Reading is undoubtedly the best way to gather new information on any given topic. Each subject has tons of written material dedicated to it; we just need to find the resources that most closely sync with our motivations behind studying a particular topic. Yet, even if we discover these resources, how do we read in a way that helps us retain the most information? How can we maximize our learning through the written word? The first step here is to just take some time out to read from our busy schedules.
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Having considered all the various ways our behavioral and psychological obstacles can block us from learning as well as we could, it’s time to turn our attention to the first practical steps we are likely to take in an attempt to learn. Whether it’s a new language, technological competency, musical instrument, chapter in a textbook or entrepreneurial skill, our learning processes invariably begin the same way: with absorption of information.
Before we can begin to synthesize, manipulate, or comprehend any new data from the world around us, we need to appraise it somehow and take it in. In our world, the most common way to do this is via reading. There’s a reason that accomplished people in all areas of life credit reading for some of their success—it’s one of the most fundamentally important strategies to accessing new information.
Reading is not just reading—reading is about the skilled and focused absorption of information, to enable deep comprehension and understanding. If you think that your area of interest or expertise doesn’t really require reading, think again. No matter what you are trying to learn, becoming better at reading opens new vistas and possibilities, bringing you into contact with far more ideas and perspectives than you could have encountered through direct experience alone.
On the other hand, if you read a lot already, you may not have considered how well you were reading. What could there be to learn? As it happens, reading words and understanding them is only the very first step of reading. Reading well is a skill in itself, and one that opens doors to many other sills. So, how do we become better at reading?
Canadian neurologist Thomas Jock Murray has explored all the ways that medical students can enrich their understanding and accomplishment as physicians, not merely by reading medical texts, but by reading widely across classical and more contemporary works and fiction. According to Sir William Osler, “To study the phenomenon of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all.”
Great life lessons and depth of perspective usually come with being well-read. And it’s not just the great classics that are relevant—students in all areas can benefit from reading graphic novels, biographies, sci-fi and fantasy stories, and popular fiction, whether the content relates directly to their chosen curriculum or not.
Those who are well-read have a breadth and richness to their inner mental landscapes that mirrors the diverse material they’ve encountered in their external worlds. They’re better at making thematic links and connections across a range of topics, they engage more with what they read and they practice more nimble critical thinking than do people who merely stay within the narrow confines of their own discipline.
But is there really anything magical about the process of running your eyes along a page to decipher what the letters and words mean? How does this really make you a better thinker and more efficient learner?
We all know people that are smart and successful and also voracious readers—but then again, there are also many who read often but can’t be said to be getting any smarter for it. What’s the difference? How can we use the art of reading for its fullest benefits?
To actually acquire and accumulate knowledge is a conscious, active process that often takes hard work. Knowledge “absorption” is not merely passively soaking up information, but proactively working to take in data to appraise, sort, filter, engage with and critically think about the things we encounter in life.
Importantly, reading is just the tool, the method, and the conduit. To be lifelong students who constantly challenge ourselves to grow into greater mastery, we need to read with deliberate focus and conscious awareness—and this goes well beyond the page in front of you.
The billionaire Warren Buffett reportedly said, “I just sit in my office and read all day.” When asked how he got so smart, Buffett held up an intimidating stack of paper and said, “Read 500 pages like this every week. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.” Besides Buffet, other billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, Elon Musk, etc., all take time out of their busy days to read for several hours. If people as successful as them can find the time to read, we really have no excuse to fall back on to justify our laziness.
How many pages, books or hours have you read in the last week? Or the last month or year? What kinds of material did you read, and why? Can you actually recall any of it, and how have you grown or improved from passing your time this way? According to Pew Research, roughly a quarter of Americans have never read a single book in their entire lives. The average American reads only four books a year. Compare that with the successful billionaires we mentioned earlier, who each manage to read about two to three books every week.
Ask yourself, what new avenues are you inspired to explore? What was your strategy and intention in reading what you did? And what did you do with the knowledge and understanding you gained?
You can probably see from your answers that some kinds of reading are going to be better for your learning than others.
It matters what we read—trashy magazines, uninformed opinions or mind-numbing entertainment won’t cut it.
It matters how we read—passively letting things wash over you only wastes time and opportunity.
It matters what our habits are—we don’t read once, learn once, understand once. Rather, it’s an ongoing process.
It matters what we do when we read—good reading is very much about thinking, asking questions, looking for the hidden logic, critically appraising ideas and responding with our own.
“But I don’t have time to read!”
If learning is important to you, then reading should also be. And if reading is important, then it’s always possible to make time.
Can you find just one hour a day that you would otherwise fritter away online, by watching TV or mindlessly procrastinating? Dedicate that one hour to reading instead. As a long-term investment that only appreciates in value, you can do no better than reading, every day. Sure, you may have to forego an hour spent working/earning, but in doing so you are probably increasing your future earning potential.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have found that reading actually rewires your brain by increasing the amount of white matter in your head. This has a significant impact on your ability to articulate new and interesting ideas with better eloquence.
Right, so we’ve explained why you need to read more. Let’s explore how we can do it.
Mortimer J. Adler wrote his famous How to Read a Book way back in 1940, but its advice is as relevant today as ever. The first distinction we need to make is between reading for entertainment, relaxation and enjoyment, versus reading to learn, gain information or understanding. The second distinction is between reading for information and reading for understanding.
If you read something that is completely intelligible to you, you might pick up a few interesting facts, but your understanding doesn’t increase. However, if you encounter something that originally seems difficult to grasp but upon reading it, you eventually gain an appreciation of its meaning, you have actively moved from a state of lesser understanding to one of greater comprehension. You’ve learnt!
As an extreme example, simply reading a train timetable or some facts about a historical battle may well leave you with more details than you had before, but you can’t be said to understand more after reading. However, if you read an article explaining the deeper fundamentals of train scheduling or the broader contextual reasons for why certain historical events happened the way they did, you would gain understanding.
The downside of this is that reading challenging material will take you even more time than getting through something more accessible. So how do we find the time to do all this reading? We all have the same twenty-four hours on any given day, same as all the billionaires who nevertheless manage to fit extensive reading into their schedule. Over the years, many of them have shared the tips and tricks they use to learn and cultivate their knowledge. By making use of these tactics in our own lives, not only can we find time to read more, but retain more of it as well.
Of the many successful readers out there, Bill Gates is one figure who has been fairly liberal in sharing the tips he uses to ensure he goes to bed smarter every day. Perhaps some of his most useful techniques are these.
Firstly, he recommends writing and making notes in the margin of books. This ensures that you’re truly taking in the information you’re reading, as well as engaging with it to come up with new ideas. For those who can afford it, he also recommends buying multiple copies of a book, at least one paperback and one ebook, to ensure that you can read anywhere and everywhere. Even if you can’t take a physical book somewhere, having an ebook ensures you can read on your phone or tablet.
Lastly, another tip that Gates and other billionaires recommend is to simply carve out an hour every day for reading. Absorbing information, especially complex material, requires your undivided focus. It isn’t something you can do for a few minutes here and there. Setting aside an hour allows you to direct your attention entirely toward the material you’re reading, in turn enabling you to absorb more of it as well.