How to Learn More from What You Read
Most people don't learn much from what they read.
They skim books and articles and remember them half-heartedly. What they read neither affects their decision making nor the path they move forward in life.
That's sad, not just because I like books, but because a good book can change your life.
“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” - Cicero
Reading is an activity worth investing in.
Reading isn’t always the best way to learn, but it’s often the best way to learn right now
The best way to learn is to break down what you want to learn into its underlying skills, find examples and resources on how to be successful in those skills, and practice these skills as you learn them.
The examples you would learn from would be the experts in these skills and you'd learn through apprenticeship. You would witness experts directly apply the process that led them to success and get direct feedback when you fail in that process.
Unfortunately, opportunities to apprentice with the world's experts are rare.
That’s ok. There are other ways to learn.
Often the best option we have to learn is to find and learn from resources experts have crafted from their experience and resources experts have recommended over long periods of time.
How to measure what you learn from reading
Reciting lines from Hamlet has probably had little effect on your quality of life.
To measure how much we learn from what we read, it's better to take a practical approach:
How comfortable are we applying what we've learned from reading to our everyday life?
The 3 levels of mastery in reading:
- thematic understanding (we can reference ideas from what we read)
- contextual understanding (we can apply ideas in their direct context)
- cross-discipline application (we can apply ideas across different domains)
Your goal isn’t to understand themes or information only in the strict context in which we read it.
No, that’s the intellectual equivalent of being a couch potato.
Don’t read to consume time or brag that you've read something.
Read so that you can use what you've learned to improve your life.
Are you reading information or misinformation?
It's both hard to tell who's an expert and hard to tell what content is designed to sell us something instead of teaching us something useful.
Whether it’s the latest industry email newsletter, top news stories throughout the day, new "life changing" best-sellers, or gossip articles that appear in our social media feeds, we're on the receiving end of a ton of content.
It’s not exactly like someone is serving guard over all this content to ensure it’s both accurate and useful.
Just as important as what we choose to read is what we choose not to read.
Most content is designed to capture our attention, not help us get the info we want or need to make good decisions.
So if most content won't help you learn, you won't be surprised that most content you'll find when you're looking to learn isn’t that helpful either.
To get around this issue, I use a simple framework to decide what type of content I should be reading to improve my current circumstance.
Identify your goal before you start reading
Before you start reading something, you need to understand why you’re reading in the first place.
There are many reasons people read and most of them have nothing to do with learning.
People read for entertainment, out of curiosity, out of boredom, out of obligation.
Even when people read to learn something, the why varies.
No matter which subject you are looking to learn or skills are involved in learning it, identifying your learning goal will help you find content that meets your needs.
Luckily, you don't need to define the specific reason behind why you are reading to get some useful clarification.
Fundamentally if you're looking to learn from reading, there are two goals to choose from:
- find quick solutions
- develop mental frameworks
Finding quick solutions
If you’re performing work on a job today, you know the phrase “putting out a fire”.
In the course of normal work, you need to solve problems on short notice.
There simply isn’t time to research if there’s some fantastic mental framework to prevent or address the scenario at hand.
In these times of need, performing in-depth research results in small problems turning into disasters.
Finding quick solutions provides immediate relief by solving the problems at hand.
Knowing how to find these solutions is a necessary part of your everyday life.
However, sometimes quick solutions are difficult to find and for that reason are an unreliable method for learning what you want to know. In that case, you want to turn to learning mental frameworks.
Developing mental frameworks
Mental frameworks are systems that break down scenarios into simpler and more manageable components. They provide and help you apply heuristics to diagnose your situation and take action to improve your odds of success and help you avoid worse outcomes.
If you're preparing for the future, you’re going to want to find the best way to approach problems as they arise and capture opportunities.
Life is full of problems that either derail you from achieving success and/or derail your competitors.
To avoid this fate, it pays to invest in developing strong mental frameworks to approach the scenarios you're most likely to face.
Good mental frameworks break down scenarios into simpler and more manageable components. They provide and help you apply heuristics to diagnose your situation and take action to improve your odds of success and help you avoid worse outcomes.
Mental frameworks are systems of repeatable tasks that through repetition become easier to both remember and apply to the context of your life.
Learning good mental frameworks and how to apply them in their appropriate context creates a positive impact that radiates throughout your life.
How to choose between whether to find quick solutions or develop mental frameworks
Most of the value you get from reading follows a Pareto distribution. Most value you'll receive from reading will be the result of learning and applying mental frameworks.
All the value I've received from finding quick solutions to my problems pales in comparison to the value I’ve received from learning and applying mental frameworks.
Because mental frameworks are systems of decision making that involve diagnosing scenarios, understanding which tasks to perform, and how to successfully complete these underlying tasks, mental frameworks are best conveyed through long pieces of structured content.
That means that many mental frameworks are often found in books.
In comparison, most quick solutions I've found useful can be found among the top google search results after I carefully craft a query.
If you are preparing for the future, read a book.
If you are dealing with problems now, read a blog post.
As a general principle, it’s better to prepare for the future than to constantly deal with the now.
My 5-Step System to Master What I Read
To fully understand the topics you read about, you need to be able to stop reading and consider the concepts and ideas as you come across them.
Pausing to comprehend what you're reading is harder to do when you're using audio formats than visual.
Don’t listen to audiobooks on Audible or Blinkist.
Read books using visual formats such as Kindle or paperback.
When you read using a format that allows you to easily pause, you have stronger emotional reactions to what you read and you engage deeper with the content.
Some of the ideas you read you’ll hate, some ideas you’ll find interesting, and some you might use to improve your life.
All these types of meaningful reactions only happen when you can pause and reflect on what you read.
These reactions simply don’t happen when you continuously consume content.
Find phrases that summarize the ideas you find meaningful.
Highlight statements you deeply agree with, don’t understand, and those you dislike.
As you encounter phrases that trigger emotion within you, you engage and develop your thinking by elaborating upon your thoughts.
Highlight these ideas with either a marker or digitally with your fingers on a Kindle.
Restrain yourself to only highlight the text you find important. Don’t be afraid to cut off words that precede or follow you don’t find meaningful.
This ensures that when you look back at your highlights later you have all the context you need to understand why you cared about these ideas in the first place.
Rephrase the concepts you’re looking to learn in your own words and try to reduce their complexity while maintaining their original intent.
Summarizing concepts accurately is difficult.
Meaning and intent are easily lost when ideas are rephrased.
Taking note of how you failed to accurately summarize concepts will help you understand the concept’s nuances and improve your understanding.
As you come across ideas you find meaningful, brainstorm other scenarios where these concepts might also apply.
Ask yourself when you might use this idea, when this idea would be dumb, and what the opposite of this idea would be.
Discovering how ideas and concepts apply in other contexts can often be achieved by simply making an effort to reduce the underlying idea’s complexity and then asking yourself how this concept relates to your current and past experiences.
After you’ve engaged with content, identified valuable concepts, and discovered how these concepts might apply to your life, it’s time to take action.
All the work you've performed in the 4 previous steps has prepared you understand when and how to apply the concepts you've now learned.
Don't wait until you finish what you're reading to start using it to improve your life.