July 21, 2022

Sam McRoberts on connecting the dots, being humbly curious, introducing randomness, and thought experiments (Ep29)

“It’s interesting how things that seem unconnected at first glance may actually be connected. You may be looking in finance, and you find something related to psychology, where you may be looking in psychology, and you come across something that’s related to physics. Everything is connected, it just depends on the path that you get there and the weighting.”

– Sam McRoberts

Sam McRoberts
About Sam McRoberts

Sam is the CEO of global SEO agency VUDU Marketing and the bestselling author of Screw the Zoo. He is the co-host of The Entrepreneur Cast podcast and frequently appears in media such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, Business Insider and many others. He has been travelling around the world with his wife and son as a digital nomad and been to 20 countries and counting.

What you will learn

  • How to find the good things you need in the ocean of information (01:38)
  • The advantage of Twitter in finding information (04:20)
  • From an information perspective, should we be more or less predictable? (08:40)
  • How can you pull a useful mental model from so much information diversity? (11:42)
  • Why being and staying curious is an advantage (15:13)
  • Why the concept of building a second brain is promising (16:50)
  • What are some ways that we can start to correlate the different slivers or frames that we have on reality? (20:52)
  • Going out of your comfort zone to separate the valuable from the not-so-valuable (24:53)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Sam, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Sam McRoberts: Hey Ross, thanks for having me.

Ross: It’s fair to say you live your life in an ocean of information.

Sam: That’s a gentle way to put it. All of us, we’re surrounded by massive amounts of information. We only get the tiniest sliver of it. We’re each trying to make sense of that in our minds. We never get the exact same sliver. Everybody’s attempting to connect an overlap without knowing actually what’s in anybody else’s head. It’s quite an adventure.

Ross: How do you get your particular sliver?

Sam: By dipping my toes in lots of different pools. I use Twitter primarily for fishing out interesting topics and then chasing down rabbit holes, stuff that catches my interest.

Ross: I was trying to get a consistent ocean metaphor, but now we’ve got rabbit holes in there as well.

Sam: Sure. I guess rabbit holes could fill with rainwater.

Ross: We can have mixed metaphors. Let’s start with Twitter because that’s the way we connected, reflecting back on the old days, it was one of the best possible ways to connect to interesting people, I think a little bit less these days but it is how you go about it. How do you find wonder, delight, and good things in the fairly mixed waters? That is Twitter.

Sam: Trial and error; more error than trial. I look for people who are talking about things that catch my interest. I have pretty broad-ranging interests. I will start by following a handful of interesting people, I’ll keep an eye on their tweets for a while to see what they talk about and who else they connect with. Then I’ll decide whether to keep following them or keep them in my mainstream, or maybe move them to a list if they only focus on a narrow topic, or unfollow if it’s not as interesting as I hoped it would be. But so far, it works pretty well.

Ross: How big is your main list and what other lists do you have? Do you have very focused topic lists as well as your main list?

Sam: Because I grew up as a child of the 80s, and 90s, who was interested in hacking, I limit my followers, the number of people I follow, so 1337. That is my main pool. Then I have probably 15 or 20 other lists for different topics. It could be crypto, AI, futurism, finance, humor, whatever it is.

Ross: Do you scan those lists daily, or just delve in and out? Do you have particular times a day that you play around in these spaces?

Sam: I’m on Twitter probably way too much. I jump in and out of those lists, depending on my mood. I have only a couple that I check daily. Then my main feed is where I spend most of my time.

Ross: What do you do with that? Are you use taking notes? Are you just building things in your mind? Is there any thesis that you’re trying to build? What are the ways in which these feed your mental models and your ideas?

Sam: I mostly take notes in my mind. I operate under the assumption that if it’s important to me, it will stick, and that tends to be the case. I like to just keep my options open and be open to serendipity. I’m reading along and something catches my interest, maybe it’s about a topic I’m reading on or maybe it’s something that I just find interesting, maybe I’ll spend a few days going down that rabbit hole.

What I most look for in Twitter are three things. One is other people who are curious, and who are humbly curious like they want to know what’s true, they’re willing to poke, prod, dig, and change their minds to get there. Two, technologies, new things that I’m not aware of that could be cool, maybe now, maybe down the road. Then new sources of information, whether it’s an article, a book, a podcast, a video, whatever it is, I’m looking for people to expose me to things that I’ve never been exposed to and might not have had I not encountered them.

Ross: Serendipity is a topic dear to my heart. You’ve already described it in a way but are there any other things that you think facilitate you to that serendipity? Those happy accidents of finding new, relevant, or interesting things for you?

Sam: I think not staying too stuck in a rut. I’m willing to go poking in random places. I even do it in real life outside of Twitter. I may take a different route one day than I would normally walk or buy something different just to try something new, or try a different show that’s completely outside of my normal sphere, whatever it is, I try and introduce randomness, because how else am I going to discover new things?

