These days our phones constantly ping with the latest headlines, our feeds serve up endless tasty morsels of information, and hundreds of TV channels blare out a riot of opinions day and night. In short, our lives are thoroughly saturated in information.

Yet it's entirely possible to stand in this hurricane of information and not get even the slightest bit smarter.

That's a huge problem for all of us who refuse to coast on the intelligence that comes naturally to us, but are instead determined to work hard to better understand the world, make smarter decisions, and plan more wisely for the future. If you're in this camp, how can you ensure that, amidst all the information presented by the modern world, you choose the material that will most improve your thinking and your life?

The two types of knowledge

Collaborative Fund VC Morgan Housel offered a great answer to this difficult but important question on the firm's blog recently. His wisdom comes in the form of another question. Here it is:

How much of what you read today will you still care about a year from now?

If you're anything like Housel, your honest response will probably be a pretty small percentage.Most of us spend the majority of our time focused on headlines and short-term analysis -- the horse race commentary on who's up and who's down and the short term drivers of these fluctuations. All of this information can be grouped under the headline "expiring knowledge."

This focus on the ephemera of the world means that most of us are missing out on a huge opportunity to understand things more deeply. And that's a big waste, claims Housel. He argues we'd all get much more bang for our learning buck if we devoted more of our limited time to acquiring "long-term knowledge":

Long-term knowledge is harder to notice because it's buried in books rather than blasted in headlines. But its benefit is huge. It's not just that long-term knowledge rarely expires, letting you accumulate it over time. It's that compounds over time. Expiring knowledge tells you what happened; long-term knowledge tells you why something happened and is likely to happen again. That "why" can translate and interact with stuff you know about other topics, which is where the compounding comes in.

The difference between the two types of knowledge is the difference between knowing Microsoft's second quarter revenue growth and understanding that Microsoft generates so much cash so consistently "because it has a moat." The first fact might make you look clever at a meeting. The second understanding gives you a mental model that can help you better perceive and navigate the world.

In short, expiring knowledge can dazzle, but long-term knowledge is what really makes you more intelligent.

Don't cancel your cable.

That isn't to say that Housel thinks we should all cancel our cable subscriptions. Unless you want to live like a monk or a garret-bound poet, that's neither possible nor desirable. It's just that, if you want to make the most of the limited time you have available for learning, you should try to maximize the percentage of material you consume that adds to your stores of long-term knowledge.

"The point... isn't that you should watch less CNBC and read more Ben Graham. It's that if you read more Ben Graham you'll have an easier time understanding what you should or shouldn't pay attention to on CNBC," he concludes.

Published on: Jun 13, 2017