of the year, she downs a chicken, rice and cabbage smoothie. It is an approach to eating with seems to violate some fundamental law of humanity. Soylent, meal replacement shakes and the vile milkshakes elderly people often drink are the same. The macro and micro nutrients are there, but the soul isn’t.

That approach to eating has much in common with the way treat information these days. It is there to swallow, digest as fast as possible, treat as a basic fuel.

We listen to audiobooks and podcasts on 3x speed. We read book summaries and get 140 character summaries of news stories. We read an article about a public figure and assume we know them, skim academic papers to make a point.

It is also much alike the way we learn in (most) schools. Gulp down as much information as possible in a short time, regurgitate it to appear smart, then forget it. Information as a commodity, not a resource. It's just not learning. No exam paper exists for real life knowledge - the test is how it helps us to live. Although I went to one of the best schools in the country, I have learned far more in the months since I left formal education than I did during 12 years in it. Writing a piece on science, maths, geography and philosophy for a client teaches me a considerable amount more than any class ever did. At school, I was so bad at physics that I had to drop the (compulsory) class because I was bringing down the average grade. Now I write about it at a professional level, by building my way up from the foundational concepts.

The idea that the more information we consume, the smarter we become is true up to a point. Someone who goes from not reading to finishing a book per week will experience an inevitable improvement in their understanding of the world, themselves and their work. (Provided they chose with care and read in an active manner.) Step that up to 2 books and the impact will be even more dramatic. Make it 3 and I refuse to believe their life will not change. However, diminishing returns will set in at some point. If our newly minted bookworm decides to start listening to sped up audiobooks for hours, the effect shrinks. Sure, the words are still entering their brain. It happens to be the difference between inhaling a chicken smoothie and savouring a slow meal with friends. The same components are there. The effect could not be more different though.

Consuming huge quantities of information also makes it hard to be discerning. Establishing what is worth reading, listening to and watching is not compatible with frantic newsfeed scrolling. Time is an excellent curator. As a good rule of thumb, the longer something has stuck around, the more it is worth understanding. Stoicism and Euclid's geometry are good examples of this. Returning to the food analogy, this is the contrast between a traditional dish, made for generations, and the latest menu item at a fast food place. Hummus has been made for at least 7 centuries, but I doubt Creme Egg Mcflurries will be. When I discover an interesting new blog, I go back to the start of the archives and work my way forwards. Why bother reading old posts? Because most bloggers, including myself, tend to update old posts and delete low quality ones, refining their opinions as they progress. It also makes me very happy when people tell me they have done the same for my writing.

Of course, the answer to this information guzzling culture is simple. Consume less information, with more care.

Basic, well-understood concepts are of far more value than complicated, confusing information. (Note the distinction between concepts and information. The former is the useful one.) We can choose to go deep on a few topics at a time, seeking to create functional understanding. We can begin with mental models and theoretical perspectives on each area, before expanding. We can be aware of the biases and cognitive shortcuts which flatten our learning process. We can forget about takeaways, summaries and key points, looking for nuance instead.

More often that not, looking to the past is the best solution for building a deep understanding of the world. Read enough history and you see the bigger picture of current events, making them far less intimidating. Read enough biographies and your own life feels hopeful and anything seems possible. Read enough ancient philosophy and it is hard to be phased by anything.

I have some exquisite, happy childhood memories of afternoons spent with newspapers. I would take a copy of the Guardian, spread it out on the floor and read it cover to cover. I did the same with Vogue, the bible, the encyclopaedia, a 2000 page DIY manual. Working through each sentence, pausing every few minutes to ask someone what a word or phrase meant. This is the approach to information I have always preferred - slow and methodical absorption. The small sips, not the rapid gulps. 

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