The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.
‒ Maximilien Robespierre
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.
‒ Samuel Johnson
I have been asked by many to share the secret of how I find information and whether the method can be replicated. I have a blog with several hundred subscribers where I post mostly scientific information and sometimes book reviews with highlights of most important thoughts and ideas, and infrequently I write an article, one of them now used by NVidia on Udacity as a reference for their autonomous driving course. I also send informational emails to about 200 subscribers that contain mostly technical and research articles. I have several more much smaller focused lists with a specific technical information.
But first, why do I share? It goes back quite a long time. After quitting the army during the fall of the Soviet Union, I had to reinvent myself and find a new path. Being in the military since 17 years-old I had no good understanding of a civilian life nor what I could do. I could not continue working in engineering although I had several opportunities to join scientific research on a ship that spends six months out of a year in Atlantic or Pacific Oceans but I was afraid of the idea of locking myself up again in a military-like environment.
I decided to go back to sports and teach kids to play rugby. I quickly learned that information in sports is guarded like a military secret. Training techniques, recovery systems, mental and motivational activities – all can give slight advantage at the highest professional or Olympic level, just enough to be better than your opponent. So I started a magazine (that was before Internet) and translated 17 books on training techniques, sports psychology and motivation, and game strategy.
At the time, it was in the late 1980s, Bill Walsh and George Seifert came to Moscow to organize NFL exhibition game, they were meeting with Gorbachev. I was pulled into a meeting with them as someone who knew the game (American football is just like rugby, right?) and could explain technicalities. That started my brief career in American Football and involvement in the organization of the first European Football League. I brought football to the USSR and it is still played in Russia, I was the first coach of the first team, Moscow Bears (of course bears). To teach new coaches and managers I translated the laws of the game and started sharing information.
There are important lessons that I learned in sports. First of all, information gives people who have access to it advantage. Opening this information equates playing field and allows people to rapidly improve thus creating strong competition. This competition exposes weaknesses and provides ground for brilliant people to excel. All of this establishes and gradually raises a baseline significantly improving people’s skills and quality of work.
When I moved to the United States and made another monumental change in my life and career, I continued studying, reading, and sharing. All of that helped me to accomplish a few very hard technical challenges and build strong relationships with many people.
Now that I explained my motivation, how do I find information?
I have several systems which I honed through time. It is important to note that valuable information is rare. Often you go through 500 pages of a book to only find one paragraph that advances your knowledge, or you have to watch through a 60 minute talk to only come across one brilliant phrase or idea.
I subscribe to anything that may have valuable information. These are over 2,000 RSS feeds that produce about 700 articles every day, I receive close to 200 emails daily and as many YouTube videos. Additionally I tap into various book libraries on Google and Safari. I also watch online courses on huge variety of topics from neuroscience to engineering.
For RSS reader I use a desktop application from Omea reader. The goal is to scan through 700 new article titles in under 30 minutes and to bookmark those that have potential valuable information for later scan and maybe reading. I do that either at the end of the work day or later at night at home. That scan usually gives me about 20 to 30 new articles every day.
Similar task is with YouTube channels, I remove videos that do not have any technical or scientific information in their title leaving me with 20 to 50 videos out of 200 every day to explore further.
Out of 200 informational emails daily I bookmark maybe 5 to 10 more articles. All this gathering takes around 40 to 50 minutes a day and is saved in the form of open tabs in a browser like shown in this screenshot.
Next task is to go through each article or video and quickly decide if further attention is worthy.
Here’s an important thing. We learn not in order to memorize raw information but to create necessary skills. Skills that are necessary for what we would like to achieve or accomplish in life. Once I find information that is valuable and carries important knowledge and ideas, I organize it in several ways. Sharing for me is easy and is a consequence of organizing this knowledge for myself. I have my blog for myself, my subscribers take advantage of it.
I have a research folder where I keep all processed information, that which I have read.
Anything that I do not have time to read goes into one of the folders in an archive:
What I need to read goes into a short queue which is ordered by time. Bottom of the list is periodically dumped into archive.
Webinars and talks are waiting for me in one of the documents.
Once I watch them I record the talk and the notes in an appropriate document:
Talks that are important I save:
I also have a similar organization for books that I have read:
And when I have time to experiment with code, I also organize it:
That’s all there is to it. You repeat it daily for many years and you learn a lot. Once you have all that knowledge, you will want to share it.
Now that you know my secrets you can do it yourself too. Warning that knowledge is intoxicating, the more you have it the thirstier you get for more.
It was Socrates who once described the following paradox: The more I learn, the less I know. He later proved it geometrically by drawing a circle:
The smaller the circle, the more you know about everything. Did you ever wonder why teenagers know everything? As you start growing the circle you also increase the circumference, you discover new questions to which you do not know the answer. Knowledge brings uncertainty and makes you doubt your assumptions.
It’s critical to understand that the brain is a type of a muscle and requires constant training just like any other muscle in the body. If we stop learning, the abilities and plasticity of the brain decrease.
Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order.
I wish you and your loved ones happy holidays and happy learning!
Head spin 🤔 interesting though
This is fantastic Alan. Thank you for sharing.