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Weekly 3: Read more effectively

Summary: Aim for quality over recency. Put more skim in the game. Push yourself to learn more. (~8 mi

Idea Journal Weekly 3

December 2 · Issue #63 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Aim for quality over recency. Put more skim in the game. Push yourself to learn more. (~8 min read)

#1. You are what you read
Author and university president Steven Sample writes in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership that what you read can be as influential as the people you surround yourself with.
Both sets of choices inform your thoughts and behavior.
But with so many options and limited time, how do you make smart choices about what to read?
For Sample, one way to measure the quality of reading material is to consider its influence over time – how relevant and widely read it is after it was first published.
Imagine different types of published reading materials existing on a continuum of durability:
On the left are the lowest quality reading materials with the shortest lifespans
Daily news articles are the most obvious example. Even a front-page story in a national news outlet, which might be read by millions of people when it’s first published, has essentially no readers 24 hours later.
Magazines, industry publications, and most newly published books are also in this category. As Sample notes, fewer than 1 in 200 of all books published in the US are still in print and being purchased 10 years after they were first released.
Near the middle
This part of the durability continuum includes influential journals and textbooks, as well as biographies, essays, and pieces of literature that are still being read 50 years or more after they were first published.
At the far right of the continuum are what Sample calls “supertexts”
These are the few dozen or so works that were published more than 400 years ago, and are still widely read today.
For Sample, the first 5 supertexts are obvious: the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Pali Canon of Buddhism, and the Analects of Confucius. But supertexts also include works that aren’t religious or spiritual in nature: from Machiavelli’s The Prince to the plays of Shakespeare.
You may or may not agree that such books are great works of literature. But from the standpoint of their usefulness to you as a leader, that doesn’t matter.
They are important because they have been read by so many people over such a long period of time, and continue to exert extraordinary influence over the culture.
In an age of increasing change and turbulence, “a leader can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing at all, or changing only slowly.”
Sample offers 3 tips for developing healthy reading habits:
1. In general, spend more of your time reading materials on the right end of the continuum rather than the left.
2. Try to filter daily news through your closest advisors or friends instead of getting it directly from news outlets. This assumes your advisors and friends are a group of varied and intelligent people, whose biases you know, and who have your best interests at heart.
3. For publications related to your industry, here too you should rely on your closest advisors or lieutenants to keep you informed of important developments and stories.
A good rule of thumb for a contrarian leader is to “go where your competitors don’t go and read what they don’t read.”
Do you think Warren Buffett or Bill Gates got ahead by slavishly reading the press in their fields?
#2. "Pre-read" a book to decide if it's worth your time
Reading a book can take a long time, and skimming can help you decide whether a given book deserves more of your attention and commitment.
In How to Read a Book, authors Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren recommend the following six-step process for “systematic skimming”:
Step 1: Quickly read the title page and preface (if the book has one)
You’re trying to get a sense of the overall aim or scope of the book. One way to help with this is to ask yourself: What other books that you know of cover the same subject?
Step 2: Study the table of contents
This will help you understand the structure of the book – use the table of contents “as you would a roadmap before taking a trip.”
Step 3: Review the index (if it has one)
Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered, and the kinds of authors and other books that the index cites. Are there topics or words that have an especially high number of entries?
Step 4: Read the publisher’s blurb
In many cases, these blurbs are written by the authors in an attempt to summarize the book’s main points, albeit with the help of the publisher’s public relations department.
Step 5: Identify the pivotal chapters
You should now have a good sense of what the book is about: which chapters seem most important?
Step 6: Turn the pages, “dipping in here and there”
With the book’s main idea or theme in mind, read a paragraph or two, or at most a few pages in sequence. At least read the book’s last 2 or 3 pages (or an epilogue, if it has one): “Few authors are able to resist the temptation to sum up what they think is new and important about their work in these pages.”
#3. How do you know when you've read something well?
Author and personal development expert Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent that one of the best ways to learn more from what you read is to put it down and then summarize it.
For example, imagine that you were going to be tested on this Weekly 3 issue one week from today.
Which of the following 2 study strategies do you think would be more effective?
1. Re-read the issue 4 times to try and memorize the important details.
2. Read it once, look away, and then write a summary of what you think are the main points.
As Coyle points out, research on learning and retention suggests that the second strategy is the more effective one – whether it’s an article, book, research report, etc.
That’s because “Learning is reaching.”
Reading passively is a relatively effortless process, “letting the words wash over you like a warm bath.” It doesn’t stretch you.
On the other hand, putting what you’ve just read down and then writing a summary about it gives you the following opportunities to stretch yourself:
  • You have to figure out what the main points are.
  • You have to process those points, and then organize them in a way that makes sense.
Whatever you’re reading, the equation is always the same: more reaching equals more learning.
Quote of the Week
“Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read only to return to ourselves transformed, and part of a more expansive world. In short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and in our acting.”
- Philosopher Judith Butler in a commencement address at McGill University
Idea Journal
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