You are what you read

Input shapes your output.
Input shapes your output.
Image: Unsplash/Rathish Gandhi via CC0
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When Elon Musk first started SpaceX, everybody thought he was insane.

Not only is space exploration an industry dominated by governments, but for someone without any background in space technology to go in with the belief that they could help drive meaningful progress was audacious to say the least.

Over the years, however, much of that initial doubt about what was then seen as Musk’s pet project has subsided. SpaceX has indeed done the seemingly impossible, and that doubt has largely turned into curiosity.

Given how involved Musk is in the engineering side of things, a question that he commonly gets asked is how on Earth he learned so much about rockets. His answer? “I read a lot of books.”

It’s an answer that almost makes you want to laugh. Picking up rocket science as a hobby through reading isn’t what normal people do. Yet, it’s not completely unbelievable. We’ve all heard the stories about how many of the people we admire attribute much of their success to their thirst for knowledge and their love of books. Even in our own lives, we’ve all had experiences that hit home the impact of reading.

A favorite childhood story. An inspiring writer. That one novel.

Still, I don’t think most of us internalize quite how much, and sometimes how subtly, what we read determines who we become.

Input shapes your output

Language is our primary tool of communication. It’s how we build and organize our knowledge, and it’s what allows us to interact with each other.

Outside of direct experience, it’s also largely how we create our perception of reality. The information your senses absorb through your surroundings combine to create linguistic (and subconscious) models in your mind about how the world works and the best way to interact with it.

One part of this occurs through verbal conversation, or listening to something in general, but for most knowledge workers and for the average person in developed countries a larger part of it is directly a result of what we consume.

You are what you read. The information that you input into your mind informs your thinking patterns, and it influences your output in the form of the decisions you make, the work you produce, and the interactions you have.

That’s a huge incentive to prioritize a block of time to think about what and how you consume, and whether or not you read adequately relative to the progress you want to make. It’s a reason to maybe pause and consider if you can do anything to purposefully shape the direction of your mind.

Naturally, input doesn’t necessarily mean quantity. The correlation between how much you read or consume and what you can do or who you become begins to even off after a certain point, and more isn’t always better.

This is entirely about what the quality of your predominant sources of input are, and the importance of those can’t be overstated.

Don’t have time to read?

Many of us lead busy lives, and with so many other commitments, it’s quite understandable that there isn’t always time in the day to read. Or is it?

Maybe for a small, small minority this reigns true. For most of us, though, I think it’s just an excuse. We haven’t done the hard work of thinking about how we spend our time and what we can do about it. In fact, there are going to be people reading this article, who randomly stumbled onto it while killing time, and who at the same time feel like they don’t have enough hours in the day to read what they want.

Naturally, I want more people to find my work and to gain something from it and to continue reading it, so this isn’t necessarily a complaint from my end. Nor do I think that what I write is a waste of your time (generally speaking). The point is that even when we think we’re not reading, we’re reading.

When we spend 20 minutes scrolling down our Facebook feed, we’re reading. When we choose to click on an enticing title from a questionable news source, we’re reading. When we browse without reason, we’re reading.

The only difference is that this kind of reading isn’t intentional. It’s done in our default day-to-day setting, and it’s not only a waste of time, but quite often, it negatively warps how we see, think about, and analyze the world.

Reading shouldn’t be something that happens to you. It should be something that you actively do. It should be done with awareness. If you don’t feel like you have time to read, maybe it’s time to think twice.

Be deliberate

In the last 10 years, the number of books published per year has doubled. Ten times more data will be produced in 2020 than was produced in 2013. We live in age of information overload, and the ability to distinguish value from noise is going to become an increasingly critical quality.

The effects of reading aren’t always obvious, and as a result, many of us don’t always pay attention to what our brain is processing, and we just go along in whatever distraction the world guides us. That’s not the way ahead.

At the end of the day, one of most important skills in your life is how you think. It affects everything from what you produce to how you see the world. It’s on you to improve that by consuming input of value.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should cut out anything that isn’t practical or directly relevant to your life. It’s just about being deliberate. Reduce aimless browsing, pointless news, and social media feeds. Add some classics, read good fiction, and learn from people who think deeply.

The quality of your mind depends on it.

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