The Swarm Strategy (How to Learn About Anything)

July 8, 2012 — 35 Comments

Someone asked me recently about my reading habits and how I decide what I want to read. In the past, I’ve liked to use the rabbit hole analogy: falling down the endless hole of a subject, person or place. In my “read to lead” strategy, I talk about doing this by finding your next book to read inside the text or works cited of the book you’re currently reading. But I’ve tweaked my habits lately and it wasn’t until I had this conversation that I noticed.

I don’t fall down a hole, I swarm. Take the American Civil War, which I’ve recently been reading about. After a few years of scattered books on the topic, in early in 2012 I swarmed the topic. I detailed part of what I read on it in my last Reading List Newsletter.

The Civil War: My Obsession
I’ve been so deep [into the] Civil War that I lost track of all the books. Of course it started last year when I read Sherman by BH Liddell Hart. I came to admire Sherman so deeply that I read two more books about him: his amazing Memoirs and a big old book from 1933, Sherman: Fighting Prophet. From there I went on to Grant’s Memoirs, which are incredibly readable and deeply moving. After that, I read both of Robert Penn Warren’s quick books (mostly on the cultural significance and character of the war):Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back and The Legacy of the Civil War. I was briefly curious about Nathan Bedford Forrest but a read of That Devil Forrest and his shocking Wikipedia page make it clear to me that the guy is the definition of a psychopath. I also read large parts of Shelby Foote’s epic The Civil War: A Narrative (mostly the Vicksburg campaign and Sherman’s march) as well as parts of The American Civil War by John Keegan. Finally, I read the biographies of a bunch of Southern/Civil War writers in Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson, which helped me understand and contextualize what I’d already read from the people listed above. I don’t know if you guys need to follow me so deeply down this hole, but I strongly recommend at least exploring it. It’s totally changed how I see so much of history. I think I can say with confidence now that I “understand” the Civil War, and that feels good.

To give a complete picture of what I’ve consumed on the topic though, I would need to add: All 10 hours of Ken Burn’s documentary Civil War. A trip to Vicksburg (twice) and Natchez. At least 50 long form articles on the Time’s Disunion blog. Nearly everything in The Atlantic’s Civil War commemorative issue, countless Wikipedia pages and other random articles I saved in Instapaper. I read all of Ambrose Bierce’s fiction about the Civil War, along with many stories he wrote after and purchased and flipped through two biographies about him. I read a great, popular non-fiction book about Lincoln’s assassination and the hunt for Jefferson Davis. I had long conversations about the war with anyone who would listen. I even bought a beautiful painting of Sherman, which I hung on my wall.

I’m not going to call myself a Civil War buff because that’s stupid. This isn’t an idle pastime. I think you can see from list that I had a clear plan of attack. I was deep diving into a subject and surrounding it from all angles. I didn’t want to simply understand it from books, I needed to see parts of it in person, here is through the indirect perspectives of biographies and literature and I needed to digest it with the help of people smarter than me. When I have picked the carcass clean enough–taken the lessons I can and will use from my learning–I leave, relquishing the pedantic details for the buzzards behind me. Then move on to the next kill.

In the last year or so I’ve done this with a couple other subjects and authors to varying degree, such as Raymond Chandler or the city of Los Angeles. The idea being that if I really, really want to learn about something, casually pursuing one book to another. No, you must set upon it consequentially, concurrently and comprehensibly. Nothing works in learning quite like total immersion. Immersion allows you to make connections. It allows you to challenge the authors you’re reading (or let one author challenge another and then stick with the victor)

So there you have it: the swarm strategy. It’s simple. Find a topic it. Forget the rabbit hole and instead win by utterly overwhelming force. And then of course, it’s time for the final and most important step: moving on. After devouring one subject completely, be sure to find another.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

35 responses to The Swarm Strategy (How to Learn About Anything)

  1. Awesome. Swarming times.

  2. I’m a proponent of this strategy in any aspect of life: learning, exercise, business, love, whatever. Own what you do and keep exploring.

  3. Just out of curiousity, do you still stick to one book at a time, or do you juggle a couple sources at once with this approach? And do you read each book word for word, or do you skip around at times?

  4. I got Instapaper as soon as you dropped it in this post. What other apps do you use to keep track of online source? Thanks.

