The 2-Minute Thought: Purposeful Reading For Investors

So much to read, so little time. . . The lament of investment portfolio managers everywhere is the never-ending struggle with unread newspapers, journals, corporate filings, speeches, investment research, and good books.  How do you get through it all and cover all you feel you should know? 

The frustration is age-old.  Even Roman philosopher Seneca warned that “You cannot read all the books which you may possess” -- and that trying do so could make you “discursive and unsteady.”  But in today’s era of content overload – and repetition and replication – we probably feel more tested than ever. 

Covering all that happens in the world is hard.  We need some curation to help us sort out what matters.  At the same time, we don’t want someone else telling us what’s important all the time – even if it is The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or the book everyone is reading at the moment.  And while we need to know what the conventional wisdom is, we also need to get beyond the general “truthiness” that everyone is able to regurgitate.  As investors, we need to come up with non-consensus opinions. 

There is no simple solution, but perhaps the best overarching advice out there is to forget about trying to do it all and to pick your spots.  That is, be selective and be deliberate.  It sounds like an obvious idea, but it’s not so easy in practice.  In an era where so much content is pushed to us, it’s difficult to remember to “pull” what we think is important as well.

Purposeful reading requires planning.  It requires deliberation on what we really want to know.  And it requires making peace with incomplete knowledge, which is kind of scary.  But you must be bold to be selective.  And it helps to remember that not all reading is productive reading.  “Nice to know” is different from productive. 

Of course, always sticking rigidly to a strict reading plan isn’t ideal either.  You also want to put yourself in the path of fortuitous discovery.  That’s why Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian suggests something he calls “targeted serendipity.”  The idea is that you don’t just read whatever you stumble upon, or, on the other hand, stick religiously to a pre-ordained routine.  You take a middle road. 

One interesting suggestion is to rotate your journals and reports in order to try something different one day a week.  Replace one of your normal newspaper with a different world paper on Thursdays, for example.  And read a lot that doesn’t accord with your opinions.

Walter Cronkite once said that he read the newspaper by starting with a 3-minute scan of the whole thing, front page to back. “Only then,” he said, “do I go back for the whole feast.”  You don’t read every article deeply, he said.  But, “Maybe the [article] that appears at first to be the least appealing will be the one that will most affect your life.”

A final suggestion for deep reading: Consider sticking to old-fashioned paper instead of reading from an electronic screen. 

In 2014, Anna Konnikova wrote in The New Yorker that several researchers were finding that screen reading encouraged skimming.  “When we scroll,” the article said, “we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page.  Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information.  There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate.”  But for idea formulation, we don’t need to swallow everything as quickly as we can.  Sometimes, we just need to slow down and savor. 

Please Note: The 2-Minute Thought will be on holiday for 2 weeks and will return June 29.