I read a tweet sometimes ago that got me thinking.

  • Low level IQ: either you read nothing or you read shit.
  • Medium level IQ: you read a lot of books.
  • High IQ: you read only a selected few books over and over.
  • Very High IQ/Genius: you figure it out on your own.

Let’s look past the notion of IQ (see Taleb article on Medium and let’s interpret it with the general meaning of Intelligence (1).

Recalling my experience, books can be a synonym for mental laziness. There was a period in my life where I thought that the only “smart” way of spending my free time could have been reading non-fiction stuff. The are two implicit ideas behind this concepts:

  1. You can accumulate knowledge in a “safe environment” without any problems to solve.
  2. This knowledge remains still and it will be ready when a real problem comes in.

Time has passed and experience taught me that theory without practice is less that useful: it is dangerous. Filling your head with ideas by other people not only ensures you that you have a lot of noise in your head but also that you won’t apply the few things that are good (in principle).

Let’s take for example a famous book, How to Win Friend and Influence People.. Even with all the fillers and stories, you have 288 pages of knowledge, real stuff that you can apply with all your contacts. The classical thing to do in our time is to read a book, feeling satisfied of the achievement and put it back in the shelves. You feel like you have achieve something but I gonna tell you something surprising:

Books can only give you ideas, i.e. the inspiration to try something out. If you don’t apply the information in the books, it will soon be forgotten.


Books are powerful in the sense that you learn from the experience of others. However, this wisdom is qualitatively different from the things that one learns by himself. Without the pain of the experience, it is difficult to remember.

In essence, we need to ruminate over and over on bits of external knowledge to make it ours. Read them, try them, correct them and try them again, over and over.

See these cows ruminating? They are probably ingesting some good external knowledge from some 18th century book. It is probably Hume.

This also explains why geniuses do not need to read a lot. They have the mental curiosity to figure out problems on their own and make their own set of mental models. I reckon that solving real problems is a better approach to growth than reading in a chamber, disconnected from life. At least, you need the former to formalize the latter.

As Taleb well pointed out:

A confession. When I don’t have skin in the game, I am usually dumb. My knowledge of technical matters, such as risk and probability, did not initially come from books. It did not come from lofty philosophizing and scientific hunger. It did not even come from curiosity. It came from the thrills and hormonal flush one gets while taking risks in the markets. […]

[…] When there was risk on the line, suddenly a second brain in me manifested itself, and the probabilities of intricate sequences became suddenly effortless to analyze and map. When there is fire, you will run faster than in any competition.

How to win over mental laziness? Have skin in the game i.e. something to lose.

(1) I define “Intelligence” as the ability to achieve your own objectives.