There’s a dirty little secret in self-help and personal development circles:
A lot of people “read” books, just to say that they’ve read them.
Most of the time they never actually finish the book, and when they supposedly do… they don’t understand what they’ve read, they haven’t thought about it critically, and they certainly haven’t implemented it.
It’s almost like they’re reading because “successful people read” and they want to belong to that class of people for status.1Masterclass was actually founded on this premise. Hat tip to Charles Ngo for pointing this out.
If you’ve ever done this before, don’t feel bad — we’ve all been there.
But it’s worth asking:
Can we actually do something about it?
Can we actually read a book or watch an online course and really learn something from it?
Why yes, yes we can 😁.
All we need to do is be systematic about how we actively read, learn and implement.
The Problem With Books and Online Courses
I have some friends and acquaintances who when I ask them if they’ve read a particular book they invariably say yes.
And this excites me because I like discussing interesting ideas and concepts.
But then when I start talking about critical points, frameworks or ideas from the book… they draw a blank.
They say, “I don’t remember that” or “I don’t understand”.
This is because while they have done the act of reading or watching, they have not done the acts of learning, absorbing, thinking or implementing what they have consumed.
They are simply passively consuming entertainment in the form of books (or courses).2Not surprisingly, most of these friends and acquaintances are huge fans of “edutainment”.
Whenever this happens, I sigh at the huge waste of opportunity and time.
If you are going to take the time to listen to an audiobook, read something or watch a course… it may as well benefit you in some way.
Why just go through the motions?
If you just want to entertain yourself, you may as well be hedonistic about it and watch or read something you actually enjoy, rather than a book because “everyone else has read it”.
And these friends and acquaintances of mine are not alone.
Seth Godin estimated that only 20% of his Udemy students actually completed their courses.
The industry-wide complete rate for online courses is 3% 😳.
That means 97% of people are buying online courses and not finishing them.
The average MOOC completion rate is 10%.
35-60% of people actually complete the book, depending on genre.3Fiction books are on the high-end of that, non-fiction on the low-end.
How to Actually Read, Learn and Implement
Now that we know just how poor the actual learning and implementation rate is… let’s build a system so that it never happens to us.
Perhaps something like this:
1. Have a growth mindset
The first thing you need is a growth mindset.
This is simply the idea that you can learn something and then improve your life with what you have learnt.
If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume that you already have one.
2. Track your consumption
I highly recommend creating lists of some sort to track what you are reading or consuming.
A simple list in Google Sheets or Excel is enough.
3. Work out what it is you are reading, watching or listening
It is worth clarifying what you are doing before you start doing it.
Many people like to rush into doing, and often don’t stop to think a bit about exactly what is going on — and that leads to people “just going through the motions”.
So take a look at what it is you have chosen to consume.
If it’s entertainment, there’s no need to learn anything. Just enjoy it!
If it’s a subject of interest, you might take a note here and there but mostly you will just consume it.
These are subjects that you read to expand your knowledge but aren’t directly applicable to your life and what you do.
For example, I might read a book about the Napoleonic Wars, but it has little to do with my work or personal life — it is simply “of interest”.
If it is something directly applicable, then you want to implement what you have learnt. For most people, these will be books, courses and other media related to business, skills or personal development.
4. Consume the material
Now that we know what we are working with, it’s time to actually consume it.
Here’s what I recommend.
If you are taking online courses, do them one at a time.
If there are transcripts, I usually read the transcripts as reading is faster than watching, even at 2x or 3x speed. If you need to clarify something from the transcript, then pull up the video and watch that section.
I read more than the average person but I wouldn’t say that I read a lot compared to prolific readers.
My recommendation is to read many books simultaneously, but across different genres. This could be:
- One business book.
- One fiction book.
- One personal development book.
- One comic.
All at the same time.
The best advice I’ve ever read about reading is from Ryan Holiday:
Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you.
Audiobooks and podcasts
These are great if you have a commute.
If you don’t have a commute… it’s really hard to find time to just sit down and listen, especially when reading is a faster and more effective learning modality.
Some people like to listen while eating or while they’re at the gym, but I am not a fan of either.
For this reason, I don’t listen to podcasts unless they come recommended by others. In that case, I’ll usually scale up the playback to 1.5x speed, then to 2.5x speed after a couple of minutes.
While consuming material
So what do you do when you are in the actual act of reading, listening or watching?
The first thing is to think critically.
Don’t take everything the author or creator is saying at face value — question it, see if it matches what you know, ask if it’s right or wrong.
Think, do not just passively consume.
The second thing is to create semantic links.
If you read something and it reminds you of something else, note it down.
I use a simple c.f., notation.
The third thing is to liberally note and highlight.
If you’re into print books, then margin notes, post-its and dog ears are for you.
If you’re into digital books then highlight and note away.
I also like Mike Schmitz’ technique from Bookworm — he creates a mind map on his phone whilst reading a print book.
The fourth thing to do is to practice the Feynman technique. This comes from physicist Richard Feynman and is a method for better learning.
- Identify the concept you want to learn.
- Write out a step-by-step logical explanation of the concept, as-if explaining it to a layman.
- Perform edit 1: Notice any gaps, go back, review material, and write them in.
- Perform edit 2: Simplify language and reduce complexity.
The easiest way to do this is to imagine that we will have to explain this concept to others later.
5. Post-consumption implementation
After you’ve read your book, listened to your podcast or watched your online course… then what?
If it’s something of length and worth implementing, I recommend creating a mind map or writing a short summary of what you have just read or watched.
This can be based on your notes and highlights, or just from memory.
For shorter pieces like articles or podcasts this usually isn’t necessary.
You should also create an implementation list, for both longer and shorter pieces.
This is a list of actions that you need to do.
For example, if you read a business book, you can immediately go into your project management system and create a new project for implementation.
For personal material, you can list out the principles, actions, beliefs and mindsets you need to adopt or think about.
I also highly recommend creating a review schedule for longer material.4Credit to Pete Sergeant of CareerJS for introducing this to me many years ago.
This is where you review your mind map or short summary at these intervals:
- Three days.
- Three weeks.
- Three months.
- One year.
- Five years.
This can be easily set up in any task management app.
Bonus: What About Book Summaries?
I know many people who swear by book summaries instead of actually reading a book.
My perspective is that books and courses are an opportunity to step into the author’s or creator’s perspective and see how they experience the world.
Reading a summary robs you of that.
It also robs you of the chance to make semantic links, to think critically and to intentionally learn something.
What I do like summaries for is in deciding whether to read a book. I’ll use them alongside reviews to see if it’s worth investing time into a particular book or course.
What To Do Next
Reading, learning and listening are not passive activities. If you want to make the most of them, you must actively do them!
Go forth, read, learn, listen… and implement.
- Masterclass was actually founded on this premise. Hat tip to Charles Ngo for pointing this out.
- Not surprisingly, most of these friends and acquaintances are huge fans of “edutainment”.
- Fiction books are on the high-end of that, non-fiction on the low-end.
- Credit to Pete Sergeant of CareerJS for introducing this to me many years ago.
Photos by Daria Nepriakhina, Madalyn Cox, Aaron Burden.