Mental Pivot #75: What’s Interesting?
The characteristics of interesting content, Ryan Holiday on how to digest books, and the “Tom Sawyer Effect.”
Most weeks I find an abundance of interesting items to read. Other weeks, not so much. I dropped the ball publishing a new issue last week, in part because I was traveling and failed to budget adequate time before my Friday deadline. But another factor that made it easier for me to skip hitting Substack’s publish button was that I simply didn’t encounter many articles that genuinely interested me last week.
Mind you, I read just as many articles as I normally do last week. It’s just that most of the pieces failed to click with me.
When this happens, I always ask myself if the problem is me or if it truly was a fallow week. Given the wealth of content being generated by talented people on a constant basis, I can only assume that the issue is with me. I’m confident there’s no shortage of thought-provoking content to consume.
As for what makes something interesting, it’s a topic worth pondering. What kind of articles are notable, memorable, and worth sharing with others? It’s an important question because it’s a core goal for this newsletter: to curate thought-provoking and shareable content.
I find something interesting when it:
Makes me think or stirs my emotions.
Teaches me something new.
Articulates an idea in a way I’ve never heard before.
Challenges my assumptions or surprises me.
Illuminates an overlooked or unappreciated idea.
Reminds me of something worthwhile that I’ve forgotten.
Provides me with a new model or metaphor for understanding.
Connects two or more ideas in a way I’ve never considered.
The act of finding interesting content requires two things: quality source material and an attentive and engaged reader. I often fixate on the former, but it’s the latter that I, as a reader and learner, fully control. The energy and mindset one brings to the table as a lifelong student is essential. I need to remind myself of this regularly.
Everyone’s familiar with the oft-repeated adage, “if you’re bored, you’re boring.” There’s an equivalent adage for my topic-du-jour that goes something like this: “Nothing’s interesting if you’re not interested.” So true.
Now onto this week's recommendations…
Activities with Positive Asymmetric Returns: A positive asymmetric payoff occurs when the individual stands to gain more than they lose. Per the author, it’s a bet where “you get all the upside, but none of the downside.” Some bets highlighted by the author include the act of giving gifts, meeting new people, and acts of creativity.
Big Tech and the “Tom Sawyer Effect”: Jaffer Ali reminds us of the lessons from Mark Twain: beware those that “boondoggle” us into working for their benefit.
How to Digest Books Above Your “Level”: This is an older piece from Ryan Holiday (The Daily Stoic) that delivers actionable ideas on how and why to read better. Quite useful. It’s a mini version of Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book.
On Thinkers and Doers: The author explores an interesting dichotomy, manifest in the difference between science and technology and scientists and engineers. “Scientists are motivated by discovery and understanding, whereas engineers are motivated by application and use.” I don’t entirely agree with this piece, but it contains interesting ideas to chew on, so it’s worth reading.
What Game Are You Playing?: Life offers a multitude of games to play. While we might believe the game we’re engaged in is “the most important one”, others, engaged in different games exhibit different priorities. It’s a fun, short reminder to be more observant, less judgmental, and more self-aware.
Why We Want What Other People Have: Luke Burgis’ concise introduction to mimetic desire: “The value of objects is not objective — it’s subjective. And that subjective value is determined mimetically, based on our relationships with others.” For a deeper dive into the topic, check out Burgis’ book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life (2021).
A Visit to the Human Factory: In a fishing town in the southwestern corner of Cornwall, a robotics company known as Engineered Arts is building “Ameca”, the world’s most realistic robot. If you want a dose of Westworld and uncanny valley, check out the company’s YouTube channel, which features footage of their creations.
How Many Friends Do You Really Need?: Many are familiar with Dunbar’s number, which posits that individuals can maintain about 150 “stable social relationships”. When it comes to close friends, research suggests an optimal sweet spot of 3-6. The biggest impact comes from having at least one close relationship.
Mechanical Watch: Ever wondered about the inner workings of a mechanical watch? This incredible explainer from Bartosz Ciechanowski includes nearly 100 interactive illustrations that meticulously describe how a device with no batteries can keep precise time. Longtime readers might recall Cienachonowski’s internal combustion engine explainer highlighted in Issue #34.
The One Parenting Decision that Really Matters: Parents face thousands of decisions when raising a child. Many of these are agonized over. Based on recent research, this article downplays the importance of most parental decisions. Nature, argues the author, appears more important than nurture (generally speaking). One parenting decision that matters and is rarely discussed is geography: the city and neighborhood you grow up in. The Opportunity Atlas, a website cited in the article, traces the correlation between neighborhood, affluence, and poverty in the States.
There’s More to Economics than the Science of Scarcity: Whether you agree with the author’s argument, the central premise of his article is important: “the organizing ideas of a discipline determine what gets seen and what does not.” How are policies and worldviews affected when we view decisions and their outcomes primarily through the lens of trade-offs?
When Animals Shed Their Wings: If wings are such a wonderful evolutionary adaptation, why don’t all animals have wings? Riffing on this “silly” question, Richard Dawkins dives into evolutionary biology to consider examples from the animal kingdom—worker ants, termite queens, and birds on remote islands—and the necessity of wing-shedding and abandoning flight.
Odds & Ends:
Fast Company’s 2022 World-Changing Ideas Awards offer a glimpse into cutting-edge innovations and businesses. This year’s honorees include a 3D printer that up-cycles sawdust waste into furniture and other wood products, medication-releasing contact lenses, and a lamplight that uses seawater to produce electrical energy (a half liter of saltwater can produce 45 days of electricity). Neat stuff!
Glimbay lets readers get a taste of book titles by reading a handful of quotes from the books. I love this idea. I just wish the service offered even more quotes for each book to afford a better glimpse into the writing, content, and themes.
The Ultimate Personal Security Checklist is a valuable resource for folks interested in improving their online and offline security. The covers a wide range of security topics including authentication, web browsing, social media, mobile phones, personal finance, and much more.
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