Ross: Allen Neuringer was a wonderful scientist, he studied under B.F. Skinner. B.F. Skinner was the person who talked about stimulus-response, we have patterns of behavior, which are built into us because of all the responses that we have. Allen was a student of B.F. Skinner at Harvard, but he came up with this thesis, he said, if we can reinforce consistent behavior, perhaps we can reinforce inconsistent behavior, variable behavior. He came up with this phrase, variability as an operant, where he proposed and experimented with himself throughout his life, to say that he could build up to himself to have more variable responses by giving positive rewards.

Sam: I like that.

Ross: That’s something which we can all try to do for ourselves.

Sam: Have you ever heard of Randonautica?

Ross: No.

Sam: Randonautica is a site and an app that uses a quantum random number generator with a geographic constraint to give you a location within your vicinity based on the radius you provide, completely random. You can use that and you can be like, pick me a random place, and it’ll put a pin on your map, and you go there and see what’s there. I’ve played around with that.

Ross: That is awesome.

Sam: I have played around with that. I love things like that. I love that sort of randomness and getting outside of your normal bubble. Fascinating.

Ross: Allen Neuringer trained himself to be able to create random numbers, which was supposed to be impossible. He used a computer to give him feedback to be able to generate random numbers.

Sam: Wild.

Ross: Maybe we could do the same with our behaviors as in our paths to get to where we’re going or wherever, but I love that. This goes back to The Dice Man, have you read that?

Sam: I have not. What’s The Dice Man?

Ross: It’s kind of old culture. It’s the 80s book by Luke Reinhart. Anyway, it was very popular at the time. It was the story where this guy, a very normal guy, suddenly came up with this thing where he threw dice to decide what he was going to do and he just started leading this crazed life, because he just followed the dice.

Sam: I like that.

Ross: It set off this cultural phenomenon.

Sam: That’s funny. Okay, I’m going to read that.

Ross: It’s interesting just to come back to that, because our conversation unearthed that. In a way chaos is all around us. We live in a world of chaos as never before. The individuals within it are significantly unpredictable; even various politicians who seem to be unpredictable, but in fact, they are very predictable. Once you establish their patterns, you can predict what various famous politicians will do, even if they may not do what politicians of the past did.

We get a lot of very consistent behaviors, which are creating more chaotic environments. I just wonder how should we behave in this chaotic environment? Should we be more predictable or less predictable? From the information perspective, the less predictable means that we have more information, more diverse information, richer mental models, and better ways of thinking.

Sam: I agree with that. I think predictability is interesting. If you understand somebody’s incentives deeply enough, you can predict to a degree, but there’s also always the element of unexpected randomness, somebody who’s acting out of character, or they don’t know what came over them. There are always elements of potential randomness and you just never know when they’re going to hit, so fun.

Ross: Famously, a lot of the most successful people on Wall Street are bipolar. They have a high degree of unpredictability which in some ways has served them well, or at least financially.

Sam: Finance is probably a very good place to be unpredictable because really, it is unpredictable. Nobody is accurately predicting the market, you’re getting lucky in different ways at different times. If you are sufficiently luckier and consistent over time, you may have some sort of an edge. Warren Buffett’s a good example. He’s very consistent over time. It’s more the amount of time than it is his luck or anything else that’s at play. If you can just be reasonable for long enough, you’ll be fine.

Ross: Yeah. You only need actually market track, to be frank. You ride the market, you hopefully have a slightly better than the average thesis, or you don’t make the mistakes, that takes you a long way. That’s one way in which consistency is good.

Ross: In terms of pulling all this together, it’s wonderful to have diverse perspectives, have lots of different information, ideas and find things which you wouldn’t find, but part of the things is, okay, how do we pull all this together into some kind of a cogent and useful mental model of the world? Because that’s part of the things, the more diversity of perspectives, the harder it is to pull it together into something which has some degree of internal consistency in the way that we see the world. How do you synthesize or pull together all of your disparate sources?

Sam: Honestly, it’s more random than structured. As I learned things, I see what sticks. In my mind, I think of it all, from the perspective of nodes. I know that the way we store information in our minds is in clusters across different sensory pieces. It’s interesting how things that seem unconnected at a first glance may actually be connected. You may be looking in finance, and you find something related to psychology, where you may be looking in psychology, and you come across something that’s related to physics, everything is connected, it just depends on the path that you get there and the weighting.

But in terms of consistency, I’m trying to find things that fit, what I can observe, that are wherever possible, reproducible and consistent. But I also really have a bent for things that are outside of the norms. I like stuff that maybe is uncertain, or nonstandard, but still fits. What would be a good example? Nonduality, research into consciousness, nature of reality, things where we have guesses, and we have some pieces of information, but it’s still tremendously uncertain. I like those domains.

