I was a horrible student. I hated the idea of reading. Now, in my twenties, I’ve realized books make you dangerous. They make you more money, they make you more liked, and they make you happier.
It was a weird progression. The book that made me realize books could transform your world was The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. I was a high school student when I read it. I hated the idea of going to college, and boringly living life paycheck to paycheck, hoping to one day get out of the system.
Tim opened my eyes. That book completely changed my paradigm. I’m no 4-Hour Workweek case study. I didn’t put down the book and start a successful lifestyle business. But it steered me in a completely different direction. It’s not short to say that it changed the course of my life.
Since then, there have been more books that had a similar effect. Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is The Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key opened my eyes to stoicism. A philosophy I now practice as much as I can.
Reading is a superpower. A kind of back door into the things you want to do. Through books, you can learn communications, marketing, business, real estate, stock market investing, sales, writing, or rocket science (when Elon Musk is asked how he learned to build rockets, his response is “I read books”). I wouldn’t call myself an expert in any of those fields, but I will say that anytime that I started a new position, or had to do a project and turn it into a manager, they were impressed with how well I did out of high school.
Reading alone didn’t make me amazing at any of those jobs, but they certainly put me leaps ahead of anyone my age who didn’t study books in a field before trying it.
Knowledge, I realized, is the key ingredient to success you want to accomplish. Or skill is the key ingredient to anything you want to accomplish, and knowledge is the precursor to skill.
Through reading, you can learn the ins and outs of a craft. Like making money, as I talk about in my newsletter. Now that you’ve gained knowledge in the craft, you can begin to practice it. If you try to practice the skill without first becoming knowledgeable, you’ll get nowhere. You won’t even know where to start, what to do, what comes next, nothing. You’ll flop around the dock like a fish.
That being said, you can’t treat all reading equally. Reading is not the holy grail. It’s what you read and how you read that matters.
Here are 6 reading mistakes that will detract from the power it offers you.
Mistake #1: Using Reading Replacements
Remember: the purpose of reading is to find knowledge that you can apply to create positive change in your life. That means the goal is not to absorbs a constant river of information, but to retain the information that is highly valuable. The better you can retain important information, the more reading will create a positive change in your life.
This means avoiding things like audiobooks and summaries (Blinkist). Although they seem like great time savers, they are actually time wasters.
It may feel like reading is a time-consuming task, but what’s important is not how much time is spent but how much return you’re getting for your time spent. Listening to the audio version of a book may be a way to get through the book faster. It may allow you to keep most of your brain free to do other things, but that’s a blessing and a curse.
Because you’re not focused only on reading, your retention of the book plummets. We think it’s nice to listen to a book in the background but we only get a portion of the benefits that way. Sitting down with the physical book in hand is the way to go. It allows you to dig deep into the material. You can control the pace, and that matters. When you can control the pace of your reading, you can learn at your own speed. Learning at your own speed is better learning. Go back over the material if you need to hear it again. When you hear a sentence that makes you ponder, sit and ponder. When you’re forced to follow along with the voice of someone you’re neglecting the opportunity to read a phrase or paragraph, then reflect on how that applies to your own life. Once you relate to the material from the book to your own world, it will have a profound effect on your retention.
The same goes for book summaries. Although book summaries are a great way to get the core message of the book in less time, you will miss the depth. And the depth matters. Trust me, in a good book, the author has already done the work of getting rid of all the words you don’t need to read. They care about not putting useless sentences in their work. Everything they left matters. Summaries detract from the knowledge. Spending more time on the full book will unlock a much higher reading ROI.
Mistake #2: Speed Reading/Skimming
Speed reading has become a popular craze. I suppose the idea is the more information we go through, the better off we will be. We hear stories about Bill Gates and Elon Musk reading a herculean amount of books and think that if we want success like theirs we need to do something similar.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a very effective method of making yourself smarter. There is a study called the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve tells us that 50% of what we learn is forgotten an hour after we learn it. The number grows to 60% after a day (research). Although speed reading might allow us to process more amounts of text, we retain less information at the get-go. Then, the little information we do retain is forgotten due to our forgetful biology. This makes our education shallow. Only touching the tip of concepts and not holding much of it anyway.
Many philosophers warn us about this. Epictetus and Seneca tell us to be wary of constantly looking at different sources and different ideas if it comes at the cost of never diving deep into a single thought process.
In other words, slow down. There is value in slowing down when reading. The power of reading doesn’t come from glossing over text. It comes from thinking deeply about the wisdom you’re going over.
John Wooden, the best sports coach in history, instructs us to “drink deeply from good books.” You wouldn’t think of considering this basketball coach, with the all-time winning record, to be a philosopher, but he thought himself to be one. And you should treat yourself like one too. Not that you need to dedicate your life to airy questions of the universe, but that you think deeply about what you’re reading, and how it relates to your own life and the life of others. In this way, everything you read, whether it is scientific, fictional, or practical becomes applicable.
