The Problem with Blinkist

Alternately: In defense of all those extra words

My brother was in town just after christmas. We were catching up one afternoon, talking about something.  I don’t know what, but it culminated in an epiphany he’d had.  About something.  Again, I don’t remember.  It was important to him, and it had taken a lot of thought, a lot of effort, to get there, and then to present it to me in a way that I could understand and benefit from.

“I guess what I’m saying is: It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

And as he said it, I could see the disappointment in his face.  The annoyance.  The self loathing.  All that effort adequately summarized by a quote we’d both heard a thousand times, and routinely pasted over a stolen picture of a sunset and posted on facebook.

This is not the only time this has happened.

Today I downloaded blinkist, which is an app/service that summarizes books into their main ideas for easy and quick ingestion. I don’t know where I originally heard about Blinkist – I think it’s been quietly infiltrating my subconscious via Instagram ads for weeks, months.  Who knows? Anyway, my friend Ben and I were talking about a book, and he said it wasn’t so great, but the main idea was worth pondering, which lead to the idea of trying blinkist. So I did. And it’s great! Unless it’s not.

As I see it, blinkist as a service rests on a few ideas:

  • Learning is valuable
  • People are busy
  • Books are unnecessarily long

I think that much of the population (at least, the population that I’m familiar with) is pretty on board with those 3 ideas. To add another couple that I think are prevalent:

  • More knowledge makes a person more successful
  • To read or hear an idea is to understand and benefit from it

With this as a platform, the real bottleneck between a person and success is simply how much information they’re able to consume. And in this paradigm, blinkist makes perfect sense. So does Twitter. So does so much of our social media (and regular media) consumption.

We treat words like magic spells that create understanding. Spells that, upon hearing or reading, magically transfer the intent, the expertise, the passion of the author into the reader. All we have to do is hear the right set of words in the right order, and the rest is fluff.

So we can cut out all the extra.  All the fluff that the author put in to stroke his or her  ego.  If we can just get the author to succinctly announce their idea, their reason for writing, everyone would win.

I think that’s garbage. I think understanding takes time. Maybe very long books are the most useful simply because they force the reader to continue thinking about a single idea for long enough to actually start to get it.

I think communication is terribly ineffective. The alchemy of translating feelings and ideas into words, sentences, paragraphs is risky enough – and then you’re less than halfway there! It has to happen again in the other direction, as the reader reverses the process and attempts to turn words into real understanding. To call it “lossy” is an understatement, bordering on the ridiculous. In such an environment, the only hope author or reader have is to talk a lot. To say the same thing in several different ways, over and over again, in hopes that the reader will eventually work out the pattern – put together the bits and pieces they understand from each attempt, into something close to a whole.

So yes, there’s a lot of content out there.  Yes, a lot of it looks interesting.  No, I don’t believe the only thing stopping a person from benefitting from all this content at once is that it hasn’t been appropriately summarized, or that we havent heard the bullet points.  We’ve all heard the bullet points.  The important stuff is what comes in between them.

With all this said, I’m still kind of excited about blinkist. I think its presentation, its message is flawed – but as a way to find out what I might want to learn more about, I still think it sounds pretty interesting.

When I’m famous and this post gets summarized “for busy people”, it will be reduced to “You just have to put in the work”. And somebody will read that, pat themselves on the back for all the time they saved, and move on.

Why should I leave?

I’ve been thinking more about how good employees are willing to quit.  It’s a big topic, and one that’s uncomfortable a lot of the time – most of us like to believe, deep down, that we’ve found a career that will last forever, we’ll always be happy, and we’ll never need or want to leave because we’ve got life figured out now, and nothing will ever change.

So we approach professional life with a couple of assumptions:

  • We should be employed all the time.
  • Outside of egregious offenses, we should stay at a single employer.

I’d argue that both of these are false – or maybe not false in the sense that the opposite is true (That people should actively seek unemployment, and should hop from job to job for no reason), just means that these assumptions are invalid.

Any relationship works best when all parties are on equal footing.  By accepting either or both of these assumptions, the employee starts at a disadvantage – assuming that they should always be employed (as opposed to self employed, or, you know, bummin’ around) and that leaving a job requires valid cause means at our most basic, we assume we need an employer.  This taints the relationship from the start.


Working under these assumptions, the question to ask is “Why should I leave”?  I think the correct question to ask is “Why should I stay”?

Obligation is the wrong reason to do almost anything, and assuming that the default is to stay in a job – to stay at an employer because you’ve been there for a while, because you owe them something, etc – is obligation.  It doesn’t get the best work out of anyone, and it breeds resentment, left unchecked.

The beautiful thing is that a shift in perspective here – going from the vague feelings of obligation and guilt that your job conjures because you think you’re supposed to be there, to the acknowledgement that you’re there for a reason: Maybe you really enjoy the work, or the people you work with, or you’re learning a lot, or maybe you just need the money (which is a completely valid reason to stay at a job) – can change your attitude completely, and clarify in your own head what you’re doing.

