Do you read non fiction books? My son remarked the other day about the similarity of the titles of the books I read. I explained the genre to him and, whilst agreeing that they sounded the same, pointed out that they were about different topics. I see them as mentoring lessons; ideas picked up from others’ hard work that I could use in life and business to make progress, change or money.
At around my son’s age I committed to a life of continuous improvement. A copy of Brian Tracy’s Psychology of Achievement audio tapes, left behind by an Amway salesperson, set me on a path of personal development, and today books are still my favourite way to learn. The impersonal, yet intimate, nature of reading is something I have treasured for decades.
I read a lot and still don’t feel like I can keep up (it doesn't make me anxious, I'm just excited about the possibilities to learn). My business (thought leadership) demands that I be well read and my occupation (public speaking) means that I need to stay fit and healthy, but in both cases that professional imperative does not directly translate to me eating well enough or reading enough. I fight daily to stay well and I fight to stay well read. I imagine it’s the same for you?
I fight daily to stay well and I fight to stay well read.
Here are some thoughts on hacking books, reading more and reinventing how you read.
Statistics suggest that there are about 3000 books published a day – perhaps more. That means if you were to read a book a day for the next 10 years, you would only be able to read the books that came out today. Clearly, keeping up is not the goal. Being well informed is.
Warren Buffet, when asked what was the key to his success, pointed to a pile of non fiction books and stated “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” Andrew Merle unpacks this idea in greater detail on his Huffington post article The Reading Habits of Ultra-Successful People.
A great blogger I follow is Charlie Chu, who publishes under the name betterhumans.com. He does some great maths in this post around how to read 500 pages a day. Bottom line is that most people spend more time on social media watching cat videos than they do reading. That’s a sobering thought.
Nikolai Goeie Made is keen to help people develop the habit of reading. He summarises books for a living and so certainly has a vested interest. In this article he talks about how to develop the reading habit, especially when you think you don’t have time.
"Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest." — Warren Buffet
What have we learnt from those thoughts above?
You need to read. It’s one of the things very successful people have in common. Reading well and widely expands your potential, and then helps you reach it. Good readers gain knowledge, deepen their ideas, and are exposed to different points of views. This is a vital building block for success.
You do actually have the time. The way we used to read may not serve us anymore, because ‘Life gets in the way’. Books sit untouched on our bedside table, or unopened on our shelves. Our intentions may be good, but we rarely find the time to actually turn the pages. Like exercise, we know reading is good for us and yet still we don’t do it. So, like exercise, reading needs to become a habit, a ritual, part of your daily pattern.
Here are five ideas you might find useful to help you reinvent reading.
You’re not qualified to choose the books you read
You can’t visit every hotel in the world to determine which one to stay at. You use travel bloggers, magazines and Trip Advisor to help you sift through which hotel in Amalfi or villa in Como you book. Delegate the process of picking which books to read to smarter people than you. Bottom line – we are not qualified to choose what books we read.
If you are old enough to remember book stores you know the joy of losing yourself in one, flicking through available books and picking one to read, often swayed by cover design and catchy titles. Now that the book store is a rarity we have an unintended positive consequence – books are judged by their content not their covers. It’s a good thing. Find some qualified people you admire and tap into their reading list. Let them do the heavy lifting for you. Goodreads is a great place to start but so are the annual lists by famous people. I like Bill Gates’ annual reading list. I also regularly ask people ’What’s a great book you have read recently?’ I write down recommendations religiously, halting conversations until I have captured the suggestion or actually searched it on Amazon, often purchasing it mid conversation.
Read the right book at the right time
I reckon there are different ways to read and different types of reading. I divide my books into three categories: Adrenaline, Anaesthetic and Academic.
The Adrenaline (On) books are how I often start my day, or find new energy and inspiration during the day. The Academic (Up) books are used as reference tools whilst I work. Both of these are non fiction. Meanwhile I keep my Anaesthetic (Off) books, which are fiction, for night or at the end of a tough day, save for an occasional little treat at lunch.
I read them differently as well. An Off book gets read with the mindlessness of watching a movie – I identify with characters, subvocalise, visualise and get caught up in the descriptive language. Whereas the On Books are read actively, constantly asking myself ‘What do I think about that?’ And the Up books are studied slowly and methodically, and dissected forensically, cross-referencing one idea with the next.
You can organise yourself to get things done four different ways; time, place, project and people. When it comes to reading I think time and place are the most effective contexts. I have a slightly addictive personality and so ‘chain smoke’ books. If I let myself I will read rather than work, so the ‘what book when’ divisions are very important. I also find it hard to sleep, and so I need discipline around what I read at night. If the book is too stimulating my brain kicks in and I can’t switch off.
So adrenalin in the morning and anaesthetic at night, with academic reads as required to build a case or strengthen opinion.
