Is Reading Making You Stupid?


Guy Kawasaki has an interesting formula to value a start-up: “For every full-time engineer, add $500 000.  For every full-time MBA, subtract $250 000.” The statement raises an interesting point, do the highly analytical skills offered through an MBA actually hinder the creative process needed for entrepreneurship?

And an even broader question: does reading about something make you worse at actually doing it?

I can’t say how having an MBA impacts your entrepreneurial ability.  I believe it would depend more on your goals and personality than your education.  But I think the broader question is worth a good look.  Analysis and action are two completely different things, and I think there are circumstances where learning too much can actually hurt you.

From Boxless Thinking to Doctrine

When you have few opinions about a subject, you also don’t have any wrong opinions.  The fresh perspective of a beginner does have an advantage: it doesn’t come with the baggage of bad advice.

Rob Warren, a professor I have for an entrepreneurship class, made an off-hand comment that our studying probably hinders our ability to be great entrepreneurs.  “You come in here with an open perspective, and we push you into a narrower set of thinking.”

Some areas of life, theoretical knowledge is extremely useful.  I’d rather trust an electrical engineer’s description of how a circuit board works than my own assumptions based on using electricity.  These tend to be areas of life that are highly general, and where obtaining a large enough set of experiences is difficult.  Science usually fits both of these criteria.

But there are some areas where experience trumps theories.  I’d rather listen to my own experiences running a business, than an MBA student who has never worked in my industry.  This is because what works for me might not work for you, randomness is everywhere and ideas are often too complicated to put into a big theory.

In the latter case, spending a lot of time learning theories, without practical experience can be deadly.  Why?  Because for every nine or ten correct ideas you learn, you pick up one or two false ones.  They may not be false for everyone, but in your case they are dead wrong.

At first glance, this may not seem like a problem.  One error for every several pieces of good advice isn’t that bad.  However, any programmer will tell you that if you introduce one bug for every 10 lines of code, you shouldn’t be allowed near a computer.  It’s far harder to unlearn a wrong idea than it is to learn one.

    One Book per One Hundred Hours of Practice

I think there is a way you can prevent this: always have your experience match your reading.  That is,  you should have roughly one hundred hours of real experience for every book you read on the topic.

This is a completely made-up rule, but I think the numbers are in the right ballpark.

Keeping theory balanced with experience keeps you from introducing buggy ideas into your brain.  I do enough writing that when I see a bad idea about writing style, I can safely ignore it.  Even if I didn’t ignore it, the idea would quickly reveal flaws when I started practicing it in my writing.  I’m far from the best writer, but I do get a lot of practice.

What does this rule apply to?  Anything that fits the second category of skill I mentioned earlier: where experience trumps theory.  The more specific, subjective, random and complex the topic, the less useful theories are.  Here are a few that would make my list:

  • Writing
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Design
  • Music
  • Dating
  • Self-Improvement
  • Leadership
  • Productivity

There are also even more areas that fall in the gray zone between science and intuition.  Exercising has some simple and highly general rules that should be followed.  However, building the discipline to exercise regularly and enjoy it is highly specific and needs experience.  Most of life is a bit of both.

Should You Read Less?

Unless you spend 15 hours of your day locked in your room reading, I’d say the answer is no.  Most people don’t read enough, not too much.  Change what you read, not the volume.  Even for creative fields, books can be useful, as long as they are matched with some real-world insights.

If you read a lot about a topic, but aren’t spending at least 3x that much time actually practicing it, you should stop reading that topic.  If you’re spending three hours a day reading dating advice columns on the internet, you should be spending at least nine hours a day meeting people to justify that.  If you’re library is filled with self-help books, but you haven’t written down any goals and invested several hours a week to accomplish them, you need to stop buying more of those books.

Reading also can make you feel like you’re making improvements.  However, unless it’s applied intelligently, it’s just procrastinating.  Nothing is stopping you from meeting people, starting a business, writing a short story, building software, networking or setting goals, don’t let books and blogs get in the way.

  • Chris

    “Dating advice” (you know what I’m talking about) is pretty notorious for this problem.

    There are all these guys who have had little to no practice in the real world but they’ve read hundreds of pages worth of advice on the topic.

    The result? A bunch of guys who seem off, and aren’t very good with women, because they’re trying to implement all these ideas they don’t truly ‘get’

    (feel free to moderate this away if you don’t want the discussion derailed into this topic)

  • PK

    I think I am guilty of what you are writing about. Too much theoretical knowledge but limited praxis (for example I am absolute theoretical pro in golf, I can tell wrong shot everytime I see Tiger bludge it, but in practical area… 🙂 )

  • iiro

    i think you’re separating “experience” and “knowledge” too much. I think a bit more systemic viewpoint could be useful. For example think about experience-knowledge-experience as a loop. Both give feedback to the other and the quality of feedback is usually much more important than the actual knowledge or experience. So concentrate also how you process your experiences and knowledge and how those things evolve during your growth process!

  • Kali

    I like the post, Scott.

  • Scott Young


    Yes, I’d agree. The problem isn’t that relationships are too subjective, random and complex to reduce down that much and still be right for everyone.

  • Anon

    Isn’t this the same argument about theoretical as opposed to practical knowledge? Though on the face of it most of the theories do seem good enough, its only when you start applying them, you start understanding its various shortcomings.

    I think Guy’s main argument was all about critical vs creative thinking or so to say the tension that exists between the black hat and the green hat (in De Bono’s language). While critical thinking might be required to drive the company in a particular direction (read strategy, marketing), a start up might benefit more if it derives most of its energies from green hat thinking (innovative – mostly done by its engineers). I think an empirical analysis of the founding members (MBAs vs Engineers) of the more successful “engineering start up” companies might also point in the same direction.

  • sandy

    “Reading” : a verb –activity
    “Doing” : a verb –activity

    You an only do so many activities a day and if your goal involves “doing” and “reading” is taking up your time; the activity has to be diminished.

    I think what happens is that when people read, they visualize and live vicariously through reading…just like “…”.

  • Dave Giancaspro

    Being an electrical engineer I can tell you that I’d rather discuss circuits with someone whose built them than can describe them.

    Experience is a very important, yet lost, part of engineering. When I was in college some engineering professors were frustrated mathematicians. They could derive the formulas to explain how any circuit works … they just couldn’t build a working circuit.


  • Josefine

    “Reading also can make you feel like you’re making improvements. ” – very nice comment and so true. Reading all these trendy self-development books made me really feeling good and I thought I knew everything … I stepped a bit back with reading and focus more on the action part. Now I can say, yes, this is working for me and that doesn’t. So, I absolutely agree with you … if you have a goal or a dream, read about it, but you have to make the action part as well.

  • Valeria | TimelessLessons

    Good post! Everything for me now comes down to “is it worth it? can I obtain tangible results from doing this and get a positive ROI?”

    But I still keep my education alive because I know there’s a pot of gold to be gained in the future as a result.

  • Michael Parus

    Just reading alone will make you smart at first, but after a long time this behavior will make you retarded. After all, what is it that you’re actually doing? You’re staring at a piece of paper. If you want your brain to work right you should spend more time tinkering. All the great inventors were tinkerers.

  • Al fred Hung

    actually, there is another related topic that interested me……

    “learn before apply” vs “learn during doing [discovery basis]”……

    which one is better in terms of what criteria???