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Getting smarter: Why, how, and what to read

Why read

‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you know, the more places you’ll go.’ ~ Dr Seuss

It seems reading books is a bit of a lost art. There are many people who consume their information in short blogs (like this one), TV news clips, emails, YouTube videos, podcasts and Facebook posts. There is so much information available at the click of a button or the tap of a screen that sitting down to read a book seems almost archaic.

If you are someone who proudly states ‘I haven’t read a book since high school,’ then you’re unlikely to get a second date with me! All jokes aside, here are a few reasons why it’s still worth your while to read a real book.

  1. It’s the best way to get in-depth knowledge of a single topic. Someone else has done the hard work of reading all the relevant research, identifying the most important parts, and synthesising it together in the optimal order for learning. If you want to learn a lot, it’s actually far more efficient to read a book than the scroll through hundreds of webpages trying to piece together your own curriculum.
  2. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t see what you don’t believe. Meaning that there are whole fields of knowledge and branches of thought you don’t know exist, and there are many different perspectives on problems and society that in the algorithmically customised world of Facebook you’ll never come across. Books solve both of these problems by exposing you to new ideas and perspectives.
  3. Finally, most of the wildly successful people in the world read books. Often upwards of 50 non-fiction books a year. There’s probably something to it.


How to read

Selection

The first step to reading is of course selecting what you are going to read. I keep a list in the ‘notes’ section of my phone of potentially interesting books to read. A book title gets added to the list whenever it piques my interest. It could be a friend or mentor who recommends it, I might hear about the book on a podcast, it could be referenced in another book I’m enjoying, I might see it on someone else’s bookshelf, or the shelves of an airport book store.

I rarely read new releases, instead, you’ll get better recommendations on books that have been out a few years as more people have had a chance to read them and judge their value without the hype surrounding their launch.

This list of books on my phone grows for several months, until I get around to sorting through it and making some purchases. Sorting involves looking up the book on Amazon, reading the blurb, a few reviews, and the first couple of pages. If I’m still interested, I buy it.


Purchasing

Like many people, I’m a convert to the Kindle – for fiction books. It’s lightweight, great to travel with, you can read in the dark, and the e-books are cheaper to buy.

But I’ve always enjoyed the feel of turning a page, the smell of a bookstore, the satisfaction of closing a book once finished. So, for the non-fiction reading I do, I always buy the paper copy of the book. Here’s a few more reasons why you might adopt this practice too:

  • Since I’ve spent money on it, there is more mental incentive to read it. It’s the ‘I bought it, I may as well use it’ mentality.
  • I read with a highlighter so I can easily flick back through the books and find the key points. Although technically you can ‘highlight’ passages on a Kindle the function is clunky and you lose the context of the section.
  • Unread books sit on my shelf, constantly in my field of vision, reminding me to read them. Having them all there also means I can pick up whatever book I’m in the mood to read – it’s much harder to do this with a digital bookshelf.
  • The books I’ve finished reading sit on the other side of my book shelf and every time I look at them I feel a sense of achievement.

While I love perusing a book shop for hours, I typically buy my books from a website called Book Depository – they’re cheaper, have a huge range, and always offer free shipping.


Reading

When you are reading non-fiction the point is to learn, so there is no point reading when you are tired, distracted or grumpy. I tend to read over breakfast or lunch if I’m eating by myself, or on transport – the train to work or flying somewhere. Fiction is reserved for when I’m feeling mentally tired, or right before bed.

I always read with a highlighter in hand which forces my brain to constantly be alert to the most important ideas in the book.

Finally, I often have a couple of books going at a time. Currently I have one on economics, one on leadership, and one on start-ups. I’ll pick up whatever I feel like reading that day.


What to read

Below are my top 8 picks from 2018. These weren’t all published in 2018, that’s just when I happened to read them. Which of these have you read? Which will you read? What other books might be even better?

In no particular order…

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

Everything you thought you know about negotiation… is wrong. This book is written by the FBI’s former top hostage negotiator, who now runs a negotiation consultancy – so he knows what he is talking about. The book is peppered with real negotiation stories which are enthralling. Whether you are negotiating your salary, your kid’s bedtime, or for someone’s life this book has the exact strategies, phrasing and steps to do so successfully. Will be putting this one to good use

‘For good negotiators, ‘No’ is pure gold. That negative provides a great opportunity for you and the other party to clarify what you really want by eliminating what you don’t want… ‘No’ is the start of the negotiation, not the end of it.’