Ross: I always think it’s marvelous if we look at the microscopic or the macroscopic. In physics, we have extraordinary degrees of knowledge. But we start to look inside our brains, and we’re only just scratching the surface of what it is we know. But we do have plenty of data. There are a lot of starting points for data in which we can start to use our imaginations in a way, and that’s part of extending what are the hypotheses around how our brain works, and what is the nature of the mind. That’s fun playing fields because you can’t read it all in the textbook, or at least there’s only high-level elementary views of that. But that’s something where you can start to connect dots in useful and novel ways, fairly readily, because we are just beginning to do that.

Sam: I’m always amazed at how much information we’ve discovered and how much there still is that we don’t know, even as close as our brains. It was only a decade ago, not even a decade ago that we found that the brain has a lymphatic system. How wild? We’re still discovering things inside ourselves now, despite all our advances in technology, and there are probably mountains more to figure out. The microbiome is still largely not understood, protein folding, still so much more advances to make. It’s mind-blowing how much we know and yet how little that still is.

Ross: Would you say that there are any practices or things that help you to be better at connecting those dots? Is it just the way you were born, or you’re educated, or the way you’ve made yourself, or is there anything which you do that helps you make some of those connections more jump out?

Sam: I’m not sure if I do anything in particular. I was born, I assume very curious. I’ve heard stories from when I was two, two and a half. I was very much the same then as I am now. I questioned everything, I wanted to understand how things work, and I annoyed the shit out of my parents because I was always like why is that? No, that’s stupid, I don’t want to do that. If I do anything, it’s just deliberately reading a variety of things, exposing myself to different ideas so there’s a chance for those connections to form. If I don’t have enough variety, who knows what I’m going to miss. But it’s hard because I can only read so much. My to-be-read pile expands far faster than I can read them.

Ross: What formats do you read?

Sam: Mostly Kindle. Since I’m a digital nomad, I can’t haul around a bunch of books. Digital is my go-to, but I love that I can very easily highlight stuff and then export highlights.

Ross: Where do you export your Kindle highlights too?

Sam: Usually, I’ll pull them out into a Notepad. I like doing stuff old school in Notepad. I’ve played around a bit with Roam, but not very advanced, it hasn’t really caught me yet, it’s interesting, but I don’t love it yet. Maybe someone will convince me to dig deeper eventually.

Ross: Is that just playing with the ideas? Or is this something you’re trying to build with those? Are you working on any projects where you’re driving your particular types of research, reading, or thinking?

Sam: I like the thesis of building a second brain that Tiago Forte has talked about, that’s an interesting idea. Because very much our phones, have become an extension of our minds. I like the idea of building a wiki of the things that you know and how they connect together and trying to make that mirror the way those connections appear to you in your mind. But I’m vastly too lazy to build that out to the degree of fidelity that would be useful, and so I dabble.

Ross: You described this as the nodes and connecting the dots, so implicitly a network structure of ideas, and then teasing out what those connections are?

Sam: Yes, much like the background in your image here on the screen. I think about that, I think of my mind in terms of those nodes, and I try and get to like, what do I think the most significant nodes are? Which ones do connect the most? But getting that out into another format hasn’t been able to make me do it sufficiently.

Ross: That is a project, which I’m working on, is to try and to do something, which does make that process a little bit easier. Because the Roam research, obsidians, LogSeq, and so on of this world are a little bit for the uber-geeks. Similar capabilities or these ways of being able to manifest a network thinking for a broader audience would have some potential.

Sam: Agreed. I’m still holding out for the brain-computer interface feature future, where just plug me in, run me through a program that learns the language of my mind, and then download it all for me. Maybe it won’t be too far in the future.

Ross: Would you be an early adopter of the invasive neural interface?

Sam: I’m not going to be a beta tester, but once it’s reasonably safe, I don’t see why not. Honestly, the only feasible future for humanity long-term is probably at least some sort of human technology hybrid, if not, some sort of full digital self. I don’t see how we can not only survive long-term but spread out and explore the universe when we’re piloting these fragile meat suits.

Ross: Our brains are extraordinary but the interface between our brains and the external world is…

Sam: Rudimentary?

Ross: Our primary interface is a language, which is good; language is a pretty decent tool but there’s a lot more that we can do. Language is linear and our brains are not. That’s one of the things which pulls me towards visual representations, is that visual start to be able to give us representations that show some of the nonlinearity of the world.

