If you aren’t doing this already, you ought to be reading the archives of your favorite thinkers and doers, not just their best and newest material. I’ve done this for a number of years ever since I realized that understanding who someone is now has its limitations and that it’s often much better to understand who they once were.
I’ve written about a variation on this problem before:
Because of the focus school today has on well-polished “facts,” we grow up overestimating and misunderstanding the processes by which facts are discovered in the first place.
Polished professional finishes, while worth striving for in our own work, can often obscure the learning process because the stuff of thought itself and the process of growth is not polished at all.
Seeing someone like Elon Musk only as he is today might not be particularly helpful if your goal is to do something like he did and it could even hold you back and see you focusing on all the wrong things and acting on all the wrong signals. It is likewise of little help for an aspiring artist to try to study and copy a masterpiece when they are at the beginnings of their craft.
If you want to be like someone, to act as they do and achieve what they did, focus on the not so polished stuff as well, the things from their early career that displayed the beginnings of genius but not genius itself. As Plutarch wrote on the importance of studying the early work (and lives) of great people,
To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days.
If you want to write the next Atlas Shrugged, you might want to start at Ayn Rand’s beginnings, not just her end when she was at the height of her writing powers. If you want to understand Nietzsche’s intellectual development or write like him, read his early journals and his first works The Birth of Tragedy and Truth in a Extra-Moral Sense.
You need to learn what built their foundation before you can become what they are now.
A place to start this today is in the archives. Whenever I find a new thinker or doer from whom I want to learn, I begin by reviewing the rest of their work chronologically. This means their blog archives, their letters, biographies, their old interviews, their early books, Tweets, old Quora answers, and anything else I can find.
I’m probably one of the few people who can claim to have read almost all of the blog posts of Andrew Chen, or Tim Ferriss, or Ryan Holiday. I’ve read Rand’s early fiction and more obscure non-fiction like The Screen Guide for Americans and Textbook for Americanism. The process was tremendously valuable because it gave me a starting point on for my own work and a measuring stick more appropriate for the place I’m at in my career.
I don’t just want to know what they’re saying, or to always learn something from them directly — they might very well have little to teach me at their early stages — but to see how they became who they are now and to be able to use their process of development to chart my own path.
In reading Nietzche, I saw how much of his early writing was rebuilt into his later writing. It helped me get over the feeling that I need to address a particular issue perfectly or not at all and to understand that no topic is ever “finished.”
I saw in Rand’s early work how one can understand their own current writing limitations and publish in the here and now (Anthem & We the Living) while still projecting a long range vision for what you want to create.
Reading Tim Ferris’s early blog posts I was able to reverse engineer to some degree the methods by which he built an audience, how he became increasingly ambitious with his material as he grew, and the ways in which his writing improved. I became more confident in my own work as I saw myself and my writing in his older, less developed stuff. I could not have done this by looking at where he is now at the heights of his success.
Reading Ryan Holiday’s archives helped me understand more clearly the path to going from “dropout” to Director of Marketing at a company. “My life since September 15th,” written in 2007, is the perfect piece for someone who has just dropped out, gone through a breakup, and started their career. It’s perfect not only because of the ideas in it, but because the tone speaks directly to someone at that stage of his life and it’s also an excellent example of how and why to document your early career.
The archives of these people and others have been as valuable to me in my own growth as the works for which they are best known.
How to do this (right)
I find the following useful to keep in mind when I’m doing this:
1/ Change your expectations. You aren’t always looking for gems of wisdom. You’re looking for the beginnings of thought, biographical details, writing styles, stages of development, and anything else that might help you on your own path.
To keep with our examples, “How to be in my next book,” which Tim Ferris wrote in 2015, might not be idea rich but it will be tremendously useful to catalog if you’re planning to launch your own book and can help you see where he was in his life when he launched it.
2/ If a particular piece of content doesn’t help, move on from it. The process only works if you’re religious about your time.
3/ Create a spreadsheet to track everything you read or review with links back to the material. You’ll be going through so much material that its easy to forget stuff. I’ve hired people on Fiverr before to put together easily accessible links an entire blog archive.
4/ Share your research with others. Much of this material will stuff that most people haven’t read or seen for a long time. You can create value for them in the process.
5/ Find obscure or out of print material by reading book introductions, footnotes, appendices, and bibliographies. It will take you down rabbit holes of wisdom that no Amazon book recommendations ever could.
6/ Have clear goals going into your reading and be open to the goals changing. Are you looking for ideas for things you can make? Are you looking to understand their thinking more clearly so you can think like them? Are you interested in seeing where their head was at during a particular stage of their life? The more clear you are in advance, the better, though I’ve also found you’ll get new ideas as you go through it.
7/ Start with just 1 or 2 people. From Seneca:
Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.
Most of all, don’t sit on any new thoughts you have. If something in particular inspires you, get started on it immediately. You aren’t studying for studying’s sake. Action is your goal.