questioning what you read

Published on April 21, 2020

When I read an article from an authoritative source, I find it difficult to resist adopting the perspective the author has shared on the subject matter.

For instance, I was reading an essay by John Meynard Keynes a few days ago, and after reading the essay my mind almost immediately started to shift perspectives. I went from knowing very little about the subject matter to having formed an opinion on it.

This is an incredibly easy thing to do, and is something that I think we all do at points in our life. We find something interesting to read that sounds well thought-out, then we allow our minds to take everything we have read as truth.

The problem with this way of knowledge acquisition is that, in the end, you are basing your opinions and thoughts primarily on the perspectives of others.

My thoughts on time management used to be based on the articles I read on the topic, until I realized that each individual article I read did not really matter. What did matter, though, was my collective takeaways from all the articles I had read. These takeaways could then be merged in my mind into one, clearer, individual opinion about the topic of time management.

Reading an article then adopting the stance it has shared is not unlike acting similar to a character on a television show because they appear to have a good life. You take the content you have consumed at face value, and fail to question its underlying premises.

When I used to read the news, there was always one question going through my mind: what incentive does the author have to write this post? This question gave me an opportunity to think in more depth about whether what I was reading was likely to be biased, thereby helping me form a clearer opinion on the subject matter.

Now, I feel like I need to develop these heuristics for other types of content I consume.

Once I finish reading an interesting article, I should allow myself to question: does what I have read in this article match up with my own beliefs?

It may be tempting for me to say “yes”, and to change my entire perspective on a topic because the author has laid out a great argument in support of a topic. But, I must realize that although the author may have made a good argument -- an even better one than I could make, perhaps -- I still need to have my own opinion.

I think one of the reasons we fail to question what we read actively is because there is so much content coming toward us at once that it is difficult to question everything. On social media, for example, there is no way you could possibly evaluate each individual post that you read, without spending an extraordinary amount of time doing so.

Questioning what you read encourages you to think about a topic from your own perspective, not from the perspective of other people. Where I think this can be particularly helpful for me is in reading about self help and productivity.

I love reading about productivity. Ironically, it makes me feel more productive (even though, arguably, this is not true). But, when I read about productivity, I often fail to think about whether the article I have read really reflects my views, or whether I am following along just because it is easier.

It is acceptable for me to question an article, and in fact I should be doing so more often. The author could make a mistake. And, no matter what, the author will likely have a different perspective on a topic than I have deep down.

I can almost guarantee this because no two people are the same, and the author’s perspective on a topic will be entirely based on their individual research of the topic (which may not align with my belief system).

In addition, I don’t just need to question what I read more often, I need to resist the temptation to make changes to my life immediately after reading something. When I read a great article, I often think “oh, I have been wrong about this for so long”, and then change my perspective on the topic immediately.

Instead, I should give myself time to digest what I have read, and only make changes to my ways of thinking after sufficiently pondering what I have just consumed. This will allow me to form opinions that are not just based on what a convincing writer has to say. I can account for my own thoughts and experiences in forming an opinion.

Question what you read during and after you read it, and never let yourself form an opinion without first asking: does this really relate to me? You’ll be surprised how many times you realize what you have read is not as complete as you thought.

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