Read a Little, Learn a Lot.

Our role models are constantly seeking ways to get better at the things they care about. Reading is one way this is done. President Harry Truman reminds us that “Not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader.” To be an authority in a field, having domain knowledge is important. We just don’t have the time to learn everything first-hand ourselves. Absorbing the experience of others recorded in books is a sure-fire shortcut to expertise. US Military General, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has travelled the world serving his country. He considers reading one of the more powerful and important tools he has. His lifelong commitment to reading has led to the accumulation of many books. As he was transferred throughout his career from one station to another, he brought his books with him. This became quite a logistical challenge, but Mattis made it happen. Having access to the books from which his knowledge was built was and remains important to him.

Life is short, our time here is limited. We simply don’t have the luxury of figuring everything out on our own. In a ruthless quest for efficiency, we should absorb the lessons learned by those who have come before. Books are a great source to accelerate our learning. We can accelerate our advancement with reading. As Tomie dePaola reminds us, “Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn about everything and everything about anything.” If you are aspiring to become an achiever at anything, you are going to bump up against problems. You will encounter struggles and situations with which you are not familiar. As a leader, you’ll be seeking the front of the line where the steps aren’t necessarily laid out clearly. You’ll be operating without a map. Nonetheless, you can take comfort that others have faced similar situations in the past. They have found their way through the quagmire. Your path forward will be much more efficient if you are prepared to learn from the past efforts of others. To persist on going it alone is not just stubborn, but costly in terms of both time and effort. The only “shortcut” to self-improvement is reading. The surest path to self-improvement is reading.

I recall a conversation I had with a friend some years ago regarding a book I was encouraging her to read because I thought the contents would be both enjoyable and meaningful for her. She replied something to the effect of, “I don’t have time to read, I’m busy living.” She said it almost as a boast, that what she was doing was more important than reading. Her response struck me as odd. This woman is a remarkable individual. She has a tireless work ethic. She is the mother of six. Yes, six children. At the time, they were all fourteen or younger. She is actively involved in their extra curricular activities, engaged on several boards, and is, generally, an uber achiever. She gets things done. So, when she says, she’s busy, she’s not kidding. Nonetheless, I thought it odd that time couldn’t be made on some level to read something that could help one become better at what they cared about. I thought that the valuable things that occupied her time (and each of ours) are not an excuse to not find time to read, but, precisely, the reason to read. Because I have six children and care deeply about helping them find their way in life, I must make time to read. Because I care about contributing to X cause, I must make time to read. Because being the best I can at my job is important to me, I must make time to read and learn. The things that we care about are the exact reason we should take time to read and become better at them.

A while back I read that Warren Buffett spends six hours a day reading, and that is the key part of what he does and what he attributes his success to. That seems like a massive commitment of time, but his results are hard to dispute. Our military mind, Mattis, even when serving as Secretary of Defense in recent years, still sought to schedule a block of one hour every day specifically for reading. Independent of (or better yet, specifically because) how busy his schedule was or what international crisis he was responsible for making decisions upon, he still ensured that time was set aside to read, learn, and improve.

Reading may seem like one more burden to add to our day. However, reading is, as Richard Steele notes, “to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Reading is one of those activities where we are demonstrating that we are helping ourselves improve. Mark Twain wrote, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” General Mattis echoes this in his book, Call Sign Chaos, where he observes, “if you haven’t read hundreds of books, you’re functionally illiterate.” Those who are successful view reading not as a hobby or something we should, maybe, possibly do when the stars align, and we can get around to it. Reading is, instead, a vital requirement of our efforts. From Mattis’ perspective, humans have been around for a lot longer than he has (or any of us have). We’ve been arguing about and fighting about similar things. To not avail ourselves of the experience and understanding of those who have come before us is not the path to being effective. Where one has the responsibility of making decisions that impacts many people’s lives, this becomes even more so the case.

Mattis writes, “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.” If we view it as the highest privilege and our duty, we can help ourselves by making time for this important activity. Internalizing that this activity is a get to and not a have to is the entry point to opening our mind to incorporating more reading into our days. An email from Mattis to a colleague that responds to a question about being too busy to read is included in an appendix to Mattis’ book, Call Sign Chaos. It is well worth the read. Like so many of the other principles put forth in this book, you have the choice to act on them for your benefit.