Sam: I’ve written a blog post about that, it’s called the words that divide us. But that concept of language, we use a label that has a relatively simple meaning but there’s so much more attached to the label in our minds. If I say one word, if I say “apple”, you might picture a specific variety of an apple or an apple pie, or bobbing for apples at Halloween, or an apple orchard, and then you have smells, and tastes, and all these things connected to that word but all that cloud of things that are tied to the word are different for everybody. The emotions a word triggers may be different for everybody. Our language is, at best, a very lossy map but it’s so far from the territory, it’s gotten us very far but it’s still just maybe a bootloader.

Ross: You started talking about the slivers of perception, the different frames that we build out of that. What are some ways that we can start to transcend that, or to marry or mesh or correlate the different slivers or frames that we have on reality?

Sam: We get maybe as close as we can, in the realm of philosophy, where you have to sit down and very carefully hash out terms, frames, and meaning when you have a discussion so that you’re all on the same page. Technologically, I don’t think we’re terribly far out from being able to read emotions, imagery, and things from the brain. It may be possible in the not too distant future when you speak, to also share an emotional channel with the person you’re speaking to so they can feel more of what you’re saying, and not just hear the word and interpret it through their frame, that would get us closer.

I also have high hopes for whatever the metaverse ends up being. I hope that being in an immersive, interactive visual environment where we have much more control over all of the elements will allow us to do a broader and deeper method of conveying experiences, so instead of just telling somebody about an experience, maybe you can rebuild it. What we’re seeing now in the realm of machine learning, with large language models, and image generators like Dali, are precursors to being able to maybe describe to an AI an experience we had, and then adjust it and let it generate a full sensory experience, I don’t know how close we are, I think we will probably have the ability to give a description and get a visual and auditory output within the next three to five years. But who knows, maybe within the next 10 to 20, we’ll be able to build something even more immersive. Then when we tell our story, we can show our story, feel our story, and hear our story.

Ross: I think that’s very feasible. There has been some really interesting research using machine learning on fMRI scans, where you have been able to represent visually what people are thinking about in terms of essentially training them on a whole series of images so that people think of things and you can see it on the screen, which is pretty phenomenal. Given we’re already at that level, then you could imagine getting closer to where you can think things in your brain and that scene is evoked in a 3D virtual world that other people will also inhabit.

Sam: As cool as fMRI is, it’s still very low fidelity. What we’re capturing is across a large neuronal space, it’s not pinpoint precision, which is why I’m so hopeful for brain-computer interfaces, or whatever we ended up using. Maybe it won’t be invasive surgery, and maybe it’ll end up being nanobots of some kind, but that ability to get very precise and then to do that training, and to be able to get down there and see ah, this part of this neuron fires when you think of this image, that’ll be amazing.

Ross: Yes, we have got a bit of way to go but we are definitely on that journey.

Sam: I’m hoping AI helps to speed us up.

Ross: Yes, essentially, for me, this is the idea of how is it that we evolve our cognition, and part of it is being able to just be better at what humans do, lots of us can do on that front. But given we got these nice, handy, pretty nifty AI tools, we can work out how can they complement us as best possible? And that’s a big part of the next decades and beyond.

Sam: Very much.

Ross: Pulling back to this Thriving on Overload. I’d say that’s a pretty fair description of what you do. You’re in overload, you want it, you lap it up, you’ve probably looked for exposing yourself more than most people and you thrive on it. What are some tips? What are some recommendations? What are some things you would suggest to people that want to prosper in this world where there’s so much value, but also so much, which is not so valuable?

Sam: One of the most important things you can do is to get outside of your swimlane. Everything about our education and the working system is designed to move you into a narrower and narrower lane so that your function and use to the whole is very precise. There’s a tendency to narrow your filters, instead of expanding them. The best thing you can do is deliberately go the other way. Try a lot of different things, experiment, don’t get yourself stuck in a rut, read things you wouldn’t normally read, listen to people you wouldn’t normally listen to, and maybe deliberately go after counter things that make you feel angry or frustrated.

If you have a particular stance, seek out the opposite stance so that you understand more than one side of an issue. Try and put yourself in someone else’s mind. What would I need to believe for what they believe to be true? Do thought experiments, poke at things. More than anything is just to be open to whatever is true. Assume that everything you think is true is probably not, maybe it’s at one end of the truth-leaning spectrum or not. What’s the sane? All models are false, but some are useful so understanding that you don’t know anything, you just have a lot of faulty models that are more or less useful depending on what circumstance you find yourself in.

Ross: That’s fantastic. It’s really sound advice. What you or I can do when we got the transcript of this is just distill out of what you’ve just said into a set of aphorisms that will give some guidance to people. I think that’s great.

Sam: Awesome.

Ross: Thanks so much, Sam. I really appreciate your time. It’s been a very fun conversation.

Sam: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

“A how-to for turning a surplus of information into expertise, insight, and better decisions.”

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Ross Dawson

Futurist, keynote speaker, author and host of Thriving on Overload.

Discover his blog, other books, frameworks, futurist resources and more.