Reading Isn’t A Race: How Speed Reading And Spritz Completly Miss The Point

July 7, 2014 — 21 Comments

Reading is good. So reading faster must be better right?

This is the well-meaning logic behind every person who googles “speed reading” and all the recent excitement about the Spritz speed reading app that makes it possible to read 1,000 words per minute. It’s one of the reasons people like ebooks so much too.

The problem is that it’s wrong. Not stupid wrong, it just misses the point.

I took a speed reading course and read “War and Peace” in twenty minutes. It involves Russia. —Woody Allen

Reading is the quiet time in which you reflect and learn, it is not a race. It is where you teach yourself that which you don’t know—it is your time with some of the smartest (or at least different) people who’ve ever lived. This is not something to be rushed through, but enjoyed, savored and done deliberately.

In fact, smart readers do more than just comprehend words. They ask questions, they take notes, they look things up, they make connections, they produce marginalia. People who read a lot of books spend a lot of time reading. There’s no way around this.

But still, everyone asks how to do it faster. Let me tell you why this is so short sighted:

-If you find yourself wanting to speed up the reading process on a particular book, you may want to ask yourself, “Is this book any good?” Life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy reading.

-Yes some people read faster than others, just like some people eat faster or walk faster. But when you ask, almost all of them don’t think or know that they read fast. In other words, it’s not conscious. We all have our own pace.

-The best way to read quickly is to be smart and, paradoxically, well-read. Like anything, you get faster at reading the more knowledge and experience you bring to the table. You can guess where things are going, you don’t need to double back to check things, and you won’t get caught by surprise. It’s how you build up cumulative advantage.

-Seriously, give me some examples from history of greats who were “speed readers.” I can name many who were dyslexic and struggled through books anyway like Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg and Richard Branson, but I can’t think of a speed reader. I’ll say it again: People who read a lot do it because they love it and put time towards it.

-I like to remind myself that no matter how fast or how many books I’ll read in my life, I’ll never have or surpass a small branch public library. And this thought calms me. Who am I trying to beat? The only thing that matters is if you’re getting smarter and better.

-How many books do you really need or want to read in a week? The most I’ve ever done was 7 (some were short, reading was all I really did that week). I’ll be honest: I don’t remember ONE of those books.

-Let’s say it again once more: if a book is skimmable, skip it altogether. You don’t get a prize for completing it. And there are better ones out there.

-Tackle the big books that will take you a while. No one speed reads The Power Broker. But if you make a go at it, it may just change your life.

-On the other hand, if you find yourself hitting a wall with a book and start to feel the Resistance, don’t feel ashamed to jump to another book to keep the chain going. I also apply this to my work life so I’m never stuck and always have something productive to do.

-Also ask yourself, “Am I reading slowly on this book because it’s poorly written?” You have paid the author once for the book and again with your attention. If they haven’t delivered value back to you in the form of a clear, coherent and masterful book then put it down and find someone else who can. The author is also supposed to pull the reader from page to page.

-An important part about reading is taking notes, marking the passages and quotes that you find to be important. Tell me how you plan to do that with an app that turns your book into a series of flashcards.

-Reading, especially reading physical books, is about seeing a concept laid out in front of you. It’s seeing the paragraph, the sentence, the page. As the great literary critic Northrop Frye once said, “The most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented is the book.” I’m with Northrup, I don’t anticipate any technology, especially Spritz, beating a book anytime soon.

-This is an issue I don’t think Spritz can solve. They know that sometimes books have charts right? And what about the translator’s introduction, footnotes, and editors notes? All of this is important and I never skip them because this information adds context and sets the stage for the text you’re reading.

-Doing this is akin to cutting out establishing shots in movies. What about all those downs in football where they aren’t throwing the ball? Or the set up and communication in baseball before a pitch? Don’t ever tell me why you came to think something, just tell me your final conclusion with no context. Life would be so much better without all that “waste” wouldn’t it?

-I like Richard Feynman’s line about how if you can’t explain something in a simple straightforward way then you probably don’t understand it yourself. This is unfortunately true for far too many books. If you’re reading a book where the writing is obtuse or the author can’t easily explain what they claim to be an expert about, they’re probably a charlatan. Put the book down—that will save you some valuable time.

-What are you going to do with this time you “save” speed reading? Work more? Watch more TV? Respond to email? Ugh. By doing this you miss out on all the ancillary benefits of reading: peace, quiet and concentration. Don’t toss that out.

