At first, I was going to title this, “The Problem with Reading Books.”
But then I figured… it’s not really a problem is it? If you’re reading books?
You’re out there to learn. To add stuff to your brain. So you can use that stuff in real life and improve yourself, your work, your craft, your environment or just…to understand of the world around you. No problem here really.
So, what’s the challenge of reading books for self-improvement and knowledge then?
(Note: I don’t mean self-help books. More like business/marketing books, how-to books, analytical books, science books, and so on. But, I guess you can apply them here too.)
Well, take all of the best copywriting books I’ve read. Or take books like… Good to Great (business), Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (science), Factfulness (thinking models), A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age (more thinking models), An Actor Prepares (on acting), Save the Cat (on screenwriting), A/B testing books, and so on.
There’s a bit I remember.
And there’s a whole lot that I don’t .
Meaning, there’s a whole lot that I read that just went… “in one ear and out the other.”
And all in all, you could say, life hasn’t shifted a considerable inch in a good, measurable direction. Well, I’m sure it’s helped, but I have no measurable proof.
I think I’ve plowed though a lot of books just to “get them done” and move onto the next one.
And that’s the challenge with reading. You read. You feel temporarily smarter. There’s a sense of achievement that you’ve finished the book. Then, you move onto the next… and it all gets slowly pushed to the back of your brain, until it fades out of your short-term memory.
You read, read, read and nothing happens.
Some quick-witted reader at this very point will reply with, “Yes, you read and didn’t apply. Just apply. Simple as that.”
And you’re right.
Some of my favorite books are workbooks and books with questions at the end of each chapter. As well as writing like The Gary Halbert Letters (on copywriting)… where the author takes jabs at you, tells you to “do this,” and if you don’t do it, you’re a “<insert insult.>” I love those. Because there, it’s a lot easier to put the info into practice. With the Gary Halbert Letters, I actually did write out all of the headlines on flashcards… and did all the the feature to benefit write-ups.
But it’s not always easy to apply.
Especially with topics that you’re not actively working on in your day-job, hobby, or otherwise. For example, I’m a marketer/copywriter first. So when I read a book like “An Actor Prepares” or “Save the Cat,” since I’m not out there writing TV scripts or preparing for a movie, it’s not easy to put it to use. Aside from knowing what a “logline” is and that scripts are very much templated, I don’t remember the specifics.
Perhaps, part of the issue lies in with reading books that aren’t immediately relevant or applicable.
Above, I wrote
“And all in all, you could say, life hasn’t shifted a considerable inch in a good, measurable direction.”
Maybe aside from not applying, I’m also reading about topics that are a bit out of reach for me. And maybe then it should be OK to forget it…. unless I proactively take steps into that said topic, or industry.
I remember reading some article on why self-help books miss the mark. I don’t remember what it was, otherwise I’d link it here. I’m sure self-help books miss the mark on many things… But what it said was interesting.
Along the lines of, “the general advice they give is great, but it’s not quite attuned to your situation.” Kind of like reading a book about stretching and physical therapy because you have pain in your leg. But you don’t have an actual physiotherapist on hand to evaluate your actual situation. If that pain is indeed in your leg or a result from something up the chain.
You’re on your own to bridge the gap… if you try.
But you have to bridge that gap.
Learning is 1/2 “acquiring” and 1/2 “using/practicing.”
So, missing half of the equation isn’t learning.
If you’re smart enough to try and bridge the gap on your own, more power to you. In my eyes, you’re indeed pretty smart. You put in effort despite being on your own… with just a book on hand.
Currently, I’m reading “You Should Test That: Conversion Optimization for More Leads, Sales and Profit or The Art and Science of Optimized Marketing.” Inside, the author goes through their methodology of AB test. Insightful to read. But, yes, you need to stop…
- consider what the advice is
- think about how to implement it to your situation
- and implement it.
Am I complaining? No. It’s worth putting in work. You should put in work.
And again, I consider you smart and above average if you use what the book offers and try to make it work.
It just makes me think of the gap of “where the author is” and “where the reader is.” This natural gap makes it challenging for the average reader to implement, if do anything at all. Of course, if the author was right by you, you’d have an easier time. As with the pain/physical and the physical therapist example up top.
And it does make me feel many people read books only to have everything go in one ear and out the other.
What a waste.
Often, we want to blame the reader or user 100% for not taking action.
There is some truth to it.
The “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” truth.
But probably not the whole truth.
I think it’s on the author too… to bridge that gap. And educate the reader on how to apply what they read or take action. Otherwise, you’re like a 3rd grade math teacher dropping calculus problems on your 3rd grade math students and blaming them for not being able to figure out “calculus” in 3rd grade.
You have to bridge the gap.
Find out where the reader is… and meet them there. Kind of like assessments in language schools. You do a level check so that they know what level of class to place you in. Otherwise, you’ll be thrown into Advanced Japanese while still a beginner.
So, what’s to be done with this challenge of reading too many books? Here are my thoughts.
- Classify which books you’re reading for fun/inspiration and which you’re reading for learning. I do this. And it makes me feel less guilty about forgetting what I’ve read.
- Don’t read too many books. I know, I know. I’d have trouble taking this advice as well. Then, maybe better advice would be…
- If the book ain’t good, walk away. Also some advice I have trouble with. I like “getting things done.” But, if 1) I’m not going to take action and 2) I don’t enjoy it, I may as well save time and effort and walk away.
- You have to take action on what you’ve read.
- Try to associate what you’ve read to something you already know. Ask yourself, “what is this like?” and answer the question.
- Revamp your reading session. Instead of reading for 100% of the session, read for 50-70% of the time, and use the rest to ask yourself questions about what you’ve learned, or write out examples. In the case of language learning and reading language books, it makes no sense to “read” some grammar rules alone — that’s just half of the battle and it’s not quite “Learning” until you start practicing. It’s good to apply this approach to all other books too.
- And if the book topic isn’t in line with what you currently do, leave it or read it for fun.
- Authors should most definitely include questions at the end of each chapter to jog your memory.
- Authors should most definitely start chapters with a summary of what you’ll learn… and end the chapter with a summary of what you’ve learned. Repetition is good for the brain.
- Authors/publishers should sell supplemental material – quizzes, worksheets, workbooks, and whatnot – for their books. Wouldn’t be too hard to come up with 50 questions about your book and slap a $5-10 price on it, would it?
Anything else that I’m missing?
These are just a few of my thoughts on … 1) reading too much, 2) having things go in one ear and out the other and 3) what to do about it.
What are your thoughts?
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