How to learn the most from your reading goals

3 ways to approach reading new books

Kai Wong
Kai Wong
Jan 29, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

If your goal this year is to read more books, congratulations.

This is one of the best ways to gain knowledge, improve your thinking, and better yourself.

But the next question you should ask yourself is this: How should you read?

It sounds like a silly question, but most people’s goals about reading are centered around the number of books they read in a year.

But that’s a poor metric to use in the acquisition of knowledge.

There’s a method that every single one of you could use to easily read 100 books in a month: you could read kid’s books. They’re short, easy to read, and pretty fun.

But will you learn?

If you’re wondering how to read and what you should be reading, 3 use cases you might like to consider.

This is the one that everyone always cites, which is to read at least a book a week. But nobody ever talks about what you should read, aside from some business recommendations.

The thing is, if you want to read like a CEO, you have to think like a CEO. That means reading anything and everything that will give you a competitive advantage.

Billionaire Mark Cuban got a job selling computers when he knew next to nothing about them. To get a competitive advantage, he would read software manuals: you know, the thing most people find boring.

“Every night I would take home a different software manual, and I would read it. Of course the reading was captivating. Peachtree Accounting. Wordstar, Harvard Graphics, PFS, dBASE, Lotus, Accpac… Every night I would read some after getting home, no matter how late.

Turns out not a lot of people ever bothered to RTFM (read the fricking manual), so people started thinking I knew my stuff.”

Warren Buffett, everyone’s favorite billionaire investor, reads the newspapers, books, but also reads a whole lot of ‘boring’ financial reports that are hundreds of pages long to get a competitive advantage.

“We don’t read other people’s opinions. We want to get the facts, and then think.” says Warren.

So how do you read like a CEO?

Figure out your area of interest: Mark Cuban isn’t reading financial reports, because his main interest isn’t trying to understand the stock market.

He’s not even reading software manuals anymore. He starts his day with newspapers, 6 magazines, and other tech-related newsletters.

He’s reading to understand the world of tech because that’s his new area of interest. Before deciding what to read, you need to know what area your interests lie in because that’s where all your reading energy will be focused.

I’m sure Warren Buffett can appreciate a nice fictional story, but that’s not what he’s reading every day.

So figure out one area where you want to concentrate all your effort towards: try to make it somewhat general (such as technology) so that you are not limited by the types of books you can read.

For example, Warren Buffett reads about securities, stocks, financial crises, and many other things that relate to the overall area of interest in the stock market.

Figure out your competitive advantage: What’s too boring or uncommon to read? That’s something that you might want to consider, once you’ve picked your domain.

CEOs don’t read purely for fun (although they seem to enjoy it): they’re there to learn something that people aren’t willing to, to have a competitive advantage.

My wife hates that I read more than three hours almost every day, but it gives me a level of comfort and confidence in my business. — Mark Cuban

So what will bring you that level of confidence in your area of interest?

For example, if you chose the area of interest as “Solar”, here’s a list of things you might want to read about (that are considered boring) that will give you a competitive edge:

  • How do circuits/electricity work
  • What are and how to calculate Amps, Watts, Voltage, etc.
  • What are battery specifications and the difference between types
  • What are advances in battery technology
  • What are legislation issues around solar, wind, geothermal
  • What is the cost/benefit compared to coal, nuclear, etc?

Some of these might involve reading engineering textbooks, hardware manuals, policy/legislation documents, not to mention tinkering with actual hardware.

But at the very end of it, you can be sure you can speak with confidence about the subject, to the point where you can teach a complete novice.

But what if that doesn’t sound like the type of reading you like to do? Then perhaps, consider another model.

Rather than focusing on reading for a competitive advantage, a researcher mindset is focused on making connections.

This usually entails a significant amount of reading, but not a high quantity of books. This is because of two reasons:

  1. You don’t read books straight from cover to cover
  2. You need to synthesize the data.

The first reason is usually related to the way you approach reading. Let’s take a book that both a CEO and a Researcher might read, as the power of Habit.

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This is a great book, btw

The book begins with an example of how a small request (keeping food stands out of the plaza where people congregate) led to the reduction in riots and violence.

The CEO mindset would accept that as proof of the fundamental argument of the book (which is what they’re trying to glean from this) and read on.

The researcher mindset, which is about connections, might want to investigate that incident further or see if there are other things that they’ve read in the past which correlate with this.

As a result, they may stop to make notes, or even pause their reading entirely to look something up. This is so that they can synthesize the data into their existing understanding.

This may result in fewer books read from cover to cover in one reading session, but a better understanding of connections that exist between them. That’s not saying that the first model can’t yield similar insights: the difference is the approach in how you read.

A CEO may try to summarize big picture insights and things that resonate with them upon completing a book.

A Researcher looks at details along the way to see if those things tie into their existing body of knowledge.

So how do you read like a researcher?

Start from the bottom-up: Let’s say that you want to know a lot about Artificial Intelligence. Rather than reading general overviews of the field, along with the ‘formative works’ of AI, try and find works that pertain to the specific questions that you have. So, for example, “How can Artificial Intelligence determine when something is a tumor?”

Check for the sources: A simple statement like “A 2016 study showed that people preferred X.” shouldn’t be discounted. Find that study and read up on it a little (perhaps not from start to finish) to understand if there are additional insights to be gained from reading through it.

Have insight as to why you’re reading a book: This can apply to each reading model, but it particularly applies here. You should come in with a solid understanding of why you’re trying to read something. So for example, “I’m trying to learn more about how AI can diagnose bad data.” This will help in preparing you to stop and re-read or analyze specific passages as it relates to your goal.

But what if you think both of these models are too analytical and will kill the enjoyment of reading? Then you might want to consider a 3rd model.

If the CEO is about big picture insights, and the researcher is about the connections, then the traveler is about the journey.

The simplest example of this comes from Freakonomics: they ask questions like how does economic theory ties into sumo wrestling (or drug dealing). The creative is concerned with some of the factors or influences that lead things to turn out in a specific way.

As a result, they’re more concerned with how a book goes from one step to the next. Understanding the experiences and how a person was able to overcome a challenge or accomplish a goal, is what they are aiming to achieve.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ―William Styron, Conversations with William Styron

How do you read like a traveler?

Search for books that incorporate journeys: Textbooks that lay things out from chapter to chapter are not necessarily what you’re looking for. In a classic literature sense, you’re looking for elements of a “hero’s journey”.

If you wanted to read about Richard Feynman, for example:

  • A CEO would want big picture insights and an understanding of factors on how Feynman pioneered new fields of study or his many other accomplishments
  • A researcher might delve into the details to see how his personal accounts compare with narratives about building the atomic bomb
  • A traveler would be interested in how a boy from Queens became one of the most famous physicists of all time.

Read outside of one genre, but draw connections: You should actively be searching outside of one domain to find books that interest you. The hero’s journey is present in many different genres, most notably in fiction.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a fictional story about the journey that happens when you follow your dreams. Thru-Hiking will break your heart by Carrot Quinn is a non-fictional story about following a crazy dream of walking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Coast Trail.

Both of them have more in common (and interest) than you might think.

Understanding that journey is part of the interest you might have as a traveler.

I write about UX Design, Healthcare, and Productivity regularly. If you would like to learn how to communicate better with UX Designers, check out my online course.

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Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +753K people. Follow to join our community.

Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +753K people. Follow to join our community.

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