Here’s a Tip: Start Thinking for Yourself

People love tips. A list of tips is the easiest way to make the front page of Digg, attract dozens of back links, and acquire hordes of RSS subscribers. The tips don’t even need to be new or insightful, they just need to make sense and cover an interesting topic. Who doesn’t enjoy useful information in an easily digestible format?

The problem with tips is that they’re too delicious. People become obsessed with prepackaged information nuggets and stop thinking for themselves. When an article focuses on theory, no matter how brilliant it is, people complain that the information isn’t “useful”. The definition of “useful” has become so narrow that it only includes information that applies directly to a concrete problem. This reluctance to master and apply conceptual knowledge is a symptom of intellectual laziness.

The internet, despite it’s advantages, promotes intellectual laziness. Information is everywhere, making it highly disposable. Tips are appealing because they can be quickly absorbed and applied without any independent thought. The downside is that conceptual information is neglected. When understanding a concept requires effort, we usually abandon it in favor of practical tips.

A good comparison is eating fast food vs. cooking at home. Tips are like fast food. You look at the menu, order, and eat; all within a matter of minutes. The benefits are ease and convenience, but the food lacks substance and nutrition. Conceptual knowledge is like a home cooked meal. It takes time and effort to learn how to cook, gather ingredients, and wash dishes, but the food is high quality and the preparation skills you acquire can be used repeatedly. Although tips are more convenient, they lack the longterm value of conceptual thinking.

Tips aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. On a list of 50 tips, how many are good? 5-10 maybe? And how many of those do you remember long enough to actually use? We read tips for entertainment more than anything else. Who do you think writes them? People who aren’t any smarter than you. The only difference is they made the effort to think for themselves and condense their understanding into a list.

If you really want to learn, start thinking for yourself. Consider it a life long investment. It’s hard to learn a concept, but once you understand it, that knowledge can be applied repeatedly. Resist intellectual laziness, actively pursue answers instead of passively accepting them, and you’ll be the one giving the tips.