Mad Already #1 — 3 Readings to Avoid:  Your Ultimate New Year’s Guide to Sanity

(last updated on January 7th, 2018)

The Internet is exhausting — it keeps showing you stuff to click on — it’s now shown you this, and you’ve just clicked on it — see how it works?

In 2018 i will continue to actively steer clear of three kinds of reading in particular: the news, self-improvement articles, and listicles

Here’s roughly why.

#1. The News

It’s no conspiracy theory that the news are designed with one key purpose in mind: to sell advertising space. Your newspaper costs a lot more to make than the $1–2 per issue or however much you pay for the online subscription — that’s not the business model — the business model is to get your eyes on that underwear ad right next to the story on Trump’s latest tweet.

I’m not saying the news are lying to you — they’re probably not outright lying to you, even if they do have an agenda on top of their ad revenue. I’m not saying the news are not interesting either — gosh, they’re so alluring! — nobody would read them otherwise. No. The biggest problem with the news is that unexamined reliance on them for information can harmfully distort your perception of reality — they draw a disproportionate amount of your attention to unusual facts and events such as the all too sad stories of people displaced or killed by Hurricane Harvey, while neglecting to adequately inform you about the daily disaster of malaria in the developing world. It’s not that those behind the news don’t care about people suffering from malaria — they simply know you wouldn’t pay as much attention to that as you will to the first hurricane to make landfall in the US in 12 years — and they want to sell that advertisement space right next to it!

If you paid any attention to the news, you might never want to go to Ukraine. However reality can not only be quite different but, to some extent, perhaps even unrelated to what you might have seen on the news, as i experienced in  my very first time in the country.

I eventually moved to Ukraine four months ago, and this is what i can confidently say so far: it’s a huge and diverse country under insanely complex circumstances.

You won’t be missing much without the news. First of all, you don’t need most of that stuff being advertised anyways, don’t worry — you know what you need — look it up — ask around — you’ll find it — you’ll even get a good deal for it! And concerning where to go to stay informed about current events, there is now a wealth of podcasts such as Sam Harris’ Waking Up (and some references therein) that are delivered as ad-free, transparent, in depth conversations with authorities on the topic of interest, discussing many of the very questions you might  be asking yourself about what’s going on in the world.

By the way, this piece of advice includes comedy news — stay away from them — they will eat your brain. It does, however, exclude The Onion — please keep reading The Onion — and keep listening to Reggie Watts, and such as, a lot:

#2. Self-Improvement

I’m mostly referring to the kind of article claiming in their very title to be the last thing you’ll ever need to read to become the next Elon Musk, or whatever.

To begin with, you probably don’t need most of that either.

If you do want to level up on any aspect of your life, then pick up a book by someone who spent a significant amount of their lives devoted to the feature of interest, and start working on it — follow the blog in which they regularly write about it, or join a meetup or online forum and start interacting with people pursuing the same path, or all of the above — or yet something else that involves taking some action.

Change is an active process — figure out what’s the first step towards whatever it is that you want to get better at or incorporate in your life, and get started — today — now! Acknowledge that by reading those articles you’re simply procrastinating that first step. Indeed, i’ll be far more likely to read and take the advice of an article that gives me a clear, manageable first step, so i can actually go out and do it, rather than an article with so many recommendations that they will require me to spend half an hour after reading it pretending that i can immediately redesign how i spend 10% of my time.

#3. Listicles

Listicles seem to be most often about something i wasn’t even interested in, but now think is the most important topic in the world to believe i’m learning something about. They’re designed to be consumed mindlessly, like cheese puffs — and also sell advertising space, by the way — and typically teach me nothing of substance about something i actually care about.

Wanna become acquainted with remote places on Earth? Play around with Google maps, or post a question on some travel forum, and get involved in the discussion of what being ‘remote’ even means! Is it remote in the sense that it’s super far away? — difficult to reach? — because it’s been culturally isolated for a very long time? — because it’s unknown? Read up the Wikipedia articles about the places you get referred to — perhaps there’s a well produced documentary or a well written book on them — maybe someone has visited those places, taken good photographs, talked to people living there, and written an engaging account of it in their blog! Don’t settle for the listicle — maybe an opportunity to go there yourself is not even such a long shot, as it was for me the opportunity to visit the Faroe Islands in 2016.

It’s not that i’ll avoid reading lists altogether — in fact, i like lists —  very much so! I just prefer the kind of list that helps me think about how they’re constructed, and teach me something about the underlying theme. If you’re interested in the intersection between ethics and entertainment, the Very Bad Wizards podcast is a good place to find such thoughtful lists — their episodes on their five favorite movies on the nature of reality or the more recent one on dystopias immediately come to mind — a passionate podcast by avid consumers of pop culture who also happen to be scholars in the subsuming fields of moral philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.

If you’re not interested in something, then don’t worry about it — and if you are, then don’t be shy to go all nerdy on it!

Oh, you noticed!

That’s right — this is (almost) a listicle — and essentially a self-improvement one at that — that’s two out of three :p

It’s OK — you didn’t know any better 😉

But now you do — so, share it, close the tab, and move on with you life!

This is the 2018 revised and updated edition of the article i first wrote on January 3rd, 2017 on Medium, and then published on this blog with some changes on January 15th, 2017. Featured photo courtesy of Nicolai Berntsen.

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Mad Already is a series of articles with concrete, tested travel advice written in counterpoint to my more “literary” chronicles and short reads. As such, it has been roughly divided into cycle touring, hitchhiking and general advice — follow the links to read more, and sign up for the Not Mad Yet mailing list to be notified when new articles go live and get other updates!