Six Questions for Shane Parrish

Shane Parrish is one of the smartest people I know. He’s earned his knowledge through sheer hard work. Shane runs the popular blog Farnam Street, with the goal of “trying to master the best of what other people have already figured out.” He’s done this by reading more than anyone I know, and sharing what’s learned with the world. You can follow him on Twitter.

I recently asked him six questions.

What aren’t we talking about enough?

I’m going to give three answers to this. First, we’re not talking enough about great people doing great things in the right way — be it in the broader world or the local community. Our attention is trending towards the negative and not the positive. I’d like to see that reversed. Second, and somewhat related, we’re becoming adverse to thinking for ourselves and we’re increasingly outsourcing that to other people. We don’t want to do the work and we want other people to tell us. But it’s often through doing the work that we really reach deep understanding and find meaning. Finally, I don’t think we’re asking the internal questions about what it means to live a good life and how we should live.

What have you changed your mind about in the last decade?

I’ll give you two very recent examples, both of which will seem obvious to most people but were not obvious to me. First, ideas are not enough. It’s not enough to just come up with good ideas. They mean nothing without the ability to execute on them. Execution is the day to day grind. It’s the work that most people don’t want to do. Ideas are sexy, but they require the ability to execute. If you’re only contributing ideas, it’s not enough. Second, the ability to go fast and far is related to your ability to focus. When you’re working in two different directions, no matter how fast you’re working, you’re not moving fast or far enough in either direction. Velocity is a vector dependent concept and you need to be aware of all of the things that create drag.

You’re King of the Education System for a day. What would you change?

That’s a tough question. As Roosevelt said, it’s easy for me to stand on the sideline and say what I think people are doing wrong. It’s really hard to be in that system and guiding out little changes each day. I have a lot of respect for people that are willing to do that and I wish more of our collective brainpower went to education rather than finance. I think the system I’d want is one with equal opportunity but not necessarily equal outcome. One way to explore moving closer to that system is to eliminate all private schools and have one system. When someone can send their kids to private school, they don’t really have an incentive to care in a positive way about what happens in public schools. In fact in order to increase the contrast between private and public schools the incentive becomes that public schools should suck. From an outsiders perspective this doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s the people with the money that can afford to send their kids to private school that also usually can influence things for the better. Allowing them to opt out of the private system might be best for them but it’s not best for society. And I’m pretty sure that would get me fired.

What would you rather have: 30 more IQ points, or a year where you could spend as much time with anyone you want?

Oh that’s easy. I’d choose to spend time with people. I think IQ is vastly overrated anyways. This question, I’d imagine changes based on where you are in life and what you want in life. If you’re on your deathbed, for instance, you’d give away most of your IQ to spend another year with people you love. If you’re in your 20s, you think there is so much time, that you’d likely take the 30 points and reason it would add money or time to your future life that you could use to that time to then spend as you want. Spending time with people you care about is never a bad idea and missing those opportunities is something most of us regret, but not until it’s too late.

Reading is a skill. What can I do to improve my ability to take away meaningful lessons from good books?

The biggest thing you can do is read the right things and do the work. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You can’t skim your way to knowledge, meaning, or understanding. A lot of people are so focused on how much they read that it’s easy to miss the point.You need to think about what you’re reading and relate it to what you know. Your job as a reader is to extract what’s meaningful and that requires time, distance, and perspective.

What do you want to know that we can never know?

A good answer to this question.