13 Lessons On Why, What And How To Read

February 20, 2020
Estimated reading time:
6 minutes

To become a learning machine, you must read.

There are no two ways about it. Learning is not something you do in school or university. It’s not something that is done to you. You must take ownership of it, and dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. The best way to do that is to become a voracious reader.

Below are some of my favourite lessons that I’ve learned from (reading) the wisdom of others, in particular Morgan Housel, Patrick Collison and Naval Ravikant.

‘Every smart person I know is a voracious reader who also says “every smart person I know is a voracious reader.” There are so few exceptions to this rule it’s astounding.’

-- Morgan Housel

What do billionaire Mark Cuban, bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman and best-selling author Tucker Max all have in common? They’ve all, at some point, said some variation on: “Everybody wants to be a star, but no one wants to do the work.” Reading is the work you need to do.

“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

-- Mark Twain

Knowing what you need to do isn’t enough. You have to put in the work. Otherwise, as General James Mattis says, you’re “functionally illiterate.” There’s literally no difference between choosing not to read and not being able to read.

‘A really good book costs $10 or $20 and can change your life in a meaningful way.’

-- Naval Ravikant

Think about it: writing a book takes hundreds of hours of an author’s time. They might toil over their work for years on end, getting to grips with structure, narrative, crafting and shaping each sentence, and finally releasing their work into the world. And when that happens, you can pick it up for the same amount you might earn in an hour or two, if that. What an incredible bargain.

‘You could try to pound your head against the wall and think of original ideas or you can cheat by reading them in books.’

-- Patrick Collison

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You don’t need to be original all the time. You don’t need to solve problems that other people have already solved: you can just read about what they did, and do the same. Isn’t that amazing?

‘Read what you love until you love to read.’

-- Naval Ravikant

Don’t feel like you have to read hardcore physics textbooks, or the great American novels, or anything that anyone in particular recommends to you. Just read whatever you enjoy reading. Cultivating the habit of reading is far more important than trying to optimise it from the outset.

‘At every moment you should be reading the best book you know of in the world. I don’t mean the absolute best for everyone, but the best book for you. As soon as you discover something that seems more interesting or more important or whatever, you should absolutely discard your current book in favor of that.’

-- Patrick Collison

There are more books in an average sized bookstore than one person can read in a lifetime. Assuming you manage to read one book per week from the age of 5 until you die at the ripe old age of 90 (which would put you above 99% of people out there), you’d still only manage to read less than 5,000 books. That sounds like a reasonable amount, until you consider that around 2.2 million books are published each year. Given those stats, you should move on to a better the moment you can.

‘The greatest gains come from selecting the right set of books to read. Those books are likely older than the ones that are really popular today.’

-- Eugene Wei
‘If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years.’

-- Nassim Taleb

Eugene Wei tells you that older books are likely to be more valuable. Nassim Taleb tells you why. This is Taleb’s so-called ‘Lindy rule’, which is the idea that for certain things, like books, the remaining useful life is equivalent to the time it has already existed. So a book that has only been released is expected to fade away quickly; a book that has been around for years is expected to continue to last.

This means, as Wei suggests, you should be biased towards reading much older books: by virtue of the fact they’ve survived so long, they’re probably pretty good. You could read the latest self-help book, which may or may not still be relevant 5 years from now -- or you could read the Bible, or Letters from a Stoic, or the Dao De Ching, or Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Books that have survived hundreds or thousands of years because they've proven their worth.

‘Read books that the ideal version of yourself (in 20 years) would have been proud to have read. If you’re reading challenging or intimidating books, you’re probably on the right track.’

-- David Perell

Keep pushing yourself to read more challenging material. Like with weight training, you must continue to push yourself over time in order to keep developing.

‘You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.’

-- Seneca

Find great writers that you love, and become deeply acquainted with their work. My list includes Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday, Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and several others.

‘My reading strategy is to start as many books as I can but finish few of them.’

-- Morgan Housel

Morgan’s recommendation of rarely finishing books is due to the fact that ‘most books don’t need to be read to the end, but some books can change your life.’ Therefore, he recommends lots of inputs and a strong filter. Don’t be afraid to put a book down halfway through. As Patrick Collison mentioned above, there is a better book out there for you. Go and read that instead.

‘If the book is getting a little boring, I’ll skip ahead. Sometimes I’ll start reading a book in the middle because some paragraph caught my eye and I’ll just continue from there, and I feel no obligation whatsoever to finish the book.’

-- Naval Ravikant

Skip, skim, go back, go forward, flick between books. It doesn’t matter. It’s all up to you. Read whatever you want. Read it in whatever order you want to. Feel free to put down a book you’re struggling with and pick it back up again in a couple of weeks.

‘Reading is an honor and a gift from a warrior or a historian who—a decade or a thousand decades ago—set aside time to write.’

-- General Mattis

Lastly, we should consider how humbling it is that we get to read the writings not just of authors or journalists, but entrepreneurs, CEOs, athletes, emperors, philosophers, kings and queens -- all of whom have taken the time throughout hundreds of years to write down their thoughts and wisdom down so that one day you could benefit from it. Let’s not squander such an incredible gift.

Related posts

Did you like this?

I write a weekly email newsletter called Human Capital, where I share all the interesting things I’ve written or found in the last 7 days. I aim to make you healthier, wealthier, wiser, and smarter than when you woke up in the morning.

Sign up below and you’ll get the very next one. No spam, ever, I promise.