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Reading is Simple, Learning is Hard to Do

I have read a lot of self-improvement and leadership books, books about the work that I do, books that make you better and make you work better. There are many great books out there and I love to read, so I do it, a lot!

These books are full of great lessons, often introduce useful models and ways, supposedly better ways, to work, interact with people, being a better person/parent. You get the point :)

I rarely invest the time to actually apply these lessons, with some exceptions.

The way it happens is usually something like this:

  • I will start reading some book
  • I will get inspired by something I read every now and then
  • While I read and shortly after I will apply, discuss some of the things that inspired me
  • Sometime after I will realize what I learned will rarely be used a lot, even if I remember it well
  • Most of what inspired me will fade over time

Reading is easy, understanding how to apply somebody else’s lesson – it’ s not. It requires a lot of effort happening outside of just reading the book. Inspiration is great, but without correct guideline how to apply the learning from any book it is hard to apply anything. It is also hard to apply something that is too general and/or too specific for somebody else’s situation – sometimes it is hard to apply somebody else advice to your problem.

It applies to any advice – advice is simple. Applying advice, any advice is hard to do.

But do you know what is easy? To read another book, way more interesting than studying the current one, isn’t it?

Learning from somebody else’s (and even your own!) advice is hard to do.
Change is hard to do.
All the above is slow and, well… not fun, its work!

Reading about change is easy to do.
Reading is fast.
Reading is fun.
So we do more reading :)

Applying learnings requires a lot of conscious effort.

While you read, it’s easy to remember an idea, but if you do not apply it soon, it will fade. Or perhaps at least discuss it with somebody. You may take notes, that will help in cementing the idea in your head for a while, but not a very long while.

That doesn’t mean you will never learn anything – I have applied a lot of what I have learned. I have noticed often I apply a simplistic version of what I read about. It’s natural that I do not get it and use it exactly in the way authors intended or I do not understand parts of it. Also – it can take years and this is also fine.

So perhaps reading that many books are not as valuable? I disagree.

Reading is valuable, but from time to time, there is a book you should actually study. Actually carry with you and take notes. A book that you must try to apply the learnings from in situation you think it is valuable. A book to guide you and that you need to make a better understanding of. You should not do this for any and every book, but some are quite valuable and easier compared to others. So start with those.

What are some books I have found valuable? These are the books that I go back to, year after year, to reread and study sections of:

I actually own multiple copies of these, in different formats – I own both the audiobook and kindle edition for “The Five Dysfunctions” and “Switch”.

I frequently discuss those books, refer to them, and use them.

I am exposed to those books content time and time again and have tried to apply what I learned from them many times.

If I have to start with a new awesome book that I just read and want to apply the lessons from, I will have to find a way to increase my “exposure” to it over time, so I do not forget and have time to actually apply. Btw I have written about learning through spaced repetition before in this blog.

I think many things I already and have seen others do are quite helpful. I take a lot of notes, this is not hard to do with kindle books at all, it’s so easy I probably take too many of those, so its hard to focus. Perhaps taking notes on a physical copy will be even better, I will hate to “destroy” a book like this, but maybe I will try it out. If you think about a book as your textbook that you want to learn from it makes sense.

What I have seen others do is also write and publish their notes. Here is a good example at a blog I follow – Richard is reading a lot of books, taking notes, and taking the time to write and publish notes for each book in his blog.

What I like about writing your own notes is that you are now putting what you have understood in your own words. So now it’s your model and your understanding, in your head. This really helps to learn. To learn something you should also try to teach it. Publishing your notes is just one way to do it, there are of course others. Discussing the book findings with others helps as well, maybe I need to join a book club :) It sounds like a great place you can share and discuss.

So, to summarize:

  • Keep reading fun! Do not try to learn everything.
  • Focus on a few books, one by one
  • Study the book, take notes
  • Find ways to discuss the book with others
  • Take the time to apply learnings in a given situation
  • Write down about all the above to help you understand it better

Thank you for reading, I hope it was useful for you!

If you have read an awesome book that you really think others can learn from too, please comment here or share it with me in some other way. I am looking for recommendations :)