-I’ll put it another way: Why is this the area in your life you’re trying to optimize? I’m laughing thinking of the time we waste in meetings, in traffic, in restaurants waiting for the check, on projects we’ll quit halfway through, on small talk and a million other ridiculous, preventable things. But reading books is the wasteful part we need to address. Be serious.

-I think I know why people focus on speed reading. They want the results without the work. There is and never will be a substitute. Put the time in, you’ll get the results.

I promised myself I wouldn’t end this with a cliche as simple was “quality over quantity” but I think you know that it’s true. The same applies for working out—there are tricks and strategies that could help you get most of the effects of a full workout in just 15 minutes. But I’ll tell you what: is that even worth putting your gym clothes on for? Are you actually decompressing and getting your mind off work in that short of time? Do you really want to be the person who crams a leisurely but important process down into mere minutes and loses the intangible benefits in the process?

Because that’s what speed reading does.

Reading is a ritual thousands of years old. One partaken in by some of the smartest, wisest and most accomplished people who ever lived. And you want to rush it so you can get back to TV or Twitter?

There’s a better way: Take it slow and do it a lot.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can be seen there.

Print Out Good Advice And Put It Where You Work (You Won’t Be Able To Run Away From It)

June 30, 2014 — 10 Comments

 

robert

I’m not sure where I stole the idea from, but I am a big proponent of printing out good advice and putting it right in front of your desk, or wherever you work everyday. So you cannot run from the advice, so you see it enough times that it becomes imprinted in your mind.

The first quote I ever did this for was an admonishment from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I was 19 years old and it was exactly what I needed to be told.

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things which I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

–But it’s nicer here…

So you were born to feel ‘nice?’ Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

–But we have to sleep sometime…

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that–as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash and eat.

At the time, it was how I reminded myself to get off my ass, to stop being lazy, and to work hard. I’m sure if you recall back to your college days you can relate–not wanting to get up for class, the first time in your life no one could tell you what to do. It was so much nicer to blow everything off.

This advice helped me. I had that exact conversation with myself many morning–and that was possible because I’d memorized the script.

But one day a few years later, I realized: This is not my problem anymore. This is not what I need to be reminded about. And that’s when the rotation began.

I remember which came next. It was something Robert Greene said to me over lunch. I was working full time at American Apparel but planning my next move, saving my money and thinking about writing a book. He told me, Ryan while people wait for the right moment, there are two types of time: Dead time—where they are passive and biding and Alive time—where they are learning and acting and getting the most out of every second. Which will this be for you?

That went right up on the wall: “Alive Time vs Dead Time”

When I caught myself sitting on my hands or goofing off as I waited, that jolted me back into line. When I got distracted with silly politics or wanderlust, I came back to it. It helped me make the most of my time as I was preparing for my next move. Even now I think of it when I get complacent. But eventually, I internalized it and could move on.

Today, I have three quotes printed and framed above my desk. Well, technically on the side of my desk right now because I built it into a closet, but I stare at them everyday.

One of these dates back to New Orleans (taped to a window in the tiny room of the old mansion we lived in), another to my time in New York (where I hung them on the wall by the desk under the loft bed) and now one came from my time in Austin (as I said, to the left of the desk on the closet wall).

One reminds me about how to live, one reminds me what to think about as a businessman and entrepreneur, the other reminds me what to think as a writer. At different times they have meant different things to me but they are reminders I need always. You’ll see from the photos that they are nothing fancy. Index cards, tape and a frame from WalMart, actually.

cowen

Quote #1:

“Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish and just live as they have begun.” -Seneca

The line from Seneca is in line with my theory on dropping out. It’s from his excellent essay On The Shortness of Life. The point is, sometimes you have to quit. Just because you started something, just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you must continue. Sometimes you have to make hard right turns. Fickleness is a good thing. It means you’re being picky with your time. Life is too short to be anything but.

Quote # 2:

“A sustained interest, a constant variety, a consummate blend of humor and pathos, of narrative and argument, of description and declamation; while every part is subordinated to the purpose of the whole, and combines, despite its intricacy of deal, to form a dramatic and coherent unit.” H. Grose Hodge.

The line is a quote about one of Cicero’s great speeches from his translator the Loeb/Harvard series. Cicero’s defense of Cluentius (accused of parricide) checks about every box that a writer or a speaker must check and Hodge’s description provides a pithy summary of the duties of a writer. I printed this quote out when I was struggling with my first book and trying to figure out the tone and voice I needed to be successful. I still think of it often because it reminds me, as a writer, how to regard my audience, how to think about my style and my approach. This stays on the wall because I’m not sure I’ll ever really master it.

