Last year, I raced through business books like a teenager out to set the world record in a burger-eating contest. I felt like I was falling behind.
On LinkedIn, I saw people posting photos of all the books they’d recently ploughed through. “Where do they find time to read it all?” I wondered. I run a business. I have a kid.
So I sped up my reading, stopping sporadically to highlight whatever caught my eye. I ordered small truckloads of new books. I ignored the mounting intellectual indigestion.
This holidays, looking back over the books that had the biggest impact, I noticed something. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath taught me how to make content compelling. I read that on holidays. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman — also on holidays. It wasn’t just the books’ content that mattered; it was how I read them.
On holidays, you have time to digest. Time to take the book in, and make it part of your thinking. That’s why I’ve decided to drop out of the reading race. This year, my ambition is to read less.
Do reading shortcuts work?
This isn’t about making books fun again. I’m not out to start some Slow Food School of Mindful Reading. It’s about what works. I read business books to discover new ideas, get better at my job, and feed my inner nerd. I can smash through a teetering stack of books, but if all I do is run my eyes up and down the page, I gain nothing. I’m just becoming more efficient at wasting my time.
That’s why I’m wary of reading shortcuts. You’ve heard of speed-reading, but there’s now a company called Blinkist that takes notable business books and spins out crib notes — max two pages per book. I signed up to check it out, and here’s what I found: stripped of their context, the insights from each book seemed trite: “It’s good to make time for things that you enjoy.”
Now, the books themselves are business classics, so it’s not the quality of the underlying thinking that’s the problem. It’s what happens when those snapshot insights are the end point in someone else’s journey.
Imagine that your friends decide to hike up Mount Ainslie. “I’ll take the car and meet you at the top”, you say. You beat them to the top by about an hour. Your friends arrive puffing but shining. You’ve arrived at the same point, and done it faster, but with none of the benefits of making the journey yourself.
Are you reading to gain facts or acquire wisdom?
Reading shortcuts are only good for acquiring facts. That kind of learning is a binary process, like flicking a light switch from ‘not knowing’ to ‘knowing’. I didn’t know that the capital of the Maldives is Malé. Now I do (I googled it). There’s no further exploration; no deeper level on which I can know what the capital of the Maldives is.
When I read a business book, most times I’m looking for wisdom (if ‘wisdom’ sounds a bit airy-fairy, call it judgement, discernment or intuition). Facts are bound up in a specific question; wisdom travels with you. I’m looking for truths that I can keep coming back to for the rest of my life, and still get more goodness out of them. They’re often deceptively simple, like this maxim from iconic chef Roger Vergé:
“It’s never about what you want.”
If you just read that off the page, you may be scratching your head. It sounds good, but what’s so deep there? That’s why it took me a whole podcast and a separate documentary to absorb those six words: to see what applying this ideal of pure service would look like in my business — and where I need to change.
The kind of truths that build wisdom are always embedded: planted in a story, or an experience. If you uproot them from that context, they wither before they can take hold. Getting wiser is going to take some time.
I do understand the desire to track personal development by the number of books we read. It’s far more tangible than the accumulation of wisdom. But reading lots of books doesn’t make me smart. It just means that I’ve read lots of books.
My plan for reading smarter
So this year, I’m going to stop reading to tick boxes. Here’s what I’ll do instead:
1) Select: Try to read more of the classics — books that founded disciplines, rather than derivative or purely tactical stuff.
2) Sequence: One self-improvement book at a time, so I have space to do the uncomfortable thinking.
3) Review: Make time to review my notes on a book, and decide what I’m going to do differently.
That’s my plan. Whatever your 2018 plan for learning and self-improvement looks like, I hope there’s some space in there.
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