Mistake #3: Reading for Entertainment
Reading is work, not fun. I know that sucks to hear, but it’s important. We read on a search for wisdom, not for entertainment. And although you might think that comes down to which books you pick, it doesn’t. An experienced reader will tell you that fictional books often contain the most wisdom. The writers of fiction tend to be consummate observers of the world. They tend to see all of human life as material for a grand story. In this way, reading a fictional book will guide you through the human plight, and provide you with many lessons to carry with you on your journey through life.
The difference is not the books you read. No. The difference is your approach to reading. Reading with the goal of being distracted is no different from watching mind-numbing TV. It becomes just another way to get high and escape. Some knowledge might rub-off on you, but most of it will slip through the cracks like holding sand in your open hand.
You’ll never know what knowledge and wisdom you’ll find in each book, but if you’re not ready to find it, you won’t. Reading a book is a journey. If you go through the whole thing looking forward, you’ll miss the beautiful mountains to your side.
Mistake #4: Reading Just-In-Case Information (Without a Plan)
When you’re facing a problem, and you read a book to solve the problem in front of you, that’s called reading Just-In-Time information. Whether it’s for work or pleasure, this type of information can be applied to your life immediately.
Then there is Just-In-Case information. That’s reading something that is not immediately tangible but may be one day. Reading Just-In-Time information is much more effective. It has a chance of creating an immediate change in your life. Maybe it’s a how-to book on a skill you’re practicing, or a guide on negotiating right before you ask your boss for a raise. You can see how that is good information for the moment. We retain Just-In-Time information a lot better because it is immediately relevant. Our mind is wrapped in it.
Does that mean we shouldn’t read things that are Just-In-Case? Not necessarily. The truth is you don’t always know what knowledge you need right now. Oftentimes, when reading something you didn’t think would be relevant to you, you find a gem that has an immediate effect on a situation you’re going through. Other times, you find some awesome piece of knowledge that isn’t helpful for a specific problem, but nonetheless, it’s important.
You need a way, a process, to store this kind of extra information. A way to retain it outside of your unreliable brain for later use.
My favorite tool for this is a commonplace book. A commonplace book can be a notebook, but even more helpful is a box of notecards. When you find something in a book that feels important, underline it to be transcribed into your commonplace book. Over time you’ll build a personal database of knowledge, that you don’t have to worry about remembering at the perfect moment. It will wait until you need it.
Mistake #5: Only Reading What Everyone Else Reads
Albert Einstein said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” Only reading the books that are popular right now will give you an edge above the people who don’t read any books, but not much else.
You should seek to read what everyone else reads and what they are not reading. What they are not reading is the edge, and over the edge is an ocean of more knowledge.
Remember, most people don’t read effectively. They skim, or don’t use a commonplace book to retain information, or read for a high. So reading differently means you’ll get a different look at the same books everyone else is reading, but that’s not enough. Read what people aren’t reading. Read the classics. The best books have dead authors, who’s work still thrives. Those books that have stood the test of time. There’s a reason they’re still around.
This might sound a bit esoteric, but eventually, everything you read will start to connect to a web of knowledge. You’ll read a book that, based on the title, shouldn’t connect with another book you’ve read, but somehow it does. This powerful effect allows you to discover the knowledge you know is important because you’re seeing it repeated over and over again in ways you never expected.
Mistake #6: Not Reading
Knowledge is the most leverageable asset available to us. It used to be that only the rich and powerful had the opportunity to become educated. It might still feel that way for a lot of people considering how much more expensive college is becoming, but that’s not the case. College degrees are becoming more expensive, but education is becoming cheaper.
And the best way to expand your education, your power, is through books. You can read book on everything and anything that interests you. For only a few bucks. Even cheaper if you buy used books or ebooks. It’s beyond me to understand why most people don’t read, but it’s a mistake. I think Mark Twain said it best, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”
I’ll confess, that’s one of those Mark Twain quotes that Mr. Twain likely never said. Still, it’s true. People who can’t read at least have an excuse to be illiterate. But people who can read, yet don’t? What’s their excuse?
Dedicating huge chunks of my time to reading books is how I make money. I know that sounds weird to say, and it’s obviously not a direct causation. I don’t get paid per book I read, but it allows me to dig into ideas and get myself moving in the right direction. It’s taught me how to invest in stocks, buy real-estate, sell marketing to businesses, and write online. All things I teach more people how to do in my weekly newsletter.
I wasn’t sure how to end this article without giving some amazing book recommendations to get you started. So if your goal is to make more money, have more independence in your life, get better at whatever skill you’re practicing then here are some books for you to get started.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport
The 4-Hour Workweek – Tim Ferriss
The 80/20 Principle – Richard Koch
Getting Things Done – David Allen
I Will Teach You to be Rich – Ramit Sethi
The Obstacle Is The Way – Ryan Holiday
Ego Is The Enemy – Ryan Holiday
Stillness Is The Key – Ryan Holiday
Any of these books will be a great read for you.
Thanks for your blog, nice to read. Do not stop.
Hey Mark! I appreciate it. Would love to here your thoughts on content you would like to see.