Finding levers of change is a tricky business—they are often drawn from a combination of existing knowledge, pure instinct and imagination. As OSI-Baltimore works to find solutions to persistent problems relating to education, criminal justice and addiction, it is critical to keep our thinking fresh and expansive. Given that, I’ve made a 2013 New Year’s resolution to take the time to read in more depth and to read more widely, particularly by exposing myself to different points of view. Whether the results will confirm common sense or lead to some audacious ideas, I’m betting that reading more widely will improve my vision of what could be, help me see connections that can advance or impede change, and strengthen my conviction to act.
I have in mind a specific approach—one that allows me to take the time to learn and think more deeply—because I want to avoid the limitations of typical web browsing or reading short articles, which often simply expose me to polemical, partisan and superficial analysis. I am committing to reading more widely for two purposes: to fill in gaps of knowledge that I recognize I’ve neglected; and to push through the artificial boundaries imposed by human nature and technology. In other words, I want to read actively, beyond that which confirms my existing world view or complements my existing areas of competence.
This first purpose—committing to taking the time to read in areas long of interest—might seem like a “free time” luxury—but I suspect that the professional as well as the personal value of the effort will quickly be apparent. In today’s complex, inter-related world, reading and thinking in unfamiliar or less well known areas are more likely than not to be relevant to our ongoing priorities and work. And often, just the juxtaposition of patterns, approaches, and emerging ideas in several different fields can spark our creativity, deepen our understanding and ambition, and build new strategies for attacking old problems.
In 2013, I plan to set aside time to read in two areas. Perhaps not surprising, given the racial lens with which we approach our work at OSI-Baltimore, the first area is U.S. history relating to racial equality, from reconstruction through the civil rights struggles of the 20th century. I have begun with the new book by Pulitzer Prize winner and OSI-Baltimore Board member Taylor Branch, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, which draws from his trilogy on the period between 1954 and 1968. I also plan to read about emerging brain research that, among other things, can help me understand how people process and respond to racial difference, discrimination and anxiety. The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, by Shankar Vedantam, comes highly recommended.
The second component of my New Year’s resolution is to make a conscious effort to push through the artificial boundaries that, in two ways, often limit the breadth of our reading. One is that we read materials that are written by people whose ideas are both similar and familiar. The second, more pernicious reason is that, through our own personal use of technology, algorithms on search engines determine what they “think” you or I want to read.
As Move-On founder Eli Pariser has noted, “Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in—and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.” (Watch his TED talk here.)
Technology’s algorithms might make me feel comfortable and affirmed but, ultimately, without the stretching and the challenge, my own thinking can come up short. New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat, for similar reasons, has urged us to take advantage of this post-election period by reading magazines whose politics we don’t share, that are written by authors from different geographic bases, and that champion ideas outside of existing partisan categories. (Read his op-ed, How to Read in 2013.)
Our work at Open Society—guided by the philosophy of Karl Popper—starts with an acknowledgement of each person’s fallibility. The remedy for this human condition—the process for building a more just, inclusive and opportunity-rich society—is the continual pursuit of knowledge. I’m hoping that through my New Year’s resolution to read more widely and learn from a broad range of fields, experiences and perspectives, I’ll be more likely to recognize, embrace and occasionally propose the audacious ideas that lead to sound policy and practice and lasting change. Happy New Year!