Reading is essential for those who seek to rise above the ordinary.
– Jim Rohn
Why I'm writing about reading
Reading, writing, connecting.
This year, all three will change my life.
I've made time for these activities because I believe they will multiply my long-term impact, as they have for so many others.
If you are also driven to grow and have an outsized impact, I hope this essay will help you move forward on your journey.
Decades of learning in a day of reading
Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.
Books are powerful because many of the highly-successful have condensed their life's wisdom into a few hundred pages.
You can consume decades of learning in a day of reading.
It’s fueled the success of countless others
Rich people, famous people, happy people -- so often they read extensively before achieving success.
Elon Musk was "raised by books", as a child, at times reading 10 hours a day.
Naval Ravikant, was virtually babysat by the library, growing up in New York City, where he developed the reading habit:
I probably read one to two hours a day. That puts me in the top .00001 percent. I think that alone accounts for any material success I’ve had in my life and any intelligence I might have. Real people don’t read an hour a day. Real people, I think, read a minute a day or less. Making it an actual habit is the most important thing.
– Naval Ravikant
Billionaires and business partners Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have arranged their lives to spend much of their days, nose in book. They also did it before becoming rich.
Even garden-variety self-made millionaires read a lot. More than 85% of them read 30 or more minutes per day. Just like the others here, you can bet reading came before wealth.
It lets you outthink your cognitive superiors
It's kind of fun to sit there and outthink people who are way smarter than you are because you've trained yourself to be more objective and more multidisciplinary. Furthermore, there is a lot of money in it, as I can testify from my own personal experience.
– Charlie Munger
Charlie Munger is wisecracking, brilliant, and OLD (97 at the time of writing). He also has a net worth of $2.1 billion dollars.
His voracious reading has activated an incredible superpower: The power to outthink his cognitive superiors.
All the stored effort of reading has helped him build a toolbox that he calls a "latticework of mental models".
His latticework of mental models is a tightly-integrated set of mental tools, borrowed unapologetically from disciplines like physics, chemistry, biology, history, psychology, engineering.
This powerful toolbox can be used to understand the world and dissect almost any situation--often within seconds.
The broad perspective his toolbox gives allows him to effectively challenge brilliant people who have spent their whole lives in one discipline.
Though the superpower to outthink one's cognitive superiors takes reading, reflecting, and practice Charlie says, "80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight."
Reading widely and thoughtfully helps develop an incredible superpower. You just have to put in the time.
How to develop your reading superpower
Since you’re still reading, I assume you're excited to start.
WARNING: When you're excited, it's really easy to shoot yourself in the foot.
You might hear a well-intentioned celebrity telling you to start reading a book a week.
In my opinion, this advice sets most people up for failure. It can, and does, hurt people who are starting out.
Start with Lever 1 to avoid the pitfalls that > 90% of aspiring readers make. Don’t move on to Lever 2 or Lever 3 until you’ve mastered the daily reading habit.
Lever 1: Time: Create the daily reading habit
Growing a basic reading habit lays your foundation.
Once the habit is in place, you'll be ahead of most of the population.
The following points can be used to multiply your chances of success in building the habit.
a. Make reading hyper-enjoyable
Your brain will drive you towards whatever feels pleasurable, and away from whatever feels painful.
Actions that feel good become habits.
It takes a while to feel and thus get addicted to the long-term benefits of reading -- such as outthinking your cognitive superiors.
Therefore, in order to make the habit stick, you should focus on maximizing in-the-moment pleasure from reading.
You want books that make you feel good to read. Books that get you engaged, help you feel inspired--perhaps books that get you excited about making a change.
For some people that might be fiction that they've never gifted themselves the time to read.
When you start to feel how reading levels up your brain after months of reading, you'll be hooked for the long term.
Until then, take extra precautions to ensure your reading time is super enjoyable.
b. Start S-L-O-W-L-Y with 30 seconds/day
Most people who are excited about a new habit overdo it.
They do it so much it can begin to feel like a burden. (burden = pain = bad for habits)
Yes, successful person X may read 1 book/week. You'll read more than a few minutes a day, eventually, too.
But start SMALL.
Like 30 seconds per day.
And after you've done your 30 seconds of reading, CELEBRATE. Celebrate that you're building a habit for life. This helps wire the habit in a la Tiny Habits method.
After a week, you can start doing 1 minute of reading. Slowly walk it up.
c. Track time read, not books read
Tracking "books read" is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make when they attempt to nurture a reading habit.
Well-meaning celebrities may point to an easy-to-measure metric that sounds impressive to their fans, but as I mentioned earlier, it sets you up for failure.
Do you want to have a bookshelf-measuring contest or do you want to upgrade your life?
"Books read" as a metric encourages completionism in reading, which interferes with both getting pleasure, and getting value out of reading.
Not all books are meant to be digested. Books are also different sizes -- if you're measuring success based on books read, you'll feel bad at your "slow" rate of progress if you choose to read a delightful but long book, and we don't want that.