Leaders, and those seeking excellence in any field, have an insatiable hunger for improvement. They want to get better. They value education and information. Yet, how many of us actively have a reading practice? How many of us have the discipline to set aside specific time each day to read? How many of us set goals for specific books we’re trying to digest in order to advance in our fields? Of all the steps you’re taking to improve yourself, how does reading factor in? Since you’ve completed school, how many books have you read? Too many of us think that learning is something that is done in a classroom. Contrast this with the personal commitment to learning made by those committed to improving at something. They own their learning. They choose their courses. They burrow down in their books. They develop their discipline while educating themselves.

The above is an excerpt from the Conclusion chapter of Earn Everything.

“No man can get anywhere in this world in any really and endurable manner without some recourse to books.” 

—H.L. Mencken

 Rory Vaden writes in Take the Stairs, “If you’re like most people in the world today, then you have read fewer than five books cover to cover in your lifetime.” Separately, a Pew Research Center study looked into reading habits of Americans. What they found was both disappointing and inspiring. In the US, more than a quarter of adults don’t read books at all. This trend seems to be continuing in a bad way. However, richer adults are three times more likely to read than those with household income less than $30,000. Families with annual income of $100,000 or more typically have twice the number of books at home than those with family incomes of $35,000 or more. College graduates are five times more likely to read than high school graduates. It seems the smarter and richer or richer and smarter folk find time to read. With the typical North American spending ten times as much time watching TV as they do reading, too little time to read isn’t much of an excuse.

In a world of COVID where we’ve been restricted in many ways, reading offers great freedom. We can escape, travel, be entertained, and learn all from the exact place we find ourselves. Some suggest reading fiction is useful not just for the entertainment but in order to develop empathy. Reading stories helps us get inside the mind and experiences others are feeling. Additionally, reading is a way to exercise our brain. It develops our ability to concentrate, remember details, and think about problems. Reading is like putting fertilizer on your brain. Enjoy what others are experiencing by picking up something to read. Book sales have experienced a bit of a surge in the past year. We can read blogs, articles, and books. We can read books on our smartphones. We can even listen to books through apps like Audible. It doesn’t much matter what or how you read. Whether for pleasure or purpose, read. Something. Anything. Develop a commitment to cultivating a regular reading practice. Devote a small amount of time daily to reading. Try starting with fifteen minutes and increase as your interest grows.

“Isn’t reading a kind of preparation for life?” Epictetus

In Burn Your Goals, Joshua Medcalf and Jamie Gilbert reinforce the value Epictetus places on reading writing, “If you aren’t happy with where you are in life, then START READING MORE!!!! READ, and then read some more, and DON’T EVER STOP. NONE of your traits are fixed, they can all be developed and grow with hard work, better strategies, and persistence.” Children’s book author, Judy Blume leaves us with a question to consider: “I can promise reading will change your life for the better. You’ll be smarter, savvier, you’ll have a way to connect with people of all ages, and you’ll never be bored. What could be better?”

Judy’s question comes from her contribution to a great book, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, which is a book featuring a compilation of essays from individuals that have experienced success in a variety of fields. The essays offer a tribute from each writer to the value that reading has had in their lives. Artists, writers, entrepreneurs, scientists, professors, and more are part of the eclectic contributors to this book. Each contribution is less than a page long and is accompanied with a an artist’s sketch capturing the idea of each. The project was put together is a fundraising initiative to support libraries in New York.

In A Velocity of Being, author Anne Lamott provides a warm testament to the pleasure of reading, “If you love to read, or learn to love reading, you will have an amazing life. Period. Life will always have hardships, pressure, and incredibly annoying people, but books will make it all worthwhile. In books, you will find your North Star, and you will find you, which is why you are here. Books are paper ships, to all the worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and — the most precious stunning journey of all — into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body. Out of these flat almost two-dimensional boxes of paper will spring mountains, lions, concerts, galaxies, heroes. You will meet people who have been all but destroyed, who have risen up and will bring you with them. Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits. And in reading, you will laugh harder than you ever imagined laughing, and this will be magic, heaven, and salvation. I promise.”

“I really had a lot of dreams when I was a kid, and I think a great deal of that grew out of the fact that I had a chance to read a lot.” –Bill Gates–

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  1. […] a past article we recommended reading as a little thing that can make a big difference. If you’re accepting of […]

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