  5. Hi Ryan,

    I am a history teacher in Scotland and you may find this odd, but I teach the American Civil War at the senior level (17/18 yr olds).( I often wonder how much Scottish history is taught in America? )
    Can I suggest your reading list of the American Civil War could be doing with some historiography? I cannot recommend Hugh Tulloch’s Debate on the American Civil War enough. It will guide you through the historiography of the topic and save you endless hours doing it yourself! I still think James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is the best one volume Civil War history.

    All the best from Scotland.


  6. Hey Ryan,

    Your Chandler Los Angeles link is dead.

    – Dennis

  7. “I don’t know if you guys need to follow me so deeply down this hole, but I strongly recommend at least exploring it. It’s totally changed how I see so much of history.”

    How do you see history now?

  8. Ryan,

    What do you think about this? After seeing the trailer for your book, I can’t help but think this is complete bullshit:

    Anyway, whether this is true or not, I am extremely excited about your book now. Just the trailer alone has made me so much more skeptical when it comes to reading articles on the Internet.

    I liked your post a lot, by the way.

  9. John Keegan is such a great war historian. Recommend his ‘History of Warfare’ book if you haven’t gone near it.

  10. I’ll share with you how I approach literature. I pick an author and start out reading a biography of him or her. Simultaneously, I read through his or her writing IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER. Further along, I search out critical essays and commentaries on work I’ve already read. In some cases, I’ll read collections of the writer’s letters or, even better, journals. (I’m doing this now with John Cheever — on the whole, I think I like his journals better than his fiction.) I take a fairly studious approach to this — I underline, take notes, spend some time writing about what I’m reading, post little essays and commentaries on Facebook. The idea is that I can getter a better grasp of the material — the key to understanding an author, you might say — if I can explain the essence of that author’s writing to someone else. My Facebook friends are a good audience to write for — when they’re not utterly silent, they go pretty easy on me.

    • Why chronological order? Why not best to worst? Or most popular to most obscure?

      • I’m interested in understanding an author’s work, so I want to discover it’s meaning in the way THE AUTHOR discovered it’s meaning, which is something that happened over time, from first to last. Writers are craftspeople, and like any craftsperson, they gradually zero in on techniques and themes and discover their own deeper purpose as they practice over time, so watching them figure these things out more or less in the way they themselves figured it out is enormously instructive. Best and worst are merely a matter of opinion, and popular/obscure … well, you of all people should know what popularity is really worth (insert depressing smiley face here). Inner and outer, on the other hand — that’s a useful criteria: that’s what journals, diaries, interviews and letters provide, and why I pay close attention to them. Totally different rules for absorbing non-fiction, by the way, where I think individual books by individual authors can easily stand alone.

  11. TheCoconutChef July 17, 2012 at 8:20 am

    I highly encourage anyone who wishes to sharpen his reading skills to get “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler. It does what our education system doesn’t do when it comes to more advanced reading and, for most people here, there’s a good chance that the book will systematize things they already know about and thus make your reading strategy tighter (for instance, what Ryan calls swarming corresponds more or less with what Adler calls syntopical reading).

    Look it up.

  12. As Dennis said, the Raymond Chandler link is dead. ..

  13. You’ve likely moved on from the Civil War swarm, but if you find yourself drifting back and looking for an enjoyable read, it’s hard to do better than Fletcher Pratt’s A Short History of the Civil War. It was first called Ordeal by Fire and you may find a copy under that name at a garage sale or used book store.
    I’ve swarmed on the subject myself and for my money, there is not a more entertaining one volume work on the subject. For what it’s worth…

  14. Your idea – essentially, a focused deep dive on a topic – is a very old and respected one. The formal name for it is “massed practice”.

    Now, massed practice is almost universal in its appeal (quick results? cram! no distractions!) The reason is, in fact, that the learner learns VERY quickly when able to focus. Context switching makes you dumb.

    Unfortunately, as a professional educator, I’ve learned a bitter lesson about swarming. The flip side that gets so many Amy Chua-style tiger moms.

    Easy come and easy go.

    Learners LEARN better with massed practice. They RETAIN better (and recall better) with the exact opposite. Cross training for the mind. Formally known as spaced practice.

    “Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility. But these benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don’t get the rapid improvements and affirmations you’re accustomed to seeing from massed practice. Even in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don’t perceive the improvement; they believe they learned better on the material where practice was massed.”

    I recognize that swarming works very well for you: you’re a writer. Once you’ve delivered an insight or an article, the task is over – no loss if you forget some of it now. But for the general reader, unless we KEEP swarming (and end up professors), I suggest it would make more sense to plan out our reading for spaced repetition.

    In the best case, SuperMemo :)

    Best regards!

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