How to become sophisticated?

J., a nascent MR reader, requests:

Which journals, magazines and blogs should a 15yo read in order to be considered a widely sophisticated and educated person 20 years later (not necessarily to show off or to impress others but for one's own good feeling)?

I do not have a concrete answer.  When I was 12-13, I was very interested in chess and not so interested in culturally sophisticated outputs, unless you count the Beatles and jazz guitar and baseball.  I am glad that I spent most of my time then reading in those areas because I cared about them deeply at the time.  Those investments will then help us learn other areas, so it is learning about how to learn.  At age 21 it was all about German Romanticism for me, and at 22 analytic philosophy.  Find grooves, and push on them until your ardor abates.  Until the very end, there is always time to learn more areas, and always a very large number of areas one does not know at all.

It has become a cliche, but Samuel Johnson was close to the truth when he wrote:

"A man should read as his fancy takes him, for what he reads as a chore will do him little good."

I don't recommend that attitude for mastering technical subjects, but for general sophistication it is right on.  The most sophisticated person is someone who really loves an area and has pursued it, and that's also the best magnet for attracting interested and interesting others.  On related topics, here is Modeled Behavior and here is Robin Hanson.


Not bad advice, but you can't go wrong reading the New York Times every day (whatever articles interest you) and the New Yorker every week (likewise).

The Radio Amateurs Handbook.

As to the NYTs - don't miss the complete works of Walter Duranty and Jason Blair.

I would strongly recommend "The Economist" as a periodical that is continually worth reading. Coupled with "The New Republic" they are certainly sophisticated, if a little left-leaning.

At the risk of a terrible prediction for the future, following TED lectures can be enough of an introduction to things that will give you a very respectable background, if not technical expertise.

An eclectic blog couldn't hurt. .

Personally, I like the New Criterion..

Possibly relevant quote from The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb
"the more detailed knowledge one gets of empirical reality, the more one will see the noise (i.e. the anecdote) and mistake it for actual information. Remember that we are swayed by the sensational. Listening to the news on radio every hour is far worse for you than reading a weekly magazine, because the longer interval allows information to be filtered a bit. "

If the goal is to be sophisticated and take part in dinner table conversations 20 years from now then you want to read books, not magazines. But if the goal is having conversations in the same day...

@J. : I'm nearly 30 and I still ask myself that question. Thank you for your candor. I can't give you any generic advice, but as an artist, I try to take in a novel variety of information rather than a definitive canon of great literature. My theory is that if everyone took in an identical mix of information, their ideas and innovations might also be identical, so it pays to stand out.

Learn a subject until you can explain it to someone who doesn't understand it. Do everything with that goal, whether it is reading novels, history books or technical treatises, or if you pursue an endeavor such as working with your hands or mastering a skill, traveling the world or playing a game.

Not only will you have something to share with others, but you will have gained deep understanding of the things you pursue.


Learn things now that can help you earn tons of money quickly.

Then you can relax on the white sand beaches of the Maldives reading Gothe to your heart's content, probably with some hot women in bikinis.

He should read everything he can get his hands on that seems even a little interesting to him. Poetry, plays, novels, philosophy, economics, biology, physics, music, art, religion, etc. Tell him to take note of who the authors like and dislike, and to read them as well.

At 15 I was reading about plants and I was reading a Western series -- so the important thing is that he's reading. I ended up going to college to major in recombinant gene technology, which I got my BA in, followed by two years of graduate classes in molecular biology. But I also took an intro to philosophy class with Ronald Nash, who taught a book he wrote defending capitalism, which led me to reading everything in the library on capitalism, which led me to Ayn Rand, which led me to Nietzsche (one whom she claimed to disagree with), which led me to getting a M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in the humanities with a dissertation on Evolutionary Aesthetics. And now I write articles on spontaneous orders.

Now who predicted that outcome from my saying I read Westerns and about plants when I was 15?

NY Review of Books. It's interesting, it's varied, and it has some of the most interesting minds in the world. And much of its content is online (see also NYR Blog).

Being pretty young myself, 23 right now, I would say that one of the things that continues to benefit me the most in almost all areas has been my interest in economics since I was around 15. Let's face it, economics is everywhere and if you have a solid foundation in economics that will prevent you from dwelling into areas that in hindsight will prove to have been unhelpful in your analytic development. Hardly any person that knows a bit about economics is going to waste his teenage years believing in communism and other discarded ideologies.

Just read whatever you like, for me, that also included Russian & French literature. I don't really remember much of it but reading Molière has been a pleasure and illustrates human nature in a fascinating way. As for foreign languages, thanks to the internet it is easy to find message boards in the respective language with locals chatting in casual style. That gives a natural edge to your language capabilities.

In terms of magazines, The Economist is pretty much a given. You may thing about 'adopting' a certain region of the world and become knowledgeable about it, could be a huge benefit later on in this globalized world. The key thing is that no matter what you choose to read, the important skills are mostly transferable, i.e. critical thinking and seeing what's important.

@ misterxroboto and J.:

I agree with your endorsement of the TED videos. They have been going strong for several years and continue to produce high quality videos.

J., take what you will from the comments above, concerning printed media. There are some excellent opinions to follow. But don't be afraid to culture yourself with video/audio. TED is a good start. I also enjoy the Econtalk podcast, the occasional Surprisingly Free conversation (though they can come off as more informational, rather than insightful), and the occasional Bloggingheads.

