We live in the age of Performative Reading.
Consuming as many books as possible has become a competitive sport for knowledge workers who want to show off their intellectual curiosity. To do so, they race through books like they’re collecting mushrooms in Super Mario Kart.
This modern reading habit stems from a deep-rooted cultural insecurity. We no longer believe that one idea can be transformative.
Instead, we follow a binge-watching, TED-Talks-before-bed strategy where we hop from epiphany to epiphany without investigating any of the ideas. Our obsession with learning has descended into an obsession with consumption, as if the answers we need to take action are lurking in the next book, the next documentary, or the next Netflix show. But consuming more information does not necessarily make you more competent.
In contrast to the sprint to read every book on Kindle, Charlie Munger once said: “Take a simple idea and take it seriously.” Many of the most successful people I’ve studied have found their edge by putting their faith in one big idea. They’ve committed to the idea, and studied it so much that its implications have become second nature.
Two people, Rich Barton and Richard Mosse, stand out.
Rich Barton’s Big Idea: Power to the People
Rich Barton has built his career by “bringing power to the people.” Consumer technology markets are notoriously difficult. Repeatable success is almost impossible, so the founders of most successful consumer companies almost never start a second major company. But Barton has founded three billion-dollar companies: Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor.
On the surface, these three companies look different. But under the hood, they are mirror images of each other. All of them attacked a big opaque market, such as travel, real estate, and corporate recruiting. They used the Internet to remove the information asymmetry between establishment gatekeepers and ordinary consumers. As Kevin Kwok wrote in Making Uncommon Knowledge Common:
“Barton career can be summed up by his mantra “Power to the People”. His companies take power from the incumbents and give it to consumers.
Instead of trying to hoard information, they are on the side of consumers and giving them more data transparency. Glassdoor revealed how employees really felt about companies. Zillow shed light on what any house was worth. Expedia let people see the prices and availability of flights and hotels without talking to an agent.
Expedia wants to be the first place you go when you travel. Glassdoor wants to be the destination when you’re thinking about companies to work for. And Zillow wants to be the place you go to look at real estate.”
To attack the travel market, Expedia publicized the prices for flights and hotels that were once only available to travel agents; to attack the real estate market, Zillow used the Zestimate to give people a ballpark number for what their house was really worth; and to attack the corporate recruiting market, Glassdoor gave people honest reviews about the experience of working at a company that were more honest than what recruiters or companies provided.
Data network effects kicked in once these companies gathered a critical mass of information. With it, they used Google search and word-of-mouth as their top acquisition channels, both of which are low-cost. All three companies became encyclopedias of critical information on flights, hotels, houses, and corporations. Crucially, all of them capitalized on the parallel wave of smartphones and consumer familiarity with digital platforms. These companies could not have been built before the Internet. By riding the Internet wave, Barton built three companies that look different but all employ the same One Big Idea.
Richard Mosse’s Big Idea: Photograph the Invisible
In January 2018, I visited the National Gallery of Art in Melbourne, Australia. There, I was mesmerized by Richard Mosse’s Incoming exhibit, where he captured the experience of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East using military-grade thermal detection cameras. Usually, the technology is used for military surveillance, often to identify and track targets. Instead of capturing visible light, it detects body heat, which the human eye cannot see.
Mosse represented his subjects in unfamiliar ways by turning them into inverted silhouettes without identity. Each person glows with body heat. Instead of being divided by race, viewers are united by the shared temperature of humanity.
All of Mosse’s work follows the one big idea of using cameras to highlight aspects of the world that are beyond the grasp of the naked eye. His central idea is simple: use photographs to illuminate the invisible.
The Reality You Cannot See
The world is more complex than we see. When you look at the world through the lens of your One Big Idea, you see opportunities others are blind to. In that way, the One Big Idea is just like the Electromagnetic Light Spectrum. There are light waves flying all around us — radio, microwave, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, X-Ray, and Gamma Ray. But humans can only see visible light, even though we know the other ones exist. Consistent with the themes in the aforementioned Richard Mosse paintings, the light waves we see determine our view onto the world.
I held a mirror into my own reality blindness during a recent trip to my friend Nick’s apartment. When I walked into his living room, he winked, smiled, and said he had something to show me. I knew I was in for a treat. Nick grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. His father was an engineer who taught him how to work with his hands and be handy around the house, a skill I don’t have. Together, we climbed a shaky ladder to an attic he’d converted to a small bedroom, where the bed suspended in mid-air using four ropes that connected to 100-year-old Carnegie Steel beams. From the mattress, I looked through the glass windows above and saw the Freedom Tower, an army of airplanes, and a chorus of stars twinkling over the New York sky.
Nick had converted dead space in his apartment into one of the coolest rooms I’d seen in New York. I would have never thought of his clever creation, no matter how long I lived in the apartment. But because of his skills, turning the attic into a loft was an obvious decision.
Study a panoramic idea for long enough and you’ll start to see its effects everywhere. People with intimate knowledge of One Big Idea monopolize a narrow band of the light spectrum, which gives them access to ideas and opportunities regular people miss. Like Nick, you’ll have the kind of realizations that seem amazing to others, but obvious to you.
My One Big Idea
Everybody has a worldview, a unique way of looking at the world. There is no such thing as pure objectivity. The world is pregnant with opportunities, which reveal themselves to us once we decide how we want to see. Building a worldview seems constraining at first. Why would you limit yourself to a small set of ideas? In reality, doubling down on One Big Idea is like walking through a portal into a vast, panoramic space you couldn’t have imagined. It’s the same story we see in movies, from Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter, to the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, to the wardrobe at Professor Kirke’s House in The Chronicles of Narnia which is a door into the limitless world of Narnia.
David Foster Wallace spoke about worship in his famous 2005 speech called This is Water, and the idea applies equally to building a worldview:
“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
If we are destined to follow the compass of our worldview, we should design it deliberately. Like Rich Barton and Richard Mosse, both of whom got rich pursuing One Big Idea, we should look for a panoramic framework to interpret the world through.
As for me, I’m still developing my One Big Idea. For now, I’ve sunk my teeth into the belief that people systematically under-estimate the scale and interconnectedness of the Internet. I first discovered the idea in college, when I received my first job from Twitter and skipped college classes because learning on the Internet was faster and more enjoyable. Those experiences led me to start Write of Passage, an online writing school where students learn how to build their audience, make friends on the Internet, and improve the quality of their writing. All my thinking orbits the central idea of the internet’s impact on learning, entrepreneurship, and personal relationships.
In my pursuit, I’m guided by the famous words of Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Cover Photo Source: Daniel Mosse’s Incoming
This essay was written with Ellen Fishbein, my writing coach.