Why reading more won’t actually make you successful

Modern society revolves around two things; trends and efficiency.

Headphones with wires are gadgets of the past. Direct messaging someone on social media is an effective form of communication. Apps are used to open bank accounts. Multitasking is a marketable skill. And the 20-something sitting alone at a retro styled coffee shop with Warby Parker glasses, cold brew, and book in hand is no longer an outcast.

Our opinion on bookworms is evolving. Reading is suddenly cool.

This shift has brought on a wave of new courses and YouTube videos claiming to help us consume increased amounts of content in less time, aka “speed reading”- essentially streamlining our reading habits. Nearly every week I find a new article from someone claiming to have read 100+ books in a year. This has only been further glorified by iconic founders and rich CEO’s promoting books as one of their secret keys to prosperity. There’s nothing outwardly wrong with this, but it has led to a fundamental misunderstanding about reading books and how they relate to achievement.

Increasing the number of books your finishing wont necessarily result in higher levels of intellect or accomplishment because reading in itself doesn’t make you more successful.

It’s about how you read that really matters.

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” — Mortimer J. Adler

Focus On Quality Over Quantity

Last year I read 4 and 1/2 books and that was enough to supplement a years worth of artistic fuel and reference points.

I chose one that interested me on a personal level (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind), one that would challenge how I think about my future (The 4-Hour Workweek), one that would offer a different worldly perspective than what I knew ( A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier), and one that may be beneficial to my career (Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike).

Each one of these books was carefully selected with a very specific reason in mind, and their insights continue to be beneficial on a daily basis.

When I get frustrated working on a project, I think about Ishmael Beah as a child soldier trudging through the jungle alone for miles without any food or water. When I get anxious about my career, I think about Tim Ferris’s unconventional path to personal freedom. When life doesn’t go as planned, I think about Phil Knights years and years of rejection before creating one of the most prosperous brands in history.

In Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, author Ryan Holiday discusses the concept of “pre-work” as it relates to creating a product that will last for generations:

“It’s why all the pre-work matters so much. The conceptualization. The motivations. The product’s fit with the market. The execution. These intangible factors matter a great deal. They cannot be skipped. They can’t be bolted on later.”

I believe this methodology adequately applies to reading a book . When I decide to read something new, there is an entire process that goes into deciding what I want to purchase. I do my research because I desire a book that will eventually be filled with notes, bent pages, and highlighted sentences. A book full of passages that will be read and re-read. A book that I can engage with.

We have a tendency to gravitate towards shortcuts with self-help books and drool over titles that claim to make us more successful, wealthier, productive, etc.

Try not to emphasis reading because it will lead to more success. Pick books that are different and thought provoking. Reading is not a chore or a race. It should be enjoyable and something that you look forward to.

Just remember, you don’t win a prize for reading the most books.

Reading Slow Is A Lost Art

Speed reading has taken the internet by storm with endorsements from productivity gurus and entrepreneurs. While it sounds great in theory, there is substantial evidence that this process isn’t very efficient.

A study by the Association For Psychological Science found that speed reading at a high comprehension level is probably too good to be true — especially when the individual has no preexisting knowledge of the topic they are consuming.

“The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy — as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it”- Elizabeth Schotter, psychologist at the University of California, San Diego

This is supported by Keith Rayner, a psycholinguist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who observed that college-level students read at an average rate of between 200–400 words per minute. Anything more than this would enter the category of skimming.

The way I see it, there are two ways to read a book:

  1. Slowly, efficiently, and with a purpose. The goal being to learn AND retain as much information as possible.
  2. To finish it.

Really think about why you’re reading next time you pick up a book. Is it for pleasure? Knowledge? Success? This understanding will be pivotal in selecting titles that you can read at a pace that is comfortable while promoting comprehension and real cognitive development.

In college, I was required to read for hours every week about topics that I wasn’t always interested in. This led to increased skimming because I wanted to be done with it and move on. Now that I don’t have to read for a grade, the focus has shifted to a much slower pace because I am relishing the words and want to soak up as much of the book as possible.

Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings.- Susan Hill

In Conclusion

Some people really can read dozens and dozens of books every year; they truly love to read and create schedules that accommodate their passion. And in all honesty, I wish I put more of an emphasis on reading. I don’t prioritize it as often as I should and would like to up my number of books in 2019 to double digits.

However, I think it is important to understand why and how you approach reading to reap the most benefits. What most people don’t realize is that the sheer volume of available content we read from social media statuses to magazine advertisements is blurring our ability to differentiate between skimming and comprehending.

Think of consuming books as a way to feed your mind in the same light as consuming food is how we feed our bodies. You want to input high-quality sources to output high-quality results.

The power of books isn’t knowledge; it’s being able to understand what you’ve read and apply that knowledge to your life.