Nassim Taleb on autodidactism (and incremental reading?)


New member
(note: not sure if this is watercooler material or for one of the SM sections)

I ran into this interesting quote from polymath author Nassim Taleb* that seems to me to advocate for an approach to reading that is very similar to Incremental Reading in SuperMemo. "The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading," Nassim says.

Here's the full quote with relevant parts bolded:
Again, I wasn’t exactly an autodidact, since I did get degrees; I was rather a barbell autodidact as I studied the exact minimum necessary to pass any exam, overshooting accidentally once in a while, and only getting in trouble a few times for undershooting. But I read voraciously, wholesale, initially in the humanities, later in mathematics and science, and now in history–outside a curriculum, away from the gym machine so to speak. I figured out that whatever I selected myself I could read with more depth and more breadth–there was a match to my curiosity. And I could take advantage of what people later pathologized as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) by using natural stimulation as a main driver to scholarship. The enterprise needed to be totally effortless in order to be worthwhile. The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether –when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement. The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research. It is exactly like options, trial and error, not getting stuck, bifurcating when necessary but keeping a sense of broad freedom and opportunism. Trial and error is freedom.
It matches my experience (albeit with Anki's implementation of IR rather than SuperMemo). Ordinary linear reading is a pleasure to me but it requires a degree of patience -- you have to reign in your impulsive mind that keeps pulling your attention in other directions. But with Incremental Reading, instead of working against your impulsive tendencies, you work with them -- giving your mind a constant supply of unpredictable novelty. In that sense, it is even addictive, like a video game. Yet you absorb and retain more material (Taleb doesn't seem to have the retention component or at least doesn't mention it).

What I'm wondering is does too much Incremental Reading in the long term impair your capability for more ordinary reading? Does it untrain your brain from being steady and patient? Since it seems that, for example, overuse of social media has a similar effect (at least that is the popular opinion, I'm not sure how grounded in research it is). I'd be curious to hear opinions from long-term heavy SM users.

*best known for his INCERTO series of books: Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan, Antifragile, and most recently, Skin in the game.


Staff member
Essentially, are you suggesting that Incremental Reading is a little bit like self imposed ADHD? But that it doesn't matter because the reading material is broken into more granular chunks, which are then randomised and thus reducing the risk of getting bored reading the same thing linearly?

To my mind, it just means you are reading material that is more varied. After all, what is the difference between an article that covers one topic and an article that covers many? The contents are determined by the author. So the argument could be made that the author who covers many topics in their article or book is giving you self-imposed ADHD! But I disagree. It is just that the content is varied and that is it.

However, I do believe our mobile phones and surfing the internet are both rewiring our neural circuitry so that we are move liable to shoot off on a tangent and lose focus at the drop of a hat.