Time is a Good Critic

Or, why does so much stuff just fade away?

It's interesting to look back at the best of the decade lists from 2010 and see how much stuff has faded away ... Time is a good critic.

I have been thinking over the New Year break about this through the lens of a question: where should I focus more of my attention?

If most of the content we consume every day, quickly fades away, then why consume it at all?

In his newsletter this week, EF co-founder Matthew Clifford concluded that the answer was to focus time on reading history, and not popular “ideas books”.

I also decided to try to select the best books I read in the last ten years. This was a sobering exercise. It underlines how few books - particularly non-fiction - stand up well a few years on. Almost no popular “ideas” books do; the list is dominated by history. 

Nassim Taleb’s assessment of Obama’s year-end book list comes to a similar conclusion.

Sidebar: If you want to go down an internet rabbit hole reading about the #Lindy Effect let me guide you: article explaining the original idea in 1964, the Wikipedia page, counter-argument that the #lindy effect doesn’t exist, and a Farnam Street article explaining how to use the #lindy effect to choose what to read.

To pull in another related idea from Chuck Klosterman:

In Western culture, virtually everything is understood through the process of storytelling, often to the detriment of reality. When we recount history, we tend to use the life experience of one person — the “journey” of a particular “hero,” in the lingo of the mythologist Joseph Campbell — as a prism for understanding everything else.

So, in summary:

  1. Almost everything we consume daily is going to vanish with time. Twitter, podcasts, YouTube, Instapaper, the news… all empty cognitive calories (including, therefore, this newsletter).

  2. As we try and understand the past, we will grossly oversimplify it, and gravitate towards finding a single defining character to explain it.

  3. The longer content survives, the more likely it is to survive for longer (the #lindy effect).

So where does this leave us?

I think the key point is that most things will evaporate. But some won’t. Some will stay with you. And you can’t always know going in which are going to stay, and which will disappear.

The first CD I was ever given was Counting Crows’ ‘August & Everything After’ in 1993. I still listen to it regularly today. It is still, somehow, after listening to thousands, and thousands of hours of music, and living years and years of life, enduring and meaningful to me.

It’s worth trying to search for the lights that will never go out.

But I think tactically, there’s a few more things to keep in mind:

  1. It’s OK to read less news.

  2. It’s definitely worth reading less Twitter.

  3. It’s OK to miss out on year to year trends, you have plenty of time to catch up, and by the time you do, it will be easier to see in retrospect what was worth your time.

  4. If you start a book, movie, show, essay and it isn’t for you, you don’t need to finish it. Life is too short, and it probably won’t matter any way - it’ll be one of the ones that ultimately disappears.

  5. Books are probably better than essays which are probably better than tweets, or photos on Instagram, or the ‘Just In’ section of the news.

  6. Popular ideas books are probably less likely to stick than history books.

  7. If something old is still being mentioned today, pay attention. You’re probably not making a mistake jumping in to Dylan, or Shakespeare, or Casals, or James Baldwin…

But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

- William Deresiewicz, Solitude & Leadership