The Swarm Strategy (How to Learn About Anything)

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.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.