Alternatively, maybe you realize that there is no good reason to stay – that you really are just staying out of obligation, or because your mom likes to tell her friends that you’re important because of your title.  In which case, you can acknowledge that it’s perfectly acceptable to go figure something else out.  You don’t need a boss who sexually harasses you, or a job offer for twice as much money elsewhere – you just need an acknowledgement that there’s no good reason to stay.

Figure out why you do what you do.  It’s important.  It takes a lot of your time, and you only have so much.  You owe it to yourself to be honest about why you’re spending it the way you are.


Good Employees

I used to run a business that handled backups and security, or hack mitigation for websites and small businesses.  It was a good business, and I enjoyed it.  It started from nothing, and slowly grew until it could support me full time, without much extra.  But right around that time, I started running into issues – the business needed to grow, and in order to grow, it needed to change – to be lower touch, and scale better, larger.  We were at the limits of what I (as the only technical staff) could provide.

But that’s not what happened, because I needed money.  And when you need money, you start making the wrong decisions – prioritizing one-off deals that provide short-term cashflow over the slower, steadier work of scaling the business.  So that’s exactly what I did – a lot of individual deals, a lot of individual work that would get us by, month to month, but didn’t provide any lasting benefit, and didn’t really help the business grow.  Because we needed the money, we needed it to work, we stalled, and couldn’t continue growing.

I’ve been an employee now for several years, but I can see that the same concept exists here – with different consequences, different symptoms, but similarly dire outcomes.

Good Employees are not warm bodies

I’m grateful to not be in a business that just needs a warm body in a specified location, following well defined directions.  I’m paid not just to blindly follow instructions to get something from point a to point b – I’m paid because I’m a person with thoughts and ideas, who can offer insight and solutions to problems.  I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this.  My particular field, and employer do a good job of emphasizing autonomy and the idea that everyone is expected to think critically about the business – but I think deep down this is basically universal.  I think good employees, in most positions, and most fields, are hired not just to accomplish tasks, but because they’re smart, driven, and willing to give themselves to the problems and challenges a business faces.  An employee who just does the work asked of them as it’s laid out is a very smart robot, and will soon find themselves replaced with just that.

But I need this job

But there’s a conflict here.  Employers want their employees to be happy and productive.  Employees want to feel secure.  But often employees feel like they are tied to a job, to a company, for whatever reason – maybe they’re living paycheck to paycheck and don’t think they can afford the time it would take to find a new job.  Maybe they’re afraid they can’t find a job with benefits they’ve become accustomed to.  Maybe they’re afraid of starting over somewhere new.  It doesn’t matter.  As soon as someone decides that losing their job is a real risk that they’re unwilling to take, they’ll start acting to protect it – in ways that are often counter to the best interests of themselves and the business.


Conflict is difficult for most people, especially conflict with superiors.  However – conflict, used constructively, breeds success.  A workplace without any conflict at all – opposing ideas, heated discussions, impassioned cases – is doomed.  Even smart people have dumb ideas, and if no one is questioning the people making plans, everyone will be worse for it.  If employees aren’t willing to stand up for what they believe in up to the point of leaving a job for it, it’s a loss for them, and for the business.  Passionate people do good work.  Agreeable people have a pleasant, comfortable time making garbage.


Relationships are subtle things, that require delicate balance.  To achieve full potential, that balance constantly has to be checked and tweaked, making sure that both sides are happy and committed.  The moment one side falls down and admits that they need the other too much, that they’re willing to accept too much compromise, that they’ll do work they don’t believe in as long as they keep getting paid, the balance is lost.  It doesn’t matter if there are good, caring people on both sides of the equation – when one needs the other more than is reciprocated, it’s impossible to work as well as it could.

Good employees are willing to quit

This is not to say good employees should quit jobs often, or early, or that an employee who has been somewhere a long time is bad – rather: in order to maximize productivity and satisfaction for both sides, the employee has to be as ready to quit as the business is ready to fire them.  Part of the employee’s job then, is to make sure that they’re always in a position – financially, emotionally, whatever – to be able to leave, and survive until they can find a new position.

So I don’t know, the least you can do is conspicuously keep a “go-bag”  with a couple of days worth of clothing and some beef jerky in it by your desk.  Just to let everybody know how ready you are.  When your boss gets out of line, just subtly point at it and raise your eyebrows.  Or, I guess, get your finances in order.  Less fun, but probably more effective.

Need Keyboard Shortcuts? Use Cheatsheet.

If you use a computer much at all, you quickly realize that time spent reaching for your mouse is time wasted.  It sounds trivial, but somehow, the effort to move your hand to the mouse, move it to figure out where the cursor is, and then do whatever it is you need to do has a magical ability to slow me down and break my concentration. Any time I can keep my hands on the keyboard rather than the mouse or the trackpad, it’s a victory.

So, it was with great excitement that I happened upon CheatSheet today.  Install it, and hold down the command key, and voila:


A list of keyboard shortcuts for the current application.

It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t catch all shortcuts in every app – but it’s useful enough to install.