When It Comes to Your Career, Reading Matters

A Tactical Approach to Reading More Profitably

I don’t have time to prove this to you. If you don’t already understand it, don’t bother to read on. You’re a goner.

What I don’t have time to prove is the title of this essay: The idea that when it comes to having the career you want to have, there is nothing more important than reading.

I don’t care how smart or ambitious you are. Or whom you know. Or how hard you are willing to work. Unless you are prepared to spend an average of at least two hours every day reading and self-help books, you will never – NEVER – rise to the top of the field.

Yes, you can punch out an ordinary career with some exciting ups that result partly from relentless effort, partly from beating up on people, and mostly from luck. But business has never been more competitive. And information has never traveled so fast. If you don’t read – intelligently and constantly – you will not be able to compete at the highest levels.

So Many Books… So Little Time

When it comes to maximizing your reading time, the single smartest thing you can do is put down a book that, for whatever reason, you’ve decided is not going to give you a good return for your time invested. This isn’t easy to do. Especially, if like me, you were taught to finish everything that was on your plate. The idea that you must finish every book you start is as dumb as the idea that you must read every word of any book.

There are, however, two types of books that I do tend to read from beginning to end and word for word: works of fiction and biographies. They both involve stories. And good stories demand to be heard. There is something in the telling of a story that is fundamental to human consciousness.

Fiction, if it is worth reading, delivers multiple benefits — all dependent on the sequence and artistry of the individual sentences. To put it differently, there are fundamentally two key aspects to fiction: the plot and the writing. By writing I mean the diction, the grammar, the sentence structure, the sentence flow, and the style. Some works of fiction are strong in plot but weak in writing (John Grisham). Some are weak in plot but strong in writing (James Joyce). Most are weak in both. And a very few are strong in both.

Since I can’t possibly read the tens of thousands of novels/biographies that are published each year, I am very selective. Literary awards are often a good indicator of good writing but not of plot. Bestseller lists… the opposite. So I look to the bestsellers (even if they are not in the top 10) that have won literary prizes.

As for non-fiction – i.e., the kind of books that matter when it comes to your career – you have to take a different approach.

The Fastest, Most Efficient Way to Read Business Books

Every year, more than a quarter-million non-fiction books are brought into the market and another 750,000 electronic books flood the Internet. Much of that information is useless bullshit and pandering. But a percentage of it – maybe just 5% – is what you need to know in order to stay at the top of your game.

Five percent of a million is 50,000. Fifty thousand books!

You are not going to read 50,000 books in a year. You probably won’t read 50,000 books in your lifetime. So here’s what you do…

* You ignore 99.9% of all the non-fiction books published and read only books that have been recommended by experts you trust. The best way to get these recommendations is to ask for them from people that are at or above your level. The next best way is to find book reviews by authors whose logic makes sense to you.

* Using those two sources, you identify 100 or so books that sound good and then narrow that list to 50.

* You read one of the books on your list each week. But you don’t read them the way most people read books. You use the system I developed to get what I need out of a non-fiction book in about 10% of the time it would take me to read it conventionally.

The first and most important thing is to realize that books like these are raw material for your imagination, not finished literary works. So you should go through them as you might go through a big pile of kindling, looking for a few straight, dry pieces. Don’t waste your time fooling around with what’s not important. And don’t feel compelled to read every word.

  1. Read the table of contents. It should give you a quick idea about the range and depth of the subject matter. Figure out what you want from the book – what it can teach you. By doing this beforehand, you can dramatically shorten the amount of time you need to spend with the text itself. Your subsequent reading will be targeted, because your subconscious mind has already begun to think along the right lines and your interest has been primed.
  2. Read the introduction and/or first chapter. One of them usually serves as a sort of executive summary of the entire book. Here is where you can pick up the author’s main argument. (If you miss that, you miss the reason for reading the book in the first place.)
  3. Read the first paragraph of each successive chapter and the first sentence of each successive paragraph. You will be amazed at how much information you can pick up that way. In terms of actual reading, you are covering only 20% to 30% of the text. But in terms of content, you are getting 80% to 90%. To get the most from this process, I assume that each chapter has one useful thing to teach me – and that’s what I look for.
  4. Finally, read the entire last chapter and/or epilogue. Like the introduction/first chapter, at least one of these will often serve as a summary. Reading them gives you a chance to internalize what you’ve already discovered and to make notes if you haven’t already.

Putting All That Information to Work for You

In my experience, every good non-fiction book has one Big Idea to convey and several smaller ones. Your job is to find out – as quickly as you can – what they are. Then, to get the most out of those ideas, I recommend keeping some sort of reading journal in which you record them. If you make your entry just after you’ve finished a book, it shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. Review what you’ve written within 24 hours and then again sometime the following week. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll remember.

Once you get used to this way of reading, you’ll find it addictive. You’ll have a constant stream of new ideas coming to you. And sooner or later, one of those ideas will be the one that helps you take your career to the next level.