Stop reading the same books as everybody else

May 25, 2020 | 5 minutes

Reading is essential. Most ambitious people around me are well aware that reading a lot of books is a powerful personal moat. But something that drives me mad is seeing friends and ambitious strangers on the internet reading the same books over and over. It is as if they had not fully internalised the concept of a competitive advantage: by reading the same things as everybody else, they essentially lose the edge they could have gained.

Definition Moat: The term economic moat, popularised by Warren Buffett, refers to a business’ ability to maintain competitive advantages over its competitors in order to protect its long-term profits and market share from competing firms. Personal moats are just like business moats, but applied to a single individual. A personal moat is a competitive advantage that an individual has over others. A good article on personal moat: Daniel Gross on personal moats

1 - The Playbook

A lot of young people want to have impact and get rich in the process. They end up either starting a business, doing world class research, or joining a company on a breakout trajectory.

Then they follow the Playbook.

Read a lot, network a lot, help people as much as you can, and work hard.

But in the process of reading a lot, their mental models and opinions about the world are changed. Reading infects your mind with other people’s opinions, for the better or for the worse.

Books are considered to be great when the mental models and ideas that infect your mind while reading them are useful. When they lead to success. And like a meme spreading from brain to brain, they flood the internet and get recommended all over the place.

Armed with their brand new ideas, with the Playbook, readers of great books sit down to work and change the world.

2 - Competition and the literary trap

Competition is deadly. It drives profits down and forces founders and employees alike to work extremely hard.

Ambitious people know that. They will avoid competition at all cost and think hard about what to build, what to write, or what to research. At least that’s what the Playbook taught them: “From Zero to One” says that I should avoid competitions. It says that all the great founders built monopolies from day 1, so will I!

My thesis is that blindly following the Playbook, and infecting your mind with the same ideas everybody remotely ambitious got infected with, will lead you to the competition you have tried so hard to avoid.

Reading the same books as everybody else will turn you into another commoditised founder. With the same ideas as everybody else, competing for the same markets, and having at best a mildly successful life.

The kind of books I am talking about

I call it the literary trap. Read those books and you’ll become another founder copycat. You’ll fall into the mimetic trap. And you’ll be shortsighted for the rest of your life.

3 - Escaping competition

What I believe should be done instead, is building your own literary niche. That means reading stuff that other people have not even heard of. One weird concept will lead to another. And before you know it you’ll be a true contrarian. The outsider from “Zero to One”. A real one this time.

In the process you will build a unique mind with unique insights, and you can leverage this uniqueness into a competitive advantage. It will lead you to projects that are far outside the radar of the commoditised founders. You’ll be out there, trying to pick up fruits that had been undiscovered since then. While the pack of commoditised founders are fighting for the same opportunities, you’ll be exploring virgin lands in startup world.

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4 - Conclusion

I was planning to add a reading list with very weird and unknown good books I have read recently but it would defeat my whole thesis (if you still want it, email me).

I also want to add one final plug for old books: If you really want to read self help books to get inspired and motivated, I suggest reading old philosophy of life books instead.

If Seneca is still read 2000 years after he wrote “Letters from a stoic”, that means it’s pretty damn good.

Do you think post-humans will read “7 Habits of highly effective people” in 2000 years? I don’t think so.

Moreover, self help is just a rehash of Stoicism and Epicurean philosophy. Their writers take one good concept from one letter sent by Seneca and write 300 pages of fluff about it. Don’t give them your money.

Instead read Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, The Enchiridion, and Discourses and selected writings of Epictetus.

Thanks to Florian Müller and Jay Yeung for reviewing drafts of this.

-Justin

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