1: “When do I feel like I know enough about a subject to write about that subject for a major magazine or newspaper?” was the question author and journalist Steven Kotler was asked by a college student while riding a mountain biking chairlift in northern New Mexico.
In Steven’s case, he had worked for over a hundred different publications over the past thirty years. He’s covered “everything from hard science and high tech to sports, politics, and culture,” he writes in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.
So what is the process he has developed for becoming “very good at a lot of difficult topics in fairly short time frames”?
Step one? The five books of stupid.
“When I approach a new subject my rule of thumb is to allow myself five books’ worth of stupid,” he notes. “That is, I pick five books on a subject and read them all without judging my learning along the way.”
Learning does not make us feel smart, Steven observes. “At least, not at first. At first, learning makes us feel stupid. New concepts and new terminology can often add up to new frustrations,” he notes.
The key at this stage?
Don’t judge ourselves for the stupidity we feel along the way.
“On the path to peak performance,” he writes, “quite often, our emotions don’t mean what we think they mean.”
“Consider the frustration that comes from being bad at something. The feeling is one of stalled progress and simmering anger.”
“But it’s actually a sign that we’re moving in the right direction. In fact, that frustration level is increasing the presence in our systems of norepinephrine, whose main function is to prime the brain for learning.”
The frustration we feel is not a sign we are moving in the wrong direction. We are on the right path. It just doesn’t feel that way yet.
Our goal is to “keep turning pages” and forgive ourselves for the confusion we feel. Understanding we won’t understand everything we read entirely.
That’s to be expected.
“Don’t stop. Don’t go back to the beginning of the book and start over. Don’t bother to look up every word you don’t know,” he recommends. “The secret is to not get (too) frustrated and to just keep going.”
2: We want to read with a pen and a notebook, Steven suggests. But these are not “general-purpose” notes. We do not write down everything we think we have to know.”
Instead, we focus our note-taking on three specific things:
First: “Take notes about the historical narrative,” he writes. “This gives the brain an easy way to order new information and amplifies learning rates.
Second: “Pay attention to terminology. If a technical word pops up three or four times,” Steven recommends: “Write it down, look it up, and every time you see the word again, read the definition. Keep this up until the meaning starts to lock into place.”
Third and most critically: Always write down what gets us excited. If we “come across a quote that speaks to our soul, into the notebook it goes. If we come to a fact that makes our jaw drop, save it for later. If a question pops into our heads, write it down.
“Stuff we find curious is stuff with a lot of energy.”
3: Steven also recommends a specific approach to the five books we read.
“Book One: Start with the most popular, best-selling book we can find on the topic. Fiction, nonfiction, doesn’t really matter. The goal is fun, fun, fun. This first book is less about real learning and more about gaining a little familiarity with the world you’re about to enter and a basic sense of its lingo.”
“Book Two: This is also a popular book, but usually a little more technical and a little more on point. This book is either closely related to or directly about the subject under investigation. Once again, the main goal here—and the reason to choose popular books—is to generate excitement. Motivation-wise, you need this excitement on the front end, as it lays the foundation for real learning.”
“Book Three: This is the first semi-technical book on the topic—something that is still readable and interesting but maybe not quite a page-turner. This book builds on all the ideas learned in books one and two, layering in more precise language and expert-level detail. It’s also where we start to get the shadowy outline of the big picture. Toward those ends, in this third book, try to find something that provides a look at that wider view—a macroscopic perspective on the subject. . .”
“Book Four: We’ve arrived. Book four is the first actual hard book you want to read on the subject—something that isn’t nearly as fun as the first three but gives us a taste of the kind of problems that real experts in the domain are thinking about. Pay close attention to the field’s current borders. Get a sense for when, why, and with what foundational ideas contemporary thinking about a subject begins and ends. Also, figure out where the crazy lies: the stuff that experts feel is balderdash. You may not agree with these opinions, but you need to know they exist and, more important, why they exist.”
“Book Five: This is not always the hardest to read (that can often be book four), but it’s often the hardest to comprehend. That’s because the goal here is a book that is directly about the future of the topic, where it’s heading, and when it’s heading, a book that gives you a sense of the cutting edge.”
By reading five books, we are no longer “stupid.” We now have a “feel” for the subject matter.
Which is great. But Steven warns against assuming we are now an expert.
“In martial arts, they always say that the yellow belt and the green belt—that is, advanced beginner and lower-intermediate—are the most dangerous times for a student,” he writes. “People think they know how to fight around this point and often want to test their skills. Often, they end up getting their asses kicked.
“The same is true here,” Steven notes. “Five books on a subject is a great foundation, but don’t mistake it for actual expertise.”
Reflection: What is a topic I am curious about?
Action: Research to find five books that align with Steven’s suggestions above. Read the books!