Since I’m going to soon start adding some book reviews as part of my regular blogging rotation, I’m going to share an insight that I didn’t really realize was insightful. That is, for a very long time, I read a lot of books incorrectly, in way that not only insured I would get little value out of them, but that also insured that I couldn’t act upon any value I got with much success.
What I’m saying doesn’t apply to all books, nor even the majority, but for a goodly number of the books out there, I was reading them in a way that really wasn’t helping me. First, I’ll tell you that I read fast. I haven’t measured it since junior high or so, but I’m pretty sure I read faster than most of my peer group. I read the first four Game of Thrones books in two weeks in one to two hour reading sessions before bed. I’ve not taken a speed-reading course, but that seems to be a pretty high rate of speed. I also generally remember things I’ve read pretty well, so long as I comprehended them, and most especially if I didn’t comprehend the first time and was embarrassed and reviewed it later (I can still recall the page in my third grade science textbook where the difference between a physical and a chemical reaction was explained because I missed it on a test and I’m 34 years old now). That’s not to say I’m particularly smart, just that I read fast and things stick, if the material is interesting to me.
I preface what I’m about to say by stating the above, because I’ll also tell you that for a sizable subset of the literature out there that one might read to improve their skills (particularly soft skills like business negotiation, marketing, and those sorts of things, but also true of a surprising number of others), the way you read things for school is entirely the wrong approach to take. I’m currently re-reading “The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss” and the book really comes across differently to me now. It took me some time to figure out why, but I realize my reading method for this sort of material has drastically changed in the last 3 years or so. I don’t understand why that has happened, but nonetheless, there it is. My first two passes through the book, I was dutifully trying to keep careful notes of things he had tried and what he suggested to do. In essence, I had it in my head that the man’s accomplishments could be replicated by following his actions. Experience has shown me that this is far from the case. I suspect, if you are in tech, experience has shown you the same (how many people do you know who try to pull off Steve Job’s personality quirks who are successful? Yeah, me neither). So, how do you use a book like this?
I think I figured it out. You don’t want to just take the techniques the person uses; you also want to borrow the attitude and the mental processes that the person engages in and make them your own. For instance, Tim suggests in the book to try and work out a deal to work remotely instead of in the office. I tried that out after reading the book last time and it was very nearly an unmitigated disaster. Why? Well, the simple answer is, I’m not Tim. He had all the building blocks of being able to work remotely without a problem – I did not. At that point, I hadn’t developed the life skills to be able to 1) manage people flaking or otherwise having a bad impact on my productivity without being able to hold them accountable 2) make certain that management was aware of how much work I was getting done and 3) keep a proper barrier between home and work lives while working out of the house. I’ve since grown those skills, mostly by learning the hard way and trying to figure out how to fix the inevitable problems effectively. Had I been reading the book with an eye towards emulating the man’s mindset, I honestly believe that would have jumped out at me – it certainly has this time around.
At the end of the day, any book that you read to help with soft skills is a book on performance art. It’s not a cookbook. There is no simple formula for taking something from a book and making it your own. A 135 pound former gymnast and a 250 pound former rugby player might make the same dance moves if they take salsa classes for years, but their journey to get there is their own. It’s the same thing with mental processes. To get there, they both to find what they want to emulate, and then figure out how to make it work for them, internalizing the lessons they learn along the way and developing an attitude that lets them act correctly in a spontaneous fashion. For Tim Ferriss, things like eliminating unneeded work came as a result of him being overworked and basically being forced into doing it. For me, it came because I am a contractor with an hourly rate that is too high to be tangled in minutiae. He learned what it was like to not have the control over workload that comes from ditching the unessential; I had it fade away from me because of cost. I’ve recently had to relearn this lesson the hard way as I’ve been self-employed. Even though I knew and had (I thought) internalized that you have to let non-essential rubbish slide if you want to get the essentials done, the idea never really became part of my personality because the idea was only on a checklist, not truly a part of my personality.
I’ll give an example. Last week, I was working on my social media strategy for this blog. I explored various options, trying to find ways to get my content out to services like Facebook (for both my personal page and my corporate one), twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. I looked at wordpress plugins, as well as various services that could do the work for me. IFTTT and Buffer come to mind here and I’m actually using IFTTT currently. In all of this, it was a snap to find stuff that covered LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, but I was absolutely pulling my hair out, trying to make it work with Google+ as well. Three or four years ago, I would have sat down and found some way to push that data to Google+, come hell or high water, even if I had to do some sort of hacky browser automation to make it happen. You know what I did last week? I calmly stated to myself that Google+ sucks for not making this straightforward enough to do, and went on and got essential things done.
Out of this, what worked for me? I’ll submit that it wasn’t trying to be Tim Ferriss with my elimination strategy that worked for me (in fact, I suspect he might well outsource in the same situation). But by this point, I’ve internalized what he and numerous others have said and what life has taught me and I realized that it really ultimately didn’t matter at all. Far more useful to me, was my ability to stop messing with that and actually get a post written (and I sincerely thank the tens of people whom Facebook indicates I have reached with that post for having been reached in an indeterminate fashion, but I digress). So, when reading books purporting to help you with your “soft skills” of various sorts, it’s far more helpful to you in a far shorter period of time to make sure that you internalize the author’s attitude to at least the same extent as you internalize his methodology. Proper attitude will often produce proper methodology; the reverse is not often true, at least over the short term. The attitude is the thing you want. As long as what you are facing is something that was anticipated by whatever you read, having the correct methods will get you by just fine. However, having an attitude that emulates one that produced success will produce very similar results to a good methodology, without being as fragile to the unexpected.
I’ll admit that the difference is a little bit subtle. The results are not. In fact, have you ever noticed that as you practice something (we’ll say marketing, since that was beastly difficult for me when I first started trying to get my head around things, feel free to substitute your own thing here) that it is incredibly awkward for quite a while? And yet, after a bit, you think less and less about the little details and you are able to focus on bigger things. Why is that? Well, it’s because you personally are developing the attitude of a seasoned marketer (or businessman, or what have you). In essence, the path to mastery is not through the memorization of checklists, but the modification of one’s personality to achieve a desired result. This then, informs us how to get a little better success when reading this sort of literature. Get the checklist, but also take time and read how the author presents themselves. Try to visualize their attitude and try when testing their techniques out to emulate it. I promise you’ll get further, quicker, with better retention of the thing you are practicing than you would if you just do the technique. The application of this is fairly universal, honestly, and even applies to things that might otherwise be fairly scientific or mathematical (it applies heavily in the combative martial arts as well). The better mathematicians and scientists have attitudes that are successful in their field. Sure, they know the formulas, and other details. But that attitude will both help them focus on bigger issues and it will assist them when they encounter things that they weren’t taught to expect.
Steal the technique and you’ll learn it. Steal the technique with the attitude that produced it, and you’ll be able to use it more effectively.