One topic that seems to come up time and time again in my reader mailbag columns is the concept of reading for personal growth. I hear questions all the time ranging from how to choose books that are worth reading, how to know when a book isn’t really providing answers for you, how to read faster, and how to actually apply learned information to one’s life.
In response to these questions, I’ve drawn up a list of tactics for people to use to get started on a successful habit of reading for personal growth. Using these tactics will help you get the most out of the books that you read, apply what you’ve learned to your own life, and actually grow (either professionally or personally) as a result of the reading.
Set aside a block of time each day for reading. Each and every day. Fifteen minutes or a half an hour is a good time to set aside for concentrated, focused reading. When you do this, go to a place in your home with minimal distractions – no television, few opportunities for interruption, and so on.
Start a journal to go along with your reading. When you start doing such focused reading, it’s well worth your while to start a journal to go along with it. For the last five minutes of your reading session, jot down your thoughts about what you just read, and do it every time. Doing this forces you to organize your thoughts about what you read and makes you go through those thoughts again.
Determine an area of your life that you’d like to improve. Perhaps you’d like to learn more about a particular topic, or maybe you’d prefer to simply improve upon a particular set of skills. Spend some time considering what exactly you’d like to educate yourself on. Perhaps, for example, you’d like to learn more about western philosophy – in particular, you’re trying to determine for yourself what the meaning of life is. That’s a good starting place.
Utilize the library – but do it carefully. It’s tempting to go to the library and leave with an armload of books, but for most readers who aren’t devoting hours to the written word each day, leaving with armloads is often a mistake, as books are left unread and quite often wind up being late returns. Instead, use the library to just find one or two books in your area at a time. That way, you’re more careful with your selection, you’re more likely to actually finish what you check out, and you’re less likely to accrue fines.
Start with the popular “survey” books in that area. Don’t jump in with an obscure book in the area you want to learn more about. Instead, choose a more general book that covers your area of interest broadly. Instead of diving straight into Kant or Nietzsche, choose something like Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. That way, you can start off with a general background in your field of interest.
Choose challenging books – but not too challenging. An appropriate book is one where you don’t already know all of the ideas before you pick it up, but you’re not completely lost by the end of the first or second chapter, either. You can usually figure this out by reading through the first chapter or two right at the library or bookstore. If it’s over your head, don’t be ashamed at choosing something simpler – you might find that after reading a few other books, that first hard book isn’t really so hard after all.
Don’t worry about the speed of your reading. Many readers write to me, worried that they’re not reading fast enough. My advice is usually that they’re not reading slow enough. Don’t worry about how fast you’re reading. The point of reading is to understand and absorb the ideas, and that’s a process that simply goes at different speeds for different people. The key to reading is to make sure that you’re picking up the ideas – speed will gradually come with practice as your brain becomes attuned to the process of reading.
Couple your reading with extensive use of online resources, especially Wikipedia. Whenever you hit upon something in a book that you don’t understand, don’t keep rolling. Stop. Do some research into the point that you don’t understand. Look up key terms and facts online – Wikipedia is a great place for this. When I’m reading a suitably challenging book, I might find myself stopping on every page to do this, but when I do it, I can move forward in the book without trouble or confusion.
Always try to extract the main point from what you’ve just read. At the end of each reading session, make an effort to try to identify what the main point of what you just read was. What did you learn from it that’s actually valuable? What did the piece you just read tell you about the broader subject in question? These are great things to think about and journal about.
If a book is boring you, figure out why. Some books are going to be exciting. Others are going to be boring. When you read a book that’s boring, don’t force yourself through it. Instead, stop and ask yourself why you’re bored. Is it the writing style? If so, find a similar book by a different writer. Is it the material itself? If so, you might be investigating an area you really don’t care about too much. If you continually force yourself to read things that are boring and unappealing to you, you’ll eventually begin to define reading itself as boring and unappealing – and that would be a huge mistake.
When you finish a book, reflect on the portions that really spoke to you. In virtually every book I’ve ever read, when I close that last page, some portion of the book sticks in my mind above all others. There’s almost always a thought or two that really speaks to me – and that’s what I want to remember from the book. These key thoughts and ideas are the ones where the book has really influenced your thinking – and they’re well worth jotting down to reflect on later.
Use those “influential” portions as a guide for future reading. The portions of a book that really spoke to you are often great guides for things you should read next. For example, if you were reading History of Western Philosophy and you were particularly struck by how philosophers reflected on great social change, you might want to follow up with philosophical works in that specific area. Doing so not only provides you with exciting reading, it also shines a light on you and what your true interests and ideas are.
Seek out people to discuss your reading with. Whenever I finish a book of note, I almost always go online and seek out places where people have written about the book to see if they drew similar conclusions to my own. Sometimes I find that people have the same ideas as I – other times, they have a completely different take. In either case, I learn even more from discussing the book and reading what others thought about it.
Give a “thirty day trial” to any new tactics you picked up. If the book has taught you a new tactic or two to try in your own life, give those tactics a concerted “thirty day trial.” Make a serious effort to try it out for thirty days and see whether or not it has the impact or results you were expecting. It may be something as simple as observing how people act, or it might be as complex as a new way to work, but you’ll never know how powerful it is until you actually try it.
Keep your eyes open for situations where you might apply your new ideas. Another way to integrate the things you learn into your daily life is to be conscious of situations where you may be able to apply these things. For example, let’s say you read a book on how to handle angry customers. It’s well worth your while to keep your eyes open for customers who are reacting negatively towards their service. Another example: if you learned about a new computer programming technique, look for opportunities to actively apply that technique. Actually doing the things you’ve learned about can go a long way toward making them a natural part of your life.