Two of my favorite TED talks: Paul Stamets, on how mushrooms can save the planet; Joshua Klein, on the intelligence of crows

Tyler Cowen, Unschooler.

You are 15, so I don't have to tell you that most 15 year old boys spend 90-95% of their time playing video games. Don't do that. Maybe 1% allocated to upping your rating at, but otherwise skip the computer games. Other than maybe the American Experience and Masterpiece Classics, go light on the t.v. too.

Journals, magazines, and blogs should be treated like junk food. There's a trace of a vitamin here, a smidgen of an essential fatty acid there, but most of it is more like empty sugar and starch that will give you a quick buzz, cause you to crash very soon, and then crave another fix to pick you up again. Pretty soon you're a constant snacker.

If you don't have access to a university library, buy it or get your parents to pay for it -- the best one within 45 min - 1 hour driving. Go there and type whatever you're interested in into the catalog search. Write down anything that sounds neat, especially bigger-picture books or reviews. Look through all the surrounding books on the stacks too and pick up whatever catches your eye.

Flip through this initial pile and see what looks promising, and check those out. Read enough until you feel you've got the point and could explain the gist to someone else. Sometimes you pick a rotten fruit -- don't waste time; throw it away and get back to digesting the others.

As for lit, I'd start with one of those Western canon lists that at least has a sketch of what the author or work is about. Start with ones that appeal to you, and go as far into them as you can, then go to related authors and works. Let that be your guide to "broad coverage," not an aim to have an even distribution over time or space.

If you dig Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, you'll probably be put to sleep by a lot of the Age of Reason, or vice versa and dislike revenge plays.

But to re-emphasize the main point -- go to the library, not the internet. The library is real (aside from the tiny periodicals room), the internet fake.

I can definitely support picking up a foreign language, and not Spanish (if you are American, as everyone seems to assume)--it's too easy. A major reason to learn a foreign language is to be able to understand your own.

If you are politically inclined, be sure to peruse those with whom you disagree (for as long as you can stand).

I have to disagree with those who downplay the first rough draft of history. I find it shocking how often I find myself replying to 20-somethings that no, what we are going through right now isn't really all that different than what I observed before. (And I'm in the young end of middle-aged myself.) Seeing what a big deal is being made of every little thing this time will help you keep the hyperventilation in perspective next time.

One thing to definitely avoid--conspiracy theorists. These guys are the crack cocaine of the intellectual world.

I saw a professional play last year for the first time. VERY worthwhile experience. Do seek out different forms of entertainment, especially those which engage the mind.

I take your desire to be sophisticated to mean discerning. The only way to discern truth from the world around you is to build a strong foundation of knowledge and experience. I am dismayed that so many of the respondents here have suggested the NY Times without offering a true counterbalance. I would suggest the Wall Street Journal. Reading first a left-leaning paper then a right-leaning paper does not produce a balanced view, but it does inform you as to differing views.

Mainly, you should read a lot and mostly books, not blogs or magazines. The greater depth that books go in to will inform you; the blogs and magazines tend to only be confirmatory for you. Read fiction, read history (I came to the value of history late; I hated it when I was your age), pick up a book that you might not ordinarily consider. Get some science and math in you and do it now.

Just math and science and apply those as mental models to everything. All else is opinion. Even math and science is opinion, but it is on the more reliable end of the scale.

Math is a second language. It's not something you either get or don't, though some get it better than others, but they have to work at it too. Math is the language of science when precision is prioritized over expansiveness.

Reading the classics prematurely has its own dangers--namely feeding into the hoop-jumping, gold-star seeking mentality that is already a temptation to a 15 yr old striving to be "sophisticated."

An accessible starting place would be delving into the elements of pop culture that fascinate: the books upon which current movies are based, researching the musical roots of the acts you most enjoy, etc. Being able to add a bit of depth to what you and your friends are already into is socially useful and guards against the very real danger of your intellectual curiosity turning you into a pretentious twit.

In this vein of accessibility, look around your home town: how did it come to exist? What keeps it afloat economically? What ethnic/religious groups have settled there through the decades and why? While the average 15 yr old couldn't be more bored with their hometown, digging into local history might reveal colorful layers and edgy contours that makes your world more 3-dimensional.


Use the 3:2 ratio. 3 old books for every 2 new, 3 you disagree with for every 2 you agree. Once your preferences/beliefs/ideology are/is more developed, don't abandon the rule (though you can invert the ratio).

Specialization is good, but can lead to narrow vision. Generalization is good, but can lead to laziness.

Certainty isn't a bad thing. But every once in a while, switch sides and try to argue yourself out of a position.

The world mostly sucks. You're not missing anything.

It's not a bad thing to skim newspapers, but bear in mind that at least 95% of the content will be useless to you in 20 years, and at least half of the 5% will turn out to be mistaken or propaganda. TV is worse. (I have a degree in mass media communications and have worked in radio and newspaper).

Truthfully, what's far more important than "being sophisticated" is learning how to:

1. get along with people

2. dress well

3. set your own goals

4. handle your money

I read The Economist starting at 14 and continuing until 22. I was certainly considered sophisticated as a young adult, though of course the bar keeps rising as you age...

Good material for growing up doesn't always come from esoteric book lists. Take time to be a kid. Check out the old Batman animated series (with Kevin Conroy), the bible: you can never go wrong with that.

These were really great information given by you, well I think that being polite and charming is mostly about being aware of your companions and their feelings.

I second the recommendation for "The Economist".

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