“A reader lives a thousand lives before she dies”
George R.R. Martin
We read to accelerate.
There are many ways to learn:
Being taught well.
From your own hands-on experience.
From free-flowing debate.
Or, from your own introspection and reflection.
A rich life of learning can involve all of these forms, and it should. For we are all capable of being multi-disciplinary, multi-sensory learners, using many multiple ways to learn. More senses touched means more reinforcement.
Reading has a unique position in learning.
You can hear from someone who has expertise in a field much beyond yours.
Like when reading Domingoes on machine learning’s horizons.
Or Dehaene on the latest in neuroscience.
You can hear a person’s human experience through their own eyes.
As Obama shows us in his books on his presidential run-up and experience.
Or reading Montesquieu to see how Enlightenment France interpreted American democracy.
You can hear about a subject beyond your immediate access.
Try reading Henry Kissinger on geopolitics.
Or Lee Smolin on contemporary physics.
You get to experience empathy, for a person of a different world and time.
Reading Toni Morrison brings the African American experience to life.
Just like The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga illuminates the mind of the migrant Indian.
You see deliberate persuasion in written communication: how someone uses logic, flow and storytelling to persuade you.
Read Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto to see how it galvanized “the proletariat.”
Or Ian Morris, an anthropologist, who argues ‘Why the West Rules for Now”.
And importantly, it is fast and it is efficient.
In many ways, 6-8 hours of reading is a better investment than a day of classes.
“Believing takes practice”
I remember the moment that I was inspired that reading at volume is possible. It was May and springtime, and I was 25 when I read that Jimmy Carter - former US president (1977-1981) and Nobel Prize winner (2002) - used to find the time to read 3 books per week.
I found it unfathomable at first. But this set a tone for me. I knew it was possible.
The first part of any developed skill is having an outrageous belief and yet knowing in your core that it is feasible. Your impetus for constant stretch. Your growth mindset.
3 years later, I felt and operated differently.
I had found the rhythm. I had honed my reading muscle.
I had crossed what I would come to call the Carter Canyon.
“Some books should be tasted, some devoured,
but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly”
Acquiring a skill requires two things:
- 10,000 hours of practice (according to Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericcson), and
- the tactics to make high performance possible (Coyle, Campbell)
On 10,000 hours of practice:
There is no easy way to start. You have to commit and put in some hours.
Yes, it starts slow and laborious. Initially, only 20 pages in a single sitting. Then 50. Then 100. 150. Then sometimes the entire book.
Then all that practice also gives you stamina.
Most people believe that reading is about speed. But it is about stamina first of all. Reading a large volume means having the stamina to do long stretches, without fatigue. The proverbial tortoise.
And stamina - whatever the discipline - takes training.
The plus side is that the training is finite: 3-10 years (c. 10,000 hours), and then you have a skill for life, one that gives you immense learning speed.
On high-performance tactics, here’s what works for me:
I use one day, every weekend.
- One day every weekend is a surprisingly large time: up to 16 hours, with trained stamina. It still leaves the other weekend day for other activities and chores.
I go with my energy.
- We are able to perform fastest when our energy is right. So I choose the day on the weekend that is right. Some weekends aren’t great. Sometimes I spend half a day or an evening, during the week. But I always do it with energy and desire. It is never a chore. There is no subject matter that is out of bounds. If my interest is piqued, I will explore. I recently spent a week reading about Chinese face reading, an intriguing new idea to me.
I use reading to recharge, and during dead time.
- I find reading a recharger, not a drainer. I turn off all phones and devices. I lie down - on the sofa or bed - and disappear into a book, without a care in the world.
I read far and wide, across subjects.
- I let my energy and desire drive what I want to read. Sometimes I want a deep intellectual challenge (a la Freud), accessible contemporary thought, easy business story-telling, or fantasy fiction. Because I go with my energy and desire, I can read faster and longer.
I chop up the book if the flow is uninspiring.
- Some books are 300 pages when they should be 50 (see the business section of any airport bookstore). But I still seek their core message. I start with the first chapter and last chapter; ok, got the message. I then chop into the book for whatever chapters look still appealing. By forcing the mind to put the story together (from non-linear morsels), it makes an otherwise jabbering business book a little more intellectually exciting.
I learn the author.
- I wikipedia the author and read about their background and context at the time they were writing. It helps me situate their perspective: why they think the way they do, why they have their perspective, what grounds their evidence.
I talk to people and share.
- I talk to my friends and share what I have learned. I test myself to see if I can communicate the learnings succinctly. I see how they react, and what strikes them: how intuitive was the author’s perspective, when shared in a single sentence.
I leave books open, and let them dwell, as I talk to people about them.
- In Made-To-Stick, the Heath brothers explain that leaving something open in our consciousness longer strengthens our learning. For a dense or provocative book, I take my time with it over 2-3 weeks. It forces me to let my “background thinking routines” (also known as the default mode network) process it longer, so the arguments and lessons really stick.
I search for the book’s relevance outside the book.
- When it comes to books of history, sociology, psychology or business - I search for relevance of the book’s theorems, in the news and commentary I read during the week. I consider how the author would interpret recent events in the news.
And thus, 3-4 books open at once. I finish an individual book over 2-3 weeks.
You will now appreciate why the outcome is 12 books in a month.
The strategy is to enjoy more.
Indulge curiosities and let them lead the way.
Allow books to dwell and linger.
Simultaneously explore multiple threads, forcing your mind to weave them together.
I crossed the Carter Canyon, but in a way that works for me. An approach that I find very stimulating. I do not open and close 3 books per week, but I get to the same volume.
Many who work with me have heard me speak on the importance of reading. Most especially, for anyone who has any inclination whatsoever to start this worthwhile journey.
I encourage people early in their careers, as I was inspired by Carter.
If more people cross the Carter canyon, and we have rich multidisciplinary conversations, our world benefits with deeper learning.
The quality of dialogue spurs
the frontier of an ecosystem.
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