10% Happier by Dan Harris

It’s not often I laugh out loud when reading a book, and I did so multiple times in this one. This is a sceptic’s look at the science of meditation, told through personal stories. It’s the most convincing book I’ve read on why you should give meditation a try, and how to integrate ‘mindfulness’ into your life while maintaining your competitive drive, practicality, and ambitiousness.

‘According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, we reject it, or we zone out. Cookies: I want. Mosquitoes: I reject. The safety instructions the flight attendants read aloud on an airplane: I zone out. Mindfulness is a fourth option, a way to view the contents of our mind with non-judgemental remove.’


Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Mostly I loved the format of this book – each chapter tells a combat story from the Iraqi war, then details the leadership principle learnt or demonstrated in that situation, then gives the business application of that principle. In my opinion, the best principle is the one that gives the book it’s title – extreme ownership – which states that as the leader you should consider that everything (even if it’s only marginally within you sphere of influence) is your responsibility.

‘To achieve a higher standard of performance, you must recognize that when it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate.’


Deep Work by Cal Newport

I picked this up since I loved Cal’s other book ‘So good they can’t ignore you’ (which made this list last year). He talks about the phenomenon of deep work – the ability to concentrate intensely on cognitively demanding tasks. To use athlete parlance, it’s about how to work ‘in the zone’ when it comes to your career. He also makes compelling arguments about why deep work is increasingly rare in the world, and why developing your ability in it will make you incredibly valued in the work force.

‘The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained… It’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing – something you know is good for you, but you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your ‘mental muscle’.’


Lean In by Sharyl Sandberg

I expected this to be more of an autobiography, but it’s actually an incredibly well-researched look into women’s progress into leadership roles. As someone who has mostly competed in what seemed gender neutral arenas (all my sports have paid the same prize money – basically nothing – to men and women), and had managers at work who praised my performance regardless of my gender, I was never too concerned with the glass ceiling for women. And I was wrong. The statistics and insights in this book blew me away, and highlighted just how much unconscious gender bias still exists (from both men and women) – even if you think it doesn’t.

‘Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.’


Blue Ocean Strategy

This is, hands down, the best book I’ve ever read about business strategy – and I work in strategy. If you are a business owner or work in the corporate sector this is definitely worth reading. ‘Blue oceans’ are markets that are uncrowded with competitors, compared with ‘red oceans’ where every business is tearing its competitors to bloody fish bait. The book details (with lots of images) how to craft a strategy that will lead your business into a blue ocean, how to communicate that strategy, and how to execute it.

‘The creators of blue oceans, surprisingly didn’t use competition as their benchmark. Instead they followed a different strategic logic that we call value innovation… instead of focusing on beating the competition, you focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and your company, thereby opening up uncontested market space.’


Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

I heard the author interviewed on several podcasts and was ridiculously impressed (she’s a psychotherapist and can consult with patients in 9 different languages!) Her book is a fascinating read on the paradoxes between sexual desire and the comfort of relationships. The key takeaway for me was the realisation that in the Western world we’ve mostly been raised on a fairy tale that it should always be possible to get all of your needs – financial, security, adventure, desire etc – met by a single person. 

‘We all share a fundamental need for security, which propels us towards committed relationships in the first place; but we have an equally strong need for adventure and excitement. Modern romance promises that it’s possible to meet these two distinct sets of needs in one place.’


High Performance Habits by Brendon Bruchard

The author is one of the founders and front-runners of the personal development space, and this book reflects years of deep thinking and research about the psychology of high performance. He details the 6 mental habits of the truly elite (based on detailed surveys and interviews of thousands) and outlines clear questions and practices you can adopt to develop them. The habits are: seek clarity, generate energy, raise necessity, increase productivity, develop influence, demonstrate courage.

‘Procrastination is not a real thing – it’s not a personality trait, a part of the psyche or a result of poor time management skills. Researchers have found that procrastination is really a motivation problem. It arises because you are working on things that don’t intrinsically matter to you. In rare cases, it can be about anxiety or fear of failure.’


Summary

That’s the list for 2018 – I hope at least one of these books sparks your interest, inspires a new idea, or maybe even gets you to a second date with someone!

So crack open the spine of a book, get comfortable, and start reading. As Jim Rohn says ‘the book you don’t read won’t help’.

January 8, 2019