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Too Much Reading, Not Enough Thinking?

August 13, 2015 | About:

We read a lot. I don't know anyone who's wise who doesn't read a lot. But that's not enough: You have to have a temperament to grab ideas and do sensible things.

Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio)

I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.

Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio)

This is a self-reflection article in which I will share with readers my struggle with what I call the “too much reading, too little thinking” syndrome. The syndrome is rather self-explanatory. Very often we read and read and read but fail to synthesize what we read. The hard-to-swallow reality is that doing so is barely different from not reading at all, which I have personally experienced many times.

It may help to find the root of this syndrome biologically. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman pointed out that there are two systems in our mind. I know many readers are already familiar with the concept, but let’s review them for the purpose of discussion:

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.

System 1 effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.

Reading without thinking, in my opinion, is mostly the work of System 1. Reading is not an effortless activity but our minds do work automatically and quickly most of the time while we just read. Thinking, on the other hand, has to be divided into categories. Some thinking is near effortless and automatic, which is the work of System 1. The real value-added thinking and synthesizing is undoubtedly and can only be the work of System 2.

In my earlier article on Nestle (NESN) (link), I gave an example of the sign of capacity to suffer illustrated by how Nestle’s CEO responded to an analyst’s question on short-term financial results. I was able to spot that because I read the transcript with a purpose in my mind – to spot signs of capacity to suffer. You may find it interesting that I read that exact same transcript more than once and the first time I read it, I just underlined and highlighted some stuff, which was very easy to do. But I remembered almost nothing and created little value the first time I read the transcript. The amount of highlights and underlines may give the wrong impression that I was more than just reading it. It may also serve to give me some personal comfort that basically serves to fool myself – you did the reading already because look at all those nice highlights, underlines and notes on the margin. But if you ask me what I learned from the transcript after the first time I read it, I would not be able to give you a satisfactory answer.

It’s frustrating to realize this but better late than never. I’ve had countless experiences with reading annual reports and books, only to find out a few days later that I absolutely learned very little. I read a lot, but I didn’t grab the big ideas and do sensible things. This struck me big when I was having a conversation with a friend about Munger’s recommended reading list. We were talking about the book "Deep Simplicity," which I have read from the first page to the last. When my friend asked me what are some of the big ideas I learned from this book, my brain froze.

I can’t remember the source of this anecdote. Someone was sitting next to Robert Cialdini on a plane ride, and he observed that Cialdini would write a chapter summary on paper after he finished the chapter. Alice Schroeder talked about how Buffett used to hand write a lot of notes and financial highlights from reading the annual reports of the companies he followed. He would also think about how to put all the information together, which led him do the scuttlebutt work.

Bill Gates (Trades, Portfolio) is famous for taking a week off twice a year when he just thinks without any interruption. By “actively disconnecting and looking at everything from 50,000 feet,” he is able to “effectively reflect, reset, and clearly rethink my goals and aspirations.” For each “Think Week,” he “creates a life to-do list, does a lot of research and thinks through big ideas and challenges deeply. Going through this process has been enlightening.”

The examples from Cialdini, Buffett and Gates are inspirational. My game plan is to set up certain amount of time during a day to force myself to think. I will also need to take summary notes with legal pads on the reports and books I read. I am thankful for the opportunity to write articles on GuruFocus as writing is a great way to force myself to think better and more clear. For those readers who haven’t started writing, I encourage you start. You don’t have to publish your articles to the public. Simply keeping a journal will be sufficient.

This is a start of a new journey. I would greatly appreciate if any of the readers can share your thoughts and experiences related to the topic.

About the author:

A global value investor constantly seeking to acquire worldly wisdom. My investment philosophy has been inspired by Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Howard Marks, Chuck Akre, Li Lu, Zhang Lei and Peter Lynch.

Rating: 4.9/5 (19 votes)



Dernek - 4 years ago    Report SPAM

Great article as always! I must admit, I found myself in your story countless of times and one sure thing that works for me is to write down some kind of summary of what I just read.

The Science of Hitting
The Science of Hitting - 4 years ago    Report SPAM

Grahamites - One thing that works for me (that I didn't do previously) is taking handwritten notes while I read. When I finish a book, I always have a few pages of quotes, facts, and ideas that grabbed my attention. This helps me to remember what I've read, and it also gives me a quick reference whenever I return to the book; it helps me to focus on the "big ideas", and also gives me a reason to stop and think while reading. Just my two cents; thanks for the great article!

Grahamites - 4 years ago    Report SPAM

Dernek - Thanks for the nice words and thanks for sharing your insight. I'm finding it very helpful.

Science - Thanks for sharing your secret. That's very very smart and sensible. You are practicing Munger's "grabbing the big ideas." I might have to shamelessly copy that:) Greatly appreciate your nice comments.

Jtdaniel premium member - 4 years ago

Hi Grahamites,

Great article and a very important concept that goes way beyond investing. As one who spends most hours wrestling with difficult decisions, the routine integration of reading, writing and thinking is invaluable. In a comment to your piece on Nestle, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the article enough to read it four times. As I bought my first-ever Nestle shares a few months ago, I am eager to read anything of substance on this great business. I believe it was Bill Ruane who said that you never really know a company until you own some shares (another powerful concept).

The idea that kept drawing me back to your article was "capacity to suffer". I immediately recognized it as something that I needed to grasp in order to "get" Nestle. It took a considerable amount of scribbling to put Mr. Russo's terminology into words that meant something to me. I finally self-defined "capacity to suffer" as 1) the patience and discipline to delay gratification and 2) the financial strength to persevere in difficult circumstances. That may not be exactly what Mr. Russo had in mind, but I do think it is consistent with all I have learned about Nestle's business culture. Best, dj

Grahamites - 4 years ago    Report SPAM
Dj - Thanks for your nice words and comments. Bill Ruane, Tom Russo (Trades, Portfolio) and Tom Gaynor all have said something along the line of putting a little money into a company to force yourself to learn about the business. Getting back to capacity to suffer, I think your definition is a great one. In my mind, capacity to suffer and delayed gratification are very similar.Just like there are characteristics of men who have the patience and discipline to delay gratification, there are common characteristics of companies that possess the capacity to suffer and it always start from the top management team. There will be specific instances that serve as evidence of management's capacity to suffer. These are not easy to find as they are not easily available. But the joy and satisfaction on the way makes the journey so worthwhile. I'm glad you have become a Nestle shareholder. Thanks again for reading my articles. I'm learning a lot from your comments as well:)

Jbellin718 - 4 years ago    Report SPAM

One of my favorite quotes: To write is to think - To write well is to think well.

Grahamites - 4 years ago    Report SPAM

Jbellin - Great quote. Certainly true:) Thanks for sharing.

Joe Marwood
Joe Marwood - 4 years ago    Report SPAM

Danny Kahneman suggests does he not that the market cannot be beaten. So maybe the truth is that it matters not how much you think or read. Whatever you do you will be subjected to the same random fluctuations of the market.

Bruce Bohannon
Bruce Bohannon premium member - 4 years ago

Nice topic and associated intellectual capital within. I've tried to read DK's book several times and it is nearly too complicated for me to keep the interest required. New here but may follow author. Thanks.

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