Why We Shouldn't Be Surprised People Don't Read

Startup guy Neil Patel got laughed at a bit this morning for a slickly-produced (and sadly deleted) video in which he talked about not reading books, reasoning that because books are written 1-2 years before they are published, their information is flawed:

“The only books I read are kids’ books and that’s to my daughter. People talk about reading books. You know what? I wrote a book and I was even a New York Times best-selling author, but here’s the thing: Most books that you see in a book store, they’re written a year to two years before they were actually published and they go through this really long process,” he said in the video.

Mr. Patel was thoroughly roasted for his take by a lot of people, and justifiably so - he embodied the following @Dril tweet:

Nevertheless, his argument - that many leave out - is that he spends three hours a day reading blogs and posts, which is definitely what a lot of people do that are making fun of him, but with the added issue that this is his only source of information. This is the classic sea-wide-puddle-deep knowledge-digging that I feel like people would like to pretend isn’t incredibly common, and also incredibly indicative of how we have commoditized how we pursue knowledge.

Sidebar: There is definitely an element of intellectual snobbery to it, though. I personally don’t care if someone reads books or not, and I’ve met many people in my life that read (or claim to read) tons of books who are some of the most incredibly stupid people in the world. You should read books about stuff you’re interested in if you want to, and it’s cool that you read books, but sneering at people for their insufficient book consumption puts you in the same pile as the startup guys who claim they read 100 books a year. But this isn’t about that.

Anyway, I think Patel’s video is also a symptom of a growing problem of how schooling (all the way through college) has been turned into a conveyer belt for sending children into the working world, and, yes, how Hustle Culture has grown out of that.

The Intellectual Conveyer Belt

Neil Patel is absolutely a hustle culture guy, posting videos like “How to Get 4 Million Visits Per Month With One Simple Keyword Hack” and “Life isn’t a competition. The only person you should be competing with is yourself.” Everything he peddles, like his peers, promises that good fortune and wealth is only a few simple tricks or platitudes away. I have written a lot about hustle culture, but one thing that occurred to me when prompted by reporter Marshall Honorof prompted me to reconsider why these tactics are so successful, and why people are by and large reading less.

The answer is that the way in which we’ve been educating people and rewarding success in the last few decades has naturally led to a point where the idea of reading around things is less important than memorizing facts, and then using those facts, and making arguments specifically to pass tests so that we could get good grades. Kids from a young age begin learning things specifically with the intention of passing a big test, so that they can go to college and pass another big test. They are taught to learn the things on the test, and articulate what they know to pass the test, so that the test can be passed and they can go to college, where they can learn and pass other tests.

There are exceptions within the collegiate system and I am sure someone will correct me and say oh well this is actually the case, and they can send those to NobodyCares@ShutUp.Biz. Nevertheless, American students (though this happens in other countries too) are put through four years of college, with a chunk of that dedicated to literally doing subjects outside of their major for no reason other than to vaguely round them out as a person, but really just…tick boxes. College becomes a series of tick boxes for a tick box that is valuable for the first year or two of your career, as it has been commoditized into a thing you do and own so that you can work more.

The point I’m lumbering toward is that as kids have been going through this conveyer-like process, they have seen the growth of the internet into an incredibly large source of information. All the while they have been educated about the “right” way to do things, and that they must consume the right knowledge to pass the right test to get into the right school in which they’ll pass more tests so that they can get the thing they need to get the job they need.

While this may not be the case in all fields, from my perspective society has spent decades telling kids (and young adults) that education is transactional - that you need to know this to do this and that’s why you learn - and then acted surprised when people turn to Wikipedia, or YouTube explainers, or other more efficient ways of learning. We commute longer hours to work longer hours, and with what little time left we want to learn about something - and guess what? We have a convenient, easily-accessible, constantly-updated information source in Wikipedia, or a more palatable (by design) way of consuming information via YouTube, or Twitter.

It’s significantly more convenient to blame this all on young people having no intellectual pursuits and wanting things fast, when society has educated them that this is the right way to do things. We spend 15+ years of a child’s life telling them that they need to learn these things to pass these tests, then chide them in their adulthood for seeking the same efficiency and cheat-code mentality in life itself, while also sort of rewarding them for doing so by making jobs so based on who you know and how you write your cover letter/resumé.

It’s more than sucking the joy out of learning - we have changed on a societal level what it means to be educated. Education has become so pragmatism-focused that it’s unsurprising that we have people that learn basically everything outside of school through a web browser - we have educated generations of kids to consciously or otherwise view knowledge as something one acquires as quickly as possible, and usually for a task.

I am not saying that people never have interests outside of their own work or social lives, or that they don’t learn things for fun. But at the same time, why are we surprised that young people aren’t reading, when they are very much conditioned to seek information as pragmatically as possible? Why are we surprised that many young people flock to the Patels and Vaynerchuks of the world seeking quick and easy solutions when our educational system and society rewards people that are pragmatic themselves? Yes, there is the joy of reading - the pursuit of knowledge - but what does that matter when we pressure children from a young age that they must load their schedules with enough extra-curricular stuff to stand out while also getting the “right” grades to get into college?

This is why, to me, we see such a growth in advice-type articles and the success of hustle-type guys who do not appear to do anything of note. It’s because young people are desperate to figure out what to do next, because they are so thoroughly drained from the expectations and dogma of society. The conveyer belt of education leads to the conveyer belt of adulthood, where they’re expected to get a good job, then a house, then have kids, then at some point they can think about enjoying their lives.

Society is creating anti-intellectualism by leaving people with significantly less time (and incentive) for intellectual pursuits. People are more stressed, working longer hours, and when they want to know something they naturally will turn to a quicker and respectable form of information than a book. And they’re growing up learning that the best way to learn is to learn the right stuff, and to use it in the right way.

Who can blame ‘em?