Some people recommend "pages read" as a metric. It's better. However, advanced readers will hop around a book, skim in some parts, and read deeply in other parts. Again, "pages read" isn't quite what we want.
Ultimately, I believe the best metric we have for now is "time read".
It's easy to track, makes reading fun, and unlocks "promiscuous reading".
I manually track my reading with Timeular, but would love to subscribe to (or build) an app that tracks my reading time automatically.
d. Read promiscuously
Promiscuous reading is necessary to the constituting of human nature. The attempt to keep out evil doctrine by licensing is like the exploit of that gallant man who thought to keep out the crows by shutting the park gate.
— John Milton
I've studied the "reading algorithms" of many successful people.
More than 80% are doing what I call "promiscuous reading".
They buy multiple books.
They quit bad books.
They dip into books that match their mood and interest instead of forcing themselves to finish a book that bores them.
This keeps their passion for reading strong, and maximizes the value they get from reading.
You might be thinking "quitting bad books and buying new ones sounds really expensive". Well, that depends: how much is your time worth?
Let's say you value your time at $30/hour, and the average book takes 8 hours to finish, and costs $15. You 'spend' $240 of your time on a book, and only $15 to buy the book.
Not quitting bad books is über expensive.
e. Create an alluring personal library
Creating an alluring personal library pairs well with promiscuous reading.
I've heard of several successful people that immediately buy any book that either piques their interest, or is recommended by a trusted acquaintance.
Slowly, I've adopted this practice as my own.
If you can afford this--and if you eat out or buy lattes, you can--it's a habit that supports promiscuous reading.
If you're uncomfortable with buying any book that strikes your fancy, here's a technique I used with Kindle books for years:
When you see a Kindle book you like, click "Send a free sample". Later, binge through all the samples and buy the book that most speaks to you.
f. Schedule your reading time, and protect it
If you want your reading time to happen, you should schedule it.
I prefer to read early in the day, when I'm fresh, but the evening may work better for you.
If you're addicted to social media, like many of us, it can strangle all the reading time out of your day.
g. Put "reading triggers" in your environment
As you grow as a reader, you may be drawn to reading outside your scheduled time.
You should encourage this inclination by putting “reading triggers” in your environment.
If you use Kindle
If you use Kindle, consider getting a device that’s separate from your computer. When you see it, it will remind you to read.
Make the Kindle app prominent on your dock/desktop/phone and bookmark it on your browser bar.
Try out Readwise to get a daily email of highlights from the books you've read.
If you read paper books
If you read physical books, make sure your bookshelf is in your line of sight throughout the day.
Lever 2: Value: Read the right books, the right way
Once you're hooked on reading you’ll start growing, fast.
But if you want to accelerate your progress, there are things you can do to squeeze 2x, 3x, or even 10x out of your reading time.
It's pretty simple: choose the right books, and read them at the right speed.
Choose the right books
Read "Goldilocks books"
Books that are too easy won't teach you anything.
Books that are too hard will frustrate you.
Books that are just right will put you in flow.
Each person is different, and is in a different place on their journey--so learn what keeps you in your “Goldilocks zone”.
As you grow, previously-inaccessible books will put you straight into flow.
Read evergreen books
Look for books that teach you foundational knowledge that will last for decades. This is how you build your superpowers, brick by brick.
If you continually read books with limited shelf life, your knowledge won't build. Instead, you'll be stuck on a treadmill of decaying knowledge.
Older books tend to be more evergreen, per the Lindy effect.
Adapt your reading style and speed
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.
– Francis Bacon
After learning from the deceptively deep How to Read a Book, my reading has sped up quite a bit.
I’m not speed reading--rather, I'm extracting the gist of books within the first few minutes, before I dive in.
This allows me to decide which books are worth my time. For those books that are worth my time, extracting the gist allows me to later not lose the forest for the trees.
I have not mastered all the levels of reading taught in How to Read a Book, but I’m on my way.
Lever 3: Retention: Systematize
It's important to retain what you read. Thankfully, that doesn’t require a great memory.
Because my memory is far from perfect, I've developed systems that help me maximize retention.
Here's an excellent but long article on the topic.
Otherwise, here's an quick intro:
1. Use "tools for networked thought"
Roam is the tool that allowed me to pull together many of the insights from this article, months before I started actually writing, with a fraction of the effort of another system.
Give Roam or Obsidian a try.
2. Use a spaced repetition system
We forget most of what we once knew, very quickly.
Depending on the type of information, we may forget > 80% before a week has passed.
Using a SRS (Spaced Repetition System) is a method to ensure you remember and reinforce important insights with about 5% the effort of traditional flashcards.
Many spaced repetition tools exist--but I'd recommend you start with the gold standard, Anki.
Reading is a powerful practice that helps you accelerate success, outthink your cognitive superiors, and radically grow your life experience.
Like a seed, the habit takes watering, care, and time to grow, but can become a mighty tree.
I sincerely hope this article helps you to greater success!
Thanks to Bharat Nain, Jess Rohloff, and Heather Gill for reading drafts of this, and for inspiring conversations on the topic.