My parents didn’t punish me as a child, but they should have. They should’ve forced me to read something. I hated reading, and everyone knew it, especially my parents. But I didn’t just hate it; hating it was part of my identity. I was a proud anti-intellectualist, even though I had no clue what that word meant because, again, I didn’t read.
Paradoxically, the only way I could justify my anti-intellectualism was through argumentation. Already, things weren’t looking so good for my position, but I was oblivious. So, I forged ahead not knowing that by engaging in argument I was effectively conceding. Knowing this would have bothered me, because I thought the purpose of arguing was to compete, and to win! Now I know that it is about collaborating to piece together a deeper understanding of the topic being discussed.
Aiming for victory instead, I contended:
Authors only write about their personal experiences…
Every person’s experiences are essentially the same…
I am a person capable of having these experiences…
Therefore, my own experience will teach me as much as any book would.
This worked for me, because I didn’t have to justify my illiteracy to anyone but myself. Everyone seemed to share my sentiment: Reading was always vicarious and tedious, while non-reading activities could be visceral and exciting. Nobody looked into things any further, because that would require, well, reading. So, my argument was answered by inner silence and silent nods, and I was content with my conviction. I had my opinion, and it was as good as anyone else’s. After all, it was based on my own experience. What could be more reliable than that? This was my thinking.
The irony was that I thought so simply because I hadn’t read any books. Worse, on the off chance that I did pick up a book, I didn’t have the foresight — that comes with being a “repeat reader” — to determine which books had perspective-altering potential. These books, out of the millions in existence, are the most worth reading. They force you to see things that you didn’t know you didn’t know; they add extra layers to a reality you assumed was two-dimensional, black and white shadows.
“What are the right ******* books, Will? Hey, whatever blows your hair back.” — Good Will Hunting
My experience was one-sided, when reality is many-sided. My perspective was an unmagnified lens, when omniscience is a kaleidoscope. I confused what I experienced and perceived for the “way things were,” and I thought that this was all anyone was capable of. God knows all, and I know nothing. Now I believe that each of us is a god in that we have consciousness and the potential for competence.
“We are now gods but for the wisdom.” — Eric Weinstein
The first book that I read voluntarily was about the myth of “talent”: Sure, you probably need to be over six-foot to be in the NBA, but in most areas of competence there are not these strict inborn prerequisites. As evidence, the author taught himself a skill that he previously thought was impossible for any “normal” person like himself to learn: “golf juggling” like Tiger Woods (look this up). He then generalized this to others skills. All mastery took was an examination of what the so called “talented ones” were practicing and modeling one’s own practice on theirs. It turns out that what is perceived as “talent” is usually just applied “meta-practice” (i.e. learning best-practices before practicing) followed by consistent practice.
This book made me realize that I probably wasn’t going to be a professional athlete, but I could become almost anything else if I just thought a little smarter about my strategy. Before this, I spent a lot of time working hard without thinking through things in a systematic way. I had the work ethic; I was efficient, but I was being efficient at the wrong things, sometimes working in the opposite direction from where I wanted to be. I didn’t have the crucial critical thinking skills that compliment a good work ethic.
“With critical thinking skills and a good work ethic, you can do anything.” — Professor Lee
After one book, my world was changed by this seemingly simple idea of “meta-practice,” because I learned just how unwarranted my confidence was in my assumed opinions and approaches. Not only could I clearly see how in many ways I had been wrong about my own practices, I also was exposed to an idea that I had never even been aware of. But it struck me as if I should have known; everyone should know something this useful. Aggrieved, I thought, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?”
Now I finally know the answer to that question: almost nobody knows anything. Adults are kids who look older; aging itself doesn’t bear wisdom beyond the effects of brain development — which ends at 25 and switches to degeneration soon after. So, living longer isn’t as fruitful with wisdom as pop-culture would have us think.
The few people who do know something are readers-and-writers, regardless of age. They have learned most of what they know from the readers-and-writers before them. This is because the production and consumption of meaningful words is necessary to be able to think critically. The fundamental ability that separates us from other animal species is language. We utilize language to imagine and articulate ideas that are often not available to the five senses of direct experience, but are all too real to the senses of reason and resonance.
This realization did not sink in after reading one measly book. I thought that I’d gotten lucky by coming across some rare combination of words that could change the way I saw things and have real impact on my life. Reading was still torturous. So, I didn’t read a second book until I was desperate for help, and nobody seemed to have the solution to my elusive problem: love.