Quote # 3:

In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:

1. Quality land and natural resources

2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced.

3. Quality labor with unique skills

Here is what is not scarce these days:

1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy

2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return).”

-Tyler Cowen, Average Is Over

The line from Tyler Cowen is a new one, but it makes me both optimistic and on guard for the future. It comes from one of my favorite books of 2013. I know that I am primed and poised to obtain some of the scarce resources Cowen discusses. Others? I’m not so sure. So I need to see this to remind me to get working.

These quotes are a little peculiar, I know. They have saved me countless troubles, helped me with untold opportunities.

I’m sure as time goes by, these quotes will change. The one about writing is already showing signs of wear—literally and figuratively. I hope to one day earn the opportunity to upgrade to different advice. Something that pushes me to apply myself in different ways and improve my craft. Thankfully, I have a book of quotes to choose from.

But so far nothing has struck me. Choosing the right quote for your desk is very much an inspired-moment-stars-aligned-epiphany kind of thing. You’re reading a book or talking with someone and BAM it hits you…that’s exactly what I needed to hear, you think. Or, I believe that thing to be true in my very soul. And so you take the step to memorialize it.

What quotes make sense for your? No one can say. But choose wisely–not what you want to hear but what you need to hear. And maybe it doesn’t need to be on your desk. Perhaps your nightstand, your bathroom mirror or tattooed on your body.

The point is: find the advice you need and put it where you will see it. Then listen to it.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can be seen there.

A Winner Does…

June 25, 2014 — 9 Comments

We all have our own definition of winning. But as Aristotle famously said, excellence is not an end but a habit. It is a series of standards and defaults that one must continually meet. In other words, just because you’ve won something, doesn’t mean you’re a winner. It just means you’ve won. There is still work left to be done.

With that in mind, these are the standards I aspire to, that I have seen and admired in other winners past and present. I’m sure you have your own.

*A winner can communicate.

*A winner was once an apprentice (even if only from afar). They do their best to honor that debt.

*A winner values time over money.

*A winner studies what they do. Their own personal experience is not enough.

*A winner reads (at the very least, biographies or audiobooks).

*A winner is decent to strangers—answering questions, giving directions, picking up stuff that’s dropped, opening doors.

*A winner takes pain, maybe even delights in it a little.

*A winner doesn’t “exercise,” they train in something (martial arts, running, swimming, biking, cross fit, boxing, weights, whatever).

*A winner can influence through silence.

*A winner controls—or at least can articulate—their vices. Particularly those that may conflict with their craft or competition.

*A winner picks up the check.

*A winner travels light.

*A winner has a routine. Maybe they get up early, maybe they work late into the night. But they have a routine.

*A winner doesn’t get distracted by outrage porn—they’re busy dealing with their own problems.

*A winner has a working knowledge of history (particularly what relates to their field).

*A winner respects other winners and relates to them.

*A winner pays people to do what they can’t do. Winners are part of—or rather, leaders of—a team..

*A winner has their own moral code (in a good way: they adhere to a set of principles).

*A winner doesn’t recognize “weekends.” They often forget what day it is…because it doesn’t matter.

*A winner turns procrastination and other such weaknesses to a motivating advantage.

*A winner doesn’t need credit, it is enough to see his work out in the world.

*A winner doesn’t get flustered, they remain calm in the face of adversity and stress. They are the calm.

*A winner doesn’t talk about their plans, they keep them to themselves and then do it.

*A winner doesn’t stop—neither at success or after failure.

*A winner wants other people to be successful too. Often, they want this more than the other people want it for themselves.

*A winner has an outlet other than work.

*A winner can be anyone. Why not you?

What else does a winner do? You tell me.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments Can be seen there. Thanks to Edward Druce for this inspiration on the format of this post. 

Stoicism: Practical Philosophy You Can Actually Use

June 17, 2014 — 21 Comments

Marcus Aurelius

When most people think of “philosophy,” their eyes glaze over. It’s the last thing they want, let alone something they need.

But this, as you already know, is silly and naive.

Philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing, or even reading long, dense books. In fact, it is something men and women of action use—and have used throughout history—to solve their problems and achieve their greatest triumphs. Not in the classroom, but on the battlefield, in the Forum, and at court.

It was jotted down (and practiced) by slaves, poets, emperors, politicians and soldiers, as well as ordinary folks to help with their own problems and those of their friends, family and followers. This wisdom is still there, available to us.

Specifically, I am referring to Stoicism, which, in my opinion, is the most practical of all philosophies.