Don’t ‘read’ books, absorb them
A book takes too long to read, and the staring at a screen or wading through pages in an actual book can be a little counter productive. Discipline and will-power aside, maybe you also need to find a better way to read.
Originally written in 1940 and first published by Simon & Schuster in 1972, How to Read a Book introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them in order to gain the most understanding and insight from any book. Make this the first Blink you read today (see Idea 4, below) after downloading the app.
It’s the business books I need to read that pile up. Several years ago I adopted the rule that each book gets a one-hour sitting. I sit down and pull it apart. I don’t start reading at the beginning or enrol in a speed reading course, I just intentionally flick through it trying to get what it’s about. I read the first ten pages, I read the table of contents, I study diagrams. I read the chapter summaries if they have them and typically in the hour I can fit in one chapter, which I read from start to finish. The first 40 minutes are choosing which chapter gets the full read treatment. At the end of this process I decide whether the book deserves more time. If so it gets moved into the queue, but I am pretty ruthless!
Set place triggers to help you develop the reading habit
Apps and summary services help you absorb books faster. I use apps and summary services to help me triage the ideas and concepts in books. I also use them in different places and on different devices. Blinkist is on my phone (and only on my phone) and means I can read a book in five minutes in the cracks between life. Often when I’m about to check social media I stop and read a Blink first. GetAbstract sends PDF summaries that can be read in 15 minutes. I only do these on iPad and it’s when I have a coffee by myself. Audible gives you a spoken summary that you can listen to when in cars. I don’t do this so much anymore (Blinkist has replaced it) but for those who drive alone a lot this is gold.
The ‘place’ triggers help you make a habit of reading. I choose three Up (Academic) reference books to sit on my desk each working day. Usually a current best seller (published within last 12 months), a contemporary best seller (3 years old or so) and a classic (more than 10 years old). These are curated based on what my current primary work question – ‘What’s the one thing I need to achieve today?’ Because my days are structured contextually (Sales, Leadership, etc) this is probably a bit easier for me than some others.
A book that lends itself to bitesize pieces gets placed in one of the two bathrooms I use regularly at home and chunks are read while sitting on the loo. Three that made it through to my ‘Dunny list’: Alan De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, Rework By Jason Fried and Rules for Revolutionaries by Guy Kawasaki. Quick self-contained chapters that you can read in one sitting, literally. (That should stop anyone wanting to borrow those ones!)
What’s interesting is the conversations that my kids have about each book they see move in and out of the bathrooms. Often they have picked them up, flicked through them, and will ask me to summarise the book. Smart kids, they have outsourced the reading to their dad!
Do something with the knowledge quickly
Edward De Bono once wrote that if smoking turned your skin orange immediately, fewer people would smoke. Consequences that are divorced from the action often don’t motivate change. Same with books. Reading a book may earn you Buffet's compound interest, but it's delayed. What’s the quick fix pay-off to reading? Well, there isn’t one, so you have to make one up. It’s why books clubs work. They are reading bootcamps; each member knows they better have read the book or they will look like an idiot.
Not one for clubs, I need something more individualistic. I try to pass the idea on. Easy for me when I am on stage, or on webcasts, or writing Talking Points, but we can all do it. In general conversation – “Hey, I read a cool book the other day that shared (insert idea). What do you think of that?” – or in an email sent to client or colleague – “Read this in book X and thought you might find useful!” – or send the team you manage an email with the key takeaways of the book you just read. It doesn’t matter how you share, but the principle of having to use the idea quickly gives it a reason to be read.
Final thoughts on the future of books:
The publishing industry is in a spin, undergoing many changes. The fabulous Seth Godin once said that he believes the future of books will be as souvenirs. Some of the books I have read I want to own. Maybe as trophies of my accomplishment, but more I think as memory joggers and quick references. Besides, I love the look of a New York loft floor-to-ceiling bookcase. And who hasn’t lost themselves in a good bookshelf for a few hours?
It’s a bit like children of the last decade who may never see photos of themselves. Their parents transitioned from print to digital and so instead of boxes full of snapshots we have hard drives full of memory (literally).
I plan to buy the best form of the books I loved; big hardcopy, velum-bound, gold lettering, signed-by-the-author versions of the books I love. That means I often buy my favourite books several times; firstly on a subscription service like Get Abstract or Blinkist, then $9 for the digital version and finally $90 for the gorgeous collectors edition. Maybe digital is not lowering the cost of books but rather increasing it, along with a whole lot of other good things.
Read the right book at the right time
Oh BTW, we gotta print some photos of the kids, just the good ones mind you (photos that is, not kids). But when we do we need to frame them, gild them and make more of them – ah hell I reckon I just signed up for scrapbooking!
Kind of explains it though doesn’t it!