Consumption Is Still Consumption

November 16, 2022

I just watched an excellent interview of Peter Thiel, given by Peter Robertson of the Hoover Institute. It’s a dive into the political alternatives being offered by the American political parties, the role of growth in America, and some of the geopolitical landscape across the world (Ukraine, China, etc.). It’s great. You should watch it.

After I watched it, I went for a run. And realized I hadn’t yet written anything that day. That was a problem.

I read and listen to a lot of stuff that most other people miss. Where most people are watching Fox, CNN, or MSNBC and the same set of pundits, I work really hard to get information from primary sources, or from non-biased unmediated analysts and academics. For example, folks like Peter Zeihan, George Friedman, or Stephen Kotkin have far more detail and context on geopolitical affairs. Diving in with these sorts of scholars makes me feel successful in eschewing the news cycle traps and building up views from first principles.

‘Ask an average newspaper reader what he thinks about a certain political question. He will give you as “his” opinion a more or less exact account of what he has read in the papers, and yet – and this is the essential point – he believes that what he is saying is the result of his own thinking.’ -Erich Fromm

Of course, that’s not true. It let’s me walk around with an air of superiority sometimes, confident that I’m consuming better sources and information than other people. But I’m wildly biased by the sources I get.

It’s still better than what most people have. What’s so peculiar about today is the horribly low standards we have for letting other people get in our heads. The media and networks and social media are literally buying our attention with ads and bandwidth and an atmosphere of expertise. We fall for it - they’re on TV afterall. And the production quality is high. But the skillset of being a media personality is wildly different than the skillset of being, for instance, a competent historical analyst. The Stephen Kotkin interview I referenced up above is dry, and it’s one of the more engaging interviews he’s done primarily because of his interlocutors. 1-on-1 he’s worse. But he has a lifetime of knowledge built up about Russian culture, Russian language (he’s fluent), Russian history (he’s spent years as an academic going through Soviet archives in Russia). There is no better source on historical Russian and Soviet thought.

I also need to remind myself that consumption is not the end goal. Yes, it’s better to learn how to source and ingest high-quality and especially contrarian content (as GH Hardy said, “It is not worth an intelligent man’s time to be in the majority. By definition, there are already enough people to do that.”). But even if you consume this sort of content, you’re still consuming. Fromm’s point doesn’t differentiate: you’re still regurgitating what someone else has learned and pawning it off as your own thinking.

So the end goal is still to produce. Writing or outlining or doodling notes changes the game. It’s when you start putting ideas together and internalizing exactly how you think.

If you want to find out what you really think, you need to write it down first.

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