A brief synopsis on this particular school of Hellenistic philosophy: Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Cato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

But at the very root of the thinking, there is a very simple, though not easy, way of living. Take obstacles in your life and turn them into your advantage, control what you can and accept what you can’t.

In the words of Epictetus:

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”

Amazingly we still have access to these ideas, despite the fact that many of the greatest Stoics never wrote anything down for publication. Cato definitely didn’t. Marcus Aurelius never intended for Meditations to be anything but personal. Seneca’s letters were, well, letters and Epictetus’ thoughts come to us by way of a note-taking student.

And so it was from their example, their actions, we find real philosophy.

Because other than their common study of the philosophy, the Stoics were all men of action—and I don’t think this is a coincidence. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Cato, the moral example for many philosophers, defended the Roman republic with Stoic bravery until his defiant death. Even Epictetus, the lecturer, had no cushy tenure—he was a former slave.

And this shouldn’t really be that surprising…

The modern day philosopher and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines a Stoic as someone who, “transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.”

Using this definition as a model we can see that throughout the centuries Stoicism has been a common thread though some of history’s great leaders. It has been practiced by Kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Both historical and modern men illustrate Stoicism as a way of life.

Prussian King, Frederick the Great, was said to ride with the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags because they could, in his words, “sustain you in misfortune”.

Meanwhile, Montaigne, the politician and essayist, had a line from Epictetus carved into the beam above the study in which he spent most of his time.

The founding fathers were also inspired by the philosophy. George Washington was introduced to Stoicism by his neighbors at age seventeen, and afterwards, put on a play about Cato to inspire his men in that dark winter at Valley Forge. Whereas Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his nightstand when he died.

The economist Adam Smith’s theories on the interconnectedness of the world—capitalism—were significantly influenced by the Stoicism that he studied as a schoolboy, under a teacher who had translated Marcus Aurelius’ works.

The political thinker, John Stuart Mill, wrote of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in his famous treatise On Liberty, calling it “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”

But those influenced by the Stoics goes on…

Eugène Delacroix, the renowned French Romantic artist (known best for his painting Liberty Leading the People) was an ardent Stoic, referring to it as his “consoling religion.”

Toussaint Louverture, himself a former slave who challenged an emperor by leading the Haitian revolution, read and was deeply influenced by the works of Epictetus.

Theodore Roosevelt, after his presidency, spent eight months exploring (and nearly dying in) the unknown jungles of the Amazon, and of the eight books he brought on the journey, two were Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Epictetus’ Enchiridion.

Indeed, Teddy seems to represent the temperance and self control of the philosophy beautifully when he said, “What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can get only by practice”. Likewise he expressed the necessity of action advocated by the Stoics when he famously remarked,

“We must all wear out or rust out, everyone of us. My choice is to wear out”.

Today’s leaders are no different, with many finding their inspiration from the ancient texts. Bill Clinton rereads Marcus Aurelius every single year, while Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister of China, claims that Meditations is one of two books he travels with and has read it more than one hundred times over the course of his life.

You see, Stoicism—and philosophy—are not the domains of idle professors. They are the succor of the successful, and the men and women of action. As Thoreau put it: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school…it is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically.”

The mantle is ours to pick up and carry and do with what we can.

This column originally appeared on Classical Wisdom Weekly. Comments can bee seen there.

What Matters: Information vs. Knowledge vs. Experience

June 11, 2014 — 14 Comments

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@gapingvoid

There’s no question that self-education has never been easier.

We can consume countless blog posts, articles, books, videos, TED talks, and Reddit AMAs. We take MOOCs, and can study along with course syllabuses from Ivy League universities. It’s awesome. And best of all, no one can criticize effort spent on becoming informed.

But there is a dark side to this glut of free information. It’s enabled a whole industry of self-help gurus, life coaches, and social media marketers to sell snake oil to the masses, tricking people–people who genuinely want to improve their lives–into thinking they can get something for nothing.

I would never discourage someone from learning, especially extra-curricular learning. I’ll just say that it’s only an education (in the schooling vs. education sense of the word) if that learning is turned into knowledge.

And knowledge requires more than just books and instruction. It requires experience. It needs the interplay–the back and forth feedback loop–between theory and practice, hypothesis and results, ideas and action. Reading case studies and listening to the latest social media gurus isn’t going to get you very far unless you have something practice the lessons on. Education without experience is masturbation. As the saying goes, non scholae, sed vitae discimus—not for school but for life we learn.

So how do you do it? How do you turn you turn lessons into action? Information into insight?

