In mathematics, a function is relationship between a set of inputs and a set of outputs. When we know this function, we can predictably determine the outputs for any given set of inputs. However, when we don’t understand how the function behaves, we are only able to approximate towards the output we desire by tweaking and controlling our inputs. Abstracting away from mathematics, an unknown function is like a food blender — we cannot deterministically predict how the blender will behave — we can only throw in a bunch of tasty ingredients and hope that the final blend tastes good as well.
Much like the food blender, our brains are essentially unknown functions. Our ideas are byproducts of the information we consume, but we do not understand how this information is processed within our heads to generate our thoughts. One natural strategy to improve the quality of our ideas is to increase the quantity of inputs we feed into our Brain Function — we read as many books as we can, listen to tens of podcasts, have diverse conversations, and so on. This strategy clearly works — many of the best thinkers in the world are voracious readers. However, this strategy is somewhat like randomly blending a whole bunch of ingredients in your food blender and hoping some bizarre combination turns out great. Through this strategy, we may actually have an extremely low signal-to-noise ratio for which of our inputs are actually more useful than not.
Because of this, we generally try to create filters to select the types of inputs we feed into our Brain Function. We browse Amazon’s catalogue of books by “Top Rated” — effectively selecting what the majority thinks is good and what is not. Although this strategy can be effective in improving the signal-to-noise ratio, I believe that it has a significant flaw which is often overlooked.
Being able to output extremely original or creative thought requires one of two things: a vastly different underlying Brain Function or an extremely varied set of inputs. To achieve the first option, one would need to somehow change the entire wiring of his brain to process information in a completely different way —possible? Probably not. The second option however is something which is fundamentally in our control. To achieve original thought, we should feed our Brain Function information which is completely different from what most people are exposed to. By browsing book catalogues by “Top Rated”, you are reading what everyone else is reading — which is not the spark of original thought. Instead of reading the biography of Elon Musk, the world famous rockstar super-entrepreneur, we could instead read about Hisri Ali, a Somali-Dutch politician who fled oppression to speak out about women’s rights under theocratic regimes. Instead of reading Freakonomics, a curious collection of unintuitive economics facts, we could instead read Richard Thaler’s original paper on behavioral economics titled “Anomalies”. These alternative materials to Amazon’s bestsellers list may not be necessarily better than their counterpart, but they sure do foster a diversity of reading material — fostering thought which will be orthogonal to the rest of the crowd.
The more people recommend a book, the less you should be inclined to read it.