When you come across some era of history you've never heard before that might be fascinating, or an obscure but highly recommended book on conflict management, or you come across some primary source papers that are largely unread any more about an important event - jump on it right away.
You'll never really be motivated to read Baldissare Castiglione by Julia Cartwright. It's an obscure-ish book, cited not particularly often, about the 17th most interesting guy in the Renaissance. He hung out with da Vinci, and Borgia, and met all the Popes of his lifetime, but you'd have to either really love the Renaissance, or come across Il Cortegiano in research to read him.
Baldis-who? If you don't look him up now, it likely won't come up later.
A lot of good strategy and being a successful generalist is about picking up obscure skills. Steve Jobs talked in his famous Stanford address about how the class he took on calligraphy in his late teens became one of the drivers behind the Mac being the first computer with beautiful typeface.
There's plenty of calligraphers in the world, but how many calligrapher-entrepreneur-designers? A good mix and synergy of skills gives you the ability to make a contribution. A good mix and synergy that includes something obscure can help you make an original contribution.
Problem is, you won't know what that is in advance. So I say chase down the fleeting impulses. I don't know, he didn't say, but I'll hazard a guess Jobs got bored with calligraphy soon after, and didn't make it a major focus of his life. If he hadn't studied it when he did, he might never have done so.
With that said, I'll end with the note that you shouldn't get too into the obscure and fleeting. Don't forget to pick the low hanging fruit, those books and lessons and disciplines that are so massively amazingly insightful that you get immense amounts of impact from them. I think it's easy to get fatigued of a work you've never read but heard about too much, and thus miss out on something important. That's what happened to me with Think and Grow Rich - I only barely started reading it, and I'm kicking myself for not reading it earlier. Don't get too into the obscure and fleeting that you forget to pick those really large, juicy fruits of lessons.
Patri Friendman is one smart dude. He writes a lot of good stuff, he's got a ton of good insights, and he does prolific amounts of real-world work that changes that's got a strong chance of dramatically changing the course of history. There's not too many people I'd be excited to work for in a vizier-type role for empirebuilding, but he's one of them.
His blog is here. Today, we're talking about an entry he made on LessWrong titled "Rational Reading: Thoughts On Prioritizing Books."
Some choice excerpts -
A large element of instrumental rationality consists of filtering, prioritizing, and focusing. It's true for tasks, for emails, for blogs, and for the multitude of other inputs that many of us are drowning in these days. Doing everything, reading everything, commenting on everything is simply not an option - it would take infinite time
Everybody is writing or talking about Robin Williams, and his unexpected suicide. Yes, indeed, he will be missed by me and most of the world. He was one of the few actors where I enjoyed every movie and TV series he was involved with. As a comedian, he was peerless. I won't go into the mental hell we call clinical depression. No. This has given me pause to reflect. What I want to talk about here are all the other artists and others that have left this side of life and have made a huge impression on me.
Most recently was Patrick "the Lama" Lundborg, a man in Sweden who had become a good correspondent, as we discussed our common passion for music. Like me, he was a record collector. We traded some and I purchased some from his Renaissance Faire site. Unlike me he had acquired a vast knowledge not only of obscure and rare vanity pressings of psychedelic, lounge, exotica, and unusual artists of the 60s through the early 80s, but wrote/edited the authority on these recordings, "The Acid Archives". He followed this with a huge tome, "Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life" which I am still reading, and trying to absorb. The book is like a textbook for a course in psychedelic anthropology, yet his writing style keeps you reading. He also maintained a fun and multifaceted set of websites under the title "Lysergia". In the five years I knew him I learned more about interesting music than in the 50 years prior. I had emailed Patrick on May 31st. He usually would get back to me within 24 hours. No response this time. On June 12, while checking personal email before leaving for work, I received an email from another party saying Patrick had died the day before. I was stunned. At first I couldn't believe it. I searched for more information and it began to trickle in. It was true; at age 47 Patrick was gone. No cause was given. Like Robin Williams, Patrick left several projects ongoing. He was so full of life. Still there is no word on what happened.
Brother Love, of WAMO FM, Pittsburgh, was one of the first DJs in the country to try the new "underground music" format in the mid-60s. His cool, beatnik whispering style enhanced the psychedelic music format, which also included obscure composers such as Conlon Nancarrow and blues, jazz, and anti Vietnam War and anti establishment folk and rock music. As a teenager I was mesmerized by this new alternative to the "bubble gums" on top 40 AM radio. I never knew Brother Love's real name until moving to San Diego and learning that Ken Reeth was living in Carlsbad. I introduced myself and we had a great series of conversations about late 60s Pittsburgh. We emailed through his move to Las Vegas, and then the correspondence stopped. I learned later Ken had passed due to a long battle with leukemia.
Holding down the weekend afternoon "underground radio" shift on WAMO FM was none other than veteran doo wop DJ and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer, Porky Chedwick. Porky passed away this past Spring at the young age of 96. I never realized until reading after his passing that Porky hated the underground format, yet he sounded so convincing as he spun pro-pot and acid songs. The ultimate professional.
Don "Stu" Archer, aka "Yogi", was a fellow classmate from fifth grade through high school graduation. We both began playing guitar about the same time, but he took lessons from another instructor. I have to admit that he progressed faster than me, but he was learning shortcuts to heavy guitar riffs where I was learning a more traditional method, reading music. A friend told me he considered Yogi to be the Captain Beefheart musically to my Frank Zappa characteristics. He made a profession of music performance and later taught music. We had not spoken to each other since the summer after my freshman year in college. I remember we talked that summer about philosophy and I noted the depth of his thinking although he had taken no college classes. 20 years later I finally was going to a high school class reunion, looking forward to catching up with Yogi. Then, two months before the reunion he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and was dead within weeks. I blame myself for not trying to get in touch sooner, since I knew where he was but he had no way to contact me.