One item that has been on my list of goals year after year is to read more (super unique, I know). Everyone I know who is super smart is almost inevitably well read. And when I do take the time to read, I get a ton of value out of it.
A couple pertinent quotes here:
There was a time in my life where I didn’t read much, and now I look back on it as the most superficial and bleak point of my existence.
In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.
Okay, so reading is important. Cool. But in 2017, I noticed I had a couple obstacles standing between me and unspeakable wisdom:
- I wasn’t reading enough. I got through books too slowly, and I often got “stuck” in the middle of books, resulting in me avoiding reading altogether.
- I wasn’t remembering what I was reading. In one ear (eye?) and out the other. Given that, I probably wasn’t much better off reading books than I was, say, staring at a wall for a few hours.
It became clear to me that despite wanting to read, I didn’t know how to read. So, I immediately ran down to my local elementary school to enroll in Grade 1 (or at least audit the reading comprehension classes).
After being escorted off the premises, I discovered Farnam Street’s The Art of Reading. This online course teaches you to read effectively because, as co-creator Shane Parish describes, “…the way that we go about reading has a profound impact on not only our understanding but also the time it takes us to get the relevant information that we want out of reading.”
I highly recommend this course if you want to start taking reading more seriously. While the course itself goes into much more detail, what follows are the takeaways that dramatically improved my reading game. Note: these tips are most relevant for non-fiction books.
Finding great books
- Follow your curiosity. Go to the topics you have a burning desire to learn more about, and be honest with yourself. I used to prioritize business books because I thought they would be the most beneficial for my career, but I wasn’t always motivated to read them. When I started following my curiosity, I started burning through books on history, psychology, and economics, which have made me a better thinker.
- Filter books carefully. Once you’ve settled on a topic, how do you decide which book to read? While book reviews are one way to go about this, you really don’t know who these reviewers are. A better approach is to leverage recommendations from people you trust. Another useful proxy is by looking at the age of the book. If the book is still referenced years after it was first published, it has stood the test of time and is likely worth a read. I experienced this first hand when I read Influence by Robert Cialdini. It was published in 1984, but it’s one of the best marketing books out there because it focuses on timeless fundamentals.
- Build an anti-library. Constantly build your library, even if you don’t plan on reading these books right away. A bigger plate makes you eat more, and a bigger library will make you read more. This has totally worked for me. Now when I’m intrigued by a book, I just buy it. And don’t feel guilty about spending money on books. This is an investment in yourself with an incredible return (especially if you read properly, which we’ll get to in a minute).
- Consider other sources. Finally, remember that books are not always the best way to learn. Treat them like a tool, not a holy grail. They’re a great way for an author to lay out a well thought out argument. But if you have a more practical learning goal in mind (learning to code, for example), an online course might be more appropriate. We have a lot of options these days; use them.
- Get the lay of the land. Before starting any book, it’s important to understand the context surrounding it. This will greatly increase your understanding when you’re reading later. Skim through the table of contents, read a review or two of the book, and read the author’s bio.
- Spoil the ending. Now go a little bit deeper. Read the full introduction and skip ahead to the conclusion to get a summary of the author’s key points and primary argument. Flip to chapters that interest you most and read the first and last paragraphs.
Know what you want. By this point, you should have a good understanding of what the book is about, and need to make some decisions. Can you learn something new from this book? Is it too advanced and should you come back to it later? What parts of this book do you want to read in full? Use your time wisely. You don’t need to stick with the book at this point, you don’t need to read the whole thing, and you don’t need to read it in order. Get what you want out of it.
- Be an active reader. Speed reading is actually a waste of time because it prevents you from absorbing information. Slow down and engage with the text by connecting it with your existing knowledge and other domains. Don’t just passively accept the words of the author; they are trying to convince you of something and you may not always agree.
- Take notes. Take notes so that you don’t have to read the whole book again later! Underline key arguments and anything you might want to reference. Write down key insights that you have in the margins or when you disagree with the author. If you’re not taking notes, you’re either not being an active reader, or this section of the book is not all that important (you can probably skip it). To save yourself even more time later, write out the key ideas at the end of each chapter and make your own index at the back of the book (key phrase + page number).
- Revisit the book and organize your learnings. On completion of the book, take a break from it for a week or so to digest the information. Then come back to your underlines and notes to see they spark new ideas or compel you to revisit areas of the book in more detail. Finally, decide where your notes will live going forward (Evernote? A notebook? Index cards?). By being organized, you’ll begin to grow a diverse library of notes that you can reference later. Ryan Holiday says of his note-taking system: “…it has totally transformed my process and drastically increased my creative output. It’s responsible for helping me publish three books in three years, (along with other books I’ve had the privilege of contributing to), write countless articles published in newspapers and websites, send out my reading recommendations every month, and make all sorts of other work and personal successes possible.”
Reading across a topic
- Get multiple perspectives. The final thing they talk about in the course is the importance of reading multiple opinions on a subject if you really want to gain deep fluency in it. Don’t just trust one author — get multiple perspectives and form your own opinion on the subject. This approach can be time-consuming, so remember to use your time wisely. Give the books a good inspectional read before diving in, know the key questions you want to answer, and be clear on the authors’ differing perspectives. It’s also best to save this approach for fundamental ideas that you want a deep understanding of; mental models that will change the way you see the world.
So there you have it. If you want to read more this year (and much more importantly, learn more this year), start by changing how you read. Find great books that you actually want to read, steep yourself in context before diving in, and be an active reader. And when you want to develop deep fluency in a subject, seek out multiple perspectives to form your own opinion.