Reading is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to accelerate your professional development. Yet the average American spends just 19 minutes a day reading outside of work.
Why is that?
Most of us learn to read around the age of 6. It’s a fundamental skill we use to navigate the world every day. We read a lot in order to be successful in school. And we read a lot in order to get our work done.
Maybe all that reading that we “have to do” leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Or it could be that there are too many alternatives (Game of Thrones, anyone?). Perhaps it’s just that we are too darn busy.
I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time at the low end of the reading time scale–for all of those reasons.
Whatever the case may be, one thing remains true: more reading means more growth. It’s one of the best tools we have for professional development.
Success and Reading
Warren Buffett, the world’s most celebrated and successful investor, famously spends a whopping 80% of his time reading.
Billionaire businessman and “Shark” Mark Cuban spends six hours a day or more reading.
Dan Pink, one of the most insightful and popular business thinkers of our time, is constantly reading and recommending new books to his followers.
Smart people read. Or, perhaps more accurately, people who read a lot become smarter and more successful.
I’ve definitely found increased success through reading.
Reading helps me to understand things in greater detail, to see things from a broader perspective, and to appreciate different viewpoints, novel approaches, and the wealth of research and information that is available to be applied to real-world challenges.
Reading has made me a better professional at all levels of my career: technical, manager, executive, and entrepreneur.
As I discovered how beneficial reading could be, I started to change my habits so that I could read more. Because there is intrinsic motivation in learning.
2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Ashley Lamb-Sinclair recently ran an experiment that showed this in her high school English class. She eliminated grades for six weeks and found that excitement, enthusiasm, motivation, and determination went way up.
When it comes to reading for professional development, books are the way to go. Books are bigger commitments for readers, but also work well because they are bigger commitments from authors.
A book is a labor of love crafted over a long period of time. Fueled by research and deep thinking and analysis, it is then carefully reviewed and revised. It’s then packaged and presented in the clearest and most compelling manner possible.
Not all books are good. Nor are all good books right for you. But the pursuit of learning should center around books to a large degree. Because when they hit home, they can hit hard and give you a great boost.
One challenge is that it can be a little difficult to get momentum rolling in book based professional development. It takes time to find good books. Some duds can really take the wind out of your sails. And, of course, it can be difficult to find the time to read.
Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to work through these road blocks.
Let’s tackle the biggest one first.
Finding Time to Read
Here’s the thing. Books do take more time to read than other materials.
You can read articles or blog posts or news reports in the little gaps of time you have handy throughout the day. Maybe you like to read the newspaper over breakfast or scan your phone in the coffee line or catch up on things on your train ride home.
There is a lot of great content designed to be consumed just that way. It’s short, attention-grabbing, and easily scanned.
And that’s fine. But you’ve got to do some deeper thinking than that to really grow your knowledge and your thinking. That’s where books come in.
The good news is that you can tackle that deeper engagement in smaller chunks of time.
You can take in a book 10 minutes at a time if that’s all you can spare. The key is to make a consistent and sustained effort. Reading first thing in the morning is a great way to start.
When your energy and attention is highest first thing in the morning, you can take 10 minutes for book reading. By making it a small part of your morning routine, you can make great progress.
If you read at an average of 300 words per minute and an average nonfiction business book is about 80,000 words, you would be able to read a book each month.
If you read 12 books this year, would you be better positioned for success next year?
I think so.
Which brings us to the next point. Which books should we read?
Finding Good Books
Here we can take some great shortcuts.
A lot of smart and successful people like to read. Fortunately, they also like to share what they read in the form of reading lists and recommendations.
Bill Gates famously shares his reading recommendations at least once per year and has conveniently organized them all on his “Gates Notes” blog.
Voracious reader Ryan Holiday publishes an email list of his recommendations. (His can be a bit intimidating because he seems to read at an inhuman pace. But his recommendations are very detailed and span a wide variety of topics.)
Derek Sivers has catalogued just about every book he’s read on his web site.
Of course, you can get great recommendations from your friends and colleagues. You can follow people on GoodReads.com. And you can Google around for recommendations from your favorite authors and business people.
The trickier part is maybe deciding what to read next.
To that I’d say, grab one that grabs you and go for it.
Which leads to the next two tips.
Use Your Local Library
Your library will have most any book you want and they will loan it to you for free. Take advantage of that!
I’ve found this to be immensely helpful in working through my own reading efforts. It’s much lower risk to borrow a book than to buy it. My library has an online database and request system. They contact me by email when the book is ready for pickup.
Your library will probably do the same for you.
You Don’t Have to Finish the Book
If you don’t like the book, don’t be afraid to drop it.
This has been one of the hardest things for me to learn. I’ve always put a lot of weight into the decision to read a book. And then I’ve felt a strong obligation to finish it. Quitting not allowed.
The thing is, this is not a good policy.
If the book isn’t working for you for some reason, it’s better to drop it. There are tons of other books–many of them great for you–ready and waiting.
Dropping out of a book if it’s boring, not well-written, or just not resonating with you, move on. Also, if you’ve got the gist of the big idea in the book and have the sense that the author is now just filling out the rest to meet the specifications of the book contract, you are probably right. Be glad you got the big idea and drop out on the fluff.
Read Fiction Too!
It may surprise you to consider that reading fiction can be great for your professional development too. But it’s true.
The immersive experience of entering a new world and of seeing things from a new perspective help you to open up your thinking, to increase your empathy, and to amplify your creativity.
That’s why Richard Branson includes on his “Top 65 Books to Read in a Lifetime” books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (both great books!).
Fiction is about stories, one of the most powerful and influential ways that we come to understand the world. This sentiment from the Open Education Database project says it well in their post Your Brain on Books: 10 Things That Happen to Our Minds When We Read:
“Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s a good thing for your brain. With this structure, our brains are encouraged to think in sequence, linking cause and effect. The more you read, the more your brain is able to adapt to this line of thinking.”
Successful people read for many reasons. To learn something technical. To work on self-improvement in some area. To understand a business or technology or mental model. To immerse themselves in a new world. To find ways to be more successful. To grow as individuals.
All of that is available to you through one of the most powerful mediums ever created, the book.
You can find great books to read from people you admire and smart and successful people the world over.
You can get almost any book you might like to read for free from your local library.
You can try out a book and put it down if you don’t like it. Nobody is keeping score but you.
For the ones that stick, you can find time to read. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day, that still adds up to a dozen books per year. You could even try audio books to open up more time to read.
Fiction reading is a powerful and necessary part of your professional development. Some of the most exciting adventures in fiction could lead to some of your most profound professional development breakthroughs.
Reading books is essential. Reading more is possible. Reading a mix of fiction and nonfiction books will boost your professional development more than just about any other endeavor. And it’s totally, one-hundred-percent in your control.
So why not start bringing your reading to the next level. That’s what I hope to do.
Bonus: A Few From My Recent Reading List
Here are a few things that I’ve recently read that you might like too:
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – Origin story of the real life Tony Stark of our time. Informative and inspiring.
Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers – Great book of lessons from some of the most accomplished people on the planet from the host of the most popular business podcast on the Internet.
The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance – A great story of learning by a champion in two very different disciplines: chess and martial arts.
Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator – If you want to understand how media manipulation works, this book can give you great insights from someone who has done it first hand.
When Breath Becomes Air – A powerful first person story of an accomplished doctor who faces a terminal illness.
House of Sand & Fog – A compelling story told from two different perspectives.
Pattern Recognition (Blue Ant) – A work of fiction that explains a lot about how marketing works, wrapped in a fast-moving narrative.
What will you read next?