It’s Not How You Read, It’s Who You Listen To
Humans only read for one reason: We read in order to grow.
Sometimes, the growth is so minuscule it seems irrelevant — but it never is.
When you’re sad, you may decide to read a funny comic. The comic is meant to transform your state of sadness into one of joy. You want to laugh. You want to be distracted. You want to feel entertained. Only then will you be able to move on with your day, and the reading supports that change.
Of course, you might also read a novel. A murder thriller perhaps, or an epic in which the hero tragically loses his wife. That’s a deeper form of processing your sadness than the comic, and while there’s no saying when you’ll need which, there is no doubt that both serve reading’s universal outcome: growth.
If you look at it this way, everything you read is self-help. A press release expands your knowledge. A novel alters your identity. A diet book molds your body. Again, even reading for leisure is part of your trajectory of growth. After all, we can’t enjoy the fruits of our labor if we never eat them. Sometimes, growth is just patience. We can’t rush certain timelines, and reading may be our training until we’re ready.
If reading stems from a desire to grow, you’re reading more self-help than you know. You may rarely pick up pop science books, but even without realizing it, all of what you read, you read because you want change. Whether it comes in the form of outright advice, inspiration by osmosis, creativity, entertainment, or knowledge will differ in each case, but the underlying goal is the same.
The funny thing about “self-help” is that it’s not self-driven at all. Self-help is just help.
You go to the self-help section in the book store, but all the books are written by other people. You read someone’s biography and it inspires you — that’s help. You follow someone’s recipe for a meal, a workout, or building a business — that’s help. You do an exercise someone suggests, write in a journal someone structured, or take it easy for a day after reading someone’s article — all of this is help. Reading is getting help.
You didn’t have to pay someone to do the job for you. You didn’t see a therapist or order the result online. You didn’t have to ask for it in public, reveal something embarrassing, or allow a stranger to enter your house for it to happen, but even though you did it behind the soft hum of your glimmering screen or inside the quiet comfort of your living room chair, you still accepted help. I think that’s wonderful. It’s empowering.
Under this model, there are no limits to how much we can help each other. We can’t solve every problem this way, but we sure can overcome a whole lot. If only we were a little more upfront about it. If only the book section was called “Help.” In the long run, it sure matters that we not only give each other fish but teach one another how to catch them. But for today? I’ll gladly settle for everyone eating — or, in this case, everyone reading.
As beautiful as it is that we can ask for and receive help in private by reading, the miracle comes attached to an extraordinary task: We must choose when, what, and why specifically we read — and thus the people who’ll be helping.
In a world where over two million books see the light of day each year, and over three times as many blog posts are published daily, this is a burden of monumental size. Make no mistake: What you flick through on the toilet matters. Your phone is the library of Alexandria, home to the world’s stories and knowledge. Unfortunately, there are no curators cataloging titles and no librarian to point the way — sifting through words has become a lonely, never-ending job for all of us. The importance of doing it can not be overstated.
Humans can only teach what they’ve become, so the help we give will always be based on who we are. If your dad is an accountant, he can’t teach you to be a singer. If your sister is disorganized, don’t ask her for productivity advice. And if the guy doling out marriage tips on the web is divorced, you should probably stop reading.
It’s always hard to question advice, especially if it sounds right and well-intended, but when it comes to reading “help” online, we often take instruction from complete strangers. All we have to judge their expertise is a 100-character bio and a tiny picture. We never saw them studying personal finance. We don’t know how they behave in real-life. How can we tell if they’re qualified? How can we see their intentions?
These are tough questions, and they get to the heart of a truth most reading advice glosses over: Reading well is choosing your teachers wisely.
This principle trumps every speed reading guide, every memorization tip, and every note-taking system. A million helping hands won’t be enough if they’re the hands of the wrong people. First and foremost, you must not grow in the wrong direction.
Unlike the specifics of reading more and faster, the process of selecting your counselors carefully does not break into a stream of easy answers. Picking your teachers is a matter of trust — and trust is formed slowly. You can put your life savings into a stranger’s hands in a casino, but who wants to gamble with their future? As with our partners, friends, and family, we must make time to know those whose words we plan to heed.
As overwhelmingly as the odds are stacked against us in this matter — devices designed to sell our attention, armies of independent actors, word tsunamis crashing onto our biased little minds — there is a unique source of support always available to us, and it comes, as the best help often does, from the unlikeliest of places: No one knows you better than yourself. As long as you have faith in why you’re choosing who to listen to, even the wrong turns will become part of the way.
This may sound hard to believe and harder yet to enact, but that’s why faith is called faith and your gut is your gut: One is about conviction, the other about intuition. If your conviction is to trust your intuition, your hunches become more convincing. Long-term faith, short-term feeling — the two go hand in hand.
Whether the death of a loved one calls for comics or crime thrillers is not a psychologist’s call to make, though she may hand you a third option you’ll end up perusing. You must decide in the moment, and whatever you decide will be right at the time. Some challenges will require scrutiny in picking our authors, others may prompt us to go with the flow. Often, we’ll do the opposite of what the world wants us to do, and eventually, life will prove us right regardless.
Ultimately, growth is driven by reason and awareness, much more so than by even the most powerful externalities. Minus thought and reflection, the libraries of the world are no different than the casinos. If you’re deliberate and observant in your choice of texts and authors, however, you’ll find they all offer something to gain, whether it’s an exact map of where to go or a template of who you don’t want to become.
We read for change and who we read is who we ask for help. How much help they can give us depends on how much their lives overlap with ours. This is not an easy metric to track, but it triumphs over even the best read-more-and-faster advice. As if it was part of the plan, our best chance of managing our counselors lies in relying on ourselves. Have confidence in your ability to choose your teachers, and have faith in the teachers you choose.
It’s true that what we read is what we get, but it is on us to decide that what we got was what we needed. As long as we hold that trust deep down, reading will always lead to growth.