What if This Were Your Only Chance?

I’ve traveled to a lot of cities. I’ve also lived for more than a few months in several of them. It would seem obvious that the places I know best be the ones that I spent the most time in.

But strangely, this often isn’t the case. I did far more sightseeing and tourist activities while in Beijing for two weeks, than I did spending almost four months in Kunming. Other times I’ve stayed in a place for years and still not taken advantage of some of the opportunities short-term travelers do.

From people I’ve met, I know I’m not alone in this experience. When you travel to a place short-term, you recognize that you have a limited opportunity to see things and tend to do a lot as a result. When you live somewhere for awhile, you may tell yourself you’ll get to it later, believing you’ll always have more time.

However sometimes you’ll spend months or years in a place, miss the opportunities and then leave without having experienced them. The feeling that you’ll always have more time lies to you right up until the end.

You Don’t Always Have More Time

Sightseeing is relatively trivial, but I see this as being indicative of a larger problem in life. When we’re in the midst of things, we often don’t recognize their significance. We squander opportunities as they are occurring because of a complacent feeling that tells us there will always be more of those opportunities in the future.

I think a powerful attitude to have can be to flip this on its head. Instead of telling yourself you always have more time, tell yourself this is your only chance.

The Attitude of Solitary Chances

In reality, this attitude is also a lie. But sometimes it can be a useful one since it can encourage you to buck complacency and really take advantage of whatever situation you find yourself in. I’ve found that applying this approach has benefited me more than it has hurt in many ways.

When I was in university, I applied the attitude that I would only be in school once, and for a short time, so I should do everything you can only experience while in college. I lived in a dorm. Played drinking games at house parties. Worked on student council. Dated exchange students. Studied abroad for a year.

Now, with some space between me and my college life, I realize I didn’t always do the right thing, but I’m glad that I did lots of things. I’m older now, so going back to college couldn’t be the same, even if I wanted to do it. That moment in life has passed.

After I graduated, I started the MIT Challenge. I realized that it might end up being the only original, interesting thing I do in my entire life. When else would I have the opportunity to be the first person to do anything? I took advantage of the opportunity and worked my ass off to finish it in twelve months, just as I said I would.

Later, my friend and I talked about traveling the world learning languages. We both recognized that there probably won’t be another opportunity to ever do this again. We decided to go all-in, opting to not speak English to accelerate improvement and decided to film mini-documentaries for each country.

Now I’m in the very early process of writing a book and I want to adopt a similar mindset. That this book will be the only book I ever write, so I shouldn’t make it a half-effort, believing there will be another book in the future I can do better.

Too Much Pressure?

There are probably some domains where having this attitude puts too much pressure. Perhaps particularly on those traditionally overly-obsessed moments of where to go to school, which major to choose, which career to pick or whom to marry. Those moments are important, but there’s probably more marginal benefit to be extracted from taking the neglected moments more seriously and the serious moments with more levity.

I think the best approach is to apply this mindset on the very areas we’re likely to overlook. To imagine the everyday, humdrum, stretching-into-the-endless-horizon moments and see them as scarce. Recognize that one day they too will end and we’ll wonder back how we managed to squander them.

Sometimes this attitude will push you to work harder—by recognizing that you’re at an incipient moment with your career, a new business or project. Other times it will push you in the opposite direction, towards enjoying life more and having more adventures before you lose the chance to do them again.

What are you doing right now? What if this were the only chance you had? Would that change how you approach things? Share your thoughts in the comments.

What’s Wrong With Just Reading Book Summaries?

I was having a conversation with a friend who likes to read book summaries. He’s not a big reader, but still wants the ideas from great books, so he goes out of his way to read the summaries of lots of books to get the gist of their main ideas.

I do occasionally read book summaries or reviews, but I still read a lot of long books, often on quite specific topics. However, I’ll never be able to read most books on most topics. If your goal for reading is to become more knowledgeable, does my friend’s strategy of sticking to the summaries actually make more sense?

Why Read?

