Reading. Harry Truman once said “Not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers.” They read for knowledge more so than pleasure. They read to learn how things work so they can figure out how to do them better. Or how not to do them. They read to acquire new databases and better lenses they can use to make smarter decisions, have more meaningful relationships and live more fully and freely.
Knowing what and how to read is important in a world of relentless infoglut. While we can’t know everything we need to understand, we can certainly decide what we must know more about. Managing our only irreplaceable resource requires that we spend it more wisely than squandering it on an endless chain of mindless or inconsequential items of passing interest. When we were young, we were told to finish what we started. This rule should never apply to reading. There are far too many books to stick with than those that don’t or won’t nourish the intellect. Worry about the quality of your reading, not the quantity of same.
Many re-read what they can’t remember having read in the first place. Their brains determined it was trash and hence deleted it rather than storing it. That’s how our memories work – there’s only so much room in there. And it comes at a high opportunity cost – you could have been doing more purposeful things. Perhaps, discovering the importance of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset (believing you can improve) or Howard Marks’ second-level thinking (learning to think beyond immediate consequences) might serve you better than reading the latest mystery thriller or romantic escapade. Fiction entertains the brain; non-fiction informs it. We have time for both and the choice and ratio of time invested is entirely yours.
As for the how of reading, since time is our most precious resource, if you want to retain what you find helpful or fascinating, then develop a recall system for mining what will prove useful. There are different ways of doing this and you can perfect what works best for you. I read roughly 80 books a year and, like most, my memory is not as reliable as I might wish it to be. My system is to jot down in my own words what I find insightful on a separate piece of paper. I skip the mindless connective tissue of mundane stories and irrelevant examples. Then I write a half-page summary of the salient discoveries and move these cutting-edge nuggets into my inventory of research items. I may not trust my brain to remember but I do know where to find what I need when I need it.
Like listening, reading is a skill that, once learned, we don’t much worry about how to improve. If you think of your mind as a library, ask yourself these three questions: Is the information I’ve stored there accurate and relevant? Can I retrieve it on demand? And can I use it when I need it? There’s little point having a repository of knowledge if you don’t know where to find it or can’t apply it when required.
Placebos. They fascinate me because they help explain the power of our beliefs. A placebo can be a pill, a worry doll, a lucky charm, a ritual or a nasal spray. A mountain of research confirms that they can actually make us feel better. Active medical ingredients are not required because the mind happens to be our best healer. And believing that something will make us feel or perform better really does. While science confirms placebos work, it doesn’t yet explain why this is so. Placebo effects are apparently much stronger for psychological maladies than they are for physical ones (like cancer). But they also do occur in non-medical contexts – studies indicate placebo treatments can enhance creativity and boost cognitive performance.
A recent investigation outlined in Scientific Reports indicated that a placebo can even make us move faster. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, is evidence of this phenomenon – in every game he played, he followed the same ritual. He wore his college shorts under his Bull’s uniform in the belief that it made him a better player. Among the many powers of the human brain is that it responds to our aspirations. I’ve researched, practiced and taught the art of negotiation over the course of more than five decades. Those with a high aspiration level make better deals. While I can’t teach you how to increase yours, I can show you how to develop it on your own. Many things can’t be taught but can be learned as a consequence of our beliefs. And when we believe deeply in something, we’re capable of delivering a superior performance.
The brain is a belief machine. Our trusted convictions and ingrained aspirations are an avenue to self-fulfillment. That enables us to better command our vessel and navigate our world. This remarkable capability is a reflexive response, not a consequence of deliberate rational thought. Once we think something can or will happen, our neural circuitry often brings it to fruition by activating those domains of the brain related to belief formation, consolidation and perseverance. When we can change our beliefs about what’s possible and when we expect to perform better, we usually do.