This time around, I researched the best book that I could find on the subject. And again, I was blown away by how I could learn something so impactful that no one else had ever bothered to tell me (because they didn’t know). One of the major insights from this book was that “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” actually happens to be very misleading advice when it comes to love, because people feel loved in different ways. So, if you put yourself in your partner’s shoes, you will assume that what makes you feel loved is the same thing that will make your partner feel loved, which is often not the case.
We can avoid this, however, if we understand our own psychology enough to know what makes us individually feel loved and then communicate that to our partner. You can’t really put yourself in your partner’s shoes, they have to put their shoes on you, so to speak. This simple idea single handedly saved my relationship with my longtime girlfriend at the time. I was beginning to see the power of this reading thing.
I wondered, “if a book taught me how to be an effective practitioner… if a book taught me how to be a proper lover… what else could a book teach me?”
The third book that forever turned me into a reader and, more importantly, a lifelong-learner, was about the most elusive subject of them all: happiness. If I had any doubt left about the value of reading books, it would surely be dispelled if I could learn something about this most valuable resource. Still, I highly doubted that I would find anything new about happiness in a book. Surely someone would have told me… After all, this is the only thing that matters to any of us in the end. I had been proven wrong about the extent of our collective ignorance on two previous occasions, and it was happening yet again.
I could not believe what I was reading. The author had apparently thought long and hard about the nature of happiness. Actually, his life was dedicated to studying someone else’s teachings (the Buddha), and it was he who had originally thought so long and hard about happiness. In my hands, on a mere 300 pages, that cost me $12, I held a window into happiness itself. Its mold was made thousands of years ago, yet somehow I was just finding out about it. I’ve never lived a day where I’ve felt genuinely unhappy since reading this book. Few still know its secrets.
I’ll share one with you now: human suffering is fundamentally our resistance to being withheld from what we are attracted to and exposed to what we are averse to. We tend to think that it is this situation of not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want that exclusively causes our suffering. For most of us, however, the majority of our suffering is actually caused by our refusal to accept “what is,” in each moment, and to appreciate the good aspects. Good is always there; we just habitually ignore it, fixate on the bad, and ruminate.
Evolutionarily, this allowed us to stay on top of all the daily problems of the primitive world, but in modern times, it causes a lot of unnecessary suffering. We invent new problems to fill the void of modern convenience, but solving them isn’t nearly as satisfying because the result is inconsequential. So, we continue to focus on the bad, inventing problems ad infinitum, patiently waiting for some good to come of them. It never does, and the disappointment continues the vicious circle.
This book and every book that I’ve read since have become a part of me, their contents all mixed together inside. What I can convey to you here only scratches the surface of what I’ve learned from them — much of which ends up operating at the subconscious level and gets imperfectly recollected (here). Experiencing the context and nuance for oneself is essential to understanding the powerful impact that reading great books has to offer the mind. It’s experiential like love: there’s so much to the experience of reading a great book that can’t be put into words, or maybe it can, but it would probably take a book to do it. I’m not writing a book here. I’m merely inviting you to read just one the great books that already exists.
How to determine what makes a great book is a topic for another time. For now, read the top-recommendation of the person you most admire who is also a reader. This method shouldn’t fail unless you choose someone to look up to for the wrong reasons (e.g. status). What is admirable is what is virtuous. Status is just a resource that can be used for good or bad. Choose someone who is virtuous, along with being competent and successful. These are the people who make a real difference in the world because they have the right intentions, the right resources, and proof of concept — they’ve already “made it.” Read the books that they’ve read, and you will become more and more like them. What separates you from them is what they know that you don’t.
Don’t think that someone you know will tell you what you need to hear (on any matter). They likely haven’t read enough to know about what you’re looking for. In fact, you may not have read enough to know exactly what it is that you’re looking for. The first step is awareness. Read widely, then deeply.
You will find that you know much less than you think you know, but also, that you can learn much more than you think can learn. I wish someone had told me all of this. So, now I’m telling you.
Update: The day after I wrote this article, I asked my brother if he’d read it yet. He replied, “I don’t need to. I read the title; I know what it’s about.” Oh the irony. This is exactly the type of overconfidence in our individual knowledge that I’ve been talking about. It’s dense, but it can be broken up through reading, rest assured.
If I have at any point sounded self-inflated, remember, I have not suggested that I am saying anything particularly important. I have suggested that other people than you or I have written very important things down in books. The fact that practically no one is reading them is a great tragedy. The good they could do by being read is limitless.
Books Referenced: (1) The Little Book of Talent (2) Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (3) The Art of Happiness