Deciding what to feed my brain

Chris Lovejoy

A schema for deciding Input

A health-conscious person will make conscious decisions about what food they put into their body.

But few people carefully curate what information they are putting into their minds.

Our minds have huge potential — if stimulated in the correct way they can grow exponentially. One great way to do so in the 21st century is to continually expose ourselves to new ideas, through books, blogs, online courses, etc.

I love the feeling of my mind growing and becoming stronger. This is part of the reason I love writing — I find it an ongoing challenge and I can feel my brain growing bit-by-bit as I do so.

The difficulty is in continually finding new information which stretches our minds. Too easy and it won’t help. Too hard and it is inaccessible. Too information-based and it doesn’t offer much benefit either.

There are millions of books out there (129,864,880 according to Google) but we only have a finite amount of time available to read them. I read 8–10 books a month, which is more than most, but if I maintain this until I am 70 I will read 6,000 books — this is less than 0.0001% of the total number of published books.

I get book recommendations all the time; from friends, from the internet, from other books. These recommendations are often wholehearted and enthusiastic (“this is the best book I’ve ever read!”, “you HAVE to read this!!”) but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be great for me. So how can I tell which of these books will be of most benefit?

Here is a system for finding great books.

1. Skim books to categorise their value

In order to properly assess a book, it is necessary to obtain access to a physical copy of it.

Once I have a book in my hands, I will skim through it in order to categorise it into one of three categories:

  • I am likely to benefit from looking at this further
  • It’s not a high enough priority right now, but may be in the future
  • It will never be worth my time to read this book

2. Getting access to a book — when to buy?

Book stores and libraries are great for getting a hold of books, but sometimes gaining access to a book is difficult or time-consuming.

If a book seems like it is worth a read but I can’t check it out a physical copy beforehand, my schema is as follows:

  • Is a second hand copy available for less than £3 — if yes, BUY IT (usedbooksearch.co.uk is a great website for finding second hand books)
  • If it is more than £3, I go on Amazon and look at the 3 star reviews. (3 star reviews typically have more useful information for making up your mind than very high (“I loved it!”) or very low (“it was horrible!”) reviews. Based on the reviews and what I’ve heard until that point I will decide whether or not to make the investment.

This approach does mean that I spend a fair amount of money on books. However, I honestly think this is one of the most worthwhile ways to invest money as one great idea from a book has the potential to radically change the direction of your life. For example, this guy spent >$1,000 on books in one go but stands by it for reasons detailed.

3. Decide how deeply to read each book

Once I own the book, the next question is how long to spend reading the book and how much depth to go into it?

‘How to read a book’ by Adler and Van Doren provides a timeless insight into this and I would highly recommend it. It divides reading into 4 levels (each building on the previous):

  • Elementary — the ability to read, learnt at school
  • Inspectional — asking what the overall question of the book is and how much it contributes to answering it
  • Analytical — a more detailed look at the book, the message it contains, how well it is considered, its truth and significance
  • Syntopical — reading multiple books on a subject to draw a conclusion

Some books only require an inspectional reading to gain all the benefit. Others benefit from a higher level approach.

Taking this approach prevents you from wasting time on books that don’t offer a lot of value.

Can you read too much? Can’t it over-saturate your brain?

I have often asked whether I am reading too much — does cramming lots of information into by brain take up space it could be using to come up with my own ideas?

I certainly think this could be the case with certain types of books (where the reader reads for information rather than for understanding). Memory can be saturated, which may take away from excelling in other parts of life (such as ‘pure’ academic study).

However, if the right types of books are selected the effect of reading them is synergistic with other areas of your life.

If you feed your mind with ideas, they will undergo ‘idea sex’ (described by James Altucher) where mix other ideas in your mind to have idea babies — and you can select the best ones from these offspring and act upon them.

Coming up with your own ideas helps this process — Altucher advises becoming ‘an idea machine’ by coming up with 10 new ideas every day.

In summary

If you read for understanding rather than information, choose the right books to read and read at the appropriate depth for each particular book, you will continually expand your mind and reap benefits in all areas of life.