There are lots of reasons to read books, but the two biggest are probably knowledge or entertainment. I enjoy reading, so some of my reading motivation certainly comes from the latter. But I often try to pick books I think will be important. If entertainment were my only goal, I might stick to softer fiction, or give up reading in favor of movies, television or less strenuous media.

Reading for knowledge matters to me. But if that’s the case, reading only the summaries doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Here’s the argument:

  1. Books, like most things, have unevenly distributed ideas and value. The thesis of a major argument is worth comparitively more than smaller arguments. A summary gives the main thesis and necessary evidence without going into as much detail. Presumably on an ideas-per-hour-invested basis, summaries will win out over full books.
  2. Nobody will read even a fraction of all books, possibly not even a sizeable percentage of truly great books. The marginal value of reading an extra book doesn’t diminish quickly. If a higher concentration of value can be obtained by reading a summary than a full book, it will always make more sense to keep reading summaries.

The internal consistency of this book-reading strategy seems to make sense to me. But, when I look around the world at world-famous polymaths and autodidacts, I rarely see them using this strategy. In fact, they frequently use the opposite—going over hard books multiple times.

Consider economist and polymath Tyler Cowen, writing about his strategy for reading great books:

“1. Read a classic work straight through, noting key problems and ambiguities, but not letting them hold you back. Plow through as needed, and make finishing a priority.

2. After finishing the classic, read a good deal of the secondary literature…

3. Go back and reread said classic, taking as much time as you may need.”

Given our previously stated assumptions and arguments, this strategy would (appear) entirely backwards. If reading the same material experiences diminishing returns, then reading a book twice must be less efficient than reading it once or reading just a summary. So where’s the flaw in that line of reasoning?

What’s Wrong with Reading Summaries?

So I have a couple theories of why my friend’s strategy seems, at first glance, to make a lot of sense, but why it is relatively unused amongst the very people who seem to care a lot about getting the knowledge from hard reads.

Theory #1: The Value of Books is Elevating Thinking

The first theory I have is that the value of books comes not only from their ideas, which of course can often be gleaned from a summary, but from being a difficult mental task that requires focus and simultaneously guides deeper thinking.

In this light, reading a hard book is more than just the ideas you obtain from it. Thinking about the book’s content while you read it is what matters. So a really long, good book on a topic will provoke much longer reflection and therefore have a much larger impact than a short summary or perhaps even many short summaries.

This idea seems somewhat radical though. Certainly some of the value of a book must lie in the specific knowledge it imparts? If this theory were true it would certainly make a lot of other reading habits seem futile beyond merely supporting reading in more depth.

Theory #2: Summaries are Well-Known, Depth is What’s Lacking

The second hypothesis I have is that most people only get the gist of major thinkers. The average educated adult probably knows that Niccolo Machiavelli had some pretty ruthless advice, but don’t know what he actually suggested in The Prince.

In this view, because summary-level knowledge is common, you can get a competitive advantage by having read works in greater depth. Knowing a few things to a deeper level might make up for having greater, broad summary-level knowledge because you can specialize in conversations and intellectual arenas which benefit from that deeper insight.

The strongest counterargument to this idea, though, is that many voracious long-readers read a wide swath of genres and topics. Therefore, it seems inconsistent to argue for longer reads because of returns to specialization and then read all types of books.

Theory #3: Reading is a Prestige Activity, Summaries are Too Easy

The Hansonian version of me sees the clearest reason for this divergence is that reading long, hard books is something few people would do (or enjoy). Therefore, you can signal your erudition by reading lots of deep, hard books, even if you end up sacrificing sheer volume of ideas.

Weigh In: Is It Better to Read Long and Deep, or Short and Wide?

What do you think? Is it better to focus your reading time on longer reads, or should you cast a wider net and focus more time on book summaries and reviews?

For me, I’m inclined to continue my current reading habits, if only for the first reason I mentioned—that I enjoy reading full books because I find them interesting. But I’m certainly open to the idea of pushing my habits marginally towards more summaries and less depth if that turned out to be the more efficient approach.