First, you have to just start. As Austin Kleon put it “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” That’s the whole point—you figure it out by doing. So none of this nonsense about “being ready.”

This is both the simplest and hardest way to separate yourself from your peers. Why? Because while everyone else is studying, you’re working. What makes it hard is that we’ve been told our whole lives is that you need a degree, you need prerequisites, you need to be properly trained. Drop out, get started.

Of course, your education is never over. Doing and learning feed into each other and the sooner you start, the better. As Plutarch puts it, “I did not so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience of things.”

So don’t hold out for your dream job or the perfect opportunity. The perfect opportunity is the one that exists, that gives you any kind of experience, the one that allows you to put anything you’ve learned into practice. The perfect opportunity you keep picturing in your head? That’s your ego protecting you from change — the feeling of pain and failure that is deliberate practice and experimentation.

Don’t wait to be paid for it either. The opportunity is the payment. You want a good job for purely selfish reasons here—you want a place where you can experiment with your ideas and theories. Think about it like being a grad student, you want access to the laboratory where you can run experiments (that they pay you a little bit is a bonus). For some more thoughts on this, check out my piece on mentorshipsCharlie Hoehn’s Recession Proof Graduate, or Robert Greene’s chapters on apprenticeships in Mastery.

Second, process. It’s very easy for learning to go in one ear and out the other. Making a concerted effort to record and process what you’re observing and being taught helps prevent that.

If you read a lot, take notes on what you read and transfer those notes into a commonplace book, where you can organize your thoughts. Repeating and reiterating what you’ve learned helps make connections and improve memory. Organizing it into a system means it will be so much easier to retrieve when you need it. There’s a reason that smart people often carry around a notebook.

Writing articles is my favorite. I am always looking for ways to take interesting things I’ve seen, heard or read and see how I can write about themUsing a quote you like forces you not only to recall it better, but means you have to add analysis and interpretation to it. If I experience someone provocative, I try to write about that too. I can still remember snippets and pieces advices I was given (and studies, anecdotes and examples) that I mentioned in blog posts five or six years ago.

It doesn’t have to be writing though. You can process by talking, teaching, or a lot of other means. Struggling to explain what you’re working on feels painful, but it helps. By the end of it, you understand it better. Trust me, it also helps with your sanity.

The point is you have to articulate and analyze what you are seeing. It’s the only way to take the sparks of thought in your brain and turn them into a coherent understanding that you can use for other things, whatever it may be (explaining it to others, writing an article about it, solving a personal problem, etc). Don’t worry about form over function here. It doesn’t matter if no one reads your blog posts, if your girlfriend/boyfriend only half understands your breathless explanations. Just do it.

Third, expose, then apply. Analogous thinking (where thinking from one domain is applied to another) is incredibly powerful—it’s where real creative breakthroughs happen. But you know, there are two critical ingredients there. An interest in something, and the initiative to try to translate it.

I remember exactly how I got into marketing. Before I worked for Tucker, before American Apparel, I had a job working at a restaurant between high school and college. I had developed a relationship with the owner, who could see I was more than just a kid. And I had been avidly reading these local political blogs and noticed that the bloggers would talk about stuff other than politics. I suggested that the guy offer a few of them free meals if they would come in and review the place. The bloggers gave him a bunch of free press. I think he paid me $250 for this idea. Even in my wildest expectations, I never would have guessed I would I later write a book about these exact kinds of transactions.

I was working as a server but I had learned and studied something on the side. I combined the two. My career followed. Connections between ideas don’t magically happen. Knowledge doesn’t become action on it’s own. You have to do it. But my idea was only possible because of step one and two—I’d taken some crappy job rather than sitting at home and I’d been fooling around learning and writing. Then I connected the two.

Read and learn widely, but apply those lessons to whatever you happen to be doing. Make connections–however absurd they may seem. You never know where it will lead.

“Many who have learned from Hesiod
the countless names of gods and monsters
never understand that night and day are one” – Heraclitus

The bottom line is that you can read the best books, have the best teachers and go to the best schools in the world, but compared to people who do things for a living, you’ll still be a fool. I love reading more than almost anything, probably more than I should. But even I’ll admit that it would be a waste of time if I just let it all accumulate in my head. More than that, I wouldn’t truly know what I’d read because I’d never put myself out there, applied it or made connections.

You can’t put your stamp on the world being a passive student. The proving grounds are in the real world. This means taking risks, it means exposing yourself to new things and putting your own spin on them.

So get going.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can bee seen there.