Hacking your way to becoming a learning machine

Tod Combs was among the lucky 165 students in the Columbia University investing class when Warren Buffett came to talk to them. He remembers one of the students asking the oracle of Omaha what he could do now to prepare for an investing career. Buffett thought for a few seconds and then reached for the stack of reports, trade publications and other papers he had brought with him. “Read 500 pages like this every day” he said. “That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

But Combs was not among "the many", because he took that advice to heart. He began reading up to 1,000 pages a day. In time he became the leading investor for Castle Point Capital. Years later he was one of the few people invited by Buffett to become one of his money managers, and he is considered one of his successors.


What does this has to do with me?

You probably heard the 500 pages/day story before but thought it does not apply to you. Especially if you are not an investor. That's what I did. "He must be reading lots of reports and studies …. That's his job!" But I noticed that a lot of other people are also reading like crazy. Bill Gates is an avid reader. Heck, even Zuck is doing it. Almost all the people that I admire are learning machines. There must be something there.

Charlie Munger, one of Buffet colleagues, once said:

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

But how should one get on the Warren Buffett  reading plan? Reading any long form material is hard these days.  We are so used to digesting only short form content that anything longer than 2 scroll will throw most people into a long depresion. It takes time and energy to read, and most of us don't have either. Or that's the lie we tell ourselves.

So last year I devised a plan to pour information into my brain. As any respectable engineer I decided to use hacks to make the most out of it. Below are some of the ones that worked:

Walking and Listening

My commute is fairly long. It could be a lot shorter but I prefer walking to a subway station that's further away and to use the time to listen to books. I was always an avid listener, but I was listening to tech-related podcasts and music. Last year I realized that the podcasts I was listing were an echo chamber for all the information I am exposed to anyway. How many debates about the Apple Watch can I listen to? Is another panel discussing the tech news of the day valuable to me? Probably not.

So I switched to books and educational podcasts. If you are into audio books than Audible is your best friend. If you don’t have a subscription, stop what you are doing and get one. There are also some wonderful podcasts that will expand your knowledge. I am a history nerd so I devoured The History of Rome Podcast, Hardcore History or 12 Byzantine Rulers.

All in all I spend 90 minute walking each day. That means I walk about 8km & burn an extra 500 calories each day. And I get through at least a book a month each month & hours of podcasts. Looks like a sweet deal to me.

Reading Lunch

Most people bring their sandwich to work for lunch. I bring my Kindle. Most people take of their mid-day to relax. I use mine to read some more. I prefer reading a professional/business book but that's a matter of preference.

Doing that I get 5 extra hours a week to do some reading. If something doesn't blow up (meaning I don't skip the lunch break) I manage to get through 2 books a month.

You think reading is not for you. Then watch a TED talk, a professional presentation or one of the many courses available online.

Documentaries instead of TV shows

TV Series are some of the favourite leisure time for my generation. And who can blame us! The shows of today are nothing like the crappy series of the 90s. The production values are amazing, plots are more captivating than top movies and you have Oscar-nominated actors getting involved in TV productions. We now have Game of Thrones. And Breaking Bad. And Arrow. And Daredevil. And Modern Family. And House of Cards. And Vikings. You get the idea. You could easily watch 4-5 shows a night if you want to.

The good news is that documentaries have come a long way too. Just watch the amazing series of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Or this dramatic documentary of Hannibal. There are amazing ones for the World Wars. Or some mind-blowing ones about space exploration. There is also a new version of Cosmos. I find myself as entertained by  good documentary than by good TV show.  The difference with educational content is I get myself … you know … educated. Documentaries are not books but the content is there and having a bit of diversity in the medium also helps. Make sure to take good notes either way.

"It's not the same thing" you may say. "Comparing Game of Thrones with a documentary about Romans is preposterous. Game of Thrones has dragons for hell's sakes." I hear you. But I would say the story of the Punic Wars beat Khaleesi's dragons. And the political intricacies at the end of the Roman Republic beats the House of Cards plot any day of the week. It's like taking all the back-stabbing, murder, political factions, sex, deceit and ambition from House of Cards and multiplying it by 10.

Although fewer in number,  there are also some surprisingly good historical TV shows. If you can put up with the  twisting of some events for dramatic effect, shows like "The Tudors" or "Rome" can teach you a lot about some of the most interesting periods in human history.

Or you can read some more. Did I tell you about some amazing educational comic book novels? Trust me, there is more to entertainment than zombies and dragons.

Wrapping it all up

Doing these hacks I am now able to through many books a month and to dive deep into some of the topics that I was always interested in but I could not find the time for.