Getting the Most Out of the Books You Read

An unpleasant experience taught me a better way of consuming non-fiction; you need a real motivation if you want to be a sponge when it comes to absorbing the wisdom contained within them.


“I’m not signing this until I had enough time to read it and understand it.”

Marc’s face was red and there was no changing his mind. The rest of team had signed the agreement and if he could only sign as well, we can get on with our final-year academic project — we had accumulated enough delays as it were.

“My dad is a lawyer,” he continued, “and he always told me to never sign anything I don’t fully understand, including the fine prints.”

It was a Saturday winter morning, halfway through our fourth and final year of Mechanical Engineering Baccalaureate. Marwane B., CEO of the Canadian branch of a medical technology company, wanted us to sign a 12-page Mutual-NDA before continuing with our joint project. He emailed the contract to us only 2 days before our meeting, giving us no time to really understand every single clause of the document. But if we don’t sign it, we jeopardize our project and our academic year. Marc was resolute in his decision and wasn’t caving to the pressure. In the past few months, Marwane was a calm, cold and analytical guy. We looked up to him and viewed him as a mentor, but he completely shattered this image on that day when he saw that Marc wasn’t going to sign it then and there, making him lose his cool. He raised his voice at us, showed his anger, and told us that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.

There’s nothing better than a slap-in-the-face situation like this to become fully engaged in the moment.

We should have signed an NDA at the very beginning of the joint project but he didn’t know better. Only once we had submitted to him our innovative design of a medical device, he saw how it was potentially patent-able and commercially viable. He wanted full control and ownership of the IP, so he conjured up a “Mutual Agreement Non-Disclosure Agreement” in which he sneaked in a clause (in typical incomprehensible legal jargon) absolving him of having to to pay us a penny to use our idea. One of the requirements of a “mutual agreement” is that it must be mutually beneficial, and this one clearly wasn’t.

The NDA didn’t get signed and our relationship with the CEO became “us versus him”. And if we wanted our end-of-year project to go smoothly, we’d need to negotiate some kind of agreement. I wasn’t experienced in negotiation, so when asking close ones for advice, I was recommended a classic on the subject: Getting To Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

I devoured that book. In fact I cannot recall a book that I absorbed as well as this one. I was actively relating the concepts to my current experience. I spoke of the subject to my friends and family. And I also applied what I learned to my situation. It fundamentally shaped my negotiation style, and very good at confronting people problems without hurting the relationship, often strengthening it.

I discovered this way of engaging with books only by chance, but from then on, I no longer only read books out of mere interest in the subject. That’s the slow lane to learning from books. You’d think you’re on the fast lane, zooming through all these books, but at best you will remember superficial bits of information but you’ll be marginally wiser. Most of the time, you forget 99% of what you read. Granted, for a lot of people, that’s perfectly normal and fine, but I can’t help but feel that it’s inefficient.

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yes, the books you read make you. But the ones you reread, study and apply will further shape you. After what I experienced with Getting To Yes, I wanted to obtain more out of books. Specifically, I want to learn something that will change to way I view things and thus change my behavior for the better. I’m doing more than simply accumulating knowledge. I focus on acquiring wisdom. How are knowledge and wisdom two different things?

You can be a brilliant medical doctor who smokes cigarettes.

See the difference? Which one is more important? You can have excellent memory and actually remember most of what you read. But if you haven’t changed the your behavior, you probably haven’t gotten wiser. It’s like the book was mere entertainment. You need to select a book that is meaningful and throught-provoking to you, and you need to interact with its content by doing something with it. These go hand-in-hand, but allow me to elaborate:

  1. Read something related to something you care a lot about right now. This should come to you naturally, if you already have something you do care about. But if you don’t really care for the books, and you’re just reading for the sake of reading, just because you hear that it’s “good for you”, I suggest that you focus on something other than reading. Get out there and do something that excites you: A project, a hobby, something new and daunting. Figuring out what to do, in itself, can be challenging for some, but I’d say that’s your first project. You want to encounter these slap-in-the-face moments that will shift your mind into a sponge, at which point you can read effectively.
  2. Apply the things you read. Naturally, if you’re reading something because it’s on a subject you dearly care about, you’ll want to apply it. This is key. The majority of your learning isn’t going to happen while reading, it’ll happen when applying what you read. How many times have you read a lesson that resonated with you because you experienced it? Seek the experiences that will cement the lessons in your mind and use the book as a mentor or a tutor that guides you through your experiences. Go out there, get those reference experiences and reflect on how they compare to your readings.
  3. BONUS: Interact with your book. Don’t be afraid to highlight or circle interesting passages, place bookmarks and write your thoughts in the margins. At the end of a chapter, write down the important points you retained. Personally, I held back from doing that until only recently. Perhaps from habit, since the books I read were usually from the library, or perhaps because I felt from a sense of respect I had for books… But give it a try with a book, at least once. You might just find that you won’t want to go back to the old way — I don’t.

You might find that you won’t be reading as many books a year if you follow my suggestions. But it’s worth your time. Pick quality over quantity. Select books that are worth rereading and applying. And remember this quote:

“I don’t fear the man who learned 10,000 kicks once, I fear the man who practiced one kick 10,000 times.” — Bruce Lee

Going back to the NDA story, we met again with him to discuss it and see if we could make modifications. One of the most important concepts that the book taught me was to be tough on the problem but soft on the people. Separating the people from the problem allows for a flowing discussion where both parties can get to the root of the problem without being bogged down by ego. As negotiations went on (this spanned months) I managed to redirect the conversation whenever my colleagues entered a danger zone where things could degenerate into some sort of blame game.

In the end we managed to complete the project with Marwane’s cooperation (he let us use some of the company’s equipment) without having signed an NDA. However, as for the rights to the invention, he chose to drop that venture.

The company’s Canadian branch was shut down last year.

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