Read the foundational texts
Why reading the source material in any field is a competitive advantage (Stew’s Letter #102)
Howdy, happy Sunday.
I just got back to the states after spending a few days in Mexico for my bachelor party.
About a dozen friends and I celebrated the impending end of my spouse-less days in Todos Santos, a small surf town in the southern Baja desert.
We rented a ludicrous home right on the beach – the house had a river flowing through the middle of it – and spent a few days exploring Baja’s surf, desert landscape, and (surprisingly good!) food scene.
I’m enjoying my out-of-season tan and am excited to get back into my normal swing of things, including writing this letter.
To all the new readers, welcome.
Haters, smash that unsubscribe button.
Let’s get to it!
Read the foundational texts
Why reading the source material in any field is a competitive advantage
Last week, I came across a short article in Trevor McKendrick’s newsletter that observed how few people actually read the foundational texts in a given field.
Anybody who does read the foundational texts, it goes on, will have a better chance of making a unique contribution to a field because they’ll know where the gaps are.
In other words:
If you've actually read the book (actually checked the proof, actually implemented the algorithm), you're probably way ahead of the field. Much expertise is simply doing this over and over.
As a chronic skimmer of most things, this struck a chord.
My impulse on nearly everything is to ingest second-order interpretations and opinions. I harbor an unspoken assumption that somehow the source material will be “too much” to parse. Sometimes that’s probably true (I am ill-suited to do my own mRNA research), but I bet that more often than not the impulse is misguided.
For example, this week Warren Buffett released his annual letter to shareholders. Ordinarily, I would have skimmed tweets from the “experts” who distill the letter on my behalf. But instead, I said fuck it – let me take 20 minutes and actually just read the thing.
The result: I learned so much.
One example: lots of investors believe Berkshire Hathaway’s core business is buying minority stakes in other businesses – i.e. Berkshire is primarily a collection of financial assets. While that is partially true (they do hold large swaths of financial assets), Berkshire actually owns and operates more infrastructure assets (ex. railroads) than any other American corporation.
Whoa. For decades, I have been carrying around a misguided understanding of an iconic American business. All I had to do was spend a few minutes reading the source material to fix this misunderstanding. Sheesh – I’ve probably spent hours reading clickbait CNBC headlines on Buffett that taught me nothing.
Buffett’s letter was filled with all sorts of other invaluable lines like this:
Teaching, like writing, has helped me develop and clarify my own thoughts. Charlie calls this phenomenon the orangutan effect: If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly.
Do with this what you will, but I feel inspired to relentlessly seek out the source material in the industries where I operate and where I have a burning interest.
If I am going to do anything interesting in this life, I have to find the gaps where I can contribute. Those gaps become self-evident once you know where the walls are. Source material points directly to the walls.
To that end, I will be adopting this motto moving forward:
Less clickbait and hot takes, more “boring” PDFs.
Ukrainian President’s Brilliant Speech
If you have a few minutes, this is a beautifully-written, masterfully-delivered speech from Ukraine's president. From what I can tell, this was distributed within hours of the Russian invasion:
🗞 Newsletters I love…
Over the past two years, I’ve subscribed to over 100 newsletters.
My wish for you is that you never have to do the same, so I’ll start spotlighting the best of what I’ve found here.
Here are a few all-time favorites (each link goes to their signup page):
Every. Every reliably produces some of the most thoughtful explainers & analyses on productivity, strategy, Web3, the creator economy, and even writing – in other words, they hit nearly all of my professional passions.
The Menu. My friend Amanda Natividad is a brilliant marketer and writer who shares a “menu” of ideas & resources every other week in her newsletter. If you enjoy sharing your ideas online, Amanda’s newsletter is a secret weapon for honing your craft. (Oh, she’s also a chef and occasionally shares her top-secret food and drink recipes if you’re into that sort of thing...)
Tiny Revolutions. Another Internet (turned IRL!) friend of mine is Sara Campbell. I have tweeted about Sara’s newsletter probably a dozen times because I am that obsessed. Her newsletter feels like you're at a bar with a friend who's dropping truth bombs left & right. Every other week, she drops a short essay that always leaves me thinking, "I've always thought that, but never said it.”
💭 Half-baked thought of the week
Getting food poisoning is an effective exercise in gratitude.
As I fell violently ill with food poisoning on the last day of my bachelor weekend, I felt a wave of appreciation for my health, family, friends, work, dog, and life generally.
Feeling like you might die at any moment is its own meditative practice.
In the case of food poisoning, there is some relief in the knowledge it will end and you will have a chance to practice your newfound appreciation for life.
🔥 Fire TikTok
I screwed up the link in my last email. It should have gone to this (very stupid) video:
📸 Photo of the week…
Of all the activities we did at the bachelor party, I think ATV’ing may have topped the charts (or, rather, it was a close second to surfing).
We ended this 4-hour ride on a remote beach, where we watched whales swim as close as 30 yards to the shore.
It was a magical day.
At the beginning of the year, I announced my plan to post a total of 12 Twitter threads and 6 Stew’s Letters by the end of March. I’m still on track to hit this, but the food poisoning took me off a week. Whoops. I’ll be double-posting threads in the coming two weeks.
Congratulations! Auguri...and Happy Upcoming Wedding! Life changes afoot for you. Can't wait to see where this takes you.
Just to agree and to say thinkers like Marx and Freud are so worth reading. They are not difficult and the writing can be quite beautiful unlike that of post-marxist scholars etc.