In Principle 6 – Never Stop Learning, one of the recommended ways of learning was to read voraciously.
What does that mean though?
How do I read to learn?
Read on to find out.
In Principle 10, I will talk about breadth and depth and the importance of knowing when to focus on each.
Reading widely is a breadth based focus. It is a means to gain a wide knowledge base.
Dr. Seuss summed it up nicely when he said “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go“.
Through reading, you can gain a broad base of knowledge across multiple domains. That said, when you first start reading, I recommend that you read what you love until you love to read, as Naval Ravikant has said. What do Naval and I mean by this? I will give you an example.
Love to read
If you set a goal of reading one book every two weeks, which is more than reasonable, and you start the challenge by reading books from a best-sellers list of business books that you aren’t necessarily interested in, then I can guarantee you’re likely to fail. You won’t be passionate about what you’re reading. You will put a book down for a short break and forget to ever pick it back up.
Instead, let’s look at a friend who set an ambitious goal of reading 100 books this year. When I look at the list of books she read, she started with a focus on books that she thought she’d enjoy. I’d say a majority of those books were fiction and, we discussed, generally young adult fiction, which I also enjoy reading. As her year branched out, and her love of reading expanded, she started to include books that were non-fiction, such as: Atomic Habits, White Rage, How to be Anti-Racist, Grit, Clean, etc.
Reading 127 books in a single year across multiple domains is such an impressive feat to me. If she can keep that up for 10+ years, her level of knowledge will be astronomical and I am sure she will start to dive deeply into certain of those areas and start to become a subject matter expert.
Lessons from fiction
But most of those books she read were fiction.
There isn’t any benefit to reading a lot of fiction books, is there?
Not so fast. Did you know that reading fiction can increase empathy and encourage understanding?
This ties to the third statement in this principle – challenge your beliefs. The wider we read in fiction, the more likely we are to be exposed to characters of different viewpoints. We learn about people who hold different beliefs than us. We learn about people who face prejudices we have never faced. We learn about different races, ethnicities, religions. We break down barriers and pre-conceived notions.
This knowledge. This empathy. This understanding is so important to humanity. So necessary. Michael Moore quotes Ibn Rushd in this article, who said Ignorance leads to fear. Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to violence. This is the equation. Reading fiction widely enough will reduce our ignorance and stop us from going down this path.
Seneca had a different view on reading widely, when he said “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong.”
This is the depth portion of the depth versus breadth argument. It is where you focus your reading on a few specific areas. I will use myself as an example for this one.
This was a year where I was reading A LOT; however, I was predominantly only reading non-fiction for the first time in my life, which slowed me down. I finished the year having read 44 books. I was focused on very specific topics with a goal of increasing my knowledge in those desired areas:
- Men’s Work – 12 books
- Shadow work / Emotional / Spiritual – 8 books
- HBR Emotional Intelligence Series – 6 books
- Coaching – 5 books
The other 13 book were across multiple categories of interest, such as parenting, health, race, etc.
I dove deep into these four specific categories, because they’re categories that will drive my future.
Areas that I want to continue to dive into for the remainder of my life.
Reading to Learn
I am going to go back to the statement that I continue to use:
- Know what you want – Vision
- Have a plan to achieve it – Plan
- Do the work needed to achieve it – the Work
Know what you want
In the case of reading to learn – the vision would be what do you want to learn?
When reading to learn, it is important to know what you want to read and why you wan to read it.
The why comes first. What is the intent behind what you want to read? What’s the purpose?
For example, if you want to understand what drives your behaviors today, you may decide to read books on psychology, shadow work, inner child work. If you want to understand how to increase the gap between a stimulus received and the response you provide, you may read up on meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism.
Have a plan to achieve it
Once you know what you want to learn, then do research into some of the best books on that topic – I generally suggest reading at least five to ten books on a topic, or more. This will allow you to go deep on a specific topic, while having a breadth of knowledge within that topic area.
In advance of reading a book, here’s certain things that you should be contemplating:
- Understand the author
- Who is the author?
- Why did they write this book?
- What else have they written?
- In advance, can you guess what they’re going to argue?
- Read the table of contents
- What are the chapter headings
- What is the general theme you’re seeing
- What do you expect to see in each of the chapters
- Read the start and end of each chapter
- What is the main point of the chapter
- Are you able to start putting together the story
- Read the book and engage with it
- Take notes in the margin as you read
- Question what you’re reading – do you agree? Disagree?
- If you agree, why do you agree? If you disagree, why do you disagree?
- Start to overlay the book into your own mental framework – how does it fit with your current knowledge? Beliefs?
- Summarize the book – use the Feynman technique
- Summarize everything you know about the subject
- Teach the concept to a fifth grade child
- Identify knowledge gaps you have
- Organize and simplify
- Rinse and repeat
Do the work needed to achieve it
This one is simple.
Read the books you’ve selected.
Use the methodology I’ve outlined above.
Target reading every day. Set a goal of 30 pages per day.
Once you hit the 30 pages, you will often keep reading and if you’re consistent, then you will be surprised at how easy it is to read 30+ non-fiction books per year.
Challenge your beliefs
“The ability to destroy your ideas rapidly instead of slowly when the occasion is right is one of the most valuable things. You have to work hard on it. Ask yourself what are the arguments on the other side. It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents. This is a great mental discipline.” Charlie Munger
Again, I quote Charlie Munger on learning, largely because he is one of the greatest learning machines I have ever read about and I’m very aligned with his way of thinking.
In my argument for depth over breadth, I do suggest reading five to ten books as a means to gain that depth, but it is even more than that. I recommend five to ten books on a single subject area because you will be exposed to a breadth of viewpoints on that single specific topic. This will challenge your thinking. You may read on shadow work and be completely aligned with the author’s viewpoint. The next book you read may have a completely different viewpoint and you could find yourself aligned with that author while reading it. Wait, you just read two books and found yourself fully aligned with both books, how is that possible. That, my friend, is a sign of first rate intelligence, “The ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” As said by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Now that you’re holding those two contradictory viewpoints, you need to do the work to remove the contradiction. In doing this you will have multiple options. You may debate the two options until you believe you’re more aligned with one over the other and discard the one that you feel is inferior.
That is not the route I would take. Instead, I would break down the two contradictory arguments. They’re likely not a single concept but a composition of many concepts. After I had broken each argument down into its fundamental concepts I would select certain of those key concepts from each argument and create my own argument, which I would then build on with each subsequent book I read on that topic. At times, this would have to happen again. There may be further contradictions that need to be integrated. Refined. That is the fun of reading widely and deeply on a single topic.