You’ve been reading wrong your whole life.
The amateur reader will aimlessly and passively read every word in a 200+ page book, barely able to recall its key lessons after finishing the final chapter, and with no clue whatsoever on how these lessons can be usefully applied in life going forward.
Reading like this, for fun, is great – fiction especially…and I still need to finish Harry Potter (I got trapped on page 104 of the 4th book when I was 10 and never got passed it).
But when I’m reading non-fiction, I’m (usually) reading to learn. To learn things that will improve my life or help me improve the lives of other people.
It’s not for pleasure, it’s not a hobby, I’m here to do a job. I am a professional reader.
And as a professional reader, I can’t let myself fall into the comforts or traps of the passive-reading amateur.
How to be a professional reader:
Rule 1: skip ahead!
Authors are often obliged to pad out their books with less than helpful anecdotes and (often platitudinous) additional insights to manufacture something thick enough to sell for 10 pounds. Even if these anecdotes & extra insights are well-intentioned and useful (beyond just padding), it’s still extremely unlikely that everything you read in a book will be of practical value to you.
Instead, for the last year or so, I’ve begun using books to learn about new topics the same way I would a Google search – and I’ve learnt so much more than ever before!
If you’re reading to learn more about a subject, then reading should be more like research.
You DO NOT need to read an entire book. Ever. It’s completely fine to miss out paragraphs, pages and chapters if you don’t feel that what you’re reading is interesting or useful.
Reading Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy, for instance, I skipped out an entire chapter on religion (because I’m not religious) and frequently skipped ahead 10+ pages when I felt I’d picked up the key message of a section in the book (and didn’t need it rephrased ad infinitum).
Reading Anti-Fragile by Nassim Taleb, I quickly realised the first several pages of the book were just Nassim childishly ranting about how he’d invented a new word (“anti-fragile”) – again, I gleefully skipped.
Or reading 48 Laws of Power, I immediately saw that certain “laws” went against my moral intuitions…so again, I skipped ahead.
We naturally skip ostensibly lower-value information when researching new topics: we don’t read every one of the 426 articles that pop up via Google search, and if we open a link that doesn’t look useful, we immediately hit back and skip to the next one.
But when reading a book, we feel this weird obligation to read all of it. When we get bored or arrive at a chapter covering less than relevant information, we tell ourselves: “Agh but there might be something really useful/interesting in here…I should just read it anyway”.
This is wrong.
It uses logic akin to that of a compulsive gambler: “Agh but tonight might be the night I finally win the lottery…I should just buy this ticket”.
No, you shouldn’t just buy it, and you shouldn’t just read it.
Every minute you spend reading a chapter on Lebanese porcupine allergies could be spent reading a chapter on how to improve your sleep or happiness or whatever the hell you’re actually interested in.
There is an opportunity cost to every word you read. Don’t just aimlessly read every page in a book for fear of missing out on some super special secret insight – think about whether or not this is realistically going to help you and continue reading accordingly…otherwise skip ahead!
Rule 2: switch books
Taking Rule 1 one step further, we can also skip the entire book itself…and move onto a new one.
A few chapters into reading 48 Laws Of Power, for instance, I realised that I was at a weird holiday resort in the cowboy city of Santiago. How the f*ck was I going to use any of these laws of power here?
So I switched to a more relevant book: that is, a book whose ideas I can more readily apply.
In this example, I switched to the Way of the Superior Man – a book on relationships, because I was in a relationship at the time and could immediately apply the ideas to my relationship.
I am able to suck out so much more value by applying everything I read. Firstly, rather than reading in the abstract, I had context to apply the book’s lessons, too. Secondly, applying my knowledge helps me remember everything I learn.
Knowledge that leads to knowledge is…cool. Knowledge that leads to action is life-changing.
Read books that are relevant to your life right now so you can contextualise and apply.
Don’t get stuck reading a book on social media marketing when you don’t even have a product to market. Don’t waste time reading about happy marriages when you’ve been single for for the last 8 years.
Switch between books until you find a book that really resonates with where you are right now in life…and don’t feel obliged to stick with a particular just because you started reading it. You can always come back to it when becomes more relevant.
Once I’m back cutting deals and climbing hierarchies, for instance, 48 Laws Of Power will no doubt become relevant…and I look forward to reading it when that time comes. But I’m not going to waste time reading it now while it’s more or less irrelevant – I’m just not going to get as much out of it.
Rule 3: make notes
Now that you’ve switched to a book that’s actually relevant to your life…and you’re skipping along, reading only the most relevant passages, it’s time to start note-taking.
For years, I would labour with highlighter in one hand and physical book in the other. I would naively highlight and annotate under the premise that one day I would come back to read my notes and highlights.
But alas, this day never f*cking came…and I now have read dozens of books, whose key lessons I can scarcely recall.
I still hope that one day I will actually come back to these books to extract the notes and highlights I made…but for my current and future reading, I’m a lot more pragmatic.
Yes, I made the leap to Kindle.
I don’t have a fancy E-Reader because that’s just another device to worry about.
Instead, I installed the Kindle app on my iPhone which means I can now read whenever and wherever I want.
I do still prefer paper pages but I’m happy to trade that off for the ability to read more and the ability to save my notes.
With Kindle, you can highlight and add notes digitally…and then export all of these notes/highlights to a text document which you can use for the future:
Rule 4: produce summaries with action steps
Once I’ve got my exported Kindle notes into a text document, I turn it into a book summary with action steps.
I start by summarising the book in my own words: this helps me better understand the book but also helps me remember better its content.
After summarising, I move onto my action steps – things I need to research or implement in the future. Here’s an example.
Again, this makes sure I’m converting the knowledge I’ve accrued while reading into real-life action.
In summary then:
- Skip ahead: don’t read boring/irrelevant written content for fear of missing out on some obscure nugget of gold or a feeling of obligation to finish every book you start – be savvy, prioritise, read the bits that you think will be useful…skip the stuff that isn’t!
- Switch books: if you’re reading a book and can’t see how to apply its lessons to your current situation in life, you should think about switching to a book more relevant to your current station in life – so you can contextualise and apply what you’re reading about.
- Makes notes: this is way easier on Kindle but, however you prefer to make notes, make sure you make them!
- Produce summaries with action steps: finally, don’t let those notes and highlights lie dormant…convert them into actionable book summaries.
Following the above steps, we can start turning knowledge into action, and start seeing changes in ourselves and others as we finally put into practice the wisdom reading grants us.