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The sunk cost fallacy – or why you should quit bad books [Weekly Brain Tools]

Feb 07, 2019 | Posted by Cristina in Newsletters

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The text below was sent in November 2018 as part of our weekly newsletter. If you enjoy it, subscribe here.

Hello, my favorite people in the world!

Here’s something that most of you don’t know: one of the reasons I created The CEO Library is because I started reading really late in life. 10 years ago, I didn’t read at all, not even one book per year. This year, I read over 55 books (and the number will likely grow in these last weeks of 2018).

What pushes me forward with this project is the painful awareness that I wasted so much time NOT reading information from credible sources, that would have drastically accelerated my learning process. I’m now the biggest ambassador for the habit of reading and I want to guide people towards the best books for them and their needs. Basically, I want to help others avoid making the same mistakes as I did.

However, besides those 55 books I read in 2018, I also started and abandoned probably 15 other books that weren’t right for me or I just wasn’t in the mood to read them.

I noticed that most of my friends struggle with this. They can’t quit books. They are stuck reading one book that’s been standing on their nightstand for too long, although they don’t really enjoy it. Or they stopped buying new books cause they want to first read the ones they already have.

Books are tools. Don’t let them control you. You use them as ways that help you grow and build a skill you might feel you need to improve.

If you don’t enjoy a book, if you don’t feel it’s right for you at this moment, or you don’t learn anything out of it, drop it right away. Don’t waste your time trying to push forward, just to finish it. Life’s too short to waste it reading bad books.

Most books have the most important information lied right at the beginning, in the first chapters, and then they just reinforce it through all sorts of case studies and situations that prove the same argument over and over again. If a book hasn’t caught your attention in the first 10 pages, what are the odds that it will get incredibly better afterwards? Are you willing to waste that time to find out?

The sunk cost fallacy might have something to do with this. When you’re going through a book, you already invested time into reading it. At that point, you might feel guilty for not finishing it. F*ck that. Do you do the same thing with articles that you read, or do you quit them? Treat books the same way. You’ll get more value out of them.

Here’s another tip that helped me: if a book gets boring, I’ll look through the table of contents, see something that sounds interesting, and skip directly there and read that part. Or I’ll just read randomly, where the book opens. No pressure.

Remember: the book is a tool, it has to serve your needs. You don’t owe anything to the author to read it word by word.


1. Sol Orwell: Don’t let gurus sell you on survivorship bias

“This is what the most successful people do in the morning”

“The one book that billionaire X credits for his success”

“The habits that successful people do on weekends”

I think we’re both guilty of reading articles that promise to reveal “bulletproof success formulas learned from the best in the world”. Nothing wrong with reading them, there’s a lot to learn from them, as long as we don’t become obsessed and we always keep in mind that correlation isn’t causation.

This is probably the biggest trap we could fall into when reading biographies, memoirs or other books and articles from the entrepreneurship p*rn bubble. Or even when we’re browsing all those books recommended by the people we admire, fooling ourselves that if we’ll read the same things, one day we’ll become as successful as they are.

Those who were successful and those who weren’t might have done everything “right”, but we only heard about some because of factors out of control, such as luck and political context.

That’s survivorship bias: focusing on those who made it and overlooking those who didn’t, which leads to a disproportionate evaluation.

Maybe we would have never heard of Elon Musk if he weren’t able to move out of South Africa and get a Canadian passport because his mother was born there. Maybe Nike wouldn’t exist if Phil Knight’s dad wouldn’t have had money to borrow his son. Who knows?

This is why Warren Buffett attributes his success to the good luck of winning the “ovarian lottery” and be born American when the odds were 30-to-1 against, and also had the further advantages from the start to be both born male and white: “Is that the greatest talent in the world? No. It just happens to be something that pays off like crazy in this system.

2. Ryan Holiday: Want to Really Make America Great Again? Stop Reading the News.

An evergreen article published by Ryan Holiday two years ago, right after the US presidential election. Ryan talks about the impact of 24-hour media coverage and what it does to us,how it keeps us entertained and makes no real-life difference.

Ryan argues that this constant exposure to outrageous comments made us suffer from scandal immunity and no real change results from it. Everything in the media is an addictive ecosystem designed to make us stop whatever we wanted to do and just consume, because the world is supposedly coming to an end. We’re posting and debating it on social media, instead of any real change. We won’t make ourselves (or the world) great if all we do is stay glued to our screens.

Nir Eyal and Jason Fried are among those who stopped consuming media online and went back to reading papers, taking their news only once per day, in the morning. How’s this for a new year’s challenge?

3. The Atlantic: Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

The way we consume information and entertainment (books, articles, but also movies and TV series) has changed how we learn things. Why memorize anything as long as we know where that information is and how easy it is to can access it?

It’s the momentary giggle and then you want another giggle. It’s not about actually learning anything. It’s about getting a momentary experience to feel as though you’ve learned something.

4. Harvard Business Review: Why you can focus in a coffee shop but not in your open office

Whoever invented open offices probably never worked in one. You can’t really focus and do creative tasks when you’re constantly getting interrupted and drawn into other people’s chatter.

However, studies reveal that it’s not the sound itself that distracts us, but who’s making that sound. As a matter of fact, the right level of background noise may boost our brain’s creative thinking. The ideal work environment isn’t total silence and isn’t too loud. Instead there’s a little bit of background noise, light chatter, the type you find in a noisy coffee shop, but not too loud to distract you.

Emergency plan for working from an open office AND get an important task done: ask your colleagues not to interrupt you for one or two hours – perhaps use a post-it as a sign for when you don’t want to be interrupted? Get yourselves some headphones that block out sound and create a playlist with ambiental music – the type that doesn’t have any words, or there are words that you don’t understand.

That’s it for this week, guys. Have an efficient week!

P.S. check out our cool notebook 😀 it belongs to Radu Mărcușu, CEO of Upswing, an avid reader and also one of our supporters on Patreon.

As a sign of appreciation to everyone who supports our work there, we’re giving away 50 of these notebooks, so you could take notes from your favorite books (or newsletters :P). Thanks to everyone who appreciates our work! ?


– Cristina

The text above was sent in November 2018 as part of our weekly newsletter. If you enjoyed it, subscribe here.

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